Structure in the stories of Achanta Saradadevi

By Nidadavolu Malathi.

Achanta Saradadevi is one of those notable Telugu writers who have written only short stories and just under one hundred. Her stories are proof that not the volume but the constituent that makes a good writer. You may arrive at the same conclusion if you had read two of her stories, The Runaway Parrot and Coral Chain, published on this site.

In Saradadevi’s stories, we do not find huge earth-shaking, mind-boggling conflicts that could make us jump out of their skin or uproot our beliefs forever. We do not see strong negative emotions like anger, frustration and  hatred towards the society we are living in. I am not saying there are no conflicts; the conflicts are not theatrical. She depicts characters and their mode of thinking before and after a given incident, and makes us reflect upon similar incidents in our lives or in the lives of people around us. We find the author introspective as if she has gotten into a dialectic with herself, attempting to see various angles of not only the character but the conflict that put the character in that  situation as well. The stories carry a lyrical note. The narrative moves slowly and in a pensive mood. It reads as if the author is thinking to herself while sharing her thoughts with the reader at the same time. Often the stories describe a given situation. They do not the features, usually considered required characteristics of a short story, such as catchy opening, astounding conflict and pacifying closure. Yet, they do not make a tedious reading. If one is looking for such masala, they will not find them in these stories. The one factor that makes the reader want to come back to Saradadevi’s stories is her presence. Readers feel her presence as if she is right there and narrating the story in a very personal way.

Saradadevi shows unusual flair in her selection of topics and narrative technique. She can take a very ordinary event and elucidate it from a peculiar angle. In that sense, her stories may be termed philosophical treatises. In each case, she seems to raise questions—why did it happen like this? Is there an underlying connotation for this action? Is it possible this incident is intended to teach us something?

Loneliness, couples without closeness, an individual waiting for that special person in her life, yearning for an enchanting future, an individual’s psyche in a variety of situations, the ups and downs in social conditions, middle-class pseudo values—they all provide situations and characters for her stories. We all know about them, have seen in our lives. Yet, as Saradadevi takes these topics and weaves them into stories, we appreciate her laying it for us in that peculiar manner; we do not say, “I know that.” That is the reason these stories are ranked best in Telugu fiction.

There is no Telugu reader who has heard of Saradadevi’s name and yet has not heard of her story The Runaway Parrot [paaripoyina chilaka]. This story has earned enormous fame as a story of freedom for women. The core theme in this story is about freedom yet it is not fair in my opinion to describe it only as a story depicting a woman imprisoned within the four walls of home by a man. The freedom the protagonist, Kamakshamma, has yearned for in this story is not just freedom from the four walls of home.

Sundara Rao told himself that in the cities there was nothing but dust and rubble and decided to move away from the city and build a house for himself in a mango grove. He loved a single life for a couple of years, with a cook and peon to help him with chores. Then he thought “it would be nice if a thing called wife is in the house,” and decided to marry. That he should consider wife a “thing” is notable. His daily activities are constrained to – wake up while it is still dark, leave for the city, take care of his business, spend time playing cards with friends most of the day, and return home after it got dark. Immediately he picks up the newspaper. Again, after supper, he buries his head into the paper.

Kamakshamma rolls paan leaves and into tiny birdies and hands them to her husband. He takes a few of the paan birdies. After a while, Kamakshamma asks, “What’s new in town?”

“What is there? Same as usual,” he says from behind the newspaper.

Silence again.

Kamakshamma chats on: Jasmine blossomed, no rains, … on and on.

He says, “Why don’t you see if there is any program in the radio?”

Kamakshamma leaves and goes into the next room.

With this brief conversation, reader may discern the intimacy and closeness between the husband and wife. There is no need to elaborate on this.

After a few years, Kamakshamma asks him, “All your work is located in the city. Let’s move to the city.”

“How can we get this solitude and peace in that city?” he says. Once again, the author’s ability to convey a potent message with fewest words is noticeable here. Sundara Rao is not enjoying the peace and solitude he is so fond of since he is never home. With his response to Kamakshamma it is evident he is not even aware that he is not enjoying that peace and solitude! We also will know from his response how small-minded he is and how shallow their relationship is. In this regard, the concept that the house is a cage for women is only one aspect. What Kamakshamma has been yearning for is not freedom from the surroundings of home but closeness with another human being, namely, her husband. The real reason for her disappointment is not that she has no freedom to do what she wants to do but interaction with her husband. Having stayed home all day alone with hardly any human interaction but for brief chats with the gardener, she would like her husband some human touch, human interaction, affection. He did not need to beat her, not scream at her, but ignoring a person in the room is enough to destroy that woman’s self-respect. That is lot more excruciating than physical abuse.

Into that “solitude and peace,” an injured parrot comes. Kamakshamma picks up that little bird, nurses her wound and takes care of her. She finds a rejuvenating satisfaction in doing so. The bird flies away as soon as she could. Kamakshamma is crushed like a mother who lost her child but Sundara Rao has no qualms, acts like nothing happened. He does not even realize his wife’s pain. He just goes about his business as if nothing happened. Eventually, the spring arrives, flocks of birds fly into the garden. The gardener asks Kamakshamma if he should catch another parrot for her pleasure. She opposes the idea vehemently. She has learned to enjoy the view as the birds fly around freely in the sky. In this attitude, I find a streak of human relationships. What Kamakshamma showed is more than just kindness. She saw another life in that parrot. In my opinion, if not the core point, it is an important point.

In human relationships, group mentality is a very important part. A human being yearns for the friendship of another human being. It happens only in humans that one person can have his or her life intertwined with another, without undoing it. I have heard of dogs and bulls getting so close to humans but not to each other within their one genus.

What Kamakshamma missed in her life is not freedom but closeness and partner to share her sweet nothings. Sundara Rao did not give that to her. The parrot gave it to her but only for a brief period. Thus in her life the true tragedy is not the house turning into a cage but her husband ignoring her existence.

There are a few other stories with similar themes in her stories, meaning one person hankering for the attention of another person. In the “Runaway Parrot,” it was hankering for another person,

stories like “Athithi” [guest], “marichika” [Mirage], and “mamoolu manishi” [Ordinary person], illustrate about persons who meet their soul mate so to speak, spend time with them for a day, and yearn for them for the rest of their lives.

For instance, in the story, “okanaati athithi,” [guest for a day], the background is a kind of bed and breakfast place, located away from the city, where wayfarers are treated to sometimes just a glass of water, other times a night’s stay with food and bed. Her little daughter, Kethaki, follows her father to the hut, cleans the front yard and draws beautiful designs with rice flour. One day, a young man comes to their hut, and stays for the night. At night, he sits down under the pogada[i] tree, Kethaki is so fond of, and tells her travel stories. He makes a garland of pogada flowers and gives it to her.

The next morning, as he sets out to leave, Gaurayya asks him if he would come back ever again. The young man says, “I will never trod the same route I came by and never visit the same place twice,” and looks at Kethaki with a smile. Kethaki takes that look to mean an embrace and bidding farewell to her. In course of time, she is married, her mother gathers a bunch of pogada flowers and gives to her daughter saying, “For you because you like them so much.” “Heavy,” says Kethaki and throws them away the bundle.

The difference between this story and another story, “marichika,” [Mirage] is very little. Both the stories take place on the outskirts of cities. Possibly, the names of the two stories highlight authors shift in perspective. The message in the first story is closer to puppy love while in the second story, Mirage, the message is life is like a mirage; it is all a fabrication of one’s imagination.

Yet another story, “mamoolu manishi” illustrates once again a young woman letting her imagination run wild. She meets a young man in a train and imagines him to be her prince charming. Later in the evening, she sees him with his wife, which shatters her fanciful imagination. He turns out to be just one more “ordinary man.”

I must however point out that not all her stories are about only love and imaginary heroes. In several stories, she takes poignant topics relating to social issues and human values. In the two stories, “manchi pani” [Good work] and “smruthi” [Memory], she deals with illicit relationships and the manner in which the individuals involved in those affairs resolved their problems. In the process the stories also project the changes that have taken place in our society in course of time. They show how far the society has come from that time the stories had been written, which I believe to be fifties, to the present. Unfortunately, the anthology from which I have taken the stories has not provided bibliographical information. Based on my personal knowledge, I tend to believe that the stories have been written in the fifties.

In the story, “Manchi pani,” Sundaram is respected Principal of a local college. While his wife went to her natal home for a brief visit, he got involved with one of his students, Subhadra and she was pregnant with his child. Sundaram kept quiet. She married another person and left town. As far as Sundaram was concerned the problem was resolved. Another lecturer in his college and a married man, Siva Rao gets involved with another woman and by law Sundaram is required to report to the higher authorities. The woman who is involved and Siva Rao’s wife beg Sundaram not to report it to the authorities because Siva Rao needs the job. In the opinion of Sundaram, Siva Rao is a blessed man, having won the support of the two women! Even his (Sundaram’s) supports the pleas of those two women. Sundaram still could not tell his wife of his own past. “I will write the report tomorrow,” he says; implicit in his statement is he has no sympathy for Siva Rao. The story highlights contemporary women’s perspective—a social attitude—of the times. It also projects the changes in our views from the perspective of yester years.

The story, “Smruthi” [Memory] also depicts forbidden relationship. In this story, the protagonist is a college principal who has fathers a child out of wedlock. After several years, a young woman comes to him seeking admission in the same college. He realizes that the woman is his child and decides to adopt her without informing her of their relationship. It was those times when illicit relationships were viewed more sternly than now.

This kind of stories still has its own value. They provoke readers into rethinking the value of interpersonal relationships and the dire consequences when crossed. I believe in stories such as these, the ending is not as important as the fact that these kinds of things are happening in society and the consequences are not always pleasant. Different readers may respond to these stories in different ways. Some may approve of Siva Rao’s behavior while others dismiss him as irresponsible, thoughtless and even disrespectful of traditional values. A few others may criticize Sundaram for being hard-nosed or despise the three women as pathetic. Another writer may take the same topic and write a different story. We see all these angles in readers’ comments and criticisms. The value of the story lies in making readers think in so many ways. That is what Saradadevi’s stories do, makes us think, reflect.

Jealousy is a normal human condition. In “kaaru mabbulu” [Dense Clouds], we see this human condition presented from a peculiar perspective. The story is narrated in the first person, so we do not know the name of the narrator. She and her colleague Sridhar fall in love and get married. They are deeply in love. His behavior however changes dramatically after she is promoted to a higher post. After learning that he is about to resign from his job, she tells him that she is planning to quit since the she is pregnant. The dark clouds in Sridhar’s heart are blown away. The narrator however is not happy. The fact that he is back to normal only after her resignation hurts her. Dark clouds start closing in on her. Thus, the dark clouds in Sridhar represent his jealousy while for the wife it is her disappointment in him. She realizes that there is also the danger of those dark clouds engulfing their relationship and that she needs to save herself from them. She remembers the celebrated Gita tenet uddharedaatman aatmaanam. Notably, in both the instances, only she is aware of the imminent clouds but not he—first when she saved him from his inferiority complex and the second time when she recognized the reality of their situation. Another angle to this symbolic presentation is: In real life dark clouds bring rain and thus a welcome sign. In literature, on the other hand, dark clouds are often used to represent sorrow and disappointment. In this story, first they are shown to represent Sridhar’s jealousy, and later the disappointment in his wife. Both of them could achieve redemption only after they are freed from these clouds. This is the reason I called the title symbolic.

In the old days, division of classes happened on the basis of religion. In modern times, it is rooted in money. The evil that follows such division is always the same, no difference. “A String of corals” [pagadaalu] and “Hunger” [aakali], depict the phony morals of the middle class. In the first story, a poor old man makes a living by running a small store round the corner and raising his granddaughter. A neighbor, who has a daughter (Vasanthi) of the same as the old man’s granddaughter, accuses him baselessly of stealing her daughter’s coral chain and makes him pay with the ten rupees he had, which is his life’s savings. Later the maid finds the chain under a chest of drawers, but the mother is not ready to admit her mistake, fearing that will ruin their reputation. The story is told from the perspective of the daughter, as she recalls the incident on her way to visit the family after several years. Her mother’s words, “What would people think if they come to know that we had the chain in our possession all along and we ill-treated the old man for no apparent reason, and took his money? Won’t they think we are mean?” This highlights the cowardice and the sham of the middle class moralists. Vasanthi could not understand at the time. She could not understand how it would be humiliating to them but not to Thata who in fact was innocent. This line of thinking in the little girl is probably intended to make a statement that these phony values are not innate but acquired in course of time.

The story “Hunger” also illustrates how people are afraid of what polite society might think about them. A starving young man sees his friend on the porch of a house where a wedding is being performed. He asks his friend to let him eat there. The friend however is in no mood to entertain this shabby-looking man. He says the place is not his, he would go in and ask the homeowner if that would be okay. He goes in and never returns. The message is he does not want to acknowledge a poverty-stricken person as his friend. The young man goes away, wanders around, hoping to find something to eat. Eventually, an old woman, selling fruit on the roadside, offers him fruits to eat. He is grateful. In course of time, he starts a small business, gets rich and decides to return the cost of the fruit, two annas (one eighth of a rupee). The strange part is he defers the payment so long, by the time he went there, the old woman has died, and another little boy is sitting there. The boy says he is hungry and asks for money. The young man gives him the two annas he owed the old woman, feels satisfied that he has paid off his debt and goes away.

In this story, some of the twists are noteworthy from the perspective of structure. The hesitation on the friend’s part to let the young man have food at a wedding is rather unusual. In Indian homes, there is always plenty of food and no person is turned away, especially on such ceremonial occasions. The narrator does not verbalize the friend’s reason for saying he would have to check with the house-owner. It would appear his middle class values came in the way to acknowledge a beggar as his friend. Like the sham values in the “Coral chain”, here again the author points out the fake values cherished by middle class people. The second twist is when the person who was nearly dying for a morsel of food and the change of attitude after he became rich. He did not forget the old woman who had given him food when he was hungry yet he delays repayment for inordinate length of time. There is no reasonable explanation for his procrastination. We just have to tell ourselves that is the way it is. It occurs to me that ever so often we defer to perform good deeds for no reason.

In the story, maarina manishi, [changed man], the story revolves around a person takes a job as a servant yet refuse to do the tasks the lady of the house assigns him. This house also, like in so many of her stories, is located on the outskirts of city. The woman does not want to complain about him to her husband for fear they might not be able to get another servant, who would be willing to travel the distance. Later however she tells her husband about the servant Narayana and his attitude. The husband yells at Narayana and he, without a word, quits. Years pass by. On one dark and rainy night, the woman gets off the train and gets into a rickshaw, not knowing the rickshaw driver was no other than Narayana. Narayana however recognizes her. After she got off at her home, he identifies himself politely. She is surprised that he is so polite when he is doing well, and was so arrogant when he was down on his luck. The author has showed extraordinary flair in weaving this story. It shows her aptitude in analyzing human nature. Here, not only she delineated the character of Narayana but also showed how their employers would evaluate or rather misevaluate others. The story is narrated by the lady in first person yet the author is able to identify and highlight the flaws in her character. That is the peculiarity in this story.

In the story thraasu [balance], Sitaramayya is busy making money and his wife and daughter are busy spending it. He understands the value of caring only after his servant brings him an apple and a rose saying, “because it is your birthday, sir.”

Another notable quality in Saradadevi’s stories is vivid descriptions of nature and their significant role in her stories. For several of her stories, the location is outside or on the outskirts of town. Almost all stories feature clouds, stars, breeze, and light drizzle. Sometimes, the descriptions run to one whole page yet not monotonous. For instance, the story, korikalu [desires] is a story told by a banyan tree. “It is dark. The stars drew designs. The moon has arrived, it is breezy though. My leaves shook and started to reach out to the sky.”

In the “Runaway Parrot,” the protagonist, Kamakshamma, spends most of her time watching the sky and the clouds from her backyard. She tells herself, “How beautiful the clouds move around! One second they hug each other affectionately! And then they move away on their separate ways! Who can tell what these temporal attachments mean!” A woman who has studied only up to eighth class, not only describes the nature beautifully but also finds correlation between the environment and human nature. There lies the author’s skill. For one thing, author seems to imply that there is poetry in everyone’s heart; secondly, it tells symbolically what lies ahead. At the beginning, Kamakshamma is used just to watching the birds that come into her garden and fly away freely. Then a parrot with a broken leg comes into her front yard and she develops an attachment to the bird. She loves the bird as her own child. For the bird however it is only a confinement. Therefore, the bird flies away as soon as she gets an opportunity to do so, the same way the clouds get close and move away. In that lies the beauty of the paragraph quoted earlier.

In short, Saradadevi evinces an unusual understanding of human nature and reflections on life. She has mentioned in one of her interviews that she has read extensively. However, unlike several other writers, her stories do not carry any “elitist” attitude. They are one hundred percent Telugu stories, brimming with native flavor.

She has published three anthologies. None of them include bibliographical information. The first three anthologies were published in the sixties and the fourth one in 1991. Thus, I would conclude that the stories in the first three anthologies had been written in the fifties and sixties and the stories in the fourth anthology written later. There is a significant difference between the early stories and later stories in her choice of themes and endings. In the later stories, she has imbibed the changes that have taken place in our lifestyles and mode of thinking. In the early stories, we find a kind of distancing herself and detachment. That does not mean the stories are without feelings. All human beings have desires and they all hope for better life, they believe in brighter future. Saradadevi has achieved great balance in analyzing these emotions.

Very little is known about her life. In a reputable magazine, Andhra Jyothi new year special (1975), the details she has given are as follows: She was born in 1922 in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India. She has master’s in English literature, and Telugu literature, received Hindi Visarada diploma, and also studied a little Sanskrit. She learned classical music. She worked in Padmavathi College, Tirupathi, Andhra Pradesh, for several years. She said she got an opportunity to read extensively after her marriage with well-known writer, Achanta Janakiram in 1944. Her first story was published in 1945. She also stated that she strongly believed that encouragement from Narla Venkateswara Rao, prominent journalist and editor of Andhra Jyothi, was behind the writer she turned out to be.

When we read her stories, we feel that we are reading authentic Telugu stories. We obtain that satisfaction. In choosing her topics, and sculpting them into fascinating stories, and in commenting on life, she evinces extraordinary talent. I will finish this article with a simple statement about the structure in her stories. Saradadevi’s stories are well-rounded stories in all aspects: opening, environment, situations, development, characterization and ending.

(End)

This article written by Nidadavolu Malathi has been published on thulika.net, December 2012.

Publications:

1. Paaripoyina chiluka. Vijayawada: Adarsagrantha mandali, 1963.

2. Okkanaati athithi. Vijayawada: Adarsagrantha mandali, 1965.

3. Marichika. Vjayawada: Adarsagrantha mandali, 1969.

4. Vaanajallu. Hyderabad: Sahiti, 1991.

 


[i] Known as Spanish cherry or minusops elengi. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimusops_eleng