Bhandaru Acchamamba’s stories: Review by Nidadavolu Malathi

For a decade or so, Telugu scholars started discussing the works of Bhandaru Acchamamba’s works, primarily in an attempt to show that she is the first writer among males and females to write a well-developed Telugu story in the mdoern sense. However, the purpose of this article is only review an anthology of her stories, compiled by Sangisetti Srinivas. He collected ten of twelve stories written Acchamamba and published it under the banner Kavile, Telangana research and referral center. The two prefaces written by Srinivas and Dr. Sujatha Reddy to this book are packed with valuable information.

Basically, we need to set ourselves in Acchamamba’s time, which is late nineteenth century, to appreciate her stories. She has used effectively I might add the language and the technique prevalent in her day to tell her stories. We can identify the social milieu and the literary experiments of her times in these stories. In that sense, Acchamamba is a pioneer in the history of Telugu short stories.

The themes in these stories include social issues, women’s education, good parenting, and economic issues in middle class families.

Here follows brief summaries of the stories:

1. “Gunavathi yagu stri” [Virtuous woman] is not her original story but retelling of an episode from a famous epic, Dasakumara charitra. The message in it is an adept woman will know how to run the household on a shoestring budget. “There is nothing remarkable in managing the household when husband is rich. When he is poor however it is hard for a woman to run the household with whatever little means they have and make him happy,” the narrator comments at the outset.

Saktikumarudu, a young man from business community, sets out with a small bag of paddy to find a suitable bride for him. His plan is to test young girls and find the one who could cook a sumptuous meal for him with that small bag of paddy. Eventually he finds a girl who proved herself and served him a meal to his satisfaction. He marries her. However, the story does not end there. He keeps testing her by hurting her in numerous ways, even bringing another woman to home. She puts up with his vagaries, passes all tests and proves herself a “Gunavathi”, virtuous woman at the end.

As stated earlier, the thought that one should be able to manage the household in times of economic hardships is a plausible quality in a person in any period. The value of prudence is timeless. The author might have chosen the episode from a purana because of the strong hold the puranas wielded on people in her day. However, the second part in this story is somewhat confusing and untenable in our day—which is the husband continuing to test wife’s capabilities after their marriage. There is no justification for that unless we fall back on the puranas and accept that the story is not Acchamamba’s original story. Possibly, Acchamamba had not weaned away completely from that kind of Puranic clutch. Or, we may find consolation in the fact that that we’ve come so far away from that point in time.

2. “Lalithaa, Saradalu” is a children’s story.  The story is based on the basic principle, “Doing ‘good’ to that person who had harmed you is the best policy”. The line reminds us of a popular Sataka poem “upakaariki nupakaaram seyuvaade nerpari sumati.” [A man who helps him that has harmed him is competent man]

Lalitha is daughter of Tahsildar, a respectable government official. She constantly bullies other children. Sarada is a poor, well-mannered girl and well-liked girl.

One day, Sarada was in the rose garden, holding a rose and wondering why a beautiful flower like rose should have thorns also. Lalitha came there and for no obvious reason lifts her hand to hit Sarada, misses her aim, the hand falls on the rose bush next to her, and a thorn pricks her hand.

He lays hand on one of the roses and gets pricked by a thorn.  Blood oozes from the wound and she starts crying. Sarada, despite Lalitha’s evil act, nurses her wound and consoles her. Then on, they become friends. Eventually they get married and move away. After a few years, both come back to their maternal homes and meet in the same garden where Lalitha had been wounded by a thorn. Sarada asks Lalitha, “Now we both have children. How do you suggest we should raise them to be well-behaved adults?” Lalitha replies, “What can I tell you, who is so much more mature? Maybe you are testing me so I will tell you. I told my children the incident of our childhood and told them to remember that constantly. I told them that a good person always forgives the others’ mistakes but never bears a grudge against them..”

Apparently the moral goes beyond forgiveness and includes a comment on parenting skills as well. Children taught early will learn to control the negative feels such as vengeance and anger in their adulthood seems to be the primary message in this story.

3. “Janakamma” is the only daughter of a poor man Ranga Raju. Despite his pecuniary circumstances, Ranga Raju invites newcomers to town and feeds them as befitting a good host. Janakamma grows to be a young well-mannered girl and father is worried he might not be able to bring a suitable husband for her. Thanks to Ranga Raju’s generosity in the past, a rich man offers to marry Janakamma to his son and without dowry.

The story is simple and straightforward. The author seems to promote the thought that children raised by well-mannered parents will have good life later in life. Her description of the village in this story is particularly poetic and charming.

4. “Dampatula prathama kalahamu” [A Couple’s first fight] depicts the view “that woman is not man’s servant”. Apparently, the idea, what we consider modern, has actually started more than a century ago. The story opens with Lalitha, a young woman, telling her grandmother that “This is not your times. We are not servants to our husbands.” She tells her the circumstances under which she returned to grandmother’s home. Her reason appears to be trivial.

Her husband Narayana Rao told her that he had bought tickets for a play. Lalitha was upset since he had bought the tickets without consulting her first and also she had planned a trip to grandmother’s house previously.

The grandmother tells Lalitha a story (as it turns out it was her own story). There was a woman who had been quarreling with her husband constantly. The husband had gotten tired of the quarrels and left her for good.

Lalitha is moved by the story and returns to her husband. In the meantime, Narayana Rao also feels remorse for his action, and being unable to enjoy the play returns home, repentant.

The grandmother’s lessons to Lalitha are consistent with the traditional mode of thinking. First, the problem that had triggered the disagreement appears to be trivial. Secondly, the fact that her husband regretted his action appears to be modern. In the final analysis, the resolution carries the message that both husband and wife should accept responsibility for their actions. Acchamamba succeeded in showing the two sides of the issue.

5. “Satpaatradaanam” [Donating to the deserving] also carries a fresh note. A young boy called Kesavudu asks his mother to give money to a poor old beggar on the street. Mother talks to the beggar and learns that he has sons in his village who make little money but refuse to move to a more rewarding place to improve their lot. The old man apparently helps them by giving them the money he has earned as a beggar. Mother says giving money to the old man means supporting the sons who are reluctant to help themselves and that it means donating to the undeserving. The narrator’s comment, “Some animals keep digging for grass where there is none and they had hit the dirt but do not go to explore green pastures” reflects the author’s strong belief in hard work and self-reliance, which again are considered modern views.

6. In “Strividya” [Education for women] dialogue is used as a narrative technique, which is a major departure from traditional narration. The story takes place on the eve of husband’s departure to jail as a political prisoner. He suggests she should learn how to write in order to communicate with him while he is prison. Wife is reluctant at first, giving all sorts of excuses; she can seek’s her younger brother’s help, no need for learning since she is not going to office, and so on. At the end however she is convinced of the importance of education and decides to learn how to read and write. The story includes all the arguments of those who feel that education is not necessary for women. I would say this story is worth reading at least to understand how the minds of such people work. For a translation of this story, click here.

7. “Dhanatrayodasi” [Lakshmi puja day] is a well-written story with all the elements of a good story by current standards.

The story depicts a proud woman who converts her husband to the righteous path, after he had gone amiss. The story made me think of another story, often praised as the first modern story, entitled diddubatu by highly acclaimed writer Gurajada Appa Rao.

Appa Rao depicts a man accustomed to brothel homes and his wife who pretends to leave him to teach him a lesson. It is narrated in just one incident, two pages, and we are given to understand that the man changes his ways as soon as he learns his wife left him (actually she hides under the bed and gives him that impression). In my opinion, chasing women is much bigger problem and is not that easy to quit. In that sense, I believe, Acchamamba’s story is a better story in terms of making a man alters his ways.

My point is in terms of technique, addressing an issue in a story should be consistent with the size of the issue. Bigger problems require stronger scenes to establish the extent of its impact and consequences. Smaller issues such as stealing one hundred rupees, even that to help the family, are easily resolved as in the case of Dhanatrayodasi. In terms of technique, Acchamamba has done much better job in handling it at a level appropriate for the seriousness of the issue. In the opening, in developing the theme, establishing the crux of the problem and offering solution, Acchamamba has succeeded. On the other hand, Appa Rao’s story takes a humungous issue—womanizing—and treats flippantly.

8. “Bharyaa bharthala samvaadam” [A discussion between husband and wife] is the weakest of the ten stories. The story is presented in the form of a dialogue and centers round the issue of women’s education. Wife is interested in jewelry and husband tells her that she has jewelry, which are: Modesty, humility, humbleness, good behavior, composure, integrity, kindness and helping others. These qualities are desirable in men too yet appear to be more desirable in women. As I read the list, I was reminded of sati dharma as maintained by Veeresalingam.

In this narrative, there is no really story, no development of an issue except a casual dialogue. Acchamamba wrote this story in 1903, one of her last two stories. She had written much better stories earlier. I am not sure why she did not develope this theme. One possible explanation that occurs to me is that she it might be a commissioned artilce. Hindusundari magazine, in which the story is published, might have requested her to write on this theme, being of topical interest at the time, and she quickly jotted something. I am not saying this is the reason. I am just guessing.

9. “Addamunu Satyavathiyunu” [Mirror and Satyavathi] is a story about a little girl, Sathyavathi, barely three-years-old. She who looks at her reflection in the mirror, mistakes it to be another girl and makes faces at her. To her surprise, the girl in the mirror also makes faces, which annoys Satyavathi. She complains to her grandmother, who understands the problem and tells her to smile at the little girl in the mirror. Sathyavathi smiles and finds the reflection also smiling. After she has grown up, Sathyavathi remembers this incident, and combines with her other experiences, and concludes that, “This entire world is a mirror. If we look at it angrily it looks back at us angrily and if we look at it joyously, the reflection also shows joy.” She not only cherishes this lesson but keeps telling others to do the same. Once again, the idea is so close to personality development lessons in modern times.

10. “Beeda kutumbamu” [Poor family] is about a poor woman who makes living by grinding wheat, corn and maize and making flour in the rich households. At the outset, the author says this is a true story, told by one of her friends.

 A woman, after her husband with little means died, starts working in the homes of wealthy women grinding flour day and night and raises her six children. Eventually the children grow up, take respectable jobs and live happily.

The author might have written this story to reiterate the values of self-respect and hard work. She also stresses the need to imbibe these values in children.

Regarding these stories, the first thing one would comment on is language. For current generation readers, reading them could pose a problem. Nevertheless, these stories are valuable and need to be read within the context of social and literary milieu of Acchamamba’s time, which is late nineteenth century. In these stories, we find pioneering and progressive views we value immensely today.

Acchamamba depicted women as strong characters possessing plausible qualities such as self-respect and individualistic views. Today’s views on women’s education, acquiring knowledge, and personality development are present in Acchamamba’s stories written well over a century ago.

Acchamamba, who had been inspired by Veeresalingam’s writings, did not hesitate to move away from his views on women’s dharma. While Veeresalingam professed that “women need education to be good housewives and good mothers,” Acchamamba went one step ahead and showed that education for women is necessary for their personal development.

Her descriptions are poetic and powerful. For example, her descriptions—the village in ‘Janakamma”, the deepavali festivities in Mumbai, the wife’s thought process and husband’s dilemma in “Dhanatrayodasi” etc. are depicted with flair. In “Sugunavathi yagu stri”, she compares the face of a woman to crescent moon, implying a person feels the same pleasure when he sees her face as he when a crescent moon. In our literature it is common to compare beautiful face to full moon. In that Acchamamba’s metaphor is original.

In her preface to the book, Dr. Sujatha Reddy commented that Acchamamba should be considered a Telangana writer since she was born in the area, lived there for sometime and also used some of the words prevalent in Telangana. To my knowledge, some of the words quoted by Sujatha Reddy are prevalent in other areas as well. Besides, limiting a writer to a particular area is not called for unless the author specifically makes a point of wanting to be named so for his or her own beliefs or pride of place. I did not find such penchant in Acchamamba.

The compiler of this anthology, Sangisetti Srinivas, commented that “We cannot restrict her to any one area.” I tend to agree with Srinivas.

Acchamamba’s style beats all boundaries. She is endorsing values that go beyond time and geography.

Finally, I must extend my compliments to the compiler, Sangisetti Srinivas for collecting the stories and making them available to the public.

[End]

Published on thulika.net, March 2011.

The picture of Acchamamba, courtesy of te.wikipedia.org.

(February 24, 2011)