The Charm of a Cherished Story by Kanuparti Varalakshmamma

“Rajeswari, you keep asking what is special about my stories. Don’t you see the same stories are getting rave reviews in the newspapers and magazines every day,” Raghava Rao said to his wife. He just returned
from the town hall.
Rajeswari did not respond. She just smiled.
“I saw the Madhurabharati magazine at the town hall. Guess how long the critical essay on my anthology was in it. The critic pointed out with examples, the structure, beauty, and the charm inherent in my stories,
which even I was not aware of,” Raghava Rao said cheerfully.
“Who’s that critic? Your friend, right?” Rajeswari said, teasingly.
“No, not my friend.”
“All right. Is he a member of your friends circle?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Didn’t he sign his name?”
“Didn’t give the full name. It was signed with initials, Po.Su.”
“Can’t be one of your friends? Think carefully.”
“That’s cute. I haven’t become that forgetful yet. In all possibility, he is not my friend.”
“There! You’re saying ‘in all possibility.’ He is a distant friend, I suppose!”
Raghava Rao broke into a big laugh and said, “We’ve heard about relatives close or distant but never heard of ‘distant’ friends. I’m hearing it only from you.”
“He could be one of your classmates. Did you think about that?”
“What’s this inquiry? What does it matter who he is?”
“I think the people who write flattering critiques on your writings must be your friends.”
“Does one have to be a friend to write a critique? Any critic would call it a good work, if the work is of substance.”
“What if it is not?”
“Ha, that’s what you are wondering about. Among my friends, there are more people keen on looking for mistakes than the other way around. They would never call it a good work, if it’s not.”
“Maybe that’s true when critiquing others’ works, but not within your own group.”
“Don’t we critique each other?”
“People within your friends circle are very loyal to each other. Your friendship calls for support mutually.”
“Meaning?”
“You all are operating within a fixed formula. One of you will write a book, and another from your group writes a preface to that book, and yet another pays a glowing tribute to the book and sends it to a magazine. And if by some fluke, an outsider finds fault with your writing, one of your circle members reprimands him. That’s how you are managing your career. You are quite a giant in the industry. I am really charmed by the loyalty in your circle.”
“Are you saying that we’re promoting our works, even the bad ones, only through our publicity stunts?”
“You’ll love them, I am sure. If you don’t appreciate your own works, why would you go to all that trouble? You don’t care about the careful analysis and opinions of others. We’ve have been watching your friends’
books, prefaces, opinions, critiques and all that, aren’t we? Always the same familiar names but no new ones. Today they shower praise on your anthology, madhurakatha samputi, and tomorrow you’ll on their
kanneeti kerataalu … In short, yours is a mutual admiration society; that’s your style.”
“You’re making fun of us, the writers. But it’s only after we’ve picked up the pen, the royal road for the colloquial language, the free verse, the romantic lyrics, and the short story has been laid out. Today, can you
show me one daily, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or annual magazine, which does not feature short stories and free verse? Don’t you agree that we, the new generation of writers that should take credit for it? Isn’t it
due to our hard work? Why shouldn’t we be proud of it?”
“There’s nothing in it to be proud of. The genres of short story and free verse are not new ornaments for the young damsel called Telugu language. For centuries, we have, in the form of written and oral literature,
stories of Bhatti Vikramarka, Kasi majili stories, Pancatantra stories, the stories of the Twelve kings, and so many others. And even you agree that the women’s songs like lullabies and dampulla patalu  are in no way
inferior to your free verse. Human beings always loved stories naturally. Look at our little baby; he is so fascinated by stories. He will stop crying the moment I mention ‘story’. Is it not strange! Such a tiny innocent
child, why is he so fond of stories? Not only children, even adults are fascinated by stories. In our “Home for Girls” when I tell a story, not only the little girls but even the adults listen with their ears and eyes wide open. That’s why I am saying all human beings are fascinated by stories naturally. Therefore, if you boast that only you and your friends are instrumental in making Telugu people getting interested in stories, I will not accept it. In fact, we are as much the mothers of fiction as mothers of children,” Rajeswari said proudly.
Raghava Rao was tickled by her comments. He laughed loud and said, “Now your secret is out. Obviously,
all your meandering twists and turns is to say that the credit should go to you, the women folks. Poor thing, your loyalty to your circle is second to none.”
“Are you saying that my logic is not tenable? You think again. In your childhood, your mother had instilled the interest for stories in you. My mother had done the same for me. It is not just you and me, but every mother in the world has been educating the child about the worldly ways through stories. So you may laugh all you want but the foundation for the building has been laid by us. We sowed the seeds for the tree to grow.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll accept that. Why should I deny you the pleasure? Apparently, you are struggling so hard to attribute the credit to your circle. It’s not just you. Nowadays, all the religious groups, all the castes, and
vocational groups are resorting to the same logic. They are digging up some old puranas and attempting to attribute some kind of recognition to their own groups. You are also like that.”
“You have a talent to confuse people like nobody else. You cannot accept the argument even when that is the truth.”
“Will you accept it when the entire world praises my stories as good stories?”
“Oh, I see. Is this the payback for disagreeing with you? I have no objection to admitting that your stories are good. You do have the skill at some level. But I do think your stories do not measure up when the
characteristics of quality fiction are taken into account. I cannot praise that a story is excellent by every measure when it lacks some of the essential qualities it should have possessed. Besides, if you have it
critiqued from every angle and learn what’s lacking it helps you, doesn’t it? What is the point of just forcing people to give only good reviews, you tell me?”
Subbamma, the cook, walked in and called her softly, “amma garu!”
“Yes, I almost forgot. We need to finish supper early today. Subbamma said she would be going to a movie kanakatara tonight. She came early, done cooking and waiting for you to come home. Unless we are done
early, she’d not be able to catch the second show,” said Rajeswari.
“What’s there in that movie kanakatara? You pay your money and set yourself up for a cry. Hum, tell her to set the plates. I’m coming in a minute,” Raghava Rao said.
Rajeswari went into the backyard and brought water for her husband to wash his feet. And then she told Subbamma to set another plate for herself also. That way, Subbamma could be done with her work sooner.
Subbamma set two silver plates for both of them and two big glasses of water. Raghava Rao changed into freshly washed clothes, threw a towel on his shoulder, and went into the kitchen. Rajeswari followed him.
“Have the children eaten?” Raghava Rao asked.
“They have. I fed them as soon as the food was ready. I was hoping they’d go to bed early,” Rajeswari replied.
*Since they wanted to finish eating fast, Rajeswari and Raghava Rao did not get into a chat. After they were done eating, Rajeswari took care of the leftover foods while Raghava Rao was pacing up and down on the
verandah. Rajeswari then returned to the hallway with a plate of paan leaves and other ingredients for paan.
Raghava Rao stopped pacing and rested in the armchair in the hallway. Subbamma ate, put away the washed silver plates, put the milk pot in the hallway, washed the kitchen floors, closed the doors, and told
Rajeswari, “Amma garu, I’m leaving. The milk is still warm, and so I left it in the hallway to cool down. You may add the yogurt culture a little later.”
“I will. Here is a quarter for the ticket. Go, quick. It’s getting late,” Rajeswari said and sent her away.
After Subbamma left, Raghava Rao turned toward Rajeswari and said, “Earlier you’ve mentioned that you would point out the flaws in my stories. Let’s see, tell me what are they?”
“I was teasing. Why are you so particular?”
“No, I don’t think you were teasing. You’ve said that it is beneficial to invite criticism, which points out the flaws. Besides, you are my arthanga lakshmi . You offered it, why should I let go of that opportunity?”
“I didn’t mean just your stories. I made a general comment about all the stories we’ve been getting nowadays.”
“Oh, that’s even better. If you could say it without blaming me, that is good, right? Go on, quick, or else I will fall asleep.”
“If you’re sleepy, go to sleep. These discussions are not that urgent. If not today, we can continue tomorrow.”
“That’s not right. The adage is subhasya seeghram.  We must settle this now or I will lose even the little sleep I would have otherwise. Come on, start.”
“When we write a story, it should possess all the qualities that make the story appealing to the reader.”
“You will have to elaborate on that, madam.”
“This is the problem with you. Whenever I try to discuss with you, you make fun of each and every word I say.”
“Calm down. I will not say another word.”
“Take a rose. It is fascinating in so many ways—its shape, color, soft to touch, smell, and the honey it contains. So also a creative work. It must contain creativity, which is its form, description, which is its color,
rasa, the smell, and the message that’s the honey. Even if one of these elements is missed, the story fails as a good story. In modern day stories, some of the elements are missing invariably. Did you notice it?”
“You’re mistaken. The stories written now do possess all the qualities you’ve mentioned. Are you listening to me? Our modern day writers are unrivaled in creativity.”
“Yes, yes, they are the first in writing offensive stories.”
“Nature is our arena and we are devotees of nature. Therefore, nobody could beat us in describing the supreme nature.”
“In the name of nature, if you describe everything regardless of propriety, it turns into vulgarity. The reason the modern day stories are reprehensible is those descriptions. Description should not cross the line of propriety even if it were natural.”
“Tenderness is built into our Telugu language naturally like the sweetness in sugarcane, and for that reason, I think we don’t have to strain ourselves for it particularly.”
“Maybe it is built in. Still, it expresses itself harmoniously only if the user uses it skillfully. In our tender Telugu language, don’t we have several books with harsh wording? For instance, Vasucaritra has been
acclaimed a great work for its scholarship; yet, it is lacking in gentleness, and therefore it cannot be accepted as a work of delicate thoughts, don’t you think?”
“Let’s talk about rasa. There is plenty in every story. This is the ‘rasa yuga’, and all the writers in our times are kings of rasa across the world. So, your objection in regard to rasa is not acceptable.”
“Rasa should blend in with a sentence like the smell in a flower. Especially, in the case of hasya rasa (humor), the less obvious it is, the more fascinating it will be. The stories that are just intended to make the
reader laugh are insipid; they are more like tickling and coarse. Any rasa will be disgusting if it is forced. This is true not only of stories. Even in speeches, if humor is used too much, it will be gross. It is like adding
salt in a vegetable: Adding too much salt is just as bad as adding too little. Do you remember? A few days back, you took me to the town hall for a speech by a famous scholar. He had made us laugh every few
seconds. It was fine as long as the speech lasted. But after we had returned home, I tried to think about it, and couldn’t find a single point to reflect upon. It was quite disappointing.”
“That’s your foolishness. What is there to reflect or remember? He was a great scholar and fine speaker. He had recited the poems beautifully and narrated charming stories. The audience enjoyed listening to him.
Do they have to bring something home too?”
“That’s not it. Is that all we can expect from the speech of a great scholar? A momentary laughter? Shouldn’t it be also a speech, from which we could learn a little knowledge? The beauty, the smell, and the tenderness of a flower will be lost in one day. Do you know how long the honey gathered by the bee will last, and gets used in so many ways? It must be same with a story. Every story must include a truth of ethical or scientific value. It is only then the writer’s effort is rewarded. On the other hand, like your modern writers would say, if the purpose of a story is only to provide a temporary pleasure, if love is the only theme, if you cannot write any better than that, and if the readers cannot enjoy anything better than that, then, I would say that both the writers and the readers are self-indulgent.” Rajeswari expressed her views and stood up as if remembered something. She went into the other room in a hurry.
Raghava Rao felt as if he was cut short while enjoying a zesty meal. He sat there waiting curiously for Rajeswari to return and resume the dialogue. Rajeswari added the yogurt culture to the milk, put it away,
and returned. “Here we were lost in our discussion and I totally forgot about the milk. It has gone dead cold,” he said.“That’s true. In any matter, we must act in a timely fashion. The same way with your elaborate analysis now. It will be worthless if it has gone cold. Continue while the subject is still hot,” Raghava Rao said.
“There are two kinds of stories—the best and the mediocre. The best stories are those, which contain style, freshness, clever descriptions, creativity, suitable rasa, and ethical values. Such stories will receive
permanent status in literature; readers receive them well. They never become old. Rabindranath Tagore’s stories belong in this category. He never verbalized any moral or dharma openly in his stories. Yet each one
of his stories illustrates an ideal.
“The mediocre stories will have all the elements but no moral values. These mediocre stories are also written in powerful and living language, do include fine descriptions, and the structure and characterization
are not bad either. They may not be lacking in rasa; yet, they do not attain a permanent place in literature for want of a compelling moral value. These stories have served their purpose just by providing a momentary
pleasure to the readers.
“And then the third rate stories are those which are written without any talent; and often written in some foolish way; probably the writer gets excited at the sight of a woman and writes about her. Most of the stories
now being published in Telugu magazines nowadays belong to this category. There is no advantage for the public or the language in promoting this kind of stories. The parents who are interested in the welfare of their children will not let the children read these stories. The teachers who wish the best for their students will not encourage them to read these stories. And then there are child widows. They may feel that reading those stories would put them in an awkward position; they are afraid of being perceived by the society as licentious, and so, are afraid even to touch them. Let’s set it aside for a second. I’m telling you, decent
people would hesitate to go out carrying those books in their hands. You tell me, is it fair to divert the genre of fiction, which our people have been cherishing so fondly for centuries, down the decadent path, and instill
fear in people?”
Raghava Rao listened to Rajeswari patiently and said, “Rajeswari, I’m very glad that you’ve stated your views on fiction so clearly. But I am sorry that you are so caught up in your passion for moral values that you’ve ignored the substance in our stories. A story could be a moral story like in Sumati satakam or Vemana poems. But it’s not smart to suggest that each and every story must fit into a paradigm of moral value. A story is like a flower. It must blossom freely and pleasurably or else it would lose its beauty and become insipid. To speak the truth, story writing is an artistic creation. And it is the duty of the connoisseurs of art to make sure that it serves a purpose.”
“It seems the writings of all you young writers are from the same mold. Recently I saw an article on the same lines by some writer. I too like art. I am aware that gold jewelry with subtle designs is more beautiful and valuable than a lump of raw gold. In fact, art does not mean writing recklessly. It should possess all the elements I’ve stated. It is not however appropriate to pop in a conversation, a description, or wantonness in
the name of art into one’s story. You can create fine designs on gold jewelry any way you please but it is not right to mix brass or other base metal and thus turn it into an impure alloy.”
“That’s good. If you ride on a moral high horse, and create only allegories, I don’t have to tell you about the outcome. People will be happy without reading them.”
“I’m saying that only when you write stories with moral values, their worth heightens. And people will welcome them. Not only Telugu people but others also translate them into their languages and read them. Look at the stories of Tolstoy and Premchand. Aren’t they getting translated into Telugu? Why did they receive that kind of attention? You can say whatever you want. Only when a creative work, whether it is a story, epic, lyric, free verse, artwork, or sculpture, imbibes the quality that serves the purpose of ennobling human spirit …”
Before she finished her sentence, she noticed that the ropes of the swing moved. Rajeswari’s mouth was talking but her eyes were stuck on the swing. She said, “it seems baby is up,” and went quickly and got busy
feeding the baby.
Raghava Rao looked at the clock and said, “Vow, it is ten-thirty.” He got up, stretched, went into the bedroom, and lay down on the bed.
***

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, January 2009.

Translator’s note: The story is significant for two reasons: 1) for the protagonist’s sophistication in expressing her views on the critics of her times, which is 1940’s; 2) the freedom with which the woman expresses her views to her husband even in the forties.

(The Telugu original, katha etlaa undaale?, was published in the 1940s, and later included in “Kanuparti Varalakshmamma sata jayanti Sanchika”, 1996.)