What is a good story? by Nidadavolu Malathi

This article is about a question I’ve been struggling with for some time. Although thulika.net has been created to introduce Telugu fiction to the American readers, it is also reaching out to the young Indians who have adopted English as their medium of communication. Thus my answer specifically oriented to what my thoughts are in that context.

Before I go into the definition of a good story, let me briefly comment on the nature of our audience. First, it is common knowledge that different parts of a story appeal to different readers. Secondly, the readers with different cultural background perceive the story from yet other perspectives.

For the purpose of this article, I could classify the readers into two categories—the participant and the critical. The participant readers interact with the story on a personal level, identify themselves with a character or a situation or the conflict in the story and participate in the course of events. Their comments could be simple statements like I’ve been there, I know what you mean. Or, go deeper and offer suggestions such as what a given character could have done differently or what else the author could have provided to resolve the conflict. For instance, in “Moral Support” why was Gopalam so stubborn? Why couldn’t he get off his moral high horse and do something to please his wife and parents? Didn’t have a moral obligation to his family? At another level, the readers put some distance between themselves and the story but still react like participants. They see the story as a story, a figment of the author’s imagination, and at the same time want more from it. They raise questions like why Gopalam could not see that buying goods at a cheaper rate and selling for profit was neither illegal nor unethical. That is business101. That is basically the rule we all are living by in our present day world. For some readers Gopalam’s arguments are in tune with his character. For others, it is a flaw in the depiction of his character.

The critical readers distance themselves further and study the story totally objectively. They look into the structure, technique, characterization, diction and the message. At times it is possible for the critical reader to get carried away in his critical thinking and lose sight of the author’s purpose.

Taking the earlier example, Gopalam, like all the idealists in real life, lost sight of the realities of life and failed to see the setbacks in his mode of thinking. Whether Gopalam’s character was depicted well or not depends on what the reader considers a good characterization. This is only one example of how various views could emanate from the same story.

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Getting back to the topic under discussion, what is a good story, two pieces fell into place for me automatically—the cultural nuance and the insights of the Telugu elitists. I reviewed some books and articles written by Telugu writers in the past three decades. Based on my readings, the essential components seem to be the same as in the case of world literatures. The list included the opening, the development of a plot or conflict through a series of incidents, the resolution or the ending, technique, the message or the author’s point of view, characterization, unity or structure, and author’s command of language. Using some of these elements as touchstones, I tried to examine some of the stories published on Thulika.

Broadly speaking, when a person sees or hears about an event, he responds to the scene emotionally and feels a strong, innate urge to relate it to others. That is the motivation to write a story. And then, he is confronted with how to start it.

The title: Although authors don’t always start with a title, let’s take the title first since that is what captures the reader’s eye first. In the current issue, the story, “Diary” is a good example. The original title in Telugu was “Kukka” [Dog]. For Telugu people, the term “dog” invokes an image of a sick, stray dog eating garbage on the streets. For the western audience, dog is a domestic animal, man’s best friend, and the impression on the reader’s mind is not as revolting as in the earlier instance. So we consulted the author and decided to change it “Diary.” The term diary raises curiosity since it allows the readers to peek into somebody’s private thoughts. The very first lines tell us that it is a peek into a child’s mind. The child’s use of a dog as a metaphor to make his statement is even more interesting which was the basis for the original title, “Kukka.”

The second title that caught my attention is “Soham” [He is I]. The phrase is from the Upanishads, referring to an individual identifying himself with the Supreme Soul through a long and rigorous process of contemplation and reflection. The title for this story is open for interpretation. I had a hard time interpreting it and contacted some of my friends, writers and also Malladi Narasimha Sastri garu, the author’s grandson. He said the title meant, “I am part of God because he stays within me, meaning I love and worship God and when he is within me, I cannot abuse my own body. I must respect myself and in turn respect others.” Satya Sarada commented, “Perhaps the protagonist just realized who he was and stopped trying to be someone else based on false pride or instigation.” I understand the logic but fail to see the necessary incident to justify the revelation the protagonist was supposed to have experienced. The discussion between the young man and the protagonist towards the end does not lead to this realization. The young man’s description of his experience at Rattamma’s house was left to the reader’s imagination. What do you, as a reader, think happened at Rattamma’s house? Was it the same as Swamiji’s experience? Why did the author leave out this particular, apparently crucial, incident out of the story? Was it the author’s intent to provoke the reader into thinking? Or, did the author imply we all have our share of the inexplicable in our lives, and we all live at random? Is this a strength or weakness in the story? Yet the story caught my attention because of the title. Was that the author’s plan in choosing that title?

My understanding was: The story opened and ended with the young man and so I assume he is the protagonist. Since most of the story was narrated by the second protagonist, Swamiji, the young man possibly felt a connection with Swamiji. At the end, after Swamiji returned to his wife, the young man could have told himself, “That is my story. He is I.” The use of first person, reflexive pronoun taanu in the Telugu original is significant. In Telugu taanu indicates that the views are expressed from the perspective of taanu, an equivalent of I. Thus the connotation appears to be that the story is not about an individual but about exploring a universal truth. The title, an aphorism from the Upanishads also meant that the drifting away for a while and returning home is a part of male psyche or human nature in general.

The title “The Drama of Life” also is open for discussion. Madhurantakam Narendra, son of the author and a writer, pointed out that the term prahasanam (in the original title, “jeevana prahasanam”) meant burlesque or farce as opposed to the term I used. I however felt that the implicit irony and satire are apparent for the native speakers but not for the English-speaking audience. I think a term like farce diminishes the intensity particularly because the sarcasm is lost in the translation and for those who are not familiar with the culture, the term drama conveys the gravity of the conflict the performer [Harinarayana Sarma] was grappling with. I am open to suggestions from readers, particularly non-native speakers.

Opening scene: Different writers open the story at different points in their narration. Some stories begin and continue sequentially while others start in the middle or at the end and go back to the beginning.

The opening lines in the “Primeval Song,” once upon a time, take us to the good old days of oral tradition. It is a song. It is about the enchanting times. The first paragraph depicts a luring scene only to highlight how far we have come from that heartening time to the disheartening present.
In the “Illusion,” the story opens with a shrewd, seasoned lawyer lecturing on the stark realities of law practice to a junior lawyer, a simpleton and fresh from law school. The senior lawyer’s crude and abrasive presentation makes the reader want to know what the junior lawyer would discover at the end. In both the stories, the opening scenes set the mood for the reader as in a play. The opening paragraph is a brief statement of what is to expect.

In “The Man Who Never Died,” the felling of a tree is the midpoint in the story. In the first few lines the author informs the reader the crucial role the event was set to play in the lives of the two main characters, Appanna and Markandeyulu. One of the important ideas in the story was the difference between the two—one person clinging to life and the other clinging to nature.

The development/unfolding of a plot or conflict: The incidents are like building blocks. Each block reveals a little of the story, building readers’ curiosity, satisfying it partly and then creating more curiosity, keeping him wondering what next. The incidents add to the length of a story, although that is not the purpose. While some stories include only two or three incidents and jump to the end, other stories build the conflict through several incidents, and let the story evolve with a strong base and bring it to a head. Possibly the magnitude of an issue—the central theme—plays a role in the number of incidents the author would like to include. In the longer stories provide the incidents contribute immensely towards recreating the milieu. The result is two-fold. For those who are familiar with the culture it is nostalgic and for those who are not it helps to appreciate not only the story but also the culture. The more the details are the clearer the setting is. For instance, in the “Primeval Song,” the incidents are straightforward and, actually, traverse the bounds of time and space. A curious baby monkey walks through several experiences only to return to the forest where she finds her home and her identity. The allegory format confirms its primordial nature. It is something readers could relate to anywhere anytime.

In “The Drama of Life” the author recreates the village atmosphere to an remarkable degree. The story moves systematically from the villagers’ appreciation of tradition to modern ways of rearranging their priorities. The story delineates meticulously the scenes in a carefully orchestrated fashion. The very first line tells the readers that it was about a performance. The village head, Naidu, was impressed by the moving performance of the traditional narrator, his originality and creativity. Each incident or episode—the description of the village, the customary celebration of Maha Bharata yajnam, Naidu’s zealous references to numerous episodes in Maha Bharatam, and the manner in which he extended his invitation to the performer —is filled with charming minutiae. For me, this was one of the hardest stories to translate. I however thought it was worth the effort since the story provided so much of the life in the villages and also the changes that are taking place in the attitude of people and the society.

The first half of the story includes several incidents leading to the conflict. The second set of incidents leads to the denouement or resolution; it is needed in order to bring about a satisfactory experience in the reader’ mind. In “The Drama of Life,” the detailed descriptions of several gambling stalls—from the games with small bets to the games with high stakes which are a ruination of the local families—leading to the final catastrophe (breaking the heart of the traditional performer) serve that purpose.

The Conflict: The conflict is the pivotal point in a story. In “The Man Who Never Died,” it is the impending death. The protagonist was willing to compromise his values and cut down a 40-year old tree and ruin a 30-year old friendship in the process. Why we fear death and why we would want to live forever are the questions for which we don’t have answers. But can we do anything to conquer death and live forever? The story illustrates how the fear of death is fed by the people around us.

There is a subplot in “The Man Who Never Died,” the friendship between Appanna and Markandeyulu. Felling the tree has a symbolic significance for both of them for different reasons. For Appanna it was a blow to their friendship. For Markandeyulu it was a life-saving event. But their disagreements overlap and Markandeyulu does everything in his power to save Appanna’s life. This part of our culture, the interpersonal relationship that defies the caste and class distinction, is rarely presented in Indian fiction, translations or original, outside India. It is also interesting to see that, in this and a few other stories, the illiterate persons from the lower strata of the society are presented as instrumental in making the educated persons see the light of the day.

The end wraps up and reveals the author’s point of view. That is the simplest statement in any good story. Some readers felt that the ending in “Illusion” was left much to be desired. Bhaskar Rao commented that the ending fell flat.

My understanding is that the central theme in the “Illusion” is our botched up court system. The story is about the failed system as perceived by Muthelamma, based on her experience with the courts. The senior lawyer in the opening scene expresses his disillusionment of the system in scathing and unequivocal language, e.g. comparing the lawyers to the foxes hanging in the graveyards. Later Muthelamma, a client from the working class and an illiterate fires away a volley of questions and even challenges the junior lawyer to prove her wrong. Her speech is considered one of the most powerful speeches in Telugu fiction. The author created a rebel-victim in Muthelamma who was betrayed by the system and who comes to understand that the only way to stay out of jail was to play along. That was the revelation, a poignant point, for the junior lawyer must face. At the end, Muthelamma rises to a level where she could even be patronizing, “You did good. I was there. I saw it. You shook them [the police] up,” she tells the junior lawyer. I wonder how many readers smiled at this twist, the reversal of role playing. To me, it looks like the author has succeeded in bringing the illusion—what the system claims to do, what it actually does and the hurt of the people betrayed by the system—into bold relief.

At the outset I mentioned that some readers would ask why the author did not give us more details. My question is, is it necessary to summarize his point of view? Does the author have an obligation to answer all the questions on the topic he chose to write about? In that, are we erasing the difference between an essay and a story? Personally, I feel that it is the author’s privilege to decide what and how much he wants to say.

In my story, Frostbite the story revolves around the female protagonist’s silence. The readers would continue to read the story looking for the reasons for her silence. In that sense, the story ended when she broke her silence. I however was confounded with the one question at that time and has always been—why do people hurt others and often for no good reason? So, I continued the story, killed the protagonist in the process, and went on until I could raise the question. You, the readers, have to tell me if that made any difference to the story one or the other.

The other elements of a good story are technique, characterization, diction or command of language, structure, and author’s perception of the society he is living in. I do not intend to go into all these components but only some that are relevant to my selection for publication on thulika.net.

One of our editors, Satya Pappu, said that her general reaction to Malladi’s stories has always been one of satisfaction and contemplation. That kind of satisfaction and contemplation is possible only when the author is skillful in his delivery and also in the reader’s disposition to lose oneself in the flow of the story. Any one of the elements—a character, an incident, the diction, figures of speech, proverbs, descriptions of the environment, or some other element in the story, that is normally ignored or overlooked by people, can suddenly pop up in the reader’s mind and bring about a kind of revelation or understanding. It is for this reason, stories that rush to the end without establishing the conflict and resolution sufficiently leave the reader with dissatisfaction.

One story I would like to review in this connection is Woman’s Wages. The conflict—the disparity between a woman’s wages and the services she is entitled to—is the main theme in this short story. The protagonist, Naidu, raises the question—why should the woman pay the same fare as males when she was not paid the same wages for her labor. And the story ended there. For the readers the unanswered question is what happened next? If I want to develop a story around this incident, probably I would include a few more incidents such as the protagonist protesting vehemently, even standing in front of the bus, insisting for a fair value of their labor and money, the passengers taking sides, the driver struggling with a dilemma—whether to make a special allowance for the woman or run over the man in front of the bus. Then we have a story. Then there is a room for the readers to empathize, room for a piece of social history and a story that goes beyond the immediate moment. But then again am I contradicting myself here? Earlier I have stated that it is the author’s privilege as to what and how much he wants to tell. What do you think?

Narration: The story “He is I” was a difficult one to translate for me due to its complex structure. There are two narrators besides the author. The story opens with taanu but for the most part the story was narrated by Swamiji. It was also presented as a conversation between these two characters—Swamiji narrating the story to taanu, the young man. On rare occasions, the author narrates the story, referring to the other two as they. There are also instances where the actual incident was left to the imagination of the reader. For instance, the young man’s experience in Rattamma’s house was not told. Swamiji’s comments seem to indicate that the young man had the experience Swamiji craved for. Or, was it only Swamiji’s interpretation of the young man’s unrecorded account? The story raises several questions and seems to have too many loose ends.

I took it up as a challenge and tested my translation on some of my American friends. To my surprise, they were not as baffled as I was. Is it possible I was reading too much into the story because of my cultural background? Or, was it the author intention to force the readers to see that we don’t get all the answers always that we live at random?

Characterization: Creating believable characters is part of good writing style. Depicting a character does not necessarily mean providing a physical description of the character. This is superbly done in the delineation of characters in Moments Before Boarding the Plane by Sripada Subrahmanya Sastry, a noted writer from earlier generation and well-known for his command of diction. From the conversations, readers can visualize the characters in age, deportment and maybe even some physical attributes.
Another example is the character of Vennela in the Old Letters (December 2002). Just from the letters written by Vennela to thatha, the readers understand that she was a young woman, married, divorced and was perplexed by serious questions about life in general.

This type of characterization however is not common. In general, readers envisage the characters from their behavior, author’s description, and the comments made by the characters themselves and by other characters. The incidents and characterization are interdependent. It is impossible to write a good story with livid characters.

Technique: Technique is the element that is specific to individual writers. The writer is the technique as far as his writing goes. In addition to the elements discussed above, the technique includes the idiom, his knowledge of his culture, his awareness of his society, and his ability to pull them all together to make that one indelible impression on the reader’s mind.

Most readers can identify a writer from his style. Style is an element that does not lend itself to translation. Here is for example a line from Marigolds – buDDideepam cheta pucchuku aa guDDivelugulo chukkallaati kaLLato bikkubikkumanToo choostondi Kamalabala.
“With her starry eyes, she was staring at the marigold plants furtively in the dim light of the tiny wick lamp in her hand, and slouching over the flower bed.”

The original lines are poetic. The alliteration is striking. The translation is very pale compared to the original. The poetic quality is lost. The word count in the translation is three times the original, which speaks for the author’s skill. The author, Viswanatha Sastry is one of those writers who stories will not allow the readers to skip lines and rush to the end.

Another example of unique style is the references to the stage performers of the mid-20th century in the story, “He is I.” For those native speakers who had enjoyed stage plays in the past, the references are gratifying. Sometimes, it is a little humorous too. Swamiji says, “she [his wife] was like Purushottam in his role as Chitrangi.” This analogy brought up a smile for me. Purushottam was a male actor playing a female role. Did the author intentionally compare his wife to a male actor playing a female role? Did the author expect the reader to take it as his observation of male psyche? Human nature? Or, was it just to show the author’s appreciation of the performer?

In any case, individual writers use such reference whenever the occasion supports it, and in an attempt to evoke the nuance in the mind of the readers. Would the stories read the same without these references to classics and classic artists? For the native speakers, it is a bonding experience. For foreigners the story might be the same or even easier to follow without them. On the other hand, these details also provide an opportunity to understand the culture better.

Author’s point of view: Whenever a story is written a point of view is expressed. What specifically that point of view is a moot point. As I mentioned at the beginning, different readers relate to different aspects in the story and different critics see different viewpoints. The story “Choices” (Empu) provided a platform for different viewpoints. The author, Chaganti Somayajulu, was one of the early modern writers well-respected for his social consciousness fiction.

Let me first explain my perspective. The story was first published in 1945. At the time, most of the literature was focused on the middle class issues—the hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears and frustrations of the era. If the working class characters were depicted they were depicted as victims of either the system or the centuries old tradition, which meant depicting only stereotypical images. The author of “Choices” seemed to point out that the hopes, dreams, and family values of the beggar community are not different from other human beings in the upper classes. The father, musilaadu was looking for an eligible bachelor for his daughter within their own community, beggars community. The father prefers the blind man and the daughter has her heart set on the crippled man. The father’s logic, the correlation between the marriage and economic status, and the persuasive arguments of the crippled man are the same as in any middle class family. The only aspect that sets them apart is their status as beggars. Keeping that in mind, I mentioned that the story was about the beggars community—their hopes, dreams, aspirations and family values. Dakshninamurthy, a noted writer and critic, also commented that, “Their [the beggars’] philosophy was that all the beggar girls must invariably look for and find only a blind men to marry”(498).
Chaganti Tulasi, a well-known writer and the author’s daughter, offered the following explanation: “The story, ‘Empu’ was published in ARASAM special issue, September 1945, and that was 58 years ago. But the situation of arranging a marriage for one’s daughter has not changed much. Though Chaso took his characters and life from beggars it is about the fundamentals of economics of all communities, rich and poor alike. The richest man’s philosophy is also the philosophy of the poorest. Chaso wrote a small keynote sentence in the story – musilaadi upanyaasam mushti lokaaaniki Upanishattu (tr. The old man’s speech is a Upanishad for the beggars’ community). Here mushti lokam has an inner meaning besides the meaning ‘the beggars world.’ The word mushti is used as a derogatory term for the entire human community. In your translation the second meaning has not been conveyed. It tells about the panhandlers community only. Fathers , daughters, would-be son-in-laws are all alike in all communities.”
Themes: I’m going to make only a brief comment about themes since enough has been said in the above paragraphs while discussing other aspects. I agree that a good writer can write a story almost about anything. However for the purpose of this website, I am looking for themes which are commonly ignored or overlooked, stories that throw light on cultural peculiarities, and stories that deal with human nature yet unique to Telugu people. Writers and translators may also note that humor and satire are culture-specific and hard to import in translation. I know I am taking some chances in this respect. But I would like you to be aware of how it turns out.
Language: Diction displays the author’s command of figures of speech, knowledge of traditional values, symbols, epithets, proverbs and the ability to suffuse the story with native flavor.

Sripada Subrahmanya Sastry and Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry (not related) are often quoted as two writers who could present dialogue with the sharpness of a knife (Dakshinamurthy. 339). Srirangam Srinivasa Rao stated that Muthelamma’s speech in the story “Illusion” belonged in the world’s greatest literatures. Metaphors and proverbs are powerful ingredients of our sociocultural history. Most of our writers draw on the characters from ancient literature for what the characters stand for in the public perception. A writer need not believe in Rama as a god to use the name as a symbol for an ideal person. In the story, Reform the author, known for her Marxist ideology, described the state of mind of the couple at the end as “two persons lost in dharma yuddham.” The phrase dharma yuddham refers to the great war in Maha Bharatam, which was fought in the name of justice. The reference was only limited to that point. It invokes an imagery of a battle fought for a just cause and lost.

One more thought. My friends here are immensely helpful to me in bringing these translations to you, the readers. (Thank you, Judy, Lucille, Mary, Nancy!)
One of their comments was about long Telugu names. One friend said that the long names were like roadblocks and would not let the reader move forward with the story.
Generally speaking, foreign names are hard to remember for any reader and long names are the hardest. However the names are part of characterization. They add considerably to the narrative.
Tentatively, as an experiment, I tried to change the names in “The Man Who Never Died” after contacting the author. I could change one name, Appalakonda to Appanna, but couldn’t come up with a decent substitute for Markandeyulu. I was wondering what are the thoughts of the writers and translators on this one.

Finally, I would like to point out that my references to only some stories and/or some elements in the stories do not mean that they are the only stories/elements that are notable. I used them only as examples and must be understood only as such.

This article is not an attempt to provide guidelines for writing a good story but to bring up some of the topics for discussion and to show what I am looking for in my selections. I tried to point out what captures my imagination and by extension what I like to publish on this website. I hope to publish more writers rather than more stories of the same writer and, thereby, create an awareness of the widest range of Telugu culture among English-speaking audience.
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Published on thulika.net, June 2003.

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REFERENCES:
Brahmaji Rao, Ghandikota. Kathanika: Katha kamameeshu. Mamidikuduru, Vijaya
Publications, 1996.
Dakshinamurthy, Poranki. Kathanika: Swaroopa swabhavalu. Hyderabad: Author, 1977.
Katyayani Vidmahe. Telugu navalaa kathaanikaa vimarsana parinaamam. Hyderabad: Charita
Publications, 1995.
Rama Rao, Kalipatnam: Vijayawada: Swetcha Sahiti Prachuranalu, 1990.
Srinivasa Rao, Srirangam. Preface, Viswanatha Sastry, Rachakonda. Aaru sara kathalu.
Vijayawada, Visalandhra Publishing House, 1962.