Vaikuntapali by Dwivedula Visalakshi: A Review by Nidadavolu Malathi

In the history of Telugu fiction, the two decades 1950s and 1960s have been significant. Writers have produced notable fiction from the perspective of themes, technique and in recording social history of the times effectively. Immediately after the declaration of independence, the country set out to educate the public, and
newspapers and magazines played a huge role in this effort. Women writers dominated the field of fiction at this time. Several women writers of this era are warmly remembered by readers even to this day.

Under the title, revisiting the stories of yester years, I would like to introduce some of those novels highlighting the peculiarities of our fiction and cultural nuance as reflected in the past fifty years, from today’s standpoint. — Nidadavolu Malathi

 

Dwivedula Visalakshi. Vaikuntapaali [Snakes and ladders]

 

Dwivedula Visalakshi (b. 1929) wrote her first novel vaikunthapali in 1963. The novel won an award in a competition held by a popular weekly magazine, Andhrajyothi. The title vaikunthapali refers to a kind of board game. Literally,
the term “vaikunthapali” (also called paramapada sopaana paTham) means the heavenly abode or steps leading to the ultimate destination. Philosophically speaking, winning in the game meant reaching the ultimate destination after fighting the innumerable odds in life. We roll the dice (actually seashells are used in Andhra Pradesh) and move on to the next square, up the ladder or down the
spine of a snake. Snakes and ladders are symbolic of the events in our everyday lives. The western board game Snakes and Ladders is a variant of the same game.

***

The core theme in vakunthapali is adoption. It opens with Avadhani, an elementary school teacher, bringing home a two-year old boy. His wife, Parvatamma, was surprised and also taken to the boy instantly. She asked him, “He is so cute! Whose boy is he?”

“Ours, of course. Why else would he be here?” Avadhani said and explained how he happened to bring the boy home.

Parvatamma was elated. The couple had no children of their own, and that had been a sore spot for her for a very long time. Avadhani went to consult Sastry, a local astrologer and friend, to find an auspicious day for performing the ritual of adoption. Much to their disappointment, Sastry told him to wait until the boy turned three; second year was not auspicious.

*

In a series of flashbacks, several events, which led Avadhani to bring the baby home follow.

Avadhani had been to another village as a polling officer and run into a young woman, Rajeswari, his former student. She had invited him to their home. Avadhani learned of their disheartening situation.

***

Rajeswari’s mother Mahalakshmamma had been sick for some time. Rajeswari had an older, sister, Saraswati, and three younger siblings, Ramu, Subhadra and Vasu. Their father took to drinking and had been spending away any money he could lay hands on, and a few things he could find to pawn away.

***

Somebody brought a proposal for Saraswati from a prestigious family. Saraswati’s parents could not turn it down, considering their circumstances. The marriage was performed in style in step with the groom’s status. Saraswati moved to her in-law’s home.

***

Avadhani was transferred to another village. Parvatamma fell ill. Avadhani left her at their village, and went to work in the other village. He was commuting to home on weekends.

One day, he pulled out an old coat to wear to a wedding and discovered a letter his wife had given him long time ago, and he had forgotten to read. It was the same letter Saraswati had written to Rajeswari. It said, that Saraswati’s life had miserable at her in-law’s place. Her father-in-law had had used up most of the family fortune on his extravagant habits and died. Her mother-in-law had been keen on
keeping up the same extravagant lifestyle, despite lack of resources. Saraswati’s husband had been squirming under the pressures from his mother. He had learned that his wife was pregnant, got scared and fled, leaving Saraswati and her unborn child to their fate. Saraswati had died after giving birth to a baby boy. After her death, Rajeswari brought the baby home to raise him herself. By this time, Rajeswari’s father had run away from home, never to return.

***

Rajeswari went to another town for teacher training. There, she met a young man, Syamala Rao, who expressed his feelings for her. She also had feelings for him, which she kept to herself. Syamala Rao got a scholarship for higher studies in America and left.

***

Rajeswari was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She wrote to Avadhani, begging him to visit her. Avadhani went to the sanatorium, where he met with Syamala Rao, who had returned from America and landed a job in Calcutta. Rajeswari begged Avadhani to raise her sister’s baby. Avadhani promised her that he would take the baby.

Rajeswari died. Syamala Rao told Avadhani that he would perform the death rituals for Rajeswari in Benares. He felt that he had earned that right, although they had never been married, but that kind of bond existed between them.

After a few days, Avadhani went to Rajeswari’s place and brought the baby home.

***

Avadhani received a letter from Subhadra. After Rajeswari’s death, Syamala Rao was sending them money, specifically for her education. Mother died. Ramu, like Rajeswari was taking care of the family, but he also died. Vasu married a girl from a rich family and moved out. Subhadra had no one to turn to but Syamala Rao for help. Eventually they got married.

***

The little boy turned three and Avadhani went to Sastry once again to set a date for adoption. He learned from Sastry’s wife that his wife Parvatamma was pregnant. Sastry had misgivings, and advised Avadhani to examine carefully the logistics of adoption at this point. Avadhani returned home, and asked Parvatamma whether she would feel the same way about the first child after she had one of her own. She dismissed his fears and assured him that she would never discriminate, never choose one over the other. The couple had a son. They performed the naming ceremony. The first boy was named Ranganatha Rao (Ranganatham) and the new baby Gopala Rao (Gopi).

***

Avadhani took Ranganatham to admit him in school. The headmaster insisted on giving Ranganatha Rao a surname. Avadhani was in a dilemma. He could not give his own surname to the boy, since the adoption had never taken place, and he could not give the birth-father’s surname; he had never known their surname. It was decided to note down a single letter ‘A’ as Ranganatha Rao’s surname, rather arbitrarily

***

Santha was Avadhani’s first cousin (their mothers were sisters). Avadhani has always been treating her as his own sister. Santha, her husband Satyanarayana and daughter Sudha came from Delhi for a brief visit. Santha proposed to take Ranganatham to Delhi with them. Avadhani and Parvatamma had reservations but let Ranganatham go, hoping that it might give him a better future.

***

In Delhi, Ranganatham was admitted in school. Santha kept assigning chores to him, which interfered with his schoolwork. He received an undue punishment from Satyanarayana, who was unaware of his wife’s part in it. Ranganatham took all the beating without speaking a word.

***

Ignoring Avadhani’s specific instructions, Santha talked about Ranganatham’s past inadvertently; and Ranganatham was devastated as he heard it from his cousin. He confronted Santha but failed to get a direct answer, much to his dismay. He was heartbroken and fell ill.

***

Avadhani and Parvatamma heard of Ranganatham’s illness. They went to Delhi and found that Ranganatham has been seriously ill for sometime now. Parvatamma insisted and they moved into another apartment in town. They stayed there until Ranganatham was strong enough to travel and then they all left for their village. That was a blow to Santha who has become fond of the boy and has been hoping to marry Sudha to him and make him an illarikapu alludu[1] (live-in son-in-law).

***

At home, Ranganatham asked his mother about his birth-parents once again. His mother explained to him that he would always be their son, regardless to whom he was born. In the final year of his high school, Rananatham had to deal with the issue of surname once again. The school clerk refused to accept a single letter ‘A’ as a surname. Ranganatham was mortified.

***

Ranganatham finished high school. Parvatamma fell ill. Santha and Satyanarayana came for a visit. Santha invited Ranganatham to Delhi, promising to send him for higher studies. Parvatamma and Avadhani were torn between keeping their son at home and letting him take Santha’s offer, which included a bright future. Ranganatham told Santha that he could never live with himself, if he left his
adoptive parents behind, trading them for his own future. Ranganatham completed teacher training and settled down as a teacher. He promised Gopi to
finance his engineering education.

***

Parvatamma tried to arrange marriages for her two sons. But Gopi told her that he had decided to marry a rich girl, whose father promised him a bright career.

Ranganatham agreed initially to marry a girl of his mother’s choice but things changed quickly. His colleague, Janaki sent him a telegram, saying her mother was seriously ill. He went there only to find that it was a ploy to get him to her place.  He returned home and told Parvatamma of his decision to marry Janaki. He assured her that she (Parvatamma) would be pleased with Janaki. Parvatamma died before the weddings had taken place.

***

Gopi invited Avadhani to live with him and his wife’s family. His wife’s family took care of Avadhani very well. Nevertheless, their life in the city was too mechanical for him to stomach.

He went to Ranganatham’s house, where, once again, he was met with extraordinary kindness, which once again was too much for him. He went on a pilgrimage. Ranganatham and Janaki had a baby girl. He wrote to Avadhani that Parvatamma had returned to their home as a little baby girl. Avadhani returned and broke into tears as he held the little baby in his arms.

***

The central theme is adoption. On a secondary level, the interpersonal relationships reveal the social phenomena of the times. The interaction between husband and wife, and brothers and sisters, even when they were not born to the same mother or in the same family, have been presented truthfully in this novel. That is one of the strong points of the author, Visalakshi, I might add.

***

Let’s first review the main characters in the story. The main characters in the story, besides the protagonist, are Avadhani and Parvatamma are the childless couple, who had taken in Ranganatha Rao for adoption, and Santha, who was interested in taking Ranganatha Rao under her wing. Avadhani was depicted as an intelligent school teacher, who constantly weighs the pros and cons of each issue, and the propriety of his actions, but rarely consults his wife. In the first scene, he walks
in with a two-year-old baby in his arms, and tells his wife that the child was theirs to keep. There is a line in the narrative stating that he explained how he had come to bring the baby home. There is no indication of any prior discussions with his wife, although the subject was on his mind for quite some time. The couple told themselves that “although we did not go through the ritual of adoption, he is and will always be our son; we have accepted him as our son in our hearts,” and swore that they would never show favoritism toward one over the other. In their minds, there has been no discrimination. However, the question of surname for Ranganatham has surfaced twice and both times Avadhani failed the boy.

A note on surnames is in order here. In Telugu families, surname connotes a lot more than just an identification mark. Very often, families are referred to by their surnames; and sons, daughters, and even daughters-in-law by their surnames.

That being the case, Avadhani’s logic sounds hollow in the face of Ranganatham’s heartache caused by the lack of a legitimate surname. Avadhani told his wife, after returning from school. The headmaster refused to admit Ranganatha Rao in school without a surname. If you don’t consider him as your adoptive son, tell me his father’s surname, he said. And I know only Ranganatham’s father’s name is Sivakamayya; Rajeswari told me only that much, not any more. I thought he (Ranganatham) would go and find out himself, if he were interested in his roots later. I can’t go about it now; I have neither the strength nor the motivation to do so. That’s what I told the headmaster.

Somehow, the process was about to be wrapped up, the same question came up once again. All the children will have an initial (representing their surname). … If Ranganatham’s name carried no initial letter, it could cause problems later, if not right away. … Thus, Avadhani agreed to prefix an initial ‘A’ in front of Ranganatha Rao’s name, and was happy that it was taken care of  for the moment.

***

To me, the reason for ignoring a very important aspect of one’s life like surname by an apparently intelligent man like Avadhani illustrates the manner in which even the most important events in one’s life were passed up in those days. This action on Avadhani’s part had left a permanent mark on Ranganatham’s mind and on his life.

***

Avadhani does not consult Parvatamma even in matters of consequence. So, what kind of relationship they are supposed to have between themselves. After Parvatamma’s death, Avadhani reminisces the past and the times they had had while playing the game, vaikunthapali. Parvatamma had been winning almost always. One time, she had lost and broken into tears. Avadhani tried to console her that it was only a game. Parvatamma had turned the conversation into a discussion on husband-wife relationship. In the game, you left me and reached the ultimate destination. Are you going to do the same in life too? … The thought that you would move on leaving me behind is scary, she said.

 

“Well, you’ve been moving forward all these days, haven’t you?” he retorted.

“That’s different, you are a man,” she said, and continued to explain the difference built into the psyche of man and woman. A woman is compared to a vine wound around a trunk. When that support is removed, the vine collapses to the ground. So also a woman; her entire life is wound around man’s life. Physically, she might be a separate entity but mentally she is united with her man into one piece. For man, that is not the case. He allots one part of his life for her, he loves her and adores her in that position. But he also has the remaining part of his life, separate from her. A man is complete only when he has these portions united. He might grieve his wife’s death but he also has the facility to manage his grief, with the help of the other part in his life.

Avadhani looks back now and ponders, “Parvati, I could not refute your argument on that day, but you are wrong. Today I know so from my experience. Here is my rebuttal. I am unable to keep my feet on the ground; I am on the run endlessly. …

A woman may not be the only thing in a man’s life. But she holds the rudder that can make his life run smoothly. … A man without his wife is like a hand with his thumb cut off. A man receives all his passion for life and happiness from a woman in his attempts to shape his life. Without that source of passion, man is left with nothing but darkness and sorrow. A woman may display her sorrow in front of others and humble herself in the process. A man does not even have that provision,
unfortunately. He has to suppress his grief within himself and burn inside.”

Avadhani understood the gravity of the problem, only after he had come to experience it.  This entire mode of thinking points to the nature of things prevalent at the time.

***

Despite her views on the status of woman, Parvatamma was depicted as a strong character in her own way; she would put up a fight only when it matters. One good example is when they went to Delhi to see Ranganatham. She noticed that Ranganatham’s illness was more serious than they had been led to believe. So, she decided to move Ranganatham to another apartment in the same neighborhood, take care of him, and bring him back to their home, after he recovered. Avadhani
tries to point out that it could hurt the feelings of Santha and Satyanarayana, but to no avail. She was determined to take care of her son herself and she did it. On the other hand, she would let go in regard to the two sons’ marriages, despite her attempts to fix them up with brides of her choice. Both the sons disappointed her, but she would not fight them because she was keenly aware of changing times.

***

Santha is a naive, middle-aged woman, who means well but acts without much forethought. When she saw Ranganatham for the first time, her thoughts were to marry him to her daughter and keep both of them at her house. After arriving in Delhi, she started assigning him chores, hurting his education in the process. She did not realize her mistake until he had taken the punishment from his uncle for missing school, without pointing a finger at her. Ranganatham missed the school bus because she had sent him to bring banana leaves from the store. She knew it was her fault, but did not have the courage to admit it. Her logic was “how can I make bobbatlu[2] without banana leaves to press on?” Her second mistake was to talk about Ranganatham’s birth parents, ignoring Avadhani’s instructions. Her redemption lay in changing her attitude toward Ranganatham but it came too late. Both the mistakes played a major role in shaping Ranganatham’s character and life.

***

Ranganatha Rao, the protagonist, was portrayed as an archtypal hero. Symbolically, he was the pawn who moved up the ladder or down the spine of a snake at the whims of other players. As a hapless child, whose mother died and father absconded, he still had a ray of hope in his aunt Rajeswari. And she had set up a place for him in Avadhani’s home, prior to her death. Thus, each step of the way, his life was balanced with ups and downs. His character was delineated with flair. From the moment he had learned that he was going to have a baby brother to the moment he had to make a decision about his marriage, it had been one tough
ride for him. Yet, he handled it like a man, even when he was a little boy! Probably, that was the problem in a way. There are occasions, like when his uncle beat him up for missing school, when the reader wonders why he did not speak up.

His silence at Santha’s house could have come from the fact that he never felt at home there. Although, it is not unusual in our families to assign small chores to children, the fact that Sudha has never been asked to do any chores makes Ranganatham’s situation look worse. There was a time when he did tell his aunt that it was getting late for school but Santha dismissed it as a trivial matter. That was a crucial turning point in his life. After that, he kept his lips tight forever. Sudha developed friendship with him but that was not enough for his little life.

***

Into this gamut of characters, the theme of adoption was worked in. While there were some serious implications and repercussions in regard to the ritual of adoption, the ritual itself had become immaterial for the couple, and supposedly for the son. In Avadhani’s mind, legal issues could arise only if there was a property to allocate, and he had no property. The only issue would be taking care of the parents in their old age, and both the sons were more than willing to do so. That was not an issue at all. The incomplete adoption process came to the fore twice in the story  – both the times, it happened in a school environment. Avadhani, a school teacher, did not foresee it, and did not find a plausible solution for Ranganatha Rao. Once again, it reflects the attitude of the adults during that period. The age-old belief that things have a way of taking care of themselves – the karma theory of sorts – kicked in..

A second occasion was when Santha invited Ranganatham to live with them, and Avadhani’s justification to allow him to go with them. It points, rather indirectly, to the same argument that Ranganatham’s life and his future must be evaluated in the light of his adoption. Avadhani felt that he had made a promise to Rajeswari that he would give Ranganatham a better life, and therefore, he must of necessity set aside his own preference to keep him with himself and his wife. It is obvious that his thoughts would not be on the same lines if Ranganatham were his own son, Gopi. In fact, even Santha might not have thought on the same lines if it were Avadhani’s own son. Additionally, the above incident in juxtaposition with Gopi’s decision at a later date, to move in with his in-laws in pursuit of his career sheds a new hue on an old custom.

***

In all, they all seemed to have acted in a rather slapdash fashion, despite all that intelligent and highly cogent arguments Avadhani, Santha and even Satyanarayana had. Some heavy duty discussions did take place between Avadhani and Parvatamma, and again between Santha and Satyanarayana regarding how Ranganatham should be raised but, in reality, none of them had taken away or even tried to alleviate the pain they had caused him in the process.

***

The novel depicts the massive social change that had been taking place during that period as well. One such instance has been the interpersonal relationship between generations – the freedom parents allowed to their children. In the past, children followed fathers in their of choice of vocation automatically. A doctor’s son was a doctor and a lawyer’s son was a lawyer (pretty much like caste-oriented vocations). But in the post-independent Andhra, sons and daughters have started showing signs of independent thinking[3] and parents allowed it, while struggling to let go of the old habits. Ranganatham became a teacher, not because his father was one, nor at his father’s suggestion, but due to other prevailing circumstances. Gopi, on the other hand, wanted to become an engineer and Ranganatham was willing to foot the bill. Avadhani and Parvatamma let the children make their own decisions, even when it went against their grain.

A second area was the husband-wife relationship. In this novel, we see both the angles – the past and the present. Avadhani brought the little boy with not so much as mentioning it to Parvatamma in advance. But Parvatamma played a major role in bringing Ranganatham away from Santha’s home, botching her plans.

***

As for the structure of the novel, we must, first, look into the process of serialization. In the fifties and sixties, novels were written for publishing them in instalments in magazines. That meant creating segments to fit 3 or 4 pages at a time, and including a cliff-hanger line to sustain the readers’ curiosity. In creating these artificial breaks however the story suffered from lack of cohesiveness at
times. For instance, the time frame of the letters when they were actually received and how much time had passed between the reading and writing were not very clear. It is even more confusing when one reads the novel in a book form. Sometimes, one incident switches to the next without even an extra space between the two.

***

Most of Visalakshi’s novels and stories are pivoted around the middle class – their economic problems, women’s education and more importantly the familial relationships. Like most of the women writers of the 1950s and the 60s, she wrote about the life she has been familiar with. One of her strong points is the struggle of finding a happy medium between the traditional values and the progressive views. Her characters are deep-rooted in tradition yet open to experimentation in modern ways to improve their lives. This is particularly true of women characters.

[End]

 

(Published on thulika.net, April 2006)

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[1] A son-in-law invited to live with the parents-in-law. It is not a flattering status, often happens because of his poor economic conditions.

[2] Flat bread with sweet filling.

[3] The story God’s Work also illustrates similar theme.