Malapalli – Revisiting a classic novel by Nidadavolu Malathi

Malapalli: A Milestone in the History of Telugu Fiction and What it means for today’s non-scholar reader. .

First, I would like make clear that this is not a translation or a critical review but a modest attempt to introduce the highly acclaimed novel to the readers who are  either unaware of its existence or unable to read the Telugu version. I have encountered several problems in drafting this “introduction”. Therefore I decided to publish my account of the novel in installments, possibly revising as I read more and reflect more.

malapalli

Since inception of Thulika, I have come across the title Malapalli so frequently that it has become hard for me not to say something about it. I borrowed the novel from the library about five months back and started reading it.

The novel was proclaimed unilaterally a monumental work for depicting the socio-economic and political scene of Andhra Pradesh in the first half of the century.

The history of its publication is interesting in itself. The novel Malapalli, with an alternative title, sangavijayam, was written by Unnava Lakshminarayana (1877-1958) while he was in prison for his involvement in the freedom fight against the British government. It was first published in 1922 and immediately banned by the then Madras Presidency. In 1928, Ayyadevara Kaleswara Rao, a noted Member of the Legislative Assembly, countered the arguments for the ban and succeeded. The Madras Government lifted the ban and allowed Andhra University to publish the book with the objectionable pages removed and prescribe it as textbook. In 1936, Madras government banned it for a second time. The following year, the ban was lifted by C. Rajagopalachari, the governor of Madras presidency. In 1976, the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, published a shorter version (416 pages) of the novel, abridged by Marupuri Kothandarama Reddy.

The copy I am reading now contains 792 pages. Desi Kavita Mandali, Vijayawada, published in 1957 and noted it as a reprint but there was no mention of the first imprint.

It took me almost four months to read, based on the three premises:

1. The novel is deemed to be a modern day epic on par with Mahabharata. It depicted the rural life much the same way as Mahabharata had done;

2. It is one of the earliest novels to be written in colloquial Telugu;

3. The author was a social reformer, freedom fighter and a champion for the cause of the downtrodden and the untouchables; he depicted their lives.

I tried to read the novel and read some of these claims into the book. I am going to record what I have understood as an average reader. I may revise the pages from time to time to reflect on my perceptions and insights, if any. I invite you to post your views and comments on discussion.

This is intended to be only a brief introduction to a massive work. I hope this encourages you to read the original and/or the critical studies written by scholars like Bangore, V.V.B. Rama Rao, and G. Venkatasubbaiah.

The first and third premises noted above encompass the entire novel. Therefore I will address them after I had finished the first round of perceptions.

A brief note on the second premise: Let us review the author’s dilemma as stated in his foreword which is whether he should choose the classical language as was common in his time or the colloquial style, which just started gaining ground at the time for his medium. He decided on the colloquial style. His dilemma and his arguments have roused my curiosity since the discussion is as legitimate today as it was in his day.

Lakshminarayana said:

This is my first attempt to write in colloquial Telugu. There are no books to model upon. Neither scholarship in Sanskrit nor familiarity with Telugu prabandhas is helpful to be able to write in everyday language. To be able to write in pure Telugu, one must have familiarity with the rural people, who had no knowledge of Sanskrit. The Sanskrit scholars in the beginning and now the English scholars have changed the character of Telugu language. We have pure Telugu words to express several thoughts yet borrowing words from English language has become common. Because of that, beautiful Telugu words are pushed out and the language became a blend of many languages. [Unlike those writers] I tried to write this book in step with the flow of Telugu.

Keeping in mind the conditions of Telugu today, I found it easier to write in classical language than everyday Telugu. Habit is the first reason for this. Secondly, my lack of complete knowledge of the native tongue. Only those Telugu pandits who had lived in villages and thus gotten used to  the real character of the native dialect are qualified to write in that dialect. Nevertheless, I thought it would be helpful if I laid the path. I am aware that even among the proponents of colloquial Telugu there are differences. I am sure there will be arguments from all sides. Yet I decided to write as it comes to me and publish it. I hope to make corrections if necessary after I have heard the arguments.

That was written about 75 years ago. During this period, the Telugu language has changed dramatically. Umpteen words from Hindi, Urdu and English have been fused into colloquial Telugu. Additionally, the rural terminology used in this novel, which is actually relevant to my discussion of Malapalli, and several regional dialects have found their way into the modern day colloquial style.

That became a huge hurdle for me. I barely finished the first fifty pages before I understood that most of it was beyond my comprehension. Despite the author’s claim that it was written in colloquial Telugu, (modern day critics agree with the author), I had to struggle in several places. I am beginning to wonder if there is such thing as “colloquial” style etched in stone.

Against this backdrop, let me present the a brief account of the original text. The novel opens with an account of a day in the life of Ramadasu, a maladasari, and his family. He had three sons and a daughter. His second son Sangadasu was the protagonist according to the alternative title, sangavijayam.

1. The fields

The novel opens with a description of the close interrelationship of man, especially of farmers, with nature and family.

Ramadasu stopped briefly and gazed at the sky and the fields. The rainy season had ended and the sky was clear. It was time for his midday meal. He wondered why she [his wife] had not come yet. Then he noticed somebody at a distance; it was his little daughter Jyoti. Suddenly he remembered that it was time for the train to arrive and was worried. Jyoti crossed the tracks before the train arrived and came running to father. She bypassed the danger. Ramadasu felt relief.

He kept pondering over the field, the yield and the family. Ramadasu was a tall man; the thick moustache on his lips was showing streaks of grey; his body was strong because of sweating and toiling in the fields. The white in his eye sparkled feasting on the crops as they danced to the breeze and ready to be harvested. The western breeze was blowing in full force. The crowns of corn stalks were swinging like waves. The ears of corn adorned with a tinge of gold and copper were delightful. He thought that, by the grace of god and hoping that the children were blessed, the eastern winds would remain calm, and the land could yield no less than two puttis of grain.

The full-grown crops thrilled him immensely. As he was basking in the thought, he heard foot steps.

Ramadasu gently removed the stewpot from the top of her head, wiped the beads of sweat from her face and asked her why her mother sent her instead of coming herself. Jyoti said mother went to give food to her brother and take care of other chores.

Jyoti was born after two sons. They all treated her as a beloved child. Although she was a mala child, she was not dark like her father but fair like her mother. She wore a dense, hand-woven saree and a blouse with mirrored trim, which her aunt got made for her. A red stone studded stem was sitting cozily on her cute nose. The mirrors on her blouse reflecting the silver chains in her neck were complimenting each other and enhancing her beauty.

She said, “Ayyaa, amma asked me to bring some raw rice kernels and tender cucumbers.” Ramadasu told her wait there and he went into the fields to pick those items for her. After he returned with the rice kernels and cucumbers, she crawled on to his lap and they both ate while she told him in her childlike tone how she was going to dole out the cucumbers to everybody in the family. “Don’t you have one for me?” Ramadasu asked teasingly. Jyoti said that he should pick one more for himself. After they had eaten, Jyoti started to leave with the empty pot hanging over her shoulder and with the cucumbers. Ramadasu saw her tender bare feet and told himself that he should buy sandals for her. Jyoti left.

Ramadasu fastened the plough to the bulls again and returned to his work in the field. He thought about Venkatadasu, his eldest son and his hard work. Ramadasu was working on the pepper farm occasionally to relieve Venkatadasu of his burden to some extent but it was getting hard. His second son, Sangadasu had been put in a local landlord’s household as a hired hand. Ramadasu thought he should probably bring him home to help Venkatadasu.

2. The Animal Shed

The sun was down. Ramadasu returned home from the fields. He went to the cowshed steering the bulls. Appadasu, the cowherd, was grinding grains for the bulls. Ramadasu inquired about fodder and water for the animals. Appadasu told him how much available and what else was needed.

Appadasu was a fourteen-year-old young man. He had not taken to the trendy ways yet. He was hard working and studious. After he started as a hired hand with Ramadasu, he developed a taste for literature. Ramadasu was paying him two varahas more than the other hired hands and made arrangements for his food and clothing as well.

Appadasu was attaching the water jugs to the yoke to make the kavadi ready for bringing water. Ramadasu untied the bulls from the plough, tied them to the rods, and started chopping hay. Venkatadasu came in big strides; his body was shaking along with the kavadi on his shoulder. He lifted the two water jugs with his steely arms effortlessly and emptied them into the troughs. Then he turned to his father. “Why you chop the hay? Aren’t we here to do that?” he said raising his voice.

Ramadasu said it was not a hard job and asked him how many more kavadis he would have to run. Venkatadasu said it might take two more at least. Ramadasu suggested taking Appadasu with him to bring one round for the shed and one for use at home. And he said he would help to bring water the next morning. Venkatadasu would not hear of it. He would rather have Appadasu put to work. Then they talked about the daily matters that needed to be done. Venkatadasu told him that the cow had given birth to a calf.

Appadasu fixed his kavadi and followed Venkatadasu awkwardly and watching him with admiration. The calves were mooing. Ramadasu was worried that the animals had not yet been given water. He finished chopping the hay and gave some to the cows.

His sister, Subbalakshmi came. She told him that a local landowner whacked her with his cane. She pushed her saree up her emaciated and skin-dangling arm and showed him the bruises. She wore no blouse.

Ramadasu asked her what had happened. Subbalakshmi said she had been walking on the ridge on the outskirts of the village with a bundle of fodder for her buffalo. Basivireddy, the landowner, claimed that she had stolen it from his land, which she said was not true, and beaten her. Subbalakshmi had tried to tell him that she’d gotten it from the wasteland farther down and it was not his but he would not hear of it. He seized the bundle and ran her out.

Ramadasu said sadly, “They’re used to ill-treating the mala and madiga people.”

Subbalakshmi narrated a few more similar incidents and said she would not be able to

keep the buffalo anymore. She was thinking of selling it. Ramadasu gave her two bunches of hay and reminded her not to start chewing tobacco again. Subbalakshmi said that she had given up the habit and that Sangadasu was watching her. After she had left, Ramadasu looked around the shed, pulled the door shut, inserted the metal rod across the door, and went home.

3. Home

Ramadasu belonged to maladasari caste. Long ago [in the 11th century], Ramanujacharya, being a kind-hearted man, had established the Vaishnava tradition and made the religious preachings available to all, scholars and non-scholars alike irrespective of their caste. He had founded 72 pithams to disseminate his philosophy. In Andhra Pradesh, Addanki pitham was famous; it belonged to Telanga branch. Brahmins were acting as priests for all the four castes at first. Eventually, they instituted Satani positions for sudras and maladasari positions for the untouchables to act as priests respectively. Probably because they wanted to be equally fair to people of all castes, or because there were not enough Brahmins for all of them, or Brahmins were unwilling to be associated with the untouchables. Another reason could be that the fourth and the fifth castes rebelled and insisted on being given equal status. Nevertheless, all these organizations worked together towards improving physical and mental wellbeing of the pubic. In the process, they had succeeded in making the untouchables and other tribal people accept the Vaishnava tradition. From this, it is understandable that many people in those days worked hard to rebuild the society. Saivites also seemed to have made similar effort. In recent times however most of these structures have crumbled for want of royal patronage and made it impossible even to identify which structure was erected for what purpose.

Some of the satanis and maladaris were literate and continued to treat patients and oversee the religious rituals, indicating that former practices were still in force. In some places, jangamas ousted the Brahmins and occupied the chairs. Had these colossal attempts continued as before, the caste distinctions prevalent today would have been eradicated long ago and the society would not have been in the current powerless position.

Ramadasu’s ancestors had been Vaishnava preachers. They would still wear the niluvubottu. For three generations now they had courted achala bodha and followed the jnana tradition. Thenceforth, the central qualities like religious equality, independent thinking, devotion to serving the society, cleanliness, and seeking eternal truth had become common in his family.

Ramadasu had received his initiation from a guru and had been working towards detachment. However, until recently he had to continue his familial obligations since his sons were not old enough to undertake the responsibilities. About four years back, his eldest son Venkatadasu started working on the farm and that provided a respite for Ramadasu. Out of habit however, Ramadasu continued to step in occasionally. He had been spending most of his  time in religious matters though.

It is not correct to say that Ramadasu’s ancestors had been wealthy but they had been able to manage with one plough and four or five animals. There had never been an occasion for them to say they had not had enough food to eat.

Ramadasu had sold part of the land to a local landlord Nallamotu Chowdaramma and bought fertile land on the west side and added a few other improvements as well. He had had the cowshed built in his own backyard but his second son Sangadasu argued that it was unhygienic and had it moved to a place away from the house.

Ramadasu finished his work in the cowshed, locked the door and came into the house. Jyoti jubilantly announced to mother that father came home. She ran to father, held his hand and told him that she had given half of the cucumbers from the farm to mother to make chutney. Father said she was a good girl, and that made her happy. He sat down on the cot, and Jyoti crept into his lap and continued her chatter, “I made balls of the raw rice kernels and ate them all up. I didn’t give even a bit to anybody.”

Malakshmi came in a slow gait holding a high stool in one hand and a milk jug in the other. She came with a smile defying the moonbeams on a full moon day on the eastern horizon and noticed that her husband was tired. She said to Jyoti, “Dear child, let your father rest. You go, sit on the baby’s cot and watch so he may not smother under the sheet.” Jyoti went away into the verandah on the south side. Malakshmi let the calf go to the cow, have milk, and then started milking.

The full moon was pale by comparison to Malakshmi’s face. Ramadasu gazed at the moon and slipped into a reverie.

The captivating sounds of the baby ‘umm’ in mother’s lap and the streams of milk from the cow’s udder together resonated the daharakaasam and the mahadaakaasam producing a distinctive sound of OMKARA. He recalled the moment when he had received the mantra from Peerayya yogi and had been submerged in the celestial bliss at the vision of the goddess Mukti [Salvation]. In that moment he had attained the ecstasy unattainable even to the emperors sitting on the throne studded with the nine precious stones and wearing the bejeweled crowns. …

Malakshmi finished milking, let the calf go to the cow, and went in with the milk pot. Then she returned to speak to her husband; she was going to suggest to him to take a bath, it would be refreshing. But she stopped; she saw that he was in a meditative state. Tears sprang to her eyes. She thought she was blessed to have been wedded to this punyapurusha [the chaste/blessed man] and that she was blessed with this unique image of him in that state only because of her good deeds in previous birth. She fanned his feet with her palloo and offered her obeisance to his feet without actually touching them lest she should wake him . …

Jyoti came back from the kitchen, sat down with the remaining cucumbers after Malakshmi had taken some for chutney, and started making little piles of cucumber pieces, one for each, ‘this is for anna, this is for ayya  and so on.

Chapters 4 to 6 give us a peek into a day in the life of Ramadasu and his family. The author had apparently gone to great lengths to record the details. Each of the characters are shown to be  in transition one way or another, symbolizing some the views prevalent in society at the time.

Ramadasu is moving from the third [gruhastha] to fourth [vanaprastha] stage of Hindu dharma. In his language and reflections, he is philosophical, and compassionate in his actions. His wife, Malakshmi, is a beautiful, intelligent woman who follows her husband in his footsteps per the principles of wedded life. She also is kind and compassionate conciliatory in nature and practical.

Venkatadasu, their eldest son is in prime of life, brawny and feisty. He just started getting involved in farming duties and trying to relieve father of his responsibilities.

Ramadasu’s second son, Sangadasu, probably in his late teens, is working as a hired hand in the household of a local landlord, Chowdarayya and befriends his son Ramanayudu.

Jyoti, probably six or seven years old, is a lively and inquisitive child and loved dearly by everyone in the family.

They also have newborn son, Rangadu.

Appadasu, Ramadasu’s sister’son, is a 14-year old young man. Ramadasu takes him under his wing, pays higher wages than usual and gives him education as well.

Following is a brief outline of the chapters, illustrating some of the arguments to follow.

4. Family

 Malakshmi put the baby to sleep and returned to the front porch. Ramadas was awake and back into the “illusion” of family life.

Malakshmi asked him whether she should bring water for him to bathe or would he go to the yard. Ramadasu told her to bring the water to the front and went out.

The area is surrounded by three hills. There is also a lake, a Siva temple and two railway stations—one on the northeast side and another on the southeast side of the village. On the northwest side the madiga village; to the west of his house, a few other villages, hills and a strip of wasteland; on the eastside a stream which provides water to the fields, and on its banks a temple for the local goddess.

Theirs is a flat roofed house with double beams across from each other. There are tiled porches on the east and south sides of the house, a huge a yard in front and next to the street, a thatched hut along the compound wall. On the west side a huge yard and on the south the animal shed. Encompassing all these, a tiled compound wall was built. The animal shed and the house have doors leading to the open fields on the west side. On the east side, there is the main entrance and sprawling wasteland.

A wall is put up dividing the western room but the eastside room is not divided. To the easts, there are barns for storing grains and the produce.

On the west there is some arid land where his father had planted a neem tree, which had grown huge. At the foot of the tree trunk, they had constructed a platform and put up a saffron colored flag in honor of  Veerabrahmam. Sangadasu applied to the government for land to build a library and a Rama temple under the tree. It  is not sanctioned yet.

Venkatadasu and Appadasu came with pots of water and teasing each other playfully. Ramadasu asked them why they were late. Appadasu said they had filled all the troughs and vessels in the shed with water. He also said that bava [Venkatadasu] was bantering him. Ramadasu told Venkatadasu that it is not nice to tease the little boy. Venkatadasu replied Appadasu is not a little boy.

While the three men were bathing, Malakshmi scrubbed her husband’s and son’s back, and Jyoti scrubbed Appadasu’s back, which was “narrow at the waist and broad at the shoulders”.

While eating, Jyoti kept interrupting: She wanted a plate with broad rim, rice for all the three meals, and cucumber slices to share with brothers and so on.

Venkatadasu said that there was not enough yield in fields for them to eat rice in each meal. He asked if they would be growing tobacco upcoming year. Ramadasu pointed out that Sangadasu was against tobacco usage and for that reason they must not grow tobacco. Nevertheless Venkatadasu wanted to sell the stock on hand at least.

Mahalakshmi said that she was giving the leftover rice from the night to Jyoti. She was worried about the baby while she ran errands and took food to her husband and son. Until recently Ramadasu’s mother had been taking care of the child but now she passed away. Ramadasu commented that everybody would have to go when the time came, there was no escape from that.

That set off a brief conversation about god, whom he would favor and why; why the upper caste people would not allow the mala people into temples.

Malakshmi tried to explain it away. It was their [the upper classes] problem, not ours. Sangadasu was working towards having a temple built for them. Ramadasu as usual threw in a couple of quotes from books and proverbs. “If rocks were gods, won’t they swallow the funds?” and “Like coconut milk, riches come and  go, and nobody knows how.” God is present in everybody; why worry about the gods carved in stone. …

I find these comments from Ramadasu out of character and even shallow. He is supposed to be a dasari, to be in a position to preach and guide others. Speaking sensibly is one of the virtues of being a good preacher.

 Venkatadasu’s response that if everybody thinks on those lines, they would have nothing to eat is apt. He was concerned only with the work in the fields and bring produce to home so they all could eat three meals a day.

Jyoti asked for yogurt. It was not enough milk to make yogurt and serve to all in the family. It was getting hard to maintain even the two buffaloes they had.. The rich landowners would allow the untouchables pick it for their animals; they would rather let the grass in their fields wither and die. It would nice if Subbalakshmi could collect the hay for them. But Subbalakshmi was having problems of her own. She was struggling to maintain even the one buffalo she had.

Malakshmi said she would like to see Venkatadasu married and brought the bride home. At the mention of marriage, Venkatadasu’s face lit with smiles.

After they finished eating, they all went into the east room. Malakshmi sat down to eat.

Jyoti asked her about the cucumber slices she was saving to share with her brothers.

Ramadasu looked for his book, bhaktiyogam by Srirama Sastrulu but could not find it.

Malakshmi told him that Sangadas and Tungadurti Bucchayya had come earlier and they might

have taken the book.

Ramadasu was sorry that he missed them and decided to visit them the next morning.

Appadasu alerted them that the buffalo was about to give birth to the calf. It was an exciting event for them all.

5. Buffalo

They all watched as the baby was born and got busy.

Here we have a detailed description of the entire process of the birth of a calf and the subsequent nurturing them. I have to skip this part since there are several words I am not familiar with. But the care and concern each one of them displayed for the two animals is touching. The buffalo and the calf are part of the family.

Amidst all that excitement, each one of them was busy either washing, cleaning, clipping the toenails etc. or telling others to do this or that. Ramadasu kept relegating the birth and nurturing to the human experience with his metaphysical comments.

Jyoti’ was looking forward to junnu, the first round milk, cooked with sugar and spices. Malakshmi assured her that they would have it the following day. The first day milk would go into the kuditi [water mixed with washings of rice, etc.].

Appadasu gave fodder to the buffalo. He squated by the animal, daydreaming about his trip to the pastures the next morning along with other cowherds. He asked Malakshmi to pack yogurt and rice for his afternoon meal.

They would have to pay pullari [levy]—a half-rupee per animal and a quarter per calf. Ramadasu asked if they had to pay right away. Appadasu said they could pay later; the clerk would make a note of it in his books.

Ramadasu was thinking about Bucchayya garu. He moved closer to the lamp, and started humming the lyrics of his guru.  He noticed the placenta and asked Appadasu to throw it away before the animal ate it.

He dozed briefly and started pondering over the affection or the attachment the animals seemed to illustrate:

The calf forgets the affiliation to its mother after it has grown up. Probably the desire for wife and children is less of a concern in the animal world. In fact, the attraction between a male and a female may not be called a vice. The animals do not care for each other except in time copulation. Venkatadasu was tickled when his mother talked about marriage. His face glowed. He was so childlike until yesterday. Probably each person changes thus when he comes of age. It looked like a unique tidal wave of experience rose in his mind. Some people refer to them as ‘base pleasures’, and call them ‘vicious’. These two visions I had seen—are they just desires? Illusory? Illusion has several meanings. Let it be. Sangadasu says god’s love manifests in various ways. Then they also must be everlasting since the god is everlasting. Is illusion not everlasting then? People say these are immoral and to be shunned. Following this logic, we must label the love of Yasoda and the cowherdesses also as “desires”. If they are to be considered mundane desires, how can they be instrumental for attaining salvation? In addition, they say anger also is a means to achieve salvation. On the whole, it appears that the mundane life is the path leading to celestial life. It depends on the way the path is made use of. We can use a ladder to go up or down. Based on the stages in the creation, we humans have went up considerably. I like to call them instruments for salvation rather than desires. This animal with has climbed one step up with this delivery. That is the reason, rajayogam  is considered the best of all. Rajayogam means climbing up the ladder. For humans it is not possible to jump to the next higher level but must walk up the ladder one step at a time.

Sangadasu has learned to value good qualities due to his good deeds in his previous birth. He is still raw but can cross over the obstacles in good company. I hope Bucchayya garu will take him under his wing. Maybe I can mention it to him tomorrow.

All these thoughts came to his mind effortlessly. He did not initiate them. At first, he tried to discard them. Then he got lost in a flood of reflections. Finally, he came to his senses and collected himself. His thoughts were running amuck. He remembered his guru, still struggling to stay focused.

A vision of lord Krishna rose in his mind. He saw himself as a gopika who was trying to recall the enchanting music of Krishna’s flute and failed, like a silly brahmin who wandered in the nigama forest to find the Ultimate Brahman and failed. Ramadasu stood there heaving a sigh and tears brimming in his eyes. Then he saw suddenly the lord:

Krishna with peacock feathers on his head, the eyes floating on his face like two white lotuses in the lake, the locks playing with the kasturi dot on his forehead, charming smiles spreading to his delicate cheeks, … playing on the flute with his fingers like tender shoots, … surrounded by a group of cowherdesses. It is a superb picture of unparalleled love and oozing the nine rasas.

Ramadasu thought, “This vision is also a manifestation of the Lord’s love even as the river Krishna rolls over boulders in one place, plays hide and seek in a forest bursting with trees, and yet another place, squalls forth in a fit of rage and washes out the creation.

… The same love that mother Yasoda displays at seeing little Krishna’s playful acts is reflected on the buffalo’s face on seeing the baby calf. The little smile that is dancing on Krishna’s countenance is the same as that on Venkatadasu’s face. Both are the paths of redemption for Venkatadasu and the buffalo no doubt.”

He fell asleep as the fascinating vision calmed down the agitation at his heart.

The description of this vision is one and a half page long and is narrated in classical Telugu. Readers may attribute the experience to Ramadasu but the language is clearly that of the narrator. This is one of the few places where the author overlooked his preference to tell the story in colloquial Telugu I guess.

6. Cowherds

 Malakshmi woke up early, washed up,  and sent Appadu [Appadasu] to the shed and started churning buttermilk. Jyoti came and sat down with the leftover rice and chunky yogurt. Ramadasu woke up to the sounds of the churner, gave fodder to the animals and went out.

The place was filled with the sounds of churners; a young boy who guarded the fields all night was singing beautifully. Men were transporting water with their kaavillu (two pots hung on either end of a pole and carried on shoulders) noisily. Strong stench was spreading all over: the stench from the discarded bones, the leftover grunge after animals were butchered, and from the meat hung from rods. Although Ramadasu was accustomed to this stink since his childhood, it was still unbearable to him. He thought, “These people got the name candala because of this candalam [repugnant, base matter]. Most of them have no sense of cleanliness because of ignorance and poverty. Sangadasu is trying to set up schools and vocational training. That requires funds and regulation.”

Malakshmi massaged the baby with castor oil and bathed him and went to milk the buffalo. She invited Subbalakshmi to share junnu, since she was the eldest sister-in-law. Ramadasu asked her whether she would give some milk to the neighbors. Malakshmi said she would send them some milk in the evening.

Ramadasu inquired about Venkatadasu work for the day and then told them that he would visit Bucchayya later.

Subbalakshmi and Malashmi chatted about their children. Unlike Venkatadasu, Appadu was modest and unassuming. Sangadasu was getting close to Chowdarayya’s son, Ramanayudu  which spread some gossip in town. From what she had heard, Sangadasu and Ramanayudu were sitting at the same table to eat. Chowdarayya was upset about it but was not ready to fire Sangadasu since he needed him in the fields.    

Subbalakshmi suggested Appadu’s marriage with Jyoti. Appadu chuckled and Jyoti was bashful Ramadasu noticed it, could not make sense of it though.

Malakshmi asked whether Subbalakshmi would consider another mala girl for her son. Subbalakshmi replied, “I would but aren’t we dasaris, the brahmins among the mala people?”.

Malakshmi said that the question underscored the real issue—discrimination exists in all groups, not just in the upper classes alone. Then she alerted Appadu that it was getting late for him to steer the animals to the pastures.

Appadu propped the food bag to the stick and went to the shed to let loose the cows and buffaloes and proceed to the pastures. Other cowherds join him at the pastures. The bookkeeper Subbarayudu sat next to the statues of heroes and noted down the count of the grazing herd. Women were jostling around for the dung.

The cows went up hill into the open fields. The buffaloes were thrilled to see water, went into the lake. The cowherds almost one hundred in all gathered there. They hung their food bags to the tree branches and started playing games. They argued for sometime regarding what games to play. Some of them were playing flute.

They played for until noon and they all were tired. Then they jumped into the water, swam; some of them showed others the new strokes they had learned.

The took the food bags from the branches and sat down to eat. Venkadu offered his rice to Sayibu in exchange for his bread. Sayibu said how could he accept the food from a mala boy. Venkadu asked what did Appadu bring. Appadu said he had sajja meal and pepper.

After they finished eating, Appadu asked somebody to sing. Venkadu said Narisigadu was the best for singing. They all dragged Narisigadu into the center and prodded him on to sing. He said he could sing bawdy songs. Narisigadu finished his performance with a popular song:

I put kaatuka on my eyes

Held the pot on my waist

And came to the lake;

I filled the pot with my tears.

Appadu was moved by the song, he could not explain his reasons for it though.

The description of a day in the lives of cowherds—the games they would play, the songs they would sing and the chitchat they would conduct—is interesting. To me, it is interesting to read about these nearly extinct practices.

7. Worthy Guru

In this chapter, Ramadasu’s religious inclinations are made explored. We also learn a little more about his second son Sangadasu and his character.

Ramadasu left Malapalli and started walking toward the village. He could not get over the scene lord Krishna he had witnessed the night before. He remembered his quote that if gods were rocks, wouldn’t they swallow the wealth, and thought it might not be a correct statement, and that there seemed to be an advantage in worshiping a tangible form [sagunopasana]. He decided to find out Bucchayya’s opinion on the subject.

A young man approached him on the way. He was a little dark, had cut his hair, and worn a hat.  He was wearing a white dhoti, pleated and a coat. The smallpox scars were not visible from distance. He was looking intellectual, feeble though. It was Sangadasu.

I was a little confused about the short conversation that followed. Ramadasu asked the young man if Bucchayya was in town. Sangadasu replied that he was also on his way to meet Bucchayya garu, and that he had heard that Bucchayya was a great jnani. However, in the earlier chapter it was mentioned that Sangadasu brought Bucchayya to their home in Malapalli and even gave a book on Bhaktiyogam.

Sangadasu also told his father that he was a cowherdess, he was devoted to the lord the same way a cowherdess would dedicate her life to Him.

They both went in and made their obeisance.

Bucchayya told them that Peerayya, Ramadasu’s guru, was his older brother and invited them in. Ramadasu commented that even if Bucchayya had no problem, he [Ramadasu] was still concerned about the ways of the world, apparently referring his caste proscriptions.

Bucchayya dismissed it that even Sangadasu would not accept it

Ramadasu asked Bucchayya how one could find a worthy guru. Bucchayya replied the guru himself would reach for the disciple when the disciple had attained the appropriate status.

Bucchayya asked about Rama Naidu, son of Chowdarayya and a friend of Sangadasu. He also asked about their friendship, is it true that Sangadasu was coaching Rama Naidu? Ramadasu defended the two young men. He said they had never misbehaved.

Bucchayya wanted to wait for Rama Naidu, so he could address both of them simultaneously.

8. Karma yoga [Action as a way of life]

Rama Naidu came and asked the servant Venkatasubbayya if Bucchayya garu was home. Venkatasubbayya invited him in politely and showed him a mat to sit on.

Ramadasu and Sangadasu stood up. Rama Naidu acknowledged their respectful gesture. He was holding a cane, with silver trim at either  end, and was wearing weathered, tin-lined sandals, highlighting the kindly look on this face.

Bucchayya finished bath, wore freshly washed clothes and came into the room. He watched with amazement the features on Rama Naidu’s face—the well-defined naamam on his forehead, yellow powder, ruby-studded earrings—which enhanced his demeanor.

Bucchayya was not sure how to start the conversation. He stared at Naidu for a few seconds and then praised his lineage. Naidu was not comfortable with this praise.

Bucchayya had heard rumors that Sangadasu was misleading Naidu and to his downfall. Earlier, while talking with Sangadasu, he had noticed Sangadasu’s acumen and wondered if the rumors were true. But, he changed his opinion after seeing Naidu in person. He noted that the two young men were self-contained individuals each in his own right.

Ramadasu opened the discussion with a question on Action without desire for reward:

Is it necessary for a man to keep performing good deeds? If one has to continue to act without desire for reward, does it make a difference for the performer whether he does a good deed or an evil deed? Is it possible that the actions of the rishis who performed vedic rituals and the demons who threw rocks at them should be considered on par since both acted without thinking of consequences? Would the results of actions not affect those who act without desire for reward?

Bucchayya said that if the two classes of people were acting without desire for reward and because of the qualities inherent in them, issues related to salvation would not affect them. He also makes a distinction between the discussion of action without desire for reward, which appears to be voluntary, and the life which takes its own course. For instance, the sancitam [the results of one’s actions from previous birth] gets dissolved through suffering and in this, the individual has no control or choice.

The results of actions in the previous birth will be expunged by going through experience or living them through. An individual is absolved after the product of his actions has been lived through. Additionally, action without desire for reward results in gathering no additional sancitam. If not, the results from actions add to the earlier sancitam and become his prarabdham, meaning preordains the life on earth according those actions, which, in turn, results in birth-death-rebirth cycle until the prarabdham has been exhausted. We may say that these two—the good and bad deeds and absolution run parallel to each other.

The individuals who had done good deeds would enjoy the fruits of their actions in heaven and the remaining portion on earth. They may enjoy the material pleasures in this world, realize them as deplorable, reject them and turn to a virtuous life. They may even attain the status of Indra or Brahma. The evil doers pay for their sins in hell and the residual portion in life on earth. A few individuals such as Valmiki may take to righteous path but majority of them do not act selflessly. Then there are also a few others who practice hostile devotion. They dwell on god endlessly even in a spirit of hostility like the demon king Kamsa. They also will go to heaven eventually.

To put it another way, selfless action creates no attachment, which in itself is plausible.

Bucchayya suggested they continue the conversation the following day. As they left, Bucchayya looked at Naidu and thought that the young man could be around 25, fairly tall and skinny, but not feeble, had gentle countenance. Bucchayya thought that it was his blessing to obtain these two young men as his disciples.

9. Worship

 The following day, they all gathered again at Bucchayya’s house. The discussion was focused on worship.

Ramadasu asked which one between the form and formless preferable to worship? What does “meditating with one’s soul” [atmeeyopaasana] mean? Is there a form at all? How does the formless become the form? Who can be called a yogi?

Bucchayya replied that the form or formless is not as important as the worship itself. Whatever helps an individual is the best for that individual. All meditation is soul-based. Worship is in itself a way of an individual soul surrendering to the supreme soul.

Great sages had discussed at length the question of form and formless but never had arrived at any conclusions definitively. They just named it “inscrutable ways of god’ [bhagavalleela].

Every individual is a yogi. Each time the soul comes into contact with the supreme soul, the person becomes a yogi. It takes a long time to concentrate; one has to keep trying it. All the writers, sculptors and painters have created their works as props to divert constantly on to the mystique of god. Isn’t it preferable to let the mind play in the enchanting circuit of Krishna rather than leave it freely to material things?

Sangadasu told them of his fascination to be a gopika and be lost in the meditation of Krishna. Bucchayya said that his devotion was similar to that of Sabari, a tribal woman, who worshipped Rama with unparalleled and selfless love.

Bucchayya’s description in two pages of the vision of Sabari waiting for Rama and getting immersed in his worship, reminds us of the vision Ramadasu had of Krishna in a previous chapter. In both cases, the author takes the reader to a different plane with the elaborate descriptions.

Ramadasu asked Bucchayya what he would wish as gurudakshina [Rewarding guru] from them. Bucchayya asked them to leave their sancitam with him. Possibly, he was suggesting to them to become detached toward material possessions.

Ramadasu wanted to visit with Bucchayya again. But Bucchayya told them that his time had come for his samaadhi [burying a body alive]. They would not be able to see him again

Up until now, the readers are introduced to the philosophical tendencies of Ramadasu, Sangadasu and Rama Naidu. And also the friendship of Sangadasu with Rama Naidu.

One angle that confused me a little is that in the first or second chapter Sangadasu was introduced more as a man of worldly matters, a social reformer.

10. Authority

This chapter details Sangadasu’s position in Chowdarayya’s household. In a supervisory capacity, he not only assigned jobs to the other hired hands but also actively participates in other family matters. He was suggesting who would take Lakshmamma, Chowdarayya’s wife, to the temple, who sold what and for how much and so on.

Ramadasu was keen on seeing Bucchayya one more time but by the time they had reached here, Bucchayya was gone.

Ramadasu asked Sangadasu to come home for a visit. Rama Naidu said that the family had gone to the neighbor town and it is better Sangadasu went with him.

Rama Naidu and Sangadasu came home. Sangadasu went to the cowshed and asked Adam Sahebu about the stock of grains for the animals. Adam Sahebu told him that the stock would last a couple of days at most.

Sangadasu suggested bringing in workers to work on looms and produce their own cottonseeds. Adam Sahebu wondered if Chowdarayya would go along with the suggestion. Sangadasu was sure that ayya garu would have no objection since it was to his advantage. Then they talked about a place to set up the looms. Sangadasu learned that ayya garu and karanam had conspired and rid families of their homes in a questionable manner. The people were helpless and had no choice but leave searching for a new place to live.

Sangadasu and Venkatayya, Chowdarayya’s eldest son, talked about the work on the fields the . Sangadasu told Venkanna, a hired hand, to arrange for two horse-drawn carts—one to bring Chowdarayya from the railway station and one take Lakshmamma to take to the temple on a hill in a nearby village.

A sowkar came from the city to purchase the Blue pigment.  He and Sangadasu discussed the details—the rate and the quality of the merchandise and arrived at terms acceptable to both the parties. At the end, however Sangadasu suggested that he might want to wait until Chowdarayya came home. Sowkar did not think it was necessary, Sangadasu’s word was as good as that of Ayya garu.

Sangadasu went in, bathed, ate and went to his room to sleep.

It is interesting that Chowdarayya’s son Venkatayya was not part of these negotiations. He was an active participant in the work on the fields though. The chapter clearly illustrates the status Sangadasu was commanding in that household. He was more than a hired hand.

11. The Temple

 Next morning Sangadasu and Venkatayya woke up, went into the shed and told each of the hired hands what to do on that day.

Lakshmamma had two sons. Venkatayya her stepson and Rama Naidu own son. Venkatayya expressed his concern regarding Lakshmamma’s trip to the temple. She was not in good health; the journey could be tiresome, and could be hard for her to climb the steps up the hill.

Lakshmamma said she had made a vow to give a saree to the goddess at the time Venkatayya’s wife had come home as new bride. His wife and Rama Naidu would accompany her to the temple.

Lakshmamma was a woman from old times, ingenuous, heavy set, short, and commanding  respect from the people around her. She wore several pieces of customary jewelry.

The horse-drawn cart came. Rama Naidu, Venkatayya’s wife and Lakshmamma set out to the temple.

Sangadasu waited until the cart turned round the corner and went about his job.

In the cart, Lakshmamma mentioned Sangadasu; she was pleased with his prudence. She also commented that Chowdarayya was not appreciating Sangadasu’s request not to beat the hired hands and added that without Sangadasu, they could get nothing done.

Rama Naidu offered to learn the farming skills but Lakshmamma had heard that he could become tahsildar but would not want him to take the job. Rama Naidu was also not interested in government jobs.

At the temple, Appayya, the priest was waiting for them. He mentioned in jest that it had been thirty years since she had settled in their town and never paid a visit to the goddess once. She replied that she was too wrapped up in family matters.

Appayya led them explaining the history and legends of the temple.

There was an edifice at the foot of the temple. In the 15th century, Nawab had sent Ameen Mulk to win over Golconda. Ameen Mulk had won the war, and to mark his victory, he had a lake dug in his name and ordered to build an edifice. As the workers started breaking the rocks, Ameen Mulk’s horse vomited blood and died instantaneously. Then he got the rocks for his edifice from elsewhere.

This is an instance how the religious differences between Hindus and Muslims had been resolved or handled over centuries.

There was no verifiable evidence to show when the Sakti temple was built. On the west side of the hill, there was a worn out proclamation etched in stone probably from the times of the Reddy rulers

Appayya described the legend of Rukmini worshipping Gowri in this temple and Krishna carried her away on his chariot. He even showed the marks of the wheels. Author included a lengthy discussion of the veracity of this legend, quoting from Pothana’s Bhagavatam.

Another interesting comment here is the parallel drawn between the customs of Indians and the Westerners. There was a vast open area on the hill. Westerners would have vacation homes built, and our ancestors, in step with their aspirations, had temples built and made it sanctimonious.

Then follows an elaborate description of the beauty of the temple and the sculpture on the walls of the temple.

12. Amma varu [The Goddess]

 Appayya said that the worship in the temple was carried out superbly in the past. In course of time, the chowltries [shelters] were neglected and the jewelry of the goddess’s was stolen. As Appayya narrated the downfall of the temple, Rama Naidu was upset, his blood boiled. He asked why the villagers did nothing. Appayya said some people tried but to no avail.

Rama Naidu seemed to be under a spell as he started singing in praise of the goddess. Lakshmamma was scared. Appayya suggested making a vow to the goddess that she would offer 5 pots of panakam [sweetened water]. Lakshmamma offered ten pots.

Rama Naidu came to and asked what happened. Lakshmamma told him of his trance and her vow. Rama Naidu said he would make it twenty pots.

Inside the temple, Appayya said that the goddess would show herself as of the same height to each devotee as he or she. Nobody would question it considering the circumstances.

They returned home by mealtime.

(continued)

(© Nidadavolu Malathi)