Elements of Oral Tradition in Telugu fiction by Nidadavolu Malathi

In the case of an oral narrative, the audience gather at a specific place, away from other distractions, and are presumably in a receptive mood. The narrator addresses live audience. He has an opportunity to use visual tools like gestures, draw on local and from immediate occurrences for props. In print most of these details are replaced by other kinds of illumination.

In Andhra Pradesh, like in other parts of India, print became a medium for fiction just about a century ago. Custom dies hard in any walk of life and storytelling is no exception. While numerous experiments are introduced in rendering fiction in print, some traits of the traditional narrative style lingered on.

I am not sure exactly when Telugu critics embraced the western literary critiquing tools as the standard and began to evaluate Telugu fiction accordingly. Currently, it has become the rule. Our  critics quote western fiction writers to as the benchmark for a good story. Consequently, our writers make a conscious effort to follow the same criteria in writing fiction. Workshops and seminar are being held to teach story-writing technique on the same lines. In the process however, the elements peculiar to centuries-old fiction, that are specific to Telugu, are ignored.

The story A Piece of Ribbon (Beenadevi) opens with a small group of individuals from affluent section of our society, who gathered on the lawn of a rich doctor to spend a leisurely evening. The main theme, a story of a poor girl’s longing for a piece of ribbon, as is evident from the title, comes up during their chitchat. The opening scene with a lighthearted exchange of teasing comments by the doctor’s wife and friends is consistent with typical Telugu chitchat among a group of friends. After a few minutes, the main theme is brought up with a typical line, “Oh, that reminds me …” This is very similar to a preamble in our harikatha in oral tradition. The casualness with which the main story has been opened belies the profundity of the central theme—a  poor girl badly wanting to have a piece of ribbon to put in her hair. The tribulations of the doctor at the turn of events, first his satisfaction of being the benefactor, and later his failure, his insatiable thirst for revenge and, at the end, the punishment he was handed down for his mindless action were delineated in great detail.

Examined from the standpoint mentioned above, the criteria of the the western storytelling technique, this story lacks unity and compactness if it were to be read as a story of a little girl and her disappointments/hardships. On the other hand, judged by the stamp approval of Telugu readers on this story, we have to assume that Telugu readers and critics accepted this flaw[?] and appreciated the story as much for its traditional elements as for the core message which is the point of the title. That is evident from the award the story received in 1999. The story was originally published in 1965, and received Ravi Sastry award after 35 years of its publication.

Readers who are familiar with oral tradition are accustomed to ignoring embellishments and going straight to the core thought. For a majority of Telugu readers, this is a story of a poor girl who could not afford a piece of ribbon. I would read this story as an ego trip of the doctor (a prototype of our social reformers?) who was riding high on his generous nature rather than the poor child’s pathetic economic conditions. Against the backdrop of his self-indulgent journey into his past, the little girl’s agony fails to measure up.

Elements like humor (wife teasing husband) and irreverent comments by friends are all part of our daily lives, intended to establish the environment—again, something irrelevant to the little girl’s story.

One of the significant features in live performance is the delivery of dialogue. In a live performance, the narrator is a ventriloquist as well. He performs the characters on the stage and the audience will have no problem identifying which dialogue was spoken by which character. In The Ants, (Nayani Krishnakumari), the story was narrated as a reflection of the protagonist in his head; not only reflections of the past events but also his present responses to the past events. In print, in the Telugu original, the sentences were put in double quotes. In such instances, in English italics are used but Telugu language has no such feature. If this story were narrated in the presence of a live audience, the audience would recognize at once that the protagonist was addressing the other characters only in  his mind. In translation this needed further elucidation.

Another important element is the use of metaphor. The story revolves around the main character’s ego, or, rather his inability to take charge of his own life. Ant is a metaphor for a small, insignificant life on one hand and a symbol of  communal strength on the other. This story actually draws on both the angles. On one hand, the ants as a group could drag a piece of meat bigger than themselves into their hole. On the other, the protagonist sees them as his antagonists, the people who dragged him down, and so he crushed them under his foot, a symbolic victory for him. In translation, this again needed verbal clarification.

Long-winded sentences with adjectival phrases and nonfinite verbs are very common in Telugu fiction, particularly in older stories. This is interesting in the context of recent trends—courses being taught in short story workshops (Ramulu, pp.20-21). Here is a classic examples of traditional writing in the opening paragraph of Meaningless Union. (Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma). The first sentence runs to 14 lines. The original text, broken into individual phrases, reads roughly like this:

When Srihari got down at Howrah station with a suitcase full of suffocating ideals; when he saw buses running in all directions like rows of ants; as he walked with a renewed enthusiasm at the thought that this is my country, this is our wealth; as he saw the pure, cool, ennobling Ganga river flowing through the heart of the city peacefully; which was shimmering with a touch of the golden rays of the sun; the same Srihari who walked ostentatiously; after going around the offices in Garden Reach; as he was worn out after realizing the worthlessness of his recommendation letters; gritting his teeth; ate puffed peas and drank water; while trying to fret away the night; caught by the police and beaten with their canes; cursed the system; underwent hardships; went around dragging his suitcase; accepted the “Calcutta jute mills’ invitation”; the city that inhales people in the morning and exhales live corpses in the evening; Srihari moved on cursing the country.

In my translation, I moved the last part to the beginning of the paragraph for the purpose of lucidity and also broke the paragraph into several shorter sentences. Once again, like in the case of Piece of Ribbon, this long sentence was never a problem for Telugu readers.

Unlike adjectival phrases, a long sentence with several non-finite verbs like chuusi (after seeing  or having seen), adigi (after asking or having asked) imply a list of sequential actions and could be used to bring about a specific effect. I used a similar long sentence in Madras to Tirupati to register the impatience of the travelers in a bus. The travelers were waiting for the driver to start the bus. Instead,

…the driver opened the door, got off the bus, closed the door, walked straight to the tea stall, took out the wallet from his pocket, took some money, put the wallet back in his pocket, drank coffee, returned the cup, walked back to the bus, took out a matchbox from his pocket, took a beedi, lit the beedi, held it tightly between his teeth, opened the bus door, sat in his seat, checked the door one more time whether it was closed tight or not, and started the engine. The passengers in the bus were waiting for that moment. They all heaved a long sigh of relief in unison as if it was pre-planned.

Additionally we must note that each of these phrases have only 2 to 3 words in Telugu as opposed 2 to 8 words in translation. That again contributes to the growing impatience of the passengers. Unlike in the earlier instance, I kept the last line to the last to create that sense of impatience in the passengers. I did not see any need to change the order in the latter case.

Flow of thought in Telugu stories is not always as consistent as in English. It could be confusing if translated as is. For instance, a passage from “non-duality” (Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma) ascertains my point.

Writing the story for whom, himself or the public? Could he vibrate the world through his writing or is [he] just using [it] to rub his personal woes on the world? Does he understand how strenuous writing a story is? If an author tries only to show off his brains to the world, readers resent him. Readers lose themselves in a good story, get carried away. A story must have a purpose. After finishing the story, a reader must be prodded into thinking—this should be like this or that.

In this passage, several views are stated, sounding disjointed at times. At the risk of repeating myself, I must add that the views are very clear for a person who is knowledgeable in our culture. For others, the translator need to reword/reorganize the structure.

Yet another aspect of sentence structure is the use of nonspecific subject. Generalization in Telugu is achieved by using a verb form like chuudaali [must see], cheppaali [must say] without specifically stating the subject. In such sentences, an all-inclusive ‘we’ is implied. Use of pronouns inconsistently also are in the nature of narrating a story in the presence of a live audience. When a narrator uses ‘he’ or ‘she’, or, totally ignores the subject, it does not bother the live audience. They place themselves mentally in the moment and visualize the setting. In print, the story loses part of this ability to carry the audience into the moment unless the author is very skillful and the reader is knowledgeable in the culture. For a foreign reader, it becomes that much harder to transpose himself /herself into the setting. For a reader who is willing to pick up on the nuance, it is educational.

In the story, He is I, [Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry], the author’s use of pronouns are not consistent. The story opens with one person, taanu, as the narrator. The pronoun, a reflexive, indefinite, third person, singular, and non-gender specific, is peculiar to Telugu language. After Swamiji is introduced, most of the story is narrated by Swamiji using the first person singular, nenu[I]. Towards the end, Swamiji says, “We [memu] were waiting for the other train to arrive.” Telugu has two forms of third person plural, manam [all-inclusive] and memu [excludes listener]. Significantly, in the story, the second term, memu is used. Thus implicitly the pronoun “we” includes the listener, the young man [taanu], and, puts the reader/audience in the shoes of a listener.

Usually figures of speech, proverbs and references to epics and mythology are built into a story as props. And Telugu fiction is no exception. Here are some examples of how they are manifested in Telugu fiction.

Proverbs are sometimes do not contribute enormously to the story in that the story moves on without the proverbs. However, they do reaffirm the author’s point. At other times, they just are introduced since they sound beautiful. For instance, notice the rhyme in atta meeda kopam dutta meeda chuupinaTTu. Atta and dutta rhyme. Translation closest to the phrase reads like “You are angry with your mother-in-law and taking it out on the bull.” To make it readable, I had to keep the term atta, which is used in the story Yearning [Kalipatnam Rama Rao] several times. I translated it as “Upset with attamma  and so beat up the bull?” The original proverb is a rhetorical statement. In translation, I had to change it to a question in order to bring about the original spirit.

In short, there is a vast amount of cultural nuance in our language which requires special attention and care in transporting it to the translation. This article barely scratches the surface. Readers, writers and translators need to examine this area carefully.


(Published by Nidadavolu Malathi as editorial, September 2003 on thulika.net.)


Ramulu, B.S. kathala badi. Jagatyal, Andhra Pradesh: Vishala Sahita Academy, 1998

Venkatasubbaiah, Vallampati. Katha silpam. Hyderabad: Visalandhra Publishing House, 1995

Narayana, Singamaneni, Comp. Telugu kathakulu, kathana reethulu. V.3. Hyderabad: Visalandhra Publishing House, 2001.

Venugopal, N. katha sandarbham. Hyderabad: Swetcha Sahiti, 2000