Some Reflections on Telugu short story by Dr. Poranki Dakshina Murthy

Every speech community in the world has its stories to tell us. Every story lives as long as a live interest prompts the narrators to tell and the narratees to listen—kathanotsaaham o [the interest to tell] on one side and sravanotsaaham [the interest to listen] on the other side. As the time went on, script was invented by the mankind. Invention of the script is a giant leap in the progress and development of human civilization. Oral communication helped to develop written communication. A tradition for written communication had also made its beginning at a later period. We are really fortunate to possess two traditions, one ‘oral’ and the other ‘written’ for our all round development. We all love to cherish them and nourish them.

We know that every story that is short is not a ‘short story’. It is a specific, well-defined form or genre of modern literature known after we came into contact with the western literature from the third quarter of the 19th century, that is, after the establishment of the three universities in the three presidencies of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. Stories, we have from the time immemorial, in the oral literature. Written literature also has developed and preserved several kinds of stories in different forms in verse and prose. Story and song are indeed twins. Stories of oral tradition and stories of written tradition have become enriched by influencing or borrowing from each other.

To be brief in my introductory words, I would like to draw your attention to one of the interesting techniques of story telling in the oral tradition. It is the ‘interrogative narrative technique’ of edu cepala katha, a story of seven fish, very popular among Telugu children. You may be having your own versions of the story with the same or varying content, in other Dravidian languages.

The story runs like this:

anagaa anagaa oka raaju  Once upon a time, there was a king.
aa raajuki eduguru kodukulu The king had seven sons.
aa eduguru kodukulu vetaki velliedu cepalu tecceru. The seven sons went fishing and brought seven fish.
cepalu tecchi enealo vesaaru They put the fish in the sun to dry.
vaatilo oka cepa endaledu One of the fish did not dry.
“cepaa, cepaa, enduku endaledu?” “O fish, why did you not dry?”
“dubbu addu vaccindi” “The haystack blocked the sun.
“dubbuu, dubbuu, enduku addu vacchaavu?” “O haystack, why did you block the sun?”
“aavu meyaledu.” “The cow did not graze.”
“aavuu, aavuu, enduku meyaledu?” “O cow, O cow, why did you not graze?”
“aavula kaapari nannu mepaedu.” “The cowherd did not tend me to graze.”
“aavula kaapari, aavula kaapari, [aavunu] enduku mepaedu?” “O cowherd, O cowherd, why did you not tend the cow to graze?”
“avva ganji poyyaledu.” “Mother [mistress of the household] did not give me gruel.”
“avvaa, avvaa, enduku ganji poyyaedu?” “O Mother, O Mother, why did you not give him the gruel?”
“naa pillavaadu edustunnaadu.” “My child was crying.”
“pillavaadaa, pillavaadaa, enduku edustunnaavu?” “O child, O child, why did you cry?”
“ciima kuttindi.” “The ant stung me.”
“ciimaa, ciimaa, enduku kuttevu?” “O ant, O ant, why did you stink him?”
“naa bangaaru kannamlo velu pedite kuttanaa?” “Would I not sting when he sticks a finger in my gold anthill?”


That is the story. The first five lines form an opening. The rest are questions and answers. Every occurrence has a cause and each one throws the blame [cause] on another. The story, in the conversational part, with an effect and ends with a cause. In a reversal order of the events, a flashback, the story gradually unwinds.

Surprisingly, I found the same technique used in one of the nursery rhymes of remote Assam (as quoted by Birendra Bhattacharya, NARRATIVE – A seminar, Sahitya Akademi, 1990). The story is like this:

“The nursery rhyme begins with a flower.

“Flower, Flower, why don’t you bloom?” The flower replies, “The cow has eaten the shoot. Why should I bloom?”

Then the interrogator turns to the cow and asks, “Cow, cow, why do you eat the shoot?” The cow replies, “The cowherd does not tend, why should I not eat?”

It goes on:

“Cowherd! Cowherd! Why don’t you tend the cow?

The cook does not serve rice, why should I tend?

Cook! Cook! Why don’t you serve rice?

The woodcutter does not give firewood, why should I cook?

Woodcutter! Woodcutter! Why don’t you give firewood?

The blacksmith does not supply chopper, why should I give? …”

The blacksmith blames the fireman, the fireman blames the clouds, which were to send rain. When interrogated, the clouds blame the frog, which refuses to croak. The frog defends itself by saying that it is not in its nature. The primitive narrator, who is also the interrogator, is evidently convinced that the frog’s croaking causes the rains. The first event in the nursery rhyme deals with frog; it does not croak. Then the events follow in a certain causal order in time in real life, ultimately compelling the flower not to bloom. The narrator reverses the order and narrates the events as it were in a flashback (p.34).

In all folk narratives, the essential technique of narration (that is, depicting the events in a certain imaginative and psychological order in time) is invariably found.

“A close look at ancient literature may reveal narrative patterns that will give modern writers hints on how to revitalize their art.” (p.34).

Seeing the usefulness of this interrogative narrative technique, I adopted it, some four decades ago in one of my stories written in a satirical way, as a small story within the main story, like box kept in a bigger box—dealing with the drudgery of a proof-reader employed in a private printing press. The small story, like the story of ‘seven fish’ runs in probing reasons for several mistakes and howlers that have crept into a textbook. As the ant given reason for pricking the finger of a child, the English Medium of Instruction blames the Telugu Medium for all the errors printed in the book.

Another important thing I want to share with you, is about a clear-cut specific definition of short story. It is generally said that the prominent theoreticians of Sanskrit Poetics like Dhanjaya, Bhaamata, DAndi, Vaamana, Rudrata, Anandavardhana, Mammata, Hemachandra and Viswanatha, did not pay much attention to the technique of short story that can be found useful for us. Of course, there are varied classifications of prose fiction like paryaayabandham, sankalakathaa, upakathaa, mahakathaa etc. Agnipuraanam (Chapter 337.12) also had mentioned some of them: akhaayikaa, kathaa, khandakathaa, parikathaa tathaa/ kathaanikEti manyante gadyakaavyam ca pancadhaa. Prose fiction is of five kinds, says the author of  AgnipuraaNam. A definition of short story was also given in the same chapter:

Bhayaanakam sukhaparam garbhe ca karuNaarasah

adbhutO ante sukluptaarthaa nOdaatta saa kathaanikaa.

Thus we can proudly say that the credit of giving a clear-cut definition of short story, kathaanikaa, goes to India, through Agnipuraanam.

One more interesting thing worth-mentioning is a rich variety of stories identified by Somadeva (11th century A.D.), the author of kathaasaritsaggaram. He used seventeen kinds of epithets that qualify several stories (as quoted by Prof. Nalini Sudhale in her book, Katha In Sanskrit Poetics, published by the Sanskrit Akademi, Osmania University, Hyderabad-7, pp.555-56.):

  1. ramya: Katha should be pleasing to the mind;
  2. hrudya: It should touch one’s heart;
  3. haariNii: It should be captivating and the listener should be carried away;
  4. citraa: It should have brilliance of content and strikingness of expression;
  5. udaaraa: It should have richness of import;
  6. vicitraarthaa: It should not be monotonous; should have an element of variety;
  7. aarthyaa: It should be pursposeful;
  8. apuurvaa/nuutana: It should be fresh;
  9. svalpaa: It can be short yet delightful to the heart;
  10. divyaa: A supernatural element can make it attractive;
  11. vinodhinii: It should have entertaining qualities;
  12. 12.  Sikshaavatii: It can instruct even as it entertains;
  13. 13.  buddhivibhavasampannaa: It should have the strength of intellect to enrich the import;
  14. 14.  ruciraa: It should be interesting;
  15. 15.  adbhuta vicitra ruciraa: The depiction of wonder adds to its variety and makes it more interesting;
  16. 16.  mugdhaavishayaa: It can have a ‘fool’ for the subject;
  17. 17.  mahaakathaa: It can also be long and can have manifold interests.

Finally, I request that I may be allowed to quote my own definition of short story given in my Ph.D. dissertation, Short Story: Its Strutcture and Nature(1988), after discussing the views of Indian and western theoreticians:


kathaatmaka vacana prakriya kathaanikaa

 (Short story is a form of prose fiction that has only one theme or point of prominence and that is self-contained.)   


[A paper presented by © Dr. Poranki Dakshina Murthy, at a seminar on Dravidian Poetics in Pollachi, Tamilnadu. The theme was “The Tradition of Short Story in South India”. Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, October 2007].