Recapturing traditions in fiction by Nidadavolu Malathi

I was twelve or thirteen at the time. A young man used to come to our house for meals once a week. I do not know where he is now or what he is doing. Nevertheless I have this one vivid image of him in my mind—he coming early in the morning and standing by the pillar on the front porch to remind my mother of his vaaram [our commitment to him] in our home on that day. That is what captured my curiosity when Kameswari sent me her story, vaaraala abbaayi among others for translation.

There are a few angles to this story, vaaraala abbaayi. First the title. The Telugu original was published under the title, “weekly boy”. I am not sure whether Kameswari was aware of my apathy for the usage of English in Telugu stories or she changed her mind about the title after the story had been published. She crossed out the Telugu title on the tear sheet and wrote vaaraala abbaayi in ink. If she had not written the Telugu phrase, I would never have guessed what it was about. This of course is an issue for translators, which I have addressed in another article.

I have been seeing comments even from Telugu people questioning the authenticity of a dialogue or a character in current day stories. “That is not the way things are” is a comment by several readers, possibly because the current generation is out of touch with our past, maybe not every young person but most of them, especially those who have been  educated in English medium schools. I have received emails from several young men and women saying that they did not know this or that until they had read about it in a given story in translation. For those who are unaware of this tradition of vaaraalu, Kameswari’s story is an education. That brings us to my second point. If the same story were written in the sixties, the author would not have described the tradition in such minute detail as she did in this story, published in 2002.

The author presented one angle, the plausible outcome emanating from this practice—a poor boy receiving education and becoming a successful judge because seven kind-hearted women had agreed to feed him seven days of the week, one woman a day on a regular basis. Another famous writer, Munipalle Raju, wrote a story (his first story, I understand) by the same name, vaaraala pillaadu, in which he depicted the negative effects emanating from an indifferent and/or humiliating attitude of the hostesses. The protagonist in Kameswari’s story also had experienced this kind of apathy from some of the women. Venkataramana, the protagonist, says, “Your mother was an incarnation of the goddess Annapurna; not all mothers were like that.” On the other hand, Raju narrates a series of incidents in which the host families humiliated the young boy and drove him to a life of degradation and finally to his death by execution.

The gist of it is as follows:

Narayana was a little boy, probably about ten, when his paternal grandmother died. Nobody in the family explained to him where his grandmother went or why.

Narasimhvam was a vaaraala abbaayi in Narayana’s house. Narayana, having no one else to talk to, approached Narasimhvam and asked him about the dead. For the first time, he learned that the dead people would never return; their bodies would be burned to ashes. The burning would happen in the graveyard. Narayana asked Narasimhvam to take him to the graveyard. Narayana, surprised by Narasimhvam’s knowledge, changed his attitude toward this vaaraala abbaayi; swore that he would never tease him again, would not doodle in his notebooks, nor hide them.

Narayana wanted to learn more about Narasimhvam’s way of life. Narasimhvam narrated his experiences—cruel and humiliating as they were; he did not get food always as he was supposed to. Some women would forget their commitment, were resentful toward him as if it was his fault, and almost everybody treated him like an insect. “The windows in his [Narayana’s] little heart opened fully for the young boy, a student in a local Sanskrit school, who came timidly to their house once a week, ate and went away.” During the same period, Narayana learned a few more things about this vaaraalu tradition. He asked Narasimhvam naively where he would eat on the other six days.

“A different house each day.”

“What if they don’t give you food?”

Vaaraala abbaayi hesitated for a second and said, “Starve.”

For Narayana, the information was fascinating; he saw the tradition as a way of life, independent living at that. Soon after that, his father was blamed for bad accounting at work, for no fault of his, and committed suicide. His mother sought her brother’s help for Narayana’s education. The brother sent him to the city and set him up as a vaaraala abbaayi. He was faced with the same experiences as Narasimhvam first hand and they were not pleasant. Ironically, at one point, he met Narasimhvam, but this time the tables were turned. Narasimhvam was in the ‘host’ position; he barely recognized Narayana.

Narayana turned a petty crook first, and then a thief, and eventually a gang leader. He committed murder and was sentenced to death by hanging. On his way to the execution, he told his mother that he had implored the court to turn all his property and belongings over to her, and asked her to support a vaaraala abbaayi.

A famous critic, K.V. Ramana Reddy, commented in his preface to the anthology of Raju’s stories that it is a powerful narration of the heartrending lives of delinquent children. I think it is as much about the tragedy of a poor child as the manifestation of the inhuman attitude of some people in the name of tradition. I am not sure if this vaaraalu tradition is to be blamed exclusively for a young man’s downfall. Several factors come together and undermine one’s self-confidence and lead to his delinquency and destruction.

It has become quite common in India to blame religion for all the evils in our society. By putting these two stories of two poor boys in pursuit of education in juxtaposition, we may obtain a perspective that is more balanced. I believe that any system is put in place with the best of intentions. Most of the problems arise from its misuse or misinterpretation by some individuals. In one story, a woman with good intentions helped a young man to improve his lot while in the other story several individuals forced a young man to evil ways through their inhuman behavior. We need both stories to understand how a system works or fails.

 

After several years, I have come across the autobiography of Sripada subrahmanya Sastry, Experiences and memories [anubhavaalu, jnaapakaalu], in which he describes elaborately his experience as a vaaaraala abbaayi. That narrative clearly shows how the measure of commitment and discipline on the part of both the parties in the practice. It was quite an education for me. It is not just about food or education for that matter. It contributes to the student’s personality development immensely.

We may be able to read similar perception in the story, “Chicken Burglars.” The author describes the lives of two women—a mother and a daughter—and their animal poultry farm. Within their means, they were living a happy, carefree life. A small group of men with evil thoughts on the daughter, Nookalu, failed to get her attention and decided to hurt her with a devious plot, an act of cowardice. They would snicker and gloat over their own transgression but in their heart of hearts, they knew it might not last long.

In the story, “Why would I lose it, daddy?” we see a child’s agonizing longing to go to school and his father’s helplessness in sending him to school. The story is considered one of the best of the author, Chaganti Somayajulu. It reveals his ability to illustrate a potent issue through the narration of a few everyday events and make them a powerful medium to make a point. The author seem to draw a parallel between the father’s unsuccessful attempts to quit smoking and the child’s longing to go to school. The story opens with the father sending the boy to fetch cigarettes for him and closes with asking the child if he still had the money or lost it. “Why would I lose it, daddy?” the child asks. Is he asking why father would think that the son could lose the money? Or, is it a mild reminder to the father, “I am acting responsibly with the money you’ve given me; what about your
responsibility of giving education to your child”? Our age-old tradition dictates that father has a duty to educate the child and the child has a duty to take care of the father in his old age. It is a lifestyle of “give and take” in the larger scheme of things.

[End]

© Nidadavolu Malathi

April 1, 2007