Structure [silpam] in Telugu fiction

Stories evolve in a given culture, like their lifestyle, from their own environment. Readers and critics are required to critique a story from that perspective. On one hand, it would appear like applying modern criteria in assessing a work of fiction from previous centuries is untenable. On the other hand, we will not have new insights into the literature of previous centuries if we do not apply new ways of reading a text of the past. Then the question is how to appreciate the fiction from the past centuries?

Kondaveeti Satyavati, writer and editor of bhumika, a feminist magazine, pointed out in her article on Bhandaru Acchamamba, that Acchamamba has not been given due credit by the establishment as writer and as the first writer in the history of modern fiction. She commented that the critics dismissed Acchamamba’s story as “failed to meet the criteria for short fiction.”

I thought it would be interesting to compare Acchamamba’s story to a contemporary story by a writer who is highly regarded as a writer and critic. While I was searching for such stories, I stumbled on an anthology, alasina gundelu [Tired hearts] by Rachamallu Ramachandra Reddy. In the same anthology, Ramachandra Reddy included a 43-page essay on the structure in fiction, “kathaanikaa, daani silpamuu” [Short story and its structure]. In the essay, Ramachandra Reddy quoted Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao, our top-ranking Marxist writer and critic, as saying, “In these stories we read about the same events we see every day in real life and ignore, and are electrified after reading them.” Translating the entire essay is beyond the scope of this article. I will quote a few salient points relevant to my discussion from the aforesaid essay.

Ramachandra Reddy elaborated on his views on short story as follows:

I wrote these stories with a hope that they would imprint a strong sense of emotion in the readers’ hearts. … In fact, the entire literature is oriented towards hearts. There is no literature without feeling. That feeling however must not turn into a melodrama.

One popular notion is that “a story must have a point” I am not sure if there is an equivalent in Telugu for the word ‘point’. For the present, I would call it lakshyam. A story must convey a truth, a moral, a principle, or a hypothesis. …

In the previous century when the story was born, its point was either a truth or a moral. That means it is only a concept in the mind of the writer.

Then the question is, what about feeling? … The reader continues to experience the emotions of the characters while reading a story. Then the question we must ask is whether a story can be written to either invoke a feeling or convey a message exclusively?”

Ramachandra Reddy discussed the topic at length quoting a few European writers like O’Henry and Katherine Mansfield and then posed the question how it was relevant to his discussion on hand. He stated that currently the short story in Telugu had gotten entangled in the steel arms of commercial magazines, lost its original form, and been reduced to a skeleton. He further added:

Because a story will inevitably contain “feeling” in some form or other, and because nobody is writing at Katherine Mansfield’s level now, let us limit our discussion to the point in a story. … A short story must have only one point; and, characters and incidents should contribute towards that end, the point.

From that perspective, Ramachandra Reddy attempted to write a story as an experiment in structure, an indispensable characteristic to achieve the point in the story. The author observed that most people in the world live tedious, uneventful lives, and most of them are women, understandably. Therefore, he decided to depict the life of one such woman.

The story, mana jeevita kathalu [Stories of Our Lives], opens with the statement, “I could search her entire life and still find not a single incident worth writing about. How can I write a story without anything special in her life or lifestyle?” That is the problem for structure, says the author.

Mr. Ramachandra Reddy took it as a challenge since he had never come across a story without point, which makes it impossible to make the story structurally strong. The closest he could think of was “Madame Bovary” (Gustavo Flaubert) in which Emma, the main character, lived a dull life. She was not without emotions. In fact, she had a fantasy in her mind, which clashed with her surroundings outside, leading to her mental breakdown. Her husband on the other hand was willing to take life as it came and so he had no problem. There was no conflict in his life. He was a flat character.

Ramachandra Reddy decided to create a character similar to the husband in “Madame Bovary” in Peddamma, the main character in “the Stories of Our Lives.” Since there was no conceivable tension or conflict in Peddamma’s life, the author creates two more characters, a couple living next door. He bases his story on the responses of the couple to the dull life of Peddamma. Readers are expected to respond to the husband/writer/narrator’s anxiety to find a thrilling incident in the old woman’s life and the wife’s twofold anxiety. The wife attempts to squeeze out a story from Peddamma for the sake of her husband, and in the process, builds a bond with the old woman rather unwittingly. In the end, the wife sees a story in the life of Peddamma but not the husband. Is that a comment on the way men and women think and respond to a fellow human, or, a writer and a non-writer?

In his analysis of structure, we see three perceptions—that of Ramachandra Reddy the writer, Ramachandra Reddy the critic, and the narrator in the story. The author and the critic explain the why, how and the result of writing a story without plot. The narrator within the story lives it. There is however some overlap, I think, between the writer and the narrator.

The author says, “Peddamma had a husband, children, the usual events such as children’s weddings, and life’s little tribulations as everybody else … That is the common denominator for almost all people. Other than that, there are no events, nothing unusual, in her life. She has experienced no intense pleasures or unbearable hardships. She believes that life is the same for everybody. Her understanding of life is so narrow.”

As I was reading this analysis, I had to stop at the last line. Suddenly it felt like the critic became the narrator in calling the woman’s understanding of the world into question. The narrator in the story had the same impression from Peddamma’s life as the critic. His wife could relate to Peddamma’s account of her life nevertheless. That is obvious in the question the wife asked her husband later, “Did you hear Peddamma’s story?” There was a story as far as the wife was concerned.

Ramachandra Reddy the writer decided to write a story about the way people around Peddamma would respond to her unflustered life in the absence of passion. “Others may react to her in any number of ways. Some may be sympathetic to her; others may resent her apathy, or even be aggravated by it; or turn philosophical. If I could depict all these responses effectively, it could turn into a good story,” said Ramachandra Reddy.

There was also a comment about the names in the story. In response to the comment by another critic, the author said, “Somebody commented that I did not give a name to the old woman to imply that she is a very ordinary person, insignificant in a way. I did not think so. In fact, I did not give names to the other two characters in the story either. I agree that names do carry weight in stories but I did not find the need to do so in this story.”

I would like to add a note on this aspect in our stories. In Telugu culture, we often address people using relational terminology such as peddamma, akka, and maamma, even when we are not related by blood. I see the term Peddamma as a name in itself. Other minor characters in the story such as son and daughter are also not given names.

Acchamamba’s story, “Women’s education,” is comparable to the above story in some ways. Both the stories deal with no major heartbreaking issues or earthshaking resolutions. In Acchamamba’s story, the point is women’s education needed for communication between husband and wife, while the husband is away, in prison to be specific. The crux of the problem is wife’s lack of reading and writing skills. The entire story is an elaborate discussion of the superior benefits of women’s education and so forth.

In both the stories, the incidents leading to the end are not played out or described in detail, as is normal practice in storytelling. They are verbalized in brief statements. In “Women’s Education,” the wife says she would have her younger brother read and write the letters on her behalf. In “The Stories of Our Lives,” Peddamma says she was married, her son and daughter were married and so on. Each incident is a one-liner or a few lines at best.

I thought it would be interesting to study the two stories in juxtaposition, using the criteria, Mr. Ramachandra Reddy had identified.

(Editorial by Nidadavolu Malathi, published on thulka.net, January 2007.)