Balivada Kantha Rao by Nidadavolu Malathi

Balivada Kantha Rao, a conscientious writer, is a reputable writer from Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India. He was born in Madapam in Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh on July 3, 1927. He was eight when the family moved to Visakhapatnam for his education.

While he was in the eighth grade, Kantha Rao acted as the editor of a hand-written, school magazine entitled vidyarthi. He said that two persons by the same name, Suryanarayana—his father and his teacher—had been his inspiration and contributed to shaping his interests to become a writer.

At 17, he started working as a clerk in the Indian navy and soon became a civilian officer. While working in the Navy, he had the opportunity to travel and get acquainted not only with different parts of the country but also different cultures, especially tribal communities. The knowledge he had acquired through these experiences enriched his fiction greatly.

First, let me apologize for this rather brief article, I am aware there is lot more to write about him but could not for want of resources. I hope this will persuade you to find other sources and read more about Kantha Rao.

Probably, Kantha Rao could have achieved greater recognition had he courted some ideology. In fact, that is where his strength lay. He did not commit himself to any one particular ideology and limit his creativity to promote that one ideology. Instead, he took pains to scrutinize life from a wide variety of perspectives, studied them methodically including tribal communities and presented them in his stories. His canvas is not just Andhra Pradesh but the entire country.

Kantha Rao’s first novel Sarada was published in 1947. Regarding its publication, the author says it was rejected by one magazine and then he submitted it to Chitragupta. When asked whether rejection ever curbed his enthusiasm, Kantha Rao commented that the rejections actually made him even more determined to pursue his literary career (Yohan babu. Interview.).

As it turned out, his determination and self-confidence were well rewarded. In his foreword to his anthology of short stories Kantha Rao tells us how the publishing went in the early days: He sent a story to Bharati, a highly regarded literary magazine and they published it not in Bharati but in Andhra Patrika, a popular weekly magazine, run by the same management. Later, he sent another story to the weekly magazine and the editors published it in the monthly magazine, Bharati!

 In his early novels such as godameeda bomma [Picture on the Wall] (1953), and dagaa padina tammudu [The Betrayed Little Brother], (1957) he dealt with familial themes covering shorter period. For instance, dagaa padina tammudu is a story that happened in one decade. In his later novels however he took several generations to illustrate his views on a wide variety of subjects. He says Vamsadhara [The River Vamsadhara located in the author’s village] is a case in point; it extends over a span of three generations. He believes that in order to illustrate the metamorphoses of social change meaningfully, it is necessary to extend over a period of three generations.

At the time of writing this novel, Kantha Rao was living in Delhi. The platform for this novel is his village and covers events for a period of about fifty years, starting from 1918. Since he left his village in 1936, he decided to go back to his village and gather the necessary information for it. Several individuals—his friends and his father’s friends—gave him valuable information which helped him to develop his characters truthfully, and also obtain some of the colloquialisms and nuances, which he incorporated in his story.

Asked by Dr. Yohan Babu for his reason to change the ending in Vamsadhara in his later edition, Kantha Rao said that his friends pointed out the discrepancies between his rendering and the actual events. “I believe that a writer must not be influenced by his own preferences, must not depict events contrary to the truth; and should never rush to conclusions quickly.” It took nine years for him to get it in the form of a book and he was pleased with the final product, he added. He was hoping that the views expressed in it would provoke the future readers into thinking.

The novel discusses several aspects—political ideologies, religious beliefs, social customs, and the lifestyles of various tribes —in unusual detail. The novel could be labeled “the Story of modern day India”, considering its range and depth, commented Dr. Yohan babu.

Delhi majileelu is another major work of Kantha Rao. He says, “It is a well-researched product. After finishing this big novel, I felt like I have received a doctoral degree. It took six years to finish it. Even the format is different in that it includes stories within stories and contains extensive discussions on all walks of our lives—political, social, economic and cultural—from Dharmaraja’s Indraprasthapuram to today’s New Delhi. I am very pleased with it regardless it has not caught the public attention yet. Sales are still low. Maybe, it gets noticed after it is translated into Hindi some day.”

Here are some of the opinions Kantha Rao has expressed in his interview by Yohan Babu:

On current writers – Good writers could become ordinary writers, if labeled as great writers. If writers focus only on fame and money, quality of good writing goes down. There are several writers today who have overcome these limitations and are writing well. They are the ones who would prolong this thread of literature and carry it forward.”

His reason to continue writing short stories and not novels is writing a novel is harder and after writing there is no guarantee that it gets published.

Writers who influenced his style: There are not many he could quote. Bengali writer, Sarathchandra Chatterjee’s influence is evident in his novel, Annapurna. After that, he developed rather the ill-conceived notion that, “If I read great fiction written in other languages, I would be influenced by them and my stories would reflect that influence. However, now I feel I missed out on something—I don’t know what makes a novel great.”

In response to a question whether his education in psychology helped him to delineate his characters, Kantha Rao said he never made a conscious effort to apply his theories to characters since he never studied them from that perspective. After he created the characters however they might have been recast into those theories.

Three novels janmabhumi [The Motherland], punyabhumi [The Pious land] and karmabhumi [The Land of Action] reflect his political views. He, being a government employee, was not in a position to depict prevalent political conditions in his novels, and for that reason created an imaginary country, he said.

He considers tradition to be a “withered branch and change does not happen if one hangs on to the dried up branches. No society can progress without change,” which explains his creation of some characters to be anti-traditional.

Kantha Rao believed in checking the minutest details and being truthful to his characters. In his foreword to his anthology of short stories, Balivada Kantha Rao kathalu, he states that all his stories were based on his observation of real life events and all characters on the people he had come across in real life. The story manishi, pasuvu [Man and Beast] is one such story. It was based on a person whom he had met while he was working in Mumbai. He created strong female characters in his novels for the same reason. He had seen in his village such exemplary women who believed in upright living and depicted them in his stories.

To give an example of his writing, let me discuss the story manishi, pasuvu [Man and Beast]. It revolves round a class IV employee in the office of the protagonist, Sayeba. The man, Patil, never gets to work on time and is drunk most of the time. He spends not only his money on liquor but also harasses his wife for money. He never bothers to find how she was managing to bring the money. Sayeba tries to change Patil’s behavior by giving him money at first and later by lecturing him. Patil justifies his drinking by ranting about the prevalent injustices in society. Sayeba seems to understand Patil’s logic and continues to give him money.

Eventually, Patil shows some change which does not last long though. One day, he overhears two policemen talking about his wife sleeping with other men. Thinking they were rumors, he attacks the policemen for speaking ill of his wife. The policemen throw him in jail. Patil calls Sayeba to bail him out. Later however he learns the truth—that she was prostituting herself to earn the money, he murders her. He goes to Sayeba’s home and tells him that Sayeba was the only person who had treated him like a man.

For me the story is intriguing. It raises several questions. If the author intended to maintain that Patil became a habitual drunk because of the injustices in the society, his attitude towards his wife makes no sense. And to kill her because she was earning money by prostituting herself further complicates the issue and presents him in a dubious light. After much debate, I have come to believe that the author attempted to illustrate the complexity in human nature. Ever so often, human behavior is inexplicable. It never fits into a theory like a hand in a glove. If we are willing to make that concession, we will find some comfort in the thought that the protagonist was able to see some change in Patil.

I liked the story The Truth about Desires (see translation of this story) for a couple of reasons. It is human nature to wish to improve one’s life and work for it. Call it progress, call it better life—we all want something more. However, if the wishing and working for better life changes into a craving for popularity, it could become disastrous.

naalugu manchaalu [four beds] is one of his short novels. It depicts the lives of four persons lying in four beds in a hospital. Actually, it is a story of three individuals drawn together by a fourth person, Sundaram, who connects them to the outside world and also takes care of their business and his own in the outside world. Sundaram could accomplish it by being in and out of hospital for his health problem. It is an interesting concept—how seemingly unrelated people could become entangled in a web of relationships. It is done well.

Kantha Rao quotes three incidents that helped him to develop his technique.

In his childhood days, Golla Ramaswamy, a bard in his village used to narrate wide variety of stories to the audience under a tree. “I learned from him how to make a story interesting to read.”

In his adult years, one day, he saw some children fight and that grow into a squabble among adults. Among them, one woman’s brother was standing, away from them and watching the squabble. Kantha Rao asked him why he did not interfere and stop the squabble. The brother replied that he needed to obtain an unbiased opinion and that would be possible only when he stood at a distance and watched them. “From that incident I have learned that a writer must be unbiased.”

On another occasion, he saw a brief memo about a junior officer’s work. The note said, “Several senior officers have learned about solving disputes between the administration and the labor force from him (the junior officer).” The junior officer was promoted superseding the other senior officers. “From that, I have learned that we get results only when we tell a story straight and succinctly,” said Kantha Rao.

Kantha Rao passed away on May 6, 2000.

 Sources:

Yohan babu, G. Balivada Kantha Rao gari navalalu—oka pariseelana. Visakhapatnam: Dipteja publications, 1995.

Kantha Rao, Balivada Kantha Rao kathalu. Hyderabad: Visalandhra Publishing House, 1994.

Some of the stories by Balivada Kantha Rao are translated into English by Sijata Patnaik, in the book entitled The Secret of Contentment and Other Telugu Short Stories.  2002. ISBN 8120724604. It is available on Amazon.com.

 I am grateful to Dr. Yohan Babu and Balivada Kantha Rao for his foreword cited above.

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(This article by Nidadavolu Malathi has been originally published on thulika.net, December 2010)