A prominent bi-weekly magazine Telugu Swatantra magazine, run by Khasa Subba Rao in the nineteen fifties and sixties and later by Gora Sastry and Sridevi until its closure, used to welcome new writers amicably. Magazines in those days used to encourage young writers regardless of their repute.
Saraladevi who has won readers’ hearts even with her early stories, published many of her stories in Telugu Swatantra. She also wrote an essay, “oka prasasti” [one tribute] on the novel Kalaateeta vyaktulu by Dr. P. Sridevi. Saraladevi’s first story, “baava chuupina bratukubaata” has been published in Prajatantra in December 1955. Her first anthology, Kumkuma rekhalu, has been published in 1956. About seven or eight stories she had published previously in Telugu Swatantra are not included in the anthology Kumkuma rekhalu.
The stories included in Kumkuma rekhalu were originally broadcast on All India Radio in series. Her narrative technique and language are soft befitting her name (Sarala literally means soft). At the time Syamasundari, who had a sweet voice and an imitable modulation, lent her voice to the narration, making them even more fascinating. The stories were received very well.
The cover page of the second edition of Kumkuma rekhalu holds mirror to the ripeness the writer had achieved both as a writer and as a person.
Saraladevi started writing fiction in 1955 and wrote mostly in the sixties and seventies. In 1977, her second anthology of short stories was published. In 1979, her short novel Komma, bomma [A Woman, A Doll] was published in the monthly Yuva. Later, she published two novels—komma, bomma and an unpublished short novel Chiguru [Tender shoot] written in 2004 as one book. She also published Telugu samethalu, saanghika chitrana [Telugu proverbs, a portrayal of society] a critical study in 1986. Her poetry has been published in Telugu Swatantra and other magazines. She also collaborated with six female writers on two serial novels, Shanmukhapriya and Saptapadi.
The anthology Kumkuma rekhalu, includes eight stories and a preface by Gora Sastry, editor of Telugu swatantra. The second anthology Saraladevi kathalu contains ten stories.
In the story “Kumkuma rekhalu”, the life of a young woman named Hemalatha is illustrated as it develops from innocence and straightforwardness to acquiring worldly wisdom, understanding ways of the world and living without hurting herself or others in the process. The narration is realistic and facetious.
Hemalatha, who had grown up watching the financial circumstances in her natal home and the way they handled the funds, came to believe that after she had her own home and family she would be prudent with their money and would save. She believes that, if they save, they would not have to take out loans; she has been waiting for that day. She is happy when her husband keeps a little pocket money and gives the rest of his salary to her and tells her to manage the household. Soon enough she realizes that saving in low-income families meant only managing without taking out a loan and stays focused on that. With her straightforward attitude she gets into troubles, and later learns that worldly wisdom is necessary to mingle with others, and to adopt the philosophy of avoiding hurting others or getting herself hurt. Finally, she gets her husband say, “you’re okay”.
Hemalatha was interested in taking the B.A. exam by private study. She had the habit of reading books. She was also used to keeping her books safe. Parthasarathi is the kind of husband who understands her mode of thinking. Therefore, she has no gender-related issues.
Almost all of the eighteen stories in the two anthologies by Saraladevi are woven around women’s lives, especially the middle and lower class women. Saraladevi began with the themes of thriftiness and living streetwise in her early stories. In her later stories, she puts to discussion some serious issues such as women’s sexuality, marital relationships, and some pleasures in life both men and women are losing because of the special qualifications and duties imposed by society.
Saraladevi started writing at a time when higher education for women just started. It was the time when the middle class families still believed that seeking jobs by women was dishonorable for the families; the time when girls barely eighteen were married because marriage was the only goal for women. This situation was not prevalent in all classes though. Among the wealthy families and the families inspired by various reform movements, interest in women’s education was shaping up. We can see this interest in the story Saraswatulanu cheyyabote” [While trying to make them goddesses of learning] by Saraladevi.
A young man with progressive views attempts to make his younger sister a doctor or marry her to a doctor. The younger sister disappoints him and chooses to marry a man with an ordinary job. The brother hopes to send at least her daughter to school but that girl also follows the same route as her mother. The story kuuthullu [Daughters] depicts the financial burdens the middle class families have to bear for daughters’ deliveries and highlights the need for daughters to act responsibly.
In “tirigina malupu” [Turning around], the author emphasizes the importance of space between husband and wife, regardless how close the two persons may be. Her description of the little jealousies amidst the familial affections among the family members is depicted realistically.
We see a clear-cut progress in the stories from the first anthology to the second anthology. In the later stories, we see distinct clarity in the author’s views on life and the relationships between men and women.
We see Saraladevi’s gender-related understanding not only in the ten stories included in the second anthology Saraladevi kathalu (1977) but also in the stories published in Bhumika and in Nurella panta. The stories, “oka inti katha, “vaadi kommulu”, “bhinnatvamlo ekatvam”, “pechi”, “marri needalo”, reflect Saraladevi’s philosophy of life and perception of the world.
In the story “oka inti katha” the mother, who lives by the traditional shatkarmayukta principles and manages the household, tells her daughter that that is the dharma for a woman. The daughter is surprised; she asks, “Is one person such a burden to another, mother?” meaning her mother may have carried the weight of those shatkarma tenets but she cannot. This story helps us understand the mode of changes and the mentality of questioning which started developing in young women during that period. In “stri”, the parents, because of poverty, arrange Santha’s marriage with Govindu who is deaf and uneducated. Her relatives give her signals suggesting she should satisfy her physical desires and even ask her directly to give herself in to them. Santha understands her situation, tells them that deafness does not come in her way to live with her husband, sets up a tailoring shop by way of supplemental income for her husband’s bicycle shop, bears two children and raises them well. However, when her son marries a girl from a rich family and leaves home, she is hurt as if he has died. Santha is a woman who abides by the decision her adults had made for her future, accepts their decision silently, and makes her place where she ended up livable.
“Vaadi kommulu” holds mirror for Saraladevi’s opinions on man-woman relationship. In the past, mothers-in-law used to quote the saying mundocchina chevula kante venakocchina kommulu vaadi, [The horns which grew later are sharper than the ears which came first]. This refers to a touch of jealousy the the mother suffers from when a son shows affection for his wife. The young man in this story explains the logic and says, “Yes, that is true. They are sharper.” He says, “Probably only in India we have this question—who is more important in a man’s life—mother or wife? Several books and movies raised the question—whether husband is preferable to son in a woman’s life, and proclaimed that choosing husbands as opposed to sons is the philosophy of an ideal woman. We saw that and clapped. Following the same logic, why don’t they clap when man chooses wife to be more important in his life?” He says further, “Uncle, can you imagine a husband-wife relationship filled with friendship? I know you can’t. In it, there is no question of more or less feeling, no question of heads or tails. I wish it is like home is heaven. The horns which grow later are sharp for sure, whether you accept it or not.” He suggests that a man should make his life pleasurable by loving and respecting his life-partner, without ignoring his duty towards his parents and should set aside their overzealous wishes at the same time.
“bhinnatvamlo ekatvam” is about two women who refuse to leave their husbands, even when they are being ill-treated by them. One woman is an uneducated rustic woman. The second woman has more opportunities than anybody could ever provide for her. Yet she would not divorce her husband. The ending lines Saraladevi gives for this story are: If women who provoke their wicked husbands, can we say they are wicked too? What do they accomplish by this kind of decision? It feels like a terrible truth is obvious, only vaguely though. If that is true, where are they heading?
In the same story, her uncle tells to the second woman, “Maybe the world would not appreciate when a woman divorces and remarries but history appreciates it. Is it not better to burn up as a splinter in a healthy fight rather than burning vainly?”
In “pechi”, the father is unable to pay dowry. He learns that his daughter and a young man Harikishan are friends. Father, being unable to ask Harikishan to marry his daughter, spreads rumors about them and manages to perform their wedding on the sly. The son-in-law learns about this ploy and prohibits his wife from visiting her natal home ever again. The point is women have no right to make any decisions. The persons who have made decisions and played with the daughter/wife’s life are both men. “marri chettu” depicts the story of the only son/younger brother who feels suffocated by the affection poured on him by his mother and older sisters. He comes to realize that as long as he is stuck in their possessiveness in the name of excessive love, he has no shot at a real happy life with his wife and applies for transfer at his workplace.
Two novelettes or long stories of Saraladevi also depict the turmoil in two women’s lives. Both the women in both the novelettes belong to lower middle class.
In “chiguru”, Vimala, due to their poor circumstances, is married to a much older man, Ramapathi. He has been married twice before and father of five. Even at the time of pelli chupulu [initial meeting for arranging the wedding], he has made clear that he was marrying only for the sake of children. To that end, he leaves the five children to her lot and washes his hands off of them. He does not even look at her. Ramapathi has a peculiar temperament. He never tells directly what he wants to say but creates a huge scene. The others in the home just have to understand his mind and behave accordingly. His eldest son Hari, who is about Vimala’s age, is the only one who understands her. He is Ramapathi’s first wife’s son. The other children were born to his second wife. The second wife had put up with all his trashy occupations and managed the household effectively. Vimala’s mother, Ramanamma, learns that Vimala has turned into a cook and nanny for the children. She also believes that unfulfilled physical desires in a woman are a huge flaw and that Vimala has been deceived; she dies brokenhearted, dwelling on her daughter’s fate. Ramanamma was a child widow. A Young man named Ranga Rao sympathized with her situation. Ramanamma was attracted to him. With the help of friends, they got married in another town. Ramanamma believed (author believed) that the physical needs are not different for women from men and the nature exercises the same kind of sway on both but the tradition has tightened the harness only on women. For that reason, she tormented over the fact that they (she and the other adults in the family) had done injustice to Vimala. Ramapathi’s son Hari guesses his father’s intent correctly. His father needs a woman physically but does not know how to get it. He does not even know how to treat his wife properly. He is incapable of reaching out to her directly, befriending her gently, enticing her sweetly, and capturing her attention happily. Society has killed that skill in men. It has killed that skill in men by according the rights to them on a woman in the name of marriage, providing several venues, and by strapping woman in the name of pativratyam [ritualistic devotion to husband]. The author states in the words of Hari how the rights acquired through patriarchal system distanced men from the feelings natural to human beings.
In the novelette, Komma bomma¸ father arranges Manga’s wedding while she is still in school. The husband runs away on the wedding night. Mother-in-law blames Manga for the incident. Manga, without understanding what “first night” meant or why her husband ran away, takes the accusations quietly. Her mother agonizes over the injustice done to her daughter and dies. Father is ruined financially. Manga, with the help of a friend’s mother Kamalamma, finishes school, becomes a school teacher. She also shoulders the responsibility of raising her sister’s children after sister’s death. Eventually, she decides to marry Ananda Rao, co-teacher in the same school. In that inopportune moment, a stupid young man shows up with his grandmother and claims he is her husband that ran away previously. The neighbors band together and pass judgments on her. They preach women’s dharma to her and suggest she should take him back. They stress the need of man’s support for a woman. Nobody really knows whether that man is real or fake. Earlier, her sister’s husband tried to assault her and when she refused, threatened her, “Watch what I can do to you.” Manga is tormented with the thoughts, “Who gave these people the right to come on to my porch and pass judgments on my life? My life is slipping away through my fingers constantly and ending up in someone else’s hands. I have to live on the goodwill of how many people?” At the end, Manga breathes freely after the two persons (the stranger and his grandmother) absconded secretively.
Saraladevi tells how much turmoil the institution of marriage is creating in women’s lives, and how even the educated women with earning power also are entangled in this system. The male characters—Hari in chiguru, Ananda Rao, Gopi, and Ranga Rao in komma, bomma are men with conscience. Ramanamma, Kamalamma, and Rama are astute women.
Saraladevi, who understood women’s internal struggles, slowed her writing activity in the seventies. Had she continued, the gender awareness in women which developed in the eighties might have helped her to write more good stories. As Mrunalini states in her preface to the novelettes of Saraladevi, “Saraladevi is a writer who should be writing even more.”
Saraladevi is older sister of Seela Subhadradevi (poet) and a friend of Dr. Sridevi (fiction writer).
Saraladevi was born in 1937 and died in 2007.
(The original article in Telugu has been published in Bhumika.org, October 2010.)
(Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, March 2011.)