Category Archives: Analytical articles

G. V. Krishna Rao (Review) by Nidadavolu Malathi.

He is considered to have set the standard for Telugu literature. A Literary meet, Sri Aravinda Sahityaseva samiti, Tenali, honored Dr. G. V. Krishna Rao on March 3, 1979. At the ceremony, several writers and critics praised him for his superior quality work in Telugu literature and commented that his work sets standard for Telugu literature.

Krishna Rao was born in 1914 in Kuchipudi village, Tenali taluq, Andhra Pradesh, India. In an autobiographical essay, Dr. Krishna Rao stated that originally he was not very keen on attending school. His parents had no education but wanted him to obtain education. Not much came out of it though. Either he absconded school or when went to class, his mind was elsewhere. Later, his aunt took him to her village and put him through school there.

He was not much of a learner in traditional methods. He says that when he tried to write chepa [fish], it would look like chaapa [mat]. Nevertheless, he wrote a parody and showed it to his friend. That friend showed it to their teacher. The teacher chided him kindly though, “You can’t recite even ten verses and you’re writing poetry?” At the same time, the teacher also gave him a piece of advice, which he says was worth a million. The teacher told him, “It is wrong to write poetry without studying literature on poetics thoroughly. It will let the hell break loose.” At the time, Krishna Rao was in eighth grade. Thenceforth, he started studying classics and ancient grammatical works on his own. He says that study had its negative consequences. For instance, he came to believe that writing meant only writing poetry and that scholarship meant writing complex phrases. In his later years, he understood that prose was more important and put it on a higher pedestal.

In his final year of high school, his teacher, Sastry, corrected his essay and told him, “Writing long, meandering phrases is not good. Beatific meaning is important. Unless there is efficacy, one should not use a word that is not comprehensible instantaneously. A document must always be lucid as like a peeled banana. That is the greatest writing.”

Krishna Rao was well-versed in grammatical texts ever since he was a child. He started creative writing in high school. At the age of 17, he wrote his first novel, and wrote a satakam (a book of 100 verses) at the age of 20. He also wrote a storybook for children and tried to have it prescribed as textbook in schools, but did not succeed though. During the same period, he was upset with one of his teachers and wrote a poem on the blackboard. That resulted in him being transferred to another school. There he met with Tummala Venkatramayya with whom he had forged good friendship. Venkatramayya recounted a couple of interesting incidents from this period. First, Krishna Rao’s name in school records was Gavini Venkatakrishnayya. He researched the origins of his surname, and found out that there was a word Gavaka meaning the entrance to Durgamapuram. In course of time, that the word underwent several variations such as gavanu and gavani. He preferred the name Gavanu. Currently, however his surname is appearing in books as Gavini.

During the same period, he filled the answer papers with his comments on the grammatical errors in the questions given to him, instead of answering the questions. In his school days, parents used to request him to write poems of blessing for their sons and daughters at their weddings.

Krishna Rao performed ashtavadhaanam and sataavadhaanam – a peculiar kind of poetic application where a poet crafts poems, extempore and one line at a time in response to eight or one hundred individuals, called prucchaka [interrogators] in one sitting. This skill is prevalent only in Telugu and Sanskrit to the best of my knowledge. Krishna Rao took it as a challenge and practiced these skills in woods, pretending the trees to be the interrogators, and playing himself both the interrogators and respondent. He would not much give much weight to these early writings. He commented, “It took a long time for me to get rid of the habit which I had gotten used to from this trellis-like poetry.”

While he was studying for his bachelor’s degree, he met Gopichand, a prominent leftist writer of his times, from whom he had acquired a taste in Western literature and literary styles. Krishna Rao studied M.N. Roy’s works and Marxism, which changed his entire perspective. He understood that the use of colloquial language was important for his work. In those days, he also used to meet with traditional writers as well as modern writers like Chakrapani and Kutumba Rao. They all met regularly in some medical store and discussed the characteristics of criticism and short stories.

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, he tried to get a job but without success. During this period, it became hard for him even to get food to eat which reminded him of an episode describing the anger and frustration of the sage Vyasa in kasikhandam. Inspired by the episode, Krishna Rao wrote a play called bhiksha paatra [Begging bowl]. He says, “It is my first writing that emanated from the bowl filled with experience.” He sent it to several magazines but none of them accepted it for publication. However, the play has received critical acclaim later and been performed in several places numerous times. In this context, the comment made by Kurma Venugopalaswamy, registrar of Andhra University in the fifties and an avid supporter of Telugu stage is worth mentioning. He commented that he had read the play several times and had it performed in the experimental theater of Andhra University, Waltair, Andhra Pradesh. It has been translated into several Indian languages also.

After failing to obtain a job, Krishna Rao went to Benares to study for his master’s degree in English literature. He took a tutoring job to pay his tuition fee. At this time he also pursued his other interests. He studied eminent literary works in Telugu, Sanskrit and English. That part of his studies resulted in a classic work, kavya jagatthu. About this book, Krishna Rao says, “I explained the metamorphoses of theme in a kavya from the perspective of Marxism, quoting various from notable Indian and Western works, from Bharata to Pandita rayalu, and from Plato to Marx.” Further, he added, “I reviewed modern literary movements and their characteristics, and wherefrom they originated, namely, the social conditions and the leaders of those movements.”

Another milestone in Krishna Rao’s life was attending the political conference organized by Radical Democratic Party following the end of Second World War. At the conference, M. N. Roy vehemently criticized the existing political parties and proposed a new humanistic idea that is non-divisive and democratic in principle. That speech stunned Krishna Rao and paved the path for his future literary pursuits. That was the start of his studies in philosophy. Eventually, Krishna Rao worked on Kalapoornodayam for his Ph.D. and received his doctorate.

From his writings, Krishna Rao’s life appears to be one long stretch of endless inquiry, insatiable thirst for knowledge—from meaning of a given word to meaning of life. He has stated that the theme in his novel, keelu bommalu [Puppets] reflects this enquiring mind: “What does freedom mean? How humans are losing it? What is the way to regain it? To what extent, the economic and political matters are influencing human lives? What is the duty of individuals?—inciting this pursuit of knowledge is the goal of keelu bommalu,” he has stated in the preface to the book. Once a reader wrote to Krishna Rao suggesting the novel should have a happy ending. Krishna Rao replied, “Had I given it a happy ending, I wouldn’t have gotten even this note from you.” Apparently, the author was happy his novel provoked the reader to think.

While he was working in a degree college, he studied keenly the grammatical works of Acharya Nagarjuna, vigrahavarthini, Ratanavali and several others and translated them into Telugu poetical works. Unfortunately, his translations were stolen. He said he was able to translate again only one book vigrahavarthini and published it with extensive preface. He also translated Plato’s Republic.

In 1962, he lost his job. Then he started writing another novel, papi kondalu but left it unfinished as he got a job in a radio station. While working at the radio station, he wrote some poetry, translated pratima natakam by Bhasa, and published an anthology of his short stories, udabinduvulu. The author called it an anthology of short stories. However, the copy I had come across includes poetry, plays, and two essays. His last novel papi kondalu was never completed. Krishna Rao died in 1978.

Krishna Rao is one of those rare scholars who had examined the Indian traditional values and ancient works as well as Western philosophies thoroughly, developed his perspective on life and the world and presented his own philosophy. His works such as jegantalu and kavya jagatthu vouch for his standing as a literary persona. He had been persistent in his jignasa [pursuit of knowledge] even from his childhood days.

His opinion regarding the western influence on our (Telugu people’s) mode of thinking speaks of his keen sense of awareness what is wrong with our society at present. He says, “We have acquired modern, scientific and technical knowledge. Rationalism has taken place in our lives. Industries have been set up and wealth has prospered. The appetite to go for it [wealth] one way or another also has increased. We’ve gotten used to materialistic culture and started pursuing physical pleasures. In the process, we are becoming increasingly slaves of material possessions and thought. Ethical values are waning; generosity and appreciation of fine arts are disappearing. We must not ignore economic values, which we have learned from western civilization. But are the economic values the same as all values? Unfortunately, we see them only racing our lives today. What is happening to this society? Are we forgetting gradually the culture that has put dharma on high pedestal and made us visualize Truth, Beatitude and beauty; are we forgetting ourselves?” he questions.

Until recently, I have not heard of any of his works but for the novel keelu bommalu. After receiving the novel from his daughter, Dr. Umadevi, I searched Internet and found several other works. Here are some his works I have found:

Sahiti chaitraratham. This is a commemorative volume, put together in honor of Krishna Rao, his service to Telugu literature and his distinctive personality. The volume includes articles by several prominent writers, critics, and admirers of Telugu literature. It also contains three essays by Dr. Krishna Rao.

In his article on the duty of writer, he comments, “Our writers, being unable to see the world perceptible by the five senses, are commemorating the world of the past. Even those who could see the modern world are unable to comprehend it. Even if comprehended it, they are only playing a game like ring-around circus but unable to resonate with it. A writer may become a poet only when he watches the present day world, comprehend it, ache for it and then proffer his views to the world. If he fails to do so, he becomes simply a seeker of renown.

Jegantalu is a Telugu rendering of Plato’s philosophy. He called it a translation. From what I understood, which, I must admit is very little, the book is a result of his study several books by Plato. At the end, a list of 18 books by Plato and critical works by other writers is given as his sources.

In his essay Kavya jagatthu, the author discusses the essence of kavya from the perspective of Marxism. The book includes extensive discussion of various poetic works in Sanskrit, Telugu and English and the author’s perspective on the themes under discussion. There is a glossary at the end.

Udabinduvulu is an anthology of his poems, stories and plays, including the play, bhiksha patra mentioned earlier.

I have been searching for the novel, keelu bommalu for a long time. Several novels published in the forties and fifties were focused on the struggles of Independence movement and the social conditions following the declaration of independence. Among the very few novels that dealt with human condition and psychological analysis, chivaraku migiledi [that which remains at the end] by Buchibabu, is well-known. I believe, Krishna Rao’s novel keelu bommalu [Puppets] belongs in that category.

I liked keelu bommalu better than chivaraku migiledi despite its high acclaim in literary circles. In terms of thems, in the latter novel, the story revolves around one man and his thoughts about himself and the women around him. The entire story is presented only from the protagonist’s perspective. The other characters have no identity except what the protagonist tells us. On the other hand, in Keelu bommalu the author presents a balanced view of all characters. Each character speaks its mind thereby giving the reader a chance to discern his own opinion of those characters. Secondly, in chivaraku migiledi, the story revolves round man-woman relationship. In keelu bommalu the story is anchored in the dharma of individuals. Thus, the topic is broader.

Regarding the title of the book, puppets, the perception usually is that we are puppets in the hands of some unknown force; there is a player who pulls the strings and make us act. Krishna Rao states unequivocally that was not the message in his book. His aim was to illustrate, “A human being must think for himself from the perspective of humanism, and choose his own path of dharma.” In this novel we see how a man thinks when he is faced with a conflict and how he resolves. Apparently, most of the time, he forgets his dharma and resorts to temporary comfort zone.

The protagonist, Pullayya, cosigns a loan for Chandhrasekharam without telling his wife. When the time for repayment is up, Chandrasekharam has no money to settle the debt. Legally and morally, it is Pullayya’s obligation to pay up but he cannot do it. His problem is, if he pays his wife would come to know of cosigning, and he is not prepared for such revelation. That is the crux of the issue in the novel. People in the village start talking about it, expressing opinions on either side. Pullayya’s daughter wants to know the truth. She asks father and he by keeping his mouth shut, leads her to believe that he did not cosign the loan and that Chandrasekharam was spreading rumors. Not only he misleads his daughter and wife but in course of time he convinces himself that he had done nothing wrong. Pullayya did not lie out of ignorance but with the full knowledge of the actual event. He consciously chose to ignore the truth and let the villagers divide into factions and emotions flare up resulting in clashes on the streets, arson and murders. Even when the village is being destroyed systematically, Pullayya remains convinced that he did nothing wrong. He even accepts honors for his generosity. The message is individuals need to reflect and decide what dharma is for them by themselves. It is not something that somebody would provide for them. In that sense, there is no puppeteer. Each person is his own puppeteer. The author has shown extraordinary skill in depicting this angle in the story.

There is another angle to the story, particularly in relation to modern mode of thinking—that the value Pullayya puts on his wife’s status in the family. Back in the fifties, making money is husband’s duty and running the household is wife’s duty. That being the case, he should have told her about the possible expenditure yet he did it without her knowledge. At the time probably, he hoped it would never come to this—his obligation to pay up. Then, modern day question is: Why couldn’t tell her later when it was time for him to pay off the debt? That is the peculiarity in our culture. The incident highlights the way husband and wife respect each other in our culture. Author never vocalizes this aspect; perhaps at the time it was not even a question.

A prominent critic, R.S. Sudarsanam commented, “Krishna Rao gives high importance to an individual and his conscience regarding performing one’s duty. There is a considerable relevance of Freud’s unconsciousness theory in both the incidents—first, Pullayya forgetting his duty and, secondly, Dr. Vasudeva Sastry’s failing in performing his duty.” He continues to add that Pullayya ignored his duty due to his cowardice and selfishness whereas Vasudeva Sastry took responsibility for the mistake and was prepared to correct it socially. I am not convinced of this argument.

First, let me explain the situation. Vasudeva Sastry invited a local teacher Satyanarayana, his wife Padma and their little child into house after their house had been burnt by one of the factions. While staying in his house, Padma goes to Vasudeva Sastry while he was half asleep and had sex with him. Vasudeva Sastry believes it was only a dream and continues to believe so until Padma tells him that she was pregnant with his child. Vasudeva Sastry suggests they elope. Padma refuses to elope with him. Sastry screams that she was a typical Hindu woman; apparently, he was expressing his “righteous” anger.

To me, the entire incident is a bit dramatic. That Vasudeva Sastry, a doctor by profession and rational thinker, would not know whether he had sex in reality is strange. Secondly, after learning that Padma was carrying his child, he suggests a solution without taking into consideration what effect it would have on Padma’s husband and their child. Is that really a socially responsible, rational suggestion?

Sudarsanam suggests that the author made Vasudeva Sastry his mouthpiece in order to express his own opinions. I think Vasudeva Sastry is just one more character in the story. Author has never made any statements to believe otherwise.

In his preface to this novel, author stated that, “I did not write this novel aiming at any one individual, parties, or upcoming elections. Only artistic appreciation is the main basis for this writing. Only when the reader is willing to forget the passion of party politics, and read it, then only he can achieve the right kind of appreciation.”

Krishna Rao was a seeker of Truth, philosophical commentator. He is one of the very few who have continued pursuit of their literary activities, reflecting on one’s dharma, and total commitment.

                                 ***

A Note: Further discussion of the novel keelu bommalu in audio format, produced by Nidadavolu Malathi and Kalpana Rentala is available on archive.org. Click here.

(Thanks to Dr. Uma Devi, Krishna Rao’s daughter, for kindly sending me a copy of the novel, keelu bommalu.)

(written by Nidadavolu Malathi has been published originally on thulika.net, May 30, 2012)

Sivaraju Subbalakshmi, (review) by Nidadavolu Malathi.

Sivaraju Subbalakshmi

Sivaraju Subbalakshmi (b. 17 September 1925) was married at the age of twelve to another famous Telugu writer, Buchibabu [pseud.] (1916-1967), who was twenty-on at the time. She hails from Rajahmundry, a town known for its rich literary heritage. She is the second of three daughters and three brothers to her parents. She adopted her brother’s son, also named after her husband Venkata Subba Rao.

“I am eighty-four,” She said. (she just turned 85 last September). After Bucchibabu obtained his Bachelor’s degree, the couple moved to Madras. They started their life together when Buchibabu moved to Madras to do obtain his Master’s degree. In Madras, the couple made friends with several esteemed writers, which contributed immensely to literary pursuits. Subbalakshmi fondly remembers the good times she had with her husband until his untimely demise in 1967.

In 2006, I talked with her over the phone for the first time. She was in Bangalore and I was in Hyderabad. In September 2009, however I happened to go to Bangalore and so took the opportunity to meet her.

She has a pleasant personality. She welcomed us with a big smile, made tea for us, and showed us her room and her paintings. She says Bapu, a highly acclaimed artist of our times, is her nephew (Bucchibabu’s brother’s son) and has taught him how to draw. 

Subbalakshmi started writing short stories in the mid-fifties. She quoted a famous writer, Jalasutram Rukmininatha Sastry as saying, “I like your stories better than that novel [of her husband].” I asked her what that novel was and she replied with a hearty laugh, “By then, chivaraku migiledi (by Buchibabu) was already published.” Another famous poet and university professor, Pingali Lakshmikantam paid her a charming tribute in his asirvachanam [Blessings] (Preface to one of Subbalakshmi’s anthologies). He commented that Subbalakshmi’s stories came from the heart and she wrote from a perspective that only women could understand and portray. Regarding her style, Lakshmikantam stated, “Nowadays, the stories, which are published, are hard to distinguish between the stories written by male and female writers. The specialty in Subbalakshmi’s stories is that, the feeling we would feel that only women can write like this. A man, however talented he is, can describe the woman’s nature only the perception he can see through his masculine eyes. It is no surprise that when a woman describes the nature of another woman, the description will be far from exaggeration and closer to truth. We can say the objective of these stories is to hold mirror to the human nature filled with jealousies, intolerance and narrow selfishness, and make our world a better place.” He finished his “Blessings” hoping that she would write better stories than her husband.

Subbalakshmi credits her inspiration and success to her husband. She says in her preface to her anthology, Sivaraju Subbalakshmi Kathalu, addressing her husband, “You wrote a story and I wrote one. You painted and I painted.” It would appear they had an ideal marriage.

Subbalakshmi has published four volumes of short stories and three novels. One of the three novels, neelam getu ayyagaru [The owner of a house with blue gate] has received critical acclaim. It illustrates a wealthy family who live in a big mansion with blue gate; it is narrated from the perspective of a maid in the mansion, Ponni.

The author has done a marvelous job in capturing the perceptions of an illiterate working woman. The character comes alive.

In our conversations, Subbalakshmi has mentioned that she has stopped descriptions in order to avoid the possible criticism that she was imitating her husband. I am not sure at what point she has changed her style.

Nonetheless, her creativity is obvious in her stories. For instance, the novel under reference opens with the following lines:

The white rose in clusters presents themselves through the blue gate and make the passersby stop for a moment at least. Far off, Ponnamma, who lives in a hut in the open arena, has been going around looking for work, along with her daughters. She says on that street one half of the houses belong to her.

In the first line, she has established the specialty of a white rose. Ponnamma also is a woman with unique character. She is a little lamp that stays forever in the heart of the owner of the house with blue gate for ever. She is a servant with courage to claim one half of the houses on the street as hers.

In the next paragraph, the author starts with a line that (Ponni) “would not tell the truth” and continues to narrate briefly the previous incidents which landed Ponni in the present position.

As Ponni was about to open the gate to enter, the owner’s dog jumped on her and tore her sari and pulled apart her skin from the bones. In the same moment a car came in. From a fair-skinned and hefty man in white clothes got out of the car and offered to give her money. Ponni refuses to take his money. The man out of his generous nature tells the driver to take her to the doctor, adding, “If she dies, that will visit up on us.”

Eventually, she is taken in as a maid in that mansion. When the owner decides to spend some time in Nilgiri hills for health reasons, he and his wife invite Ponni to go with them as domestic help. She becomes the confidante for the entire family—the owner, his wife, son and daughter-in-law. She listens to all their stories. They all show concern for her wellbeing. When the owner attempts to make a move on her, she cleverly escapes, saying, “You are a like the Lord Rama [man of integrity]”.

The owner in his final days reflects on his life, he cannot but think of Ponni as his mentor. He is convinced that he had seen several servants but there is none like Ponni.

Subbalakshmi however considers another novel of hers, teerpu [Judgment] as her best work. It was serialized in a monthly magazine, taruna.

Subbalakshmi has firm convictions regarding the woman’s position at home and in society. According to her, kitchen is an important place in the house, and woman has a responsibility to take care of the home; she should never leave home, since there is no place for a woman where she can be safe. 

She said at present she has been writing stories when she finds something interesting in the news but does not send them out for publication. She is also writing her autobiography. “This is not just an account like ‘we lived here or there but about my experiences and memories,” she said. She showed us about 12 handwritten pages.

I asked her if she would fair copy them.

“No, I just write as it comes. Too lazy to rewrite,” she laughed. Suddenly I felt nostalgic. Back in the fifties and sixties, that was the way we all had written stories. At the time, there were no computers, no editing and no cut-and-paste facilities.

Subbalakshmi has an amazing memory. At the age of 84, she remembers all the themes and the incidents that inspired her to write in detail. 

In response to the question why one writes stories, she says, “For those who can be happy with what they have, the desire to have this or that is low. Yet, their hearts pine for something special to be recognized about them … that her husband should recognize her identity …”, reminiscing her past. He recalls the times when she and her husband sat on the shores of the River Godavari, and he asked, “What do you think of this ending for this story or that story”,  and the satisfaction that he had respect for her opinion—that leaves an imprint on her mind forever. ..

The preface to her book reads like that and it gave me a feeling that she has lost herself in her memories and the preface in itself is another piece of creative writing.

Most of the stories are anchored around the lives of middle class women, their struggles, fears, frustrations and their inability to extricate themselves from the tough situations they are stuck, and in the end settle for a compromise.

She has pointed a few of her stories as her favorite stories to me. However, the one story that captured my attention is aadavaalla pettelo prayaanam [Traveling in a ladies’ compartment]. This story brought to the fore her personality as I found during our conversation in September 2009. As I stated earlier, she is full of zest. That is evident in this story. Therefore, I decided to translate it for you. I hope you’ll enjoy the story as much as I did.

Publications of Sivaraju Subbalakshmi:

Novels:

Adrushta rekha

Neelam getu ayyagaru

Teerpu

Anthologies of short stories:

Kavyasundari katha

Odduku cherina keratam.

Manovyadhiki mandundi

Magatajeevi chivari chuupu

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

Photo of Subbalakshmi garu by V.B. Sowmya.

 

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.

(End)

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

 

Dr. Utukuri Lakshmikantamma by Nidadavolu Malathi.

Kalaprapoorna Dr. Utukuri Lakshmikantamma, (1917-1996) was a rare combination of several talents from reciting poetry extempore in Sanskrit and Telugu to martial arts such as fencing, stick fighting and horse riding.

Lakshmikantamma was born on December 21, 1917, in a sophisticated family of scholars and social activists. Her father Nalam Krishna Rao was a reputable poet, journalist, and active participant in the social reform movements of his time. He was the founder-president of Gautami Granthalayam, one of the oldest and highly acclaimed libraries in the state. Her mother Nalam Suseelamma participated in her husband’s activities and was the founder of Andhra Mahila Gaana sabha [Andhra Music society]. One of her distant aunts, Battula Kamakshamma, was founder of Arya Seva Sadanam, which was converted to Andhra Yuvati Sanskruta Kalasala [Sanskrit College for Women] later. Against this background, it is no surprise that Lakshmikantamma became actively involved in political and social movements at an early age.

In her childhood, she used to play boys’ sports along with her brothers and their friends. At the age of seven, she started learning vocal and veena. By twelve, Lakshmikantamma was already an exhilarating speaker. She used to deliver electrifying speeches and sing patriotic songs. Crowds would hold their breath and listen to her speech or singing.

She was married at thirteen to Utukuri Hayagriva Gupta, a lawyer and six years senior. They had their first child in 1935 but the baby lived only for six months. Of the eleven children the couple had, five children—three boys and two girls—grew up to be well educated and well settled in life.

At eighteen, she graduated from the Sanskrit College run by her aunt Kamakshamma and received the degree, ubhaya bhashaa praveena, an attestation of scholarship in two languages, Sanskrit and Telugu. The same year, she was bestowed with two titles, Telugu molaka [Telugu sprout] and vidwat kavayitri [Poet of excellence]. Lakshmikantamma, who had been named “Sahiti Rudrama” [Queen Rudramadevi in literature] by Devulapalli Ramanuja Rao, President of Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi, was the proud recipient of ten more titles including kalaprapoorna (awarded by Andhra University, 1976), Andhra saraswati, dharma prachaara bharati, and sangeeta sahitya kalanidhi, in addition to honorary doctorate. Mention must be made of two felicitations, kanakabhishekam [being showered with gold] and gajaarohanam [Elephant ride], which are normally associated with royalty of the past and rather unusual in modern times. To my knowledge, Lakshmikantamma was the only author to be honored with these two felicitations.

She was actively involved in several literary and social organizations such as Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academi, Telugu Bhasha Samiti, Andhra University Senate, Viswa Hindu Parishat, Andhra Pradesh Arya Vysya Sabha, Gautami Granthalayam library in Rajahmundry, Stri Hitaishini Mandali [Women’s Welfare organization in Bapatla], Andhra Yuvati Sanskrit College, Guild of Service, Central Sahitya Academi, and and many more. This list is sufficient to emphasize the wide array of her interests and accomplishments.

Lakshmikantamma possessed a versatile and exhilarating personality. In her autobiography, she stated that she would keep laughing always. Pilaka Ganapati Sastry, who became a famous novelist later, was her teacher for a brief period. At the time, he was still young and shy. Lakshmikantamma was amused while he was teaching Sakuntala, a play, and kept laughing. It was disconcerting to Ganapati Sastry. Later, he told her father, Krishna Rao, that, “I used to pick from her laughter, the in depth meaning and beauty of poetry in Kalidasa’s poetry and bless her in my own mind.” (Sahiti Rudrama, p. 43).

Lakshmikantamma’s father was a follower of Brahma samajam, which rejects polytheism and promotes one god theory. Her mother Suseelamma believed in Hindu tradition. However she changed some of her religious practices to please her husband, she wrote in her article pavitra smruthulu [Pious memories] published in Yugapurushudu Veeresalingam published in Veeresalingam Satajayanti sanchika, Hyderabad.

Ever since she was a teen, Lakshmikantamma had been living active public life. She was attending public forums, literary meets and conferences and delivering stimulating and scholarly speeches. Writing and publishing came much later, early 1950’s to be specific.

The circumstances surrounding her first book, Andhra kavayitrulu are interesting. In 1953, Telugu Bhasha Samiti [Telugu Literary Guild], Madras, announced a competition and invited writers to write a book on Telugu women poets. Lakshmikantamma’s husband, Mr. Gupta, and several friends suggested she should write the book. Lakshmikantamma however was not interested. She said, “Reputable scholar Veeresalingam compiled the book Telugu kavulu [Telugu poets] in which he had included about six hundred writers. In it, he mentioned only five or six women poets. If you look carefully, you may find only one hundred poets worth mentioning and possibly one of them would be a woman. I do not want to take that one poet and hold up to the world, and thereby expose that we have no women poets worth mentioning.” (sahiti rudrama, p.81.) Then, one of her close friends, Boddupalli Purushottam suggested that she could at least make an effort to see if there were more women poets. Convinced by his argument, she set out to search for women poets. She traveled to famous libraries in other places like Vetapalem, Madras, and Tanjore, and went through thousands of magazines such as gruhalakshmi, Hindusundari and literally unearthed 264 women poets who had produced excellent works. Lakshmikantamma’s very first book was a first prize winner in a competition held by a reputable literary guild, Telugu Bhasha Samiti.

In the history of Telugu literature, this book Andhra Kavayitrulu is the only comprehensive work on women poets to date. This is being used as a valuable reference tool by research scholars. Arudra, an established writer and researcher, used it as a source for writing about women poets Molla and Mohanangi in his samagra Andhra sahityam.

The second edition of Andhra kavayitrulu, published in 1980, included only 86 poets. In her preface to the second edition, some of the comments made by the author are worth quoting. Lakshmikantamma stated that she herself was not sure if she could revive the enthusiasm and the style she had evinced while working on the first edition. She was somewhat disappointed by the prevalent perceptions regarding education, language and scholarship in the country. In the past, scholarship was respected. Now (at the time producing the second edition) the shrinking respect for classical poetry in the face of growing interest in fiction is discouraging. Lakshmikantamma also mentioned the cost of paper and printing. Personally, I am sad that money should play such crucial role in publishing the second edition. The second edition included only 86 poets as opposed to more than 200 poets (I have only the second edition on hand for reference). In any case, I sincerely hope that Andhra Pradesh Akademi or some other literary organization would undertake publication of the full version before it is lost totally. At this writing, the book is out of print. And it is too valuable to neglect.

Having said that, I need to address a couple of other comments on some entries in this work, Andhra kavayitrulu. One of them is the authenticity of the claim that Krishnadeva rayalu had a daughter named Mohanangi and she authored a book, marichi parinayam. Lakshmikantamma devoted six pages to Mohanangi and marichi parinayam in her book.  Arudra took this information and incorporated in his book, samagra Andhra sahityam [Complete History of Andhra Literature]. However, while writing about Mohanangi, Arudra wrote, “They say Mohanangi was daughter of Krishnadeva rayalu.” By shifting the speaker to an unverifiable “they”, it would appear, he was not sure if that was authenticated. He did not clearly contradict Lakshmikantamma’s statement though. In 2002, I met with two reputable scholars, Dr. Nayani Krishnakumari and Dr. Kolavennu Malayavasini. They both stated that there was no verifiable evidence to show that Krishnadeva rayalu had a daughter, and that the authorship of marichi parinayam had not been established unequivocally.

A second comment on Lakshmikantamma’s work was by Sangidasu Srinivas who commented that Lakshmikantamma had not given full credit to a poet named Kuppambika (Andhra Jyothy September 22, 2008 Vividha page).

My position is scholars usually set parameters for themselves and work within those parameters. Lakshmikantamma went to great lengths, researched all the sources available to her at the time and recorded the data. Other researchers may find more information or different perceptions in course of time. That does not mean that the work done by earlier researcher, whether it is Lakshmikantamma or another scholar, is less significant. It is quite normal for latter researchers to find more evidence or lack thereof and add further to the existing data.

Lakshmikantamma’s works fall broadly into four categories. 1. Classical poetry in Telugu and Sanskrit; 2. Modern poetry; 3. Essays and biography, and, 4. Plays.

In Sanskrit, she authored kanyaka parameswari sthavam, extempore, in praise of the goddess Kanyaka. It is being recited as invocation prayer in the morning in several temples of Kanyaka across the state. (Vijnan Kumar. Personal correspondence, dated September 22, 2008). Another work of her in Sanskrit is Devi sthava taraavali in praise of goddess Devi.

In the book, naa Telugu Manchalaa, [My Telugu Manchala], 98 pages, Lakshmikantamma portrays Manchala as a 16-year old, intelligent woman endowed with remarkable beauty and sense of patriotism. The story is popularly known in Andhra Pradesh as that of Balachandrudu, Manchala’s husband.  His mother, Prolama would want her son to go to war and earn her the title hero-mother (veeramaata) on one hand and, on the other, her maternal instinct would want him to stay home. In a strategic move, she sent him to his wife, Manchala, hoping her beauty would prevail and keep him at home. Manchala on the contrary provoked him in a cleverly manipulative language, and sent him to the battlefield. The verses are written in simple Telugu yet powerful in conveying the various rasas as appropriate in different stages. Lakshmikantamma had mentioned in the preface that there might be some stylistic lapses in terms of meter.

Kanthi sikharaalu is a collection of devotional lyrics, imbibing the tenets of Brahma samajam, which she had followed fervently in her teen years. The author stated in her preface that her inspiration for writing these lyrics was the singing by well-known romantic poet, Devulapalli Krishna Sastry. The language is simple and lucid, which appeal to all, scholars and non-scholars alike.

Okka chinna divve [A Small Lamp] is a collection of seventeen long poems, presented as a tribute to Gandhi. In her preface, she stated that she had the opportunity to participate in Gandhi’s non-violence movementi in her teen years (about 13 to 19 years of age), which contributed immensely in defining her values of patriotism and service. Additionally, she chose the title A Small Lamp to accentuate her respect for Gandhi, although not all the lyrics were about Gandhi. It included other topics such as a Telugu New Year day, Diwali, soldiers, and an invitation to youth. Some of them were written in semi-classical style with complex, descriptive phrases, and others in near colloquial style.

To me, this variation in style seems to point to the shift from classical to free verse that has been taking place at the time not only in her writings but in the country in general.

On a slightly different note, I would like to mention Lakshmikantamma’s comments on language as stated in her autobiography. She stated that while she was teaching maha bharata in Bapatla College, prominent linguistics professor, Bhadriraju Krishnamurthy, attended her classes. Impressed by her scholastic excellence, Krishnamurthy invited her to speak at a literary meet in Ongole. There she went out of the way from lecturing on Maha Bharata and introduced a new argument that Telugu language originated from Dravidian languages. Later Professor Krishnamurthy met with her and obtained detailed information about her argument and incorporated in his course content for second year M.A. (Sahiti Rudrama, p. 92-93).

The title of the book, kanyakamma nivaali, literally means a tribute to the goddess Kanyaka. Inside however, it is a collection of short verses, 3 lines and the caption Oh Kanyakamma. Most of the poems are humorous and/or sarcastic comments on contemporary lifestyle and society. A few of them are serious observations. The author writes in her preface that she was inspired by Koonalamma padaalu written by Arudra.

Saraswati samraayja vaibhavam, [23 pages], is a one-act play, which incorporated some well-known poems from the published works. It presents on one platform nine women poets, who lived at different times from 13 to 20th centuries. Additionally, the author introduces two secondary characters partly as comic relief in step with the practice in stage plays. The poets recite poems from their best works both in Telugu and Sanskrit.

Lakshmikantamma’s works of history and literary criticism include Andhra kavayitrulu [Andhra female poets], Akhila Bharata Kavayitrulu [All India female poets], Andhrula keertana kalaa seva [Service of the Andhra people to music], naa videsa paryatana anubhavaalu [My Experiences during my tours to other countries], contributions to Vijnana Sarvasvam [articles in Telugu Encyclopedia], and numerous articles published in reputable journals. Unpublished works as of 1993: Story of Chandramati [Children’s book], Sahitya vyasa manjari [Literary essays], and Rutambari [prose ballad].

She also translated Humayun Kabir’s essays in English (Our country’s history and the lessons learned), and Hindi dohas by Kabir, Tulasi Binda and Rahim. She edited classical works, Molla Ramayanam and Vishnu parijata yakshagaanam. She wrote more than one thousand prefaces to books by other writers.

In her autobiography, Lakshmikantamma mentioned that at the beginning of her literary career, she published her poems under the pseudonym ‘Krishnakumari’. Soon after, her husband suggested that she should publish her poetry in her own name since they were so good. She did so, although she used yet another pseudonym ‘sukanchana’ for her story, Korala madhya koti swargaalu [Ten million heavens stuck between fangs], included in kathamandaram, an anthology of short stories published in 1968.

I think a brief note on her multifarious involvement in women’s organizations, social movements and public events, is appropriate here. She was a great speaker, fundraiser, organizer of literary meets and associations, active participant in charitable events, and herself a kind and generous individual. She was a driving force in women writers’ conferences at state and national level, had attended international women writers’ conferences, and was a sitting member at legislative council in two universities and various literary organs at the state and national level. She was honored at international women writers meets also. (I had the honor of being on stage with Lakshmikantamma at Andhra Women Writers Conferences in 1968 and 1969 and receive mementoes from her.). Sri Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, Hyderabad, produced a documentary on her life. University of Toronto, Canada, collected complete works of Lakshmikantamma. Her work had been research topic for doctoral dessertation.

I would like to go on a limb here and comment on her activities in her community. In an age when “caste” is considered a bad word, it is pleasing to note Lakshmikantamma’s involvement and contribution to Arya Vysya mahasabha [Business community in the scheme of societal breakdown based on Hindu beliefs]. She made no apology for being part of her community, and showed how the community spirit could be instrumental in bringing people together. This is particularly relevant in the context of her growing up with her father, who was a staunch Brahmo samaj follower.

In her autobiography, Lakshmikantamma listed some of her writings as “works unable to succeed”. I went through the list of books Lakshmikantamma had listed as “not successful”.

I am not sure what made her come to that conclusion. For instance, in the same list, she stated that Naa Telugu Manchala had received the Telugu University award and had been prescribed as textbook in St. Teresa’s college, Eluru. Her Sanskrit poem, kanyakaa parameswari suprabhatam is being recited in several temples of Kanyaka as daily morning prayers. That being the case, I must assume she was referring to the success as understood in modern times, which would bring me to comment on the definition of success.

In today’s world, success is correlated to sales. A parallel example would be a critically acclaimed movie failing at box office. Probably it is the same with books. Additionally, in Andhra Pradesh, book sales do not always reflect the actual readership. For one thing, buying books is not common in Andhra Pradesh, possibly because of our belief in free dissemination of knowledge, an idea sustained by oral tradition. Secondly, one book bought by one person is read not just by that one person but by other family members and friends also. Thus the number of books sold does not always reflect the number of readers for that one book.

At the risk of repetition, I would like to add a note on Lakshmikantamma’s major works. The books, Andhra kavayitrulu, first edition featuring pen portraits of more than 200 female poets from 13th to 20th centuries, Andhra sahitya vijnana sarvasam, originally compiled by her father, Krishna Rao, and which she later edited with annotations by her, Akhila Bharata kavayitrulu [All India Women Poets], and sahiti rudruma (Autobiography) remain landmarks in the history of Telugu literature.

This article is not comprehensive but a modest attempt to provide a brief introduction to the accomplishments of a versatile poet of our times. To present a comprehensive analysis of her accomplishments is beyond the scope of this article. My hope is to motivate readers to go to the original sources and learn more about this remarkable woman and poet. Those who are interested in further study of Lakshmikantamma’s multifarious personality and work may find the list attached as an addendum to her autobiography, Sahiti Rudrama useful.

Additionally, I believe that publication of Lakshmikantamma’s complete works with annotations and preserving it for posterity would be a welcome undertaking and service to Telugu literary and cultural service. This is particularly vital in the light of dwindling abilities of the current generation to appreciate classical, semi-classical and modern literature produced by our immediate predecessors.

She had been awarded twelve honorary titles, marking her literary achievements.

Once again, I am thankful to Vijnan Kumar, third son of Lakshmikantamma, for kindly lending me the books, which were immensely helpful in writing this article.

(End)

Source List (Works by Dr. Utukuri Lakshmikantamma, published by author)

Andhra kavayitrulu. 2d ed. 1980.

Kaanti sikharaalu. 1978.

Kanyakamma nivaali. 1978.

Oka chinna divve. 1980

Naa Telugu Manchala. 1981.

Sahiti Rudrama. 1993.

Saraswati saamrayja vaibhavam. 1988.

Other works:

Samsmruti (In her memory). Bapatla: Smaraka samiti, 1997.

Suseelamma, Nalam. Pavitra smruthulu. Yugapurushudu Veeresalingam. Hyderabad: Kandukuri Veeresalingam smarakotsvamula sangham. n.d. pp. 93-96.

 

Complete list of her works:

Works by Utukuri Lakshmikanthamma.

 

Andhra Kavayitrulu. 1953

Akhila Bharata racayitrulu. Sahitya Akademi, 1963

Andhrula Keertana Kala Seva [Andhra People’s contribution to the art of music]

Sri Kanyaka parameswari Suprabhatam [Sanskrit verses extoling the virtues of the goddess, Kanyaka]

Devi stava taravali [Verses praising Devi]

Jathi pitha [Father of the nation]

Sadukti manjari [Book of good words spoken by Hindi poets, Kabir, Tulsi das, and Vinda Rahim]

Bharatadesa charitra, konni guna paathamulu. [History of India, some lessons learned]

Kanti sikharalu. [Devotional songs]

Mahila ikrama suktam

Mana sahiti madhu bharati [Ballad]

Kanyakamma nivali [Poetry, satiric comments on modern day society]

Okka chinna divve [A Small lamp, poems]

Naa Telugu Manchala [Manchala, My Telugu hero]

Lajja kireety dharini [The Woman, who wore shame as her crown]

Naa videsa paryatana anubhavalu [[My experiences of foreign tours]

 

Articles contributed to Sangraha Andhra Vignana Sarwaswam [Complete Telugu Encyclopedia]

 

Saraswati samrajya vaidbhavam. [One act play]

Sahiti Rudrama [Autobiography]

 

Fiction.

Korala madhyana koti swaragalu

Chikati rajyam.

 

Unpublished books

Story of Chandramati [Children’s book]

Sahitya vyasa manjari [Anthology of literary essays]

Rutambari [Prose ballad]

Edited

Molla Ramayanam

Vishnu parijata yakshaganam

 

Prefaces for over 1000 books

Delivered over 3000 speeches on a wide variety of topics in literature, and Hindu religion.

(This article has been written by Nidadavolu Malathi and published originally on thulika.net, September, 2008.)

Bucchibabu (review) by Nidadavolu Malathi

Bucchibabu (Sivaraju Venkata Subba Rao) is one of the famous writers from the forties through sixties, in Andhra Pradesh, India.

Bucchibabu was born in Eluru, Andhra Pradesh, received his master’s degree in English literature, and worked as lecturer in English in Anantapur and Vizag. Later he joined the All India Radio, Madras. He was married to writer Sivaraju Subbalakshmi at the age of 19.

Bucchibabu is one of the top-ranking fiction writers, playwright and essayist  in the history of Telugu literature. He is especially known for his style, which is two-fold–psychoanalytical approach and his poetic expression. He is the first author to introduce the psychoanalytical technique in Telugu fiction.

In his preface to his most famous novel, chivaraku migiledi [What is left at the End], author says that although he started to write it in 1943, its publication began only in 1946. It was published in Navodaya monthly in installments’ for a period of 16 months. The novel has received praise from prominent writers like Achanta Saradadevi and Pilaka Ganapathi Sastry. In 1952, a publishing company Desi kavita mandali published it in book form. Later in 1970, EMESCO published it in two volumes.

In recent times, the composition and habits of readership and the methodology of critics have changed considerably. In the light of these changes, I would like to attempt to revisit this famous novel. Also, since I have introduced a few eminent writers on this site, and Bucchibabu belongs in that category, it is only appropriate I discuss his  most famous novel, chivaraku migiledi.

Like several other writers of his time, Bucchibabu became acquainted with the romantic genre of the nineteenth century Britain, and we notice that romantic element prominently featured in his narratives.

The novel chivaraku migiledi [What is left at the End] has received a permanent place in history of Telugu fiction as the first psychoanalytical novel. The author has stated some of his motivation to write this novel as follows:

1. Every writer gets complete satisfaction only after sharing his inner feelings with the public; only then, it [the work] ascertains its value and attains the status of social conscious work.

2. In writing this novel, he hopes that it helps the reader to obtain a perspective on life.

3. The protagonist’s mother’s tarnished character followed him as a shadow through out his life and polluted it. In confronting his mother’s violation, he gains some values and this novel reflects some affinity with those values.

4. He also wonders whether readers could find if they could experience the writer’s ability to depict his passion for knowledge with complete honesty.

5. Bertrand Russell’s article, A Freeman’s Worship, has transformed him [Bucchibabu] and his perception of life completely. The readers however must beware that he was not mindful of either Russell or the article in question at the time of writing this novel.

The EMESCO publishers stated in their introduction to the novel that this novel illustrates in detail how children would lose the opportunity to grow and be ruined by the sins committed by their parents.

I have read this novel in my younger days but I do not remember what kind of impression I had formed at the time. Now, after reading it for a second time, it would appear to me that the technique of psychoanalysis and the poetic quality in the descriptions are the elements that brought enormous fame to this work. And, the author’s postulation on life, as the author himself pointed out in his preface also is worth considering.

Basically, the story revolves round the protagonist’s psychoanalysis of other characters in the story. Dayanidhi, the protagonist, suffers as a result of his mother’s moral transgression, which we know only as rumors but not the real event itself.

In his college days, Dayanidhi meets several women in his village and reflects about their personalities. He suffers because he has heard rumors about his mother’s character. After he has obtained his degree in medicine, he moves to another part of the state, Anantapur, to practice medicine. He strikes rich in Anantapur not because of his professional excellence but by stumbling on diamonds. However, he is not happy in Anantapur either. He feels regional prejudices and local politics put him at a disadvantage. At the end, he concludes that he has been left with nothing but memories in life.

Into this brief story, other characters and events are woven. To me, Dayanidhi comes out as a self-ordained philosopher and the novel a record of his reflections. He keeps psychoanalyzing each person he had come across in his life from the start to finish. The characters came under his scrutiny are his mother, and young women Komali, Amrutham, Suseela, Indira, Nagamani, and Katyayini.

Dayanidhi admires his mother greatly. He even has her statue made and installed in his town. At the same time however he also blames her for all his problems in life. We do not know and not even Dayanidhi knows the details of her transgression, whether anything has happened at all. All that we know is only the rumors as stated by Dayanidhi. The author has stated in his preface that the events that led to her immoral behavior were considered irrelevant and left out. Readers may accept this explanation yet may question why Dayanidhi, a rationalist and thinker, makes no effort, shows not even an interest in digging deeper and finding the truth. There is no desire on his part to understand her perspective, and no attempt to improve his life by using the new knowledge he could have acquired by such probing. It is hard to believe that a seeker of truth would jump to conclusion regarding his mother’s behavior based on the rumors he had heard. Dayanidhi seems to be anxious only to justify his own behavior: He lied because another woman made him do so, his life turned into hell because his mother behaved badly, and so on. Through out the novel, we see only his belief that he is not responsible for his life; it is always somebody else’s fault.

Dayanidhi’s relationship with other young women is also a bit confusing. He gets close to Amrutham, because she resembles his mother in some ways. She invites him to visit her; he goes to meet her. They will have sex, which confirms his perception of the resemblance between his mother and Amrutham. Actually, Amrutham came to him on her own. Both of them surrendered to a momentary excitement and had their wish fulfilled. It is not Amrutham’s fault exclusively. Nevertheless, in Dayanidhi’s mind, Amrutham crossed the line and committed the same sin his mother had committed. She became pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl. The strange part is, it does not occur to him that his daughter will have to undergo the same fate as he has been living and for the same reason, a mother’s sin. Additionally, he goes crazy wondering whether the baby girl is his or not. He goes back to Amrutham’s house but does not have the courage to ask her. At this point, I would question his integrity.

Komali is another woman that has fascinated him. In his opinion, Komali is not a woman but a part of nature like the green grass and the sky. She invites him to meet her at the village well, tells him that she would light a lamp to notify her presence. Dayanidhi goes to the well but returns home without even laying a finger on her. In his mind, Komali is like a flower; the petals might drop on touch; he cannot taint her piety. He puts some money under the pillow and walks away. The truth is, he only wants her but does not love her. The desire is physical as opposed love which is anchored in the heart. In desire, there is selfishness; in love, there is sacrifice. Komali loves him but he only desires her–these are some of the thoughts he entertains, the outcome of his psychoanalysis.

After finishing novel, I found it hard to believe that Komali is naive. Her approach appears to be more pragmatic than emotional. She has shown more worldly wisdom in assessing her situation and following the path that works best for her.

In his psychoanalysis, Dayanidhi often includes the women’s physical attributes, which make one wonder whether his passion for knowledge and understanding of them is only about their character. If author’s aim is to inform the readers only Dayanidhi’s character through his physical descriptions of women and his opinions but not about the intrinsic values the characters cherish, I must admit the author has succeeded.

Suseela is his uncle’s daughter, a cross-cousin thus eligible bride, considering how the relationships in Andhra Pradesh play out. Her father however refuses to give his daughter in marriage to Dayanidhi because of the rumors about his mother. Dayanidhi’s father arranges his marriage with Indira. Indira’s father performs the wedding yet refuses to send her to live with Dayanidhi. When Dayanidhi visits her, she begs him to take her with him but he remains passive. Once again, reader does not see him as an educated, intelligent individual who needs to act in order to make a life both for his wife and himself.

He strongly believes and revels in the thought that all the women around him are aching for his company  and struggling to catch him endlessly but never attempts to put his beliefs to test and verify if there is a truth in his beliefs. According to his assessment, Komali is a part of nature, Suseela is a part of urban life, Amrutham is a down-to-earth person, kitchen cow, just like his mother; they all are hunting him and robbing him of his peace of mind. Actually it is in the nature itself–women hunt men and enjoy in the process.

Suseela and Amrutham get married eventually and start their lives with their husbands. Komali  realizes that she cannot find happiness with Dayanidhi, goes away with a zamindar, who ill-treats her. She leaves him and returns to Dayanidhi. Dayanidhi believes that she has come back to him because of her selfless devotion to him. To me, it seems like, she has understood that Dayanidhi is incapable of violence, and for that reason, she is safe with him. Whether she is naive or pretending to be naive in order to make her life comfortable for herself is a moot point. It is a bit surprising that Dayanidhi has not noticed that angle.

After he has completed his education, he moves to Rayalaseema to start practice as doctor. There also he finds no peace, because of the rumors about his mother and the new rumors that he has some bad habits. The fact that he has not brought his wife with him haunts him. In Anantapur, he strikes rich not through his professional excellence but because of a diamond he found rather accidentally.

Bucchibabu is known for his romantic style. That comes out strongly in Dayanidhi’s reflections on the women he had come across in his life.

His description of  Komali is as follows:

Komali is the kind of person who should be bumping around amidst blades of grass, befriending the earth and the sky, tending them and fondling them. That is the place for her truly. Green grass is her natal home, the sky her in-law’s. The yew trees sit her and shower her with the water they have sucked in the rainy season. The wind sticks a shameless silly flower in her hair forcibly. Blades of grass, which tie up the red flowers together, glimmer in the sun because of the wind in harmony like a green silk sari, which is laid in the sun to dry; it dries up and wraps around Komali. She is the godliness which knows no confusing, desirous sadism and which has no hunger or thirst; she is the  experience that knows no boundaries.”

In his description of Amrutham again, we the unusual metaphors he is so famous for:

Amrutham is a person that must be living amidst stone relics. In some place like Hampi – where all stones, broken sculptures, lonely stone pillars, like princess whose heart has turned to stone for love, and the relics lay around as if they might move if a sigh or footsteps are heard; Amrutham sits amidst the relics and smiles sadly. When one cries and cries and reminisces the glory of the past experiences, her tears slide down the breast drop by drop and turn into today’ river and flow. Her sorrow turns into a river and drown the body – that’s wrong! She should not cry – she laughs with sadness. On that day, her beauty completes its journey and turns her into stone. Amrutham, like tears spilled in one’s sleep, turns into water, when one moves any one of those relics with a sigh.

The descriptions highlight Bucchibabu’s use of metaphors, which at times are confusing. He himself suggested that readers should not be mindful of religion and blind faith while reading this novel. However life is a conglomeration of pleasure and pain, good and bad, hardships, tears, and other mundane issues. If we read this novel from that perspective, Komali, Suseela and Amrutham are the only characters that are closer to the people we come across in real life situations. They seem to understand life in all its complexity, reorganize their lives to the extent possible given their situations and live the best they know how.

The entire novel is a record of Dayanidhi’s psychoanalysis. Since it continued as a philosophical catechism, it appears more like a compilation of quotes from earlier philosophers or a list of adages. There is little action on the part of the protagonist and more cogitation and postulation. Author mentions in his foreword that it is a weakness or a characteristic present in every human being.

Life is a journey from birth to death. This novel ends with Dayanidhi’s conclusion that life has no meaning, and that nothing is left at the end but memories. I am not sure what kind of memories he is referring to.

One of the virtues of this novel is Bucchibabu’s style as mentioned earlier. Her we see shades of the romantic poetry which gained prominence in the forties decade in Andhra Pradesh. At times, even the story seem to leave the ground and frolic in the air, as the saying goes.

An important angle in this novel is the immoral behavior of his mother, or, rather the rumors of her immoral behavior, and his strong conviction that his life had been ruined because of those rumors. Secondly, his belief that mutual hatred between different societies, Sarcar district and Rayalaseema area to be specific, do influence the individuals in question. Bucchibabu says that society and the antagonistic powers are the reasons for a person for not being able to receive love. As an extension of these opinions, we also find a suggestion that love in supra-mundane and loftier than everything else.

I would like to mention briefly another novel by another prominent writer Lata. Two decades after Bucchibabu’s novel has been published, Lata published her novel migilindemiti [What is left].

Bucchibabu wrote a letter to Lata commenting on her novel. Some of the opinions he expressed in his letter are worth noting. He said:

1. I finished reading the book, skipping some parts. I had felt excitement, surprise and some sensuous [sic] feeling.

2. In the novel the parts that I find objectionable are: Vidya, a prostitute, comments that her mother is purer than a respectable family woman. I think this statement is unnecessary. Her [mother’s] chastity is irrelevant to the story; Vidya was born to that kind of mother yet cherished a plausible moral perspective. In that sense, chastity strikes a “falsetto note”.

He continues, “If somebody else had narrated the impropriety Vidya had perpetrated with Raja in the hospital, it would have been less sharp and more polite. I am also one of those who believe that a bit of impropriety and offensiveness in life and literature are necessary. However, it is going to take very long time before our society gets to that level.” (Anjaneya Sarma. sahitilata. p. 86.). In fact, the incident between Raja and Vidya (having inappropriate sex) is no different from what Dayanidhi and Amrutham had done. In both the instances, they got carried away and engaged in inappropriate sex without thinking. In both instances, the issue is same, that of having inappropriate sex. Both the writers used the same language. That being the case, why did Bucchibabu make a point of commenting on it?

Possibly Bucchibabu changed his opinion since there is a twenty-year lapse between the publication dates of the two novels. Or, he (Bucchibabu) considered the character of  Dayanidhi is significantly different from that of Vidya. I think this is one of the instances where the argument that critics are biased towards male writers gains support.

Bucchibabu has discussed about love in Lata’s novel at length also but I could not follow his argument. Therefore, I will stay away from that subject. There is one point however that is a bit strange to me. He suggested that if the novel was written in second person in stead of first person, it would have received a kind of dignity and harmony. I am not sure if it is possible to write a novel in second person,

Chivaraku migiledi is narrated in third person. However since it is a narrative of the protagonist’s psychology, it reads like a first person narration. I agree that there are advantages in writing a narrative in the first person. However, when we study the two novels in juxtaposition, I see no justification for this kind of grammar applications.

In short, there is no correlation between what Bucchibabu has achieved as a writer and the opinions he has expressed as a erudite reader.

Bucchibabu says the purpose of literature is to provoke reader into thinking. After I finished reading the novel, chivaraku migiledi, I had to think hard about the message in the novel.

In the past, Telugu literature created characters that are supposed to be models for the people to follow. In modern times, the protagonists are created based on common man, based on democratic principles. I have no problem with that. However, I am not sure I would suggest that is the model for general populace. I could be wrong but the first thoughts that came to my mind are: Is he saying that the mode of thinking in men is this narrow? Among men, there may be some who think like Dayanidhi? If one sits around and continues to analyze life in this fashion, can a person accomplish anything in life? Or, that is what he wants us to understand, that we need action-oriented individuals.

Among his essays, there is one essay, nannu marchina pustakam [the book that has changed me] has received tremendous success. In the essay, he explains how Bertrand Russell’s article, A freeman’s worship changed his perspective on life. He has read this article while he was in college and was grappling with fundamental issues like what is the meaning of life and what is the relationship man and god. In his essay, he explains how he has moved away from the preconceived religious notions such as “I am sinner, I sinned and therefore I will go to hell,” and learned to appreciate the beauty of life. Despite his claim that this novel has nothing to do with Russell’s article, some of the words spoken by Dayanidhi seem to be very close to Russell’s philosophy. This only shows the extent of the influence of Russell’s writings on Bucchibabu.

Although my critique is somewhat harsh, that by no means undercuts Bucchibabu’s place in Telugu literature. This is just an attempt to present one more perspective, a different approach and raise a few more questions, partly because I am not knowledgeable in the area of psychoanalytical novels.

This novel has been made into a movie by the same name in 1960.

He has written several famous short stories, novels, radio plays and critical essays. His paintings also are well received. Among his other works that received critical acclaim are nirantara trayam (Endless triad), atma vanchana (Self-delusion, a play), nannu gurinchi katha rayavuu?(Won’t you write a story about me?). He has won Sahitya akademi award for his critical study on Shakespeare.

At stated at the outset, this novel has a permanent place in the history of Telugu fiction as an experimental work. In my opinion, the purpose of an experiment is only to find the result. After that, we do not repeat the same experiment. This novel as an experiment got my attention. On the other hand, if a novel fascinates me, I will read again. I do  not think I will read this again. Having said that, I must admit there are plenty of Telugu readers who swear by this book Several readers have said that they had read several times and still are reading.

(End)

(The article was originally published on thulika.net, July 2012)

Sources:

Anjaneya Sarma, Ghatti. Sahitilata., Vijayawada: Sri Vani prachuranalayam, 1962.

Bucchibabu. Chivaraku migiledi. Hyderabad: EMESCO Books, v.2. 1972.

—            Nannu marchina pustakam. 1953. reprint.

Lata: Antaranga chitram. Vijayawada: Vamsi prachuranalu. 1963.

—   Migilindemiti. Vijayawada: Jayanti publications, 1971.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sivaraju_Venkata_Subbarao

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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.)

 

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

 

Dynamics of Transcultural transference: Translating from Telugu to English by Malathi Nidadavolu

After arriving in the U.S. in 1973, I became intensely aware of the incongruities on the surface in the two cultures—American and Indian—and the commonalities beneath. Hit by culture shock, and encouraged by my American friends, I launched the website, www.thulika.net, in an attempt to demystify the stereotypical perceptions, identify the underlying commonalities in our beliefs and customs. Reasons developed in course of time include the interests of the current generation Telugu youth: those who cannot read Telugu script and those who have gotten used to English so well that they are comfortable reading the stories in English. Additionally, the site has been recognized as a valuable source for scholars in multicultural education and Telugu literature by the academy globally.

Selection criteria have been based on: The stories that reflect our intrinsic values as opposed to the values newly developed in recent times; those that explain the age-old customs specific to Telugu culture; and the stories that lend themselves to translation reasonably well.

Problematic areas in translation experienced relate to: Native flavor, dialectal variations, phrases peculiar to Telugu, proverbs, (those that are easily translatable and those that are not), humor, and structure and the Linguistic areas: Pronouns, forms of address, and grammar, especially tense. I have gained valuable experience from my interaction with the authors of source texts and critics. In the summer of 1978, I started teaching Telugu as Second Language at the university of Wisconsin-Madison. While working with the students and talking to my friends at the university, I noticed the stereotypical perceptions prevalent in America. The repeated questions I was asked reminded me of typecasting we, the Telugu people, did. It made me think of ways to dispel some of the misconceptions at least. Being a writer, I wanted to pass on our stories, which would reflect the fundamental values we cherish in our culture and the broader spectrum of our writers in the process to the non-Telugu readers.

Before launching my website, I researched what was available in translations. My findings confirmed my belief that Telugu fiction is conspicuous by absence on the international literary scene. Very little Telugu fiction was available in the media and on the Internet, although there was considerable amount of fiction from other Indian languages. 2. There was no systematic attempt to illustrate the broad range of our writers in a coherent and comprehensive manner. 3. The translations were always of the stories by a few reputed authors, which meant ignoring other excellent stories by less known writers. 4. In the published translations, there seemed to be an assumption that the readers were familiar with our language and culture. To put it in another way, the academic journals and the web magazines had been catering either to the pan-Indian readers or to the foreign readers, who have some knowledge of Indian culture. However, there was no well-organized, concerted effort to translate modern Telugu fiction in a cohesive manner, catering to the readers who were not familiar with our culture. To my knowledge, the published works in translation had not reached the readers outside India, particularly outside the academy. Further, the academy appeared to be focused on ancient poetry, especially the romantic poetry in translations to the detriment of fiction.

I was convinced that there was a dire need to present Telugu fiction in English to the global audience, especially those who had not been familiar with our language and culture. With that in mind, I launched the website, thulika.net in June 2001, creating a platform exclusively devoted to modern Telugu fiction, and introducing the broader spectrum of the intellectual richness and the talent of several writers from Andhra Pradesh to the global audience.

My next step was to examine the readers’ preferences. I understood that people read stories from another culture not only to appreciate the intellectual perceptions prevalent in that country but also to draw parallels from everyday lives and comprehend how the problems in question were dealt with in other cultures. Suffering is universal; happiness is universal; so also a host of other issues in human life. One good example is marriage. Americans are curious about arranged marriages and our media plays up to their curiosity. Sad but true is the fact that most of these stories make no attempt to explain the underlying principle of the arranged marriages or why the custom was put in place to begin with, how it plays out in times of adversity and the recent metamorphosis of the custom in modern times.  After watching the wedding process in America, I have concluded that, in a marriage, the most important aspect is not how you arrive there but what you would do to make it work. In both the cultures, keeping a marriage together is hard work. Thus, my primary goal has not been to criticize one culture or the other but to draw the analogues and highlight the commonalities in human psyche.

Translations are hard. Crosscultural translations are harder. There is no translation, certainly no word for word translation, which permits us to switch back and forth with mechanical precision. In my interaction with some of the readers, I have noticed that the native speakers and writers often tend to retranslate, unconsciously I might add, when they read a translation. Usually it shows in their comments on the translation in question. In order to appreciate a translation, the reader must be willing to accept certain prerequisites. For a foreign reader, it is the need to leave his/her preconceived notions about the other culture and start afresh. For a native reader, in this case Telugu reader or writer, it is the willingness to beware that the translation has been done for a reader, who cannot read the original in Telugu and is unfamiliar with Telugu language and culture. Personally, I think crosscultural translation is transcreation and the translator is invariably a creative writer.

There are several elements to consider in translating for crosscultural audience. I will briefly discuss each of these aspects, namely, dialectal variations, native flavor, structure, phrases peculiar to Telugu, proverbs, and grammar comprising tense, pronouns, and proper nouns. Humor is one more element that requires close attention with reference to the target audience.

The first step would be to identify the peculiarities of the source language and the target language.Clearly, the language I have learned at Andhra University, Waltair, India, is not sufficient for translating for American readers. If I want the Americans to read my translations, I need to give the stories to them in American English. At the beginning, I started out with seeking advice from my American friends on my translations. One of them was Dr. Abbie Ziffren, who had been a great help in fine-tuning my language. In 1982, my first translation, man, woman, [Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry, mogavaadu, aadamanishi] was published in the Journal of South Asia Literatures.

Soon enough, I realized that there was no consensus regarding the “correct” usage. Each time, I corrected the text according to one person’s suggestions, and showed it to another friend, there were more corrections. Sometimes, I would have to “do and undo” the same words back and forth. Finally, I realized that, while the American English had its distinctive features, there were always variations in the preferences of each person regarding how a word was used or how a sentence was constructed.

Selection Criteria

Initially, my selections were based on the premise stated above, namely, introducing the fundamental philosophy underlying our mode of thinking, lifestyles and customs. Therefore, I turned my attention invariably to the stories written in the nineteen forties, fifties and sixties – during which period Telugu fiction flourished. As my work progressed, I continued to redefine and fine-tune my criteria for selection. My second criterion has been the ease of diction, which is controversial in itself and which is explained by the translation process illustrated below. Third is the literary value and/or the author’s unique style. As stated earlier, I strongly believe that it is important to introduce not only the most prominent writers but also other good writers, in order to illustrate the breadth of our artistic accomplishment and for a better understanding of our cultural values.
I might as well mention that, from the start I did not care for the stories focused on specific ideologies. I feel that such stories have received extensive exposure in other journals and websites and there is no need for me to rehash the same. However, on occasion, I would make exception as in the case of the story “yajnam” [The Rite of sacrifice] (Rama Rao). Further discussion follows under the subheading Structure.

Dialectal and regional variations

In Andhra Pradesh, the dialectal variations are based on several aspects. They vary not only from region to region, but also, within a given region, there may be variations based on caste, calling, education and economic status. Some families may even develop their own language from a mix of a few dialects. The differences in regional dialects such as Chittoor, Telangana and Coastal Andhra are accepted as dialects. Then there may also be variations, which come into play, defying regional and caste practices.

There is no consensus concerning how to handle the dialectal variations in translation. A well-known dramatist and actor, Ravi Kondala Rao argued that the native flavor in the source language cannot be imparted effectively into another language and therefore translations are pointless (Kondala Rao. Aa sogasu vastundaa? [Can that beauty be achieved? (in a translation)]? Apparently, Kondala Rao missed the one point, which is, translations are meant for those who cannot read the Telugu originals. For instance, in the sixties, the translations of Hunchback of Notre Dam [ghantaaraavam] by Surampudi Sitaram, and A Tale of Two Cities [rendu mahanagaraalu] by Tenneti Suri were received by Telugu readers with remarkable enthusiasm because of the beauty in the Telugu versions regardless of the native flavor in the original versions. I am sure that a vast majority of the readers did not read the originals in French and English and did not care for what they might be missing.

In addition to the foreign readers, in recent times, there are two more groups of readers, who are enjoying the translations in English. First group consists of the educated Telugu people who have gotten used to using English almost as their first language, and thus enjoy reading Telugu stories in English. The second group is the current day Telugu youth who have attended English medium schools and cannot read the Telugu script. They, being knowledgeable in Telugu culture, are different from the foreign readers though. Nonetheless, they all enjoy the translations in English with the same fervor.

For the purpose of this article, the target audience is assumed to be unfamiliar both with the Telugu language and culture.

Language: Pedantic versus Colloquial

In modern Telugu fiction and literature, the language started out as the language used by the polite society, known as sishtajana vyaavahaarikam, which is translatable fairly well. Basically, it is the language standardized and adopted by magazines and other media. The underlying philosophy is stories written in sishtajana vyaavahaarikam would reach a wide range of readers across the state. In English, this is comparable to the British English I had learned at Andhra University. Of course, still there are variations such as spelling between British and American English.

On the other hand, the colloquial style consists of several dialects. They vary based on region, social groups, and even sophistication of the readers. To be honest, some of the dialects are beyond my comprehension despite my stay in those regions for considerable amount of time. In that sense, stories written in regional dialects and the dialects of rural communities pose bigger problems for me. In America, the colloquial forms include words spelled as spoken, contractions and ellipses. For example “I ain’t cummin’” for “I am not coming”, “Whaddyado” for “What do you do”, “bro” for brother, “ADD” for “attention deficit disorder” and so on. However, this implies understanding a completely new language, which is beyond my comprehension. For that reason, I have decided to stay with the language of the polite society and paraphrase it, where occasion calls for it. However, I have attempted to bring about some distinction between the pedantic and the colloquial styles in my translations. For instance, the difference is evident in the translations of two stories The Soul wills it (Satyanarayana. jeevudi ishtam) and Middle class complex (Mullapudi Venkataramana. janataa express). I used the pedantic style in the former and the colloquial style in the latter. Pavani Sastry, son of Viswanatha Satyanarayana’s son, and Mullapudi Venkataramana expressed their satisfaction with my translations. Venkataramana wrote to me, “People say my stories are hard to translate but you have done good job.” (Personal correspondence with the author.). I was able to do justice to Venkataramana’s story because there was a story to tell, and the humor in the story emanated from the incidents universal in nature. On the other hand, another story by the same author, Mullapudi Venkataramana, Radha’s debt [Raadhamma baaki] (Review by Malathi) was hard to translate since it contained humor and phraseology that would go beyond the pale of my language skills. That being the case, I chose, instead of translating, to write an analytical article, explaining the humor in the story. I believe I have succeeded in conveying to the non-native readers a taste of the humor prevalent in our society.

Native flavor

As mentioned earlier, the native flavor is a big problem in translations, possibly even within the context of Indian languages. For instance a phrase like katha Kancikee, manam intikee, [Literally, the story (moves on) to the town of Kanjeepuram and we to our homes] may have similar phrases in other languages possibly with the name of a town in their area. In such instances, the translator would have to decide whether he would keep the proper noun, Kanjeepuram, or choose an equivalent phrase in the target language. Personally, I would prefer the Telugu phrase and provide an explanation.
Second aspect of the native flavor is the sonorous quality of Telugu. The vowel-ending feature and alliterations contribute to the musical nature of our language. One has to be a poet to bring about that effect. Although I am not a poet, I will try my best to achieve that effect. I will remind myself that I was translating a story, not poetry. Stories by Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry fall under this category. In his stories, there is a story to tell and poetry to experience the beauty of the language.

On rare occasions, I feel a story untranslatable because of its musical quality. Had I chosen such a story for a different reason, I would elaborate on the native flavor in the editorial. If the entire story is poetic in nature, and I am trying to translate it, I will alert the readers at the beginning itself of what they might be missing in the translation along with the high watermarks in the story. Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry’s stories are known for his command of diction. The traditional values, especially the manner in which he deals with the institution of prostitution, is not exactly my cup of tea yet his presentation is captivating.

Structure

Occasionally, I would select a story specifically for its historical significance and the details regarding the lives of the rural communities. One such story is “yajnam” (Rama Rao). This critically acclaimed and highly controversial story has been translated by more than one translator, I believe. I have not seen the other translations but I am positive that there are significant differences between my translation and their translations. In this story, apart from the author’s use of Srikakulam dialect and the farming community, there is a passage where the protagonist, Appalramudu, delivers a speech, which runs to about four pages. Additionally, the speech is interspersed with episodes from the past. That requires the reader to move back and forth in time, and grasp the speech at two levels—the past and the present. That puts a huge burden on the mind of a reader unfamiliar with our culture; it would be frustrating. Therefore, I have made some structural changes in my translation with, of course, the author’s express permission.

One more factor to remember is we have not outgrown the use of some of the elements of narrative technique in oral tradition. Telling a story to a live audience has its advantages and is hard to resist. Besides, Telugu readers have no problem with the elements of oral tradition such as switching between past and present and digression in a narrative. Nevertheless, it is a problem for readers from other cultures.

In a heartrending story of a working-class woman, aarthanadam (Ranganayakamma), the author, includes an episode containing a long humorous dialogue between a grandmother and her grandchildren. The episode has no relevance to the original story and the language she used is not easy to translate because of several forms of address and trivial phraseology. It is a structural flaw in the story. Further discussion of this episode is offered under Humor.

Dhvani [suggestion] and vakrokti [indirect communication] in translations

Dhvani [suggestion] and vakrokti [indirect communication] are common in literatures but problematic in crosscultural translation. While the concept is known in all literatures, it is not easy to comprehend the full meaning in the stories from other cultures. It makes the reader constantly worry that he might be missing something, being unaware of the nuance. That would be an additional burden on the reader, and subsequently discouraging to continue to read the story. In such instances also, I would add a brief note. For the same reason, long conversations involving too many phrases like “you know what I mean” are best avoided.

Grammar: Tense

In Telugu, we switch tenses freely. In English the tense needs to agree with the actual sequence of events within a given time-frame. If the story is told in the past tense, any references to the previous incidents should be told in the past perfect.

In some of our stories, we find long narrations of previous incidents, which require past perfect forms. The use of “had” in each sentence in a long passage is grammatically correct yet disruptive in the flow, especially if the previous incident runs to two or three pages. Added to the confusion is when the previous incident has references to another incident further back in time. Some of my friends suggested indenting or changing the font size in order to mark the change in tense, which means making it visible in long passages. Another suggestion is to add opening and closing lines at the beginning and end of the long narration of the past. The additional lines help the reader to move back and forth in time along with the storyline. In shorter sentences, I would avoid the use of past perfect tense sometimes. For instance, a sentence like “He had four children” seems to mean he “had children in the past but not now”. After consulting my American friends, I have learned one way to circumvent the problem is to rearrange the sentences. I could say, “his sons were helping him in chores” or something similar to that effect, based on the context. Implicitly, the readers would know that he had children at the time of narration

Non-finite verb forms

Another linguistic peculiarity in Telugu is the use of nonfinite verbs [asamaapaka kriya]. In English, it would be a series of short complete sentences or used in conjunction with a gerund, the -ing ending.  A phrase like cheppi vacchaanu translates as either “I said and came” or “After telling, I came”. In either case, the actual verb for cheppu [to say] fails to convey the ease of diction, which the Telugu phrase carries. This example is the simplest in this type of construction. There are other instances where a series of nonfinite verbs may be used to build tempo. Native speakers appreciate the escalating tension as they read the sentence. In translation, we can hardly accomplish that pace with the use of gerunds or several short sentences.

The longest sentence I have come across is the first paragraph in “anavasara dampatyam” [Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma. Meaningless Union]. The very first sentence runs to 14 lines and contains 23 nonfinite verbs, not to mention verbal adjectives! In my translation, I broke them into shorter sentences. Also, of necessity, I moved the last part of the 14-line sentence to the fore. This is necessitated by the differences in the sentence structures in the two languages – Telugu and English

Pronouns

The abundance of pronouns in Telugu language vouches for the richness of our language. We have six forms for the third person singular, male, vaadu, atanu, aayana, veedu, ithanu, eeyana – all translate into one word “he” in English. In addition, we have a gender-free pronoun, tanu, which acts like a third person singular, which will be discussed later.

Consider the following sentence for translation and note the resulting confusion in translation.Aayana vaadini kaafee tecci ataniki immannaaru. Vaadu kaafee tecci ataniki iccaadu. The translation could be, “He told him to bring coffee for him. He brought it and gave it to him.” In this case, once again, it would be immensely helpful to the reader if the translator makes clear who is who, and who is doing what.

The use of the pronoun “those” for “they” may be grammatically correct yet looks odd at the end of a sentence. Translation for annaaru vaallu as “said those” does not look right for me at least. Probably, my translation would be “they said” or “said those farmers”, or, whoever the people were in the story.

The second person, singular and plural pronouns, meeru and nuvvu translate into English as the same word, “you”. There is no distinction between formal and informal, or singular and plural. In this case, the translation loses the cultural nuance.

One good example is a conversation between a husband and wife. In Andhra Pradesh, the husband-wife relationship is complex. The use of second person singular pronouns, nuvvu and meeru used by husband and wife calls for attention. I am aware that the usage varies depending on the region, caste, economic status and, in modern times, sophistication. Despite these variations, customarily, it is considered normal for husband to address wife as nuvvu and wife to address husband as meeru. This usage presupposes a shade of hierarchy in a familial context. Additionally, the verb endings change, which again are missed in the translation. In some stories, the author may be making this distinction to drive home a point. In the story, kavi gaari bharya (Nayani Krishnakumari), the narrator comments that the poet’s wife referred to her husband as meeru or nuvvu depending on what she thought of him as husband or uncle’s son at any given moment. In such cases, a brief note is needed.

Two vocative forms require special attention. In an informal setting, people of the same age group use the vocative forms, orei and osei, males and females respectively among themselves. The closest form in English would be “hey”. Probably, the use of “hey” is acceptable in a casual conversation but not when the author makes a point of it specifically. In the story, yajnam, the narrator comments that the village head, Sriramulu Naidu addresses the poor farmer, Appalramudu, as emoi but never as orei (Rama Rao, “Yajnam”). Native speakers would know that emoi is informal and respectful and orei is demeaning in this particular context. By “in this context”, I mean there are other instances when orei will not be considered offensive as stated earlier.

I have also noticed that long Indian names such as Sitaramudu and Sriramulu Naidu (Rama Rao.“yajnam”) will be confusing to the non-native speakers. Several forms of the same name like Erri, Errakka, and Erramma are also prone to be mistaken for the names of three people.
Proper nouns based on physical attributes:

In empu [Choices] (Somayajulu), the author used physical attributes as personal names—Kunti for a crippled man and Guddi for a blind man. Technically, these terms are not different from names like Visalakshi, meaning a woman with large eyes or Syamasundar for a man with dark-colored skin. These terms however are not considered offensive. On the other hand, the terms referring to physical limitations are derogatory and often accepted only by the people who are not in a position to protest. Perhaps, that is one of the messages the author intended to convey. However, the literal translations of these terms as “crippled” and “blind” would not do justice in my opinion.  A non-heritage speaker would interpret them as insensitive. I am not saying they are not insensitive. That is not the cultural trait I would want to convey. I would rather keep the original terminology as is and explain them in a footnote.

Professional terminology as Proper Nouns:

Another habit in our culture is to use professional terminology as personal names. For example, Beena Devi used daactaru garu and jadjee garu in her story, ribbanu mukka [A Piece of ribbon]. My dilemma was whether to treat them as English words and follow the practice of the English language or treat them as given names, and follow the spellings the way they were written in Telugu. If I were to consider the words as professional titles, I should spell them as doctor garu and judge garu. Also, I would have to use the articles ‘a’ or ‘the’ appropriately. Then I would be failing to convey to the reader an important cultural trait in our culture, which is, forging close friendship with the professionals we come across in our lives and using the terms as personal names without reference to their professional status. As a translator, I think it is important for me to create an environment in the translation so the foreign reader would understand all these implications.

In this regard, I have consulted several Americans, both friends and strangers. Once again, there is no consensus since the concept is foreign to them. I have decided to treat them as personal names and explained in a footnote or in the editorial.

Relational terminology as Proper Nouns:

Relevant to our discussion are the forms of address prevalent in our society. We have different terms for the children of brothers or sisters (baava, maridi, vadina, maradalu) as opposed to the children of two sisters or two brothers. Terms like attagaru, tammudu, and akkayya tell immensely about our culture. I also would like to see these terms find their way into English across the world the same way karma and masala are incorporated into English. Maybe I am being naïve; maybe I am being ambitious, but certainly, I would like to work to that end!

In America, all these relational terms, including persons from different generations, are rolled up into a single term, “cousin”. If I translate chinnakka and peddakka, as “little big sister” and “big big sister”, it does not make sense and certainly hurts the flow. Further, in a dialogue, it is hard to use them as vocative forms; it would be jarring. It is also hard to let the reader understand that sometimes, the same term such as peddakka may be used by others even when the relationship between the two is not the same. Another contradiction is the standard MLA requirement that all foreign words should be italicized.For instance, in the story, hundaa [Tulasi. “My sister: A Classy Lady”], akkayya is known only as akkayya. In all, I have been treating the relational terminology as personal names, unless the story calls for a different interpretation. Additionally, I would suggest referring to the glossary for further explanation. Incidentally, I might add that the glossary on my site is the most frequently accessed file yet! A unique pronoun in Telugu language is tanu, which is technically third person singular pronoun. When the author uses tanu as narrator, the entire story is told from the point of view of that character as if tanu is a first person singular pronoun. Unlike the third person pronouns, tanu is not gender-specific. Sometimes, but not always, it is possible to deduce the gender by the verb-endings in a given sentence in Telugu. It is a long ride for the reader before he can figure it out on his own.

Writers may occasionally use this term loosely, giving rise to some confusion. In the story, soham [Ramakrishna Sastry. “He is I”], the narrator switches between the first person, “I” and “tanu”. This form of narrative, distinctive in oral tradition, is easily understood by native speakers but confusing to the readers from other cultures. Therefore I take it upon myself to be consistent even when it meant a departure from the original text.

Phrases and Idioms

We may classify Telugu phrases into three categories: 1. Phrases that allow straight translation; 2.Phrases and idioms, which may be translated with some effort; and 3. Phrases and idioms, which require considerable effort to make them comprehensible to the foreign audience. In the latter two instances, the question is to what degree we can make the necessary changes in the original. How do we find a meaningful phrase or sentence, which will capture the reader’s imagination and, at the same time, convey the cultural nuance? Second question is whether we should use the English equivalents wherever available or translate the Telugu phrases to highlight the Telugu nuance and provide the English equivalent in a footnote.

Phrases, which allow straight translation

There are not many but a few like pustakappurugu, which translates as bookworm easily. The phrase chevini vesukonakapovu is comparable to “turning a deaf ear”. On the other hand, a phrase like mannu tinna paamu has no equivalent in English to my knowledge. However, it is not hard to coin a new phrase like “a snake snacked on dirt”, working on the alliteration to give it a proverbial sense. There is no ambiguity in these translations.

One more note on this subject. When I first started my website, thulika.net, I did not provide the Telugu equivalents for these translations. Then, a young Telugu reader, who attended English medium school, suggested that I give the Telugu proverbs in a footnote so readers like her would be able to improve their Telugu language skills as well. That substantiates my claim that providing additional information does not hurt.

Phrases, which require some effort to make them comprehensible in translation

I am not enunciating a new theory but giving what has been my practice and I will explain why. Some phrases may not be translatable while others leave some room for us to be creative. For instance, the phrase, Kondaveeti chentaadu in trikonam [Seela Veerraju. “A Triangle,”] is one such phrase. I translated it as Kondaveeti rope. The phrase refers to the topographical significance of the village Kondaveedu in Guntur district, where water is scarce and the wells are dreadfully deep. For the villagers of Kondaveedu, drawing water from those wells is a long and laborious task. Implicitly, a task compared to kondaveeti rope is long and laborious. I thought, by translating the translatable part, chentaadu as jute rope, a foreign reader would have a better motivation to learn more about the implicit meaning. Additionally, the name of the village Kondaveedu, slightly id different from the oblique form, Kondaveeti, and that is another problematic area for a foreign reader. If I were to leave the entire phrase as Kondaveeti chaantaadu, the reader is sure to miss the entire connotation.

Untranslatable Phrases

We have phrases and idioms that are almost untranslatable. Just translating them alone would not suffice to communicate the spirit of the original to the readers. Two languages of two diametrically opposite cultures do not lend themselves to accurate translation one hundred percent. Culture-specific phrases and idioms belong in this category. Let us take a culture-specific phrase like lempalesukonu (Bhanumati. Attaakodaleeyam [A Story of a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law]). No matter how we translate it, it would be impossible for a foreign reader to visualize the actual scenario. I translated it as “She tapped on her cheeks lightly and reverently.” One young writer asked me why not translate it as “she slapped her cheeks”. My explanation is the phrase lempakaaya iccu in Telugu means slapping another person and in anger. On the other hand, lempalesukonu is an act to express his/her remorse. or respect like in temples, and there is no force. The person touches lightly her/his cheeks. It refers to a socio-religious, cultural practice and apologetic in spirit.For a reader who is not familiar with this practice, “slapping” invokes a completely different imagery in his mind. This is not one of the instances, a foreign reader can understand from the context, without some explanation.

Proverbs, which have corresponding proverbs in the target language

Proverbs or adages are time-honored, time-tested facts. They are the props that come in handy for a writer when the language fails or is inadequate. Proverbs often contain a rhyme or an alliteration either to capture one’s attention or as a mnemonic device. This is one aspect the translator must remember while translating the proverbs. When I translate, I try to bring about similar effect in English. That explains some of the digression from the original in my translations of Telugu proverbs. The following examples illustrate my point.

My translation for the proverb mundu nuyyi, venaka goyyi is “a well in front and a trench behind”. In English, the corresponding proverb is, “between a rock and a hard place”. Nevertheless, I would prefer to give a translation of the original Telugu phrase instead of using the English proverb. My aim is to highlight the commonalities in different cultures and perhaps the topography.

Culture-specific Proverbs, which have no equivalents in the target language.

Some proverbs, which are culture-specific in terms of beliefs and lifestyles, are equally open to more than one interpretation.

I translated kadupu cincukunte kaallameeda padutundi as “You tear your guts and they fall on your feet” in yajnam [Rama Rao]. In the Telugu sentence, the subject is not stated explicitly but the verb cinchukonu is a reflexive, meaning one is doing something to oneself. I supplied ‘you’ in the conditional clause and ‘they’ [the guts] in the principal clause. The translation is fairly literal and thus imparts the implied meaning—“when you hurt your children, in turn, it hurts you”.

Another angle in these proverbs is lack of a subject or subject without a given name. In such cases, it is necessary to improvise a subject for the purpose of clarification. English language will not permit sentences without subject as illustrated above. The translator needs to pick the correct subject based on the context.

Another proverb I translated is gati leni manushulu taguvukedite matileni peddalu teerchevaaraa ani as “like hapless men seeking justice from brainless men” (Rama Rao. yajnam). Here again, I tried to coin a new adage based on the original text loosely.

Let us examine the proverbs or phrases, which are not translatable. For example, a phrase like adugulaku madugulottadam carries deeper cultural nuance. I think the word madugulu refers to madatalu (folded clothes). I understand the phrase refers to spreading a sheet for the guest of honor to walk on. In everyday usage, it has come to mean something similar to the red carpet treatment. However, I would prefer coining a new phrase as opposed to using the English phrase “red carpet treatment”, in order to emphasize the slight differences in the two cultures.

Distinctive and Culture-specific Phraseology

Culture-specific phraseology requires more than the use of a dictionary to translate. For instance, mancimaata chesuku vaccu is an archaic phrase referring to an old custom. In the old days, poor brahmin women used to run what is known as poota kuulla illu, where the woman serves food for money in an informal setting. The phrase, mancimaata chesuku vaccu has come to mean discussing food arrangements with a homeowner. Another example is vaaraalu chesukonu, also refers to an erstwhile custom. It is also food arrangements young Brahmin boys would make with seven families for seven days of the week while they pursued their education. Whenever I come across phrases like this, I would like to keep them in the story and explain in a footnote. From my perspective, that is important for the story to keep its cultural nuance.

Other concepts peculiar to our culture are engili, antu, madi, and dishti.The corresponding English words, which have gained some currency, are saliva pollution [engili], touch pollution [antu], quarantine-like condition [madi], and evil eye [dishti]. I hope one day these Telugu words will be incorporated into the English language. The word karma has gained currency in America to mean divine ordinance. In Telugu, it has several shades of meaning. Based on the context, I may use the term karma or translate it into English. That helps the reader to move forward without wasting too much time guessing what the meaning might be.

I am aware that some writers and some readers feel that these distinctions overburden the reader or undercut his/her imagination. I would rather prefer to think that these concepts are important in setting one culture apart from the others. It helps the readers to understand how these concepts play out in the source culture.

I translated sodi manishi as village psychic (Prabhavati.) with some hesitation. I am aware that telling sodi is not the same as predicting future by a psychic. My point is the sodi practice is culture-specific. There are other terms like fortuneteller, occultist, medium, and spiritualist. None of them exactly means the same as sodi manishi. When two cultures do not have the same practice, vocation, or lifestyle, we need to choose just one term in the target language based on comparable practices. A psychic invokes spirits to predict future events; the sodi woman invokes goddesses for the same purpose. The spirits and the goddesses are not the same but both are unverifiable sources. In that sense, I thought sodi woman would be comparable to a psychic or fortuneteller. Frankly, this is one of the instances no matter what word I had chosen there would always be a question. I chose psychic since it rolled easier on my tongue. Nevertheless, I was aware that the term did not import the complete cultural nuance and therefore I provided further explanation of the sodi tradition in the glossary at the end of the book.

Culture-specific Humor.

Unquestionably, humor is hard to translate, since it is deep-rooted in a given culture. Bhanumati narrates an incident in attaa kodaleeyam, in which she describes her mother-in-law’s madi, a temporary, quarantine-like condition, one creates for oneself. And her husband makes fun of the smelly pickles his mother was eating. In both the cases, the son and the daughter-in-law were not being polite to the older woman from a westerner’s standpoint. Thus translating the paragraph as is without paraphrasing is not sufficient to convey the humor in the story.

In the same passage, the daughter-in-law also comments about her mother-in-law sitting on the floor facing the wall to eat. The narrator’s reference to the Lord Narasimha in this context once again is hilarious for those who are familiar with the mythological character. For those who are not familiar with the story of Narasimha, an explanation is necessary.

In aartanaadam (Ranganayakamma), there is an episode in which the grandchildren visit their grandmother, after they were informed that she was dying. As it turned out, she was not ready to die and the grandchildren seized the occasion to tease her. The episode has no relevance to the story, except the storyline calls for the female protagonist’s absence from home for an extended period of time.

In a personal letter addressed to me, the author agreed that the episode was irrelevant and gave me permission to delete it at my discretion (Ranganayakamma. Personal Correspondence). I however chose to keep it in order to drive home a point—the free exchange of almost irreverent words between adults and children in a family. Grandchildren asking grandmother whether she would really want to die at all, or where she kept all her money, what she was going to do with it, and the tone in the conversation—all would be considered rude at one level and entertaining at another level. This is in direct contradiction of the custom of showing respect to the elders by the young people. Nevertheless, it is normal in some families and the story highlights that point. I discussed this topic in detail in my book, Telugu Women Writers, 1950-1975 (Malathi).

English words in Telugu stories:

Various writers use English words in Telugu stories to serve different purposes. If the English words are used simply as a reproduction of current colloquial style, probably, the translator may take them as they are and incorporate them without thinking twice. However, if it is part of the author’s narrative technique as in the case of Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry, they need to be interpreted appropriately. It is necessary to examine if the author is using the English terminology to shift gears in the flow of the narrative or to invoke ridicule of an existing practice. Viswanatha Sastry uses this technique superbly. Also, if the author is simply reproducing the English words from the original, the translator needs to see if the actual words used in India are comprehensible to the global audience. For instance, “far relative” for “distant relative”, “long hand shirt” for “long sleeve shirt” and “time pass” for “passing time” are some examples, which do not go very well in a translation for global audience. In fact, only recently, I have learned that the phrase “giving a hand” in Andhra Pradesh, does not mean giving help but “not keeping one’s word.

Working with the Authors

In general, my practice is to translate first line by line, then go over the translation, and make the necessary changes for smooth reading. In the process, I may change the order of the sentences, add a word or two in some places, and even move around sentences to make it readable. Then I send it to the author, with a note about the changes I have made. The authors suggest one or two changes. I would accept their suggestions, if appropriate. Or explain my translation. That has been my practice for the past seven and a half years. On rare occasions, if the author is not with my translation, and keeps suggesting alternative forms, I may decide not to proceed with that project.  In short, working with writers has not been a problem for me. The only problem is locating the writers or copyright holders for permissions.

CONCLUSION

To sum up, the translator needs to remember who the target audiences are. Even as we tell children’s stories in a language intelligible to the children, and women’s stories in the diction with which women are comfortable, we, translators, have a moral obligation to honor the language behavior of the target audience. Leaving it to the readers to deduce the meaning from the context may work fine when the readers are from within the culture. As stated at the outset, an important goal of the translations is to serve as an educational experience for the readers from other cultures. In that sense, we are obligated to focus on the cultural nuance. The reader may still choose to skip the explanations. In my experience, a translator is a writer also. He works at three levels: 1. the source work; 2. target audience, and 3. the vocabulary he has at hand. Often, readers, writers and critics tend to miss this angle. He will draw on the diction at his command and produce a translation, while striving to make it appealing to the target audience. In that attempt he may lose some of the native flavor of the original yet he will succeed only if he has the freedom to be creative and present story in a language he is comfortable with. If the author disagrees, there is no meeting of the minds and there is no translation. He just moves on to the next translation.

[End]

Originally published on ICFAI Journal, Hyderabad, and reprinted on thulika.net, 2009.]

Sources
Books
Malathi, Nidadavolu. Telugu Women Writers. 1950-1975. A Unique Phenomenon in the History of
Telugu Fiction. Madison, Wisconsin: Author, 2008. 123-136.
Tulasi, Chaganti. “My Sister: A Classy Lady” [hundaa]. Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. A Spectrum of My People: A Collection of Short Stories from Andhra Pradesh. Mumbai: Jaico Publishing House. 2006. 139-154.
Prabhavati, Vasa. “The Village Psychic.” Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. A Spectrum of My People. Mumbai: Jaico, 2006. 283-297.
Ventaramana. Mullapudi. Middle Class Complex [Janataa express]. Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. A Spectrum of My People. Mumbai: Jaico, 2006. 69-102

Journals
Kondala Rao, Ravi. a sogasu vastundaa? [Can the translation get that beauty?]. Andhra Jyothy. Vividha. 15 October 2003.
Viswanatha Sastry, Rachakonda. Man, Woman [mogavaadu, aada manishi]. Trans. Nidadavolu
Malathi. The Toronto South Asian Review. Summer 1987. V.7. No. 1. 1-12. Reprint. Rachakonda
Viswanatha Sastry. Values & Other Stories. Srinivasavanam, Kuppam: Dravidian University, 2007. 88-103.

Internet sources:
Krishnakumari, Nayani. The Poet’s Wife. [Kavi gaari bharya]. Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi.

Malathi, Nidadavolu. Radha’s Debt [Raadhamma baaki] by Mullapudi Venkataramana”.
Rama Rao, Kalipatnam. The Rite of Sacrifice [yajnam]. Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. 3 March 2009.
Ramakrishna Sastry, Malladi. He is I. [soham]. Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. 3 March 2009.
Satyanarayana, Viswanatha. The Soul Wills It [jeevudi ishtam].  Trans. Nidadavolu Malathi. 3 March
Subrahmanya Sarma, Puranam. Meaningless Union [Anavasara dampatyam]. Trans. Nidadavolu
Malathi. 3 March 2009.

Other sources.
Ranganayakamma. Personal correspondence with the author. 17 January 1983.
Venkataramana, Mullapudi. Personal correspondence with the author. 15 February 2003.

Nori Narasimha Sastry’s views on History and Historical Novel

In a couple of essays, Narasimha Sastry discussed history and historical fiction at length. He put forth enormous amount of information in support of his theory that our way of studying our history if faulty. In the process he also defines the correlation between history and historical novel.

In the essay, swatantra bharatamulo charitra rachana (Writing History in independent India), he shows how our mode of thinking had been molded by the methods established by famous western historians such as Gibbon, Carlyle, the lord Prudhoe and Wells. Their works on history are valued as literature; they have shown us that historians are poets in essence.

However, we also need to remember that the British rulers introduced Macaulay Report in schools only to serve their purpose, which is to turn our people into tools for prolonging their rule in our country.

That led to us relying on English books to study our history to a point that we would not read our Telugu and Sanskrit texts unless they are given in English. This craze for English is extended to all the other fields as well—religion, society, politics, literature, science and even into geography.

Currently, the history of India is broken into three periods—the Hindu period, the Mohammedan period and the British period.

Narasihma Sastry goes to elaborate on the problems with this division as follows:

Originally, the Aryans came from outside, assailed the Dravidians and the Dasyulu and promulgated their religion in our country vigorously. Their cultural power however waned due to the hot climate in our country. Internal struggles eroded and some of them turned traitors. After the Aryans, the Mohammedan rulers came in multitudes and took over. They attacked the feeble Hindus. Later, they succumbed to mundane pleasures and lost their power.  When the British came, the country was in shambles. They could easily drive away the Mohammedans and the other white rulers and take over the country. This is the gist of the division of the historical periods.

There is a perception that heat weakens individuals. This is not a proven fact though. Possibly others who are accustomed to cold climate may suffer from the heat in our country and vice versa. However this should not be an argument to let ourselves be slaves to the foreigners. Heat is a geographical issue and irrelevant to one’s strength or weakness. This is a pious land and the place for such sacred activities as bathing three times a day and offering prayers to the Sun god (sandyavandanam).

Narasimha Sastry continues to observe that since creation of the universe, 195 crore 85 lakhs and 550 years have passed. In this long span of the history of mankind, the British ruled our country for 190 years, the Moghuls for 181 years, the Lodis for 75 years, Sayyads for 37 years, Tughlaks for 94 years, and Khiljis 30 years.

Among the Indians, the Gupta period runs for 500 years and that is considered golden age. We read that the Satavahanas ruled for 464 years and no other reign had sway for a period that long. And the Kushans seemed to have ruled for 230 years, the Mauryans for 160 years, and the Nandas for 74 years. Also the Bimbisara and others ruled for over 200 years.

Thus, it is evident that the current history as we study in our books gives more importance to the time we had been under foreign rule. We should rewrite our history books expanding the times we had been free and proud, and delimit the period we had been subjected to slavery.

No doubt the British have ruled our country for about 200 years. There were some local rulers called Zamindaris but they existed only with the blessings from the British. Mohammedans stayed mostly in the north. Attempts of Tuglak and Aurangazeb to take over the southern part of India failed. At the time, the Kakateeya kings in the south were powerful. After that Vijayanagara kings prevailed in the south for one hundred years more. Thus, the label for these periods should be Kakatiya period, Vijayanagara period and so on. In the 18th century, the Maharashtra rulers were strong all the way from the southern end, the Sethu, to Himachal. Indian culture has flourished in the north for sometime and later the south enjoyed superiority. There were times when the Chola, Chalukya and Pallava kingdoms and Kancheepuram were at the peak. There is no reason to accept the labels given foreign rulers who ruled only the northern part of the country.

Other facts to note are: During 550-330 B.C., Persian kings ruled Punjab and Gandharam (current Nepal?). Later Greeks ruled over the same land for 150 years (200-20 B.C.). Kushans prevailed for sometime. There is also a misconception that all Mohammedans are the same. In reality, some of them were Shiites and others Sunnis. In the north, Persian culture was prominent while the Absenian culture prevailed in the south. The difference between these two is no less than the difference between the Greeks, Patheons, Sakuns, and Kushans. That being the case, it is unfair to lump them all together as one race.

Against this background, Narasimha Sastry suggests labels such as the Turkish threat, the Moghal menace, the Sunny hazzard, Shiaite turmoil, and the British tempest for periods our history. Also there are only two races—Aryans and non-Aryans, and one is productive and the other destructive, like any other living organism in the world.

It is important to note that the Aryans regard the land as their motherland and fatherland. For them, the land gives them birth, entertains them, and comforts them. It is karmabhumi [place of action], tapobhumi [place of contemplation], and punyabhumi [pious land]. For them, the entire India is one country and the Vedas and the Vedangas are the paradigms to live by. Sanskrit is the language of the polite society. The non-Aryans on the other hand are engrossed in self-promotion, their physical image, and abandonment.

The detailed discussions of dates for a given king are not important. The Puranas have recorded the history of the kings who reinstated the Aryan dharma following political and social turmoil. They should be the paradigms for us but not the texts written by foreigners such as the Greek travelers in Alexander’s time, Megasthanese during Chandragupta’s rule, the Chinese traveler Huen Tsang, and so on. We should read our history based on the data available in our texts produced by our poets. The texts by foreigners may be used as secondary texts. Historians should sift the falsehood propagated by foreign historians.

Let’s not forget that regardless of their affinity to the kings of their times, Valmiki and Vyasa maintained their stance as poets in their own status quo.

By the time Vyasa wrote Maha Bharata, 193 crores, 83 lakhs of years passed. He was fair in depicting the histories of the two dynasties, including the violations of Dharma by the Pandavas. The pundits who question Maha Bharata’s integrity need to separate the later interpolations and study the original carefully.

The historians should help us to revive the spirit of unity, nationalism. Valmiki and Veda Vyasa should be viewed as the archetypes, the protectors of dharma; they are historians and poets in true spirit.

Historical novel

The term “historical” implies narration of truth without fluff. On the other hand, novel requires invention specifically.

A novel may not contain even one page of authentic history in a 304 page book. Yet it may provide details about the political atmosphere, social customs, manners, travel amenities, and other facilities of its time without contradicting historical facts.

A novelist takes bits of history, “dry as dust” in Carlyle’s words, brings them together, adds other parts and grows into a big tree, sprays heavenly nectar on it and brings it to fruition.

Westerners store dead bodies in graveyards. They save important and unimportant incidents alike. The historians cull through these bits of data and elaborate on the past history. Because of this custom to save all the items, the historians are able to tell the stories of their people—poets, sculptors, lyricists, kings, ministers, their kept women, businessmen, priests, actors and actresses, soldiers, and beautiful women. The books, diaries, magazines, letters, inscriptions, and memorials carved on the graves—all these are available to their writers. However, despite the availability of all this information, the established theories are getting thrown out by new revelations. While interpretation of history keeps changing, great novels are being produced in the west.

We do not have the amenities to write historical fiction or biographical fiction the same way the westerners do. Nevertheless, we have produced great novels such as Bhagavan Parasuramudu by K. M. Munshi and Simha Senapathi by Rahul Sankrutyayan. The first one attempted to recreate the Vedic and the Pauranic works from the perspective of national spirit. The second one took the Vedic literature with Buddhist tradition as supreme ideal, and attempted to promote the current communist ideology. Both the works as great examples of our historical fiction.

In a country’s or even world’s history, what has happened is important. The dates and the names of individuals are like the body. The incidents are the life force behind these works. Beyond these two elements, there is also the Atman which is the dominant force in our lives. A historian must not forget the soul. From this perspective, we need to examine whether our historians have understood the supreme truth about our nation as much as the authors of our puranas.

Numerous plots and subplots embedded in the Ramayana and Maha Bharata appear to have happened actually. They might not have happened in that particular time and in that particular place but they seemed to carry certain authenticity about them. And they contain lessons for us. To collect such stories and record them is the primary responsibility of our historians.

The authors of our puranas had a great sense of the timelessness of history and what must be recorded. We fail to appreciate their philosophy only because of our self-indulgence and our ignorance.

Greek historian Herodotus had written several fantasy stories in the name of history and we regard him as the king among historians. The Chinese travelers wrote history, depicting their own importance and we have accepted them as standard the same way as the histories written by Christians. The stories in their books are fabricated much the same way as the stories in our puranas. It is the same with personal letters, diaries and other writings.

The genre of novel may have been born in Italy or France but there is no clear-cut definition yet. It has been taking various forms in different times and different places, which is its distinctive nature.

A novel could be rendered in the form a play, story, biography, letters, diaries or a combination of several forms. It can be short like a little pond or like a great sea, a combination of several features.

We may create suitable platform and call works like Dasakumara charitra, Simhasana dwatrimsati, Bhoja charitra, pancatantra, Hitopadesa, neeti chadrika novels. Our critics called kalaa purnodayam a novel, although it is written in the form of poetry.

That being the case, it is a mistake to consider only the form set by westerners as the only standard form for a novel. We may even stay as far away as possible from the western mode of thinking and create much better novels.

Narasimha Sastry also points out that writing novel is a profession for westerners. And marketing it requires novelty constantly. In his opinion, they are short-lived for that reason. On the other hand, we consider novel as a literary genre, and thus maintain its quality.

Novelist has a wide range of opportunities. A novel is not a short story and in that, there is no holding back. It is not a miniature painting; it does not have to flow in a monotonous manner as in a big story. Unlike a play, the novel does not rely on theaters, the vagaries of actors and actresses, and insensitive audience.

However, as in a drama, the writer may take the uniqueness of dialogues and incidents—the intrinsic qualities of a play, and incorporate poetic merit and musical quality in his novel. He may include his entire knowledge in it. A novel has the ability to reflect numerous varieties of literary genre in numerous ways. Novel is the supreme genre among the entire literary genre so far we have gotten. The proverb, naatakantam sahityam may be rewritten as navaalanatham sahityam.

The novel that contains history with the traits noted above may be called historical novel. When we study novel from that perspective, we find no contradiction between the noun “novel” and the adjective “historical”. On the other hand, the elite may even find a close affinity between the two terms.

It is common knowledge among intellectuals that it is hard to evaluate contemporary works, regardless how capable we are and how unbiased we are.

Unless we examine them from a distance, we cannot recognize their authentic value; the incidents do not rise to the level appropriate for plots of kavyas. This is the reason many poets in all countries at all times choose the stories related to their heroes and events from the past. That does not mean writers should not write about contemporary occurrences.

Critics sometimes comment that authors of historical fiction, being unable to face the modern day society and issues, choose incidents or people from the past and write about them. Their ignorance regarding the characteristics of kavya is evident in this kind of comments.

A novel may achieve the status of kavya even when it does not depict contemporary life? And that is so even when it does not aim to solve the current society’s problems. For instance, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace based on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Even as our rishis would, Tolstoy did not rely only on the history written by historians but conducted intense search for historical facts and thus was able to produce a unique work. Same thing can be said of Faust by Goethe, Paradise Lost by Milton, and so on.

Thus it is evident that poet, even when writing about the current events, can produce a high quality work only when he has the ability to look back in to the past. In support of this argument, He quotes an example from his own experience after China attacked India:

He says, “I was furious. I wanted to take over the entire nation of China in retaliation. I was irate that our government pledged to fight for the land up to McMohan line only. What about our ‌Manasa sarovaram, Kailasam that is the abode of Lord Siva, and the land that conjoined the sites where the two rivers Brahmaputra and Sindhu originated? I was so irate yet not a single poem came out of my mouth. So many people have written kavyas and sang songs. None of them appealed to me, when I try to read them as kavyas.

Secondly, dragon China’s national symbol. I searched hard for an quivalent term for dragon in Sanskrit. “Sarabham” or “Sarabhasaluvu” could be but did not sound right. In Rg veda, “ahi” had been mentioned. Some scholars used dragon for Ahi in their translation of Vedas into English. I remembered the verse in the vedas which described Indra at the time he killed Vritrasura. To my knowledge, nobody else thought of it yet even I could not view it in the form of a kavya. My heart has been sullied with my hatred for the Chinese. It will not reach the kavya level unless and until the hatred in my heart has been washed up.

If we think on these lines, the scholars who study the philosophy of kavyas may note that among all the genres of kavyas, the novel and among all varieties of novels the historical fiction is the highest.

Basically the Maha Bharata has been identified as history (ithihasa) and Ramayana as a purana (mythology). From the standpoint of tradition, both the works had been written by the writers who had lived in those times. Yet they became great works for the following reasons. Valmiki was a tapasvi (introspect). He was capable of distancing himself from contemporary life and observing it with uncontaminated eyes. Similarly, Vyasa was a rishi who could stay detached despite his kinship with all the characters in the story. He could stay in his hermitage quietly, contemplate and reflect on the story in his heart.

Some scholars accept that these two authors simply collected several stories told by several individuals and had them recorded by a few or several other individuals. There is no doubt that the incidents in these stories had been based on actual occurrences.

As is evident, the social, political, and dharma-related systems, the war strategies, philosophic reflections are narrated in these works focusing identifying the ultimate truth. No other work has that much influence on Indian culture. Despite the fact that these two works are based on Vedas, they have exerted more influence on our culture than the Vedas themselves. Without these two classic works, it is hard to imagine how far our culture could have deteriorated. This is deductible from the history of other countries where there is no such impact.

However, the Ramayana text and most of the Maha Bharata text are rendered in the form of poetry. It is not filled with difficult Sanskrit phraseology but written in a form that is close to modern prose. We can call them historical kavyas or historical novels written in the form of poetry. The difference is only in terminology but not in essence.

One of them is a great river flowing with zest like the River Ganges. The second one is the milky ocean encompassing several great rivers. Today’s historical novelist is a follower of those great authors, Valmiki and Vyasa.

They are not performers of death rituals who collect pieces of history. They are the visionaries who have attempted to identify the historical truths.

Modern day historians should search their souls and find to what extent they have understood these tenets and adapted them.

End.

(Translations of excerpts from two articles by Nori Narasimha Sastry. I am grateful to the writer and publishers of the volume Nori Narasimha Sastry. V. 5  Sahitya vyasaalu.

 Originally published on thulika.net, June, 2011.)

 

Nori Narasimha Sastry by Nidadavolu Malathi

Nori Narasimha Sastry (1900-1978) started writing poetry even as a child and produced voluminous amount of literature in almost all genres—poetry, plays, short stories, novels, and literary criticism for over six decades. He received the title kavi samrat [emporer of poets] in 1947. He was an active participant in several literary organizations.

Narasimha Sastry garu was born to the couple Hanumacchastri and Mahalakshmi on June 2, 1900. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1919 and B.L. degree in 1925. He was well-versed in Sanskrit, Telugu, English and Kannada languages. He received the deeksha (a religious ritual) from Sri Kalyanananda Bharatiswamy.

“He was a top-ranking literary persona and his work in all the genres of literature is exemplary,” says his son, Hanumacchastri (Preface to Nori Narasimha Sastri gari sahitya vyasalu [Literary essays by Nori Narasimha Sastry.])

Sastry was nineteen by the time he had published his first anthology of poems. Although he had written excellent poetry, his novels, especially historical novels such as Narayana Bhattu, Rudramadevi, Malla Reddy, earned him fame and fortune. His first novel was vaghira. He wrote three novels depicting the lives of poets, Srinatha  in Sarvabhaumudu, Srinatha and Pothana in kavidwayamu  and Dhurjati in Dhurjati ]. Additionally, he included our famous poets as important characters in other novels such as Rudramadevi, thereby demonstrating his respect for distinguished poets from the past.

Among other works, Devi bhagavatham (3 vols), ­plays, poetic plays, literary essays, reviews and prefaces stand out as evidence of his remarkable scholarship. One of his achievements was to coin a new phrase bhava natikalu [perception-based plays] and add a new angle to plays, wherein perceptions or ideas take precedence over action. These plays contain heavy Sanskrit phraseology. He also wrote short play in poetry and prose, karpoora dwipa yatra, a children’s novel, and Sabdavedhi.    

The fifth volume of his complete literary works is devoted to his literary essays and is available on the internet. This one volume contains over 940 pages and reflects his vast knowledge in several genre of not only literature but also in other subjects such as music, sculpture, art and religion. For instance, in his article on highly regarded lyricist “Subrahmanya kavi“, he discusses the qualities of a great lyricist in general, standards set by lyricists in the past centuries (Sarjnadeva, Kshetrayya,) and modern lyricists such as Balantrapu Rajanikantha Rao, Rallapalli Ananthakrishna Sarma, and then presents his opinions on the superior talent of Subrahmanya kavi.

Similarly, sculpting does not mean carving a stone but envisioning the form latent in a stone, and removing the parts of stone that envelope the figure inside [parasthalaalu]. The process is very close to envisioning the Brahman, comments Sastri.

While discussing the novel Himabindu by Bapiraju, Sastri explains the depth with which Bapiraju enhanced the novel with his knowledge of music and sculpture. So also, when he writes about the beat in modern poetry, Sastry states how Veena Dhanamma, a famous musician, introduced new trends in raaga prastaaram [elaborating on a single note].

In short, in each article, he points out a new angle regarding a particular writer, poet or the times in which the work has been written.

The range of topics he has discussed in these articles is impressive. They include renowned classics in Sanskrit, Indian history, history of Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu intellectuals, literary criticism, prefaces, reviews, literary movements, modern literature, fiction, humor, and devotional literature.

In these articles, we see the special regard he has for our country and our culture. His comments particularly regarding our history are notable.

Narasimha Sastry states that we have come to accept the divisions of our history enunciated by Europeans and from their perspective, which distorted our perception of ourselves. He suggests strongly that we should study seriously our Maha Bharata and Ramayana from a historical perspective, and study the two perspectives—the Westerners’ and ours—in juxtaposition. Only then we will have a comprehensive well-balanced perspective of our history. He also explains at length the changes our country has undergone as a result of the onset of the Buddhists, the Jains, the Turkish, the Hun and the English (mana desa charitra [History of our country]). In another article, Andhra desa charitra [History of Andhra Pradesh], he points out how our history has been distorted because we have accepted English as model and rejected our own language, Telugu.

In charitraka navala, he elaborates on how literature flourished in the historical context. He contends that classics like Maha Bharata and Ramayana have been written to provoke people into thinking and action and reexamine their views of their dharma at a time when the morale of the country took a turn for the worse. He highlights the close, inexplicable rapport between history and historical novel. Authors may take real life incidents but it is not necessary to record them precisely the way it had happened. A poet has the right to make necessary changes to the story in order to produce a kavya. As an example, Sastry says he has compressed six years of Rudramadevi’s rule into six months in his novel by the same name. However, the author also has the responsibility to examine the history under reference carefully, understand it thoroughly and then only he can write a successful novel. He says he has researched his materials always before writing his novels.

The two articles swatantra bharatamulo charitra rachana [Writing history in the independent India] and Andhra bhashalo charitraka navala [Historical novel in Telugu] provide us with excellent background information. They would be particularly helpful for those interested in writing historical novels in my opinion.

The three articles are listed under “humor writing“—failing exam, celebrating the 60th birthday called shashtipurti utsavam, and mushti kavitvam [poetry besought]. The first one, “failing exams” [pareeksha tappadam] is somewhat flat. In the second article, the 60th birthday celebration, Sastry explains how the celebration originated. Actually, it is not a celebration, Sastry comments. According to the legend, death appears in the form a human, Ugraratha and destroys the person his family on that specific day. And the person in order to avoid such calamity performs a ritual pacifying Ugraratha. In mushti kavitvam¸is a satire poking fun at the poets, who, motivated by politicians, party bosses and by their own greed for fame and fortune, are writing second rate poetry.

Narasimha Sastry strongly believes that poets should have the same qualities as rishis—being focused on dharma, inquiry of truth, commitment, and temperance. Even when they take lust, anger and spite as their subjects, they still should write with self-control, in the footsteps of the rishis in the past. The poets of the past, even when they depended on the kings for their livelihood, they still wrote freely unfettered by their obligations to the royalty. In modern times, the critics should take the responsibility of preventing writers from falling prey to these politically motivated “-isms”   

The second book I have read by Narasimha Sastry is the historical novel, Rudramadevi, depicting the political turmoil of the times under Rudramadevi and her successful victory over rebellious yadava, chola and chalukya kings in the south and Maharashtra kings in mid thirteenth century. Her husband Veerabhadrudu, a Chalukya king, becomes her enemy because Rudramadevi’s father refused to annoint his son by another queen as emporer and instead annoints Rudramadevi as empress. Veerabhadrudu provokes other minor kings to attack Kakateeya kingdom. Rudramadevi found herself in a conflict between her duty to the empire and personal interests, which was to save her marriage. She decided to put her duty to the kingdom ahead of her personal choices. Her husband prods naïve Jains to rebel. Rudramadevi pardons the Jains and punishes Veerabhadrudu for his transgressions, regardless his status as her husband.

Into this political story, the lifestyles of all strata of society are woven skillfully, I might add. Tikkana Somayaji’s character as a detached poet with a flair for politics has been depicted beautifully. Similarly, Koppera jingadu (also known as Rajasimhudu), a Kadava (Kerala) king, crosses the Godavari river and while his ships were attacking Andhra warriors, sets up his tent on the shores and arranges for a performance of uurubhangam [Breaking Duryodhana’s thighs in the Maha Bharata war] attesting to his superior taste in literature.

The author succeeded in giving us a piece of literature with a right mix of history and fiction. The characters in this story come alive and it includes enormous amount of the lifestyle of the queen’s times. Rudramadevi is one of our best novels of all times in modern Telugu literature.

Narasimha Sastry’s views on history and historical novel are recounted in the next article. Click here.

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This article has been published originally on thulika.net, June 2011.