Monthly Archives: April 2013

He Is I by Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry.

The young man was aboard the train heading east. The train was moving slowly and gracefully like the Karnataka damsel of Srinatha.[i] The train left the depot the day before. It kept stopping at each and every station, hardly a few miles away from each other, and people were getting on and off. The young man could not get a wink of sleep through the entire night for all the commotion of the passengers.

At one station, a Swamiji got on board with his luggage. He looked like Bala Gandharva, the Maharashtra musician, in appearance. He sat down in a tribanghi[ii] posture like Yadavalli[iii] in the role of King Dushyanta.[iv] It was the posture when King Dushyanta was leaning forward curiously and listening to the story of Sakuntala’s birth. Swamiji looked at the young man. The young man stood up, tied his upper garment around his waist as is the custom, gave a brief account of his lineage, touched Swamiji’s feet reverently, and beseeched him to visit their village and bless his home. Swamiji laughed like Madhavapeddi[v] playing the role of Duryodhana. He cast sidelong looks at the young man and spoke, “Look, young man! No need for this fuss. I will gladly come to your home, not just for a visit but for a full meal. I am not any swamiji, just a sanyasi. This saffron-colored outfit is only for a show. I wear them as the occasion calls for it. You know the saying—the mind runs wild while  the heart is stuck on the wife. I am not lying! Don’t you get it? You seem to be a good man. Have any children? Not married yet? Aah! Does not matter, not really one way or the other. Nothing wrong if you are married and no big deal if you are not either. Being alone is a good thing if you ask me, nobody to bother you at home. If you go home in the middle of the night or even later, nobody is going to pester you with questions, pressing for details. Tired of cooking? You can always find a hotel to eat in and a nook to doze off. You can live like a prince wandering around like a jolly good fellow. Tell me, am I right or not?

Young man, don’t think that this old man with a big beard is blabbering some ancient philosophy. I am neither crazy nor stuck on any dogma. I am not saying this to tease you or give you a hard time. This is the real truth. Let me explain why I became like this and then you will understand it yourself. You will have all your doubts cleared. I used to have a house, family and all that in our village. I had a wife, my uncle’s daughter, who was superb in managing the house. She was perfect looking like the famous actor, Avadhanla Purushottam, in a female role. She had a good heart and was gorgeous even without jewelry. She had such an impeccable honesty, the neighbors would bow to her in reverence. You won’t find a woman like that, not one in a million.

Our relationship was exemplary. The entire village admired it. My job was only to stay home and enjoy the wonderful life. Unlike others I did not have to go to the farm nor return home late. I was not the type to meddle in others’ lives and was not interested in any chitchat. I was practically nonexistent in my village and that was fine with me. But the others in the village couldn’t take it. That was especially true of Bapamma vadina. Who’s Bapamma? Well, she was the grandchild of one of my grandfathers, thrice removed. She was married when she was three-years old and became a widow within three months. Her husband died in the floods. As far as I could remember, I saw her only in her widow’s outfit—draped in white sari and her head covered, as was the custom in those days. She kept herself busy ordering people around always. Not a thing escaped her notice. Her mouth was never shut and her legs never stayed steadily in one place. I am not saying  that she was asking for trouble. She was just that kind of person. She could not help it, she had to keep looking for problems. Are you asking me why I was talking so much about some widow? Well, you would not understand without this lengthy introduction.

Bapamma, the widow, came to our house one day while I was cooking my supper. My name is the same then and now—Chidanandam. I changed the last syllable making it Chidanandudu. I thought  ‘am’-ending sounded too much like a  family-type. Anyway, she came and said, “Look! Alludaa! I asked the other little boys but nobody would come to help me. Could you come in for a few minutes and pick some leaves for me?”

I couldn’t say ‘no’ and so I went to her house. She made me pull the entire cluster of leaves from the tree and then started cajoling me, “Look, I am old enough to tell you and you are young enough to listen. You used to pour me water wearing barely a loin cloth. Now you have grown this mop of curls and became a big man. You have grown big all right but not word comes out of that mouth. You stay home and follow your wife holding on to her sari frills, how come? Are all your peers living like this? Good god! Do you think you are the only one who loves his wife? Aren’t other men having a good family life? People are laughing at you for sticking around like this! You keep this up and soon you will be reduced to nothing in your wife’opinion. And that is so unbecoming in our families! Take your thatha for instance. He was never at home, not even for a second. Think of the villages he was trotting through—Kapramapalem today, tomorrow to Kauthavaram. The following day he would be in Kunderu and then he’d show up in Valluru and move on to Vanukur. Your thatha was always on the move, each time moving on to another farm in another village. That does not mean that he was wanting for anything. He was never worried about returning to his own home. He was not turning cold on his own wife either. He had four girls and six boys. Tell me, my boy, how come you did not inherit his ways?

Let’s forget thatha for a second. What about your father? Your father may not be a match for your thatha but was not bad either. Wherever your father had ten-acres of land, he went there and made himself comfortable, without of course anybody noticing it. Don’t get me wrong. Your father was a gentleman to the core at home, no comparison in the entire world. You know the old adage, a woman’s life is ruined if she goes out and a man’s life is ruined if he does not. Look, my boy! Don’t think that I am asking you to take to evil ways. All I am saying is if you want to be happy in the years to come, this is not the way. In a few years nobody is going to feel this free to talk to you in this manner. You had better start thinking for yourself. If you stay where you are, like a smear on the door frame, how could your wife have her fantasies fulfilled?

You might think that you know how a woman’s mind works. You and I may think that a woman mulls over things like, “My man left two days back and is not home yet. Usually he returns home by the time the evening lamps are lit, no matter how busy he is. It’s three days since he has left. He did not return the same day, not yesterday, and not even today. He would not stay out unless it was a matter of life and death. I have seen them all. I have had him tied at my sari end.” You might think like that. The truth is any woman would want to break her heart mulling over a man who went out, wonder what her man is capable of—which woman might have caught his eye. … And after he returns, she would want to jump on him like a hungry lion, let her hair down,  spill some fake tears, do some song and dance, threaten to starve herself, make him squirm for a while, force him to beg with her chin in his palm, make him promise a  silk sari for the next festival … At the end, she would want to tuck jasmine flowers in her hair, come down gradually, step by step, and surrender to him after midnight—that is what any woman would crave for, don’t you think?

   What’d you say? You can’t go out and prove you’re a man? All right. At least watch the others and learn something from them. The reason I am telling you this is because you and your wife shouldn’t sit across from each other for the rest of your lives and get sick of each other. Go, my boy, go out and be a man …”

She kept badgering me on and on. I was upset and also amused. If I said “no way,” she would come back at me with renewed vigor. It was clear to me that I could not escape from her grip for the evening. I nodded, “okay,” and managed to walk away after a while.

I got away from that place all right but I was beset with an internal strife that was beyond my comprehension. She was not crazy, not the kind of person that would go against the grain. Actually I think she meant well; was only interested in my well-being. She has no grudge against me. I kept reflecting on what she has said. Several quotes from the classics came to my mind. Some scholars have stated swabhaaryaayaam ca yauvanam.[vi] Others, Kalidasa for instance, stated yauvane vishaishinaam.[vii] Not only Krishna but Rama also had the same reputation. Even Vatsayana had made a special note of paaradaarikam.[viii] Considering all these opinions expressed by great scholars I have come to believe that there was some truth to Bapamma’s words. I debated further in my head and concluded that I must follow her advice. But that was something I was not used to. Where do I start? In general, I was shy and nervous. Each time I put my foot forward my heart was pulling me back.

Still struggling, I decided to check it out and went towards the lake one evening. Fearing that somebody might recognize me, I wrapped my uttareeyam around my head, pulled up my dhoti frills and tucked at the waist. As I was walking I saw somebody come toward me, carrying a bale of straw. I squinted my eyes to take a good look and noticed that that person was a woman. She came closer, looking like Sanjeeva Rao’s Chitrangi[ix] in that dim light. I managed to say, “You, girl!” She stopped there, looked around and giggled. I picked up my courage and approached her. She looked at me and said, “Sir, you?! Are you lost in the dark? Come with me, sir. I will walk you home.” I started trembling. I mumbled hastily, “You go, just go, go away,” and I ran across the fields in a rush. I heard her laugh behind me, which was even more distressing. I wandered around for a long time, I don’t know for how long, and finally returned home.

My wife was standing at the door with a big smile! As I was about to enter the house with my head lowered she stopped me. “Emandi![x] If you feel like going out for a walk or something, why didn’t you start out early? Why do you have to run across the fields? Why get stuck in the darkness? The woman you saw in the fields was our Lakshmaya’s daughter. She told me about you and advised me that next time I should send somebody along with you and with a lantern. Silly girl! I was about to send Bapamma but then you showed up …” she said in a coaxing tone. I asked her quickly, “What did Bapamma say?” I was shivering in my shoes.

“It doesn’t matter what she said. Never mind that. If you are really so disposed, why don’t you go to the next village and try. There are women like Rambha and Urvasi[xi] there. If you think you are that good you should go there and save the reputation of your ancestors. That would be a great amusement for me too,” she said, laughing.

She was getting under my skin. “Don’t you think that I am not capable of it. I can take the entire village if I had a mind to. I am just trying to be civil,” I replied.

“Who asked you to be civil? Go as you please. I will pull out the best dhoti with contrasting borders and hand it to you. Put it on and also take a couple of hundred rupees. Remember! When that woman offers to apply perfume, don’t tell her that you are not used to it. If she sprinkles perfumed water, don’t say you will catch cold. Don’t hold back a few rupees from the amount you took with you. Don’t dicker with them. You might even want to give them a little extra. If you don’t have enough cash, just send word to me. If you find someone very interesting, don’t hesitate to bring her here. I will also have some entertainment. What’d you say? Why waste time?” She went on like this and got to me like never before in all my life. I said, “Okay, bring it.” She brought the dhoti and money. I left for the village. I went to the same village my wife had mentioned. I have heard sometime back that there was a woman by the name Rakenduvadana in that village. I went straight to her house. I went there all right but I was not sure how to start the conversation.

“Sir, what’s new? Why are you here?” she asked.

Not a word came out of my mouth. I pulled out the stash of bills I had tucked at the waist and put it in front of her. “I will stay here for the night,” I managed to say.

She looked at me for a second and laughed. “What’s the matter? Upset with your wife? Is this your first time? I can see that very clearly.”

I sat there totally lost.

“What is it, babu? who tutored you on this one? I am asking since I am not seeing any sign of this conduct in your blood. Come, tell me.” She came closer and sat down next to me, taking my chin into her palm. She threw me off completely. I told her the entire story. She listened to me and advised me, “Foolish boy!  Any  parrot talks only the language of her habitat.[xii] This is not something that comes with practice but has got to be in your blood. Let’s see about what you’ve said. Did the great sage Vatsayana go around the country looking for the experience so he could record it in his book? No. He could envision the entire science because he was an intellectual. If Rama had the makings of a romantic hero, why would the poet Valmiki spend so many chapters describing only Rama’s grief? It is senseless to assume that there is no happiness at home. It is idiotic to think that there are women as gorgeous as Rambha in our neighborhood. It is foolish for persons like you to resort to a display of prowess in this manner. Please, get on the return train and go home.” She finished her speech, shoved my money back into my palm, threw in an extra rupee and sent me away with some fellow named Ankaalu.

I boarded the train all right but was worried about showing my face at home. But then, where else can I go? Should I go to another village and knock on another door? Well, what if I have to hear the same song and dance—all the eighteen chapters on good behavior—one more time from one more woman?

I went home straight. I must be really an idiot; I told my wife the whole story. She laughed again. “Your face is such that even a prostitute would take pity on you. You keep this up and go around the country, you will soon turn them all into worthless sanyasis. Maybe that is what your horoscope is saying! Womanizing is not recorded in your chart. You might as well behave from now on.”

Oh, Lord Srihari! I am reduced to nothing even in my wife’s view. And I’ve been living with her for so long! Even she is treating me like a child. I tried to be nice and this is what it I get in return? I was ticked off and told my wife, “I will not live here any more.”

“What else can you do? Where else can you go? No matter where you go, you are looking at nothing but a dead-end,” she replied and laughed again. Don’t ask me how I felt. I reiterated, “I am  leaving.” She nodded, still smiling. She looked at me as if she were saying, “Don’t I know you?” I was scared a little but walked out, gritting my teeth. I walked out all right. And then what? Given the kind of person I am, what can I do? I cannot sleep except at home. I can’t relish food unless she served it. Evidently, I need to straighten out these things first. Whenever I was hungry, I ate fruits, bread and butter, and milk. At night I started watching two movies, one after another. Are you wondering where I got the money for all these? I took care of it before leaving home. Anyway, I got my craving for home under control eventually. My desire for revenge on my wife also softened a little. I felt annoyed with myself at times though. I had everything one could ask for. Why did I get into this mess? Should I just go home, holding my head high or low? No I couldn’t, my pride was still lingering around. I know I was avenging myself on my wife. But what about that clan of prostitutes who drove me to this point? I could neither declare war on them nor could I be a romantic hero in this life. My only alternative was to go one step further and teach them a lesson.

Here’s what I did. I went around, town after town, village after village, city after city and confronted the prostitutes. I lectured to them, “God bless you all. You’ve got to save your reputation. Guru Bharatacharya[xiii] was your mentor. He made you perform “samudra mathanam[xiv] at the court of Lord Devendra in ancient times. Isn’t it true that, if there were no prostitutes, Rushyasrunga[xv] would never have got married? Pleasing male population has been your heritage for centuries. That was your talent, exclusively and predominantly. Haven’t we heard that our rulers got resorts of romance built for travelers? And that is only because they had realized that the males with experience with prostitutes would have good familial relationships. Our present government, knowingly or unknowingly, may have told you to throw away your ankle-bells, get married and get stuck in a corner like respectable housewives. Is that a vedic prescription? How could you take that word and forget your duty to the public? In fact, all women, then and now, even the women in the royal families, have been learning the teachings of your ancient guru Bharata. So what? Could they be as talented and fearless as you are in their expression and physical movements? Could they be available as readily as you are? Your well-being is in your hands. The country’s well-being is in your hands and under your control. Take my word, trust God, and save the world as has been your custom. Some pundit may create pointless havoc in the name of “eradication of prostitution” and belittle you in the process but how could you keep quiet? Don’t you see that the same people are also calling it “honoring the fine arts,” an d begging you to go to the felicitation meetings? You’d better see the crooked game they are playing and make the best of your lives. I stormed them with my speeches, like the floods of the Ganges. They all listened and  said they would agree but not one person came forward openly.

Then I went around and contacted a conscientious government official. I threatened him that I’d go on fasting unto death if he refused to find a way out for these women. He heard the entire story and laughed. He said, “Mister, I have no time to be concerned with such things now. I am not in a mood to listen to this. You come back after the elections. Take your time. Write down briefly whatever you want to say. I will submit it to the members here and then forward it to the higher authorities. We will see what they’ve got to say. Are you asking me what happens in the meantime? You don’t want to wait? All right. You can go straight to the central government and worry about it yourself. If they say, “yes,” we will not say “no.” Even if we say “no” and they will take our “no” for an answer, then again we will have no choice but agree. This is All India. The states have no power in any matter. Besides, it looks like you didn’t understand the word, democracy. Unanimity means the chairman tells something and all others raise their hands indicating their assent. How long do you thing this rule lasts if every one screams personal freedom and expresses his personal opinions? Look, you can do anything you want as long as it is not illegal. We don’t feel a thing, not so much as an antbite. We may come to know about it but we don’t care. If you cross the line, you are bound to be punished. Understand?”

“Yes,” I said.

   It was obvious I could not get this done by running after them. The only way was to chop it from the other side as the saying goes. I had to take this to the legislative assembly. For that, I needed to find the right person. Do you remember the woman, Rakenduvadana? Well, now she is known as Rattamma. Never mind that. She is the right person for this job. I decided to find an auspicious day and go to her and tell her, “Amma Rattamma! You must run for a seat in the legislative assembly, get elected and go to the center. You must pound on the table with all your might and express your concerns. That is the only way to save your race.”

Swamiji stopped for a second and asked the young man, “What do you think?”

What could the young man say? He said, “If you are talking about the woman, Rattamma, no need to go to her village. She will be coming to our village. We have arranged to honor her in our village. It would be great if you could preside over the function. Of course, there is also an about-to-become minister attending the meeting. He would say a few words first for the sake of formality. But the presence of a swamiji like you is important. Besides that strengthens your movement too.”

Swamiji replied, “Excellent. I will be there for sure.”

“Young man, no reason to hide this from you. The truth is I am tired of this drifting. I am convinced that I’ve done whatever I could. Ask me what did I accomplish after all this traveling. Nothing, to speak the truth. The more I think about it, who am I after all to save others? People have to take care of themselves. How long can we keep pushing them? As I said, I would go to that village one more time, and shift the entire responsibility to Rattamma, and wash my hands of it. She is a super achiever, I am telling you. By the way, who went to invite her? Did you go? Are you coming from there now? How did she receive you? Did she wait on you, you know what I mean, really? Young man, you don’t have to hide it from me. Come, tell me.”

The young man described his visit with Rattamma in great detail. Swamiji nearly jumped with joy and screamed, “Oh, my, you are incredible! Lady Luck smiled on you. You look very naive but obviously you have a way with words. You played your part and she pretended to believe you and served the best way she knew … Aah! I must say you were born fortunate. So be it. How else can you have your desires satisfied? Young man! after listening to your story, I know now how deluded I was all these years. What am I doing, going around like this? Nothing. Actually, I was planning to go home straight this time, I mean, after visiting Rattamma. Yes. I must go home.”

The train stopped at the next station. The passangers inquired and found out that another train was coming from the opposite direction and their train had to move on to the other set of the tracks. Swamiji thought, “If I hop on that train, I will be home by eight this evening.” The other train came on time.The passangers watched as the other train arrived. As soon as the train went past them, Swamiji looked up with a jerk. He pulled out a dhoti and his uttareeyam from his bag hastily and changed his clothing. He took some money and left the rest of the things right there.

“The train stops here for about ten minutes, right?” he asked and continued, “Here, keep my baggage with you. I will take them when I come to visit you. It does not matter even if they are lost. There is some money in the bag. Use it anyway you please. I am going back. My wife is on that train. She is returning from her mother’s home, I believe. My father-in-law is also on that train.” He laughed and jumped out of the train.

The young man felt happy for Swamiji. The other train left. So also the train the young man was on .


Translator’s note:

This is a peculiar story with two narrators, besides the author. The author used, for the first narrator, a third person reflexive pronoun ‘taanu,’ for which there is no equivalent in English. Normally the use of ‘taanu’ implies that the story is narrated from the perspective of that person. In the current story, the first narrator appears as taanu only in a few places. I replaced ‘taanu’ with ‘young man’ for the purpose of clarification. Most of the story is told in the first person by Swamiji also known as Chidanandam.

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi.

(The Telugu original, soham was published in the anthology, Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry kathalu – 2 published by Navodaya Publishers, 1986)


[i] Srinatha was a 11th century poet, known for his amorous depiction of female characters.

[ii] A dance posture.

[iii] A famous actor known for his extraordinary performance in the role of King Dushyanta.

[iv] King Dushyanta and Sakuntala were the parents of Bharata, whose name India inherited.

[v] A famous actor known for playing the role of Duryodhana, the Kaurava king in maha bharatam.

[vi]Lit. Enjoying physical pleasures with one’s own wife during youth is appropriate.

[vii] From a famous kavyam of Kalidasa, “raghu vamsam,” the story of Rama’s geneology. Kalidasa seem to imply that enjoying physical pleasures during one’s youth is acceptable, not necessarily limited to marital bliss.

[viii] Reference to a chapter on the extra marital relationships in Vatsayana’s “kama sutram.”

[ix] Sanjeeva Rao was famous for his role as Chitrangi, a female character.

[x] In some families, wives do not address husbands by name as a mark of respect. For want of a better term, they just say some thing like ‘hello’ inviting their attention before starting a conversation.

[xi] Rambha and Urvasi are divine damsels, known for their extraordinary beauty.

[xii] A popular Telugu proverb, e guuti chilaka aa guuti paluke palukutundi meaning the ideas expressed denote usually one’s upbringing.

[xiii] Bharata or Bharatacharya was the first exponent of the Indian classical dance, bharatanatyam.

[xiv] An episode from the famous epic, maha bhagavatham, the story of Lord Vishnu. The story refers to the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons in pursuit of finding the devine nectar.

[xv] A sage in the epic Ramayanam

Elements of Oral Tradition in Telugu fiction by Nidadavolu Malathi

In the case of an oral narrative, the audience gather at a specific place, away from other distractions, and are presumably in a receptive mood. The narrator addresses live audience. He has an opportunity to use visual tools like gestures, draw on local and from immediate occurrences for props. In print most of these details are replaced by other kinds of illumination.

In Andhra Pradesh, like in other parts of India, print became a medium for fiction just about a century ago. Custom dies hard in any walk of life and storytelling is no exception. While numerous experiments are introduced in rendering fiction in print, some traits of the traditional narrative style lingered on.

I am not sure exactly when Telugu critics embraced the western literary critiquing tools as the standard and began to evaluate Telugu fiction accordingly. Currently, it has become the rule. Our  critics quote western fiction writers to as the benchmark for a good story. Consequently, our writers make a conscious effort to follow the same criteria in writing fiction. Workshops and seminar are being held to teach story-writing technique on the same lines. In the process however, the elements peculiar to centuries-old fiction, that are specific to Telugu, are ignored.

The story A Piece of Ribbon (Beenadevi) opens with a small group of individuals from affluent section of our society, who gathered on the lawn of a rich doctor to spend a leisurely evening. The main theme, a story of a poor girl’s longing for a piece of ribbon, as is evident from the title, comes up during their chitchat. The opening scene with a lighthearted exchange of teasing comments by the doctor’s wife and friends is consistent with typical Telugu chitchat among a group of friends. After a few minutes, the main theme is brought up with a typical line, “Oh, that reminds me …” This is very similar to a preamble in our harikatha in oral tradition. The casualness with which the main story has been opened belies the profundity of the central theme—a  poor girl badly wanting to have a piece of ribbon to put in her hair. The tribulations of the doctor at the turn of events, first his satisfaction of being the benefactor, and later his failure, his insatiable thirst for revenge and, at the end, the punishment he was handed down for his mindless action were delineated in great detail.

Examined from the standpoint mentioned above, the criteria of the the western storytelling technique, this story lacks unity and compactness if it were to be read as a story of a little girl and her disappointments/hardships. On the other hand, judged by the stamp approval of Telugu readers on this story, we have to assume that Telugu readers and critics accepted this flaw[?] and appreciated the story as much for its traditional elements as for the core message which is the point of the title. That is evident from the award the story received in 1999. The story was originally published in 1965, and received Ravi Sastry award after 35 years of its publication.

Readers who are familiar with oral tradition are accustomed to ignoring embellishments and going straight to the core thought. For a majority of Telugu readers, this is a story of a poor girl who could not afford a piece of ribbon. I would read this story as an ego trip of the doctor (a prototype of our social reformers?) who was riding high on his generous nature rather than the poor child’s pathetic economic conditions. Against the backdrop of his self-indulgent journey into his past, the little girl’s agony fails to measure up.

Elements like humor (wife teasing husband) and irreverent comments by friends are all part of our daily lives, intended to establish the environment—again, something irrelevant to the little girl’s story.

One of the significant features in live performance is the delivery of dialogue. In a live performance, the narrator is a ventriloquist as well. He performs the characters on the stage and the audience will have no problem identifying which dialogue was spoken by which character. In The Ants, (Nayani Krishnakumari), the story was narrated as a reflection of the protagonist in his head; not only reflections of the past events but also his present responses to the past events. In print, in the Telugu original, the sentences were put in double quotes. In such instances, in English italics are used but Telugu language has no such feature. If this story were narrated in the presence of a live audience, the audience would recognize at once that the protagonist was addressing the other characters only in  his mind. In translation this needed further elucidation.

Another important element is the use of metaphor. The story revolves around the main character’s ego, or, rather his inability to take charge of his own life. Ant is a metaphor for a small, insignificant life on one hand and a symbol of  communal strength on the other. This story actually draws on both the angles. On one hand, the ants as a group could drag a piece of meat bigger than themselves into their hole. On the other, the protagonist sees them as his antagonists, the people who dragged him down, and so he crushed them under his foot, a symbolic victory for him. In translation, this again needed verbal clarification.

Long-winded sentences with adjectival phrases and nonfinite verbs are very common in Telugu fiction, particularly in older stories. This is interesting in the context of recent trends—courses being taught in short story workshops (Ramulu, pp.20-21). Here is a classic examples of traditional writing in the opening paragraph of Meaningless Union. (Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma). The first sentence runs to 14 lines. The original text, broken into individual phrases, reads roughly like this:

When Srihari got down at Howrah station with a suitcase full of suffocating ideals; when he saw buses running in all directions like rows of ants; as he walked with a renewed enthusiasm at the thought that this is my country, this is our wealth; as he saw the pure, cool, ennobling Ganga river flowing through the heart of the city peacefully; which was shimmering with a touch of the golden rays of the sun; the same Srihari who walked ostentatiously; after going around the offices in Garden Reach; as he was worn out after realizing the worthlessness of his recommendation letters; gritting his teeth; ate puffed peas and drank water; while trying to fret away the night; caught by the police and beaten with their canes; cursed the system; underwent hardships; went around dragging his suitcase; accepted the “Calcutta jute mills’ invitation”; the city that inhales people in the morning and exhales live corpses in the evening; Srihari moved on cursing the country.

In my translation, I moved the last part to the beginning of the paragraph for the purpose of lucidity and also broke the paragraph into several shorter sentences. Once again, like in the case of Piece of Ribbon, this long sentence was never a problem for Telugu readers.

Unlike adjectival phrases, a long sentence with several non-finite verbs like chuusi (after seeing  or having seen), adigi (after asking or having asked) imply a list of sequential actions and could be used to bring about a specific effect. I used a similar long sentence in Madras to Tirupati to register the impatience of the travelers in a bus. The travelers were waiting for the driver to start the bus. Instead,

…the driver opened the door, got off the bus, closed the door, walked straight to the tea stall, took out the wallet from his pocket, took some money, put the wallet back in his pocket, drank coffee, returned the cup, walked back to the bus, took out a matchbox from his pocket, took a beedi, lit the beedi, held it tightly between his teeth, opened the bus door, sat in his seat, checked the door one more time whether it was closed tight or not, and started the engine. The passengers in the bus were waiting for that moment. They all heaved a long sigh of relief in unison as if it was pre-planned.

Additionally we must note that each of these phrases have only 2 to 3 words in Telugu as opposed 2 to 8 words in translation. That again contributes to the growing impatience of the passengers. Unlike in the earlier instance, I kept the last line to the last to create that sense of impatience in the passengers. I did not see any need to change the order in the latter case.

Flow of thought in Telugu stories is not always as consistent as in English. It could be confusing if translated as is. For instance, a passage from “non-duality” (Puranam Subrahmanya Sarma) ascertains my point.

Writing the story for whom, himself or the public? Could he vibrate the world through his writing or is [he] just using [it] to rub his personal woes on the world? Does he understand how strenuous writing a story is? If an author tries only to show off his brains to the world, readers resent him. Readers lose themselves in a good story, get carried away. A story must have a purpose. After finishing the story, a reader must be prodded into thinking—this should be like this or that.

In this passage, several views are stated, sounding disjointed at times. At the risk of repeating myself, I must add that the views are very clear for a person who is knowledgeable in our culture. For others, the translator need to reword/reorganize the structure.

Yet another aspect of sentence structure is the use of nonspecific subject. Generalization in Telugu is achieved by using a verb form like chuudaali [must see], cheppaali [must say] without specifically stating the subject. In such sentences, an all-inclusive ‘we’ is implied. Use of pronouns inconsistently also are in the nature of narrating a story in the presence of a live audience. When a narrator uses ‘he’ or ‘she’, or, totally ignores the subject, it does not bother the live audience. They place themselves mentally in the moment and visualize the setting. In print, the story loses part of this ability to carry the audience into the moment unless the author is very skillful and the reader is knowledgeable in the culture. For a foreign reader, it becomes that much harder to transpose himself /herself into the setting. For a reader who is willing to pick up on the nuance, it is educational.

In the story, He is I, [Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry], the author’s use of pronouns are not consistent. The story opens with one person, taanu, as the narrator. The pronoun, a reflexive, indefinite, third person, singular, and non-gender specific, is peculiar to Telugu language. After Swamiji is introduced, most of the story is narrated by Swamiji using the first person singular, nenu[I]. Towards the end, Swamiji says, “We [memu] were waiting for the other train to arrive.” Telugu has two forms of third person plural, manam [all-inclusive] and memu [excludes listener]. Significantly, in the story, the second term, memu is used. Thus implicitly the pronoun “we” includes the listener, the young man [taanu], and, puts the reader/audience in the shoes of a listener.

Usually figures of speech, proverbs and references to epics and mythology are built into a story as props. And Telugu fiction is no exception. Here are some examples of how they are manifested in Telugu fiction.

Proverbs are sometimes do not contribute enormously to the story in that the story moves on without the proverbs. However, they do reaffirm the author’s point. At other times, they just are introduced since they sound beautiful. For instance, notice the rhyme in atta meeda kopam dutta meeda chuupinaTTu. Atta and dutta rhyme. Translation closest to the phrase reads like “You are angry with your mother-in-law and taking it out on the bull.” To make it readable, I had to keep the term atta, which is used in the story Yearning [Kalipatnam Rama Rao] several times. I translated it as “Upset with attamma  and so beat up the bull?” The original proverb is a rhetorical statement. In translation, I had to change it to a question in order to bring about the original spirit.

In short, there is a vast amount of cultural nuance in our language which requires special attention and care in transporting it to the translation. This article barely scratches the surface. Readers, writers and translators need to examine this area carefully.


(Published by Nidadavolu Malathi as editorial, September 2003 on


Ramulu, B.S. kathala badi. Jagatyal, Andhra Pradesh: Vishala Sahita Academy, 1998

Venkatasubbaiah, Vallampati. Katha silpam. Hyderabad: Visalandhra Publishing House, 1995

Narayana, Singamaneni, Comp. Telugu kathakulu, kathana reethulu. V.3. Hyderabad: Visalandhra Publishing House, 2001.

Venugopal, N. katha sandarbham. Hyderabad: Swetcha Sahiti, 2000



Bilingualism in Andhra Pradesh by Nidadavolu Malathi

After my story;Bilingual Kid;had been published on, I received comments from young Telugu youth; stating that the situation in English medium schools in Andhra Pradesh was just as bad.

And, here in America, some professors in my college pointed out to me the English teaching methods/policies put in place in America in the early nineteen hundreds. That made me think and examine the topic further. To my surprise, the information I found was shocking.

The BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] started schools to teach [American] Indian children with the sole purpose of “civilizing” and “assimilation” of the children of the native tribes [American Indians] into the white world. Simply stated, it was meant to make young American Indian children to accept the white men’s beliefs and value systems. Their stated policies included uniforms appropriate for the white men’s world and punishing children who spoke their native tongues [emphasis mine].(The link to the page under reference,, is dead now. 2/5/2022)

The similarities are strikingly obvious. However, the difference is even more appalling: In America, the above dissension was between two races, the white America and the native Indians [American Indians]. In Andhra Pradesh, it is just one race—the Andhras. The imposition of English in Andhra Pradesh schools is not from outside. To me, that seems unconscionable!

In June 2001, I commented on the sorry state of or rather lack of Telugu language skills among today’s youth. In response, V.V.S. Sarma, Bangalore, sent me an 8-page article, pointing out that the problem lay in the poorly written, elementary school textbooks. During my recent trips to Andhra Pradesh, I have noticed Americanization in every aspect—the children’s toys; education, attitudes, clothing, electronics, aspirations, pursuits, careers, not to mention the language, which is a curious mix of Telugu with heavily accented Indian English and so on.

Until now, I was priding myself on the fact that in my country, even the illiterate could speak two or three languages at functional level. It appears the situation is strangely different now. The illiterate still could speak two or three languages while the children in schools are being taught to speak only one language and that is English!

During my Intermediate years [first two years of college at the time] I opted to learn Sanskrit. The teacher was a traditional scholar, but not educated in English. Therefore, he taught us the Sanskrit language in Telugu. However, English was the medium of instruction and as such, we were required to write the exam in English. In other words, the language I was learning was Sanskrit, the medium in which we were taught Sanskrit was Telugu, and our expertise in Sanskrit was tested in English! And, none of us questioned the propriety of this system, nor were we outraged, much less complained. Today I am glad I took that class and happy I know at least a little Sanskrit.

Having said that, let me refer back to the article on BIA schools. The Bureau and the parents eventually realized that it would not work and decided to revise their policy. In 1926, the Merriam Report’s recommendations included among several others:

  • Do away with “The Uniform Course of Study,” which stressed only the cultural values of whites.
  • The Indian Service must provide youth and parents with tools to adapt to both the white and Indian world.

“The Depression had finally benefited Indian people, not because of their unique plight, but because they were at last a part of a national plight. … Indian education should be rooted in the community and should stress the values of native culture,” commented the author. “Children learned through the medium of their own cultural values, while becoming aware of the values of white civilization. …  [American] Indian schools introduced Indian history, art and language,” he further elaborated.

My question is what does it take for the school administrators, parents, the elite and the government of Andhra Pradesh to realize that they can teach children the English language along with their mother tongue Telugu, which is also the state’s official language, and not to the exclusion of?



American Indian Education Foundation. “History of Indian Education in the US.” ( Downloaded 2/22/2003. Update, currently the link is unavailable, dated 2/5/2022.

Reese, Debbie, et al. Fiction Posing as Truth. Rethinking Our Classrooms.A Critical Review of Ann Rinaldi’s My Heart is On the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl. Downloaded 2/20/2002.

Bilingual Kid by Nidadavolu Malathi.

I come from a country where anybody could speak two or three languages easily, even those who are considered illiterate for demographic purposes. They possess working knowledge of more than one language.
When I first came to this country I resisted all the attempts of my well-meaning friends to teach me the perfect American accent as much as I could. Assimilation was not in my agenda. I did not want to fit into the mainstream. But that has happened anyway, and without any effort on my part. Probably I could say it was the new way of brainwashing. It slowly seeped into my brain like the sunlight at daybreak. You can not pinpoint the specific moment when it happens. I can’t remember the specific moment when I stopped thinking in Telugu and started thinking in English.
Sometimes I feel like this language issue is no worse than the colonization I have heard so much about in my childhood. I feel like somebody else is telling me what to say, how to say, and even to think in what language. And they say it is my choice!

In fact, there is something else that led me to think on these lines. That was long time ago. I turned the TV on. The movie “Roots” was showing. I watched it only for a few minutes. It was too violent for me. The scene I watched, however, made a permanent impression on my mind—it was about the captors telling the young man to change his name to Tony. The young man took all the whipping and kept insisting his name was Kinte Kunte. I understood, for the first time, what identity meant. The name, the face, the color, the language, the customs—they all come in one package. That is one’s culture.
You can see why the language issue is a sensitive subject for me. English, ubiquitous as it is, is one of the millions of languages of the world. Some people miss this point for some outlandish reason. I have come across people who look blank when they hear a sound that did not sound like English. Even a personal name never heard before becomes a challenge for them.
The family next door arrived here a month ago from another country. They came to America in search of freedom and better life, as always. It did not take long for me to figure out that they did not speak English. That was their first major hurdle.
It was early November. The temperature was falling rapidly. I was sitting in my living room with a blanket in my lap and a book in my hand. I heard a knock on the door.
I opened the door and saw the woman next door standing with panic written large on her face. She gestured to the puff of smoke rising out of the chimney across the street and mumbled something. I managed to understand that she thought the house was on fire. I smiled and tried to calm her down the best I could. I tapped on her shoulder gently and said it was okay. I am sure the words were lost on her, but my gestures conveyed the message. My English did not come to my rescue, for sure.
The father was working in a gas station and the mother as a cleaning lady in our neighborhood. They bought some 1970s Dodge for $500. The car needed new tires, new battery and new carburetor. I could not but help wondering about their dream.
Then came the time to admit their nine-year old son in school. Since the parents spoke no English, I went with them and walked them through the process. They signed wherever I told them to sign. The signatures were in their language, and so, I witnessed their signatures. And as God is my witness, they had no idea what they were agreeing to and I had no way of telling them so. The principal heaved a sigh of relief feeling good that we have managed to protect the system!
Jenina, the teacher, was very kind. She took his hand and walked him to his classroom.
“Here is a new boy in our class,” she announced to the class and asked him, “What is your name?”
The boy did not reply. The teacher could not recall the name she had seen on the registration form. She remembered the first syllable of his name and came up with the idea.
“We will call you Phil. Okay?”
The boy was either confused or protesting, he just pursed his lips tight.
“Hi Phil,” the entire class shouted.
We left the boy, Phabwugin at the school for the day. The only blessing in all this was the school was within walking distance. He could walk back to home.
Next day Phabwugin or Phil refused to go to school. The parents argued with him, yelled at him, and made him go to the school.
A week later I went to their apartment to see how they were doing. I returned after a couple of hours. My brother Gopu, a sophomore in a local college, was waiting for me.
“Where have you been?” he asked me. He was so accustomed to seeing me slouched on the couch watching TV, he was surprised I was not home at that hour.
“Next door. Chatting with the mother,” I said.
He laughed. “You two don’t even speak the same language. What were chatting about for two hours?”
Gopu, 15 years younger, is pretty much next generation. He is a city-bred, a product of English medium school, and a borderline bilingual kid at best.
“Well, if you can talk to a dog or a plant, you can talk to a human too,” I rejoined.
I noticed that Phil was putting up a fierce fight each day to go to school.
One day he came back with a bloody nose, and the next day with a black eye.
The following week, Jenina showed up at their door. It was a no-brainer to see she could not get very far with the parents. But she was a kind and caring person. She had read books, attended workshops, and presented papers at conferences on teaching English as a Second Language. She had mastered the art and science of ESL. She had been trying hard to teach the perfect American English to this kid. She wanted him to be her success story.
Jenina spent extra hours with Phil. Developed tools exclusively for him. Eventually Phil came to like her. He did not mind spending time with her after school, but speaking English was a different story.
Things were getting tougher. Everyday I saw Phil with a black eye or bruised arm. Then came the big blow. The principal was thinking of expelling Phil, or suspending him for a semester. Phil brought a kitchen knife to the school.

Jenina talked to the principal and told him that she would talk to the parents.
For a second time ,she came to pay a visit to the parents. This time they all made sure that I was home. She explained to me, in great detail, the steps she was taking not only to teach Phil English, but also to instil into his little head the importance of learning English. Her efforts included making flash cards to suit his specific needs—which meant making cards carrying the name of his country, fruits and vegetables grown in his country, his gods, his festivals… I could see she was sincerely trying to help him.
Phil was not interested in those cards for the obvious reason. The other children in his class were not interested in those things. For them, the words were weird. Phil understood that, despite his lack of English language skills.
Then she switched to the local culture. She prepared cards exemplifying the life in America-the movies, music, hip-hop, national heroes, local stories … Phil did not appreciate that, either.
The teacher was getting frustrated. What would it take to make this little boy speak English?
Jenina gave him children’s books. He did not find them interesting. She gave him audio cassettes of children’s songs and told him to sing along. He was too old for those songs. He did not say so, exactly. The way he looked at those pieces said so.
She kept talking about the virtues of being a bilingual. Once he mastered the English language, he could be the proud speaker of two languages, a perfect bilingual kid.
“May be you could speak English at home also, as a way of reinforcing what you have learned at school,” Jenina suggested.
“…..” Phil blurted a word I would not care to repeat.
We were stunned and stared at each other. The parents said something to the effect that he should watch his language. At least, that was my understanding of the words they spoke to him.
“There! You want English, you got it,” I said. I knew it was not nice of me. But my point was—children would pick up the language much faster than we think, and at the places we do not think of.
Jenina kept insisting that they all should speak English at home. I was losing patience.
“But you know the parents do not speak English,” I said.
“Tell them to learn English. You know language is one of the most important survival skills. They need to learn English if they want to live in this country,” she tried to be polite as she spoke. But the words sounded harsh. They sounded harsh to me, at least. She had a point. That annoyed me even more.
“Explain to them,” she said again.
I copped out. I had to. “I don’t have the language skills at that level to explain your opinion to them,” I replied, struggling hard to be polite.
“But you do communicate with them,” she insisted.
That ticked me off. “Remember what you’ve said earlier about being a bilingual kid?”
“Yes. Why?”
“The way I see it, language is culture. Home is the only place where they can keep their language and their culture. If you insist that they should speak English at home, you are asking them to ignore their own language and their own culture. Then, you are not making him a bilingual kid. You are making him English-speaking monolingual,” I said, struggling with my own emotions.
I told them I had something to do and left in a hurry.
I was beside myself. I was fretting and fuming all evening. The rice was burned. The curry was too salty. The soup turned out more like an industrial strength paint.
“What is wrong?” my brother asked me, pulling out TV dinner from the freezer.
“The teacher is so keen on making him ubhayabhasha praveena[1]In Andhra Pradesh the term ubhayabhasha praveena refers to an accreditation of specialization in Sanskrit and Telugu. In this context, the term is used to mean simply expert in two languages. … Continue reading
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“That is not making him a bilingual kid. That is destroying his culture. God knows he will master English soon enough.”
“You don’t mean that,” he said. He was referring to the phrase ‘destroying the culture.’
“Well,” I growled and went into my bedroom. He did not follow me. He knew better .
I looked out the window. The boy was hanging around in front of our apartment, but not too close. I wondered what was he doing there? What did he want?
After a few minutes, Gopu went out with a basketball. He was throwing hoops. Then he gestured the boy to join him. The boy responded quickly. They were throwing the ball into the hoop. I was watching them. The boy was good. There was not much of a conversation but for a few words like ‘wow’ and ‘good’ from Gopu. The only words I could hear were the sounds of the heart; from one heart to another—that universal language!
Gopu did not have to go through this three-ring circus. He came from home, well-prepared, all set, ready to go. He had arrived here fully equipped. His Telugu was just one notch above the level of Phil’s English.
Language is culture. Home is the only place where they can keep their culture-the last resort of human yearning for identity.
I know these kids will start speaking English soon enough–watch TV, the movies, hip-hop, football, Miller light, Apple pie … the all-American dream.
Gopu had no problem assimilating in to the local culture, because he was groomed from his childhood. I am sure one day Phil will speak only English, watch only Hollywood movies, sing rock and roll, or pop … He probably would become one of those computer geeks, get a job, or start his own small business, and will earn big bucks on the Wheel of Fortune or Family Feud, Wisconsin lottery or Ho Chunk Casino. I am also sure he would have no idea of his culture, none whatsoever, I mean in the real sense of the term. In his school and outside, he will be labeled bilingual, although his vocabulary in his mother tongue is limited to a few colloquial phrases! I can easily assess the extent of his vocabulary. We, the first generation adults, speak English. But when we lose our temper the choice phrases from our mother tongue spring gushing forth from our mouth. Our children pick up this phraseology faster than the words for polite conversation. Mother tongue becomes the language of insults. I have seen my brother draw from his Telugu terminology in addition to a few English phrases which I would not care to repeat. Well, he is discreet in my presence, but I am fully aware of the extent of his language skills in Telugu.
My heart sank tumbling down into the bottomless pit. I have no words to explain for this sadness. I am overwhelmed at the thought that these two kids would draw from two languages only when they are upset.

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi, published in December 2002.


1 In Andhra Pradesh the term ubhayabhasha praveena refers to an accreditation of specialization in Sanskrit and Telugu. In this context, the term is used to mean simply expert in two languages. Specialization of scholarship in two languages.

The Drama of Life by Madhurantakam Rajaram

“Aah! Aah! What a performance! What can I say, Swamy! The audience went into a trance as they listened to your narration!” Venkatadri Naidu, the village head, said.

“Is that right? Is it that appealing?” Harinarayana Sarma Bhagavatar responded modestly.

“You are making it sound very ordinary, sir. The truth is each word hit us like a piece of diamond. You might think I am saying this to flatter you. No sir. I swear on Draupadi amma. I have heard it so many times in my life, this is the twenty-second. I have seen persons narrating Rajasuyam, Vastrapaharanam] and even Vishaneellu But I’ve never heard anybody narrate the dice story with such a fervor and so lusciously …”

“That’s good, Naidu! I was hesitant at first. You know why. Your accent is different from mine. If your people fail to follow my language, it is of no use, no matter how much I scream. That’s fine. You are speaking from your heart. I am so happy I could be riding an elephant. You might be wondering why I give so much importance to the story of dice. I do have my own reasons. Sit down. I will tell you why. Let me first go into the yard and wash my hands and feet. I will be back in a second.”

“I will wait here, Swamy!” Venkatadri Naidu said and sat down in a chair on the porch. Harinarayana Sarma hung up his gold-threaded upper garment on a hook, changed from his silk dhoti to an ordinary one and went into the backyard.

During summer it is common for the farmers to celebrate Bharata yajnam in the villages. When the summer sun is blazing, the water in the well hits rock bottom, and the trees shed all the leaves. The farmers, while waiting for the rains, would hold such performances. Usually they would have “daytime stories” at noontime and plays at night. The occasion was an eighteen-day celebration corresponding to the Great War fought for eighteen days according to the epic Maha Bharatam. But then what is so special about this celebration? Who does not know the story of Maha Bharatam? Even an old hag who has no knowledge of even one letter of the alphabet can tell the story. Imagine how superb one has to be to narrate it in a way that could capture the audience—a story that is well-known to everybody, from the littlest child to the oldest in the entire community, a story that is infused into the lifeblood of the entire race. The narrator should have several qualifications like scholarship, worldly knowledge, good timing, melodic skills, a sense of humor and more. In addition, the ability to answer the complex questions and explain the finer distinctions of dharma is also important. Venkatadri Naidu was searching for a Bhagavatar of that distinction and he heard about Harinarayana Sarma.

“I have been listening to these narrations since my childhood days. Are you saying this Bhagavatar is better than Erpedu Subbarama dasu, Santapeta Tiruvengada dasu, Sompalli Surnayarana sastrulu? In what way he is superior to all these bhagavatars?” Venkatadri Naidu quesioned him.

Now the time has come for the other person to “save his deposit.” He said, “Look, Naidu! Do you think Harinarayana Sarma is my relative or something? No! But can I eat sugar and call it bitter? That is the only reason I mentioned it. Where is the need for me to argue in his behalf? What is the point in describing the sweetness of a mango in words? You will know only if you taste it. Have you heard Adibhatla Narayanadasu ever? He is known as the grandfather of harikatha [stories of gods]. Narayanadasu was a bhagavatar with a moustache. This Harinarayana Sarma has no moustache. That is my introduction to him to put it briefly. If you want me to, I am prepared to give you a longer version. Harinarayana Sarma does not wear all that jewelry all Bhagavatars wear traditionally—like the gold bracelets with lion head decorations, rings on fingers, and such. But then, don’t you think he has no jewelry. He has bundled them up and thrown them into the attic. He looks like a stupid brahmin for all appearances. In fact, he is like that magician who plays the flute and all the children follow him. When Sarma opens his voice, it is the same way with the audience. Do you want to know how I came to know about all this? Once I went to Palnadu to buy turmeric. On my way I stopped in Vinukonda for the night. Somebody told me about the harikatha [performance] and so I went there. The organizers probably wanted to test the skills of the Bhagavatar. They asked him to present the story of Sita’s wedding with sorrow as the dominant rasa. The audience were surprised wondering how could a wedding be described with sorrow as its dominant theme. You know what Sarma did? He opened with the anecdote where the father, Janaka, sends off Sita to the in-law’s house. Trust me, he squeezed our hearts out. There was not a soul that did not shed a tear.”

Venkatadri Naidu’s determination is like that of a mongoose. He would not sleep until he accomplishes his aim once he sets his mind to do something. He took Appoji Reddy, the ex-munsif [village administrator], with him and got on the train, the Tirumala Express, and arrived in Vijayawada. From there, they reached Gudlavalleru by bus. Harinarayanadasu lives in a small village two kilometers away from Gudlavalleru. They reached there and found that Harinarayana Sarma had gone to another town, Annavaram. It was brahmotsavam time in the Annavaram temple.

“Appoji! Swamy is not here. What do you think we should do now?” Naidu asked his friend for his advice.

“What else is there to do? Why not find out where that Annavaram is? We have come all the way here, why go back?” Appoji said.

They both got on the train and reached Annavaram. By now four days of the performance were over, with three more to go.

“Look Appoji! The hill, temple and the lake are beautiful. Shall we stay here for the three days and listen to the story?” Naidu asked.

“Let’s do that. We can visit the god at dawn and dusk as well. At night we can listen to the story. Nothing more pleasurable,” Appoji supported the idea.

The three nights flew away like three seconds for them.

On the final night, Sarma finished the show with the usual mangalam and was about to leave the stage. Naidu, along with Appoji, rushed forward and stood in front of Sarma holding out a tamboolam for Sarma.

“What is this?” Sarma asked. Naidu’s attire appeared strange. Naidu has a bushy moustache, and a long namam on his forehead. He wore a long-sleeve shirt and had a cane in one hand while clutching the frills of his dhoti with the other hand.

“I will explain to you, Swamy! Please, accept this tamboolam,” Naidu said.

Sarma garu took the tamboolam and said, “What’s this for? Tamboolam with money? You are being silly, why?” Sarma asked, surprised.

“Swamy! Please, I am imploring you,” Naidu cleared his throat and continued, “Accept this, Swamy! We are from Chittoor district in the Rayalaseema area. Our village is called Bugga agraharam, 15 miles south of Tirupati township. My name is Venkatadri Naidu. He is Appoji Reddy. We have Dharmaraju temple in our village. We have the tradition of performing Dharmaraju yajnam [vedic ritual] each year—narratives of epic stories in the daytime and outdoor stage performances at night. We were discussing who we could invite. By chance, we heard your name. We set out right away, went to your village and then heard about your performance here. We came here three days ago. For the time we took, we were able to pay a visit to the Lord and also listen to your narrative on the temple porch. My education is very little. I am not qualified to describe your excellence. This time you must come to our village for our bharatam celebrations. We cannot worship a mountain-size Lord with that big heap of flowers. We will show you our abilities and our respect for you. We have heard your narrative but that is not enough. All the people in our area must listen to your story. Swamy! That is what I am begging for.” He stood there with folded hands respectfully.

Sarma was quite taken by Naidu’s demeanor, his appeal and the way he presented it, but was a little apprehensive. He put his hands on Naidu’s shoulder and said, “Your manner is impressive. You have stalled me before I could object. My heart would not allow me to refuse the tamboolam that has been given to me on the temple premises. But you must know, I have never been to any place beyond Nellore for storytelling. I have no knowledge of your traditions. There is a striking difference in the manner you and I talk. I don’t know if your people could follow my narrative style.”

“Please, Swamy, do not think on those lines. We have been listening to your narrative for the past three nights. We could understand, why could not our people? Swamy! Don’t they say all the forests are the same for a lion to roam around?”

Sarma laughed aloud. “You say you are not educated but you do have a way with words. I don’t know how but you have gotten my assent. Good, Naidu. I will be there. Tell me how to get there and when.”

“We will give you all those details before we leave,” Naidu said.

That is how Harinarayana Sarma happened to arrive at Bugga agraharam.


Sarma was satisfied with the arrangements Naidu has made for him. Naidu got the building that was vacated by the headmaster after his transfer to another place. He got it remodeled with all the amenities, like a small size travelers’ bungalow. He also got a chef from Tirupati for cooking food. Sarma was especially impressed by the scenic beauty and also by the interest the local people have evinced in the epics of Maha Bharatam and Ramayanam.

The village was surrounded by mountains. Along the mountain slopes, there was a river flowing incessantly. On either side of the river, there were several trees with a variety of fruits and stretches of green farm lands. Amidst the valleys there was mound on which Bugga agraharam was situated. The Dharmaraju temple was just outside the village and in the middle of a tamarind grove. Huge tamarind trees, standing tall, encircled the temple. The temple was situated close to the periphery and faced the east. Although it was referred to as a temple, in reality, it was a compound for carts. In that nine-acre building, one fourth of it was used as a porch and the rest of it was used as temple. Inside the temple, there were statues of the five Pandava princes and Draupadi. A little further away, the statues of Krishna and Potharaju were situated. All of them were made of wood. Outside the temple, the villagers put up a temporary roofing with matted coconut leaves on a one-acre area. They brought in sand and poured it on the ground. Across from the tent, at about one hundred meters distance, they raised a stage for the performance. On either side of the stage, they also built huts with thatched roofing in semicircles. Some of them were used for selling sweets, cool drinks, and snack shops.

Sarma stood on the stage and looked around. The entire scenery was breathtaking. In great excitement he felt as if Vyasa bhagavan and the trinity of poets had entered his spirit. Sarma opened his narrative of the fifth veda [maha bharatam] in a reverie. It took the entire first day just to sing the praise of the Maha Bharatam. In the next five days he covered Menaka Viswamitra story, Sakuntala Dushyanta, birth of Bharata, Ganga Santana story, Bhishma’s vow, and Satyavati’s wedding and moved on to Khandava dahanam and finished the first of the 18 segments. Then followed Rajasuyam and Sisupala vadha. On the seventh day, he was to present Maya sabha, maya dyutham [crafty dice game] and Draupadi mana samrakshanam [saving Draupadi from public disgrace]. Sarma however felt like he needed to level the playing field before he could proceed to the dice game and so stopped there. Usually, most narrators would finish the story in about ten minutes. Sarma spent one and a half hours and kept the audience spellbound the entire time.


“Tell us, Swamy!” Naidu asked with curiosity.

Sarma lay back in the armchair.

“Naidu, do you know why Janamejayudu did the Serpent yagam?”

“Oh, wouldn’t I know? His father was bitten by a snake, wasn’t he? For that reason, he was hell-bent on destroying the entire species of snakes …”

“That is true. In the same way, I am enraged by the dice game. I am angry up to my neck. Of course, there are lots of evils that are destroying our country. Among those destructive elements this gambling mentality tops the list, I think. Human beings do have weakness, I agree. That is natural. But the family, educational institutions and the government must take the responsibility to eliminate those weaknesses, instill plausible values and make them responsible citizens. On the other hand, if the fence eats up the farm where do we turn for help? Here is my question. Aren’t you all, indirectly if not directly, in deed if not in words, spreading the message that, ‘You idiot, obvviously it is unreasonable to hope that you could climb the ladder with your hard-earned money in this world. Therefore you had better find some shortcuts.’ Don’t you know the name of this game? Lottery! Every state–Haryana lottery, Andhra Pradesh lottery, Manipur lottery, Meghalaya … in fact where is a state which is not running a lottery? Some hundreds and thousands of people burn their hands so one person could become a millionaire. They claim that they can create a happy, contented Rama rajyam, based on this philosophy. Look Naidu! Don’t these arguments drive you crazy? I am losing my mind. I have a younger brother who got caught in this mess of the lottery and got burnt …”

“Oh! Is that true, Swamy! You are so knowledgeable. Could you not talk some sense into him?” Naidu said, express sympathy.

“Whoever tried to talk sense to him, each one of us, became his sworn enemy. Only those who encouraged him to buy lottery tickets were his dearest friends. His dream was, by the grace of God, if he would win some three hundred thousand rupees in some lottery, he could build a huge mansion, put the rest of the money in a fixed deposit, and quit the stupid job he had. In his eyes all the other things like the happiness of his family, future of his children, his accountability on the job, even his own pleasure appeared to be insignificant and despicable. God knows how many tickets he bought and how much money he spent. He was always in debt. His life was revolving round buying the lottery tickets and waiting for the results. The bus bringing the newspapers arrives at midnight to the village where he was working. And this idiot would be there at the bus station waiting for the bus. He also found a friend who was equally crazy about the lottery. At one time they got into an argument and the friend said, “Even if you pray standing on your head, you will not get the first prize in this lifetime.” That depressed my brother. He grew a beard and moustache. Then he got a huge amount from his office as some sort of backpay. He went and bought hundreds of tickets with that money on some bumper lottery series.”

“He did not get the prize even after buying so many tickets, Swamy?”

“He missed the chance of second prize just by one number.”

“Ohh! …”

“He would have taken it well, if not for something else. I mentioned earlier about another friend of his who was taunting him. He got the same prize my brother missed by one number. That was an insult my brother could not take—it was like Duryodhana in Maya sabha. He felt like he was being fried in the fire of humiliation. That was the last of him. Nobody ever saw him again.

Nobody knew where he went. We have reported to the police. We have engaged people to find him and took even ads in the papers. The result is nil.”

Naidu went on listening without a word.

“The worst part is we could not even say that the winner was happy. He kept his prize ticket in his pocket and went into the city. He consulted several people about depositing the money in a bank. Among the people he consulted there was also a topnotch pickpocket. He was so good—he could remove the eyeball while the eye is wide open. That smooth-talking thief picked his pocket, replaced it with a phony ticket and disappeared. This friend found out about the deception and cried his heart out. He kept going to the police station for about a month. After understanding that it was of no use, he hung himself right there and ended his life. …”

“I am sorry …”

“Sorry for what? The people who run these lotteries must take the blame. You have the power. If you put your mind to it, you can stop this depravity, this injustice and all evil paths. But it does not look like you have such humane thought. You are saying that there should not be class distinctions. At the same time you are creating these evil ways suitable for each of these classes. Horse races for the high class, the lotteries for the middle class, and the matka games for the lower class. … Let us not worry about the high class. Let it be. What about the matka? The rikshaw driver, the errand boy in the tea stall, paan shop owner, the compositor in the press, the little businessman in the market, waiter in the small hotels, the servant in small stores … are not they all ripped off through these games. They work all day to earn the money and spend it on the games at night. By dawn, they come out losers. Again go to work, earn money, again play the game, get robbed … Does this vicious circle have to keep spinning eternally? Would it ever stop?”

“Don’t know, Swamy! It is doubtful if it would ever stop.”

“That is why I hate gambling. The gambling habit has spread all over the world like a horrible, contagious disease. It has seized the society like a forest fire. The human race is bitten by its vicious fangs and is distorted like the emperor Nala who was bitten by the snake Karkotaka. People like us can only find imaginary solutions but can do nothing in reality. Let me share with you my thoughts. Sometimes, I feel like performing a vedic ritual like Janamejaya and invite into the sacred fire all those who create these games—those who invite the players and those who encourage gambling.”

Sarma kept quiet for a few minutes and then said, “I just remembered. The story of tonight’s play is about gambling, right?”

“Yes, Swamy! You must watch that play. Did I not tell you that the players are Kanga troupe. They are very famous in the area for their presentation of the stories of Bharatam.”

“I have not seen their performance but I heard a lot about it. And you have set up microphones that could shake even the mountains. I think I heard their play on the radio. But then one can never really experience the essence of it unless one watches it on the stage. Let us satisfy that craving too. You be here by nine-thirty. We can watch for about a half hour or so and return. …”

“We will do that, Swamy!” Naidu said and got up to leave.


The Bharatam mound was like a huge tent built with dark curtains and huge flood lights flushed in. The light bulbs hanging from poles, beams, and the branches of trees were looking like buds. The noise from the crowds was resounding—incessant, hollow and baffling—in all the directions like the great ocean on a full moon day. People from all the neighboring villages came in huge crowds, bringing their jute mats, spreading them and the settling down in the open arena. A festive mood spread all over. They were shouting at the top of their voices. Laughter was spreading like flowers thrown around.

Naidu brought Sarma, showed him a place to sit making sure he was seated comfortably. Yakshaganam performance was just starting at the other end of the arena at the same time.

The announcer came to the stage, fully dressed in the traditional garb. He was wearing a long shirt, a glittering vest, a scarf round his neck, and a stick in his hand. He alerted the audience that the performance was going to start.

“Beware, audience,

Beware, beware.

Be alert,

The king is entering the court!

Here is the King!

Here, the King has arrived!”

He ran back and forth on the stage looking in all the directions—a way of creating a sense of reality of the King’s arrival. Sarma could not contain a laugh. He burst into laughter and said, “This is great. Your actor is really living it.”

“Oh, You have seen nothing yet. You wait until Addala Munusamy comes. Then you will know,” Naidu said.

“Who is Addala Munusamy? There is no such character in bharatam.”

“Addala Munusamy is the person who plays the role of Duryodhana. When he comes on the stage, wearing dark sunglasses, glittering coat, wristwatch and sandals, even the dozing audience would get up and sit straight.”

Sarma slipped into a reverie. Not even Vyasa could have imagined a Duryodhana wearing dark sunglasses and wristwatch. But then there is something we have to remember. The art form changes according to the times. It is not a problem as far as this presentation of Bharatam goes even if the costumes were not appropriate, props were absurd, and delivery was unacceptable. It is enough if persons were inspired by the original message of the Bharatam.

The attention of Sarma was shifted from the performance to the crowds. People were standing like walls at the stalls on the either side of the stage. Some of them were enjoying the hot snacks straight out of the frying pan and blowing to cool them. Glasses of tea were changing hands nonstop. Items like paan leaves, betel nut, beedies, cigarettes, balloons, stainless steel and aluminum pans, and ribbons have become hot items. It is common for such things to sell well at festivals and on religious occasions.

Sarma was however astounded for one reason. Opposite these huts, there were bigger huts with dazzling lights. From the looks of huge crowds going that way, it would appear like something very special was going on there.

“Naidu, are those huts also shops?” Sarma asked.

“How could they also be shops? There are other things like lungaru, pin-board machines, tamarind seeds game, both inside and outside …”

“What on earth are they?”

“You have never seen them before?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about. How can ask me if I have seen them or not? Tell me this first, is it worth seeing at all?”

“Let’s go. You can see them for yourself.”

As Naidu moved forward, the crowds split and gave them way. Naidu took Sarma to a place where the crowd was very dense, like a crop that grows thick because of sumptuous supply of manure. A huge tree was providing the roof. Some ten to twelve petromax lamps were blazing bright there. Near each one of the lamp, there was a spinning wheel, eight inches above the ground. People gathered round the wheel.

“Look at it, saar! There is no deception, no illusion. Prize based on luck. See the five pictures—elephant, camel, horse, cow and lion. You may bet on whatever picture you like. If the wheel stops at the picture on which you have bet, I will double the amount—quarter for a quarter, a half rupee for a half rupee, a rupee for a rupee, a five for a five and a ten for a ten. Just luck saar. Come on, saar. Come on. Play saar.”

The person running the show was shouting in the megaphone like a thunder. Money was pouring in like hailstorm. The wheel was spinning fast, and slowing down and then coming to a stop. Those who bet on the picture where the needle stopped were getting paid. The rest of the stakes on the other pictures were going into the organizer’s box.

“This is called lungaru. Sometimes they can change the pictures and or colors. The game in general is the same.”

“This is called lungaru?” Sarma’s voice sounded weak like from the depths of a well. “So what is happening in that hut?” he pointed to another hut.

“That is where they play the pin-board game, Swamy!” Naidu walked toward that hut.

Sarma followed Naidu reluctantly. In that hut also the crowd was so thick, if you threw sand on them it would not reach the ground. Sarma looked over their heads and noticed a wheel near the bamboo partition, and it was spinning like a table fan. One can see clearly the colors on the wheel only when it stopped. While rotating all the colors mix up and become blurry. The players were throwing arrows on to the wheel like one would throw knives at a woman propped up against a wall.

One man bet five rupees on the red color and threw out three arrows. Two of them hit the white color. The third one hit the yellow color. Within minutes the five rupee bill went into the box of the manager.

“Bet, sir, bet. If one arrow hits the color you bet on, twice the returns, if two arrows hit, you will get two times four, and if all the three arrows the color, your returns are eight times your bet. Eight rupees for one rupee! Forty rupees for five, eighty for ten, … bet saar bet!”

“Naidu! Are all the other huts the same?” Sarma asked.

“Oh, no swamy! There is no comparison at all between these games and the games there. They are high stake games. The one in that booth is tamarind seeds game …”

Words from that booth were being broadcast through a megaphone, “Sir …forty-five … twelve … twenty, nine … four … thirty-three …”

One of the players shouted, “Stop, stop. It is over. Game! Game!”

Naidu continued to explain, “Twenty-four persons can play the game each time, Swamy! They have benches to sit on, like in a snack shop. In front of the benches, they will have desks for the players to play the game. Each desk carries 24 boards. Each board contains eight times eight, sixty-four squares. Each square contains random numbers. The manager pulls out a card and calls out the number written on the card. The players keep placing the tamarind seeds on the numbers called out. Whoever gets the tamarinds eight in a row first, either top to bottom, across, or corner to corner, is the winner. The charge to play is one rupee and the winner gets eighteen rupees. …”

“What about the other six?”

“As usual, the manager keeps the other six bets as his commission …”

“That’s enough, friend. I have heard and seen enough. I am starting to get a headache.”

“There is one more game, Swamy! That is the biggest game around here. It is called in-and-out.

They play with a deck of spades. That is played only by two persons. The people standing around can also place their stakes, if they feel like it. One of the two first cuts the stack of cards. Let us say he pulls a joker. They keep dealing the cards to those two persons. Whoever gets the joker first is the winner. One could win one hundred rupees in one minute. He might lose as much too.”

Sarma turned round swiftly and kept walking toward the main road. Naidu was shocked to see him walk away like that. “What happened, Swamy? Is your headache getting worse?” Naidu asked him and rushed to catch up with him.

Sarma arrived at the main road as if he was possessed by a ghost and was unable to control himself. It was like some heavy winds blew him away from that place. Then he stopped suddenly and turned around and looked.

“Swamy! Is your headache very bad? I can get you some pills,” Naidu said.

“Forget the headache. I have a question.”

“Tell me, Swamy?”

“You are the chief administrator of this temple. What is the idea in running these games during the same time as the maha bharatam festivities?”

“What is the idea? Swamy! Without those games there are no festivities either. Are you not aware of this? Do you think we let them have their stalls here for nothing? They must pay the rent strictly according to the agreement. The lungaru wheel pays ten rupees per day. The pin-board machine manager pays two thousand rupees for the entire 18 days. The tamarind game contract gets us four thousand. The game of spades yields us seven and a half thousand rupees. If we had not gotten that twenty thousand in total, how do you think we could manage these celebrations? The drama company alone includes six families. Just for their food alone we need one hundred rupees. In addition, they charge six thousand for the performance. The workers for putting up the tents and for the materials like the poles, beams and such the expenses are a little over two thousand. The electricity costs us one thousand at the least. And you know, the police need to be paid on the side so they would easy on us. And finally you. I know you did not insist on a specific amount, but we do have to make sure you go back happy, right?”

Sarma kept staring at Naidu without batting an eyelid, like a new-born baby staring at the world in amazement. It took him a few minutes to shake off the astonishment that shrouded him. Then he lowered his head and started walking towards the village as if he was a lonely soul up against the entire world.

From behind, the song of Nakula warning Dharmaraju was going after him.

Please, do not, do ott play the dice game

Do not play. It will cause only downfall.

Why play now? Do not be stubborn

Do not play, do not play  dice

I swear on the Lord of Vemulapalle,

Please, do not.

Next day, early morning, Naidu took a stainless steel pot full of cow’s milk and went to Sarma’s place. He saw at once that the house was empty. He called out, “Swamy! Swamy!” There was no response. He looked toward the main entrance. He did not find Sarma’s sandals. He pushed the door open and saw that Sarma’s suitcase was gone. He started quivering and his entire body was wet with sweat.

Within minutes, the news of Bhagavatar Sarma’s disappearance spread through the entire village. In the next few minutes, they all gathered at the building.

While each of them was entertaining his own theory, Appoji Reddy pulled out a note from the cupboard. “See this! Looks like a little note for us,” he said, scrutinized it for a few seconds and said again, “It seems like Swamy has gone.”

“Read it, tell us what did he write?” Naidu asked, sounding desperate.

Appoji Reddy started reading.

“To my friend, Sri Venkatadri Naidu,

With my warm wishes for a long and happy life, …”

Yes, that is what I need, his blessings, … Naidu mumbled to himself.

Appoji Naidu continued, “You may not know this but I am reputed for my foolhardiness. That is true also. Good or bad, I do have certain set opinions about life. For several reasons, our society has become confounding. Take any field, we don’t see any relationship between words and actions. Politics are devoid of sincerity. The people without moral values are teaching mores. Newly built buildings are crumbling down. Education has become a market commodity. Each and every form of art has turned into a piece for sale. The people who are expected to save us are swallowing us. A good person is considered a worthless person. The worst of crooks is the most honored person. We may not be able to fix all this chaos but I strongly believe that we can at the least raise our small voices and express our protest. It is true the life has taken the form of a drama. Since we do have eyes and for that reason probably we do have to be the audience. But we do not have to become characters in that play. I did not realize that you were using the same gambling income as a means to have the Maha Bharatam narrated and played on the stage, despite the fact that the very message of Maha Bharatam is to bring to light the evil effects of the dice game. And as for me, this is the only way I could register my protest against such practice. I am leaving early in the morning by the first bus that leaves at 5:00 a.m. I am begging you not to seek me out. I will consider it a favor if you leave me alone. – Yours, Harinarayana Sarma.”

“Aah! What a stupid thing to do! What was I thinking? I was so stupid to take him to the play. Now he left us in the middle,” Naidu sat down, feeling crushed.

“Whatever. Look Naidu anna! He has scribbled some dumb note and left—acting like a child who bites the hand that feeds him. Why play band for a wedding that is over. Let’s decide what next?” Appoji Reddy said.

“Oh God! I don’t want this leadership, I don’t want it. And I don’t want that temple management either. I have done as long as I could. Swamy seem to be telling us there is some perversion in this. He knows what he was talking about. Please, you all do me a favor and leave me alone. Now on, one of you should take the responsibility and take care of things,” Naidu said.

Appoji Reddy jumped in right away, assembled several people and sent them in several directions to find another Bhagavatar, as Sugreeva sent messengers in search of Sitamma It is not clear which one of them turned into a Hanuman but his effort succeeded. By one thirty in the afternoon, he got down from the bus with Syamasundara Bhagavatar. As soon as he got off the bus, he went straight into his room, and applied face powder to his face so it would shine, applied sampangi oil to his curly hair, and perfume on his clothes. Then he went up the stage with all the perfumes emitting strong aroma all around. He took the entire audience by surprise with his quixotic gestures, half-closed and dreamy eyes, and provocative movements of lips and other body parts. Hardly 15 minutes passed by. He switched to cheap songs, like “The village dame walked in with her pot, she broke my heart,” with or without relevance, and jumping around. The entire area resounded with clapping, whistles, and shouts of ‘once more.’ Encouraged by their response, he became even more garrulous.

Let’s set aside for a moment the reality that the audience who came to listen to Sarma was different from the present audience. The one thing that was strikingly obvious was that the size of the audience now was twice as big.

The Maha Bharatam festivities in Bugga agraharam continued as usual, without break.


(Telugu original, “Jeevana prahasanam,” was published in Jyoti deepavali monthly, 1988 and later included in the anthology, Madhurantakam Rajaram kathalu,” published by Visalandhra Publishing House, 1991.)

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, June 2003.

Kamakshi’s story by Bhanumati Ramakrishna.

The name Kamakshi says it all; she is very beautiful. She has big eyes that capture anybody’s attention. Soon after she started working in our house, I noticed a marked difference in the behavior of our domestic help. Our cook, Muthu, the errand boy, Reddy, and the gardener, Nagappa are so taken by  her beauty, they kept messing up their jobs on hand, and for that reason, were getting  plenty from me and my mother-in-law, fairly frequently.

Our maid Sayamma fell sick and was admitted into the hospital.  We started looking for another maid.

The milkman brought in Kamakshi. He said, she is new in town; came from Coimbatore. He filled us in on other details about her family, too: her parents and brothers run a fruit stall in Coimbatore. Kamakshi, also, was selling fruits from a cart, going from street to street. People would jump to buy fruits from her, which was very annoying to other fruit vendors. They would comment, that people were buying from her, only because of her beauty, and not because of the quality of the fruits. In fact, the fruits in her cart were all rotten and spoiled, they’d say. Still, the fruits would go so fast whenever Kamakshi stood by the cart. On the other hand, for some reason, if her sister stood there in her place, not a single fruit would be sold. Not one person would stop to buy from her sister. Kamakshi’s brothers would comment that her beauty was their enemy. They would get into trouble with somebody or other, claiming that that fellow said something about Kamakshi. They beat them up, and get beaten too.

If it were not the fruits season, Kamakshi would find work as a maid in somebody’s house. On one occasion, she went to work for a Chettiar. He asked her to rub oil on his hair and back. She quit right away. Kamakshi wears no jewelry. Her only jewelry is her sharp tongue, and her agility. We asked her why she was not wearing any jewelry, not even earrings. She said her husband pawned her earrings and the nose-ring.

Kamakshi never smiles. She keeps herself busy, with her chores, and with a grim face. On a rare occasion, if she smiles, her face lights up like the full moon, and the dimples on her cheeks add to her beauty, immensely. She is hardly 25. There is a streak of sadness in her eyes. Her husband is sick with some disease, she said. They rented a small hut nearby, for 10 rupees per month. Her husband used to work in construction. He couldn’t get any work, anymore, since he was coughing too much. He stays home, supposed to be taking care of their 3-year old son. Instead, he spanks him, all the time.

Kamakshi leaves home at 6:00 in the morning, and returns late in the evening. The neighbors told her about her husband’s assaults on the child, and advised her to take the child with her to work. That is when, she decided to send the boy to her mother’s home. She found somebody going to her village, and sent him away, with them.

I told her, that she could bring the child to work, at our house.

She replied, “No, ma’am. If I keep him here, he will miss school. My mother will take good care of him.”

I was a little confused. Why would a father beat up his own child? She said, “’Cause the child won’t call him dad”.

My mother-in-law intervened, “What’s the problem? Why won’t he call him, dad?”

Kamakshi explained her situation, “My man says the child is not his, ma’am. He sent me away to my mom’s home, and was living with another woman. Me was giving me hard time all my life. He is okay, though, as long as he is not drinking. Usually, he gets drunk, comes home, and beats me up. My mother never liked him, and that’s why she took me back, to her home. I gave birth to the baby at my mom’s place. I was okay there; and made my living, selling fruits. How would the child know who the father is, to call him ‘dad’? I was always in mother’s home, as long as he could remember. Just, recently, my parents straightened out things, and sent me and the child, back to my husband. My mother did not like it at all. The man is caught up in another woman’s trap, and gave her my gold chain and my wedding saree, you know!”

My mother-in-law was shocked, and surprised at her patience.

Kamakshi is still afraid of her husband. She would just quit whatever she was doing, as soon as the clock strikes 6:00, and rushes home. “I have to go,” she would say.

“What is the rush? Why don’t you finish the job on hand?” my mother-in-law says.

“You don’t know ma’am! My man is very suspicious, by nature. If, I am late, even by a few minutes, he would come here, and wait for me at the gate. He would beat me up right there, calling me all kinds of names. Please, let me go. I’d finish it first thing in the morning.” she would beg.

“Where is your husband? Bring him here. I will show him his place,” my mother-in-law would say.

“Oh, no, ma’am! One look at him, and you will throw up. He looks like a dry stick, for all his drinking, fretting, and fuming, all the time. Always carries a knife with him,” Kamakshi said, with some concern.

On hearing the word ‘knife’, my mother-in-law changed her mind about teaching him his place, and stopped asking Kamakshi to stay past six. Instead she would rush her to leave quickly.

Her annoyance shows in her other comments, as well. “Wherever you got him? Is he is a rowdy or what! What a headache!. Go! Go! Leave as early as you want. Make sure he does not come near our door,” she would say, anxiously.

And, then, she would turn to me, and continue to express her concerns, “Let’s look for another maid, a better person… We can’t have someone walking around our house, with a knife, can we? Talk to the watchman at the gate, in Hindi, and tell him not to let him in, no matter, however desperately, he pleads. I almost forgot. The watchman also has a knife, right?”

I could hardly contain my laughter, as I try to calm her down, “Yes. The watchman has a knife. We don’t have to fear anybody.”

“Isn’t it sad that such a beautiful girl, like Kamakshi, should end up with a sick fellow like him? On top of it, he whacks her, too. What a jerk; and she is such a delicate darling. How could he have the heart to beat her with a stick?”

Muthu, our cook, the errand boy, Reddy and the gardener, Nagappa saw the scars on her body, and were worried, as if, they had sustained the wounds themselves.

“That jerk of a husband should be chopped into pieces,” Reddy said.

“If you see him, you will know. He could not be her husband; should not be. It is not fair, that donkey should be her husband,”  said Muthu, wailing at her misfortune.

“She is so beautiful, almost, like a carefully, carved sculpture. How can she have a sickly, and worn-out, man like him, for a husband? Disgusting rascal. Did you see his eyes, blazing red, like charcoal? It seems he drinks varnish*! That is why he keeps coughing all the time,” Reddy said, with suspicious looks.

“Yes. That is true,” Nagappa added.

“Then, Kamakshi might contract it too,” Muthu commented sadly.

“What a misery? Poor Kamakshi! Poor loser!” all the three expressed their deepest sympathies.. They were so lost in their discussions; Muthu didn’t serve our lunch until 2:00 p.m. on that day.

Reddy started talking to himself, dwelling on the misfortunes of Kamakshi, and would heave deep sighs.

One day Kamakshi was delayed, by about a half hour. Her husband came, and was waiting at the gate for her. My mother-in-law heard that he was at the gate, and became a nervous wreck. She hollered for Kamakshi, and told her to go home. “Go, go home,” she kept hurrying her..

Kamakshi begged my mother-in-law not to insist. “I can’t go home, ma’am. Please tell the watchman to throw him out.” She added that, she is tired of her husband’s attitude, and was scared for her own life, in case, she gets the same disease from him. She dabbed her eyes, as she expressed her fears.

Reddy supported Kamakshi’s claim. “That is true, ma’am. What if, she also contracts the disease?” he said.

My mother-in-law cast fiery looks at him, as spoke, “What do you care? Why are you so bothered about her husband? How many times, do I have to tell you not to intervene in her affairs?” she reprimanded him.

“Why do we care, ma’am? We are only sorry for that poor woman. That’s all. She is suffering from that ailing, good-for-nothing, scoundrel. That’s all we care about.”

“Is that all? Really? That’s the only reason for your worry? First, tell me this. Why should you all worry about her, or any other woman, for that matter? Tell me that? I can’t figure it out, you rascals! You explain to me,” my mother-in-law took them to task.

“Really, ma’am. What is, in it, for us? We are just concerned, since we all are working for you, in the same household. Otherwise, why would we care? We heard that his disease is contagious. What if she get it too?”

“Ha, that is what is bothering you?  Don’t you worry about it. You just mind your own business,” she said, and then switched to the next subject, “What do you mean contagious? Who says there is anything contagious between a husband and wife*? How is that possible? You stupid fellows! Stop talking about her and her husband, and mind your business,” my mother-in-law would chide him.

Reddy pretended to leave, was standing behind the door, to listen, what Kamakshi has to say.

Kamakshi stood there, like the very incarnation of innocence, and rolling her eyes every second, like the beam of a lighthouse, and heaving deep sighs. Obviously, she was having the time of her life, with all the attention she was getting for her helpless situation, I thought.

My  mother-in-law hit the roof at her attitude. She did not appreciate Kamakshi’s request to get rid of her husband. At the same time, she was, also, aware that it was not a good strategy to show too much anger. They would have a problem finding another maid! So, she toned down her fury.

In the meantime, Kamakshi’s husband sent for her, again. My mother-in-law became frantic.

“What should we do now? She is really a pest, I would say,” she whispered in my ear.

“Just let’s keep quiet, and watch,” I suggested.

“Fine. What if these idiots go out and say something to that scoundrel? You know, he is high. He might create a scene. And then, the police will show up; and it will turn into a three-ring circus.” She is getting wild by the minute.

Kamakshi was standing there, with a little pout. My mother-in-law was like Vasudeva in front of a donkey*, started begging her to leave.

“How can I leave, ma’am? I’d beg him to go to the hospital; he won’t listen. He has no intention of getting help. He says he won’t leave me alone, says can’t trust me. What can I do, you tell me, ma’am. The doctors say, I might contract it as well, if we continue to live like this.”

In the meantime, Reddy, Nagappa and Muthu went out to see her husband, who was waiting for her at the gate. He was hardly in his senses. As he saw them approaching him, he pulled out his knife. Reddy, Nagappa and Muthu instantly snuck behind the watchman. Kamakshi’s husband started screaming, that those three men were standing in her way, and stopping her from coming home. He challenged them to step outside. He said he would chop each one of them, and make a minced meat of them.

Then on, the three men wouldn’t go out, not even to a movie, for fear of getting killed by him. Reddy used to go to the second show. Now, he is afraid to go past the gate. “Who knows, what he is capable of? The rascal is never sober. And on top of it, he drinks that cheap varnish. Who can tell what is on his mind, what he might do for vengeance? It’s like a stone in the hand of madman; nobody knows where it falls, when he throws it.”

Nagappa also changed his habits. He used to go out for tea, on the hour. Now, he hardly leaves home. Somebody told him that Kamakshi’s husband visits the same tea stall! Kamakshi did not go home, for two days now. Her husband is showing up everyday at the gate, and sending for her. Reddy, Muthu and Nagappa would not go anywhere near the gate.

Kamakshi’s husband wrote her a note saying that he would swallow poison and kill himself. Reddy, Nagappa and the cook, suggested, unanimously, that we should let her go right away.

Kamakshi was preparing the dough, on the grinding stone, for breakfast. She saw the note, and broke into tears. She washed her hands, and said she would go out, and talk some sense into that stupid husband of hers. Nagappa, Reddy and the cook begged her,  not to go with him; they made sure that my mother-in-law was not watching them while talking to Kamakshi. Kamakshi gave them her word. They were very anxious to hear what she would say to her husband, but would not dare, fearing the knife he was carrying. They were pacing up and down the hallway, like the cat with a burnt foot. They kept casting uneasy looks at the gate, every few seconds, and waiting for her to return.

Kamakshi came back, wiping her tears. All the three gathered round her, like the flies on brown sugar. “What happened,” they all asked her, anxiously. She was silent for a while, kept heaving deep sighs, and rolling her big, beautiful eyes pitifully. She sat down, and resumed grinding the dough.

Reddy sat down, near the door, and across from Kamakshi. “So, what happened? Did he agree to go to the hospital?” he asked her.

Kamakshi shook her head, a negative.

Nagappa made himself at home, on a nearby bag of chaff, and said, “Of course, he wouldn’t. He’s sworn to harass her.”

Muthu was near the door, leaning on it. He said, “May be we should ask our saar* to pull in his weight, and get him thrown in the hospital.”

Reddy is vexed with all this. “In one word, tell us. What is his problem anyways?” he said.

Kamakshi broke into tears again. It seems, he is willing to go to some hospital, stay there for a year, and get help, provided she gives him two hundred rupees. She has no way of raising that kind of  money.

Nagappa, Reddy and the cook looked at each other. Next minute, Reddy is all sympathy for Kamakshi, and started comforting her, with great concern.

“He is stupid. What kind of a man would ask his wife for money? How could a woman raise so much money?” Reddy said, losing himself in a reverie.

“What if he does not leave, even after getting the money?” the cook expressed his doubt.

“He is not going to go, anywhere, without Kamakshi. Probably, he would throw away that money on his drinks, and would be back in no time. No point in humoring him,” Napappa said, sounding desperate.

“No. He will not be back. He said, he won’t. Even if he comes back, I made it clear, that I would not leave this place. He said he would give it, in writing. I don’t want that kind of a husband,” Kamakshi said, looking down.

With those words, the cook, Reddy and Nagappa were happy. They, nearly, started jumping up and down, that Kamakshi is, finally, free from all the hassles. They all, decided to show their big hearts, and donate their savings, and help her out.

The next day, Kamakshi’s husband left town. After 4 days, she received a telegram saying that he got sick, drinking varnish, and she should go there, at once, to visit him.

Kamakshi, tearfully, threw herself on my mother-in-law’s feet. She said, she has to go to see her husband in the hospital; or else, the world would not let her live, and, that, at least, for the sake of saving her face, she must go. My mother-in-law made her promise, that she would return in two days, and advanced some money, from her paycheck.

Kamakshi took the money, and asked me if I could spare an old saree, since all her sarees were worn out. I gave her a saree.

At the time of her departure, Reddy, Napappa and the cook gathered around her. They told her not to go near him. They said, that she should visit him, only from distance, and return home soon. Kamakshi took the money, their life’s savings, and left to visit her husband in Velur.

One week passed by;  and then, two weeks. There was no sign of Kamakshi. Reddy, Nagappa and the cook started getting nervous. They were getting worried sick about her. We all were, pretty much, worn out, while waiting for her return.

One day, my mother-in-law asked the milkman, “When, do you think, she will return from her village?”

Kamakshi and the milkman were neighbors. “What do you mean ‘returning from her village’? She and her husband never left town. They are here, all right. Kamakshi is working in some other house,” he said.

Then, he added, that Kamakshi and her husband are used to playing games like this; that they are not really married; and that they earned considerable amount in this manner.

My mother-in-law went into a shock, kept beating her forehead, thinking about the money, she advanced her. “Shrewd, shrewd,” she kept saying.

Reddy, Nagappa and the cook heard this, and collapsed. The money, they gave Kamakshi, is not small. They felt, like the thief stung by a scorpion*. As if that was not enough, my mother-in-law handed them a punishment. She said, they have to finish the chores of Kamakshi, until they find another maid.

Reddy, Nagappa and the cook were, anxiously, waiting for a new maid.

My mother-in-law is searching for a woman with gray-hairs, and without encumbrances.


(Originally the Telugu story w published in a collection, Attagaru- nakshalaitlu).

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi and published on March 2002.

Illusion by Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry

Murthy received his law degree. He stood in front of the senior lawyer with humility. Then the senior lawyer gave him a valuable advice. He told Murthy to remember one important thing. He stressed that that was the only way to succeed in this world.

The senior lawyer spoke somberly, “The English man said that the early bird catches the worm. In other words, you have to wake up early if you want to catch the worm. The English man is not an ordinary man. He never says anything unless and until he has scrutinized its pros and cons thoroughly. He never does anything unless there is something in it for him. Therefore, you wake up early everyday, go to the court and have the doors opened. In the evening, wait until the court doors are closed and then go home. Make sure you are present in the court each and everyday. Prostitutes wait at the door. Foxes hang round the graveyards. The cranes linger by the shores. I know the similarity is not a pleasant one. Yet that is what we need to do. If you want to climb up the ladder, you will have to hang around the courts. You may play hooky, giving flimsy excuses—the cricket match at noon, a matinee in the afternoon, or some other errand, and so on. If you do that, I am telling you, you will not succeed as a lawyer. That is for sure, I am telling you from experience. Do you know what the term “court” means? It is a jungle. Do you know the Telugu word for hyena? dummulagondi. Hyena’s laughs sounds like that of humans. If you approach him, mistaking him for a human, he will eat you up alive. That is the way in the courts too. We have to entice the parties that come to the court. That is our job. What can we do but act like the hyena? We can’t blame him for eating up the man who approaches him. It is the man’s fault to go to the hyena. Are you listening? In fact, it is not only the hyena. There are other bigger animals as well. They maul us if we are not careful. Therefore, we have to be on guard all the time. If we are not, the parties eat us up. The truth is that is how the whole world moves. You and I cannot do anything about it. The English man had drafted the law in accordance with the principles of this stupid world. Never forget that he, the English man, handed down all these things to us—these courts, the law books, the law degrees, and the witness procedures. There so many courts for the parties to choose from. There are as many precedents for the judges to draw from based on a ruling the judges prefer to give. And there are just as many rascals in the country to get upon the witness stand and give their statements anyway you want them to. We are here to train the witnesses. Whether it is a criminal court or civil court, they are concerned with only the statements of the witnesses but not with truth. You can throw in all the sizzling terminology like ‘justice,’ ‘duty,’ and ‘truth.’ But remember that this is all just an illusion. That is the way the system is and we are acting within the purview of the system. That being the case, how can they call our action a sin? No, the sin will not touch us. If there is anything that can be called a ‘sin’ that goes to the judge who gives the ruling. The parties bear the expenses. The witnesses and the court clerks are entitled to bribes. We are entitled to our fees. That is the law the English man had laid for us. The officers take the apples and the people rake the leaves. The rules are the same whether it is our country or theirs. That is what he had taught us. Sweating is for the workers and profits for the owners. If anybody questions this rule and rebels, we have the courts to support us. And then there are jails. Without these things, there is no regime for the English man to call his. He is a great illusionist. Just imagine what a great magician he has to be! Look what he did. He came to our country, sold our own salt to us,[1] and turned around and taunted us, ‘You ate my salt. How can you not be loyal to me?’[2] He’d gotten the courts and jailhouses built for us, and beautiful mansions for himself. And what did he do at the end? He suspected that the stupid laborers might seize power—like the way it had happened in other countries. He was afraid that it could turn into a total disaster. So, he handed over the regime to his fellow businessmen and disappeared quietly behind the curtains. What an amazing showmanship! What a magnificent performance!”

The senior lawyer finished his speech. He always goes into raptures when he recounts the merits of the English man. He speaks with his eyes half-closed and lost in a fit of reverie. If he were a woman, he would have run away with some English man long time ago.

Murthy was baffled. He did not realize until that moment that the crooks carried such a huge clout in this world and that there would be gentlemen who could go into raptures at the mere thought of those crooks.

The senior lawyer noticed it and said, “Don’t think I am being cynical. I just spoke the truth. Drop the veil and that is what you will find anywhere anytime. No confusion there.”

Murthy still was not convinced of it, despite the detailed analysis by the senior lawyer, his guru. He had not experienced the revelation yet. He could not digest the lessons the seniors had tried to teach him. As a result, in this one year, his eyes sunk in and he lost weight. It looked like somebody would have to come forward, give him a massage and pull him up.

One day, he was on his way home, dragging his feet sluggishly. Somebody grabbed his shoulder from behind and stopped him. He turned around with a jerk and nearly fell. The man behind him stopped him from falling.

The man was looking like an eagle. He spoke quickly, “Babu! It, I mean the case is about a woman. The police arrested her and put her in jail. It is not a big case. A small liquor case. You have to get her out on bail. Here, this fellow and I are the bailers. Here are our legal documents pertaining to our properties. Our village munsif did not put the pen to the papers until after we had shelled down five hard rupees. This fellow is the defendant’s husband. He will pay you something. Please, Babu! You have to get her out.”

The second man, also looking like an eagle, was standing next to first. He was the second bailer. The defendant’s husband who looked like a sleepy fox was standing a little away from the two bailers.

The two men yelled at him, “You! Give Babu something now.”

The husband was a little tipsy. “Tell him to get her out first,” he said.

“How can he get her out without getting paid?”

“I am not falling for such games. Ask him to get her out first.”

“You put down the money. He will get her out.”

The debate went on for a while. Finally Murthy drafted the bail papers, got them signed, got her released, distributed the funds and was about to leave for the day. The bailer stopped him.

“What?” Murthy asked him.

“Come here. I have to talk to you,” he said.

“Okay. Say it.”

“Just come here.”

“I did. Tell me.”

“Babu! Where do you live?”


“I will bring her to your house.”


“You can take up her case.”

“All right.”

“Don’t accept less than one hundred rupees.”

“Can she afford it?”

“Why not? She is loaded.”

“All right.”

“Don’t go lower than fifty under any circumstance.”

“That is fine.”

“Just you stay put on that number I’ve given you. I’ll make sure she pays. She will. That idiot husband of hers won’t let go of a penny but she is not like that.”

“All right. Tell them to come tomorrow.”

“Sure. I will put her in chains and drag her if I have to. You do have to remember us though.”

“What for?”

“What for? Like you don’t know!”

“What do you mean?”

“You keep your share and let’s have ours. You don’t have to give it to us today. What do you’ve got to lose. I am talking about tomorrow.” He set out to leave and stopped again. “One more thing. Tomorrow she will say she is poor. I will also say ‘yes, Babu, she is poor.’ But you stay put on your number,” he said and left.

The next morning Murthy was sitting in a chair on the verandah. It was 8 o’clock. He smoked half a cigarette. The bailer showed up, with the woman behind him.

“Here Babu! She is the woman I told you about yesterday,” he said.

She could be about thirty-years old. Probably she was beautiful long time back. She must have put up her long hair in a fancy bun during that period. The black sari she was wearing now probably was new some time back. In all probability, she was eating well and was robust way back then. She sat down on the floor a little away from the backer. She kept staring at Murthy with piercing eyes.

“What did you say your name was? I forgot,” Murthy said.

“Muthelamma. I’d been to the court several times,” she said and came straight to the point. “I’d been to the court several times, retained famous lawyers and paid them huge chunks of cash. But those days are gone. I am not that Muthelamma anymore. I am crushed to the dust. My business is crushed. For every one liquor store in the past, we have ten stores now. Now the police are selling the liquor themselves. I am leveled to the ground. Forget the stories about my husband and me for a second. I can live with a slug of rice broth. My husband will not touch it without a drink. And then the children! One child died just two days back. I have two more. I am having hard time feeding those two kids. So, what I am giving is not money but my blood. Now tell me what is your rate for settling this case. Look at me, take a good look, think about and then tell me.”

“Can you pay one hundred rupees?” Murthy asked feebly.

“No Babu! I can’t raise that kind of money, even if I sell myself, and everything I have. I can’t give you one hundred, not even fifty rupees. I will if I had the money. I do have to have the money to give to you, right? You tell me the truth. Probably this bailer fellow told you to ask one hundred rupees. What does he care? He’ll say ‘give, give,” even if you’d asked two hundred rupees. If I paid you a paisa, he will take one-half of that. I know all these things very well. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learnt after starting this liquor business. Here! Listen to me! I will not trust anybody, not even if you swear on your life. You show a man and say, ‘here is a good man,’ I’ll not trust you. Not you, not this bailer, nobody, I trust nobody. Nothing is certain in this world except money. Take the animals. They can’t talk. Yet they have morals but not us. I’ve been to any school and I have no ethics. You have education and you have no ethics either. The entire world is prostituting itself for money. I am selling alcohol for money. You are selling education for money. The police are selling the law for money. You go to the hospital for drugs; they sell the drugs and beds for money. The streetwalkers are chasing rickshaws and cars and selling their bodies for money. You go to the temple, give them half a coconut and a paisa. They will sell you god’s grace for money. Lawyer Babu! in the elections this bailer, you and I, all of us are sold for money. Sale! Sale! Sale! There’s nothing but sale in this world. I have no schooling yet this is the truth I’ve come to see. Tell me if I am wrong. you prove it to me. I’ll listen.”

“Yesyes,” said Murthy.

“You can’t prove me wrong. I know that too, lawyer Babu! I’ve seen them all. I’ve got nothing to look forward to, no reason to live. I am tired. I have no faith in anybody—the man I was married to, the child I gave birth to or anyone for that matter. I have reached that point that I don’t care anymore whether I live or die. Life and death are the same for me. Why are you staring at me like that? You think I am talking philosophy? No, Babu. This is what I’ve come to see and understand. I am not saying this to confuse you.”

That’s true. Murthy was baffled by her outpour.

“Babu! Sometimes I see my life and think it’s better to die than live this way. After starting this business, I have seen the worst. When I was little, I used to work for daily wages. Money was not much in that but not this horrible either. Then, greed took over and got me into this mess. Am I rolling in riches? No. All I’d done was only to support the police and the others. I did not earn a paisa for myself. I got into this liquor business and ruined the drunks and myself. I am ruined every which way. Babu! At home, I have nothing to cook but the grill. In the grill, there is nothing but the ashes, not a splinter to start fire. It is more than a week since I had a sale. In the past one week, I did not have a drop to sell. I am living only because I could not kill myself. Then this head constable shows up. He raided my place twenty times because he had not received his kickback. That drove me crazy. Last time he showed up, that was it. Seen the waves rise in the ocean; that’s how the throbbing in my stomach flared up. I have a bad mouth even on ordinary days. On that day, I hit the roof. I had a couple of rounds liquor too. Babu, mine is a wretched life. I couldn’t think straight, I picked up the pestle … it was awful … the head constable ran away, didn’t even care to pick up his red cap, which fell off in the scuttle. He ran away on that day and yesterday he did this, locked me up. Lawyer Babu, I am heart-broken. I buried my daughter last week, exactly a week from today. She just turned six. That’s it. Why was she born? Why did she die? Who could tell? Who cares about my pain? I cried and cried. My life is a living hell. Lawyer babu, you did not see her but I am telling you, even girls in your families are not that sharp. You may not believe this. During last peerlu festival, she played a lion. The entire village came rushing to watch my little girl play the lion. During other festivals also she went up the stage and performed the dances from all the movies. I was hoping that some day some big man would come and take her into the movies. But, babu, it is my liquor business that ruined my life and home.

“My girl used to sit at the corner of the street from dawn to midnight watching the police. As soon as she spotted them, she would come in calling out, ‘Amma, dogs, dogs are coming.’ At once, I would pick up and hide away all the tubes, beakers, glasses and the rest of the stuff under the trash in the backyard. The same thing happened that day too. It was about a month ago. She came rushing in and calling out, ‘amma, the dog … the dog bit me.’ I thought she meant the police as usual and got busy hiding away my liquor stuff; I did not look at her. My girl was scared and kept saying the dog bit her. At first, I panicked. Then I calmed her down, ‘its okay, just a small scratch. It’s all right.’ I did not realize that she was bitten by a mad dog. I buried my own child in the dust. I buried my pearl, a doll of gold. Lawyer Babu, I was busy hiding the liquor tubes but not my own child. What kind of life is this? My husband was lost to the liquor; my business has gone to the police and my daughter to the dogs. Ccha. What kind of business is this? What kind of life is this? I was feeling rotten with all this and now this police officer slapped this case on me only because he did not get his kickback. Yesterday I’d not had one gallon of liquor, not one glassful, not even a drop. All I have is two more children. I am swearing on their lives. You may or may not believe me. The head constable handed down this to me only because I attacked him the other day.

“Therefore, lawyer babu, I will give you not one hundred rupees, not fifty but twenty five. Even for that, I will have to sell my man, my kids and myself. There is no other way. Yet I will make sure that you will get your money. Would I ask you to work for me without paying for it? If I can’t pay you cash, I will work; wash dishes in your house. How much will you pay for washing dishes, tell me? Probably four or five rupees if I work for one whole month. That is it, right? This case takes one hour for you if settled on the first day. Or you may ask for continuation for second and even third time. No matter how many continuations you seek, you will spend only one hour for arguing this case. For that one hour of your time in the court, I will wash your dishes for six months and settle the account. I know nobody should rob others of their labor. Do you think I don’t know that? I know. You argue my case. I will certainly repay you. Until then you keep this ten rupees.”

Murthy felt embarrassed to take the money from Muthelamma. He took it though. Muthelamma got up to leave. The bailer did not move. She told him to get up too. “I will pay for your coffee. Don’t ask Babu for money,” she told him and dragged him out from there.

Murthy decided that he must get her out somehow. He was convinced that the case was fabricated. He talked to the head constable and got him to admit it. The head constable admitted, “True Babu. This is cooked up. But you didn’t hear her language on that day. Shouldn’t she show respect for the red cap at least? I wanted to show her place. What do you want me to do? You go ahead and argue your case. You do your duty and we will do ours.”

On the day the case was presented, the entire courtroom was filled with hustle and bustle. The head constable and a police officer took the stand and gave their statements. After that, first Muthelamma and then Murthy walked out of the court.   Muthelamma pulled Murthy to a side and asked him, “Babu, what do you think will happen?”

Murthy felt he had a strong case but did not have the courage to say so. “They said they would give the ruling by the end of the day,” he said.

“What did the police officer say?”

“He was firm.”

“And the Head?”

“He fumbled. His statements were fuzzy. We have a good chance,” Murthy said. He was in fact very excited that he caused both the witnesses botch during his cross-examination.

“Does that mean the head constable’s statements are no good?”

“Yes. We have proved his statements wrong.”

“That is what I thought too.”

“What made you think so?”

“I just thought.”


“Why? Here is why. Yesterday the head constable came to me. He said, “Let bygones be bygones. What do you say?” What can I say when he says like that? He agreed to falter and I agreed to pay him his cut. The truth for the courts is different, babu. I’ve been there so many times; I know it very well. For them all that matters is the witnesses’ statements. What if the head constable also stayed put like the police officer? I will do the jail term. These witnesses may go up on the stand one after another and give their sworn statements. But the reality is they would have their stories corroborated with each other long before that. Also, they would listen to each other’s statements from verandah. They would stand at the window and sign to each other. If the witness at the window were forced to leave the premise, somebody else would take his place, listen to the first witness and fill in the second witness. It doesn’t really matter whether they have listened to each other or not, they all belong in the same side. Even otherwise, they’ve seen thousands of cases like these; they know the process only too well. They know what to say. Let’s see, what questions would you ask normally? Something like this—When did you leave the police station? How many of you went there? Did you wear plain clothes or uniforms? Did you walk or ride bicycles? Which one of you saw her first? From how far? Did you measure the liquor? Did you smell it? Did you do the routine check up although it was considered a liquor store? That is what you would ask too, right? Yes, Babu! That is really nothing for them. The judge listens to all this and says that everything is in order. ‘No loopholes in the witnesses’ statements. Even if there are, they are minor ones. Therefore, you pay the fine. Or else go to jail.’ That’s what the judge would say. Babu, I paid fines three times, two hundred rupees each time—that was my blood, Babu, my blood! Therefore, Babu, I thought what the heck and paid him off. I was worried though. Worried wondering—what if he goes back on his word and tells a pack of lies on the witness stand. He did let it go after all. Good. No problem,” Muthelamma told Murthy reassuringly.

She was quiet for a few seconds and then said, “You were very good too! You were very tough in your cross-examination. I was a little scared at first, thought you were new at this sort of things. But you did good. When you questioned the first witness, he nearly fell apart. The head constable also wouldn’t have crumbled like that if you hadn’t been that tough. I heard everything and I saw everything. I was right there watching you. You’ve come down hard on them.”

Murthy was disheartened like a fizzled balloon. He understood now why the entire case was cleared up so easily like the morning fog. After the case was dismissed, Muthelamma came to pay him the balance. Murthy felt embarrassed and refused to accept it. Muthelamma had no choice but to leave with her money.

For Murthy the whole thing looked absurd and illusive. It was like a magic show. There was no liquor. But the police brought charges against her on the pretense that liquor was found. Then again, they dropped the charges saying liquor was not found. Actually, it did not happen. They said that had happened which in reality did not happen. They said what really did not happen had happened. It is and it is not. That is one heck of an illusion. But …

Murthy went on thinking about Muthelamma. “What a heartrending pain in the midst of all this illusion!” Then the senior lawyer came to his mind. Evidently, the senior lawyer had recognized only the nature of the illusion but not the pain. Then again, did he not know about the pain? Or, knew but did not care? Did he not really know that, in this world of illusions, there are also people like Muthelamma? Did he know or not?

Good God! Why not? Of course, he knows definitely, just does not care; that is all!

(The original in Telugu, “Maya,” was published in the 1950’s and later included in the anthology, “aaru saaraa kathalu.” [Six liquor stories]. Vijayawada: Visalandhra Publishing House, 1962.)

Translated by © Nidadavolu Malathi.

[1] During the British Rule, the government imposed tax on salt and the Indians protested, famously known as Salt Satyagraham. The famous salt satyagraha led by Gandhi in 1930 was a crucial part of Indian Freedom Movement.

[2] A famous adage in Telugu, similar to ‘biting the hand that feeds.’



Tenneti Hemalata by Nidadavolu Malathi

In Andhra Pradesh, in nineteen fifties, Tenneti Hemalata, better known as Lata, entered the field of Telugu fiction with her novel, gaali padagalu, neeti budagalu. “I can proudly say I am the first sensational Woman Writer of the present age of Telugu literature,” she said in a letter addressed to me. (Personal correspondence, dated August 28, 1982).

Hemalata was born on November 15, 1935, in Vijayawada, to Nibhanupudi Visalakshi and Narayana Rao. In his book, Sahitilata, the author Anjaneya Sarma noted the year of birth as 1932 while Kondamudi Sriramachandra Murthy wrote in his article, chalaaniki Arunaaachalaaniki Madhya Lata noted it as 1935, which appeared in other sources as well. Her full given name was Janaki Rama Krishnaveni Hemalata.

She wrote about herself in Uhaagaanam 56, partly in jest, I suppose: “At the time God was making me, his hand must have needed rest. After resting for a while, probably he looked for clay to complete the form but did not find it and then he grabbed an aravinda flower and a bunch of flames available at hand, put them in me and turned the key on and let me to go to live the life I had received. But, Oh God, this flame is burning the delicacy of the flower.” (p.154).

Lata’s ancestors enjoyed a zamindari lifestyle, and Lata was raised as a favorite child in her family. Her father had inherited considerable wealth which he squandered on women, liquor and gambling. He also, it would appear, entertained literary gatherings at home. Lata spent most of her time with her father at these gatherings sporting liquor and literature. Her father used to offer her a sip from his drink occasionally, wrote Anjaneya Sarma. In her later years Lata was criticized by purists for her drinking habit, which she defended in her book, antarangachitram (1965). She wrote about liquor in her novels, not as a plausible habit, though. More on this subject later.

Her father died when she was 32. At the time, her mother was pregnant with her brother. Lata stated that, in deference to her father, she supported her little brother’s education with her income from writing. It is important to note that Lata was one of the few female writers to earn a substantial income from their writings in the sixties.

Lata lived an unusual lifestyle in many ways. At the age of nine, she was married to Tenneti Achyutaramayya, 16. Her husband’s incurable medical condition, two difficult deliveries, (first son in 1956 and the second in 1963, both cesarean) and financial troubles—all seemed to have given her rare insights into the perplexities and complexities of life. Against these insurmountable odds, it is no surprise that she had learned to take a good hard look at life and the meaning of life and develop a sardonic humor.

In her antarangacitram, [self-reflections], she talked about some of her struggles in life, which inspired her to write the stories. The book, antarangachitram itself  reads like a meandering stream of incoherent thoughts, confusing at times and profound at other, and records the pain she had suffered, and the questions she had been provoked to raise about life and god.

In this article, I will try to present my understanding of Lata and her writings against a backdrop of the little data available to me, and you may discern your own conclusions. Also, please note that I have not read the entire literature produced by Lata. That is beyond the scope of this article. I am recording only my impressions of her writings only from what I have read and/or known personally.

Lata studied extensively Telugu, Sanskrit and English classics at home. She started her career as an announcer at Vijayawada radio station in 1955 or 56. She took to acting while she was there, played notable roles in radio plays and on stage. She was also a singer and a staff writer of radio plays. In a letter addressed to me, Lata wrote “I have written 100 novels, 700 radio plays, 100 short stories, 10 stage dramas, 5 volumes of literary essays (Uhaagaanam), 2 volumes of literary criticism (Vishavruksha khandana, and Lata Ramayanam) and one volume of Lata vyasaalu, 25 charitra kandani chitra kathalu, poetry …”.  This letter was written in 1982. Possibly she had written a few more between 1982 and her death in 1997.

Her awards included: Gruhalakshmi Swarnakankanam in 1963, and an honorary doctorate [kalaaprapuurna] by Andhra University. She was honored as “Extraordinary woman” in 1981 by the Government of Andhra Pradesh. She was a member of Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academy for over 20 years. She was “the only elected woman member to the academy”, She stated in her letter.

Ghatti Anjaneya Sarma, a mechanical engineer by profession and an avid reader of Lata’s writings, published a book, Sahitilata, in 1962, wherein he quoted profusely from letters she had received from highly reputable male writers and elite like Bucchibabu, Malladi Narasimha Sastry, Achanta Janakiram, B. Gopala Reddy and Toleti Kanakaraju.

Several writers and readers drew parallels between Lata’s characters and the characters in works by famous western writers like Hemingway, Shaw, Maugham, and C. Scott Fitzgerald. Whether one would be willing to accept these comparisons for what they are worth is beside the point. The fact remains renowned Telugu writers and critics noticed Lata’s talent and accepted her as a notable writer. And they wrote personal letters to her. An interesting factor worth mentioning here is she started receiving them within a decade since she started writing and publishing, which in itself is a tribute to her status as a writer.

Lata started her career as an announcer at the Vijayawada radio station. Soon after that, she started writing plays for the radio. Kondamudi Sriramachandra Murthy mentioned that her first radio play was silaahrudayam [stone heart] broadcast on Deccan Radio in 1952. Ghatti Anjaneya sarma stated that Lata’s first radio play was mahabhinishkramanam, [The Great Exodus], but did not give the date of broadcast. Regardless, the fact remains that Lata launched her literary career at a radio station.

By early nineteen thirties, Telugu fiction was gaining ground as a literary genre. The newly emerging story technique incorporated some elements of the earlier writing style; the stories were suffused with vestiges of Sanskrit poetic diction as well as the western story-writing technique. The Romantic poetry of the British writers like Robert Browning, Elizabeth Browning, Byron and Keats influenced Telugu fiction writers in the forties and fifties. And Lata, like several other writers, had read several books in English and was influenced by them. We see the effects of Lata’s avid reading in her writings.

Among other things, she also tried to write detective fiction, without success though. She admired Arudra and Kommuri Sambasiva Rao. She particularly wanted to write like Arudra. In her own words, her detective stories turned out more like propaganda material—the thief turned into a man of distinction and the detective into a thief by the time she finished it, as she put it.

Lata also tried to paint which again was not a success story. She realized fairly early that she had no talent for the brush. It is notable that later she compared writing to painting, and writer to a painter. She drew a clear distinction between photography and painting. In photography, you click the camera and it captures the scene as is. On the other hand, in painting, the artist adds with each stroke of his brush, a new meaning and a new perspective gradually.

Lata’s language is quixotic, awash with imagery and earthy at the same time, with heavy slang. It filled with metaphors, sensuous imagery, and even luxurious poetic verbosity at times. She was an admirer of famous singer and song-writer, Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishna. She wrote a few lyrics, for which Balamurali Krishna composed tunes. We find this musical quality in such books as antarangachitram and mohanavamsi, wherein separating the author from the work is impossible.

On another occasion, Lata lying on a hospital bed, while waiting for her second son to be born, she describes her thoughts as follows: “In this scanty life of mine, I have been through numerous experiences—hardships, tears, suffering, happiness, love, and duty; temptation and desire. While grappling with my life and financial problems—amidst all this—I would still travel in first class in airplanes, watching the beauty beyond description and ugliness beyond words—how many times I’ve seen it in this life? My life is small yet it is puffing up with my experiences, lightening and floating in the air like a balloon. Probably it will burst today.” (antarangachitram. p.13).

Her knack for imagery is amazing. Whether it is her sparkling enthusiasm for life or antipathy for the injustices in the society, it is always entrenched in a combination of sarcasm, sharp wit and uncanny humor.

Some of her convictions are a mix of tradition and innovation. Lata possesses a peculiar sense of the anomalies in life, which go beyond the bounds set by any single conviction. In some ways, she would fall right into the category of Telugu romantic/idealistic writers like Tallavajjhala Sivasankara Sastry, Devulapalli Krishnasastry, and Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry, to name but few. And in other instances, she is confrontational like Chalam and Ranganayakamma.

I believe that the anguish Lata had experienced in her personal life set her apart from many writers of her time. Her experiences or anguish defined her perception of life and her technique of storytelling. While other writers used the flowery language to describe their idealistic dreams, Lata used it to drive home the ruthless realities of life.

Lata believed in mystical somewhat platonic love. That is what we see in Mohanavamsi. She claimed that she was speaking in abstract terms in mohanavamsi; she was not Radha but the concept of Radha [p.106]. She further explained, “My Krishna is a human being. … My Krishna should not be an egotist … People may label me immoral, still I would have gone with him, defying all the familial ties. … I have made plenty of mistakes. Maybe I would stay away from these mistakes if my Krishna were human. … But my Krishna is anantanaariihrudayavarthi [One who wanders in the hearts of innumerable women]. … Extremely selfish… Am I jealous? No.. I am worried only about the selfishness incorporated with pain. … How can he be god if he knew only to take but not give? … He is good to be worshipped only without asking for returns. … Maybe I am worshipping him all the same. ..  The same thing happened for a second time. It was the fault of the circumstances. The same circumstances would call my love prostitution. … That is why I turned around and came home. ..But I set fire in that person’s heart before I returned. [antarangachitram. p.106].

Her usage of diction and metaphors are elusive even when she is speaking in a book, supposedly nonfiction, about herself. She barely draws a distinction between her fiction and her reality. An episode described in her antarangachitram, describes this ambiance in her perceptions. She wrote that a local businessman approached her for sex in a rather forthright and primitive fashion. At first, she was surprised; she teased him for a few minutes as was her wont, and then sent him away. She took the situation to make a categorical statement about the life on Vijayawada streets (which apparently was the reason for the man to approach her in that manner).

“In this Vijayawada city, this kind of requests and mediations is quite common. There is no evidence of any woman rejecting any man either. Underneath this scenario, money is dancing garishly. … In fact, that is the way the topography of Vijayawada—surrounded by the river and hills, and streams—they all make it a unique city in the entire state of Andhra Pradesh. I don’t think there is another city like this in the entire state. … And the people of Vijayawada are matchless in making the shorelines of these streams unbearably ugly. “The roads are always crowded. Most of the pillars of society in our town have amassed wealth by running brothel houses only. …. “The second problem in our city is the lorries. There are plenty of lorry drivers who stop them anywhere they please, crawl under the vehicles and fall asleep. … It is not an exaggeration to say that our roads are laid only for the purpose of those lorries and lorry drivers; they stop their lorries everywhere for repairs, and for others to die freely under those vehicles. …
On top of all this, there are brothel houses… in each corner of every street … They are referred to as “companies” respectfully. All these companies are invariably owned by women with rowdy protectors by their side. …”

I quoted this passage to highlight the fact that this account in her nonfiction book is a replica of her description of the Vijayawada streets in her novel, gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu. This may be a simplistic example but I believe that it does point to the authenticity in her novels. She used the same setting and situations as she saw them in the life around her. She seemed to have put her heart and soul into her writings whether it is fiction or nonfiction.

Achanta Janakiram was one of her harshest critics to disapprove her style. Referring to his disapproval, Lata wrote, “He [Janakiram] was annoyed by my abrasive and candid language. But what I’ve written is the truth. He told me several times not to write like that. Probably he was repulsed by my gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu [Kites and Water Bubbles]. I don’t think he has forgiven me for that even after I had published Mohanavamsi and  Umar Khayyam. I heard that his nonfiction books, naa smrutipathamlo [Down my memorylane] and saaguthunna yatra [Journey in Progress] contain more poetry than actuality. In my opinion, Authenticity is more beautiful than poetry.”(antrangachitram. p. 147).

Lata claimed that, contrary to the public opinion, she was not writing about sex and there was no discussion of sex in her books except gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu. She added that, “Even in that book, it was meant to cause disgust in the readers but not fondness. Whatever it is, there is plenty of falsehood in his [Janakiram’s] theory of beauty. And I resent falsehood.” (antrangachitram. p 147).

Contrary to her statement however, Lata did write another novel, raktapankam [Quagmire of Blood], on the same subject as gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu. The second book is a longer version of the same story. The difference lies only in the event that instigated her to write. The basis for gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu was her observation of the brothel houses round the corner from her home in Vijayawada. For the second novel, raktapankam, the basis or inspiration was a stack of letters sent to her by a woman who actually lived the horrific life and requested Lata to write the story. The woman’s friend who brought the letters to Lata told her [Lata] that the friend (the main character in the story) was moved by Lata’s earlier novel, gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu [Kites and Water Bubbles, 1953], wanted to meet the author personally but could not. For that reason, the woman wrote her story in the form of letters addressed to Lata. And Lata decided to write this novel, defying the angry reprimands of several writers and critics. In the preface to the book, Lata said she had written as it was told in the letters, and changed very little.

Several critics compared her to Chalam for writing these novels. From my perspective, the comparison is not tenable. While the writers dealt with sex in their novels, their approach and their perceptions are distinctly different. Chalam’s views were rooted in his ideology and in that sense his novels were mono-directional. His characters are two dimensional. Readers will know nothing about the characters beyond their engagement in sex. In Lata’s novels, on the other hand, sex is only part of a bigger picture. Her characters are alive; they eat, talk to each other, have children, and worry about other things in their daily lives. Her stories tell us stories we all know, and raise questions we are confronted with on a daily basis. Her stories are closer to the life her readers could relate to. A word of caution. Chalam’s novels may not be out of this world but they are monolithic at best.

About the same time as the two novels mentioned above were published, Lata also started writing a series of feature articles in Andhra Prabha weekly, under the running title, Uhaagaanam [musings] from 1958 to 1963. Its success was unbelievable. Lata became a household name and the readership for the weekly magazine escalated immensely. In a way, it could be her salvation for writing gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu. Earlier, I mentioned about the umpteen letters she had received from prominent writers and readers. I believe that Uhaagaanam convinced them that she was a gifted writer.

The volume I used for this article is a single volume containing 197 articles in 600 pages, and published in 1978. The publishers stated at the beginning that the book covered umpteen topics such as the poetry and the style of Rabindranath Tagore, Shakespeare’s tragedies, Tolstoy’s humanism, Maupassant’s love scheme, Krishnasastry’s heartening lyrics, social philosophy of Chalam, maro prapancam [Another World] of Sri Sri, and several others. Her selection included Telugu, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, English, translations of Russian and Persian writers and Vedic texts. She also drew on her experience in the movie industry and contacts she had developed  as a writer and actress (I think she acted only in one or two movies). (See her comments on acting noted earlier). The publishers also added that this book included all the issues of the entire world abundantly, and potent questions like: What does “society” mean? In what way the society is related to you?

Each article runs from two to five pages. Basically, the format is: Take a quote from a well-known book or a popular axiom, explain, comment, and describe one or two occurrences from everyday life we all are familiar with, and finish it with a brief recap. In these articles, Lata comes out as humorous, caustic, santarangachitramastic, ponderous and rambling incoherently at times. They captured a wide range of readership for that very assortment of topics. I, for one, was fascinated by all those quotes from the great books I’d never heard of, the wisdom they contained and the manner in which she illuminated a view or a thought. For me, it was the second best thing for not being able to read the originals.

In this weekly feature, she proved her abilities to put two seemingly incoherent situations in juxtaposition and hold them up for the readers to see the underlying commonality. In the process, she could be impulsive, pondering, confounding, ridiculous, and santarangachitramastic all in one breath.

For instance, in Uhaagaanam 129, Lata opens with a popular poem from the great epic, Maha Bhagavatam [The Story of Krishna] and goes on with her mystifying questions about God. Then she shifts the somberness to levity as she describes an event from everyday life. It is about a husband trying to learn to cook while his wife was out of town. He turns the radio on for instructions and the next few lines are just hilarious. He is unaware that the radio is broken and it is broadcasting two stations simultaneously.

The result is,
1. Add water to the dal. After it is cooked, … put your hands on your waist and take two feet forward.
–He did so per instructions.
2. Put a pan on the stove, add oil, … stand on one foot, look sideways playfully.
–He did that too.
3. Walk three feet poised, lean forward, smile… drop little lumps of dough in the hot oil.
–He followed the instructions.
4. Hop back three times …

As expected, the outcome is a disaster and he writes to the radio station that the instructions were messed up. My [Lata’s] point is, our lives and the universe are comparable to the two broadcasts. That is why I want to tell god that, “Look Mister, your management is hopeless. Why don’t you stop creating for a while. Then we all can have peace for some time.” But He is not listening and letting the Judgment Day happen. He hides in a corner, and keeps broadcasting two shows simultaneously and tells us to live the best we can. What has he got to lose?

The Uhaagaanam articles featured her humor on one level. At another level, she was also capable of initiating challenging dialogues among the elite on topics such as god, traditional values, and religion. On one occasion, she received a letter from an avowed nonbeliever, Tarakam, in which he stated that Lata’s convictions about god in one of her Uhaagaanam articles was out of character for her. Lata responded saying that they both (Tarakam and Lata) were on the same page since their objective was the same except for the terminology. “You are calling it Truth and I am calling it God,” she said. Then, another prominent writer, Bucchibabu, wrote to Lata further elaborating on various conjectures of the same subject. The fact that Lata was able to involve the elite of her times in a dialogue on critical matters speaks for her strength as a writer.

Her novel pathaviheena.(1971?) is about the disparity between woman’s chastity [pativratyam] and humanism. In the novel she discusses her views on pativratyam [wife’s unflinching devotion to her husband] and claims that, unlike in other countries, pativratyam is overrated in India.  She said she had received 7000 letters during the time the novel was being serialized in Andhra Prabha weekly.

In the same preface, she talked about another famous writer, [late] P. Sridevi (of kalaateeta vyaktulu fame) and added that Sridevi died because of a mistake she had made. The next comment of Lata is noteworthy. She said, “many people expected me to make the same mistake. But I am a devotee of beauty. …  That is not the reason I did not make the same mistake. I also have soul. …  I have not sacrificed my soul … I have desires … and part of it is mischievous like everybody else’s  … I am a writer but that does not mean I am not a woman.” [antharangachitram  p. 105]. This passage seems to indicate that Lata had her share of heartbreaks in real life. Secondly, I am not sure if her comment on Sridevi is tenable but then probably it is irrelevant here.  In her preface to this book, antharangacitram, Lata said she spoke only good things about her friends and left out bad things on purpose. Should we give her credit for being discrete? What does it say about her character? And about her sense of propriety and by default her wits? Why did she mention Sridevi at all?

This style of speaking in conundrums is rare in her novels. Beating around the bush is not her style. She was not afraid to take on any writer, male or female. One notable episode involving two prominent writers was about their versions of the great epic Ramayanam. Ranganayakamma, a reputable Marxist writer, wrote her version of the epic, entitled Ramayana Vishavruksham [Ramayana, the poisonous tree] rewriting the characters in a different light. Then, Lata published her version, Ramayana Vishavruksha Khandana, [Rebuttal of Ramayana Vishavruksham]. The two books created a huge commotion in Andhra Pradesh in the eighties polarizing readers, male and female, around each of these writers. Further discussion of this literary event is beyond the scope of this article but would suffice to say that Lata never hesitated to jump into the fray if occasion called for it.

Lata held strong views about acting and actresses. “I am not used to suggest even in acting,” she commented. She said she had to struggle a little when she had to play the wife of another man in a radio play but managed to go through with it. She refused firmly when she had to cry for her (stage) son. “I cannot cry, even in the name of acting, for a child while I have a son in real life.” She would not tolerate doubletalk in the name of art either.

She later had come to realize that “the obstacles for actors and actresses to act are only their own sentiments but not their family life.” (antarangacitram.  p.30-31). Woman remembers her duty to the society and family only after her profession as actress. On the other hand, she who aches for fame and to show off her well-formed figure while grappling with her own insecurities may shroud with morals like sugar-coated pills but can never be an actor. (antarangacitram. p.31).  “Actors and actresses who cannot pronounce aspirated sounds come to participate. No matter how many times Banda garu told them the phrase was avinaabhaavasambandham, [inseparable connection] they still say avi naa baava sambandam [that is my relationship with my cousin], … [We announcers] will have to put up with unbearable sounds in the name of classical music,” she commented. (antarangacitram. p.79).

Regarding the relationship between the writer and the writing also, Lata held unambiguous views. She said, “Usually a novelist will be guided not only by the society in which he is living but also by his own insights and conscience [antharyam]. Yet, his experiences, memories and the conclusions drawn from his experiences—all come together and create a common ground of acumen for him and the readers. It will act as telepathy or a telephone wire. That telepathy is the connection between a first rate writer and a well-informed reader. Additionally. An artist’s imagination may change the proportions and the form of the incident he had seen, rework on the connotation and the display. … All novels and musings depend on reality to some extent.

I will not accept that a great writer would write for entertainment or fame. He also would aim at making the life and his goal as well broader in perspective. There is nothing wrong if he uses his book as a moral sword in his attempt to achieve his goal. … I believe that there is no writing, never will be one, which is free of the author’s agitation. … A writer without talent is worse than ordinary person. Nowadays the ordinary person is turning into a writer, which is one more problem.

Once a friend showed two pictures of elephants to a great artist. Both the elephants were the pictures of angry elephants. The artist said, “this is great art since the sculptor  carved it with not only the trunk but also the tusk raised. The second one as ordinary and so there is nothing peculiar about it. There is no display of one’s perception. … If some brainless man called it [the first] as lacking in realism, that is his problem [antarangachitram. p.93-94].

Look at any Telugu novel that is not successful, you would notice only a series of aspirations, love, a couple’s movie dialogue, an overbearing gentleman, struggles in a rental property like in a display of dolls …    Life might be like a novel but a novel is never like a grocery store.   [98]

She categorically disapproved the pretensions of women who would blame their family life for their failures on stage. She said only second rate women actors live under the delusion that acting was immoral, while in fact the problem was their own lack of talent.

Lata covered a wide range of topics in her novels—harmony at individual or social level, underlying principles of caste, marriage, traditions in other parts of India, beliefs such as ghosts and predictions based on horoscopes, and so on. Here is then the main question: Can we find a common philosophy of Lata from these novels?

Her themes ranged from to streetwalkers, to ghosts, to imaginary coup by gods, to philosophical or theological debate. Lata explained in her prefaces the incidents that lead to her writing the novels. Each novel was inspired by either her own observation, a book by a famous writer or a brief conversation with another writer of repute. For instance, the much needed changes in society in tiragabadina devatalu,[Gods that rebelled] was based faintly on Time Machine of H. G. Wells, whose characters defy time, distance, and dimensions of life. Brahmana pilla [A Brahmin girl] is about reverse discrimination. She stated that she was not advocating restoration of brahmin superiority but highlighting the negative impact of the eradication of caste system on poor brahmins who needed help. Niharika is about the institution of marriage; she questions the acceptance of man having two wives but not woman having two wives in our society..

At the risk of digressing for a moment, I would like to comment on writers in general. Often the writers who write to advocate their ideological perceptions, are deeply rooted in their ideology. (Like Chalam, for instance). All their writings point solely to that one view. And then there are writers like Lata who take each topic and stay focused on that topic, attempting to present several angles of that one topic, offer a more balanced view of the topic and pose potent questions for readers to think. Chalam appealed to the elite and maybe readers fascinated by his portrayal of women’s sexuality. Lata reached out a much wider audience with her technique (which included humor, santarangachitramasm and plain talk) as well as her points of view.  Here are some of topics in her novels. Closer to home: Jeevanasravanti. Her father’s financial problems, his use of morphine and his lifestyle were the basis for this novel, she stated in her Antarangachitram (p.34). Mohanavamsi: Her personal journey.

Stories inspired by her readings and per perception of cultural values: Bhagavantudi pancaayati [God’s court] was inspired by a novel by Somerset Maugham. She said she took some of the characters Maugham had created. She understood only after reading Maugham, that the human nature is not the same as usual at the time of war. Wherever and whenever war happens, the result is always the same—bloodshed and death. In this novel, she depicted the Tibetan traditions, and environment at the Himalaya mountains. She also apologized for any topographical errors she might have made in regard to the area.

Dayyaalu levu? – “In general, I don’t believe in ghosts. Premchand wrote in his novel, Nora, that he believed in the theory of rebirth. Tagore expressed his belief in ghosts in his Hungry stones. Chellapilla Venkatasastry wrote that he believed in the grahas and had personally suffered from their displeasure. … The reason I am saying all this is, we may assume to be real what we are calling baseless fantasies and unreal. We have gotten
used to think that the things we don’t know don’t exist.” (preface )

On Religion and philosophy Edi Nityam [What is Eternal]? Tried to establish that humaneness is more important that religion.  It was about a woman writer, Radhamma, who was labeled a “prostitute” regardless she lived righteously. “In reality, I am partial to men; I support women. In this novel, Rajamma’s life is heartbreaking.”  This is a confusing statement. Is the word “men” in the first part a typo? She did mention about the typographical errors in her books. She quoted her husband saying that she became famous only because of the typos in her books.

Saptaswaraalu [The Seven Musical Notes] “Once I heard a story that supposed to have happened in a sanitarium in Mangalagiri. Some of the characters in the story resembled the characters in a story, “Sanitarium” by Maugham. Similarly, some of the incidents in Shaw’s Man and Superman. … “
Prominent composer-singer, Balamurali Krishna often mentions that the seven notes are the foundation for one’s spine, lyrical composition and the harmony in life. I have come to understand that life also reorganizes the notes and sometime strikes a discord and life is a stream of dissonance and harmony. A novelist has no choice but surrender to his own creation: he needs to forget his own existence and become the character in the course of creating each creator. The characters he created turn him into a puppet in their hands. In that play, he will need the help of the seven musical notes. We can’t say whether dance of destruction or eternal bliss is but it continues to agitate him to the end. This saptaswaraalu reflects that agitation of mine.

About Tulasivanam, Lata said prominent writer Gopichand and she were sipping coffee at a local coffee shop and listened to the story from a woman. Gopichand asked if Lata were interested in writing the story and Lata said he should write it. Eventually, Gopichand died without ever writing the story. Lata’s story explores the belief that tulasivanam is present wherever a woman is present. She takes her cue from a mythological character, Tulasi, wife of Jalandhara, who was a cruel demon king. Gods tried to kill him but to no avail. He was shielded by Tulasi’s pativratyam and invincible. The only way he could be killed was to seduce Tulasi. Therefore, Vishnu, pretending to be her husband, deprived her of  her moral code [pativratyam]. Later Vishnu granted her a boon; and she became a plant to be worshipped by women seeking exemplary life eternally. Now the question , it is true that money matters but is it justifiable to grow marijuana in a tulasi patch? Marijuana sedates the senses, numbs the conscience. It may provide a temporary solace but no  healthy remedy. Tulasi on the other hand has medicinal value, it is wholesome.”

Her experimental writing: Love stories. By her own admission, she wrote some sort of love stories like vaitariniteeram in the beginning. Later she divested herself of the western influence. But she wrote Vaitariniteeram in response to a suggestion from younger generation readers, who had gotten used to reading the novels by other female writers, who were lifting stories from Herald Robbins, Barbara Cartland and Mills and Boon (Lata noted it as ‘Bouquet’ but I believe Boon is the correct word.). It was serialized in sowmya monthly. Lata said her characters lead her to the conclusion; they appear in her dreams and tell their stories. In the case of niharika [Mirage] it took a couple of months before the main character, Saradadevi told her the complete story. Within those two months, lying on bed in a nursing home, she had finished two more novels, bhagavantudi panchayati and Omar Khayam.

All the five novels carry the publication date of 1963. To me, writing five novels with a so wide range of themes is remarkable. Then the question is: In doing so, did she succeed in becoming an esteemed writer? I have no statistical data, but in view of her renown, I’d say yes, she remains an important writer of our times.

In a final note, I would like to quote Lata’s comments on contemporary female writers, that, “Many female writers are afraid that they’ll be forgotten if they don’t keep publishing but I don’t have any such fears,” she said. And to substantiate her belief in herself, I would like to quote a prolific, well-informed writer, J. K. Mohana Rao. After learning that she passed away, Mohana Rao wrote, “I am saddened to hear the demise of Tenneti HemaLATA. In the golden days, in the late fifties and early sixties, I was introduced to Lata through Andhra Prabha. She used to contribute a column called UhaagaanaM. It used to be down-to-earth and yet poetic. … I can call her a mix of Bucchi Babu and Chalam.

She fought for the one half of the oppressed in society, viz., the women. … She always used to write with a certain enchantment and elan that is not easy to surpass or imitate. Lata reminds me of my youth, my return to Telugu literature (particularly novels) after a break, and my rethinking about women, relationships and a sense of poetry in many activities of our daily lives.” I cannot think of a better tribute to a writer who took the world by the horns in the early nineteen fifties.


(Originally published on 9/23/2009 on Factual error corrected, 9/16/2013.)

Anjaneya Sarma, Ghatti. Sahitilata. Vijayawada: Sri Vani Prachuranaalayam. 1962.
Hemalata, Tenneti. antarangacitram. Vijayawada: Vamsi Prachuranalu, 1965.
Sriramachandra Murthy, Kondamudi. “Chalaaniki Arunaachalaaniki madhya Lata.” Andhrajyoti Sahitya vedika. Sunday
supplement. May 24, 1981.
Prefaces of the novels mentioned in the article.
Hemalata, Tenneti. Personal correspondence dated August 28, 1982.

Telugu women’s writing, 1950-1975 an analytical study by Nidadavolu Malathi.



Memories and Experiences by Battula Kamakshamma

[Translator’s note: Battula Kamakshamma garu (1886 – )was a young widow and avid reader who lived in the last two decades of Veeresalingam’s lifespan. In this autobiographical account, she presents to us rare insights into the times and women’s lives during that period. I was moved by her courage, determination and the strength of her character. This autobiographical account was probably written in late 1950s, at which time she might be in her late 60s. If any reader has any information about Kamakshamma garu and is willing to share with us, please send me an email. – Nidadavolu Malathi.]


    I was overwhelmed to hear that the Andhra Pradesh Government is having celebrations commemorating Sri Kandukuri Veeresalingam pantulu garu. He was the driving force behind the progress of our country in so many ways. I am mentioning this since the lifespan of Veeresalingam pantulu garu, from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century coincides with the time of major transformation of India. Think of those times in juxtaposition of the present generation. We cannot emphasize enough of the importance of his contribution to the progress of our nation, especially for us women folks.

Thanks to his undying efforts, our society has opened its eyes and started to free itself from the shackles of the centuries-old, irrational beliefs. Because he laid the path of reform, several females like me were able to participate in the women’s movement and were able to help ourselves. Prior to his movement we could not take the step forward, even though we had the intent, we did not have the courage.

So it is appropriate that we should have celebrations commemorating a person of such historical significance. In this context I thought it is my duty to ruminate on my experiences and memories relating to the social customs and traditions of those times. As a woman who grew up under those influences, I think I am in a good position to relate the social conditions of that era.

I was probably 15-years-old at the time. I was staying at the home my uncle (father’s younger brother), Udatthu Kamalanabham garu. During my childhood, around 1901-1902, women in the well-to-do families like ours were required to observe customs strictly. We couldn’t even show our faces in public. It was wrong to talk with male relatives, no matter how closely we were related. It was lot worse in the case of child widows like me. I cannot explain it and so I am leaving it to your imagination.

I am not sure why but the idea of service was deeply rooted in me from my early years. May be because of my kinds acts in my past life. I never liked wasting my time, not even a second. I was secretly entertaining a strong desire to read and share my knowledge with others but was not sure where I could find books to read. Although my uncle was very kind to me, I never had the courage to express my yearning for reading.

It was at this time, I came to know that Nalam Krishna Rao garu (a son of my mother’s brother) opened a library, in deference to his mentor Veeresalingam garu. I also heard that they were sending books to women at home, and conducting competitions to encourage reading by women. For me it was like a beggar stumbling on a goldmine. Then I got the women in the household of Krishna Rao garu convince him to send books for me at home. I was extremely happy that my deep-rooted desire for reading had finally come to be a reality.

I have not met Veeresalingam garu in person, but have heard a lot about his women’s movement, and developed a great interest in his activities. For that reason, if the library courier could not bring the books, I used to send our servant and get at least one book per day, mostly Veeresalingam’s books. I was reading them with great enthusiasm and determination. I was also gathering other women in our neighborhood and reading aloud for them. Most of the adults in our family were against women’s education. However they were kind to me because I was a child widow–they loved me dearly–and also because I was reading other epics like Bharatham and Bhagavatham and conducting religious discourses with other women.

Some of the members on the library committee, our relatives, noticed that I was showing interest in the writings of Veeresalingam garu on women’s reform movement, and tried to delve into my motivation, since I was a child widow, and started sending books on widow remarriage. That threw me off. If my family had come to know that I was getting books on widow remarriage, if my name was shown in the library register as the borrower, I could get into trouble. So I gave strict orders to the courier that he should bring only the titles I have asked for and made sure he understood it. The social conditions in those days were such.

Also during that period, some traditionalists like Kasibhatla Brahmayya Sastri garu opposed women’s education vehemently and were working against the movement of Veeresalingam garu. I used to get all the magazines in those days and was reading avidly.  Although I was reading all the magazines, my heart was leaning towards Pantulu gari reform movement only.

However, I could not do much since the times were not propitious for women to participate in such social movements. But at the same time the seeds were sown in my heart to become a free woman, participate in organizing women’s coalitions and help the needy in any way I can.

Kotikalapudi Sitamma, a disciple of Pantulu garu, heard about my procuring and reading library books. She was enthusiastic about meeting me and so came to my home. I have already read her excellent writings like Ahalyabai, and so my joy knew no bounds at seeing her at our door. She put her arm around my shoulders, drew me close to her, talked to me gently. She asked me to sing poems and sanskrit slokas for her and listened with pleasure. She was very anxious to take me to Veeresalingam pantulu garu and arrange a meeting with him, since he was working for the cause of women’s education. I had a feeling that she was trying to get me interested in widow remarriage.

I decided to go with Sitamma garu to the prayer hall and meet with Veeresalingam pantulu garu, because he was a great man, social reformer, and champion of women’s cause. I considered it a blessing to be able to see him. I was not sure though how our family would react if I went alone to meet Pantulu garu. So I encouraged other women from my religious discourses group. I told them that Pantulu garu has arranged to have gramaphone records played at the prayer hall and got them follow me there. Sitamma garu pressured me in to meeting with Pantulu garu. I was afraid that I might get into trouble with my family if they had come to know that I talked with Pantulu garu. So I told Sitamma garu that I was shy, paid my respects to Pantulu garu only from distance and quickly left the place. Thus I satisfied my curiosity to meet with him, only partially, but I was happy. I was eighteen at the time.

After that, I went to Madras and lived in the house of my uncle[1], Nalam Lakshmikantam garu for 14 years. There also I was able to continue my reading without interruption. I was becoming increasingly interested and was grappling with my desire to start a women’s organization and do public service in some way. Then I decided that the only way I could have my wish fulfilled was to move to Rajahmundry, the stronghold of women’s movement. At the same time, I was also afraid that if I express my intentions of service, I might face opposition from my family. So, under the pretext of wanting a holy dip in the river Godavari–the time being auspicious Kartika month–I went to Rajahmundry.

While in Rajahmundry, I went on a pilgrimage with Nalam Ramalingayya garu. On that trip, I heard about the home for widows in Pune founded by Karve. I wanted to stay in Pune and help the women in the widow’s home. Ramalingayya garu heard about my intention and dropped the idea of taking me to Pune, sent me home and he went alone to see the widow’s home in Pune.

After he returned home, Ramalingayya garu said that he was interested in opening a home for destitute women in Rajahmundry and asked me if I wanted to help him in his project. He assured me that he would start working on the project provided I would go along with the idea. I was so touched by the way the God Almighty has arranged to fulfill my long-time dream. I promised him my whole-hearted support. We have succeeded in opening a women’s home (Striseva sadanam) in Rajahmundry within a short period.

Thus by 1920, with the ideals of Pantulu garu inculcated in me, I was able to organize the Striseva sadanam. Pantulu garu passed away in 1918. At that time I was so disappointed that I did not get a chance to have him visit my Striseva sadanam and receive his blessings. Eventually I met Kandukuru Venkataratnam Pantulu garu, one of his close friends. He told me in great detail the kind of fierce struggle Veeresalingam Pantulu garu had to put up, in order to have widow remarriages performed, to eradicate the idiotic, centuries old customs, and the humiliations he had face in the process. I was amazed. My heart was filled with gratitude. After 10 or 12 years, I also had the privilege of becoming the administrator of Hitakarini samajam (orphanage), which Veeresalingam garu started. There was a time when the home could not provide food and education for even 16 women for lack of sufficient funds. At that time, Women’s Welfare Center (an organ of the government) approached us with a request for space in our building. They were going to start a cooperative for one hundred women. Hitkarinisamajam refused their request on the grounds that Pantulu garu was aiming at widow remarriage and only widow remarriage. Then I intervened and argued with our committee members that the goals of Pantulu garu included all kinds of help, and not limited only to widow remarrriage. I also mentioned that we were helping only 16 women whereas the Cooperative was offering to help one hundred women. The committee accepted my arguments and we let them work out of our building.

In this manner, thanks to that august person, numerous organizations were put in place and have been offering a great service to women ever since. We all know that the schools started out as separate schools for girls are still operating, known as Veeresalingam Schools to help all the children even today.

I am grateful to Avula Sambasiva Rao garu for giving me this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude through this special commemoration volume.

Excerpts from my editorial:

I came across the autobiographical essay of Battula Kamakshamma garu (b. 1886- ) while researching for another paper. I was moved in as much by her candid portrayal of herself and the social conditions of her time as her fortitude, determination and courage to bring about change. It is significant in that she represents the changing times during and immediately after Veeresalingam period. See my article on female writers in this issue for further explanation.

For those of you who are not familiar with the times here is a brief note: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kandukuri Veeresalingam has launched several movements, and the women’s movement was the most significant one. With unprecedented dynamism, he set out to initiate programs for women’s education, widow remarriage, and eradication of prostitution. Battula Kamakshamma was a young teen widow during the last two decades of Veeresalingam’s life. In that sense, I could see her as a link representing the social changes that were taking place at the time. Her fortitude, determination and enthusiasm come through in this short, 4-page article against the backdrop of her seeming conformation to family values. I could visualize her as one definitive Telugu female character.

My comments from my article:

This account gives us some of the notable details as to how, during and after Veeresalingam period, women managed to process the information they had received and convert it to their advantage while keeping good relationship with their families. Wisdom lies in working things out. Kamakshamma was a good example. She decided not to remarry but had no problem in helping other widows who wished to remarry. The little hurdles from her family did not prevent her from following her heart—reading Veeresalingam’s writings and taking only whatever suited her mental disposition.

[1] Nalam Lakshmikantam was her mother’s brother and father of Nalam Krishna Rao.

Atukuri Molla by Nidadavolu Malathi

Atukuri Molla, author of Molla Ramayanam, has come to be known as Kummara (potter) Molla. Besides Muddupalani, author of Radhikasantvanam¸Molla is the only female poet from ancient times to receive so much attention from English-speaking scholars. The precise date is not known but scholars believe that she lived in the late fifteenth century.

From the avatarika [preamble] to her Ramayanam, we gather that Kesaya Setty was her father, she was a boon from the local deity, Srikantha Malleesa of Gopavaram, Nellore District, Andhra Pradesh, India. Kesaya Setty was a great devotee of Srikantha Malleesa, a notable scholar, and a highly regarded man of honor in his community.

Ramayanam appears to be the only extant text authored by Molla. There is no tangible evidence pointing to other works, if any, by her. Nevertheless, Molla has been noted by scholars outside Telugu-speaking community as well. My first encounter was with an article from a Bengali scholar, Naboneetha dev Sen, published in Manushi. After that, I found another reference to Molla in Women Writing, 600 B.C. to the Present by Lalita K, and Tharu, Susie. Apart from their comments on Molla’s work, the fact that they would mention the poems as slokas was odd to me for a couple of reasons. First, a sloka is a Sanskrit verse form. Telugu poem is referred to as padyam. Besides, Molla Ramayanam contains not only verses but also prose, which is referred to as gadya in Telugu. Since Molla specifically stated that she intended not to write in the highbrow language of the Sanskrit scholar,s but wished to write in mellifluous Telugu, it would only be appropriate to call her poems only as poems or verses but not as slokas. Possibly, the scholars called the poems as slokas to give a higher status to Molla as a scholar, which again she did not seek.

Apparently, there are several versions of Molla Ramayanam. Arudra, a well-known scholar and researcher, stated the text contained 871 poems and prose pieces altogether. (Samagra Andhra Sahityam, v.2.). In the text I have come across, the publishers counted both verse and prose pieces in one sequence and put the total at 880, spread over six kandas (sections). Among them, 208 items are prose pieces. Some of them contain only one or two words while others are one-page long.

Before I go further, I must admit that I am no scholar by any count, especially, when it comes to poetics. I just want to put in my two cents’ worth because Molla’s Ramayanam has been praised for its ease of diction and native flavor. Keeping that in mind, I have read the text and to my surprise, I was fascinated by its charming diction. In this article, I will only point out a few aspects that captured my imagination and raise a few questions that occurred to me.

First, let me explain the popular name of the poet as Kummara Molla, referring to her caste. To the best of my knowledge, no other writer, male or female, has come to be known by his or her caste or vocation. Molla herself did not state her caste in her work.

I am aware that it is common for authors in ancient times to state their caste, gotra[i] and lineage. Molla has stated in her preamble that she was the daughter of Kesaya Setty, who was “devoted to worshipping Guru Linga, the cohort of the devotees of Siva, and a good friend to all relatives.” There is no reference to his caste or vocation. In all, I would have to assume that the title Kummara has been given by the editors and publishers of Molla Ramayanam after the printing came into vogue.

The second question is about her caste per se. Some scholars, it seems, attempted to determine Molla’s caste based on her name. Andra Seshagiri Rao discussed this aspect extensively in his book Andhra Vidushimanulu (Telugu Female Scholars). The gist of it is, Molla is a flower belonging to the family of jasmine flowers, and in those days only prostitutes were named after flowers; therefore, Molla was considered a prostitute. Some scholars went so far as to say that Molla might have been one of the mistresses of Srikrishnadeva Rayalu. However, Seshagiri Rao and another prominent scholar, Kanuparti Varalakshmamma, established with certainty, that Molla was not a prostitute.

The preamble to her Ramayanam is also a concrete source for establishing the time Molla was alive. Deducing from the names of poets to whom she paid tribute in her preamble, and the poets she had not mentioned, her time was determined as the end of 15th century. I am not sure if any other poet in the post-Molla period had made any references to her work. Andra Seshagiri Rao quoted one instance but he also expressed his doubts about the reference.

Her scholarship is undoubtedly of superior quality despite her modest claim that she had no formal education except the blessings from the local deity, Srikantha Malleesa. Her scholarship is evident in her command of diction, figures of speech, and quotes from the other famous kavyas and prabandhas. In her preamble, she stated that she was not knowledgeable in native diction, grammatical forms, poetic peculiarities, phrases, inner meanings, distinctiveness in expression, idiosyncrasies in kavya tradition, etc. and that she learned to write poetry through the blessings of the Lord Malleesa in Gopavaram. The fact that she was able to give us such a large list of the characteristics of scholarly works vouches for her scholarship. The statement that she was no scholar, as I see it, must have come from her modesty, a cultural characteristic in our country.

Additionally, she stated that if a work was filled with words that reader could not understand right away, it would be like a dialogue between persons of hearing and speech impaired. In other words, poetry should be intelligible to the reader as he reads along, and without referring to dictionaries and/or consulting scholars. According to Molla, poetry should be like honey on the tongue—one should feel it as soon as the it hits tongue.

Several critics have attested to her claim as valid. Her Ramayanam has been quoted as a work filled with native flavor, ease of diction and appealing to ordinary readers. For instance, she describes the city Saketapuram in terms of what it is and what it is not. I sought the help of Bhairavabhatla Kameswara Rao, ( Telugupadyam blogger) to interpret this poem. He pointed out that the author used double entendres, to explain what is and what is not. I am grateful to Kameswara Rao for his explanation. (the Telugu original is given at the end of this article.)

The nagas in Saketapuram are magnificent elephants but not mean serpents;

The haris are the horses which returned from wars victoriously but not a gang of monkeys;

The syandanas are beautiful chariots, but not meager fountainheads;

The ganikas in Saketapuram are enlightened female entertainers, who could sing beautifull,y but not wild forest flowers;

The scholars are compassionate intellectuals with a sense of aesthetics, but not harsh, cruel demons;

Saketapuram is a city of superior order, which may be described by saying what it is not.

Molla’s poetry oozes with the native flavor of Telugu. We find metaphors like “Is this a bow or a mountain?” and people “ran into the side roads” (sandu gondulu) profusely through out the text.

One of the poems describing the beauty of the evening shows her keen sense of poetry in every day life. “The soft evening hue commingled with the onset of darkness parallels a view of rubies and blue stones set in the sky.”

A statement by a veteran research scholar, Arudra, summarizes Molla’s status in the history of Telugu literature. He comments, “While several Ramayanams written by male writers were lost in the folds of history, Molla Ramayanam remains popular even to this day.” (Samagra Andhra Sahityam, v. 2).

I have no knowledge of poetics, and barely enough to appreciate good poetry. However, I would not hesitate to admit I found this great work fascinating, as claimed by her in the avatarika.

Herein, I venture to note a few peculiarities that captivated my attention.

One such element is the way she repeats a word to drive a point home—a common usage in colloquial speech. In Aranya kanda (Canto 2. The Forest), while Rama was wandering in the forest searching for Sita, he asks and asks each animal if it has seen the lady (Sita), asks and asks every bird whether it has seen the lady in several ways, … having failed to find her, he swelters and swelters because of the separation from Sita. This kind of repetition is used even more effectively in the Yuddha kanda [Cantos 4, 5, and 6. The War] where warriors fight with each other, repeating the blows, naturally. While the entire Ramayanam was written in six cantos, the war section took three of them. And Molla shows unusual acumen in describing the war. As Prof. K. Malayavasini puts it, Molla must have either witnessed a war in person, or read extensively about it. These descriptions ascertain Molla’s scholarship despite her modest claim that she was not well-read.

Another instance where Molla shows her singular talent is when she describes Rama and Lakshmana for Sita in Lanka. Sita suspects Hanuman whether he is one more illusion of the demons in Lanka, and asks him to describe her husband and his brother for her. In response, Hanuman describes Rama in a poem that has become common knowledge in Telugu homes. It has been part of the grade school textbooks in Andhra Pradesh. Hanuman says,

His complexion is dark as cloud

His eyes are white as lotuses

His neck parallels the conch

His ankles are beautiful

The arms are straight and long*

His voice resonates like a drum

He has lotus lines in his feet*

He has beautiful chest

He knows no treachery but to speak the truth.

Lady! Rama possesses meritorious qualities.

Brother Saumitri possesses all these qualities

And he is of golden complexion.

[* befitting royal persona]

The poet, by thus summing up Lakshmana’s qualities in one line, has shown her skill in her ability to use words economically, comments Dr. Malayavasini.

To my knowledge, other poets during her times or immediately after might not have mentioned her as a poet of excellence. Nevertheless, in the modern period, there is no dearth of scholars, both male and female, for paying tribute to her poetic excellence.

A reputable scholar, Divakarla Venkatavadhani, states, “Although Molla has said she is not educated, we find no scholastic flaws in her kavya. Her descriptions are sophisticated and conform to the style.  Especially, in describing Saketapuram, Molla shows extraordinary flair in several ways with her use of double entendre and metaphors. Her style is fascinating to all readers because of the sweet resonating words and her imagination. … She is also highly skilled in maintaining propriety.” (Andhra Vanjmaya Charitra. p. 59-60).

Regarding poetic propriety, however, Andra Seshagiri Rao seems to hold a slightly different view. He comments that Molla has followed the tradition of male poets in not only describing women in her kavya but also referring to physical attrbutes in her metaphors. In a three-page-long comment, he quotes several instances where Molla has not maintained the kind of propriety befitting female writers.

As stated earlier, very little is known about Molla’s life. A fictional account of her life story has been written by Inturi Venkateswara Rao, under the title Kummara Molla, published in 1969. Based on this novel, another writer Sunkara Satyanarayana wrote a ballad, which has become popular and been sung all over Andhra Pradesh, he claims. The story has been made into a movie in 1971, under the title kathanayika Molla (Molla, the female hero).

Since most of the incidents both in the novel and the movie are fictional, there is very little I can say about them with reference to Molla Ramayanam, a literary masterpiece on its own merit.


Published on, September 2010.

Source list:

Arudra. Samagra Andhra sahityam. V.2. Hyderabad: Telugu Sahitya Academy, 2005.

Malayavasini, Kolavennu. Telugu kavayitrulu. Waltair: Andhra University, 1979.

Molla, Atukuri. Molla Ramayanam. Eluru: Rama & Co., 1937.

Lakshmikantamma, Utukuri. Andhra kavayitrulu. 2nd ed. 1980.

Venkateswara Rao, Inturi. Kummara Molla. Madras: Andhra Films Publications, 3rd imprint. 1969.

Satyanarayana, Sunkara. Kummari Molla. (Burra katha, ballad). Vijayawada: Visalandhra Prachuranaalayam, 1963. (Note: The author states that, although it was published in 1963, it had been written in 1951 and being performed in Andhra Pradesh ever since.)

Venkatavadhani, Divakarla. Andhra vanjmaya charitramu. Hyderabad: Andhra Saraswata parishattu, 1961.

Seshagiri Rao, Andra. Andhra vidushimanulu. Author, 1995.

Lalita, K. and Tharu, Susie. Eds. Women Writing in India. 600 B.C. to the Present. V.1. New York: The Feminist Press, 1991. pp. 95-96.

Si. madanaagayuudhasamagra desamu gaani

kutilavartanaseshakulamu gaadu

aahavorveejayaharinivaasamu gaani

keesasamutkaraankitamu gaadu

sundarasyandanamandiram bagugaani

santatamanjulaasrayamu gaadu

mohanaganikaasamoohageyamu gaani

yoodhikaanikarasamyutamu gaadu

 gi.  sarasa satpunyajananivaasamu gaani

      kathinanirdayadaityasanghammu gaadu

      kaadu kaadani koniyaada galiginatti

      puravaaragrammu Saketapuravarammu.

[i]  Name of a sage, identifying the family’s lineage.