Monthly Archives: May 2013

Humor in Telugu fiction by Nidadavolu Malathi

Sometimes I try to impress my daughter, an American-born and raised, with our Telugu humor. I tell her a joke and she laughs, hihihihi. I am not sure she got it. So I ask her, “Are you laughing because you found it funny or because I thought it was funny.” She narrows her eyes, looks at me, and says, “both.”

Humor in Telugu homes is distinctly different from western humor. In recent times, a bit of our funny bone seems to be lost due to modern sensibilities of being polite. While in the west, people have come to limit humor to the stage and screen, such as standup comedy and sitcoms, it is all pervasive in Telugu homes. At least, it used to be so. I have chosen three writers I grew up with to make my case.

Bhanumati, apart from her unparalleled stature in the movie industry, made her mark as a writer of fiction, writer of humor at that. Bhanumati has written a few stories of serious nature also, but it is her mother-in-law character that has become the hallmark of her writing. While almost every critic agrees that Bhanumati’s creation of the mother-in-law character is unique, it is often left just at that, that she is hilarious. It may sound illogical but humor fiction is rarely taken seriously. More often than not, the message is lost between laughs. Bhanumati’s stories are one such example. The celebrated author did more than than create a unique character. Her mother-in-law stories reflect her belief in tradition and family values. Her stories brim with her belief in god, astrology, and family values.

Bhanumati draws her humor primarily from situations and the human ideosyncrasies; and, she never missed a chance to take a jab at our customs and beliefs. That is not however to be interpreted as disrespect for tradition. Bhanumati’s talent in creating humorous situations speaks of her keen eye for the incongruities in human behavior. One good example is in her Attagaru – avakaaya (Attagaru and pickles). In general, attagaru does not let anyone see her food plate; she sits on the floor with her back to the rest of the world, and facing the wall. “The only way one could know what she was eating was to jump out of the wall in front of her, like Lord Narasimha,” the author comments. For those who are not familiar with the reference, lord Narasimha was one of the ten incarnations; he jumped out of a pillar to prove his existence to a non-believer, demon king Hiranyaksha. The parallel is a stretch but the point is the overextended shield her mother-in-law would create for her food in the name of madi–one more custom in Brahmin families.

And then, author goes on to describe a second instance, the family members will know of what she’s eating; that is when she moves the pickles jar. The story goes to say: “The smells of her pickles extended beyond the kitchen walls and into the living room. One day, my husband sat down to eat, along with atta garu. She moved the pickles jar; and the smells exploded and filled the entire house.”

Her husband blames it on the narrator and her incompetence as a housewife. “Huh! What’s that smell? Is it the oranges’ gone bad? Maybe not, uh, what a stench! Maybe the maid didn’t clean the area after washing the dishes,” my husband started yelling. Then he turned to me and said with a grimace, “Didn’t you notice that? What’re you doing all day sitting at home? Can’t you take care of the cleanliness, at least?”  I was nearly dead by the time I’d finished explaining to him that he was wrong in his assumption about the smell. (Bhanumati kathanikalu).  Taken out of context, the husband’s comment could ruffle a few women. In Bhanumati’s story, the narrator is the having the last laugh; readers might even see a wink and a nod from her husband. Let’s not forget that he was ridiculing his mother’s pickles.

The incongruities in our actions and the eccentricities in human nature are great stuff for humor. And, our beliefs and gods are no exception for a good laugh as you’ll see in some of the irreverent comments in Bhanumati’s story. A few common phrases such as apachaaram [sacrilege] are used sometimes seriously and at other times flippantly to make fun of those who use it seriously. Bhanumati makes best use of this practice. and “tapping on one’s own cheeks” as a way of tendering an apology (lempalu vesukonu, lempalesukonu) is another phrase used in her stories. In other words, even gods and the sanctity surrounding gods are no exception in the realm of humor. Attagaru refers to Lord Venkateswara as Venkanna (nickname) and compares him to a neighbor in physical appearance and make up.

Bhanumati used laughter itself as core theme in two stories, which are serious in nature. In jeevitamlo agaathaalu [the depth of darkness in life] and telivitetala viluvalu [The Value of Intelligence], both the protagonists, Rambabu and Rao, laugh incessantly, much to the dismay of the narrator.

In the first story, jeevitamlo agaathaalu, the reader would come to know at the end that Rambabu was laughing to hide his pain; his wife was a hysteria patient and there was nothing he could do about it. In the second story, Rao laughs recurrently but this time it was just his habit. Additionally, in the latter story, the narrator’s husband and Rao call each other “fool” and neither was offended by this name calling. The story ends with the narrator commenting, “I stood there watching those two fools.”

Bhanumati’s respect for tradition is evident in her use of the proper names. In our homes, people are often referred to by relational terminology–somebody’ son, somebody’s daughter-in-law, and somebody’s daughter-in-law’s daughter-in-law; and this true even when two persons are cousins, two or three times removed.

As all of us, Telugu people, Bhanumati would not mind laughing at herself. In her story, pedda aakaaraalu, chinna vikaaraalu [big people and small oddities], she gives a hilarious description of her fear of lizards. Bhanumati writes:

Usually those who are not scared of lizards make fun of those who’re scared of them. You know the popular proverb, “Cat is having the time of his life while the rat is running for his life!”

I am one of those rats. … Lizard is my enemy for life. I’ll not walk into a room if there is a lizard on the wall. If I have to, I’ll ask one of the servants to remove it, and then enter the room slowly watching every nook and corner to make sure that it’s gone. Under unavoidable circumstances, I’ll enter the room cautiously, as if I were walking into a lion’s cage, tiptoeing around and watching it’s every move. We two move around in different directions like two planets. No matter how far I am from it, my eyes spot its presence automatically. Then my body moves like a robot in the opposite direction.

As a final note, Bhanumati has captured a wide circle of readership with her easy-going style and by telling us to laugh freely. Further discussion follows.

Humor has its time and place. what’s funny for us Telugu people may not be funny for people in other cultures. Remember the popular saying in America? If someone slips and falls, it’s funny and if you slip and fall, it’s tragedy. That’s not the case in Telugu homes, at least, not in the fifties and sixties.

In the nineteen fifties and sixties, the three stalwarts in Telugu humor writing that come to my mind are Munimanikyam Narasimha Rao, Mullapudi Venkataramana and Bhanumati Ramakrishna were the writers I grew up with. Munimanikyam Narasimha Rao was already an established writer by then and Mullapudi Venkataramana was making his name in the early fifties. Chronologically, Bhanumati Ramakrishna was a contemporary of Venkataramana and started writing fiction a little later.

All the three writers have showcased the laughter in Telugu homes as never before.

Bhanumati mentioned that she had been inspired by Narasimha Rao’s Kantham kathalu (Stories of Kantham, narrator’s wife), published in 1944. She also mentioned that Mullapudi Venkataramana had encouraged her. Interestingly, Mullapudi Venkataramana dedicated his anthology of short stories, Radha and Gopalam (1965), to Bhanumati. Bhanumati published her anthology, Attagari Kathalu in 1966.

In regard to the themes, I am not sure if Narasimha Rao had written about topics other than familial relationships. Bhanumati wrote a few stories, about five or six I believe, depicting the tragic situations in life. Mullapudi Venkataramana has written about almost every aspect – politics, society, entertainment (movies), and children, and also critiques, and he continues to write.

I chose to discuss three stories based on family values and domestic bliss as depicted by the three writers.

Like any other custom or tradition, humor in a given culture develops from its own environment. In that, demographics do play a huge role. When several members of a family – aged parents, sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren – are thrown in together under one roof (Brady Bunch style), good sense of humor becomes a major part of the skills for coexistence, peaceful or not. In Telugu homes, we tease each other, poke fun at each other, and call each other names; and at the end of the day, all’s well; no offense intended, none taken.

Secondly, with the progress of civilization, the code of conduct has put a rigid barrier between people and clouded our sense of humor to a certain degree, I think. But if one wants to have good hearty laugh, one must be prepared to laugh and be laughed at with equal ease. That’s a prerequisite to foster one’s sense of humor. These stories illustrate this point.

In Nenu, Kantham” (Kantham and I), the couple appear to be mature, although the husband does act immature at times. Most of the humor in this story is anchored in the husband’s miserable experience with eating out.

In Radha’s debt, the couple, Radha and Gopalam, are newlyweds, and between the two, Radha is the level-headed;  Gopalam acts like a juvenile. Gopalam’s insistence that Radha owed him for the expenses he had incurred to get attention prior to marriage itself is humorous.

In Attaa-Kodaleeyam, (A story of a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law), the story revolves round Attagaru (mother-in-law) with Kodalu (daughter-in-law) as her sidekick. Attagaru is a charming, naive, traditional woman who’s also a busybody, which often lands her in trouble; Kodalu, the narrator, is also traditional in that she’s respectful toward her husband and his mother (mother-in-law), and steps in only when her services as a mediator/arbitrator are needed. She appears to be enjoying a private joke of her own in the process. She never talks back, never offers to take matters into her own hand unless and until it becomes absolutely necessary. In the story under reference, the story is woven around a trip to Lord Venkateswara in Tirupati.

Mullapudi Venkataramana has successfully created humorous instances using “debt” as core theme in several stories, including a series, Runaananda lahari, in which his play upon words is hilarious. In the story under discussion, Radha’s debt, Gopalam surprises his wife by asking her to pay back a loan she’d never promised; she was not even aware that she owed him money. Soon enough she turned around, caught up with him, and proved he had owed her too. The theme is frivolous on the surface. To me, the story reflects the amicable relationship between husband and wife.

While in Kantham and I, the narrator was depicted as being an egotist, conscious of his status as husband, in Radha and Gopalam, the husband and wife behave like friends, teasing each other for the fun of it.

The incongruities in our actions and the eccentricities in human nature are great stuff for humor. And, our beliefs and gods are no exception for a good laugh as you’ll see in some of the irreverent comments in Bhanumati’s story.


Humor in Kantham’s story comes from everyday events and  interaction between husband and wife. They do care about each other, yet the husband could not take the apparent disrespect from his wife. To me it seems to be a social comment on the irrational behavior of men and their ego trips.

Bhanumati also, like Naraasimha Rao, creates hilarious scenes from everyday life; but, unlike Narasimha Rao, she narrates them while remaining complacent. Secondly, unlike the narrator in Kantham stories, the narrator in attagaru stories stays in control. We do not see her laughing but on rare occasions, the “I” of these stories seem to enjoy a private joke of her own while playing the innocent bystander.


A brief note on the names is in order here. Proper names are often abbreviated. More importantly, the relational terminology is used in place of proper names, which could be confusing for non-native speakers, or when the same term is used with reference to more than one person.

For instance, in Attaa-Kodaleeyam there were three daughters-in-law and a son (the original attagaru’s son and the husband of the narrator/Kodalu). Mother refers to him as abbayi (by attagaru), and the narrator refers to him as maavaaru(meaning ‘my husband’ but his real name was never given in the story. In fact, in this particular story, all the characters were referred to only in relation to each other, even when they were cousins two or three times removed. This usage of relational terminology in the case of distant relatives could be a way of bringing them together and of reinforcing family values. For the purpose of clarification in this discussion, I decided to leave Attagaru as is, she being the protagonist. The story is narrated in first person by Kodalu (daughter-in-law) and, I used Kodalu as a proper name for her. Her co-daughter-in-law (todikodalu) and her daughter-in-law (kodalu of todikodalu) also figure in to the story. In fact, Bhanumati makes fun of this relational terminology in another story, vavi varasalu).

Another angle to the proper names, as a form of address, is “calling each other names”. Bhanumati takes it to a new level in her story, telivitetala viluvalu [The Worth of Intellect]. The title seem to be a little off base. The core theme is the form of address as used by two friends, (narrator’s husband and his friend, Rao) to address each other as ‘fool’ and laugh at each other. Rao’s son-in-law gets involved in a scooter accident and Rao tells the narrator about the accident with a big laugh; and again when the narrator and her husband to go to the hospital to visit the son-in-law, the two friends talk about the accident, laughing and calling each other, “fool”. The narrator stands there “watching the two fools”.

In Radha-Gopalam, the author gives the characters acceptable proper names. Additionally, he uses a few perfectly legitimate proper names like Ramanatham or Gurunatham as punch lines. Further discussion of this is given in the story.

In Nenu-Kantham, the husband is the narrator; his real name is never mentioned.

Second person singular pronoun has two forms in Telugu, meeru and  nuvvu. Within a family, seniors who are respected (father, grandfather, for instance) are addressed as ‘meeru‘. This is not a hard and fast rule though. Kodalu always addresses Attagaru as ‘meeru’ and Attagaru addresses Kodalu as ‘nuvvu‘. Wife addresses husband as ‘meeru‘ and husband addresses wife as ‘nuvvu‘. This protocol is maintained in the stories of the fifties and sixties. The peculiar part however is, a kodalu (the co-daughter-in-law in Attaa – Kodaleeyam) or a wife (in Radha – Gopalam) may address the other person as ‘meeru‘ and still engage in a lively bickering and pour insults on each other, and thus adding one more shade of humor to it.

Regarding technique, the three stories present ordinary events in a humorous light. In Kantham story, the narrative is tight: it opens with a husband upset with his wife; he refuses to eat at home to punish his wife; and the punishment turns out to be his, yet he acts like he has the upper hand. It is not easy create humor in such a negative atmosphere. The story is told in a straight forward manner, no unexpected twists and no shock value incidents. Narasimha Rao succeeds in bringing the funny side up, that’s the strength of an established humor writer.

In the Mother-in-law story, there is more than one plot. The story opens with a proposed pilgrimage to Tirupati by car, and as usual, the two main characters–mother-in-law and daughter-in-law–are thrown in together to the exclusion of the son/husband. The second plot includes a second daughter-in-law (todikodalu. I think Bhanumati did this on purpose. In general, the daughter-in-law’s relationship with her mother-in-law is not confrontational in any of her stories under the running title, Attagaari kathalu. Thus the author may have created the second daughter-in-law to reflect another side, a more common notion, a kind of love-hate relationship. They both get into heated arguments in one moment and are affable in the next moment. Notably the narrator (Kodalu) herself never talked back to the mother-in-law and the mother-in-law never put down the daughter-in-law in this story or in any other story. And then, there is one more subplot, the arranged marriage; arranged by the mother-in-law and the second daughter-in-law in between their heated arguments and boisterous laughter. The narrator however does not lose touch with reality. The reality is “The two women are going to meet like two rival planets on a combat zone in the month of magham” (11th month in lunar calendar). In a way, the three plots make the story less tight, compared to the Kantham story, but entertaining all the same.

The story is, as indicated by the title, about relationship between Atta and Kodalu. The incidents follow in a lighter vein. The story of Radha and Gopalam takes this idea of a theme narrated in a lighter vein further. In fact, it is a story about sweet nothings. The underlying message is the secret of marital bliss. As long as a couple can laugh together, and at each other without malice, there is no cause for complaint in a marriage. All’s well that ends well. Most of the humor in this story, unlike the other two, comes from its language and the adolescent behavior of the couple.


Related articles: Kantham and I, A Story of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, and Radha’s debt

(Originally published on, April 2006)

Radha’s debt by Mullapudi Venkataramana: A Review by Nidadavolu Malathi

The third story in this series on Telugu humor features younger couple. The story opens with the couple, Radha and Gopalam, chatting while Radha is cooking supper. Gopalam says ostentatiously that he will be telling her a story. Radha teases him that he has changed his habit by shifting from reading the newspaper aloud for her to telling a story. Her comment becomes clear a little later when we read Gopalam’s comment, “God gave you so much beauty, so many plausible qualities but not the sense to read the daily paper.” Radha is not interested in reading the newspaper, and Gopalam wants her to read the paper. (We see similar incident in Kantham story.)

The setting in itself – his habit of reading the newspaper aloud for her benefit while she cooks–is not funny but the way it is said brings up a smile. It is a cheerful setting anybody would like to see in a middle class home. This scene is comparable to the family atmosphere in Kantham story, and we notice a historical development in the nature of conjugal relationships in our society. Up until nineteen fifties, the male and female areas were definitively separate. By early 1950s, the atmosphere started changing, and males and females started assuming more supportive roles of each other.

Gopalam ignores her sarcasm and continues with his story. As an aside, we need to remember that the author, Venkataramana, lives in Madras, and has been familiar with the movie scripts. He makes Gopalam mimic the artificial language common in the movies. With this in mind, read the following three pages, and see if the humor has come through.

“If I tell you a story, will you listen?” Gopalam asked.

He put down his coffee cup and pulled out a cigarette packet from his pocket.

“What? You want to tell me a story? What about reading the newspaper?” Radha said. She sat down with the vegetable basket and cutting knife.

“Will read that later. Let me finish the story first. I’ll be brief. It’s called Sasirekha swayamvaram. Sasi was the heroine, the setting was: a rainy night, and time nine o’clock, that’s when the six o-clock show had end, place was the front porch of a dozy house with clay-tiled roof.”

Gopalam stopped and lighted a cigarette. “Say uum,[1]” he said, blowing a cloud of smoke.

Radha finished peeling the green banana. She cut it into cubes, and threw them into a bowl of water. “Uum, and then,” she said.

“Okay, first the hero came on to the stage. He didn’t like getting drenched in the rain, and so, stood on the verandah. Within a couple of minutes, Sasi, the heroine, showed up at the same place. No more characters in the story, just the two of them.”

“Forget the story, go back to your newspaper, please,” Radha said.

“No, you listen, it’s almost over. The young man stopped staring at the neem tree, the yellow building in front, the house with clay tiles, dark clouds, the hazy moon, and the young woman next to him. He was just gaping into the void in front of him.

“What’s wrong, poor thing,” said Radha, without raising her head.

“Sudha, the woman on the porch, also thought of the same thing. She recalled that she’d seen him somewhere.

“The young woman stared at him for a brief second, and her eyes turned to the wavering curls on his forehead painfully.”

“Poor thing, what’s the matter?” Radha said with a smile.

“Sudha asked the the same question. And he said that he was heartbroken and had lost all his faith in the entire female populace, after watching the movie in which the hero’s heart had been crushed into one thousand pieces; his heart had been filled with love and his eyes with tears; he was also the victim of a local woman’s deception, and thus his hrudayakunda [heart jug] was also broken, …

The phrase, “hrudayakunda” is a hybrid term derived by combining two words in two languages, Sanskrit and Telugu, to ridicule the contrived language in the movies. The original phrase commonly used is hrudayabhaandam, a Sanskrit term, and in case the reader misses this play upon words, the narrator makes it clear through Radha’s comment.

“What is ‘heart jug?’. That’s silly,” Radha said.

In the rest of Gopalam’s narration, satirical comments on social norms abound.

“The young man on the porch quickly finished his story and continued to watch his curls, breathing heavily. The young woman felt an urge to caress his curls.”

Radha laughed. “That’s ridiculous. What’s she thinking? How can she think of caressing a stranger’s hair? and, in an open place at that–on the porch of a clay-tiled roof house?”

“Who knows? Didn’t Shakespeare say that woman’s heart is deep? Maybe not, I’m not sure. Anyway, you just listen. Guess what the woman said? She said, ‘Okay, my boy! Hand me those pieces [of the broken heart]. I’ll put’em together, fill them with life, if that’s you want.'”

Gopalam broke into a roaring laughter, pleased with his own ingenuity.

Radha touched the tip of her nose with her index finger in astonishement. “How could she talk like that with a stranger,especially when she had not seen his face or nose in all her life?” she said.

“That’s nice. Maybe her face and nose are not like yours; they do not stand out like yours, I suppose. Hers is a very ordinary face.”

Obviously, the narrator is sidetracking the issue for the fun of it. Radha refers to the face of the hero in Gopalam’s story, and Gopalam turns that into an issue about Radha’s face and nose. The phrase mukkuu moham eragani vaadu in Telugu is normally used in reference to a total stranger. Radha  continues to play along instead of correcting him about his digression.

“Why drag my face and nose into this. Go on with your story.”

“What story? It is over, almost. That young man said that he would never trust a woman again, no way. The young woman protested vehemently, turned away and burst into tears. And then the man looked at her and asked her name. She said ‘Sudha’ and asked, ‘what’s yours?’ He said ‘Mohan’, and continued to call her name, ‘su … dha …’. The word came, piercing through his heart, you know. And then, she also called out his name, ‘mo …ha …n.’ That also came out, piercing through her heart.”

“So, both the names came piercing through their hearts. That’s good. And then?” Radha said. She had scored two notches higher than Gopalam in math.

“And then what? Like you don’t know,” He said.

Radha expressed anger, “What do I know? Only you can say things like ‘Oh my heart,’ or ‘oh, my love’, and then ridicule others. You can call their hearts ‘heart jug’ and such. Remember the proverb, like calling the skipper ‘kapot Mallayya’ after reaching the shore.'”

The last line is the second half of a popular proverb – “Addressing the skipper ‘captain Mallayya’ before boarding his boat, and ‘kapot Mallayya’ after reaching the shore”. In other words, showing no respect after one was done with the other person. Gopalam changes his tone.

“Don’t be angry with me, Radha. All I’m saying is …”

Radha said with a pout, “You can say whatever you please. That is the way always.”

Gopalam burst into a big laugh and said, “Alright, my girl. I did not cross the river in any boat and called nobody kapot Mallayya. My father and your father met in Vizag, decided to marry us, and they did so. … We’d never met before, nor fallen in love with each other.”

The reader comes to understand that the story Gopalam was narrating was their own story, which annoys Radha. She picks up an onion from the basket. Gopalam finds one more reason to tease her, and also bring up the subject of her debt, she supposedly owed him.

“I don’t like onions, put it back. … Also, because you said I don’t have a heart. Therefore, pay up my debt.”

This is the first time the core theme, debt, comes up, which is a surprise both to Radha and the reader.

“What debt?” Radha said, squinting her eyes.

“The establishment charges incurred prior to our marriage.”

“What establishment charges?”

“Come on, don’t pretend like you don’t know. You’ve said it yourself that I had written umpteen letters to you. You pay me the cost of those letters.”

They both continue to argue for a while. Gopalam threatens to sue her father, claiming he was responsible for the expenses on her behalf.

Radha laughs a stunningly beautiful laugh, and says, “your proposition is silly.”

Gopalam is knocked down by her gorgeous laugh and calmed down. And then comments, “God’s given you so much beauty, great qualities, and gorgeous heart but not the interest to read the newspaper, that is sad. So be it. Don’t listen to the news. You may add onions to the vegetable dish. I’ll just sit here and hum a tune.”

Radha cringed at the thought. “Oh, no. Look at me. It’s okay, you can read the paper. I can’t ignore your words.”

Through out the story we see this technique–of switching the subjects–the author uses to highlight the frivolous nature of the couple’s arguments.

Just in that moment a friend, G.V. Murthy comes to visit them. Gopalam thinks “it’s not nice on the part of any G.V. Murthy or S.K. Rao, to show up in the mornings when the couple are having coffee and engaged in a playful chitchat.”

Despite his displeasure, Murthy is asked to mediate their quarrel in regard to a debt Radha supposedly owed Gopalam. Gopalam provides a list of items such as the bet he had lost to his friends whether Radha would show up in a saree at a wedding, and the money he had spent on various items in order to get her attention.

— Eighty rupees total spent on numerous items during the fifteen days prior their wedding day;

— There must be twenty-five greeting cards, I’d sent you, that’s twenty-five rupees;

— And the letters. I sent them in special envelopes, that’s twelve rupees.

“Did I ask you to send them?” Radha asked.

“You don’t have to. I could see right there; you laughed each time you saw me on the street. What would any man think?”

“What do you want me to do if not laugh? Make faces at you? You showed up every day on my way to school. Let it be. How do you account for the rest of the fifty rupees?”

The friend intervenes and adds a list of Gopalam’s worries in those days:

— Whether you would show up on the street or not;

— You would show up, and may or may not look at him; and,

— You would look at him and may or may not smile at him.

While waiting at the paan shop and worrying like that, he used to buy betel nut packets and cigarettes for Murthy. Murthy adds that Gopalam spent so much that the shop owner could buy a used car. According to Murthy’s account, Gopalam was also taking his friends to the movies, if Radha had appeared in a white saree and black blouse.

Radha stopped them and said, “Okay, listen to what I have to say. According to my calculation, you owe me seventy rupees, after deducting what I owe you from what you owe me. Let me have the money, I’ll go to the store in the evening and buy myself a saree.”

Gopalam stared at her suspiciously, “Are you saying I have to pay you and not the other way around?”

And she gives him an account of the money she had spent in order to please him.

“You wrote to me that you like green georgette saree, and so I borrowed thirty rupees from my aunt, bought a green saree and wore it for your sake. … I washed my hair, wore katuka on my eyes, anklets – all because you liked them. …

“On Sundays, I bought pakodi for my friends, each time you had showed up at the beach; bought chocolate for my younger sister each time you had sent a greeting card to me; … so often I had to spend on busfares and cofee for my friends. …”

Gopalam was stunned, touched by Radha’s love for him, and sat there for a while staring down. “Do you really have such strong love for me?” he said.

Radha dropped the onion she was holding, stared at him, and said, “Are those words also coming piercing through your heart, like you had said earlier?”

Gopalam and Radha get to the point of making up.

The friend screamed from outside, “This rupee is counterfiet.” Gopalam yelled back, anxiously, “Take another rupee from my shirt pocket. Or, take the pocket itself, just go away.”

In a way, the story is about a young couple, continuing their romance after they got married. The couple may be in their early twenties but, from today’s standards, it is juvenile. That is part of the reason for the enormous popularity of this anthology–the element of childlike charm and romance in this story. I repeat that that is not only part of the charm. The real captivating part for readers then and now is the author’s command of diction. A story like this does not lend itself for transcultural translation.


(Review by © Nidadavolu Malathi, published on, March 2006)




[1] A sound usually children make, as a sign of their interest in the story.

Bhanumati’s Story of a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, review by Nidadavolu Malathi

This is the second story of the series in my analysis of Telugu humor.

The story opens with the mother-in-law (Attagaru) proposing to pay a visit to the Lord Venkateswara in Tirupati. She says that the lord appeared to her in her dream and was angry of her indifference.

My Attagaru [mother-in-law] insisted that we must go to Tirupati on that very day and pay a visit to the Lord Venkanna. My husband, who said he would not be able to go with us, and suggested to postpone the trip to the following week. Frankly, he has nothing to do yet never free to do anything, as the saying goes.

“Blasphemy, blasphemy,” Attagaru said, touching her two cheeks per our custom.
I was amused but did not laugh. Nevertheless my two hands touched my cheeks gently and reverently, and my lips muttered ‘blasphemy’ instinctively.

“So, what’d you say?” she said. She was observing madi at the time. She touched  the door curtain inadvertently but moved away quickly, probably thinking I did not see it.

“You go with Kodalu. We can all go together later,” my husband suggested.Attagaru went on insisting, “How can we go without you? That’s blasphemy. You shouldn’t even utter it.”

“What can I do? I have several urgent files to attend to. I can’t leave for another week at least. How would I know about your plans? You laid it on me out of nowhere. Did you think I have dreamt of it?”

“Now that you mention it, actually I had a dream; I saw the lord Venkanna in my dream. How do you think he appeared in my dream? He looked exactly like our elderly neighbor Purushottamacharyulu. His body was smeared with red kumkum, and he was holding a silver-lined cane. He was standing on the other side of our door and called out ammanni. I was so stunned, was not sure why He was angry with me. I was in the kitchen. I dropped the pan right there and ran into the hallway. By the way, it did not look like our hallway, nor the kitchen like ours. The kitchen looked like the one in my grandfather’s house and the hallway like that of my uncle’s.”

My husband finished his breakfast to his heart’s content and got up to leave. “Alright, alright. So be it. Are you done? I’ve to go,” he said.

“There again you are being disrespectful. Do not talk like that. The old man with a forehead featuring red kumkum was no other than Venkanna himself. As soon as he saw me, he yelled, ‘Ammanni, What has gotten into your head? You have not  paid a visit in a long time. You seemed to have forgotten even my existence. What a nerve,’ and he started beating me up with his cane. Trust me, there was a such huge swelling on my head. I knew even then that Venkanna was angry with me because I did not pay my respects to him, and I was being punished for it.”

My husband laughed and said, “What a nice God! He beat you up and made you decide on a trip to his temple.”

“No respect, I’m telling you. How can you joke around with Venkanna. What do you know about Venkanna anyways. He will slap you with his shoe if you are disrespectful toward him. My Attagaru told me that He had beaten her with a silver sandal in her dream; that was a very long time ago though. I am lucky, I was wearing the madi saree. So, he smacked me with his cane only on my head …”

This short dialogue between Attagaru, her son and the daughter-in-law [Kodalu] sets the stage for a long trip in their car from Madras to Tirupati–the trip of Attagaru, with Kodalu, their driver and a Malayalee as an errand boy.

The list of items they took with them shows author’s eye for details. The author shows her love of humor in itemizing the list in an irreverent fashion. The driver brought a kerosene tin filled with all the things he had been collecting to offer to the lord over period of time–during his wife’s and children’s sicknesses, strands of hair from his children snipped according to Sastras and kept “in stock”, etc.

It was a fierce struggle for him but he made sure that nothing else was put on the top of that tin box. Our errand boy, a Malayalee, sat in the front seat. And he put his leather bag, containing his clothes, on top of the driver’s tin box. That caused the driver to wiggle as though the life was squeezed out of him. He said quickly in his half-baked Tamil, “That tin contains items avowed to be offered to the Lord. You can’t put a leather bag on it, that’s disrespectful.”

Those two never got along to start with. The Malayalee boy yelled back, “Where else can I put my bag? On my head?”

Then the narrator continues to tell us the precautionary measures Attagaru had taken before leaving the house: My Attagaru locked each room – the kitchen door in the back of the house, the paddy room, the storage room, the puja room in numerical order. She left unlocked only the hallway in front of the kitchen for the cook’s use. It was like donating the Sahara desert. She alerted the gardener to watch the house, and told him to move the buffaloes to the cowshed in case it rained and then, came out and sat in the car, along with the palm leaf basket containing her items avowed  to the Lord. In the meantime, I locked all the rooms upstairs and returned to the car.

This is the strength of Bhanumati’s style. In describing the actions of Attagaru, she does it in exasperating detail, and in her own case, sums it up in one sentence. After all the detailed explanation, it is not over yet. Attagaru says they need to hand over the keys to her son (narrator’s husband). Kodalu assures her that they can drop them off at his office on their way.
The car made a few miles and the tire on the side my Attagaru was sitting burst with an earthshaking sound. Attagaru was stunned. “Oh god, where is that blast coming from?” she asked, clutching my arm tightly. I was not sure whether I should laugh or curb it. “Don’t worry, Attaa, just the tire burst,” I said, struggling to hide my laugh.

Here the author is setting stage for another incident with similar connotation to follow later. If it is not humorous for the reader at this point, it will be soon. The driver puts on the spare tire and proceed to their destination. While they are on the road, Attagaru goes into a rambling about all the relatives they had in Tirupati. Kodalu says that is one of the reason she wished her husband was with them. If he had accompanied them, they all would go straight to the temple, and return home. Without him, Attagaru insists on visiting her relatives and Kodalu cannot say no. And the next question is whom they should visit. Both Attagaru and Kodalu have their own preferences.

For those who are not familiar with Indian customs, and conditions particularly in the sixties era, here is something you need to know. First, the relatives may be cousins twice or thrice removed, and secondly, a family can always show up at the relatives door unannounced. Also, the length of the visit can be anywhere from one hour to a couple of days. Bhanumati cashes in richly on all these aspects of extended families to bring about humor in her stories.Thus Attagaru decides to visit one of her relatives. They go there only to find a big padlock on the door. Apparently, the prospective host family went away on a tour of their own. The same thing happens with the second choice of Attagaru. After running out of all her options, Attagaru agrees to visit the family her son had suggested earlier, which happens to be the choice of Kodalu also.
There once again the figure [size] and the temperament of Attagaru come to surface, much to the chagrin of Kodalu.
The doors were small and narrow. Attagaru lowered her head cautiously and turned sideways and entered the house. My todikodalu [co-daughter-in-law] was surprised, put her hand to her cheek; her eyes opened wide and were rolling as she said, “Who’s that? Atta, is that you?”

“What’d you mean who? Have I changed that much that you can’t even see who I am?” Atta said, pulling her saree palloo over her shoulders, to avoid evil eye.

“Oh, no. Nothing happened to you, only your body … just a little …” my todikodalu said.

As can be expected, the comment from todikodalu triggers a rampage of heated argument. Here is one such description, where Attagaru teases todikodalu and the rebuttal from todikodalu.

“That’s what I’m saying too. Maybe you looked like a twig in your day but now who can miss your body type? The same people who laughed at me in those days are laughing at you, aren’t they?” todikodalu said.

“Let them laugh. It seems it is my karma I should take this banter from you.”

“Nobody said anything madam. I am the one who’s taking all the banter here. Only you said that my people were penniless and murky; You poured insults on my family; You made fun of my nose;

Only you said that my husband had taken to bad ways because of me; You’re the one who called me garish and wicked.”

Readers need to remember difference in the two forms of the second person pronoun–nuvvu and meeru. While Attagaru uses nuvvu, todikodalu uses meeru. The implicit element of respect in the use of meeru fades away in instances like this.
Despite the attempts of Bavagaru [todikodalu’s husband] to break them up, Attagaru and todikodalu get into a verbal exchange, dredging up the insults each poured on the other in the past several years.

Next morning Kodalu and the daughter-in-law of todikodalu are surprised to see the same two women engage in a friendly chitchat as if nothing happened the day before. Attagaru and Kodalu set out for the temple and they invite the host family to join them. That includes Bavagaru, his wife [todikodalu], their son, his wife and the baby. The car starts looking like a woman in her third trimester.

The tire on attagari side bursts again. Attagaru cringes, screams ‘Oh lord’ and clings to Kodalu. Bursting the tire on the same side twice, why? Kodalu wonders, suppressing a smile. Even todikodalu cannot contain her laughter and covers her face with the palloo.

Todikodalu and Attagaru engage in a round of verbal exchange once again. This time it is about modes of conveyance each of them enjoyed in their younger days—horse- drawn carts, cars, and such, they or their families had owned in the past. Bavagaru tries to shut up his wife. But her mouth works as a piece of machinery–an “automatic system”. She has no control over her vocal chords.

Eventually, they finish the darsan to the lord and go to the traveler’s bungalow. After eating the food served in the temple, Attagaru rests for a while and todikodalu lies next to her.

Kodalu (narrator) and the daughter-in-law of todikodalu go to see the rose garden. Their hearts jump at the sight of the flowers and are disappointed at the thought that they are not allowed to pick the flowers. Even if they had picked, not allowed to put them in their hair–that would be a sacrilege. It is interesting how often Kodalu is reminded of what is sacrilege and what is not. By extension, we the readers are also warned of the same.

Eventually they return to the bungalow, apprehensive of the kind of scene they might be walking into. Contrary to their fears, they find Attagaru and todikodalu in a boisterous mood. Both of them are laughing loudly, teasing each other, and saying to each other, “Go away, Atta,” and “You go, jackass.”

They notice the two daughters-in-law [Kodalu and the daughter-in-law of todikodalu] back from their walk, and speak in unison, “Come on, girls, we’ve good news for you. You two are going to have a huge feast soon,” meaning, they have arranged a wedding between todikodalu’s brother’s son and attagaru’s older sister’s grand-daughter.

Before the actual marriage takes place. however, Attagaru and todikodalu get into one more round of verbal exchange. The young daughter-in-law takes on Attagaru to calm down while Kodalu takes on todikodalu to appease. That is a strategic move. Kodalu knows that she cannot work on Attagaru and so sends the young daughter-in-law to Attagaru. This is one of the instance where the author’s knowledge of human nature and the negotiating skills come to the fore.The narrator comments, “Like two hostile planets moving in one combat zone, those two (Attagaru and todikodalu) will meet again in one place for the wedding that is going to take place in the month of magha [the eleventh month per lunar calendar].”

Reader can visualize the narrator bracing herself up for the impending event. Bhanumati was knowledgeable in astrology, which she used in her stories often. One more interesting angle in Bhanumati’s stories is the naming practice. In traditional Telugu families, it is common to refer to people by their relationship rather given names. Like most of her stories, Bhanumati always refers to people only with kinship terminology. So one has to remember the context, who is saying what and with reference to whom, to understand words like son, daughter-in-law etc. It is confusing on one level, yet it also makes a powerful social comment on the interpersonal relationships in the Telugu homes.

This article by Nidadavolu Malathi has been published on, April 2006.




Kantham and I by Munimanikyam Narasimha Rao

Since humor does not lend itself to crosscultural translation easily, I decided to bring out the highlights of three short stories and then summarize in a separate article again. Here is the first story, Kantham and I in the series.

The story opens with a monologue of Kantham’s husband, Venkata Rao, expressing his anger. He is upset since Kantham’s laughed at him the night before, and for that reason decides not to eat at home, by way of punishing his wife.

“You can give me a thousand reasons why I should but I still will not eat at home today. Forget the food, I will not even drink a glass of water here. You’re way out of line. How long do you think I can put up with your misconduct? I am in no mood to eat at home today. I’m determined to go to the hotel.”

“Please, forgive me. What’d I say, anyways?”

“I don’t want even to hear the word forgive. I  can take any number of insults in the privacy of our home but not in front of my friends?” I said. The humiliation I suffered last night is fresh in my mind. Boiling inside, I went to the hotel. I kept to myself all all the insults she poured on me until now but for long can I put up with her misconduct? Can you say I’m being irrational?

He continues to explain the reason for his annoyance: You might say ‘Why bicker with Kantham, just forget it. How can I? She’s not only showing the respect I deserve as her husband but she was calling me by name, Venkata Rao, in an undertone.
Stupid, she thought I could not hear her. I was willing to let go of it but then she burst into a big
laugh, watching my turban. That is the real issue. She called him by name and laughed while watching at his unsuccessful attempts to wear a turban properly. His refusal to eat at home sets the stage, and the description of his struggle with his attempts to  wrap the turban around his head is hilarious. I never made the mistake of wearing a turban during my student days. I started it after I’d entered the teaching profession out of necessity. It never turns out right for me. Sometimes it looks like a turban sitting on the top of a pestle, or turns into a Tamilian’s headgear. When I take a lot of trouble and try to wrap it around my head, it takes the form of a snake charmer’ turban. In Greek mythology, there was a cowherd, who could predict future. There was however a snag; if a person seized him, he’d transform into a petrifying figure, and tries to scare them away. Only if that person remained calm, and not be frightened, then the cowherd returns to his normal figure and predicts the future for that person. I suspect that my turban is a reincarnation of that cowherd. It keeps taking any and every form except its natural form as a school teacher’s turban.

There I was struggling to wrap it around my head correctly, and she, instead of helping me, was
standing by the door and laughing at me. You tell me how should I feel? The reader can see why it was amusing to Kantham. One person’s misery is hilarious for another, that’s human nature. It’s amusing how the author tied in a cowherd from Greek mythology to his own turban problem. His reference to a Tamilian’s headgear seems a little far-fetched. There is however one difference. The author used a different word, talagudda, a piece of cloth worn on one’s head as opposed to talapaga, a turban, reflecting one’s sophistication. Possibly it could be a reference to the Tamilian, hotel server, who’s going to appear later in the story.

The story was written in pre-independence era. In those days teachers were required to wear a
turban, even with three-piece suits. Apparently, that was not a winning experience for all teachers.

The next episode is a comment on women’s lack of interest in acquiring knowledge and keeping
abreast of current events. (The author of Radha and Gopalam story also makes similar comment.)
In the current story, the husband rushes home with the latest issue of a highly respected literary
magazine, parishat patrika. I rushed home holding parishat patrika zealously. I was hoping Kantham would read the magazine and become knowledgeable in current matters. I said, “Here’s parishat patrika. Read it, it contains plenty of new information.” She took it, and as soon as I turned my back, used it to cover the soup dish  I came back, noticed it and was sad. That cracked her up again. What can I say? Historically, it was the time when the women’s education movement reached its peak, and in several families, men encouraged women to learn to read and write. Possibly men felt that women had not been responsive to the movement with the same zeal as men.

On a side note, this reminds me of another story, stri vidya [women’s education] by Bhandaru Acchamamba written in 1887. In Acchamamba’s story also, like in Kantham and I and Radha Gopalam, the protagonist’s husband tries to pursuade his wife to learn to read but the wife ignores all his arguments. Eventually, he is arrested as a freedom fighter and thrown in jail. And then, the wife realizes that she needs to learn to write in order to keep in touch with her husband and learns to read and write. Maybe women are pragmatic in their approach and are prone to acquire the necessary skills only when there is a good reason for doing so. It is also possible that, from the perspective of women, the current education system is not addressing the women’s issues in a meaningful way, and thus fails to capture women’s attention.

Despite Kantham’s apparent lack of interest in the day’s events, Venkata Rao starts to read the
journal aloud. Kantham stops him, saying the text was not in Telugu (neither did I, to be frank). She said, “Wait, that’s not Telugu; it sounds more like a Tamil women’s song. I know a few Telugu women’s songs. You don’t have to read that to me.”

Venkata Rao tries his level best to explain that it was not a Tamil song but Kantham was not
convinced. He has no choice but to laugh along with her. Thus, Venkata Rao believes that he has been ridiculed one too many times, and it is getting to a point when he cannot take it anymore. He is itching to prove that he is right for once at least, and watch her lose for a change. He abides his time.

One day Venkata Rao was seriously engrossed in a matter relating to exams at school. Kantham
came in.



“Listen, I’ve a question.”

“Huh, now? What?”

“Why don’t you listen to me?”

“I’m busy. What’s it anyways?”

“Just tell me what do you want me to do?”

“About what? Don’t you see I’m very busy?”

“If you snap like that, what can I do? All I want to know is whether I should make okra curry or
soup with okra? Or, make the soup, forget the okra. Or, forget both, and grind lentil chutney with

I was upset with her at that moment. I pushed the books to a side and thought for a second. I was
not sure what to say. “If you skip the okra soup, what’s the curry going to be?” I asked her.

“If I don’t make okra soup, we’ll have okra curry,” Kantham said.

Oh, gosh. What a mess. I chased her away, saying, “That’s all very confusing to me. Take it to your brother, have it converted into a ‘simple equation’ , and bring it back to me.” I was happy that I won the first round.

He revels in his success but that turns out to be a short one. He faced with another loss the same

Kantham starts coughing. He gives a herbal root and tells her to keep it in her mouth. Here is a
rough translation of the dialogue between husband and wife:

“Here, tuck this herbal root in your cheek. It cures your cough,” he said.

“I don’t want it.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like the taste of it.”

“What taste? It’s medicine. Just take it.”

“I’m telling you, I don’t want it.”

“No, I won’t let you not have it. If you don’t take it, how do you think your cough goes away. You
and I both will be sleepless all night.”

“I won’t.”

“Don’t you give me the lip. Take it,” I shouted.

“Do I have to?”

“Yes, you have to. Or else I’ll be very angry. Doesn’t a man have that much right over his woman?” I said harshly.

That got to her, it seems. She was afraid that I would be upset. She took the root.

This sounds rather harsh. Would a man, who is so stuck upon his role as a “man” would verbalize that sentiment in so many words? To me, the author was being sarcastic, aimed at the men “full of themselves”.

Secondly, the author continues to narrate that the husband is elated that he succeeded in making his wife do what he wanted her to do; he recalled his grandfather’s words, that a man should keep his wife in line one way or another. He is however confused when he saw Kantham smiling. Why is she smiling?

Here is why. He goes to her bedside and looks at her keenly. Kantham is lying down on her bed
with the root in her palm, holding next to her cheek.

“How could you be so stupid?” I asked.

“You said ‘tuck it next to your cheek’.”

He did not say whether it should be tucked in from inside or outside! Just a play upon words. She
is not stupid, just playing him. He is humiliated one more time. And then comes the final blow when one of his friends came to visit him. The couple invite the friend to stay for dinner. At the dinner time, Venkata Rao tries to impress his friend by making excuses for not serving a huge banquet.

The ships did not arrive at the port; there were no fresh potatoes in the market. All the other
vegetables were rotten. There was a snake gourd in the kitchen, but it was picked so long ago, I am sure it’d gone bad. I’m afraid you’d get sick, if we served it to you. You may think that this rice and chutney  is a meal for a recuperating patient, but trust me, we’re doing you a favor and saving your health. … The chutney is prepared with gongura from Guntur, the place known for its gongura fields in the entire world. …”

Kantham was in the kitchen. She sneaked in as if she’d nothing better to do, and said, “When did
we get gongura from Guntur?”

My friend was suspicious about my ramblings, and now he was convinced that I was bluffing. He burst into a big laugh.

Venkata Rao tries to bluff his way one more time. “Didn’t your sister bring it from Guntur?”. And Kantham says, “Yes, I forgot”, but her tone sounds more like no. That sends the entire household into a sidesplitting laugh. Venkata Rao has no way out and so joins them in their laugh. That is when he has decided not eat at home anymore. He goes to a hotel, run by a Tamilian. The author once again makes fun of the Telugu language spoken by Tamilians. Most of the words are Telugu words with different meanings. Probably, a rough translation reads like this.

“Is food served here?”

“Yes, [we] drop it.”

“All right, drop it then.”

“Buy ticket first.”

I bought the ticket and sat down in front a leaf plate.

“Should I drop a morsel?” he said.

I was ticked off. What does he mean, ‘drop a morsel?’ Am I an invalid or what? Is he going to give me a measly morsel, like I can’t digest a full meal? I was racking my brains. He came in and
dropped two morsels of rice in my plate literally. The first serving was not even enough to eat with chutney. I shouted again, “rice.” He held out two morsels in my face, and asked, “Should I toss all this?”

“Yes, toss the entire lump and bring three more servings. Don’t kill me,” I said.

After that, he brought the ghee dish. It’s true, he has a ghee dish in his hand, that’s all I can vouch
for. Beyond that, God only knows whether there’s ghee in the dish or not. Probably it is easy to
discover what is at the bottom of the Bay of Bengal but no one can tell what is at the bottom of that dish. … Into the dish, he dipped a ladle with a long handle and pulled out with extraordinary skill, lifted it nearly a mile above my head, and tilted it. For a second, I was under the delusion that something would drop into my plate, like the ganges from the top of the Himalaya mountain. That did not happen.

The server goes through similar gestures while serving other items. Venkata Rao returns home, with a half-empty stomach. He tells himself that it served him right.

At home, he finds Kantham lying on the floor in the kitchen with her head on a sitting plank. She
sees him and sits up. He can see remorse all over her face.

“Did you eat?” he asked.

“No. How can I, without you,” Kantham said.

“What does it matter if I’m not home. Can’t you eat?”

“My heart will not allow me to.”

“All right. Eat now.”

“I won’t unless you eat too.”

“What if I’d eaten at the hotel?”

“Then I’ll wait until evening.”

That was enough to let me know how strong her love for me was. At the hotel, I had only half a
meal. So, I told her to serve for me too. I persuaded her to sit down with me, and serve for both us. We both enjoyed a hearty meal together.

The author makes his point with the last line. Couples agree, disagree, fight and make up.
Nevertheless, there is an interesting twist at the end in regard to the husband’s attitude. He acts like he was doing her a favor; he could not admit that he didn’t have enough to eat at the hotel, and was still hungry!

One question I have is: Did Kantham guess as to what could have happened at the hotel and
decide to play along – a pragmatic approach to marital bliss? In the final analysis, the entire story appears to be about taking a jab at the attitudes of men and women in the nineteen forties decade.


(© Nidadavolu Malathi. The story is taken from an anthology by the same name, Kantham and I, written in the forties. This review has been published on, March 2006)

A Fleck of Cloud by Kalyanasundari Jagannath

At a distance, a tiny fleck of cloud appeared over the farmland.

Bhagyam put the water pot on the floor near the front door. She is feeling a shower of nectar at her
heart. At once, she shuddered. What if he had misunderstood her? The idiot I am! What’s come over
me? Why did laugh so loud? What was I thinking? I should have stopped myself, should have kept my
calm. She recalled the incident at the lake that has happened ten minutes back. She is standing at the door, lost in thought.
At the lake, she filled the pot, pulled it up to her knee and looked up. There, Seshayya was standing on the road, at the fork-split. She had known him since her childhood days; they used to play together. So many times, his friends and her friends had fought for the green mung bean sprouts on the farms. But, after her marriage, Bhagyam cut him off. That’s why she could not understand why he stopped on the street? It looked like he wanted to talk to her. Why? Bhagyam had turned away; and lifted the water pot to her shoulder.
“Peddiraju is coming,” he said. Bhagyam’s face blossomed like a lotus. She couldn’t speak for a second. She kept staring at him. She burst into a big laugh. Then again, she collected herself, calmed down.Seshayya was puzzled, for a second, she was being silly; he held back his smile and moved on. He walked a few steps, and said again, “I saw him at the Ramavarappadu bus stop. He came to see off his boss; I heard him say I’ll go home this evening. I called out for him but he couldn’t hear me, with all the buses roaring. He didn’t even look at me. Here I saw you and felt like telling you.” Then he walked away.
Bhagyam took a few seconds; collected herself and whisked the pot and set it on her shoulder, the pot is light today. She hurried home to cook and clean, need to the entire house; he is coming from the city! The house has to be spic and span! Or else, Bava would feel let down. Bhagyam was walking, mulling over; he heart is bustling with joy. The same stupid joy that had made her to lose her cool in front of Seshayya.Bhagyam went in, lit the stove; she poured rice into the winnow to clean. She could hear the jingling bells from the bulls’ necks next door and the yelling of the farmhands. The farm animals must be
crunching fodder cheerfully. Bhagyam is tidying up, singing softly.
            A fleck of cloud hung over Mangalagiri
Down came the rain on Tirupati hills
Attayya used to sing that song in Bhagyam’s childhood. She is trying to recall the other lines.Heavy rain’s pouring down the pillars Silver seat of Venkanna is soaked wet Golden patio of Mangamma is soaked wet Subbulu, the Munsif’s daughter, came from the city to visit her mother briefly. She heard Bhagyam singing. Craning her neck over the fence, asked, “Akka, what’s new, singing? Is Bava coming?”
Bhagyam bent down her head, hiding a tiny smile.
“So, it’s true. Why didn’t you tell me?” Subbulu asked again. Bhagyam looked up but said nothing.
“Why? You’re looking so skinny!” Subbulu said, opening he eyes big, and added, laughing, “Well, you know what they say—some women are gorgeous even when they’re skinny, and dainty fabric is fine even when it’s filthy.”
Bhagyam wondered. Has Bava lost weight too? Who’s there to feed him in the city? And he is not the kind to ask for this or that. He’s his own cook! Then, she thought of the saree; she has been thinking of a lightweight saree; that has been on her mind ever since she had seen Subbulu wearing them. She was especially taken by that black handloom saree with moon prints. Bava said he would get one for her.She’s busy with cooking; her entire past flashed in her mind—her marital bliss, loss of parents first, and then of Attayya—they all came to her mind vividly.It was that year—the rains came down pouring heavily as soon as the farm started sprouting. But the family survived somehow. And then, the same thing had happened the following year too. Then there had been floods for two years in a row. In fact, they all had been aware of the floods; it had become a part of their lives. Even Bhagyam had known about it They all had known about the floods well in advance.
Just before the first sprinkles, they all had gone to a neighboring village to visit their relatives. On their way back, they had noticed that the lake had dried up; there were a few small patches of water here and there. The plantation had grown up full-length. Peddiraju said, ‘look. The cranes had their coops built amidst the plantation.’ Peddiraju kept staring at them, ‘Floods are going to wash away the yield this year,’ he said. Bhagyam was depressed. “Well, that’s the problem with the lowlands; there’s no escape,” the man standing next to her said.Now that’s all coming to mind. It was the same Seshayya who’d said that. They went to visit him; and he followed to see them off. Bava stared at him, as if he’d been lost for words. That’s when she’d come to understand that Bava hated her talking with Seshayya. The truth is she never really talked with him. She vaguely remembered something, happened long time ago; she’d said something impish; and
Seshayya burst into a laugh; he thought he had Bava’s support. Bava was very upset, but held back.
Nobody said anything after that. Seshayya accompanied them up to the big lake on the outskirts of their village, told them to go safely, and went back to his home. The truth is Bava never liked her talking with anybody. He’s strange. In all other matters, he is none other than god himself.
Another episode flashed through her mind.One day Bava had gone to the village fair. Just in case … She warmed up a glass of milk and kept on the ledge. Munsif’s wife gave her a bunch of marigolds; she tucked them in her hair. For Peddiraju, things did not happen the way he’d expected. He returned the same evening; he went bonkers as soon as he saw the milk and flowers. Bhagyam was confused at first; she was crushed. Then she started explaining; the rooster crowed by the time she’d done explaining. Peddiraju was ashamed of his stupid suspicions. He was mortified.
Bhagyam had understood his ways. “So be it. Who’s there to snap at, but for me. No need to feel bad,” she had comforted him. Sometimes she would snap at him too. But all this has got to stop. No matter however suspicious he gets, I’ve got to be patient. I’ll tell him as soon as he gets here.Bhagyam’s parents died while she was still a child and Attayya, Peddiraju’s mother, had taken her under her wing. Eventually, she had performed their wedding. Peddiraju has been very fond her; always on the alert, as if she were a bubble in his palm. He made sure that she never felt loss of her parents, not even for a second.
One time the munsif’s wife had given her a couple of lotus fruit. Bhagyam mentioned to her, “I like these a lot.” Bava was there, pretended as if he had not heard her words. And the very next day, he brought a whole bunch of them. He is so thoughtful! Bhagyam was nearly on the brink of tears. She remembered about what Attayya had said; that large body of water is a menace for Bava, that’s what his horoscope says.

All these stories kept coming back to her. The cow next door bellowed from their backyard. Peddiraju had to let go of the cow too. It’s not just one thing; one after another had gone;  they’d been through so many hardships. The crops failed year after year and landed them in huge debts. Peddiraju was forced to accept day labor in the city. He went to the city, since he couldn’t get down to it: selling wood in the town where he’d sold flowers. In addition, he also hoped that he might make more money in the city and pay off his debts. That’s all he had hoped for. After that, he was sure to sweat and produce gold on his land.
Several years had gone by. Heavy rains poured big. The lake was bursting with Lotuses and tulips. The farmers made little puddles of water for their farms. Peddiraju felt free enough, and asked the munsif to harvest his farm; he trusted him. The he went away to the city.
Bhagyam could still see in her mind, as if it happened yesterday. The day he had made his decision. Peddiraju had been acting strange all day; looked as if something was bothering him. Her stomach turns every time she recalls that moment. That day, he was eating supper. Suddenly, he blurted out, “Can you stay here alone?”
“I’ll go with you,” she’d replied. Peddiraju’s eyes had shot blood red. “We can’t trust the city. No, not you there,” he said. She had not understood him. What about Subbulu and others? Haven’t they all gone to the city? Well, he would not like it, that’s all there is to it. Then he had added, “Remember, if you do anything stupid here, I’ll just go away, god knows here.” Bhagyam’s heart was in a flurry. “What do you mean?” she had asked, worried sick.
Peddiraju had brought up a smile on his lips, “Don’t worry. I am cranky, you know.”
Bhagyam’s heart sank. For the rest of the day, neither of them had spoken a word. That evening, Bhagyam had managed to smile and tell him, “You’d be in the city by this time tomorrow, Bava! Will you remember this village and us here?”
Peddiraju had been folding his dhotis. “I’ll bring you a gold-threaded, black saree, don’t you worry,” he had replied, almost in a screechy tone.
A few seconds passed by. He softened his tone and said, barely audible, “Who do you think all this is for, all this struggling? I want you to be happy, this is for your sake. You can never tell you know, how can we tell we’ll always be like this forever? Don’t we have to save something for our children?”
Bhagyam’s heart melted like ice. That’s how Bava is, she told herself.

The next day, before daybreak on the eastern horizon, Bava hit the road to catch the bus. Munsif followed him to the outskirts, waving his cane.
Peddiraju had told her, “You’d better go home. Take care.”
“You go back.  I’ll go with him a little farther,” munsif said.
Bhagyam stood fixed to the ground at the end of the street. Not a word came out of her mouth. It felt like somebody had gouged out her heart. After the men were almost out of sight, she mumbled, ”Have a safe trip, and be back with a bounty.” Only the last star on the sky had heard that blessing.
Ever since that day, Bhagyam’s life has been a drag. Each day, she it’s a struggle to bring herself to cook even a morsel; “Why bother”, the phrase keeps coming up again and again. Each day, she would cook, since she had to calm down the gripe in her stomach; thoughts about her husband beset her: Did he eat? Is he starving? How is he? Who’s there he could ask when he is hungry? He is not even the type; he won’t ask! –the questions would worry her even more; and tears fill her eyes.
The harvesting had been completed. The land was barren to start with. After sifting the chaff, they had barely enough for subsistence. The munsif kept it in a silo at his place.
Days passed by. But the weight in Bhagyam’s heart did not get any lighter. The sun has been rising on the east and going down on the west, as always. For Bhagyam, there is no difference between yesterday and today.
The silk cotton tree in the backyard bloomed. It is still summer. She did not care if they had no income or the farm for that matter. All she wanted was she should be able to live with her husband under the same roof. She thought of asking the munsif several times to write a postcard to Peddiraju. But Peddiraju was not the kind; he is not quick to take others’ advice. His first priority is to pay off debts; keeping the outstanding debts is humiliating; he would not go for it. He cares for her. He had even sent some money, in installments, to the munsif. That was for her expenses, she was told. It was time for tilling the land. Munsif included Peddiraju’s farm also when he  started tilling his own.Now, Peddiraju is coming home today, rather unexpectedly. Basking in the news, Bhagyam finished cooking. Sprinkles started outside. Bugs swarmed around the lantern, which she just lit up. Next door, in the munsif’s backyard, they started fire; the smoke crammed her entire house. Bhagyam washed two plates and set them on the floor in the kitchen; and also two glasses of water and sitting planks. They can serve themselves and eat while he tells her all about city life. She was surprised at her own courage. They had never sat down together, not in their entire life. Maybe, on the wedding day and the next, that was about it. But Subbulu had told her that that’s way it is in the city; she and her husband would eat like that all the time.Bhagyam kept the paan leaves and crushed betel nut by the bed. They two could dab calcium paste, while. What if Bava suspects again? Then again, she laughed at her own fears. Also, she wanted to amuse him a little. She changed blouses twice, just to make sure.There is something else. Bava would like to chew a piece of jaggery after his meals. No jaggery at home. She can get it from the store round the corner. She’d never been to the store by herself. And also, it is raining outside. But then, I don’t have it at home, what can I do now? She opened the window and kept the lantern on the ledge. That way, Bava can see the path leading to the house. She closed the door and left for the store in the rain. She is getting slightly wet.
The store-owner’s wife saw and said, pleasantly, “What’s new? You came, drenched in the rain?” She noticed Bhagyam’s make up, and kept badgering until she had gotten the news. She gave her jaggery, and kumkuma and sent her little son with her to keep company. The sprinkles turned into showers. As soon as she opened the door, the wind from outside blew hard and put out the flame in the lantern.She sat down, leaning on the front door, watching the bus route. She turned around and looked into the room. It seems the sprinkles were blown into the room through the open window. Inside the room, close to the wall by the window, she saw something dark. Still, she does not want to close the window; if she closed it, Bava will not be able to see the path.
The rain is getting worse and worse; the wind is blowing harder too. Each time lightning struck, she could see the bus route for a split second. She kept watching the street; she does not want to move from the door. She is not sleeping at all.
It is past midnight. The winds outside are very loud. Bhagyam is scared. It didn’t look like Bava is coming tonight. It has to be tomorrow; that’s okay too. Why take risk in this frightening rain, and why get soaked to the skin? What is there so urgent here, anyway? The sprinkles are shooting through the window into the room, almost to the kitchen. Bhagyam got up and went to close the window. In the shades of the window, she felt something soft under her foot. Bhagyam jumped a step back.
That’s what she had noticed earlier too. It is a bundle, not a puddle. It looked like a puddle because of dim light. She brought the lamp closer and looked at the bundle. It is a small bag. She picked it up, with some hesitation. She felt the soft clothes wrapped up in the blue shirt that belonged to Bava. That meant Bava was here. Where is he? Did he go to the munsif’s home, because I was not home? He must have come when I went to the store. But then, what is he doing, for so long, in their house? She went to the door, and took a peek into the neighbor’s house. All the doors were closed. There were no sign of lights anywhere. They all were sleeping quietly.
Bhagyam could not think straight. Thoughts are swarming around in her head. She jumped back into her room again and stared at the bundle. She opened it slowly. She found the clothes Bava had taken with him first time he had left, and also a new black saree. In the lantern light, the gold threaded design glistened. It is the black saree with the gold-thread moon design, he had brought for her. What a memory! Bava remembered. But then, why did he leave it on the wet floor? Why didn’t he put it on the cot? Bhagyam went crazy for a second; her head spun like a top. She squatted down on the floor.
Next minute she noticed something else in the kitchen, where the plates were set. The place was a mess. She found Bava’s purse at her foot; it is heavy. She noticed a bus ticket, a receipt and a small pencil on the floor. It occurred to her in that moment. Bava threw them all through the window, no doubt, furiously. But why? And then, where did he go? It felt like her head would split into two.

Outside the window, rain was pouring down the spouts incessantly. The wind was whistling. The rain was getting heavier; as if pots full of water were being dumped.Sprinkles were falling on her back. She did not move. She looked blank. Shadows and streaks of light—all looked the same. Tears sprang to her eyes In the next second, a lightning struck, behind her. The plates in front of her shone. Showers outside.


(The Telugu original, madanta mabbu, has been published probably in sixties. Translated by Translated by © Malathi Nidadavolu and published on, April 2005.)

Dr. Nayani Krishnakumari: A Distinguished Scholar by Nidadavolu Malathi

In the post-colonial Andhra Pradesh, Dr. Nayani Krishnakumari stands out as an exceptional scholar, poet, researcher, speaker, and academic. There are very few women who have attained the stature of scholarship as Krishnakumari in modern day Andhra Pradesh.

Nayani Krishnakumari was born in Guntur in 1930. She is the eldest daughter of Nayani Subba Rao, a reputed poet and historian, and mother Hanumayamma. She has four siblings (one brother and three sisters. The brother passed away in 1968).

Krishnakumari did most of her schooling in Narasaraopet except the one year in Srikakulam. In Guntur, she finished Intermediate in flying colors. Originally she thought of going into medicine but did not pursue though. Instead, she went to Andhra University, Visakhapatnam in pursuit of Telugu literature studies.

The three years, 1948-51, in Visakhapatnam, played a decisive role in her life and literary pursuits. There, she met several writers, poets and scholars, and participated actively in many literary and cultural events. She was the first woman in Andhra University to act and direct a play in 1948, wrote his close friend Antati Narasimham, whom Krishnakumari addresses fondly as annayya [older brother]. During that time, Narasimham and a few other students were running a hand-written monthly magazine called azad hind. Narasimham saw one of Krishnakumari’s early poems, brundagaanam [group song], was impressed by the poem and her handwriting, and invited Krishnakumari to be the scribe for the magazine. Her poem, visakha naa neccheli [Visakha, my Best Friend], written in 1977, speaks of the special place she holds in her heart for the city.

Krishnakumari married Canakapalli Madhusudana Rao, a distant relative and polite young man and choice bridegroom of both the families. He is a lawyer by profession. They have three children—one daughter and two sons. Regarding her marriage, her friend Narasimham has an interesting story to tell. Being a vocal advocate of inter-caste marriages, he told Krishnakumari to have an inter-caste marriage. Krishnakumari replied that she would not mind but she preferred to marry per wishes of her and the young man’s family.

Narasimham has mentioned in the same article that Krishnakumari believes that the caste system is vocation-based, despite her education. Regarding he personality, Narasimham writes that she is good-natured, respects all–young and old, the famous and the ordinary alike. She has taken after her father as much in character as in physical traits.

Krishnakumari’s father, Nayani Subba Rao, was an esteemed poet and historian, which might have contributed to her interest in the cultural and literary history of Telugu people. While she was studying B.A. (Honors.), she took a course on the History of Andhra Pradesh and she noted down the lessons after each class. These notes were published as a series of articles in a popular magazine, Andhra Prabha, and later as a book entitled Andhrula katha [The Andhra People’s story]. The book was prescribed as a textbook in schools—an attestation of her writing skills. She was just 18 years-old at the time.

Krishnakumari has always been surrounded by caring family members and literary stalwarts of her time. Impressed by her poetry written at a very early age, Jnanapeeth awardee, Kavisamrat Viswanatha Satyanarayana nurtured her as he would his own daughter. She used to call him as pedananna [father’s older brother.

Krishnakumari originally began working on Tikkana’s use of language for her Ph.D. dissertation but never finished it. Later, with a little nudge from her husband Madhusudana Rao and friend Antati Narasimham, she worked on the ballads in folklore and received her Ph.D. in 1970. She also has master’s degree in Sanskrit.

In 1951, Krishnakumari started her teaching career as Lecturer in Ethiraja College in Madras. The following year, in 1952, she moved to Osmania University Women’s College in Hyderabad, where she started as Lecturer, became Reader in 1967, and later Professor in 1983. She served as Principal of Padmavathi Mahila University, Tirupati, for one year, 1983-84, and returned to Osmania University as Head of the Department of Telugu. She retired in 1990 after serving as Chair of the Board of Studies in Osmania University for three years. Krishnakumari served as Vice Chancellor of Sri Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, Hyderabad, from 1996 to 1999. Currently, she is professor emeritus at Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University.

Marking her sixtieth birthday and retirement, several scholars and the elite in Andhra Pradesh honored Krishnakumari as an esteemed scholar in modern Telugu literature. The festschriften volume, vidushi, features several articles from eminent scholars. (It has been a useful source fir this article).

Krishnakumari has participated in numerous conferences, seminars, organized writers’ conferences and traveled extensively in India and abroad. She has served on reputable literary and progressive organizations in various capacities. By 1990, the list of her accomplishments extending over a period of 38 years is six-page long according to the festschriften volume. (Email me for a copy of the list).

Krishnakumari is a recipient of several prestigious awards such as Gruhalakshmi Swarnakankanam, Best Woman Writer of Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi, Best Writer from Telugu University, and Telugu University Award in the best Literature produced by women.

Krishnakumari is a pioneer in the fields of Folklore and women’s literature. She entered the field at a time when even male scholars were scarce in the study of folklore. Only a few names such as Biruduraju Ramaraju, Nedunuri Gangadharam and Hari Adiseshu were known at the time.

While she was professor, Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, Krishnakumari prepared the syllabus for M.A. in folklore. It was later published as telugu janapada vijnanam: samaajam, samskruti, sahityam. The book includes several chapters by several scholars in folklore with topics for discussion and further research. It could serve as a model or a valuable tool for students looking for guidance in the field.

Under her guidance, a total of twenty students worked for their M.Phil. and Doctoral degrees. One of her students, Pulikonda Subbachari, mentioned that, “students consider it a blessing to have her as their guide. … With her dissertation, the scientific study of Telugu folklore took a new turn. The elite agree that she broke the ground and laid the path by shifting the research methodology from the descriptive mode to the analytical mode.” It would appear that the research in folklore has been conducted in three phases: In the first phase, the characteristics of a specific aspect of the folklore are identified and defined; In the second phase, scholars accepted it as literature only half-heartedly or condescendingly; and, in the third phase, scholars started to recognize it as a form of literature that needs to be studied with a different set of rules. Krishnakumari laid the path for this third phase. In her own research, she adopted the same method she had established as the best for our folklore, which belongs to anthropological school.

In fieldwork, she welcomes the methodology of the western scholars but does not encourage accepting it in its entirety or without questioning. She differs especially in regard to the contextual data collection. In collecting and presenting data, Krishnakumari says that the scholars must make a distinction between the material needed for native scholars and the western scholars. Presumably, there are details that need to be furnished to those who are not familiar with our culture.

Krishnakumari puts greater emphasis on field work as opposed to reading published works, “armchair research” as she puts it. In gathering data, advises students to focus on meta-folklore—the concepts underlying the words the folks speak. It is important for the researcher to ask questions tactfully and draw the causal beliefs and convictions of the subjects.

Her students speak fondly of her. She is not just a guide who walks them through to their degrees but is also a good friend and mentor.

One of her students, Ravi Premalatha, commented that, “Usually researchers pick one topic from several established categories such as collecting data, classification, analysis, comparative studies, and construction for their study but Krishnakumari has worked in all these areas and proved her multifarious talent.” (vidushi. p.25.).

Premalatha continued to say that Krishnakumari applied the straight line equation from mathematics to the storytelling methods in folklore and proved her unparallel talent. This is a new experiment in the studies of folklore in Telugu literature and a mark of Krishnakumari’s knowledge of mathematics and her erudition in research methodologies.

Krishnakumari’s articles on Telugu people’s customs, lifestyles, and culture also attest to her comprehension and knowledge in the areas in question.

Krishnakumari publications include two anthologies of her poetry Agniputri [Daughter of Fire, 1978] and Em cheppanu nestam! [What Can I Say, My Friend!, 1988]; history books: Andhrula katha [The Story of Andhra People], and telugu bhasha charitra [History of Telugu language], ; two collections of short stories: Ayaatha (A Collection of short stories), Gautami (novel), manamuu, mana puurvulu [We and Our Ancestors], Aparajita (A collaborative novel with three other writers), pariseelana [An Anthology of reviews], parisodhana [A Collection of research papers], kashmira deepakalika (A travelogue, recounting her experiences of a tour in Kashmir with a group of students), and Telugu Janapada geya gaathalu (Ph.D. dissertation on ballads in Telugu folklore) and several others. To date, she has published about 20 books.

Krishnakumari’s publications do not speak sufficiently of her erudition. And that does not bother her. Mr. Narasimham mentioned a brief conversation he had with her regarding the paucity of her publications and suggested that she should spend less time on speeches in schools and colleges and more on writing and publishing. Krishnakumari replied, “These students spend so much time and energy on organizing these events. It is not fair for us to take a ‘high and mighty’ attitude and snub them.”

Her views on poetry are well recorded in her foreword to her book, agniputri. Therein, Krishnakumari stated not only her reasons for writing poetry but also for writing her own preface. Krishnakumari believes that works by a writer possess insights only the writer can explain. As an example, she remembers her own study of Tikkana’s usage of language and the moments she wished the poet was here to explain. It is not uncommon for a critic to misconstrue or misinterpret the original author’s message, she adds.

Krishnakumari believes that it is important that the reader be aware of the author’s echelon of the psyche, confidence, empathy, and discipline. Readers’ awareness of the measures the author uses for evaluating the good and the bad, the light and the shadows and the author’s perceptions through his experiences– they all contribute towards the reader’s appreciation of the poetry on hand.  She speaks from the heart and in no uncertain terms. For her, poetry is a means to express oneself, it must be sincere. In her preface, she took a jab at the writers who just in a corner in their rooms and write provocatively. She is a person of action.

Krishnakumari also says she is not writing for fame or fortune. She writes only when she is inspired. Speaking of inspiration, mention must be made of two poems, intensely personal. First one was written when her mother had fallen seriously ill and Dr. Sridevi, a good of friend of Krishnakumari, saved her mother’s life. Second was the title of her second book, em cheppanu nestam. which was written at the time when the same friend, Sridevi passed away. The two poems are even more touching for the fact that one incident brought them together and the second tore them apart. Krishnakumari was shaken both times. The two poems eloquently describe the heartrending pain she had sustained.

Krishnakumari is a protester without labels. She welcomes change but not like a militant rebel. She believes in the kind of change which penetrates deep into the lives of people unobtrusively. She likens the change to a seasoned housewife who defies the world without a bang and takes care of her family with inimitable dexterity.

Krishnakumari wrote only about a dozen or so. Some of them were published as a collection entitled ayatha.[1]  The stories reflect her personality and attitude towards family and society. In stories like ayatha, kavigari bharya, pushpalata tecchina kakarakaayalu, the author illustrates the endearing relationship between a husband and his wife. The stories also identify the finer details in the interaction between cousins[2] (children of a brother and sister.). In kavigari bharya, the wife addresses husband as nuvvu [informal singular] when she feels close to him and meeru [formal, respectful] when she is displeased.

In literature, her travelogue, kashmira deepakalika, is unique for its style. It is an account of her experiences, her response to the beauty of nature in the Kashmir valley, during a tour she had undertaken with a group of her students. Chekuri Rama Rao, a reputable critic and scholar, stated that the book, unlike usual travelogues, is a literary masterpiece brimming with poetry.[3] (See the article on Krishna Kumari’s poetry by Vaidehi Sasidhar).

Krishnakumari traces the history of oral literature in her book, janapada vanjmayam. Some of the premises in the book are:

1. The oral tradition existed from times immemorial. Rhythm is inherent along with sound in all the entities in nature. In course of time, man might have developed the dance technique in an attempt to give form to the sound and rhythm. It is hard to establish when the story element was woven into the folk art.

2. There are no definitive answers for questions such as “What did he accomplish by incorporating storyline into his singing and dancing. Psychologists profess that man’s unfulfilled desires manifest themselves as fulfilled dreams in art. For instance, a poor man may write about riches, and a feeble person may write stories about courageous heroes. In every art form, we can see the elements of lifestyles of the primitive man. Probably this is one of instances of the level of sophistication of the primitive man.

3. In this [folk] literature, music was secondary; the general populace enjoyed the presentation by watching the physical gestures, facial expressions, and the skilful rendering. Probably, it was the dramatization and musical quality that shaped into an attractive art form.

4. The masses appreciated this form for their own reasons. But there is a need for scholars to study it for a different reason. It is not fair to dismiss this art as free verse, some cock-and-bull stories fabricated by simple folks, and they are devoid of linguistic merit. This literature, studied in the appropriate manner, will no doubt reveal numerous aspects that could contribute to the understanding of anthropology, sociology, ethnography, ethnology, and mythology.

5. It is also important to evaluate the variance between the folk literature and the traditional [elitist] literature.

6. The characteristics of folk literature are: 1. Unknown authorship; 2. Untraceable timeline; 3. Spontaneous evolution from circumstances and out of necessity; 4. Most of it has musical quality and lends itself to gestures; 5. It is not correlated to contemporary scholarship and its conventions; and, 6. It is disseminated exclusively orally and would accept changes and additions freely.

7. The folk literature can be divided into two groups as [1]1 with and [2] without storyline. From a different perspective it can also be classified as melodic or pure text without melody. In all these cases, the folk literature includes children’s stories usually told by grandmas at home—tales of puranas handed down from generation to generation, parables, moral stories, fantasies and ballads singing praise of national heroes. Riddles also fall into this category not because there is a story but they are interesting for the charming imagination that is spread around in a question-answer format.

8. The melody-based folk literature is classified in several ways such as caste-basted, calling-based, or deep-rooted in religion.

9. The religion of the simple folks seems to have evolved from the values dictated by ancient matriarchal society. Various Mother Goddesses in villages were the source of power for people’s religious beliefs. They were also the springboard for practices like self-immolation, sacrifice, and sorcery. So also the women’s traditions in which women wielded powers, sacrificed their lives and became minor goddesses [perantrandru]. In course of time, the women’s songs at weddings and other rituals also became important parts of the same oral tradition.

I quoted the text at length in order to emphasize the work of Krishnakumari in the field of Folk Literature. Krishnakumari devoted major part of her literary career to collecting the material and studying, organizing the data and publishing them.

An important work of Krishnakumari is her Ph.D. dissertation Telugu Janapada Geya gaathalu, [Telugu ballads]. In this dissertation, published in 1977, Krishnakumari discussed elaborately the origin and the development of Telugu ballads in the context of Telugu folk literature. She identified the folk literature as a separate and valuable part of our literatures, compared it to similar literatures in other cultures and countries, and produced a systematic classification chart of ethnology, ethnography and sociology. Further, she has shown how other branches such as songs and stories included physical gestures and other theatrical paraphernalia in course of time. In this, she also noted that the inclusion of terminology from other languages happened with educated singers of the ballads.

Other chapters include the story elements in the folk songs and ballads, hero-worship, and the linguistic aspects. About seventy ballads she had collected across Andhra Pradesh, from Visakhapatnam to Nellore and Kurnool, vouch for her hard work, particularly when we remember that it was a time when the tape recorders had not come into vogue yet. The glossary at the end of the chapter must be valuable for researchers in the field of folklore.

Krishnakumari believes that the folklore must not be dismissed as the creation of a group of primitive people and thus lacks the skills of the elite. She has postulated powerfully that their folk songs and performances provide us with insights into the civilization of ancient times, a great tool for understanding the evolution of our customs, traditions, and immensely useful in the studies of ethnology, ethnography, religion and sociology.

In her article on the construction of idiom in folklore, Krishnakumari discusses the metamorphosis of language in folklore and the logic underlying such metamorphosis. Incidentally, she discusses the growth of Telugu language as a result of acquiring words from other languages and normalizing into Telugu vocabulary. She adds that Telugu is basically descriptive language. Arguably, we may obtain words from other languages because of the expansion of knowledge base, yet it is equally viable to coin new words from the available vocabulary we have, she insists. For example, aayakaram or varumaanam may be used for income tax and aDDu or taakaTTu for mortgage and so on. Krishnakumari insists that we must stop promoting the argument that we do not have correct words in our language. Developing a comprehensive dictionary of the entire literature of Telugu folklore must be undertaken first, she proposes.[4]

In an interview with Vanita monthly, Krishnakumari expressed her opinions on current day writing by women. In response to the question that most of today’s women writers are being criticized as “not reflecting reality, and advocating escapism,” Krishnakumari remarked, “That criticism is not too far from truth. For women writers, social consciousness is important. Whatever issue they choose write about, they should first think well, examine it from a scientific perspective, and write the story using their imagination and tell it in a captivating manner. To be able to do that, one must have detailed and scrutinizing outlook, real life experience, and creative skill. When those are in short supply, every small thing becomes an issue and a theme for the story. Many women writers are writing stories, with only numbers in mind, and, without a proper understanding of life, without thinking ‘what issue is and what is not’. They are writing without the logical basis of ‘how that issue had taken shape and what solution could be offered’. That is what rendering their writings poor and themselves the target for such criticism. Those writings only hurt the society, not help.”[5]

Basically, Krishnakumari believes that the feminists at present are not delving deep into the underlying problems of the society. They need to scrutinize the issues and find solutions; there is no point in blaming individuals.

A critical review of Dr. Nayani Krishnakurmari’s poetry by Dr. Vaidehi Sasidhar, is available at


Published originally on, April 2008.

Source List:

Krishnakumari, Nayani. agniputri. Hyderabad: Author. 1978

ayaathaa. A Collection of short stories.

em cheppanu nestam. Hyderabad: Author. 1988

pariseelana. Hyderabd: Author, 1977

parisodhana. Hyderabad: Andhra Saraswata parishad, 1979.

telugu janapada vijnanam: society, culture and literature. Hyderabad: Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, 2000

Krishnakumari, Nayani. Ed.  jaanapada saraswati. Hyderabad: janapada sahitya parishat, 1996.

Narasimham, Antati. “vinaya vijnana seeli Krishnakumari”. Hyderabad: Nayani Krishnakumari Sanmana sanchika. 1990. pp.12-24.

Ramaraju, Biruduraju. and Krishnakumari, Nayani. Eds. janapada vanjmaya charitra.

Vidushi: Nayani Krishnakumari sanmaana sanchika. Ed. Chekuri Rama Rao. Hyderabad. 1990.


[1] I translated one of her stories, cheemalu [Ants], which is not from either of the anthologies, and included in my anthology, A Spectrum of My People, published by Jaico, 2006.

[2] In Andhra Pradesh, marriage between children of different genders—a brother and a sister—is permissible while between children of the same gender (brothers or sisters) is not.

[3] Rama Rao, Chekuri. “kashmira deepakalika yaatraacaritra kaadu: vachana kavitvaaniki rasagulika..” vishushi. pp. 55-56.

[4] janapadabhasha – padanirmaanam. janapada Saraswati. pp.1-8.

[5] vidushi. goshti with vanita monthly. p.31.


(© Nidadavolu Malathi, originally a shorter version has been published on  this article in, and this comprehensive version has been published on, April 2008).

Dr.Nayani Krishnakumari’s Poetry : An Overview by Dr. Vaidehi Sasidhar

Dr. Nayani Krishnakumari garu has been a popular and well known name in the literary as well as academic circles of Andhra Pradesh. Being the daughter of an illustrious poet, Sri. Nayani Subbarao garu and having been nurtured in a home environment that always bustled with the prominent presence of famous contemporary writers and poets like Viswanatha, Krishna Sastry, and Bapiraju  perhaps laid a solid literary foundation for young Krishnakumari during her earlier years.

Since details of Dr. Krishna Kumari’s  education, honors,  books and academic positions she held were given in Malathi garu’s article at length, I would not mention them to avoid repetition,  although I would like to add that her multifaceted talents and active involvement in various academic and literary fields certainly make an impressive mark on the readers. The scope of this article is focused on a brief overview of her poetry, namely, her free verse  anthologies.

Dr. Krishnakumari has three anthologies of free verse to her credit. It is interesting to note this prolific writer had taken her time in publishing these three books. First one was Agniputri published in 1978, followed by Emi Ceppanu Nestam in 1988 and the third one Soubhadra Bhadra Rupam“ was published in 2006, twenty five years after the second one.

Agniputri, her  first anthology of poems is dedicated to her father Sri. Nayani Subbarao garu on the eve of his eightieth birth day celebrations. Dr. Krishnakumari’s love, affection, pride and her immense adoration for her poet-father is pleasingly conspicuous in her writings.

The poems in Agniputri chronologically  range from 1960’s-1978. The poem Vihasimche vidhi”1951) , Kaveri kanneeti pata (1966) are written in geyam (lyric) style. The influence of the then popular style of Bhavakavitvam (romantic poetry) is very evident in  the soft sounding words that were chosen and the lilting rhythm. In Kruddha Prakruti, another  poem written in 1966, the poetess succeeded in bringing out the fury  of nature in front of our eyes through her descriptions and with her effortless ease with the traditional style of writing. The rightful influence of Nayani and Viswanadha is noticeable in these earlier poems in her style and language.

The poems she had written in  early 70’s to late 70’s slowly evolved into total prose poetry, her style of expression more direct, language less traditional and ideas less grandiose. It is an interesting evolution perhaps denoting the changing face of contemporary poetry writing.

In Agniputri  Dr.Krishna Kumari’s poems consist of a lot of introspection of her own emotions, feelings, ideas ,experiences and her responses towards  life. She had written few  poems like   Suptamandiram (1971) Pudami Polika“(1974) Manasu Chilaka (1974)  that suggest her out look  towards issues of spirituality  and divinity. Especially Pudami Polika has a mystic and romantic appeal that we find in Tagore’s poetry ,which was a very powerful style from 60’s to mid 70’s.

Still you are somewhere!!
Stacks of clouds are in the far away northern sky!
Freshly and freely hurrying Sweet  dewy breeze!
Did the moment That makes the jasmines bloom
Not wake you up yet?! ..

Dark thick clouds in the sky
Shrieks of water birds with
The pain of separation
And the undying love nestled in my heart!!!   (Pudami Polika)

Another poem in the same style,

It is thy exquisite form
That taught the sunlight the art of reflection!
And thy comforting touch
That gave coolness
To the embracing winds!!  (Gali Pidikili)

Another popular poem in this anthology “Visakha Na Necceli” talks affectionately about her associations, memories and loving connection  with Vizag during her university education  in a nostalgic vein.

Wedged by high rising waves
Surrounded  by gigantic mountain rocks
On this sea shore
In this city of destiny  my foot steps
Trace back years and years!!

The beauty of those shorelines
Along which I strolled
Still shining in me.
I am standing in front of you.
Still fragrant with the sandal scent of knowledge
That was applied here.   (Visakha Na Necceli)

“Emceppanu  Nestam” is Dr.Krishnakumari’s second anthology that was published in 1988. This book is dedicated to the memory of her dear friend ,writer, Dr. Sridevi .The title poem is written when her unfortunate, untimely and tragic demise saddened Dr.Krishnakumari very deeply.

The poems in this anthology are more of her responses to and observations of the society, people, surroundings around her in contrast to Agniputri where her poems are more of an introspection of her own feelings and emotions. Her poems in this anthology are noticeably confident and  bold expressions of her convictions, ideas  and understandings of the contemporary social scene. The stimulation for these poems came straight from the social, economic and political  arena of her times .I am impressed with her openness and courage of conviction that was clearly shown in many of her poems  in which she did not  hesitate to differ with the then popular “social awareness” concept and even firmly talks about sensitive and controversial issues like communalism, Marxism, Naxalism  and separate Telangana.

The antidote to Naxalism is nationalism
Did you all hear?
Let us  grow the nationalim into internationalism!
Push naxalism into the back stage
And let humanism flourish!
And then we shall see
What happens to our idealogical differences!!!

A good number of poems in this anthology show her profound, passionate and all embracing love for our country. Her patriotic fervor is unmistakable in poems like (Naa Desam Marricettu, Amma Odi, Aagipovalani  and many more where she is moved with choking emotion talking about every small detail about our country. At the same time she does not fail to express her displeasure and righteous indignation for the bureaucracy and burning problems of India.

I am the pure whiteness on the mount Kanchana Ganga
I am the sand of Gganges and the beauty of  coconut groves on her banks
I am the running river Godavari and flowing river Krishna
I am the passionate strength of feeling  that can not separate
Myself from my country even in my imagination
Each molecule in me is imprinted with my country’s form
And my whole existence is the pride of my independence !!   (Agipovalani)

In the poem “Paade Koyilalu”  she  talks about the issue of child labor and unprivileged children  with great compassion, affection and anguish.

These are the  small rusty nails in our country’s
Gigantic machine that crawl under our cars oozing oil
And condition all our engines!.
These are the little candles that
Slowly burn  their life away
Carrying coffees in our colleges and offices.  (Pade Koyilalu)

I must make a mention of a poem called Boggu Pulusu Gali (CO2).This poem is written in the context of a callous remark made about her ,calling her  Boggu Pulusu Gali in a scornful way. She wrote this poem as an answer to that remark in which she affirms herself and her peace loving nature with great dignity turning the derogatory remark skillfully into a powerful positive human quality.

I am carbon dioxide, yes, I am
The same carbon dioxide that
Extinguishes the envious fires
Emanating from human hearts
I rain furiously on the
Igniting fires of insults
Springing from the ugly corners
Of people’s minds…      (Boggu Pulusu Gali)

Overall this anthology contains poems on diverse  topics with a keen insight into the contemporary social scenario. Dr.Nayani Krishnakumari is a pure humanist at heart. It is very refreshing to see that she did not constrain her creativity to any ideological  isms or dogmatic theories. She wrote freely with an open mind when her imagination was aroused and her poetic instincts inspired. I personally believe propagandist poetry when written just for the sake of an ism or an ideal gets it’s boundaries of imagination constricted due to the poet’s self-imposed limitations.

Soubhadra Bhadra Rupam The third anthology of Dr.Krishnakumari  is published in 2006, which was dedicated to the memory of her mother Hanumayamma garu. Her warm affection ,love and respect for her mother is touchingly evident  in more than one poem in this anthology.
Did you notice  that the sweet time
When we played mom and child
Was so ruthlessly snatched away
Slapping hard across my face
Swinging me out of your lap
And took you far far  away !

When my heart laments to see you
There is a full moon
Under the closed eye lids.

In the chirping sounds of birds
I hear your sweet voice
The early morning summer breeze
Flowing  warmly like your smile … (Amma Needa)

One of the poems I liked in this anthology is Krishna Manassu in which the beauty, tranquility and serenity of the  river Krishna is very well captured in scenic imagery.

The rising gentle breeze
Spreading itself in  ripples on the  water’s body
Like a baby’s soft smile.
On the pretext of the water birds drying  their wing
The river is expressing her own heart desire.
The crazily rustling  lemon trees on the banks¼. (Krishna Manassu).

There are few other poems with beautiful imagery and metaphors as well.

The humming bird starts singing in the garden
The jasmine bush exhales agonizing fragrance
The sky  softly sparkles like a mattress of summer clouds.  (Chakranemi Kramam)


There the jasmine bush hid itself
In a flowery veil
Spreading sweet fragrance all  around

And also in the poem Anasakta she writes

It is raining!
The golden sunlight
Is weaving a shiny border
To the green splendor of the foliage!
Oh! The summer rain!

The poems in this anthology are also of diverse topics, Vedukulata is a poem with a philosophical angle , “Gaayapadina Rekka” is about the tenderness of a mothers love towards her offspring and “Ongolukonda’ is about sweet child hood nostalgia  and so on.

Overall the poems in this  anthology are more compact with an ease of expression, diverse and less lengthy.

Even though the purpose of this article is a brief review of Dr. Nayani’ Krishnakumari’s poetry, I must mention another book Kashmira Deepa Kalika  for its outstanding  metaphorical beauty of poetic expression. It is a travelogue describing the details of  her journey to and experiences in scenic Kashmir..This book is written in an amazingly effortless style, almost feels like an extempore poem or a sweet song sung in a single breath!! This book makes a highly enjoyable reading with the informative  flow of narration enriched with exquisite poetic expression and imagery. She  seamlessly integrates highly metaphorical descriptions in simple prose without interrupting  the flow of narration and more over without sounding superfluous or out of place.

She describes the beauty of a lake in Kashmir with a photographic detail,

“The lake is still with no rippling waves like a silver sheet glued to the ground with great dexterity. The myriad pieces of blue and white clouds scattered in the sky are reflected in the still waters. The lake is gorgeous like a sheet of silver studded with sapphires and pearls. The reflection of a row of hills with their pine trees upside down in the serene lake  gives an illusion of the hill being submerged in the waters.”

“The sovereignty of nature is beautifully suggested in those shining gigantic rocks on the mountain tops that look like  bejewelled thrones  laid for the master of the universe.” She describes her train journey  and the sights of nature ,..”The gramophone flowers  in bloom fencing the fields is a captivating sight. There is an innocent charm about the shyly smiling flowers with their  slanted soft petals reminding the delicate cheeks of a  beautiful damsel.”

And also,

“The stones on the river banks half covered with water shine like a bunch of jewels that were generously showered by the almighty. The river appears like a brown king cobra twisting, turning, hissing and biting every rock in its way with it’s sheer force…

“Far away the mountain tops are all covered with snow shining under the bright sun looking like a group of young and pretty maidens standing shoulder to shoulder and giggling in delightful abandon…..

There are many more beautiful and poetic descriptions in this book which truly make a delightful reading.

Dr.Nayani Krishna Kumari is no doubt, an eminent writer, successful academician and poet with multifaceted talents and perhaps inspired many women writers of her times to pursue literary interests in various fields. Her all round contribution to the field of literature and her humanistic approach and outlook towards life, society and literature is commendable. It is not quite often that we find an illustrious father having an illustrious daughter, but that we  find in the case of Sri. Nayani  Subba Rao garu who has been a core model of a literary celebrity for Dr.Krishnakumari.


(The article, written exclusively for, has been published originally on, June 2008. © Dr. Vaidehi Sasidhar.)

Three Million Rupee Bet by Arudra

The seasons for childhood games are distinct. Each one – Tops, kites, stump and stick – has its own season. It is easier to count the sides of a circle than to list the properties of all these seasons. Once it happened in my childhood in Visakhapatnam that a new season was born – that is the game of cigarette boxes.

It is difficult to find out who invented this great game. It’s even more difficult to say with any certainty that it was invented in our town. There is some chance for the probability that the game was imported from Vijayanagram or Anakapalle. I feel the tremendous responsibility to explain first how this game is played – so, here we go.

There are two faces to a cigarette box. The sides are torn away to leave these faces like Rupee notes. Values are assigned to these notes, sort of like playing cards, based on the brand of cigarettes –  Wills is 1000, Players is 1000, Scissors is 500, Passing show is 100, Bears is 50, Charminar is 5 – like this. I can only recall approximate values – I don’t remember the actual values.

Every player must first accumulate some of these notes. The players draw a large circle in the earth and place their bets within it. Oh, I forgot – another important piece of the game is the Bettu – this is a flat stone some 4- 6 inches in diameter, typically a piece of raw granite. Once the bets are placed, the first player stands on the edge of the circle and throws his bettu parallel to the ground straight away from him. The other players take turns to throw their own bettus from the circle, aiming for the first player’s. Whoever can hit the first player’s bettu wins the bet. If the second fellow can not hit the first player’s bettu, his own bettu stays on the ground, and the third fellow has the choice of aiming for either one. So on it proceeds till all the players in the game get a chance. If no one can hit the first player’s bettu, then the game proceeds into the second stage.

The first player stands where his bettu was and now aims it on the money pile in the center of the circle. If his bettu touches the pile of money, he wins the pot. If he does not, each player tries his luck – one wins whatever money one can knock out of the circle. The game proceeds till the last note is knocked out of the circle.

While we were playing a game like this in Ukam Street one day, Prasadam came by and showed us a new kind of cigarette box rupees. We never saw such a thing before in our lives. He declared that it is valued at 100,000 in Bombay. We didn’t object. He also said that his elder brother brought it from the military. Since it was a military cigarette box, we unanimously decided that it can be valued at 100,000.

We humbly petitioned Prasadam that he distribute one to each of us. He did not oblige. He had 30 of those. Therefore, we all condemned his miserliness in not sharing his wealth with us. But would he listen?

Finally, he made a proposal – we get one chance to win all of his 3 million in one game. Of course, we didn’t agree. Even if we pooled all our resources, it did not amount to 3 million. So, we suggested that bets be placed in multiple steps, like 250,000 or so at a time. He didn’t agree to this. Just then, Garuda Nannaya let it out that Wills is valued at 10,000 in Chinnam Street. Our currency values go up and down, depending on the need of the moment. Prasadam objected that this was unfair, but Wills was instantaneously elevated to the exalted value of 10,000 based on the approval by the rest of us.

Even with this new valuation, our combined pool came to only 2.5 million. We chose Prakasam to play against Prasadam in this big bet. He is the acknowledged expert of the game. He has many tricks literally at his finger tips in both throwing the bettu and in the knack of knocking the notes out of the circle. Prakasam agreed. But there was credit crunch – the needed capital was in short supply.

We humbly petitioned Prasadam to loan us half a million. We were confident that Prakasam would win. However, Prasadam was adamant, and refused point blank. Okay, we said, let’s keep the bet at 2.5 million. He said my way or the highway, much like Jinnah in his heyday.

Left with no options, we sent emissaries to neighboring territories for financial help. The news spread to Chinnam Street and Pappula street. The greatest players from both streets were present on the occasion to witness this mega contest. Chinnam street people agreed to give the loan on one condition. If Prakasam wins, they get ten of the new 100,000 notes. If he loses, we have to repay them a total of 1.5 million within three days. We all pledged ourselves to this agreement – our word was as good as our signature.

At last, when the bet amounts were placed inside the crease circle, Prasadam inquired the Nagulakonda boy from the Chinnam street as to the value of Wills in their street. When the fellow replied that it usually went for a 1000, Prasadam threw a tantrum that we were cheating (by counting Wills as 10,000). The external witnesses also expressed the opinion that Wills is worth only a thousand.

Feeling that it’s a waste to call off such an exciting game at this stage, Panuparti Venkat Rao from Pappula Street came forward to fill up the shortfall, if we let him play. Of course, we did not agree – why? Because the fellow doesn’t have any skill at all. So, he said he won’t give even a lousy Charminar. He also prevented anyone from the Pappula Street coming forward to give.

Meanwhile, Nannaya accused Prasadam of cheating us ‘cause his Bombay cigarette box is not worth 100,000. We could not digest this truth. We too agreed with Prasadam on how a Bombay military cigarette box could not be less than 100,000.

Somehow, at last, Prasadam agreed to let the game proceed with only the capital we had. The game started. In excitement, Prasadam through the stone first. We were hoping that Prakasam could hit it quite easily, and win the game. Prakasam didn’t hit it. In the second play, Prasadam was able to hit the pile of currency in the crease, thus winning the game and the bet.

In that joy, he twirled his (non-existent) mustache, slapped his thigh and sang an insulting nonsense rhyme at us. Prakasam was incensed at this and he jumped on Prasadam. We too jumped on him. We tore up all the cash in his hands. We threw him down and tore his shirt. The witnesses, Nagulakonda from Chinnam Street and Panuparti from Pappula Street joined us with their gangs and put an end to the fight.

With his face flushed beet red, Prasadam shouted, “My name is not Rambhotla Prasadam, if I don’t shoot you with my soldier brother’s gun,” and limped away. His shirt was all torn and his body was full of bruises.

That was the end of the season for the cigarette box game in our town for that year.


Translated by © S. Narayanaswamy and published on, June 2008.

(The Telugu original, mupphai lakshala pandem, was published in the anthology, Arudra kathalu, 1958.