Turaga Janakirani. Interview. October 6, 2002.
Malathi: When did you start writing?
Janakirani: I started writing in 1951. My first story was published in Krishna patrika. I was only 14 or 15 yet the theme and the experience were adult-oriented.
Malathi: What was the subject?
Janakirani: It was titled bhavishyattu [future], about man-woman relationship.
Malathi: How did you come up with that theme?
Janakirani: I don’t know. It came to my mind. It was somewhat artificial though. The editor of krishna patrika published highlighting it by mentioning that the author was 15-years old. I was writing for both Telugu Swatantra and Andhra Patrika weekly. At the time, Gora Sastry was editor of Telugu Swatantra. Mostly my themes were centered around educated women, their frialties and vanities.
Malathi: Were you in college at the time?
Janakirani: Yes. I wrote while I was doing B.A. M.A. and even after I passed M.A. Nanduri Rammohan Rao was in andhra Patrika team. Among others were Bapu, Mullapudi Venkataramana, Thulikaabhushan, that is Buddhavarapu Ramadas, and they all showed appreciation for my stories. Bapu used to draw beautiful pictures for my stories; and often, my stories were printed on the center page. Thus I received recognition early in my career. There was hardly any lapse of time between my writing a story and getting it published. I was never put in a position where I would have to send a story and sit around wondering whether it would be published or not.
Malathi: Did you send your stories to the publishers as is?
Janakirani: Yes, right away.
Malathi: No editing or revising?
Janakirani: Nothing. In fact, it was a matter of pride for me. Every letter I’d written got published as is; no deletions, correcting my language, moving paragraphs up and down, nothing of the sort. I wrote some 6 to 8 stories or maybe more which were published in Telugu Swatantra. I’ve translated some stories of J.B. Priestley and O’Henry also for the same magazine.
Malathi: How did you come across those stories?
Janakirani: I don’t know. I’ve read them somewhere. I had no idea about copyright and such things. I translated them and Gora Sastry published them. My first experience with Gora Sastry was when I sent a story entitled erra gulabi [red rose] to Telugu Swatantra. Gora Sastry not only published the story but also wrote a long letter to me right away. He complimented on the development of the story, and on how cleverly I crafted the unexpected ending.
Malathi: Do you still have that letter?
Janakirani: Hum, probably not. I am not sure. Later Dandamudi Mahidhara Rao published Hindi version of the same story in dharmayug and Rayaprolu Srinivas translated it into English and published in Indian Lit.
Malathi: When was that?
Janakirani: 1956. My stories got published in Telugu Swatantra every alternate week. I have done some translations also under the title bhavavesam [thrill of ideas]. I took it from the writer’s book by Somerset Maugham. He noted some ideas in his book, incomplete stories, and indicated that they were free for others to take and develop. I took some of his ideas. One of them was naa jivitam nakiccey [Give me back my life]; it was about a divorce case. A woman, after 20 years of marriage, files for separation or divorce or something. The judge awards her 20 dollars towards settlement and the husband puts the money, in coins, puts on the table in front of her. The wife picks up the coins, throws them in his face and says, “Give me back my life.” For her the award meant nothing compared to the pain she had suffered for the past 20 years. Gora Sastry published my stories always, which was very encouraging.
Malathi: What kind of encouragement you’ve got at home? Were your mother and father supportive?
Janakirani: Well, encouragement was not an issue for me. Gudipati Venkatachalam was my maternal grandmother’s brother. My grandmother also wrote a little. I belong to a writers’ family. I mean there is a literary atmosphere in our house. I am also related to Kutumba Rao. Some of the well-known writers of our times were Kommuri Sambasiva Rao, Usharani Bhatia and such. I should say writing [a story] is no big deal for me.
Malathi: The reason I am asking is, lately, one of the hot topics is the discouragement women writers have been supposedly facing at home and outside. My question is whether you’ve sensed any such negative feeling.
Janakirani: No, not at all. Besides I come from Bandar (Machilipatnam), a well-known elitist society. Even in those days, one of my mother’s younger sister studied medicine,and another went to Law College in Madras. In other words, it was a natural thing for me. I was born in an environment; it was more like what else can I do if not write. I never needed somebody else’s encouragement. If I sat down to write, I would just finish it and throw it in the mailbox the next morning. I didn’t have to worry where I would get the quarter of a rupee for the postage. Another contributory factor my frequent visits to Madras. I took dance lessons in Madras. I was moving with movie stars, participating in debates, speaking about Telugu literature and reciting poems by Rayaprolu Subba Rao. I was 9 or 10, we were yet to achieve independence. We used to go around on the streets singing freedom songs.
Malathi: What factors helped female writers to become so prominent in those days?
Janakirani: In those days, it was a new wave, I should say.
Malathi: What was that new wave?
Janakirani: The educated woman got a chance to step outside from the confines of home, go out, and express her opinions and ideas; it became possible for her to depict her newly acquired position. Secondly, the magazines. There were already two in existence, and a third weekly, was started. Later in 1970’s Andhra Jyoti came into existence. Other magazines at the time were Gruhalakshmi, Andhra Mahila, Telugu Swatantra, Chitragupta, and so on. All these magazines needed stories and sketches each month. Thus there was a great demand for fiction in the 1950’s and 60’s decades. We, the educated women, needed no encouragement. You, for instance, started writing. Did anybody give you a pen, a paper, and postage stamps, and tell you, “Sit down and write a story”? In those days, Malati Chendur started writing; so also Ramalakshmi Arudra, and Visalakshi. Later in the 1960’s, Koduri Kausalyadevi, Ranganayakamma started. Ranganayakamma is a lot younger than rest of us. They all started writing profusely by the 1970’s. I think Sulochana Rani faced some opposition [sic].
Malathi: What do you mean by faced opposition?
Janakirani: I mean lack of the kind of encouragement you’ve mentioned—the difference between somebody saying, vow, here, your story is published and here is the weekly, there is your story, and tossing it on the table. In my case, it happened very casually. Writing was no big deal. But then, I was never a prolific writer. I was writing only when I felt like writing. There’s a novelty in my stories, though. My stories depicted educated women who were responding sensitively to the prevalent conditions in our cities at the time.
Malathi: Did men write with similar themes?
Janakirani: They did not write such stories. How can they? They wrote about people in general. To write specifically about women and youth, they would have to stretch their imagination. Secondly, in many families, women were not yet educated and were not liberal in their views. Thus men had no opportunity to observe this class of women. I don’t agree that men can write like women [a female as the narrator] in the first person.
Malathi: Why not?
Janakirani: They won’t be good.
Malathi: What is the reason? [see editorial for further discussion]
Malathi: When did the universities start recognizing female writers? Female writing was not taken for study in the 1960’s. To my knowledge it started in the 80’s decade.
Janakirani: I don’t know about that. I moved to Hyderabad. I have no contact with the academy. I have no idea about the people you have finished master’s and Ph.D.’s in Telugu literature. In fact, my field was economics. I studied Telugu only as one of my subjects in B.A. At the time there was some activity in Andhra University but very little in Osmania University. Only a couple of names like Nayani Krishnakumari and Yasoda Reddy were known at the time. Even in their case, it was more poetry rather than fiction. Sarada Ashokavardhan also used to write during those days. So, what else?
Malathi: Does fiction serve a social purpose? What’s your purpose in writing fiction?
Janakirani: I would write whenever I wanted to write about something. I would study incidents and people for the purpose of writing a story, and then, I write about them; I think a lot about; I’d be restless until I am done with it. It’s a condition. Usually I stumble on something and then I tell myself, yes, I must write about this; that’s one reason. Secondly, I’m assured of an outlet. I was never in a situation where I had to write and stow it away in my desk drawer, and be worried whether an editor would accept or not. There was that kind of demand for my stories. Radio also encouraged us very much. I wrote in 1965, or maybe earlier, wrote plenty of stories for the radio. They needed 3 or 4 stories per week. Many male writers like Poranki Dakshinamurty, Akkiraju Ramapati Rao, etc. also wrote for the radio. Panduranga Rao came later. Nelluru Kesavaswami, Burgula Ranganadha Rao–they all used to write for the radio. And the radio stations broadcast them as long as the stories fell within their criteria.
Malathi: Are you writing with a message for a specific audience in mind?
Janakirani: No. For me, depiction is more important than the message. For instance, let me tell you about a story called jaganmaata, wrote sometime in the 1970’s. It was about the right of a woman to be a mother irrespective of her marital status. It didn’t matter whether she was married or not, whether the man was a friend, husband or somebody else. She has a right to give birth to a baby, raise him and enjoy the pleasures of motherhood in her own status quo. My point was she should be allowed the pleasure of being a mother if she wanted it. I wrote the story only to make that point. She has two friends. One of them says, the woman did something bad, it was disgusting, it was immoral, she had no shame, she should be shot to death,” and so on. The second friend says, “Let’s go and comfort her. She is our friend, after all.” They both visit the mother. And much to their chagrin, the woman was not despondent; she held her baby and was reveling in a state of supreme bliss. She tells her friends, “Look, my little baby boy. Such a sweet little thing. And that big idiot of a man was a coward; he ran away, abandoning us. What do I care? I am not afraid. This boy is my son.” The two friends did not know how to react under the circumstances and left. Later, one of them asks the other, “You said you were going to beat her up, kill her. How come you did not say a thing?” The second friend replies, “What can say? She did not give us a chance to say anything; she was reveling in the seventh heaven. I would have a chance to yell at her, if she had admitted that she’d done something wrong. What about you? You said you wanted to console her. But you didn’t say anything either.” The first friend says, “Same thing, how can I console her when she was not crying. She was very much like jaganmaata [mother of the universe], sitting on a high pedestal proudly and looking down on us. She’d given us no chance.” Malladi Subbamma and Rammurty, known for their liberal views, read this story. Their response was superb. Rammurty turned to Subbamma and said, “Look, you write hundreds of pages and go about lecturing to crowds,. This story has captured just in about four pages the entire message of women’s freedom movement. The entire array of your writings and speeches could not accomplish that.” For me, that was a great compliment.
Malathi: Yes. Was it translated into other languages?
Janakirani: Yes. It came in two books. Central Sahitya Akademy included it in their anthology, edited by Abburi Chayadevi, I think. That was the Telugu version. A publisher from Warangal included the English version in their anthology of feminist stories. What I do is whenever I sense a truth or an incident, I weave it into a readable story and bring about a twist which is crucial for a story. I’d state unequivocally, that a story must have a distinctive narrative style. If the story gives away the ending even at the very beginning, the reader tosses it away. A very famous female writer wrote a story; the opening line was Subbayya died. I asked her at once, “If you say, at the very beginning, that Subbayya died, where is the suspense to keep the reader guessing? Why would he continue reading?”
Malathi: Don’t you think there still can be questions like why and how he died?
Janakirani: Why take chance? We should write without giving away that clue. The reader should be kept in suspense wondering, what’s this? this is strange. Story is no good if you can’t maintain that suspense. From my experience of working at the radio station, that’s what we’ve learnt: We must have the ability to hold the attention of the audience; or else, they will put it away. The rule applies to all things.
Malathi: Who do you think are good writers among the present day female writers? I mean, with reference to the criteria you’ve stated just now?
Janakirani: Female writers? Lata was a good writer. Sulochana Rani, Dwivedula Visalakshi, Malati Chendur, Ramalakshmi—they all wrote brilliant stories. Their stories showed originality and creativity, they’ve taken issues like hunger; they’ve given no ground to mark them as female stories. Their stories had human interest.
Malathi: Where are they now? I mean, how they are positioned in the history of 1950’s and 60’s literature?
Janakirani: They certainly have their place. There was a book titled bangaaru kathalu [Golden stories], published by Central Sahitya Academy. The fiction of the female writers of the 1960’s carried their unique stamp. The stories that came in the following generations are wiped out, especially the stories based on some kind of –ism or written for light entertainment. Some of the later fiction included stories of demons, corpses, etc. They don’t stand the test of time. And another important factor was the commanding diction [bhasha pushti].
Malathi: Do you think our women writers possessed commanding diction?
Janakirani: I have my doubts about the present day writers. The language expertise of the writers, especially those who have started writing in the 80’s and 90’s, is not fully formed; no telling, no readability. Most of them have grown used to relying on English idiom. I admit, I am using lot of English now while talking with you. But when I am writing a Telugu story, I will not scribble away English sentences under any circumstance. I may use some English words like road and light but I will certainly make an effort to write in Telugu; I think it is necessary to express myself powerfully.
Malathi: I didn’t see the names of women writers in critical works. Am I right, and if so, why?
Janakirani: No, that’s not true. Women writers were taken note of.
Malathi: I am referring to the criticism written in the 60’s and 70’s.
Janakirani: That’s not true. There are critical works on women writers. There is an organization here, Yuva bharati. They’ve published articles on women writers.
Malathi: When were they published?
Janakirani: In the 70’s. It was called pathikella swatantryam [a quarter century of independence].
Malathi: Could you tell me when the book was published, the exact date?
Janakirani: It was published in the 70’s decade. There is also a book entitled Mahati, on women writers. That means they’ve given a special place for women writers. Bhanumati wrote excellent stories—stories that are memorable forever. See, if you’d eaten a sweet, the taste must linger in your mouth for a long time. People remember such stories for a long time. That’s why many researchers now are still focused on the 1960-80’s writers. We’ve had very good stories in those days. Technique also developed well. By technique, I mean clever narration, knowing where to abridge, where to prolong, how to maintain brevity, where to work up an unexpected twist and end the story—in all these aspects, Telugu story excelled. After 1985, there was a considerable change in the topics. They are mostly attacks on politics, social conditions, caste and class, and also about the oppressed class. For about a decade at least, 1985-1995, I was confronted with a question. During that period, I didn’t write much. I was included however in the list of women writers—which meant I was noticed by people in general. I wrote with originality and creativity. A lecturer once mentioned to me about a story I wrote in 1959. She said, “In your story, jivita satyam [truths about life], you wrote at the end that the farm hand [paleru] kissed the lady’s foot; and the foot moved like a mogali petal [mogalireku]. I can never forget that.” Another friend, V.S. Ramadevi, also said she could envision that pretty lady sitting and the farm hand kissing her foot. Since I wrote such incidents which, though small, stay in readers’ minds forever, I am remembered. Anyway, back to my doubt in 1985. I was confused as to what makes a good story? Does it mean it should be only about the poor, about the rich hurting the poor; should I say the poor person can never be wrong? and that the rich can never be right? I was befuddled for sometime—a kind of guilty feeling. I was almost convicned that a good story is the one that which makes the reader cry and that spurts drops of blood. I wrote a story on those lines. It about reservations of jobs for the scheduled caste candidates and the hardships a scheduled caste boy suffered in the process. It was published in India Today in 1990. Another story was anveshi—about a woman who faced hardships while trying to bribe to get a job. If you ask me why I wrote those stories, all I can say was I was trying to be trendy and go with the flow. I was convinced at the time that, if I had written, for instance, that I was sitting in a comfortable sofa in an a/c room and my heart was in a turmoil, it would not work. Readers would ask what kind of problems you could have. For a long time, I had the impression that, if a person had food to eat, clothes to wear and a roof over his head, he could have no problems. I even wondered if all my earlier stories were only stories meant to kill time and there was no other purpose. I came out of it soon enough. I wrote in high style.
Malathi: What do you mean by high style?
Janakirani: By high style I mean, I did not dilute the narration in terms of diction. I was particular about keeping the high-brow language. I remember a book written on music; forgot the author’s name. The writer did not worry about whether it could be understood by an ordinary reader; he used the vocabulary that was appropriate for his subject, and that was indicative of his sophistication. Readers with average knowledge of English may not understand all the nuance yet he did not make any effort to make it easier for the average reader. He did not worry whether it was too somber; presentable or not; was it too pedagogic, etc.
Malathi: Since you’ve broached the subject, let me ask you this question. There was a comment that Telugu women writers could not write like Arundhati Roy. What do you think?
Janakirani: Of course, they can. My daughter read her book and said, “amma, you’ve been telling us stories about your mother, grandmother, maternal grandmother; they were all good stories. Arundhanti Roy wrote about the same things. You did not hesitate, wondering whether they might not appeal to the public; and at the same time, did not describe it in vulgar language. She wrote all such details which we would consider inappropriate—things about our elders, and the details we hesitate to discuss in public—she wrote openly. Additionally, I might add, the social conditions—communism, the state government of Kerala, and Christianity—also were propitious for her. They are sensitive subjects, hard to bring up in public. They must be kept as grey areas. It is difficult apply them to real life. But Arundhati Roy amalgamated all these elements and wrote it. There is a human element, a theory about life, and analysis in her writing. Also I find maturity in her writing.
Malathi: Is there any Telugu female writer who wrote at that level?
Janakirani: They should.
Malathi: I was wondering if any female writer of 1960’s or 70’s had written like that? Is there any writer who reached that level in style and analysis?
Janakirani: As far as the middle class lifestyle is concerned, some of our writers hava written at that level. Ranganayakamma and Dwivedula Visalakshi wrote fiction, balanced and readable. What we should look for in novels is characterization. Most of the novels we have nowadays are just extended short stories, not novels. The characters in novels must be so strong as to refuse to the dictates of the writers. Which means, the likes and dislikes of the characters, their thought process, trends, and behavior—must be their own; they could never be different in any manner. Even their language must come from them, not from us. Those who understood that experience wrote good fiction. Take for instance Ranganayakamma. She wrote excellent fiction. The reason she chose middle class life; the reason was that was the life we had an opportunity to observe. So also Malati Chendur and Ramalakshmi. Let’s set aside storyline and framework for a second. They wrote that made the readers exclaim, “Oh, yes, this man’s life must end only like this”. For a story to be complete, that is what’s needed and they did it; they wrote with such conviction. There is no doubt about it. I agree they did not reach the level of Gopichand or Bapiraju. I mean, they did not take such a wide canvas. Probably we believed that a story must be short; it was a state of mind. Take Bapiraju for instance. He wrote novels like Narayana Rao, Konangi; did not care about the length; he wrote at a leisurely pace. He was never worried, like us, that it should be finished in three pages since that’s what andhra patrika wants. That is most essential for a novel. We must not say let’s end it here, maybe it will not go well if we prolong, let’s cut short the garden scene—we should never have such thoughts. .
Malathi: Comment on kalaateeta vyaktulu.
Janakirani: It was a trendsetter. Sridevi started a new trend. It was also produced as a radio play and I played Kalyani’s role. Sivam, a great dramatist, wrote the script. I was the producer too. Sridevi’s husband gave me a copy of the book.
Malathi: What do you mean by trendy?
Janakirani: I mean she confined herself mostly to Vizag medical college surroundings. It was about the young women of that era, their behavior on college campuses, male-female friendships, and such. Take Indira for instance. She represents a philosophy—living for the sake of living. She says the same thing to her father too. Sridevi depicted about love, girls acting willful, rebeling, moving forward fearlessly despite adverse circumstances; she did it very well. If she had epitomized it into a 16-page story, it would not have been the same. She took the time to develop the mental state of her characters, stage by stage, and depicted it superbly. I will not consider making a story concise is a virtue. It is unfortunate she died young or we would have had lot more stories from her.
Currently, there is a lot more demand for utility books. Publishers are showing more interest in development books.
Malathi: But the purpose of fiction is different, isn’t it?
Janakirani: But now, there are more books from utility point of view. The way I’d put it, my children can sing but are not cultivated in music. They have no understanding of the tunes and such.
Malathi: Where is this demand for utility books coming from?
Janakirani: It is a recent trend, came with literacy. Neoliterates are craving for books they could read. And often they are how-to books on small things and in simple, easy-to-understand language.
(Interviewer: Nidadavolu Malathi, October 6, 2002.
Published on thulika.net, March 2005.
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