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.

[End]

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

 

 

 



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

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