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.

NAMES AND FORMS OF ADDRESS:

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.

[End]

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

(Originally published on thulika.net, April 2006)

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