Magical realism in the stories of Munipalle Raju

by Nidadavolu Malathi
I have known Sri Munipalle Raju for over 60 years. I have come to know of his experiments with magical realism only in April 2014, when I started working on a translation of his anthology, Astitvanadam Aavali Teeraana (On the Shores Beyond the River of Existence).

In his preface to the anthology, Raju stated that the western literary historians claim that the term “Magical Realism” has been coined by Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but, the same amazing mayavada rasa has manifested itself in the Indian folklore and puranas—Ramayana, Maha Bharata and Bhagavad Gita; and, that Vyasa Maharshi is the first poet to captivate it in a way nobody else could. He has, also, stated that he undertook his story-writing process, keeping in mind the works of guru Vyasa, the creator of Magical Realism, and within the purview of the complex problems in our daily existence.

For the purpose of this article, we may have to keep in mind his premise regarding the themes in these stories, as described by him. According to Raju, the fundamental questions of human race in the Indian metaphysical world, fall into three categories of agony: Those caused by mind (adhyatmikam), those caused by others (adhibhautikam), and, those caused by Providence (adhidaivikam). “This complex set of questions has been pestering the human race in every yuga each time the wicked diabolical forces create the deadly fire and destroy the quietude of people’s lives. If we take, the period, when someone assembles his creative energies and destroys these lawless rogues, as a transition period, in that twilight, these questions are the same as the doubts that cause the individuals to ache.

“… The social consciousness, and the consciousness of self are two flanks of modern man’s consciousness. They travel in the inner celestial chariot in his prolonged and distraught dream life at night. This magical realism is an attempt to articulate those mysterious vibrations. This genre has the power to transcend Time and Space. … … The magical realism, the marvellous reality, is the instrument that extricates the supra-mundane truths beneath the truths that are visible to the naked eye. Its natural form becomes visible only in the style of word-constructs of mayavada and chayavada schools. This does not follow the empty slogans of literary trends.” (Preface. Astitvanadam Aavali Teeraana).

Against this background, I attempt to shed some light on the concept of magical realism in Raju’s stories.

Both in print and on the Internet, a vast amount of discussions of the term “Magical realism” is available. However, for the purpose of this article, somewhat simplistically, I would like to define magical realism as an element that is faithful to everyday events in our lives, with a touch of magic or mystery. It has been achieved in these stories through setting and expression.

Invariably, the term “magic” brings to our minds an assumption that it goes beyond what is visible to the naked eye, and what we believe to be normal—the mysteries in our everyday lives. In our Puranas, a man born out of an earthen pot (kumbhasambhavudu), a dog that followed Dharmaraja to heaven, a monkey growing to gigantic proportions at will, and crossing the ocean in one jump–all these constitute magic, and necessitate the readers to stretch their imagination in order to visualise the event. In our daily lives, we hear or tell stories, the authenticity of which we do not question or doubt. We tell children the story of a hare challenging a tortoise to race, or a lion convincing a baby goat to pay for his father’s sins. No child asks in what language the hare and the tortoise, or, the lion and the baby goat – spoke. In fact, in today’s ever popular Sci-Fi and mysteries, this magic is present. Nevertheless, the core theme is, most of the time, if not always, virtue conquering vice. And, let us not forget that the “virtue” and “vice” in these stories are in accordance with human values. The point is, in each case, a group of animate objects is created to drive a point home. We, the listeners, accept them with “willing suspension of disbelief,” and proceed to grasp the underlying message. That is magical realism. An aura of magic or mystery is created in a given story in order to transport the reader into a new milieu. Within the context, the story is told to reaffirm a truth, the author’s point of view.

The dog in “Satrayagam in Naimisa Forest” (Naimisaranyamlo Satrayagam) plays a significant role in the life of the protagonist. The bird in the “Goddess of Good Fortune” (Adrushta devatha) plays the role of a friend and intermediary. The big tree in “In the Shadows of Maha Bodhi Tree” (Maha Bodhi Chayalo) speaks not only words of wisdom, but also offers comfort to the protagonist. The parallel between this tree and the Peepal tree under which Gautama Buddha had received enlightenment is unmistakable. There is however one difference between the two. The tree in this story goes beyond imparting spiritual knowledge. It provokes him to ask questions, mundane, and act according to the responses he has received. In fact, he is also aware that nobody believes him if he says the tree has spoken to him. It is real for the protagonist and magic for the rest of us.
Of all the stories of Munipalle Raju, the story that has received the highest accolades is “The Red Dot to Honor a Hero” (Veera kumkuma), in which the bull, Pullanna, plays the hero by defending his owner, Pratapa Reddy against two butchers. We all are aware only too well the relationship, mutual appreciation, between farmers and their animals. Pratapa Reddy inherited Pullanna from his grandmother; it was born in their home and therefore treated as their eldest son. That being the case, it is no surprise that when Reddy’s life was in peril, the bull went to his rescue and crushed the enemy. The fascinating part is at the end, when Pullanna hauled Reddy’s body with his horns on to his back and brought him home. The author said that he had heard the story while traveling in Rayalaseema in the early ’50s. In this story, the magic is not unimaginable, yet it is out of the ordinary and must be construed as an instance of magical realism!

The role of the dog in “Satrayagam In the Naimisa Forest” played out is interesting in its own way. At the beginning the protagonist, Chakri, saw it in the railway station, fed it briefly and later, as he embarked the train to Naimisa forest, tried to get rid of it. Chakri went to Naimisa forest in an attempt to renounce his worldly attachments and seek liberation. We see him struggle to leave the old baggage but not with much success. It is obvious when he narrates his past to Prof Baruva in a language that is clearly one of anger rather than of renunciation. He is still upset about the way the woman (Kamala) treated him and let him down; he blamed her for all his miseries. Normally, the first step for a person seeking the life of renunciation is to forgive all those, who had wronged him. He achieved it only after watching the death of not only Kamala, but also the dog. At one point, he did wonder if the dog was symbolic of his attachments. Thus the dog’s demise seems to complete the process. The magical element is evident in two instances – reappearance of Kamala and the dog in Badarikavanam, twelve years after he had taken the vow of renunciation and become sansyasi.

We will have to assume that the spatial relevance of the dog in Badarikavanam contributes to the idea of magical realism. Chakri (later Goswami Avadhuta) left it behind at the railway station on his way to the Naimisa forest. The same dog appeared at the foot of Himalayas in Badarikavanam and played the role of an envoy from Kamala. How it could overcome the distance is left to the readers’ imagination. Similarly, Kamala’s appearance seems to be a little more than a simple coincidence.

The tree in the story “In the Shadows of Maha Bodhi tree” (Maha Bodhi Chayalo) is, unlike in the case of Gautama Buddha, more than something that divulges knowledge. To him (we know him only as Chinnayya), the tree stands for all the six kinds of gurus mentioned in the same story—preraka, suchaka, vachaka, darsaka, sikshaka and bodhaka. Additionally, it is also his confidante. He finds immense solace under the shade of the tree. It consoles him, asks potent questions, and provides sensible answers. In some ways, it is like his conscience and the better part of his judgment. The part in which he has heard the tree communicate with him is similar to the experiences of the sages who live in the woods. People receive ideas or thoughts when they move away, far from the madding crowds, and listen to “the still small voice within.” The point is, we all rely on an animate or inanimate object for inspiration or answers to the confounding questions we come across.

Silence is a unique concept in Indian culture. In the west, silence carries a negative connotation; silence is weakness. Smart people speak, whereas weak people remain speechless. In our culture, on the other hand, silence is a poignant spiritual experience. A term for sage in Sanskrit is muni, which is a derivative of maunam (silence). The author refers to this concept of silence in “Satrayagam in Naimisa Forest” in two instances: First, when a sage on the banks of River Gomati puts stones in his mouth to help him maintain silence; and secondly, when he quotes a sloka from Dakshinamurthy stotra, which says that guru Dakshinamurthy remains silent and the disciple’s doubts are dispelled (gurostu maunam vyakhyanam, sishyastu cchinna samsayaah).

The author attempts to depict that silence is not just an abstract idea but a powerful spiritual experience in the story, “Silence is not a Word” (Nissabdam Oka padam kaadu). For me, however, the magical realism in this story is equally pervasive and evasive as the idea of silence itself.

The protagonist Rao, barely, speaks, and when he speaks, it is only to himself, in a sort of monologue. His wife complains, ‘We never know what is on his mind; he never tells us what’s bothering him. … … He worries only about his people (italics mine); not a whit about things here at home.” His son is supportive of his father, “Everybody has a soft spot for one’s own people (italics mine). What’s wrong in that?” In itself, the term “his own people” is not explained; no characters are introduced directly. In one instance, the daughter-in-law offers an explanation for her mother-in-law’s (Rao’s wife) annoyance as follows: “She suggested that he (Rao) should perform his father’s annual death ceremony not at home but in some choultry, and after that, he (Rao) stopped talking.” From this line it would appear that there is no love lost between Rao’s wife and his father, and possibly, his mother and siblings, if any; she could be referring to them when she said “his own people.” The point I am trying to make is, so much information is left unsaid. It seems as if not only Rao, but the narrator, also, courted silence. Life is elusive; human nature is elusive; we never know what another person has on his mind at any given moment. The silence of the protagonist and the narrator forces readers to draw their own conclusions. The author might be implying that the “unknown” is the magic and that is the reality. I am not sure, though.

In the “Goddess of Good Fortune” [Adrushta Devatha], there is a fascinating episode in which the protagonist, Murali, listens, enraptured, to the music from his mother’s flute. At the end of the song, the wade of butter in the little cup placed in front of the god disappears. Murali believes that baby Krishna himself had come and eaten it. The description of this event is fascinating

As she began with the praise of Sabda Brahma [Creator of Sound] softly and continued to sing the Radhesyam bhajans and ashtapadis of Jayadeva invoking exquisite postures by a danseuse. He listened to the music, enraptured. In that moment, there were only two listeners—the baby Krishna and Murali. Amma swayed to the music with absolute devotion. The wad of butter in the silver cup, like a kiss of the moonlight, vanished leaving the imprints of the baby boy’s fingertips at the bottom of the silver cup. “Ammaa! Ammaa! The wad of butter?”
“Yes babu, Krishna heard our prayers.”
It is a magical moment when baby Krishna responded to the mesmerising music from the magic wand called flute, played by his mother. The experience of the child Murali as totally immersed and lost in the magic of the music is fascinating. Is it possible that little Murali identified himself with baby Krishna, unconsciously of course, and ate the butter? Such interpretation is sustainable but takes the charm out of the story. The episode is probably intended to create that mystical aura around his mother, for whom he has enormous respect, and later allow him to communicate with the bird.

Murali needed to create a halo around his mother, matrumurthy (supreme mother incarnate); she was an outstanding musician, who had devoted her life to music but the world called her “kept woman,” being unaware that his father had married her while she was on her deathbed. He lived all his life with the resulting inferiority complex, incapable of speaking up at any cost, and incapable of acting on his own. He needed the bird for a friend.

Yet another example is the ending in the story “On the shores Beyond the River of Existentialism” (Astitvanadam Aavaliteerana). It is an interesting story. It illustrates the life of a man known as Bairagi in the beginning, and later as Raghu, seeking a life of renunciation. He ends up in a hospital where his friend Satchindanandam treats him. The narrator’s play upon the name—sat, chit, ananda —is probably intended to be a prognosis of the protagonist’s predicament. He was searching for that ultimate Ananda and he attained it while on the stretcher. Dr Lavanya removed the sheet on the stretcher to check upon the patient and found nothing, no Raghu, no patient. Presumably the gross body dissolved into the ether. One might think of some magic show, where a person disappears from a box or a cubicle.

Earlier in the story, the Bairagi sets out to free himself from worldly entanglements and obtain the ultimate absolution. For all appearances, he had left everything back, and moved on with only a shirt on his back and a small handbag. That he was inclined to relinquish everything he had, is evident when he gave the sheet from his bag to a half-naked woman, with her baby he found on the choultry steps. While pulling out the sheet, three rupees fell out of his bag. Somebody alerted him, and Bairagi dismissed it as his last possession he was willing to let go, and went away. Later, however, while he woke up in the choultry and realized that his bag and the camera in it were gone. My question here is, would a person who had relinquished everything carry a camera on his way to absolution? Probably, we will have to take it as an element of magical realism. For want of better explanation, we may say that as long as one has the appetite to cling to something, it does not matter what the thing is.

In addition to the events that seem to spark an aura of magic, there is another contributory factor in the stories—that is the author’s experiments in the narrative technique, his use of peculiar figures of speech, metaphors and phrases, out of the ordinary at times.

Modern day short-story gurus instruct writers to write in a simple, straightforward language, at the level of a 10th grader, to be precise. Sri Raju goes against this trend, especially, in the magical realism stories. He draws heavily on his knowledge of our culture and language to create a specific mood in the reader’s mind. No doubt he trusts the readers’ intelligence, instinct and imagination. His use of unusual phrases is a stretch, at times; nevertheless, it serves the intended purpose. For instance, here are a few constructs: “Are some mysterious everlasting parents worried about the welfare of their heir on the planet below while in yogic sleep on the banks of a wholesome pond in the world above?” (Amidst the Monologues of Another World); “Dewy melodies amid flames of musical notes” (On the Shores Beyond the River of Existentialism); and, “Friendship with my classmates that has just started sprouting like the first response at dawn” (In the Shades of Maha Bodhi tree). These constructs make readers stop and try to comprehend the meaning. Let me also add that the above translations are mine. Readers need to go to the Telugu originals to appreciate them fully.

We see this kind of expansiveness mostly in the stories intended to create the milieu of the moment. This usage, naturally, puts readers’ imagination to test. But then, there is no magic without stretching one’s imagination.

The stories that are anchored in magical realism reflect Sri Raju’s in-depth knowledge of Indian culture and command of diction. As I tried to establish, it certainly helps to create the needed characteristic in those stories.
(The stories, referred to in this article, are included in my translation in the upcoming book, On the Shores Beyond the River of Existentialism by Munipalle Raju. Sahitya Akademi, Delhi. (In press at the time of this writing.)
Originally published on in Sept-Oct, 2015, issue.
(February 5, 2022)


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