(Sunita Ratnakaram garu spoke at a meeting organized by Kalpana Rentala [Founder and organizer of Molla puraskaram] garu to award Molla Puraskaram to Nidadavolu Malathi garu on March 11, 2023. Sunita Ratnakaram is an avid reader of Telugu and English literature, and a professor of business at a reputable college in India.)
A Review of two novels, Chatakapakshulu and Marpu.
First, I congratulate Malathi garu on receiving the Molla Puraskaram. I extend my namaskarams to all the speakers assembled here to discuss the literary works of Nidadavolu Malathi garu. My only qualifications to say a few words about Malathi’s novels at this meeting are reading her fiction zealously; also because I like her as a writer and as a person.
Kalpana garu, [Founder and organizer of Molla Puraskaram], thank you for creating this opportunity for me to speak today.
The first thing I should mention is what nearly 50% of Malathi’ followers on Facebook would say; she is the reason I have retained my Telugu language skills to this extent. After watching her determination, I started with writing small words in Telugu. Now I am writing even English words in Telugu script, if necessary. We all know the words remain in our control only as long as we put them in writing.
The one factor that always amazes me about her is: her fiction, the titbit writings on Facebook full of humor, satire, and dialogues; and, her knack to update her technical skills regularly, and continue her literary activities on Thulika. Coming to my topic, other speakers will be speaking on other topics, I confined my speech to her two novels, Chatakapakshulu and Marpu.
Whether it is a story or a novel, the general rule is not to recount a summary. Therefore, I will follow the same rule and share my understanding of the two novels only.
Chatakapakshulu is her first novel. Previously, I have expressed my opinions on both the novels in a separate article.[Sunita’s article previously published on tethuika.wordpress.com here] Due to my job and other responsibilities, I could not read this novel novel for a second time, but I have read d Marpu again. I apologize.
Malathi said she had started this novel in the 1980s, stopped for a while, and again picked it up and finished it in 2004. The novel has been published as a serial on APWeekly.com the same year. Currently, the Telugu original is available on her blog, Telugu thulika. [For Chataka Birds in English click here]
Briefly stated, Chatakapakshulu is about a young woman, Geetha, who arrives in America after her marriage with Hari, an NRI. She lives her life as it comes without any goal or plan, while absorbing local culture, reminiscing about the place where she had grown up, watching the other Indians who had arrived under similar circumstances as herself, and trying to reconcile all those with her own thoughts.
One might wonder, “Why read this now; there was a time when barely one person from one city had been to America; later, it was one person from one street, and now, every household has one in America. That being the case, what is there in this novel that we don’t already know?” We can accept that argument if the author presented it as a travelogue or a description of American way of life.
But, in this novel, author delineates human psyche and analyses of the characters; that is what makes it a ‘must read’ book.
All the characters – from those that appear briefly, such as Sivam, Kanakam, Emmanuel, and Achala, to the main characters like Geetha, Hari and Tapathi – are depicted as characters full of life and zest. The interaction between the characters are authentic and captivating. We see all of the through the eyes of Geetha, who remains detached, like a dewdrop on a lotus leaf. Author’s restraint not to make Geetha a perfect model because she is the protagonist has done enormous good to the character.
Malathi touches upon a wide variety of issues from social programs and devotional gatherings in an attempt to maintain the spirit of native culture to the travesties of social groups or literary meets. She has accomplished it through humor, satire, and brevity. From what I have read, I find Malathi’s stamp as a straight-to-the-point narration without unnecessary theatrics. You will find this peculiarity throughout this novel. I consider it a characteristic of a good story; and, I admire it, both as a reader, and personally. Her observations about the field of literature are few, yet notable.
Marpu novel [Change]
What a great way to make use of the breadth available to the novel! I was amazed how widely she has discussed the changes in several areas, and all in crisp short sentences. I was amazed to not she has commented on so many areas elaborately. They include: the evolution of man-woman relationship from personal to societal; familial relationships; metamorphoses in the lives of Indians, Americans and Indian Americans; changes in the metaphysical perspectives of individuals; literary groups, and their activities. She has not, however, give in to the temptation of offering solutions to each problem.
I will not say this is her magnum opus work, but marpu certainly belongs in the trove of best novels I have read. We must be grateful to Malathi for writing on the changes so eloquently.
Now, let’s examine it further in detail.
In this novel, after describing a party of Telugu people, author says, “Just in those two and a half hours, I’ve got the feeling I had seen one half of the city.” In just one page, the readers get a bird’s eye-view account of political, societal, familial, individualistic, and theological matters; it is as exasperating to the reader as to the narrator. One can visualize the suffocating atmosphere distinctly. The narrative flows briskly and realistically. And with equal genuineness and ease, she discusses potent questions such as what is happiness and what makes life complete. This discussion should or could be lengthy, but Malathi accomplishes it in a crisp, brief narration.
She does not constrain herself only to Telugu characters, but also extends to matters relating to American society, as and when it is appropriate fot the development of the story. Some of them are: glitches in the Social Security, credit card troubles, political parties’ rumpus, local politics, lenders, grocery store stories, not so obvious formalities in the invitations, playing ‘good’ hosts, and so on.
About the main characters in story, I would put it this way: Aravinda and Vishi represent the present generation; Leela and Sundaram belong to the previous generation; Vishi’s parents, Prabhas Rao and Sivani, are from two generations prior. So also are Aravinda’s parents; yet one more generation behind is Aravinda’s grandmother, Sridevi. Her older sister, Peddakka, is the oldest of all. All of them are from upper middle class and lower middle class; or, just one step below.
With all the characters at play, this novel may be taken as a commentary of the narrator, Malika, on the changes in human relationships as mentioned earlier, the good and the bad in the institution of marriage, and about the changes in all matters.
That does not mean the author constrains the discussion to only one topic. Just like in all the novels in general, Malathi includes subplots also, while narrating the main plot. She makes the best use of the breadth available to a novel, like any other good novelist. To put it in one sentence, this novel has not been written to illustrate only one subject. I would say, using the English phrase we are used to, the narrative ‘evolves’. One day, she speaks about the value of ‘word’ and how sharp it could be; on another day, it is about the laughs and cries in real life situations; yet another day, about a young boy who elaborates on the pleasure and pain in life from a theologian’s perspective; or about the origins of feminism in America and whether it is suitable for Telugu people. She also discusses the changes in the conditions of the lives of our women powerfully, including a few researchers’ input on those matters. About a person’s progress in the Hindu tradition and their methods of finding solutions to their problems, and the family’s role in it, on another day. Also, the hardships of a grandfather after the family he had supported, throws him out and after they find no use for him. There are so many stories woven into this story; and, all of them merge superbly into the main story, but for a couple of incidents that stand out.
The poet’s trip to America is a must read account. Another sub-plot similar to this, is the literary meets and the speeches at those meetings. Malathi’s comments are rendered in her decisive style complete with her in-depth look and scrutiny; and, not a part to be passed.
Here are a few gems:
“What do you mean experience? Is it not the only lesson we have learned from history? That we learn nothing from history? If we had learned from history, we would have no more wars after the Maha Bharata war of Dwapara yuga. We all would be living happily forever.”
“Nobody knows better than yourself, what your situation is, what your capabilities are, and what makes you happy. You are the only one who knows it.”
“You are still young. You make decisions based on what you see. Let alone each subject, you will put everything in dry words, in black and white. For me, everything is a conundrum. No matter how much I have learned, I still feel like there is more to it.” – A very good example of the change in the mode of thinking in different generations; she puts it in simple words with ease.
Malathi’s observations are carefully thought out. For instance, she says we tickle babies and see them laughing; but, do we really know if the babies are enjoying it?
Here is another example. While speaking with Tarakam, Sridevi speaks at length about the changes Battula Kamakshamma, Nalam Suseelamma, and Veeresalingam[ Renowned social reformers in the 19th and 20th centuries. ] had brought about. But, with Aravinda, she talks about her own childhood and tells the stories she had heard at the time in a cozy friendly conversation. The readers are charmed as they notice the difference between the two conversations.
In essence, the author’s conviction is clear: there is no single rule that works for all occasions, like there is no one mantra that works for both fear of thunderbolt and begging for alms[ A proverb. There are different mantras, one to waive the fear of the thunderbolt and the other for begging alms. ]. Each individual should make decisions in accordance with the times and their competence, and based on their own experiences and potential.
Malathi’s fliar for sarcasm
Lastly, my personal favorite is her use of sarcasm. We all know sarcasm gives great pleasure to the readers, if the writer knows how to make the best use of it. Malathi is one such writer. For instance,
“My social skills kill me.”[A pun The Telugu sentence plays on a word, goru in kalupugoruthanam.]
“True, sir. In this country, we can’t even die without prior appointment, like varala abbayi[ A once a week food arrangement with a family. The family agrees to feed the young man until he finishes school. ]. If the Yama [god of Death] comes to take me away, I will have to tell him to come back after six months.”
“The movie has started. Nobody seems to know what is happening. Nobody is ready to admit they have no clue what is happening. Maybe, they will, tell after a few more minutes.”
“So, who all came to the meeting? I mean the eminent people?”
“What can I say if you put it that way? All of them are eminent people. Why would they be invited if they are not eminent?”
“Nevermind. Tell me what you have talked about?”
“Why bother her like that? Actually, that was not a meeting of speeches; it was awards meeting. It is like serving food at our weddings. They call the names, the awardees go on to the stage; and somebody hands a plaque or a certificate to each awardee; they may or may not mention the recipient’s field of expertise. At the photo session, however, they make a big point of telling the awardees to stand up with a big smile and showing off the plaque. That’s about it.”
This concludes my observations on these two novels. In these two novels, we find several insights that can be made possibly by this narrator only. I urge Malathi garu to write at least one more novel for giving us more of such in-depth observations.
Malathi garu appears, on the surface, as overwhelmed with worldly activities, but, in reality, is detached, I think. Maybe detached is not the right word; she is focused on detachment, I might say.
Since this Molla Puraskaram (ceremony) is not the kind of ceremony mentioned earlier, but one of the 8 pleasurable events I have enumerated above, I congratulate Malathi garu one more time and take leave of you all.
(Original speech delivered at a zoom meeting, Molla puraskaram ceremony on March 11, 2023. Translated with speaker’s permission.)
April 8, 2023