Urban Characters in Telugu Fiction of the Sixties and Seventies.

By Nidadavolu Malathi.

Traditionally the city has been treated in Telugu literature as a place of riches and freedom, and city as something to which people should aspire. Traditional writers have always portrayed the city in all its glory, even correlated it to the royalty of the country. There is, however, a major departure from this attitude in Telugu writers of the sixties and seventies. Western education, modern technology and Marxist ideology have inspired the writers to recognize various life styles available to individuals in society. Most Telugu writers of these two decades felt a strong urge to probe into these different life styles which developed as a result of the modern urban situation.

It is not the sketchy and idealistic image of the city but a host of other aspects that developed around the city that appealed most to the writers. It is not the wealth but the inevitable alienation that accompanied wealth, not freedom but the suffering of other losses in achieving freedom that appear in bold relief in Telugu fiction of the sixties and seventies. Modern technology with all its progress is also causal in bringing about disruption through commercialization in an individual’s life.

For the purpose of this paper, I will consider three life styles discernable in Telugu fiction corresponding to the three economic strata of society: namely, the rich, the middle class and the poor. This classification, according to economics, plays a more crucial role in cities than in villages; in fact, it has even superseded religion and caste to a remarkable degree. These latter two important aspects of Indian society are more conspicuous by their absence in novels and short stories in which they do not form the central theme.

In general, the rich are portrayed as reflecting a pseudo-western culture which is developed out of misinterpretation of a foreign culture and through the operation of ill-informed sources. The middle class people are lured to cities by western education and employment opportunities but are into ready for changes in their traditional values. The poor unskilled laborers see promise of respectability and social mobility in cities.

I must add that within these three categories, the life styles of women reveal the constraint put on them by both men and money. Their life style also differs from both their female counterparts in villages and male counterparts in cities.

With this introduction, let us examine each group in detail in order to derive Telugu writers’ perceptions of city life in the sixties and seventies.

THE RICH CLASS: MEN

One new trend one notices in Telugu fiction beginning with the sixties is the lack of empathy for rich people. Telugu writers in these two decades seem to be particularly averse to the life styles of the rich, and have depicted the wealthy as possessing neither the strength of character, nor other plausible innate qualities.

The city of Hyderabad being the capital of the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh has been developing into a big center of modern technologies since the formation of the state in 1956. This city was also the seat of Muslim rules of the recent past whose tradition was epicurean in nature. In Telugu fiction we see a combination of these two aspects—the effects of modern technology and love of sensuous pleasures—giving rise to a new way of life very much foreign to Indians that can only be called pseudo-western.

A popular Telugu writer, Panyala Ranganatha Rao in his novel Gadval cira [Gadval Sari] describes the life of a wealthy man, Somasundaram who becomes the chief of his company by means of living a western-style “social life.”

Among the company bosses there exists a lot of “social life.”  Every employee should go to every party accompanied necessarily by his wife. Once in a while each should call on others for a “social visit.” Without any reason one should invite all others for a “cocktail party.” The future of some employees and the survival of some companies depend on this “social life.” That’s not all. Every member should enroll himself in some gymkhana or cosmopolitan club. Foundations for promotions and foreign tours are laid in these parties. Women recommend each other’s husband.

In this narrative Ranganatha Rao seems to feel that among the rich, traditional human values disappear in the face of overpowering material and economic success. Individuals become caricatures. Another popular writer, Madhurantakam Rajaram criticizes these parties even more strongly in his short novel, Maricika [Mirage].

Behind that dinner it looked as if a race was started. Each of them was lost in his attempt to attract everybody’s attention, some through dress, some through talk and some through action. The real problem arose there. If all of them are speakers, who are the listeners? If all of them are actors, who is the audience?

Both Ranganatha Rao and Rajaram observe in their novels that the social life of the rich in the cities is success-oriented as opposed to the life imbued with community spirit in villages.

In Telugu novels dealing with the life style of the wealthy, we find two varieties of characters that usually are the models for the rich of India. The first variety is comprised of those Indians who have been to or lived abroad for sometime. Devadas in Gadval cira is one such character. He has lived all his life in the United and returned to India to marry an Indian girl at the insistence of his father. He is blatantly ignorant of both cultures. At his own wedding reception, he drinks excessively, insults guests and drags his wife upstairs while the reception is still going on. In the room upstairs he tells his wife to undress because he wants to see a “beautiful nude figure.” And then he forces her to drink and dance. He tells her, “It’s fun when a wife undresses herself. In America every wife takes off her clothes in front of her husband even before he asks her to.” The writer’s spite for persons like Devadas is clearly shown in the final statement of the narrator about this scene: “Devadas raped his wife like a common criminal would rape a stranger.” The entire novel is similarly replete with the ill-conceived perception of American culture among Indians.

The other variety of characters that supposedly represent foreign culture is the foreigners themselves. InGadval Cira, Williams and Rita re a British couple working in a British firm in India. While Williams is hardly mentioned, Rita is given a stereotypical female role in the novel. She asks Somasundaram for sexual favors while Williams is away and Somasundaram cooperates. Later when Williams writes a strong and favorable report about Somasundaram, the latter could easily understand that the rewards were due to Rita. These two characters, Devadas and Rita, stand for the gross misrepresentation that the Indian fanatics of western culture want us to believe to be true.

Very rarely do the wealthy look back to Indian culture. When they do so they are withdrawn from the “social life” of the modern world. For instance, in Gadval Cira, Somasundaram admits to Saradhi, a young man from a middle-class family in search of a job, in the privacy of his (Somasundaram) home:

However civilized we may think we are, however much we acquire foreign habits due to the pressures of circumstances, we honestly cannot repudiate our customs and conventions so easily! It is in our blood. (p.88)

With this argument Somasundaram willfully ruins Saradhi’s chance to get a job in his firm. He wants Saradhi at his own home for literary discussions; Saradhi represents tradition. In Telugu fiction, we do not find compatibility between tradition and technology.

THE WEALTHY: WOMEN

Wealthy women in Telugu fiction, unlike any other class are presented as having a lifestyle of their own. They enjoy greater freedom than women in other classes. While the wealthy women in villages continue to be homemakers, their urban counterparts go out to reach society.

It is important to mention that there are at least two perspectives. First that of the women writers in Andhra Pradesh, and the other, that of the male writers who delineate the female characters in wealthy families. The female writers tend to draw heavily on the sex roles the women in the high class are made to play in their husbands’ lives. Lata, a female writer of many controversial novels has extensively dealt with this aspect in her novels. She is most vocal in her description of Hyderabad and the position of women in that city. The following passage illustrates some general impressions on the city of Hyderabad shared by many writers.

For many people Hyderabad is heaven on earth. It is the place for care-free life, pleasures, and the unfettered life of art lovers. In that city, woman too is one of many pleasures. Women are being been used endlessly for the pleasures of men since the beginning of creation, yet those who suffer from this meaningless intoxication see no light.

Earlier in Hyderabad women were available for money only in ‘Mehboob ki mendi’ [prostitutes quarters]. After the city became the capital of Andhra Pradesh and the law against prostitution came into force, women became available everywhere—in hotels, in cars, near Charminar … in every form, on the pretext of employment; women are made to please men.

It is evident that the freedom that women could exercise in the cities is taken advantage of to serve the purpose of male-dominated society. In this novel Maha nagaramlo Stri, Lata writes about three women with mediocre talents who successfully make their way into the movie world by using sex. All of them were seduced early in life. It is important to note that Lata has been particularly concerned about the causes or factors that lay behind the behavior of these women.

By contrast, the male writers reveal a different aspect when they write about the high class women. They write with levity, even with a touch of sarcasm. The women characters created by male writers engage themselves in activities like club memberships, picnics, and celebration of national holidays—January 26 (Republic Day), and August 15 (Independence Day), etc.—or get busy with the latest gads. Telugu male writers seem to feel that these activities not only fail to serve any meaningful ends but sometimes turn even disastrous. Binadevi has delineated a typical character, Vijaya in his Punyabhumi, Kallu teru, (Oh Pious Land, Open Your Eyes!). The following quotations illustrate the author’s viewpoint:

A quarter of a century ago, Vijaya studied up to tenth grade. She has only one wish in life that she should become a very prominent figure in that city. She started a ladies club with all the officers’ wives in that city. She started another organization for women with all the middle class housewives and she was its president. They celebrated important festivals and gave away prizes. Reports about the functions were sent to the All India Radio women’s programs for broadcasting.

All the members are middle-aged. None, including Vijaya is under thirty-five. All of them have cooks, governesses and servants. So none of them need to pour a cup of coffee for their husbands or feed their infants. On holidays they play cards with their husbands with high stakes.

She recently started writing articles like ‘My husband and Little Irritations’, ‘Children and Discipline,’ etc. Magazines published them!

She strongly believed that the children are the main hindrance in the progress of mothers.

In the end, she becomes pregnant and to cover that shame she commits suicide. Here one can perceive that while the female writers treat these characters sympathetically and attempt to explain, the male writers touch upon the realities only superficially.

The rich, both men and women, with their penchant for foreign culture and foreign goods reveal very little of their own values in life. The society they have created for themselves does not reflect a happy blend of the best of the cultures, east and west, but a sad and miserable imitation and apparently a failure.

THE MIDDLE CLASS: MEN

The middle class life as depicted in Telugu fiction in the sixties and seventies reflects the hardcore, day-to-day realities much more vividly than the rich class life. Here we find elaborate descriptions, rich with valuable details and true-to-life characters.

Ironically, Telugu writers show awareness that for the rich the city holds everything they wish for but it is not so for the middle class people. For them, it is just another arena for their struggle for existence. For instance, Saradhi in Gadval Cira, a middle class young man, who goes to Hyderabad in search of a job, stumbles into a high class family. He fails to get the job because of his traditional values in life. Prakasam in Maricika is an idealist who is educated but remains in the village. He modernizes his home with a good library, newspapers, etc., and his farm with modern equipment such as a bored well. But his cousin Sobhadevi from the city fails to see his point.

“Why do you need all these books if not to show off that you are an educated man?” Sobhadevi asked.

“I don’t blame you for thinking that these books are for show. In fact, the idea that the entire human life is only for show is getting deep-rooted. Education is not for enlightenment through the training of intellect. Wealth is not, like the pious glow of Ganga, for washing poverty. Everything is just for the pride of possession. Sobha! If you remove the pride and show from the kind of life you value as supreme, is there anything left? I think there will be nothing left.”

For both Saradhi and Prakasam, city implicitly means a departure from tradition and is thus unacceptable

Natarajan, who worked in a small coffee shop as a waiter under the female pseudonym, “Sarada”, had thrown some remarkable insights into the life style of middle class people, particularly, in the second largest city in Andhra Pradesh, Viajayawada. His famous novels, manci, chedu [The Good and the Bad], deals with various aspects of middle class life in cities. Most of the problems the middle class face are related to money. Insecurities on jobs are a major concern for them, their jobs being their only source of income. So they have to work hard to secure a job and stay in it. Sarada presents this anxiety powerfully in the following passage:  

Bhaskara Rao is a junior clerk who marries the daughter of a senior clerk. At his nuptial ceremony, instead of asking for an expensive gift like a wristwatch or radio according to the custom, he asks for “confirmation of his job in the shop.”

 The bridegroom’s request and the father-in-law’s reaction to the request confirm people’s anxiety for security in their jobs:

What a genuine wish, he (the father-in-law) thought. He remembered the times when he was newlywed and worried about the uncertainty of his own job. The senior clerk understood very well the anxiety and concern of the junior clerk.

Their houses, their daily lives and their efforts to keep up appearances present a grim picture:

There are four families in that one house. But each lives a secluded life; not that they do it on purpose.  They cannot afford the time for chit chat. Maybe once in a while the women get together and talk. Besides, there is always shortage for something or other like sugar, salt, coffee and at least for that reason they have to approach the neighbors. Then a bond of friendship and affinity develops among them …

In front of these houses everyday one or other creditor will be shouting at a high pitch …

Their earnings would not exceed one hundred rupees a month. They have very large families. Children will be screaming and crying everywhere …

The men would go to work, washing and ironing with hot water pans the one or two shirts they had, and go with the look of respectability.

In the face of these harsh realities, they develop a wry humor and their own ways of entertainment.

Their dwellings are old and badly in need of repairs and maintenance.

“Why didn’t you ask the landlord to whitewash the walls?”

“Of course I did. He said he had gotten it done only during the last pushkaram [Tidal wave that repeats every twelve years] and no hurry”

“The landlord is waiting for the building to fall apart by itself so that he can save on demolition charges.”

They cannot afford to pay for the movies, theater, and concerts and so they content themselves with cards, which do not cost them money.

 The Telugu writers in the sixties and seventies have stressed that the dwellings, daily life and entertainment in the villages do not put so much pressure on individuals as the city life does.

THE MIDDLE CLASS WOMEN

Women in cities coming from middle class families face all these tensions the middle class men face and the added burden of being a progressive woman. In Telugu fiction after fifties, the women are usually portrayed as educated and conscious. Strangely the middle class men want these women to act both as happy homemakers on one hand and go to work too. Both male and female writers have produced voluminous literature on the problems on the educated, middle class, working women. In playing this dual role, women suffer a great deal.

In marina kaalam-marani manushulu [The Changed Times-Unchanged People] by Vacaspati, the main character, Rukmini is an educated woman who shoulders the family responsibility because her father, being a gambler, does not care for the family. This is a fairly new trend and can happen only in cities. After seeing her brothers and sisters settled in life, she marries, late in life, a widower, and less educated than herself. Since the attitudes of people deep down remain conventional, her family disapproves the marriage. The society cannot condone the act either. They face baseless scandals and humiliation. The husband, who is not bad by nature, repudiates her for want of moral courage on his part. Rukmini commits suicide.

This story gives a typical example of the problems middle class working women face in cities. Like the insecurities on jobs for middle class men, the public scandal plays a considerable role in the case of women. ‘

The theme of scandal has an interesting approach in Telugu novels. Persecuting women through public scandal is a universal phenomenon and it happens both in villages and in cities. Strangely, however, the urban situation helps the male victims but not the female victims. For instance, Rukmini in maarina kaalam-maarani manushulu is driven by scandal to such an extreme measure as suicide, whereas Bhaskara Rao in manci-chedu is hardly affected by a scandal about himself and his stepmother. To forget any irritation caused by the scandal, he is advised by his father-in-law, Sudaram to move to another part of the city. Sundaram tells him:

This is not a village for a scandal to persist for years. If you move from one part of the city to another, it won’t bother you anymore. In the city, an incident that can create havoc on one day becomes an ordinary incident on the second day and totally forgotten on the third ay. The time and opportunity available in villages to discuss such matters at length are rarely available in cities.

These two perspectives obviously imply that in the case of women, the old moral standards continue to apply, irrespective of the locality.

The situation is somewhat similar when caste is the central theme in the novels and short stories. While here too the victimization of women continues, the urban situation makes it a little different.  The marriage between Aruna, a brahmin woman and Bhaskar, a Harijan man, is the central theme in the novel, balipeetham [Sacrificial Stone] by Ranganayakamma, a militant female writer. In view of the importance of this novel in the history of modern Telugu fiction, I am tracing some of the main points of the story here. The circumstances that led to the inter-caste marriage in the novel are: (a) Aruna is a child widow and yearns to die as “sumangali” which means dying while husband is alive; (b) Aruna is sick and doctors predicted a short life span for her; (c) Bhaskar is an active member of a humane organization and decided to marry a destitute or a lady in distress; and finally, (d) their urban situation makes it possible.

Aruna’s uncle Sastry and aunt Jagadamba vehemently oppose this marriage as can be expected. They are also Aruna’s in-laws by virtue of their son’s marriage with Aruna at a very young age. The boy died soon after the marriage. Interestingly, Aruna and Bhaskar were not ostracized, which would have been the case, had they lived in a village. Their life in the city saved them from being ostracized. For the same reason, Sastry and Jagadamba maintain familial ties with Aruna but Bhaskar is treated as an outcaste. The older couple welcomes their granddaughter, Jyothi without any qualms into their house and despite her lineage on her father’s lineage. They are also willing to allow Bhaskar’s nephew, Gopi, into their home, but assign menial jobs to the boy, reflecting their awareness of his low class status. In other words, Aruna, Sastry, and Jagadamba are willing to ignore the caste barriers only to the extent that it suits their convenience and the city provides them with opportunity to do so.

Aruna sets for herself similar dual standards in her daily life too. On one hand, she puts up fights for equal rights as an earning member of the family, and on the other, she attempts to play the traditional housewife, calling herself, padadasi [wife whose place is at the feet of her husband]. Thus because of the superimposition of modernity on tradition, the middle class educated women in the cities face both family problems and job-related problems. Part of the reason is their own awareness of their difficult situation, which does not seem to hold any creditworthy solutions.

THE WORKING CLASS: MEN

The poor and the middle class experience the same strain in some matters such as housing and day-to-day necessities. Yet the poor in the cities project a lifestyle of their own. New kinds of occupations like rickshaw-pulling, work in factories and hotels, jobs in government and quasi-government establishments (peons and office boys) have created a new lifestyle unknown in villages.

In short stories and novels in the sixties and seventies, the /Telugu writers have depicted lower class as people moving from villages to cities with new hopes.  The attraction of unskilled laborers to the cities can be explained on one hand as something based on superficial matters like the movies, movie stars, high officials and all that glitters; on the other hand, it is the removal of social seclusion of the lower caste. Although the lower caste people are not totally integrated into the urban society, they are permitted to move within this society with some reservations. Their gain fits at least their own concept of respectability. In is evident in their material possessions.

The proletariat class people are aware of their position in society and they try hard to relate themselves to the higher social stratum through imitation of the language of the literate, cleaner clothes, and possessions of sophisticated items like wristwatches and transistors.

In story, chiruchakram [The Small Wheel] by Malathi Nidadavolu, the main character Venkanna moves to the city because he considers a peon’s position in a school is more respectable than farming on his land in his village. On his job in the school, he goes far beyond his job obligations to please his superiors. In the end he gets fined not for his fault, not for the mistake of his boss. Later in the night, he describes with great thrill the day’s happenings at school to his wife except the fine, which he purposely omits. In reality, he is intent on ignoring the raw deal the society has dealt him. The universal problem of the disadvantaged taking the blame of everything that went wrong continues in spite of all the progress and civilization the city claims to have achieved. This is a valuable perspective many Marxist writers of Telugu fiction have been projecting since the sixties.

THE WORKING CLASS: WOMEN

The women characters of the proletariat in Telugu fiction are alert, racy and sensitive.  Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry and Binadevi, both veteran Marxist writers, have created many impressive female characters in this class. For them, the low class people are only underprivileged but not unintelligent. For example, Muthyalamma in maya [Illusion], by Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry baffles a professional lawyer with her knowledge of the operation of the judicial system:

The truth of the courts is different. For them, it is enough if the testimony holds. These witnesses, although they go on the witness-stand one after another, corroborate their testimonies beforehand. What are the questions you can ask? Questions like “At what time you left the police station? How many of you went there? Did you go in civilian clothes or did you wear uniforms?” etc. Right? These questions are like ready-made dough for the police. [and they are ready with their ready-made answers]. The magistrate would say, “Well, the testimony sounds about right. There are no discrepancies. Even if there are any, they are only minor. So you pay the fine. Or else, go to jail,” Two times … two hundred rupees … blood sir I paid.

Muthyalamma, who was booked on false charges, simply because she failed to pay the monthly bribe to that police, at the end, gets acquittal not through her own rhetoric nor the expert cross-examination of the lawyer but by paying the same bribe she could not pay earlier.

Her opinion on the present day world is equally perceptive:

There is nothing but money and commerce in this world. Animals—dumb chattel—have morals but not we. I am illiterate. And I don’t have any morals. You are an educated man and you don’t have them either. The whole world is prostituting itself for money. I sell rum for money. You sell your education for money. They police sell justice for money. In the elections, you, I and he, all of us are sold in exchange for votes … sale, sale, sale nothing but sales in this world. I am not educated but this is the truth I have come to realize. If that is not the truth, you tell me what is.”

The female working class characters are thus invariably shown as the victims of failure of social institutions in reality.

A FEW OTHER REFLECTIONS ON THE CITY

Some Telugu writers have given their perceptions of the city life without reference to a class or group. The picture is usually unfavorable. They appear to nurture a general skepticism towards everything that is new or non-traditional.

For instance, Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao, known for his critical understanding of Marxism, disapproves every aspect of city life in his story Patnavasam [City Life]. Some of his impressions of the city life as revealed in the story are:

The vegetables are not fresh; the food is not nutritious; the city people resent longevity of life; they present uncertainties in life as pleasant surprises; they interpret the disobedience of children as an expression of individuality.

“How is life in the city?” the villagers asked him. “Our people are finding ways to commit suicide,” he replied.

Kutumba Rao observes that the city life does not in reality symbolize progress but only provides us with a way of interpreting things to suit our fancies. Angara Venkata Krishna Rao presents a similar view from a different angel in his short story, “Nagarikata” [Civilization]. In this story, first he describes the savage killing of a pig by a group of muscular men using clubs and ropes. Later when he sees a well-dressed couple walk out of a store in a city with a beautiful and colorful box marked “Bacon” in English, he wonders:

A beautiful and colorful box is a symbol of civilization. But what about the cries of the pig it contained? If dress is a mark of civilization, what about the people in those clothes? 

In other words, the city has been teaching us to refuse to notice the offensive and ugly facts of life, and learn to accept everything that is presented in a neat and pleasing-to-the –eye package.

CONCLUSION

Beginning with the sixties, the Telugu fiction writers have become increasingly concerned with the psychology or social behavior of individuals. In ach class or group, people have a definite way of conducting themselves in relation to others. An important factor to remember, however, is that there is a tangible shift in the emphasis regarding values in life. The much-wished-for economic progress has led individuals to become self-centered. Technological progress has enabled people only to accumulate material possessions. Education has been viewed as another means of moving into a higher economic group. Conventional and familial relationships have suffered severance. Now relationships are formed based on social status or residential contiguity.

Telugu writers of the past two decades (50’s and 60’s) have perceived the social institutions as definite failures. All the illusions about them as instrumental in improving the lot of the unfortunate people do not seem to stand the test when their actual working is critically probed.

Against this urban background, the lot of women is even less reassuring. Whatever their economic position, their social acceptance by men as equals is doubtful. The freedom the women can enjoy in the city is only skin deep. Their capability to act intelligently and achieve success is counteracted by the contrivances of the male-oriented society. The city with all its material and technological progress has become seriously detrimental to the individual’s development as a full-fledged and civilized human being.

[End]

(Paper presented at South Asia Conference, Madison, Wisconsin, and published in Journal of South Asian Literature, v 25 No.1. Winter & Spring, 1990 –(©Malathi Nidadavolu))

Source List.

Binadevi [Pseud.]. Punyabhumi Kallu teru. Vijayawada: Navabharat Publishers, 1971

Kutumba Rao, Kodavatiganti. “Patnavaasam,” Kathalu V.2 Bratakanerchinavaadu. Vijayawada: Navabharat Prachuranalu, 1963

Lata. Mahanagaramlo Stri. Secunderabad: M. Seshachalam &Co., 1969

Malathi, Nidadavolu. “Chiruchakram”. Andhra Jyoti Weekly. April 2, 1971.

Rajaram, Madhurantakam. Maricika. Chittoor: Bharati Prachuranalau,

Ranganatha Ro, Panyala. Gadval Cira. Secunderabad: M. Seshachalam &Co., 1969

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Ranganayakamma. Balipeetham. Vijayawada: Sarvodaya Publishers, 1963.

Sarada [Pseud.]. Manci Chedu. Tenali: Brundavan Publishing House, 1969.

Vacaspati [Pseud.]. Marina Kaalam, Marani Manushulu. Vijayawada: Sarvodaya Publishers, 1971.

Venkata Krishna Rao, Angara. “Nagarikata,” Kadile Bommalu. Visakhapatnam: Visakha Sahiti, 1975.

Viswanatha Sastry, Rachakonda. “Maya” Aru Saaraa Kathalu. Vijayawada: Vijaya Books, 1962.

 

 

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