Tag Archives: Telugu stories

Magical realism in the stories of Munipalle Raju

by Nidadavolu Malathi
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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.
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(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 Museindia.com in Sept-Oct, 2015, issue.
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(February 5, 2022)

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The Wake up Song they Sang y P. Sridevi.

Ramam was walking slowly, watching his steps. He was new to walking on a concrete road. The rain just stopped. The sun was blazing forth in full blast. It was still midday, nowhere near cooling down. The cement road was still wet. Ramam was afraid that he might slip and fall. That’s why he was watching his steps. He stayed on the left side of the street, watching for the buses, cars and ambulances that were scurrying in a hurry on the street. He kept walking, as if it was uphill and the road seemed to be getting longer for each step he had walked. Ramam was slight of stature, barely qualified to be called a young man.

He was gasping for breath. The midday sun was scorching his pate. For a second, he thought of taking a rickshaw. Then he saw the hospital gate, not too from where he was; one more furlong, he would be at the Collector’s office. He wished very badly, oh, God, get me there quickly, somehow, please.

“Orey, Ramam, Ramam,” a familiar voice hollered at him.
Ramam turned around. It was Srinivasulu on the sidewalk across from him and holding his bicycle with one hand; a meals carrier hung from the handle bar. He waved to Ramam from there.

Ramam crossed the road and went to Srinivasulu.
“Hey, when did you come here? Where’re you staying? What’s new? By the way, have you passed the tests?” Srinivasulu asked Ramam.
He was not a stranger to Ramam. They were cousins. Nevertheless it was annoying to Ramam. He was annoyed that Srinivasulu was blasting away all those questions at him non-stop? Why scream on the middle of the street like that? But then there was nothing Ramam could do about it. Srinivasulu was at least ten to twelve years older than Ramam. He had no choice but answer all his inquiries.
“I came here early morning, Bava! Staying with Suryam Babayi. Yes, I passed the exam. That’s the reason I am here now, running around like crazy,” he replied.
“What do you mean running around?”
“What else? Job search,” Ramam said.
“You idiot! You’re hardly sixteen! Who do you think will hire you? You’ve said you’ve passed the high school exam but sure look stupid to me. Did your dad really send you here? Or, you ran away from home?” Srinivasulu kept pouring the questions nonstop.That is how he is. He would guess what the other might say, and come up with both sides of the arguments himself in a rush.
But, Ramam cut him short and gave his reply. It was not what Srinivasulu had guessed. “What is it, Bava? How could you say such things? Dad sent me himself. He was here a few days back. He made me apply for a few jobs here, entry-level positions, nothing big. He sent me now to pursue the same,” he said. And before Srinivasulu could start again, Ramam added, “By the way, where are you heading? Work?”
Srinivasulu broke into a big laughter. “What work at this time of the day? Besides, who would go to work with meals carrier and food in it? I have never worked in my life, and am not going to work ever again in my life. Those idiots pay sixty or ninety rupees at the most. How can I run a family with that income?” he said.

Ramam could not follow his argument, not at all. Before he could figure it out, Srinivasulu seized his arm, and dragged him toward the hospital. On the way, he said, “If we stand here chatting like this, we’ll run out of time. The hospital guard would throw us out saying the visiting hours are over. Let’s go, hurry. Come on. My wife is starving.”

Srinivasulu also told him that his wife gave birth to a baby girl ten days back, and that she would be sent home the following day; he brought food for his wife. At the hospital
gate, he said, “You wait here. They wouldn’t let you in yet. I’ll give the carrier to my wife and be back in a second.”

Ramam couldn’t tell him that he had something else to do.
Srinivasulu took the carrier inside, returned right away and nearly lugged him to his home. Ramam remembered very clearly all the things his father had told him just before
he left for the city. “Orey, don’t go to any place as you please and get into a mess. Go straight to the street where our relatives live. On that street, you can stay in any home; one is as good as another. There is Suryam babayi for one. Or else, Subba Rao and Sita in the front portion of a house at the end of the street, Of course it is not yet finished. For them we are like family. And then, round the corner, Venkateswarlu rented a place, the one that has water tap and almond tree in the yard, you know. You can pick any house you like; they all are as good as our own family. In fact, each one of them is going to insist that you must dine with them at least once; they’re
not going to leave you alone. But, there’s one thing you must keep in mind. Your aunt’s son Srinivasulu lives on the next street. He is a good person by himself, I must give that much to him. I would not have mentioned this, had he not gotten “that woman” and kept in his house. Crowds are crows, as they say. You just keep away from him; mind your own business.”
Before Ramam left for the city, his father had told him lot of things, in addition to that warning. He told him to stay there couple more days, if necessary; meet all the friends he had mentioned and given the addresses of. He told him to behave well, be humble and polite. In other words, Ramam had to approach some people for recommendations; and a few others, beg, if necessary; get a job!

As it turned out, Ramam had to follow Srinivasulu to his home, despite all the counseling from dad. The house was quite small—two rooms, a small front porch, and two small
rooms, more like closets, one for cooking and the second for bathing. But it was separated from other units and thus quite pleasant. Ramam settled down on the bench on the front porch. Srinivasulu put the bike in a corner, and told him, “Have seat. You are looking up beat up by the heat. I’ll get you water.” He went in and returned with water and also a woman. He told her, “Here, he’s our Ramam, Chandram uncle’s son. Look at him, barely, the size of a thumb; he has passed the school final exam and came, looking for a job.” Then he turned to Ramam and said with a smile, “She is one more akkayya for you, Ramam. Her name is Varalakshmi.”
Several conflicting thoughts were nearly choking Ramam. Yet, some sense of decorum from the deepest corner of his brain made him say namaskaaram. She asked, with a smile, as good as a freshly bloomed Jasmine, “Did you eat, Tammudu?”
Ramam was shocked for the way she addressed him. He said, “Yes. I ate at Babayi’s house around ten o’clock.”
“Bring him in. Coffee and tiffin will be ready in about half hour,” she said with the same pleasant expression and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Come on, Ramam, let’s go in. It’ll be cool there. The humidity here is awful, and then this stupid rain.” Srinivasulu went in. Ramam followed him, looking at the little things scattered all
over in the house.
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Srinivasulu used to go to Ramam’s village frequently regarding some land dispute. In fact, this Srinivasulu, Suryam, Subba Rao and Venkateswarlu—all these people used to live as one extended family some two or three generations back.

Kistayya, one of them in the village used to have plenty of property and several children, both kind—boys and girls. Eventually, the children grew up, got married, had children of their own, and moved to other own places. Some of them settled down in the city. It even became a custom for the people who had settled down there earlier to help others to find a place and settle down. That’s how they all, the five or six families, happened to settle down on the same street.

Three years back, Srinivasulu used to live under Suryam babayi’s roof. Suryam’s first wife died after their first daughter was born. That baby was the same Suseela, Srinivasulu’s wife, who’s now the new mother at the hospital. She would be returning home soon.

Suryam married again after his wife had died. Srinivasulu was married at the age of 16. His father had died earlier and his mother the following year. His uncle, now father-in-law, took him in. Srinivasulu had inherited huge piece of land, not small by any count—eighty acres of high-yield farm land. His mother-in-law had several children, a baby a year. Srinivasulu too had children, once every two years. Each time a baby was born, festivities like the naming
ceremony were inevitable. Also, they kept playing the host anytime any relative came into town; their house became pretty much a shelter. All these expenses had to be met with from the income on the land Srinivasulu owned. They all wanted the income from the land but nobody was willing to take care of the land; the expenses exceeded income. In course of time, the land started disappearing bit by bit. Part of the remaining land went to the farmers, who were cultivating the land, a result of the new laws that were put in place. After all this had happened, the father-in-law had come to realize that he was not going to get any money from the land anymore. Then he started bickering with Srinivasulu. Finally, Srinivasulu came to his senses, moved out and set up his own family, and started a new life. He and his father-in-law were not on talking terms anymore.
Ramam had some knowledge of this story. Srinivasulu, after getting into an argument with his father-in-law, went to their village, sold the remaining land and started his family in the city. Now, the only thing Ramam did not understand was why did Srinivasulu get involved with another woman, after all this bungling of family relationships? Why did he ruin his own life in this manner?

*                *                *
Srinivasulu ran into Ramam at noon and did not let him go until after six in the evening. Ramam managed somehow and got out of his grip by evening. His head was totally messed up. What was he supposed to now? Should he go to Suryam babayi’s house? Maybe, not right away; probably, it’s okay if he goes by suppertime; oh, god, those children! Those little devils! They would not even care that he was a stranger; just walk all over him; one boy would reach into his pocket; a girl would climb on his shoulders, and so on. He had it for two hours, earlier in the morning, that was an experience of a lifetime. And then, Suryam babayi’s wife would start squabbling with the maid—good stuff for making a movie. She was so upset, she lost it, she dropped the coffee she was bringing for him, it was such a mess; and it took another hour to bring him another cup of coffee;  that didn’t even taste like coffee; it was some odd mix of a drink without a flavor, smell or color.
Ramam started tracking down the street he came by and walking toward the beach. He couldn’t help wondering: what a difference between Srinivasulu’s house and Suryam babayi’s house! It was small but clean; there was even some furniture and a small radio in the second room. Srinivasulu also had five children but it didn’t look like a family with five children. He was old that the older kids had gone to school, and the younger ones were sleeping in the other room. The eldest, a girl, was 11-years old, was in the 8th class. Srinivasulu said the girl was very smart; he was planning to send her to medical school. Ramam thought that’s what I’d call luck. He was smart too, he always scored the highest marks in his class; in each class he ranked first. Yet, Chandrayya, his father never said, not even once, that he would send him for higher studies. Chandrayya had his own way of solving any problem; he could do it in a second. He had gotten rid of his eldest daughter, Minakshi, as soon as she had turned 16; instead of taking time to look for a
good match, he married her to a widower and was done with her. “She’s going as second wife, so what? They are rich, she will be happy,” he said. Then Ramam. As soon as he finished high school, Chandrayya went to the city, went around looking for vacancies, picked up application forms for jobs that paid anywhere from 40 to 60 rupees, and got Ramam to sign them. Then he had shoved 20 rupees in Ramam’s palm, and had sent him off to the city. His father also told him to join right away in case such opportunity came up. Look at Srinivasulu, what’s his status? Chandrayya had that much, no doubt. Yet, Chandrayya had never entertained the thought of sending Ramam for higher education. In his mind, simply living, that was enough.
Ramam sat in the beach and kept ruminating until it got really dark. Why were they all living? But then, was he going to do anything different? This kind of heavy thoughts entered his brain, which was neither raw nor ripe. Then it occurred to him, “Am I really that old? Look at the younger son of Venkatasamy and the oldest son of the mill manager; they are the same age I am, and they are playing marbles on the street.” His brain jumped ahead of his age, and that was scary.

He was beset by the thoughts about Varalakshmi again. Who’s she? It doesn’t matter, she seem to be a nice person, so kind! There was no small-mindedness, not even a trace of it! That thought frightened him again. Suryam babayi had warned him in the morning, “Orey! Remember your brother-in-law, Srinivasulu, Suseela’s husband. He’s taken to rotten ways. Probably, you’ve heard it too. Don’t even set foot on his doorstep. You’re still raw, for starters. His life is rotten; and he’s capable of dragging you down too.” How could Ramam comprehend all this? All he’d known was to achieve top honors in his class. His brain kept questioning him over and again, “Yes, I stayed in their house from noon till evening. Does that comprise ruination of my life?” He had to admit it; he had nothing but respect for Varalakshmi. Based on that, he felt even closer to Srinivasulu. But, if anyone else had heard of it, it would mean bigger trouble. He couldn’t shake away that thought. Therefore, he tucked away all this thoughts in the deepest corners of his heart, and reached his uncle’s home, which felt more like hell.

The next day, Ramam went to several places on business. There was no hope of finding any job anywhere. By the time he reached home it was quite late. It didn’t seem like anybody was home. The entire was dark as hell. In that very second, the little baby started screaming, as if to let Ramam know that he was there after all. The lady of the house lit up an oil lamp, the size of a nail, and assured the baby, “don’t cry, babu. Here, I’ve lit the lamp.” The baby was six months’ old. Ramam was scared to walk even one foot forward in that darkness. He was afraid just in case, afraid that he might step on some nutty cat, unknowingly.
He told the mother, “Give me a matchbox and the lantern. I’ll light it up,” he said, from the porch, without budging.
Suryam walked in and said to Ramam, “Oh, you’re back. I was waiting for you. Look, we’re out of kerosene and matchboxes. Take it from me; your pinni is a real thickhead. Shouldn’t she be taking care of such things while it was daylight? I went to Venkatesam’s house, hoping he would fill the lamp and light it up. But they all went to the movies. Nobody was home. Anyway, give me a half rupee. I’ll be back in half hour, with a wick lamp and matchbox.” He held out his hand for Ramam for the money. Ramam had no choice but give. Suryam was apologetic, “please, don’t get me wrong. I forgot where I put my purse. How can I find it in this darkness, you tell me. Don’t worry about it. I’ll return you money tomorrow.”
In the next three days, Ramam had few more experiences that are unusual. One afternoon, pinni garu served him only dal, rice and buttermilk. She said it was hard to get vegetables in the city, even after shelling down lot of money. As it turned out, that was not a single incident. Almost each day, she served chutney for lunch and rasam at night, while cursing the city for not making vegetables available. From what Ramam had seen, that house had been always wanting in something or other. There was only one thing that seemed to exist there—poverty. Still, they all were living, living with great assurance at that. None of them would admit that they were living in poverty. The husband called it his wife’s thickhead; she called it her husband’s amnesia.
One day Suryam said, “We’re out of rice. I told the storekeeper to send a bagful of rice but that idiot is so forgetful. Give me a rupee, babu, I’ll get rice from the store next door.” Once again, Ramam had no choice but give.
Out of the twenty rupees his father had given Ramam, Suryam babayi pocketed six rupees. He had no hope of ever getting them back. The only thing he could not figure out was: How they—two adults and seven children—could be  managing to live, without any income, not even a paisa? Let’s forget the money they did not have. There was no cleanliness either. Ramam was disgusted with their language, habits as well as their behavior.
He could not meet Srinivasulu during the three days but he had to, of necessity, visit with other relatives. Each of the families had been living with a different set of values. Ramam’s father, Chandram, was part of the same genealogy, yet his ways were different. Chandram was an ordinary teacher; yet, he was not hit by poverty, or with filthiness. In his home, nobody suffered any illness. They had enough food to eat and clothes to wear. They did not want anything more. Chandrayya did not believe in radio, gramophone, cinema and such things. Even special occasions, he made sure they were performed on a simple scale as stated in the sastras. He would say, “It’s the performance of the ritual that’s important, not the show.” Chandrayya was convinced, based on his experience, that there was only one aim in life. For him, living meant
having food to eat and clothes to wear. Ramam was raised with that single value. He came to the same city, holding on to the same value—to find a job to meet his basic needs; he had not seen any life beyond that. Under the circumstances, inevitably all these characters—Suryam, Venkateswarlu and a pretend brother like Subba Rao—looked strange.
Venkateswarlu would go to the movies thrice a week, at the least. He would watch each movie twice at least; and would take his wife with him. His income was 70 rupees a month, and he is a father of two. He and his wife would go to the movies, leaving the children in their neighbor’s care. The strange thing about him was he could skip a meal for want of money; so also his wife. They would feed the children pakodi and water for supper; they must watch the movies, there was no compromise there. They were paying twenty rupees rent for their portion. The landlord cut off the electricity because they defaulted on rent. Still, it was not adding up. How could they manage with 70 rupees, even it meant spending only pakodi and the movies? Ramam, with his high school education, could not figure it out.
The rumor was Subba Rao’s father had amassed considerable wealth through his business; but now, it seems, his credit matched debit. Whatever it is, Subba Rao, being a rich man’s son, took twelve years to get through, from the ninth class to the pre-degree level, which he’d never finished. That puts his age somewhere around thirty. Arranging his marriage also took a long time; his parents could not find a bride befitting their status. Just a few months ago, he was married, which put an end to his education forever. His job search is another story. He would not take a small job, since that’s below his status; he’s still waiting for a job that could measure up to his social standing; that’s yet to come. In the meantime, his father had been sending him money, sufficient by his own computation. But, for Subba Rao and his new wife, the cash would last a
week, barely. The movies, boat trips, hotels—all these things would cost money. How’re they managing the other three weeks? – One more question that was perplexing for Ramam.
*                *                *
Ramam went to see Srinivasulu again, after four days. By then, Suseela had come home with the baby from the hospital. He had seen her in his childhood days. She recognized him right away and greeted him happily. Srinivasulu was not home. Ramam turned around, saying, “I’ll come back later.” But Suseela stopped him, “Wait, what’d you mean? Why act like we are strangers to you? Come on in sit down. Bava will be back in a few minutes. He told me, you came to the hospital.” She went on and on.
Varalakshmi came in with a cup of coffee. How did she know I was here? Ramam wondered for a second. He sat there sipping coffee and watching them. A few familiar
thoughts haunted him. How could these two women live in the same house? What a heartbreaker! Like Venkateswarlu had said yesterday, poor Suseela akkayya must be
heartbroken about this! Just for a second, all his sympathy leaned toward Suseela.
In the next second, he was jolted into the present. Suseela was about to get up to get some clothes for the baby. Varalakshmi jumped to her rescue, “Oh, no. What’s that? Why didn’t you say so, if you wanted something? You’re a new mother, you should stay in bed.” “Well, I didn’t have that kind of luxury even the first time. Why now?” Suseela said gently. There was no sarcasm in her tone, only tenderness.
Ramam was taken aback. What kind of women are these two? Is this all a show for his benefit? His shock did not last long, though. Srinivasulu, who was supposed to be in within fifteen minutes, did not show up even after a half hour. Within those thirty minutes, those two women, who’re known as savathulu,  changed several of his opinions dramatically.
He told himself, “Suseela akkayya is not heartbroken, it’s not true. How can anybody, if heartbroken, be so kind and calm? It’s absolutely wrong to imagine that there’s a falling-out between these two women. They are quite happy; why the world is coming down hard on them?

Srinivasulu came home. Ramam told him about all the people he had met and what had been the outcome. While he was telling his story, Venkateswarlu showed up. Venkateswarlu was surprised to see Ramam there, and said, “Are you camping here now?”

“No, just came to see them,” Ramam replied.

Venkateswarlu pulled Srinivasulu to a side and said something. Srinivasulu went in; a little later, Varalakshmi came to the front porch and gave a bill, probably, five rupees. The bill was slipped into Venkateswarlu’s pocket and he disappeared into the street—all this happened in quick succession.
After 15 minutes or so, Suryam’s oldest son came with a handbag. He turned to Suseela and said, “Amma told me to bring some rice from you.” She said, “Ask Varalakshmi akkayya.” Ramam watched as the boy went in and returned with the bag filled with rice.

Ramam was stunned, what about all these people? They would sit on their steps and pour a volley of insults on the same Srinivasulu; and they had no problem borrowing
from the same man again. Strange people, he thought. But he could not hold himself; he muttered, “What’s this, bava! They’re all coming to you?”
Srinivasulu, took a strong puff, threw away the cigarette butt, and said, lightly, “Oh, that? That’s a mysterious riddle. They all banned me from our family circle; but the
banning rules do not apply to money and rice, you know.” And then, he added, “Forget them. What’s your program tomorrow? Would like to go to the movies with me?”
“Movies? No, bava. First, let me be done with the job on hand. I am almost done with the list dad handed to me; there’s one more gentleman to meet and I’m done. He’s out
of town; will be back tomorrow. After meeting him, I’m free.”
“Who?”
“His name is Seshagiri; works at the Collector’s office.”
“God bless you. Seshagiri? Why didn’t you tell me until now? I know him very well. I can get anything done that can be done with his help. Do you know who he is? A cousin of
Varalakshmi. He was my classmate too.” While speaking those words, Srinivasulu looked at Ramam with some misgivings. Ramam read a lot in those looks—I can help
you; and only I can, if anybody, can help you, and so on.
Ramam was stuck in a dubious situation—he didn’t know what to do. Srinivasulu patted on his shoulder and said, “You’re looking lost. You want to ask something; and also too scared to ask. I can see that. You are still raw, a sort of midstream of knowing and not knowing. Yet, you’re also smart. You have some understanding of worldly ways, but not their depth. This is the time for you to get a grip on things. You must have heard a lot about me. You’re curious about her—Who’s this Varalakshmi? What’s the story?” He
looked into Ramam’s eyes as if asking am I right?
In Ramam’s mind, that sounded just about right, at the same time, also like it was wrong. He would never ask Srinivasulu for an explanation, not on his own. However, since Srinivasulu started it, he wanted to know. He was curious.
“But,” Ramam said, fumbling for words.
“All our relatives here said lots of things about me, right? Now, you listen to me, what I want to say about myself. You are still young. Yet, your dad is pushing into the maze of life. Therefore, you listen to me; between the two of us, I am the adult. They all told you that I might be misguiding you, because you’re young. No worry there, I’ve no such plans. As far as I am concerned, in this wide world, each has to find his or her own path. It’s wrong to think that one person could turn into a bad person because of another. Any human becomes a bad person only because of his own stupidity. Nobody takes to evil ways, if he had a grasp of the ways of the world.” Srinivasulu looked at Ramam again, keenly. Ramam was listening to him closely.
Srinivasulu continued, “Let me summarize my life for you. Then you think about it—what is the underlying philosophy of these people? And what happens if we adopt their
philosophy blindly; put all your brains to work and draw your own conclusions. Varalakshmi had a dad like yours and mine. She was the only daughter. Just like all the
sisters in your family; she also was married, at eleven or twelve, into wealthy family. Unfortunately, the man died within a year. At the time, she barely had any idea about
money or the husband for that matter.
“But her father had a very good idea about the value of money. He fought with her in-laws and got 25 thousand rupees. She was still young and had no use for the money.
So he loaned it and collected the interest and thus increased its value. Some friends suggested remarriage but he would not hear of it; “over my dead body,” said her
father, who’s dead as of now. Varalakshmi went to school; she was good in her studies up to high school. Her brothers did not let her go to higher studies. They were worried
that, with better qualifications, she might fly away, and take the stash with her. But she had the spirit of freedom in her blood; and she was alert all the time. By the time she
was twenty, she had a few desires of her own. At the same time, people around started entertaining thoughts about her property.
“It was at that time, I was introduced to her by this same Seshagiri. She came to the K.G. Hospital; some problem with her eyes. Ramam, she was looking for a man who would take care of her and her property. You could say it is a lottery; for some reason, I was that man in her eyes. She said she put her trust in me; and I said, fine, I would not
destroy your trust. I could not. Want to know why? Well, think about it; a beautiful woman, with considerable wealth, came to me, looking for me; am I not man enough not to take it? We’re not married, not because we’re stupid. On the other hand, we both are very smart. We’re aware that marriage would mean trouble for her property. Bigamy is against law, you know; we’d lose on both counts.” Srinivasulu stopped to look at Ramam again.
Ramam was listening without batting an eye.
“Wouldn’t she lose her heart over this?”
To speak the truth, Ramam would not make such comment. He just came to understand that there was no harm done.
But Srinivasulu resumed, “Suseela had come to see that this is one way for us to have a happy life. I don’t think it was patience or generosity on her part. She’s the kind of
those people who would grovel on rich investors. She’s Suryam’s daughter after all. In fact, she went into bonkers because her father ruined my property; she whined more
than I did. After her father lost most of my land, we sold the remaining strip; that money was gone in no time. If Varalakshmi had not entered into our lives, we would have been in the same position as your Suryam babayi. But, see now! Suseela and her children are wanting for nothing. The entire burden of the family is being straightened because of
Varalakshmi.“Let’s check this out, too. Suseela is a woman, after all; wouldn’t feel jealous? People wonder about her. The truth is jealous results from disappointment. Her womanhood has been satiated ever since she was 14-years old; therefore, she has no such disappointments. By the time Varalakshmi came here, Suseela is already a mother of
four. Now her wish is only that her children and she should have a good life, no reason to push away that wealth. She’s very happy internally that now she has got an easy way to have that good life.
“Don’t get me wrong; no reason to wonder why I was explaining all my life in such a great detail. You might even be thinking that what’s my greatness in this? After all, a
wealthy woman walked into my arms freely; and I took advantage of it. No, Ramam, I am not saying this is all my accomplishment. What I am saying is, everybody in the
entire world wants to take advantage of it and use it to his or her selfish ends, without hurting others, if and when an opportunity came their way. I know how their minds
work—all those people who had been cursing me and speaking ill of me. They’re whining because they did not get such an opportunity; even Suseela is aware of it. Tell me, how smart is she? Look at the neighbors; they all keep comforting her endlessly. And Suseela does not have the poise to turn around and say to their face, stop, my husband
did nothing wrong; he is a hero. No, she can’t do that. Therefore, she also joins them, and says what can I do? This is all my karma. Whatever’s gotten into his head and
heaves a desperate sigh. And then, she comes home and says to me, idiots, they’re jealous because we’re happy.
“Let me say this. I won a lottery. They all played it and lost. Know what I did? I turned over my entire financial matters to Varalakshmi. Each morning, somebody or other from those families, will come to my door, asking for something–salt, dal, one anna or one rupee. That’s not loan but begging, if you ask me. They all know that each paisa they’d been spending belonged to that ‘woman’. Each one of them holds out his or her hand, every day, to that very ‘woman’ kept by Srinivasulu. I wanted that happen and for that reason I would not keep even one paisa with me. My entire family, including the baby born last week, and I are the pet parrots of Varalakshmi.
“Probably, you are astonished but that is my story,” Srinivasulu finished his story. He narrated a long story, but without showing any emotion. He narrated it smoothly and
happily, as if he was narrating somebody else’s story.
There are some people in this world; they’re like an inquisitive student who wants to know every little thing that happens in this world. That student feels inexplicable
pleasure after the teacher taught him a new lesson. He goes around telling everybody, hey, guess what, I’ve learned a new lesson today. Ramam experienced exactly the same kind childish pleasure as that student. Not only that until now, nobody talked to him about people and the world. At home, whenever he tried to ask what was happening, all he’d got was the same reply. His mother and father would tell him, no need for you to bother about. The strange part is, the same parents tell him, you’re not a child, and rush him, when it comes to taking up a job, getting married and producing children. On the other hand, to learn about all the worldly matters, he is still too young!
Ramam felt elated. Srinivasulu had no reservations at all; he opened up to him, and told him his entire story. It was like Srinivasulu took him into his confidence, gave him an
even a respectable status! Ramam was buried in books until yesterday; now suddenly he opened up like a bud that was moved into a favorable environment. Now he understood the whole world; that’s how he was feeling, at the least.
The feeling suffocated him. He felt reverential toward Srinivasulu. He couldn’t speak for a few minutes. And then he got up to leave, “I’ve to go. See you tomorrow.”
“What’d you mean see you? Just come early in the morning. We will go to Seshagiri and get the appointment order by evening. After that, you’re going to be a plus for all the
five families here. Pretty soon, they all will perform your marriage with a young woman. That’s the way you are, right? Your father said I’ve put you through school. Now, go and get a job. And here are, looking for a job. Same thing. Your father will tell you to get married and you will get married. In this blessed country of ours, what kind of job you think you can get? Nobody would be willing to pay better than 60 or 70, at the most. Bless god. I am not saying anything wrong with that. But, Ramam, you’ve made a mistake in the past. For the job you’re going to get, you didn’t have to work hard and rank first in school. There is no need for you to earn the title that you were the smartest school in school. You should’ve left that opportunity to another student, who’s planning to go to America or England. Never mind, past is past. Take the job. But never come to me for a five or ten, like Venkateswarlu. If your father arranges your marriage, go ahead and get married. But never live like Subba Rao. Same thing with the way your Suryam babayi live; that’s despicable. And also, you’d better decide how you’d spend the 60 or 70 you’re going to make. You decide how much you’d spend on your royal wife and how much to keep for yourself. Or else, you can choose to take to bad ways, like Srinivasulu, and have a good life. That’s all I am saying. Don’t ever try to live a pious life like all those people. So, are you coming tomorrow?”

Srinivasulu finished his speech and let Ramam go. With this speech, Ramam lost the enthusiasm he had felt earlier; it was like a bolt from nowhere. Suddenly, he felt like his future flashed in front of his eyes. A series of images rose in his mind’s eye—the dark house of Suryam babayi, his children, and the five-year old girl who was stricken with typhoid a year before and who now looks like a skeleton and her sorry face that never recovered. He recalled what pinni garu said at the suppertime; she said the child fell sick and was in bed for 48 days. She could not describe all the suffering they’d been through at the time—the doctors they’d contacted, the money they’d spent, it was endless. For Ramam, that was unimaginable. A few months back, his sister also contracted the same disease; and she was given the new medication recently had come into the market. She was fine in three days. How come this little girl was not given the same medication?
In his mind, it was horrible. How could these families live such a miserable life? And even worse was the way they were covering it up. He started wondering. Does every poor person turn into such a miserable human being? If that’s the case, will he also become one of them? Suppose he would take the job, with 60 rupees, income because dad said so. How long could be happy? What if these relatives arrange his marriage, like Srinivasulu indicated? Could he say no? In fact, there is his uncle’s daughter in the wings. He knew full well that he did not have the guts to protest. Even after he had a job, he would still be relying on dad, what a misery! Like Srinivasulu said, he would be getting 60 rupees at the most, and that would not be enough to run a family. Look at the way Venkateswarlu is living. He earns 70 rupees. His life may not as bad as Suryam’s; but the difference is very little. Ramam knew he was not going to waste on the movies, like they do. But he also knew he could not default on rent for years at a stretch. He would not stop paying the electricity bill. If he were to pay all the bills in time, he would not have anything for food. He had to eat pakodi and fill the stomach with water. But then again, aren’t there many people in this world, who make only 60 or 70 a month and still are alive? Well, maybe they are alive. Probably, that is how some of them are ending their lives. And some of them are living because they could not die. Some of them are dying a living death. What is all this—life, death, loans, bribes—what is the meaning of all this? That’s life. Oh, my god, what a terrible thing this life is!
A host of questions and answers produced thunder, lightning and a huge storm in his head. Amidst that light and darkness, he drew a picture of his future; and he was
scared to look at it. He felt a monstrous shudder, dread and the feel of a ten-year old—all at once.
Ramam returned to Suryam babayi’s home. Before he could step inside, he saw Subba Rao at the end of the street. He invited Ramam to his home. Ramam didn’t like the idea,
but followed him nonetheless.
Subba Rao rented a two-room apartment. In the front room, there was a rosewood chair, from their grandfather’s time; it has ivory lion-heads on both the arms. A cabinet with mirrors was in a corner. The floor was covered with a worn out, expensive carpet. The walls were filled with several photographs of politicians and gods in equal proportion and a few sceneries. The remaining wall was covered with two,
three-years old calendars. Last time Ramam was here, he did not go in. He sat on the front porch. Therefore, he did not have the pleasure of witnessing all this past glory. Then Subba Rao invited him into the next room, “Come in. See our house.” In that room, there was a modern
rosewood dressing table. It was filled with facial creams, face powder, perfume bottles and a silver elephant incense stick holder. Closer to the wall there was a double bed;
and, enlarged pictures of movie stars on the wall. In all, that room was an exemplary bedroom with a mix of old and new. Ramam has no opinion in such matters. Yet, he honestly tried to understand the high-class lifestyle of Subba Rao. His wife, the little young lady, was busy in the dark dungeon called kitchen. Subba Rao called her, “Bring us coffee and tiffin.” She danced her way into the room, with a cunning
smile, and said, “It’s almost time for supper. Now coffee? Have lemon juice.” Then she went in and returned with two glasses of lemon juice. How could it be suppertime, it’s
only six? Ramam had a time swallowing the drink—it was a horrible mix of sweet, sour and bitter taste.
Subba Rao said, jokingly, “Hey, Ramam! How come you went to Suryam babayi’s house? A royal guest there? You didn’t even eat once at our place? So be it, let’s go to a movie, You’d passed the exam, came to the city, you must see one movie at the least. What do you say?”
For the moment, Ramam felt the same thing. Yes, why not go to the movies? He was feeling boggled down for sometime now. “Okay, let’s go,” he replied.
Subba Rao nearly jumped with joy. He called his wife, “Sita, get ready in a minute. We’re going to the movies.” He rushed her; and Sita is always ready for the movies. They all left right away.
On the way, Subba Rao stopped at Venkateswarlu’s house and invited him too.
“Movies? I was thinking of the same thing,” and he joined them. After they all reached the theater, each one of them put his hand in the pocket.
Subba Rao said, “Oh, no. I forgot my wallet. I rushed out fearing that we could be late,” and turned to Venkateswarlu, “You buy the tickets.”
Venkateswarlu pulled out one rupee from his pocket and said, “This is all I have. I didn’t know so many of us until I set out, right?” and put it back in his pocket.
Ramam had to pull out ten rupees from his pocket and purchase tickets for all of them; had no other choice. By the time the movie ended, Ramam ended up paying for drinks,
cigarettes and snacks too. Sita broke into tears while, biting the pakodi.
“What’s the matter, Sita? Are the pakodi too hot?” Subba Rao asked her.
“No, not the pakodi. It’s so hard to watch their separation,” she said.
The story ended happily. On the way back, Sita said gleefully, “What a beauty, that heroine!”
Venkateswarlu said, “Forget the heroine. The pakodis are so tasty!”
They arrived at Subba Rao’s house. “Thanks to you, Ramam. We’ve seen a nice movie.”
Ramam’s head spun like a top. He could not recall what happened at the theater. It was depressing. He did not have pakodi or soda. He was hungry. He dragged himself to
babayi’s house. They all were sleeping. It took a half hour before somebody came and opened the door for him.
“Are you already in bed, pinni garu? I went to the movies. They all insisted. Sorry, I am giving you trouble,” Ramam said.
“What trouble? No trouble to open the door, right?” she said.
“Not that. Serving food at this late hour …”
“Your uncle said you went to Srinivasulu’s home. I thought you’d eat there. Oh, my silly boy! Here, have this,” she said. She gave him a glass of buttermilk. Ramam could hardly
look at the glass, an old, discolored enamel piece. He closed his eyes and gulped the drink. Then he spread his bed on the front porch and lay down, with his knees pulled up to his chest.
Next morning, Srinivasulu was waiting for Ramam. They were planning to go to Seshagiri, together. Ramam arrived a half hour late; he did not come alone. He brought his suitcase with him. His eyes were drawn in; the face was looking beat up. Within one day, he looked like he was sick for six months.
“What’s the matter?” Srinivasulu asked him.
“I’m not feeling good, bava! I am going home. I’ll be back,” he replied.
“Are you running fever? How can you travel like that?”
“It’s okay. I can. I can’t stay here anymore. I want to go home.”
Varalakshmi came into the room.
“I’m leaving, akkayya,” Ramam told her.
“So I heard. You’re not feeling well?” she said, and turned to Srinivasulu, “He never left home, I suppose. It seems he is homesick.”
For some reason, Ramam felt at home in her presence; wanted to talk to her. He picked up the courage and said, “Not homesick, akkayya! It is the people in this town; they can make anybody sick.”
Varalakshmi did not follow his remark; she looked at Srinivasulu. Srinivasulu ignored her and said, “Oh, that’s what it is. Okay, now I’m convinced; our boy is going to do just fine. Listen, you should learn to stay from such sick folks; not falling sick because of them, that is not right.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do; staying away from them,” Ramam replied, and turned to Varalakshmi, “Now I must leave, akkayya! If I ever to come to this town again, I’m
camping here, in your home. Where’s Suseela akkayya? Want to say goodbye to her too before I left.”
Ramam took leave of them all; his rickshaw moved.
*                *                *                *
Ramam went home and announced his latest decision. He had decided to continue his studies—an uncanny result of his visit to the city. Chandrayya heard the decision and, in the next second, he hit the roof. “What’s gotten into you? Whoever’s coached you? What’s there to study more?” he shouted at his son.
“Nobody’s coached me, nanna! I don’t feel working yet. I want to continue studies,”
Ramam repeated his decision once again.
“Do you have any idea, at what age, I started as a teacher? You don’t want to work yet, you say. You’re going to be an adult in a year. Are you thinking you’re still a child?”
Parvathamma, Ramam’s mother, intervened, “Let it be. He is young, isn’t he? Even otherwise, young or old, he is the only son for us. Let him have his way.”
“Nice, you’re supporting him too? What do you mean, harping on, study, study? Why spend ten more years on studies and go bankrupt? Doesn’t it make sense to start
saving from now on? Tell me, who’s going to benefit from this education?”
“Well, he’s saying he would take care of the expenses himself, if you don’t want to. All he wanted okay from you,” Parvathamma said.
“He said that too. He’s lost his brain with this trip, I suppose. So be it. Tell him to go to hell and do whatever he pleased.”
Ramam set out leave, fearing what else he might have hear, if he stayed there any longer. He did hear the last remarks of his father, though.
*                *                *                *
Ramam sat down on the beach at twilight and was thinking about himself. He looked at the sky and the birds flying in the air. He was talking to his father, who was not present,
Nanna, I don’t know how to explain it to you. I am not saying I want to study to save the world or to achieve something big in my life. You’re right about one thing. After visiting the city, my head spun. I saw the people live like frogs in a rut, biting each other, and eating up each other. That environment made me sick to the stomach. I don’t
believe that I would land a fancy job because of my higher education. Know why I want to go to the college? To escape from life; to fly like a bird freely in the sky. Nanna, you
cannot understand this. All those people are amazing powers—the story of Srinivasulu and Varalakshmi; Suryam babayi and his rowdy children; the typhoid skeleton; Subba
Rao and Venkateswarlu; and their extravagant lifestyles—they all opened my eyes. How can I explain all this to you? I need to scrutinize the world with this new vision one more time and make my decision in regard to my place in this world. My education is going to serve that purpose.
(End)

(Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, April 2005)
(Telugu original, vaallu paadina bhuupaala raagam, was published in Telugu swatantra, in the early sixties.)

 

Coral Chain by Achanta Saradadevi

It was getting dark. Far away, the sun between two hills looked like a blood red sphere; the heat was gone.

coral_chain

(Copyright artist: Rambabu Arle)

The shades of lavishly floating clouds resembled leaves, flowers and small hills, and the sun a crimson ball in their midst. The view was like a reflection of nature in a ruby red mirror.

Vasanti washed her hair and went on to the terrace. She let her wet hair down to dry and sat on the brink of the parapet wall. She was watching the gorgeous sunset. Each time the locks on her forehead were moved by the breeze, a whiff of fine aroma spread around from the sambrani smoke she had given to her hair earlier. From her snowy-white neck, a chain of big corals, which she had inherited from her mother, was hanging gently but heavily. In the glow of those corals, her creamy cheeks seemed to quiver shyly. The entire composition—the red saree, the corals around her neck, the red kumkum on her forehead, and the henna on her fingers, which were like jasmine buds—seemed to compete with the evening glow and was immersed in it.

Vasanti had never been that excited as that evening. What a soothing day … what a beautiful evening … It was mesmerizing. In the next moment, a stray thought came over … she was lost in it.

She left this place eight years back. She had spent all her childhood here. So many memories in this town, in this house, each step of the way … All those emotions she had experienced in her childhood—the grief, the hopes, the disappointments, happiness, pleasures, the anxiety and the tears—they all came back and beset her like shadows from a distant past. They all—the pogada flowers she had gathered, the swing she had ridden under the banyan tree, the games she had played in the stairwell in the moonlight—they all started coming back like a series of episodes. Each minute, a new incident kept jumping up in her mind.

***

In the wee small hours of dawn, she was riding in the bullock-cart. The jingle bells from the bull’s neck were mesmerizing; she dozed off. It was like in a dream; she could visualize each episode from the far-off past: As she was going to Kesari’s wedding on a bullock-cart, and her dotted silk skirt shivered as the breeze blew gently, Pankajam laughing; she [Vasanti] feeling hungry and sleepy, and yawning; Malathi and herself scuffling for a red rose after the cart had stopped at the gate. … so many memories …

Several changes had taken place in her life in the past eight years. Her life had attained fullness after several stops, one after another. She studied in Kalkotta and received her B.A. degree in first class. Her father was elated that she came first in the university and threw a big party. After that, her marriage was performed with the son of the district health officer. The groom’s family did not ask for dowry. Yet father spent money lavishly and performed the wedding on a grand scale. Her husband was fortunate, he landed a job in Lucknow soon after their wedding, and she moved to her in-law’s home at the same time. Within a year, they were blessed with a baby girl. Her husband was promoted to a higher position. She was not short for anything, either financially or otherwise. There was no reason to complain about. Proverbially her husband put her on a bed of flowers and worshipped her; he never opposed her in any matter. She was very fortunate to have such a blissful life. That’s what everybody thought.

Yet, trivial memories had been popping up sporadically and making her feel bogged down.

Soon after the baby was born, and a few times after that, she tried to visit her hometown but could never do so. Her husband’s transfers every six months and other domestic issues squashed her wish each time. Now, after so many years, she was able to return to her hometown.

                                            ***

 It’s got dark. The sky was studded with stars. The moonlight shone like gold and spread to the inmost corners. The moon was laughing exultantly. Vasanti went downstairs, brought a comb, untangled her hair and put it in a loose braid. She made a wreath of jasmines bloomed afresh and the roses she had picked in the morning and tucked it in her braid.

 Her mother came upstairs with the baby in her arms. She asked, “Coming down for supper?”

 “What’s the hurry? Let father come …” Vasanti said.

 Mother asked again, looking into the sky, “When is your husband coming?”

 “Don’t know. He said he would come for the festival, if he is granted leave.”

 She sat there with mother quietly for a while watching the mango sprouts in bloom.  Mother fed the baby, spread a mattress on the terrace and laid her to sleep. Vasanti also lay down next to the sleeping baby and went into a reverie. … The moonlight was touching her face gently. The moon was splashing tiny smiles like a ball of gold.

 She could not remember how may moonlit nights and dawns she had spent on that terrace in that manner—happily, sadly, teasingly, … in her childhood. She used to go and sit on the terrace whenever she was bored. From there, she could see the innumerable small hills and mounds around and a huge meadow stretched in front of her house. Past the meadow, there were tall coconut trees and two small mountains in the rear, which seemed to be coming from two directions and meeting there. Every morning, at the stroke of six, the sun in blood red color would peek from behind those mountains. Again, in the evening the moon would greet from the same spot in between the coconut trees. Everyday she felt mesmerized by those scenes in her younger days.

 The baby moved in her sleep, and nudged against the chain in Vasanti’s neck, pressing the corals against Vasanti’s body. A sad feeling weighed her heart down. … Abbha! …. How long had she been carrying these corals! Each time the chain moved, something in her heart pricked … some incomprehensible pain … some anguish.

On the meadow in front of their house, there was only one hut, where Lakshumanna, the old man lived with his old woman and his grandchild, Sita. Sita had lost her mother long time ago. Lakshumanna used to run a grocery store, and manage with the little income he had been getting from it. …

Vasanti looked for that hut as soon as she got out of the cart. There was not even a sign of the hut. The meadow was filled with several colorful new buildings raised to the sky. She could not see even the far-off mountains. She came to her senses.

Poor Lakshumanna thatha was a nice man. He was very kind to Vasanti. He called her bullemma garu, little girl, and treated her like princess. He was very nice to her. Sita and she used to play in the green pastures in front of the hut all day. Vasanti was about seven or eight-years old at the time, about the same age as Sita. Early in the morning Vasanti would get up, take a bath, have the hair braided, wore a silk frock and go to play. Sita would come out of the hut with unkempt hair and wearing a torn skirt. Both played any number of games in the grass there: start out with gujjanagullu, gudugudu kuncham, and continue with dolls’ wedding, and finish it with kaalla gajje. Sometimes she would not remember even to go home to eat. Mother would come out the door and call out for her and bring her into the house.

Vasanti played so much in the dirt that her frock would get dirty and torn. Mother would yell at her each day and tell her that she should not play with beggar girls in the dirt, and drag her into their house. Mother yelled at her numerous times yet she [Vasanti] always found a way to run out to play with Sita. Mother got tired of it and let go.

Whenever the business was slow, Lakshumanna thatha would come and sit with them and tell them stories. Vasanti also called him thatha since Sita was calling him thatha. Thatha favored her more than Sita. She used to pick up tin strips and brass pieces and give them to thatha, telling him that they were silver and gold pieces. Thatha would take those worthless pieces zealously and put them in a tin box as if they were real silver and gold. In return, he would give them, Sita and herself, peppermints, chocolate and paan. That turned into a daily game. Each day, she gave him some worthless piece, got chocolate in return and munched it, feeling that she had accomplished something big. … On one occasion, she told her mother too about this game.

“What? Are you giving away all the gold nuggets I’ve been saving in the silver box?” mother asked.

Vasanti was nervous. “Oh, no, not them … Only the pieces I found on the floor,” she said hastily, and her face turning white.

Mother did not believe her. “I told you so many times not to go to that hovel, you don’t listen,” she said, vexed.

One day, a coral vendor came to the door. Mother haggled for over an hour and picked three varieties of corals—small, medium and big size—and bought them. They were bright red-colored and beautiful. Mother took the corals and the gold nuggets she had been saving to Sankarayya, the goldsmith. She got him make coral chains. On the same day the chains were brought home, Vasanti picked the one with the biggest corals and wore in her neck. Mother was displeased.

She said, “Cchi. They are so big they don’t look good on you. Look, this chain with cute little corals, I got it made just for you. Wear this one.”

Vasanti did not listen. She fussed over it for a while and said, “I don’t want them. I like only this one.”

Mother tried to persuade the best she could. …but no use … Vasanti would not listen. She wore that wretched coral chain and went to play. It was so heavy, her neck started hurting. It went up into the air each time she jumped, yet she did not care. She got carried away by the excitement of wearing a new chain and got absorbed in the games. She even forgot about the chain in all that hullabaloo.

After it got dark, she returned home. Mother helped her take a hot water bath and served food in the silver plate. That is when she noticed the missing chain. “Oh, no, where are the corals?” she asked anxiously.

Vasanti cringed and felt her neck, her face turned white. The chain was gone. She forgot about the chain entirely while playing games. She did not know when or how it got lost.

Mother was angry and miserable. She snarled, “I told you so many times and you turned a deaf year. Here you are now, lost it in a minute, cchi.”

After that, mother and father together asked her numerous questions. That torrent of query did not slow down even the next day. God only knows how many people asked her the same questions over and again. She was tired. All that questioning made her angry, and vexed, and made her cry.

“Where all the places you had been to since morning?”

“Where did you play?”

“With whom did you play?”

“When was the last time you had checked the coral chain?”

They went on asking like that all day. She answered all their questions, some answers she knew and others she just guessed. “I played in the hallway. I played with Savitri upstairs. I was checking the chain now and then.” But, for some reason, she did not tell them that she had been playing with Sita for a long time in front of thatha’s store. She was afraid that mother would be displeased, and she might accuse Sita and thatha.

That night mother and father searched and searched the entire house again and again but could not find the coral chain. Vasanti went to bed, frightened and depressed and crying. In the morning, once again, they all searched every nook and corner. Everybody in the neighborhood heard about the loss of the corals. And they all came to express their sympathies. There was no end to the people saying soothing words and giving suggestions: Did you search all the places? What a loss, costs twenty-five rupees at least to buy again. Maybe somebody pilfered it. Do you suspect anybody? … There were so many questions and so many comments. Poor mother, she answered them all patiently and analytically. In fact, she was happy, even seemed to enjoy reiterating the answers in great detail. She felt as if she found the item.

By eight o’clock, babayi, who was living in the same neighborhood, came to our house. At once, he started out on his share of questioning. He asked mother, “When did you put the chain in her neck? And when did you see it again?” Mother gave suitable answers.

Babayi asked suddenly, “She goes to the old man’s hut to play every day. Didn’t she go yesterday?”

Mother was dumbfounded; why did not such an obvious thought occur to her? She felt bad for being so stupid. She called Vasanti, who was hiding in a corner and asked, “Did you not go to play with Sita yesterday?”

Vasanti said furtively, “I went in the morning.”

Babayi concluded at once, “Say so. Probably, you lost it while playing in front of the hut. That old man must have taken it.”

Mother supported it. “Yes, he must have taken it. In fact, he has been bothering our little girl to bring silver and gold from our house everyday.”

Vasanti was flabbergasted. “That’s a lie. Thatha never asked me to bring anything. I was giving them on my own—the pieces I found here and there in the house, and thatha took them only to please me.” Vasanti wanted to shout these words and let mother know but, amidst all that clamor, she could not open her mouth.

Babayi went and brought thatha to our house. Arbitration started. Babayi screamed all kinds of bad words and showered a volley of insults every which way. “Little one was playing in front of your hut all morning. Who could have taken it if not you?” he said.

Thatha stood there pallid for a long time, as if he did not hear the words, did not understand them. He could not comprehend what all those people were talking about. He was crushed, humiliated and in pain. He spoke pitiably a few times, “I do not know madam. I have not seen the corals in the little one’s neck at all.” And he said, “I am fond of bullemma garu more than my Sita. How could I touch any piece of jewelry on her?”

But nobody was willing to listen to his appeals.

Mother said, “Okay, you just return the chain like a nice boy. Why subject yourself to public humiliation?”

“But I did not take it madam. I don’t have it,” thatha said softly but clearly, and stood there as if he did not know what else he could do.

Babayi said, “Look, Lakshumanna, just return the piece politely and beg for our forgiveness. Otherwise, we will have to report to the police. And you know what happens when it falls into the hands of the police.”

Thatha was frightened at the mention of police. He shook like a leaf. Not a word came out of his mouth.

Just in time, police Narasayya was passing by. He saw the commotion and came in. “What? What happened?” he asked babayi, waving his baton.

“Nothing,” said babayi and narrated the entire incident as if he was telling a story.

Police Narasayya said, taunting thatha, “Why give us trouble? Make up your mind quickly … or you will be walking to the police station.” He gawked as he hit the ground with his baton.

Thatha was stricken with grief and stood there as if he lost his mind. Despair shrouded him and reflected in his eyes. It was burning him. Sita clung to his legs and cried loudly. Vasanti also felt it and wept.

Thatha stopped for a second not knowing what to do. And then, he walked toward his store as if he was sleepwalking. He opened the cashbox, and pulled out an old ten-rupee note, which was crumpled into a ball. He gave it babayi and said, “babu, I did not see the corals. But take this and leave me alone. I am poor … I am old. I cannot see clearly. What will you gain by badgering me, babu?” Tears sprang to his eyes as he spoke.

The people conferred for a while and decided that it’s better to take the money since they could not recover the corals.

Mother said, “The corals were worth twenty-five rupees. You offer ten rupees? Make it twenty. We will let you go since we’ve known you for so long.”

“Yes, that is right,” babayi said.

Thatha said, trembling, “That’s all I have. I cannot give you any more even if you kill me.” The empty cashbox slipped and fell on the ground with a bang.

Babayi was about to say something. Until now, father was sitting a little away, as if it was no concern of his; he was scared of mother’s loudmouth. He said, “Let him go, why pester the poor old man?”

With that, babayi kept quiet. So also mother.

Thatha held Sita’s hand and went away, walking slowly.

Police Narasayya ran his fingers through his hair as if he’d done something great, and held out his hand, and said, “Sir, whatever pleases you.” He got two rupees and left the scene. Rest of the crowd dispersed too.

Vasanti sat there in the hallway. Tears rolled down from her eyes without break. She knew that thatha did not take the corals … he would never take anything. But she could not tell that to anybody. She sat there watching thatha suffer and did nothing.

She wanted to run to thatha, hold his hand and tell him, “I know, thatha, you did not take my corals. Do not misunderstand me.” She went to the door. Mother came from behind, grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back into the house.

After that, mother never let her go near thatha’s store again.

One day Polamma was sweeping the floors in the upstairs room and found the coral chain. It popped out from under the chest of drawers.  Vasanti jumped for joy.

Polamma screamed, “Amma garu, the corals are here.”

Amma came running to upstairs and was surprised to see the red corals lying on the floor. She picked up the corals in her hand. She said happily and with a little embarrassment, “We had searched the entire house but never occurred to us to look under this chest.”

Polamma said, sounding philosophical, “It is all in that old man’s karma,” and went away waving the broom.

Vasanti said exuberantly, “Amma, shall I go and tell thatha that the coral were found.”

Mother held the corals close to her chest and sneered, “Cchi, how can we do that? What would the people say? Don’t they think that we’ve had the corals all this time and harassed the old man for nothing? What a shame, what a disgrace.”

Vasanti could not understand her mother’s logic. Thatha was humiliated, blamed for something he did not do, and there was no shame, no humiliation for him? But admitting that the corals had been found and that they had been wrong was shameful and inappropriate for mother!

She hoped that mother would call thatha and return his ten rupees as soon as the corals were found. But that did not happen. Additionally, whatever mother could have told Polamma, the fact that the corals were found never came to light. The relentless pain in her [Vasanti’s] heart remained forever. That her family had committed an abominable crime against the old man, and taken the ten-rupees, his sweat money, from him, remained a huge weight in her heart forever.

Thatha did not recuperate from this horrible incident for a very long time. He was devastated by the humiliation inflicted on him day by day. His business went down and finally was closed. Sita grew up and started working. Three of them were managing somehow with the measly earnings of Sita.

Vasanti used to stand on the terrace and watch Sita and thatha. She saw them watching her pitiably, kindly, and sadly. Then she felt ashamed, wiped her tears and went back into the house. Finally, she left that town. On that day, also thatha came out of his hut, and watched her go away in the cart, affectionately, and with tearful eyes. Poor thatha, he was hurt so badly but never forgot her.

Vasanti could never figure out what kind of blessings he had bestowed on her when he shed those tears but his ingenuous love enveloped her like a shadow and protected her.

***

Vasanti had never forgotten thatha despite the time elapsed and the numerous changed which had occurred in her life. Each time the corals in her neck moved, she was reminded of thatha. She longed on several occasions to pay off the debt she felt owed to him. But she was scared of her mother. She could do nothing about it.

                                       ***

The winds were blowing and the branches of the banyan tree were wavering. Mother shouted from downstairs room, “Come on to eat. Father is home.”

Vasanti covered baby with a sheet, got up and went into the kitchen. While eating, she asked her mother, “Old thatha and Sita—they used to live in the hut across from us. Where are they?”

Mother said with a grimace, “Who knows. Some four years back there was devastation and the old couple passed away, I guess. After that, some distant relative came and took Sita with him. I don’t know where she is now.”

Hum, thought Vasanti. It was heartrending for her but mother was saying it as if it meant nothing.

Vasanti could not relish the food. She quickly gobbled two bites and went back to the terrace. Mother was calling from behind, “What is that? You have not eaten.”

On the terrace, the baby was sleeping innocently, happily, and without a care in the world. She was holding the rubber doll tight to her chest. Tears filled Vasanti’s eyes. She sat on the cot, leaned forward and touched the curls on baby’s forehead gently. The corals from her neck dangled and touched baby’s lips. On that night in the moonlight, a distant star fell from the sky.

As she watched the baby’s eyes, sleep came over her. The corals rumbled heavily in her heart.

(End)

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net,July 2007.

***

(The Telugu original, pagadaalu, was published in the mid-forties.)

The Native Element in Telugu stories By Nidadavolu Malathi.

We read stories—Russian, Chinese, Japanese, African—and learn about their culture. Some stories tell us we are not different. Their customs, habits, perceptions, social consciousness, family values and ethics appear to be so close to ours. They cry in the same way as we do, and be happy the same way as we, and aspire for better life in much the same way as we do. Then there are other stories that distinguish us from them. That is because each culture evolves in its own environment. Russian winter is unimaginable in Andhra Pradesh. The effects of the vast expanse of land in America is inconceivable in our country. Their interpersonal relationships are defined by their environment. They cannot imagine our lives during summer months. Possibly the extended family, so common in South Asian countries, is totally enimagmatic to Westerners. The stories from other cultures are fascinating for this reason—they tell us how people live under varying and/or similar circumstances.

The stories of writers like Chekhov, Maupassant, and Mark Twain appeal to us because they all are deep-rooted in their culture; they do not embrace the lifestyles of other cultures or create a pseudo-foreign atmosphere in their stories. This should tell us something, meaning, we the readers suspend our disbelief willingly, as Wordsworth put it, and acquiesce to the other environment, and explore the other culture. That is and must be one of the primary principles for translation into another language, especially for international audiences. For that reason, when we select a story for translation, we need to keep the target audience in mind constantly.
Sometime back, a reader asked me how would I know who reads the translation. Of course, the translator cannot predict who would read the story. Once a translation is published, the translator has no control over the readership. However, he or she can still keep certain target readers in mind, and select a story that hopefully captures the attention of that audience. Others may read, and even enjoy the story. Nevertheless, one thing I would like to emphasise is, the readers, especially the native speakers, (Telugu readers, in this case) must remember that native flavor cannot be transported into the translation one hundred percent ever. When we read a translation from another language, more likely than not, we do not know if the story had carried its native flavor into the original. We can only see whether the translated version appealed to us or not.

When I select stories for translation, I attempt to find stories that illustrate the Telugu homes, Telugu environment, family values, interpersonal relationships as reflected in our relational terminology, our customs, beliefs, the games our children play and the food our mothers cook. It is important that they include as many minute details as possible. For the same reason, I stay away from stories filled with descriptions of modern homes with imported goods and ideas. I want stories that provide our age-old values, beliefs, customs, lifestyles, and perceptions we have cherished. One great example would be the arranged marriages in our families. Unfortunately, very often our stories cater to the stereotypical, preconceived notions of the westerners; but make no effort to explain the complexities inherent in the system; for instance, the underlying philosophy of the extended families, which includes the support the couples would receive in times of crisis.

Second, I would look for a style peculiar to the writer. It is common knowledge that every writer has or develops his own technique for telling a story. No two persons talk alike, and no two writers tell the same story using exactly the same vocabulary. There is no verbatim report, even when a story is retold by the same writer. That also explains why we have so many stories on any given topic. Each writer presents a new perspective, and adds to the commonality of global  understanding. Similarly, no two readers appreciate the same story and/or perceive the same message from a given story precisely in the same manner.

Against this background, I have attempted to present my rationale for selecting stories for translation for foreign readers, who are not familiar with our culture and traditions. Basically, I find three angles to this thought: 1. the stories that depict our religious, philosophical beliefs, and customs; 2. stories that describe various activities in our daily lives; and, 3. reflect unique perspectives and lifestyles in our society.

Let’s review a few Telugu stories in translation. In the story The Soul Wills It by Viswanatha Satyanarayana, man-woman relationship is explored within the context of Hindu beliefs. The story presents, in a larger context, man and woman not as two entities but, as one entity, complementary in nature. Thus, the pain suffered by the woman is experienced by the man. Similarly, the woman carries the man’s wish, not as a duty but, as a replication of the man’s pain. In terms of technique, the author used several forms. It started out with a description of the location and the main characters. In some parts, it was presented in the form of a direct report; and, in one instance, a dialogue, as in a play, was introduced. Is this acceptable as a storytelling technique in modern times? I am not sure. As I said at the outset, the author has the freedom to present his story in a manner that is befitting to his mode of thinking.

The Drama of Life (Madhurantakam Rajaram) depicts the absurdity in a presentation of Bharata yajnam, a narrative of Mahabharata in harikatha, style and the monetary reward the narrator receives at the end. The underlying philosophy of celebrating Bharata yajnam is to point out the appalling effects of gambling on a family. The storyteller learns, much to his dismay, that his payment has come from the income at the gambling stalls set up for the enjoyment of the audience. The storyline in itself is not something we can be proud of, yet, the umpteen details woven into the rendering are enlightening.

In the story, He is I, (Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry), the author depicts prostitutes as connoisseurs of fine arts and conjugal bliss. At one period, in our culture, they are supposed to initiate young men into the life of marital bliss. Into this complex issue, the author weaves a mystical perception “He is I”, the message being God resides in our bodies and respecting our bodies implies respecting God. As I mentioned earlier, the philosophical connotation leaves plenty to the readers’ imagination.

Another angle in this story is the use of pronouns peculiar to Telugu language, thanu or thaanu which is a gender-free reflexive, roughly meaning oneself. In a complete sentence, the verb suffix corresponds to the person’s gender though. The story He is I opens with one person, taanu, as the narrator. The pronoun, a reflexive, indefinite, third person, singular, and non-gender specific, is peculiar to Telugu language. After Swamiji is introduced, most of the story is narrated by Swamiji using the first person singular, nenu[I]. Towards the end, Swamiji says, “We [memu] were waiting for the other train to arrive.” Telugu has two forms of third person plural, manam [all-inclusive] and memu [excludes listener]. Significantly, in the story, the second term, memu is used. Thus implicitly the pronoun “we” includes the listener, the young man [taanu], and, puts the reader/audience in the shoes of a listener. Confusing as it is for foreigners, it is also quite illuminating. That is one of the reasons, I chose this story despite the difficulty in translating it.

Relational terminology is another aspect that pervade our stories. Just recently I read that Native Americans use relational terms for people not related by blood in much the same way we Telugu people do. In our culture the terms are indicative of not only the relationship between two individuals but also how each perceives the other. The discussion of relational terminology is beyond the scope of this paper but the point I am trying to make is our stories provide an additional layer to understand the conversations between two persons.

The Wedding Garments by Ravuru Satyanarayana Rao is a heartwarming story, perfect for holiday season. The madhuparkaalu are a set of garments offered by the bride’s parents to the groom along with a drink made of honey and milk  as he arrives for the ceremony. Puttanna, the protoganist, is a weaver by profession. He customarily makes the garments and presents free of charge to the family who performs a wedding in the village. The story illustrates the spirit with which Puttanna cherishes his family tradition. He refuses to make an exception even when chips are down and he is struggling. He would rather sell his cow, which he needs not only for his own subsistence but other families to whom he supplies milk. The story walks us through not only his struggles but the remarkable sense of dharma the groom avows. This is a moving story highlighting the human values that go beyond the call of one’s duty.

Currently in our society, caste is dismissed as reprehensible. There is however another angle to this caste or community spirit, which is welcome because it aims at the common good. Puttanna belongs to weavers community. For him it is a custom to weave madhuparkaalu (new set of clothes for the bride and groom) in any family in his village free of cost. The reader also learns what life was like for weavers community in those days. It tells us of a lifestyle that is fast disappearing.

Another story that gives elaborate description of a wedding ceremony in Telugu homes is two pawns lost by Poosapati Krishnamraju. This story oozes authentic Telugu flavor and provides  a peek into the process of wedding ceremony in our families as it unfolds.

The story Cottage Goddess by Kanuparti Varalakshmamma, published in Andhra Patrika Ugadi issue, 1924, depicts the ruination of cottage industries and the struggles of families caught up in the aftermath of the great Depression following the World War I. The author gives us the harsh realities of the early forties in middle class families and the woman’s struggle to raise her two little children. The amount of details in the struggles of the protagonist’s (Ramalakshmi’s) is quite an education. Sad as it may sound, that has been the reality in India. The small farmer, the small business, the mom-and-pop store round the corner took a downward turn and never recovered as India kept moving towards modernization. Once again, the details of everyday life during the period in question are well-recorded in these stories. 

The story, Headmaster by Palagummi Padmaraju, depicts the extraordinary, lifelong influence a mentor has on a student. In our tradition, the teacher has the same place as mother and father in the life of an individual. The lessons children receive from their teachers go beyond textbooks.

In the story Three million rupees bet (Arudra), we learn about the games children played prior to modernization has taken over and in the process about the creative ways they spend their time. The story introduces the reader to a game that is not prevalent anymore even in India. In these days of plastic toys and computer games only money can buy, it is hard to imagine children had just as much fun with the side panels of discarded cigarette boxes. It effectively illustrates not only children’s psyche but also how they imbibe the complex monetary values early in life.

Some of our feminist critics perceived the story The Escaped Parrot (Achanta Saradadevi) as a feminist story, since the female protagonist feels suffocated in their home. I however think that story goes beyond a woman feeling confined. The story illustrates powerfully the lack of communication between husband and wife. What Kamakshamma missed in her life is not freedom but closeness with her husband. In the absence of that closeness with her husband, she befriends a parrot, short-lived nevertheless. Thus in her life the true tragedy is not the house turning into a cage but her husband ignoring her existence. The one-word conversations between husband and wife, the husband constantly trying to convince her that life away from the city is peaceful are authentically depicted. That was the state of affairs in most of the Telugu homes in the fifties.

The story Lord Siva Commands by Nidadavolu Malathi, while depicting the newly acquired concept of privacy in Indian homes, the interpersonal relationships between two unrelated individuals belonging to two different generations are highlighted. In this story, the young woman rooted in Indian values and traditions happens to meet after two decades the elderly lady whom she respects as mentor. The story features several layers – two women from two generations developing closeness, the changing attitudes of the young woman after coming to America, her discomfort with the older woman’s probing questions on one hand and remembering the sweet memories from her past, and at the end realizing where the older woman has come from and how natural it is for her to speak the way she has spoken.

I included this story here because of the comments from current generation readers. The story illustrates the issue of privacy. In the past, in our country, the concept of privacy is not understood in the same manner as in the west. However, the perception among the current generation has been changing fast and it is evident from some of the comments I have received. Most of the current generation Telugu youth would consider the elderly woman “intrusive” and “insensitive,” to put it mildly. The letter at the end of the story, which she would have written had she known how to write, explains where she was coming from. Readers need to delve deeper into this kind of psyche.

That humor is hard to translate is common knowledge. Nevertheless, it is important we expose the foreign readers to that aspect of our culture. One of the ways I found is to introduce the story by way of review. I translated janatha express by Mullapudi Venkataramana as Middle Class Complex. This story has been relatively easy to translate since there is a noticeable storyline. On the other hand, another story Radha’s debt (Radhamma bakee) by the same author is hard to translate since there is plenty of witticism and little of storyline. For that reason, I presented in the form a review. The entire story is provided with explanations why a particular line is considered humorous for us. It allows us to explain the parts, which we consider humorous, but may not be perceived as such by foreign readers.

For each of these stories, it is a different time and different place. Usually, readers from other cultures read these stories in order to identify those differences. And, that is also the criterion for our translators in their selection of stories for translation.

I must admit that all the stories on this site meet these criteria. Nevertheless, ideally though, that is what I aim to accomplish—introduce our culture in its multifarious perceptions and our values to the non-native speakers.

(End)

(Author’s note: All the stories referred in this article are available on this site. This article has been modified from the original, how to read a Telugu story, published on thulika.net, January 2005.)

© Nidadavolu Malathi.

 

 

 

The Small Wheel

By Nidadavolu Malathi.

“The deeyivoo (District Educational Officer) saar is coming.”

The school peon Venkanna usually arrives at the headmaster’s house at six in the morning. That day he woke up at midnight and started getting ready because the “deeyivoo saar” is coming. The “deeyivoo saar” is the District Educational Officer at regional level who conducts the inspection of schools once a year.

His wife Simmachalam did not share his enthusiasm.
“Who cares whether it is deeyivoo saar or his grandpa. They don’t give a damn about you. Here you are going nuts for a over week now,” she snapped turning over to the other side on the mattress.
“How would you know,” Venkanna responded, a little annoyed. He put on the shirt he got it ironed last night. It cost him 12 paise.

He could see his father in front him, wavering like a cobra. Eight years back Venkanna moved to the city. At that time his father told him, “Hey, Venka! We are not going to raise some two story building by ducking our duty and playing hooky. For us there is pride in working hard, have a measly meal and sleep under the tree.”

That is why Venkanna raised a beautiful garden around the school although it was not in his job description; there was no special allowance for that job; the only word from the headmaster was a nod and a cluck. Last year when the schools inspector came with his wife, Venkanna gave her fresh blossomed marigolds in a lotus leaf.

She took the flowers and said “lovely” in English. And she smiled kindly. The Inspector took the hint and asked him, “So do you do all the gardening?” There was a touch of kindness in his tone.
Venkanna was ecstatic. “Yassaar,” he nearly choked as he replied. He felt like the movie producer whose very first picture celebrated the 100the day showing. The garden feasted his eyes like a gorgeous woman in her prime of life.

“Good. See, our country prospers only when young people like you work hard,” the Inspector said.
“Yesyas. He iza very industriousend sinsearu,” said Sarmaji, smiling.
Venkanna felt thrilled one more time.

He was also in the picture taken at the end of the day. That picture is still there in his hut, hanging low from the beam, and hitting Simmachalam’s forehead each time she moves around and thereby receiving a few choice blessings from her.

Venkanna took that job in the city because he felt that a school job is respectable. He thought that that way he’d get a chance to see the elite, could exchange a few words with them, etc.; not because he had no life in his village. And he thinks his move has paid off. On one occasion, a movie star who played the villain roles came to visit the school. He was not like a villain at all! Everybody said that he was quite a gentleman. Venkanna agreed. On another occasion a minister came to visit. That day the hustle and bustle in the school was almost like the Mangalagiri Temple car festival. Venkanna was also in the photo taken at the time the minister laid the foundation stone for the building. The minister even had a kind word for Ventanna.

He could count such experiences on his fingers. Simmachalam does not understand this.

“Why can’t we stay in our village and farm our little strip of land,” she questions with puzzled looks.
“What is there in farming. One time flooding is enough to wipe out everything clean,” says Venkanna.
“Didn’t my brother say that we haven’t had a grain in 3 years?” he adds. “And why should we believe him?”
“Well, because we have to believe one man or one God. Who said that? I think it is that movie star Jaggayya.”
She doesn’t know all the intricacies of a school administration, poor thing, he told himself, feeling a little sorry for her ignorance.

Simmachalam watched him leave whistling. She also got up to go to work.
A little smile spread on her lips.
***

Sarmaji hit the roof as soon as he spotted Venkanna at the gate. “I told you to come at dawn and you show up now,” and then he turned toward the kitchen, “Is the coffee ready yet?”. He turned again to Venkanna again and said, “Go, go. Quick. Get a horse-cart. Not that lame horse. I know it is your wife’s brother’s father-in-law’s cart. That horse moves like a snail. Get Viraswamy’s cart.” Sarmaji continued issuing orders while fixing the pleats on his dhoti and putting on a clean shirt.

By that time Venkanna is long gone. So he turned again to the kitchen and continued giving orders to his wife. He was going bonkers for over a week about this DEO’s visit. He got the entire school building washed as if it were Pongal festival. Made sure that the cobwebs are cleared from all corners. All the library books that scattered all over the town were brought back. The walls were whitewashed. The black boards received a new coat of paint. The falling fence around the garden was fixed upright.

For each of these jobs he had to bellow like a small train engine. He told Elamanda to paint the dark patches on the exterior wall. Elamanda brought a bucketful whitewash, went through a few gestures of painting as if he were playing a role on the stage and disappeared behind the walls to smoke a beedi.

“If you keep disappearing like this how can we get the job done,” Sarmaji asked him with a frown.
“Just for a second, saar, just for one puff” he replied humbly.

Somehow Sarmaji got him to pick up the brush again and turned around only to see that Venkanna was nowhere to be found. He told Venkanna in no uncertain terms that beautifying the garden comes only after painting the black boards. Assuming that Venkanna was in the garden, he sent Puttanna to bring him back in to the building. He waited and waited. There was no sign of either of the two peons. Gritting his teeth, Sarmaji went to find them himself. He found them in the south wing where the first Assistant was making them move book shelves.

A few weeks ago the first Assistant had all the library shelves moved to the science lab since there were no books in the library. He was using them to stock the science equipment and other stuff. Now, since the library books are being gathered and brought back to the library, the shelves need to go back to the library.
Sarmaji has just about had it. “How come you need only these two idiots all the time. Didn’t I tell you to put the lab attenders to work also?” He said swallowing his anger like a bitter pill and issuing an order in the form of a question.”

“Attenders, sir? Where are they? One of them went to fetch your children. And the other went to your house. He said your wife wanted to run an errand for her”. There was a note of satisfaction in his tone–the kind one feels after settling a long overdue account. It was bothering him for a long time. The headmaster won’t let the peons go to the assistant’s house.
“How long does it take to fetch the children? These fellows take two hours for a 5 minute job. Why couldn’t you tell them to return soon. Do I have to mention that detail as well? Of course. The world has to think I am a heartless despot and you all model citizens.”

Sarmaji left growling like a ferocious animal.

The first assistant was confused, failing to see the connection between his words and the headmaster’s reaction. By the time the arrangements were completed almost all of them showed the Shakespearean face. No matter how attentive they were to details, there was always something still incomplete. By the time Sarmaji finished the coffee the younger daughter gave him, he saw Venkanna, along with the horse-cart and Ramulu holding the straps. Since Sarmaji was ready, he got into the cart. “How come it took so long,” he said as if it were a formality to yell at Venkanna.

“Viraswamy’s cart broke down. And you said ‘no’ to my brother-in-law’s cart. It took all this time to track down Ramulu,” answered Venkanna. He replied because it was his duty to reply. He wasn’t sure if Sarmaji cared to hear what he has to say.

Ramulu’s horse has no physical disabilities. But it is not broken yet. Ramulu and the horse were still new to each other. He walloped his whip and jumped on to the cart seat. The horse in protest completed on full circle right where he was. After a few minutes of struggle all of them were still at the same spot. Ramulu got off and was trying to explain the directions to the horse; the horse started walking backward!

In Sarmaji’s mind fear replaced anger. Panic struck and he started uttering several sounds expressing surprise, anger, fear and frustration. The script went somewhat like this:
“Hey, hey, ho, ho..”
“Stop, stop”
“What is this, a horse or a donkey?”
“This is what you’d get for the DEO?”
“Gosh!, what did I do to deserve this?”
“Should I jump out or stay put?”
The last line was not spoken but it was in his head. One of his legs stuck out from the back of the cart.

Ramulu kept reassuring him that there was nothing to be afraid of. He said the horse was a pancakalyani(God Indra’s). It’s only a matter of getting used to. Once he starts he will fly like a rocket…
Venkanna couldn’t decide he should take sides with whom.

While all the three thus got lost in their own monologue kind of words, they arrived at the railway station. They felt better after learning that the train was running two hours late. They were also happy that coffee in the thermos stayed in the thermos. The horse settled down chewing the cud.

Finally after two hours’ waiting, the DEO, his youngest daughter Saroja, his personal assistant and the peon got out of the train. Venkanna felt great being the first to meet the DEO among all the school peons. “Hey, why are you standing there like a flagpole. Get that suitcase and basket,” Sarmaji yelled at him. And he turned to the DEO and expressed his belief that they had a comfortable journey. Then they were lead to a kind of waiting room. While the DEO and his daughter were freshening up, Venkanna felt lost since he wasn’t sure how he could serve the coffee for so many people. The DEO’s peon did not offer to help Venkanna. He was maintaining his status.

Venkanna was jerked out of his train of thought by Sarmaji’s voice. He was cursing Venkanna for standing there like a lamppost and ordered him to serve coffee. Venkanna picked up the thermos like an accursed spirit. Still he did not know how to explain that there wasn’t enough coffee in the thermos for all of them.
Sarmaji looked at him growling one more time. There is a blame in those looks. They are saying I brought you because you are better among the lot. Those looks are saying “Oh, God! Why are you doing this?” The DEO was upset that Sarmaji and Venkanna were standing there staring at each other like the actors who forgot their lines on the stage. The daughter was annoyed for no reason. The first assistant intervened. He gestured to say that “Serve it only to the DEO and his daughter”.
The personal assistant pulled Venkanna aside and asked, “Can’t we get tea around here?”

Venkanna sincerely hoped that he could tea for this gentleman.

“No, sir. We don’t have a tea stall within 4 miles. As soon as we reach our village, I will make sure that you will get first class tea,” he said making the personal assistant sad and happy within same one minute.
Finally each struggling with their own thought, they all managed to arrive at the guesthouse.

Sarmaji noticed that the DEO is not pleased with the room. He turned to Venkanna and said, “Didn’t I tell you to get this room cleaned first thing in the morning,” and added as a compliment, “lazy buggers”. Venkanna was enjoying the moment–watching the daughter’s pleasure at the sight of the red hibiscus, which he himself put in the vase last night. So he was not upset by Sarmaji’s anger. Instead he convinced himself that “The saar, as an officer of the system, has his own problems and obviously forgot that Venkanna was with him (Sarmaji) since the crack of dawn”.

Sarmaji also got lost looking for an answer for some question the DEO raised. “Cant we get cigarettes here?” He wants Navycut. Sarmaji couldn’t tell the DEO that the only kind they can get here is Berkeley, or have to settle for beedi. So he ordered Venkanna. “Go, quick. Bring a tin of Navycut. Should be back as if you never left this place.”

Venkanna jumped on to his bike like a fighter-cock in the ring. He was hoping that he could find one or two cigarettes, if not a whole tin, in somebody’s pocket. He knows he can’t get even if he had a crystal ball. All that is on his mind at that moment is how happy the saar will be IF he can find some.

By mid-day he could find a half-packet in some small store. “You took half a day to bring 5 cigarettes,” Sarmaji yelled but there was no harshness in his voice. “Go home and get carrier meals. It is getting late.”

Venkanna hopped on his bike again and left. The madam has the food ready but there were no banana leaves to serve in. He had to hunt for leaves for another hour. By the time he got to the guesthouse, everybody there was boiling with hunger and anger. Venkanna scrambled through and quickly set the table. By the time they all finished eating it was three in the afternoon. Sarmaji told Venkanna to go home for his lunch and be back in five minutes.

Only he knows that he cannot get home in five minutes; God knows there is no time to eat. So he went to the fruit stall at bus stand, ate a bun and returned. It took ten minutes.
It was announced that the DEO will rest for the day and go on inspection of the school the following day. Venkanna was told to stay there waiting on the DEO.

The DEO’s daughter wanted to see the garden now. So inspection of the garden was scheduled for the same evening. The daughter picked as many flowers as she pleased. The DEO looked at the fresh vegetables with “approving” eyes. He pointed out his favorites without exactly saying so. He turned to Venkanna and said, “Very good”. His daughter sad, “Beautiful”. Venkanna nearly choked as he replied, “Namaskaram, saar and madam”.

In the evening he again brought carrier(food) from the headmaster’s home. It was 10:30 by the time they finished supper. Venkanna still hasn’t gotten permission to go to his home for his supper.

The DEO leaned back in the easy chair comfortably, and lighted a cigarette and flipped the burning matchstick to the area behind. The match stick fell on the plastic table cloth. There appeared a design automatically on the table cloth.

Sarmaji flared up pretty much like that table cloth. It was his. He got it from his home just to impress the DEO. “You scoundrel! How many times have I told you that you should always be alert. You will never learn. The only way you can learn is if you are fired. Alertness.” Then he turned to the DEO and said apologetically, “I told him, sir, yesterday to keep an ashtray here. Can’t he remember it when he brought the cigarettes at least?”

Venkanna did not say that he was never told about the ashtray.

The DEO said, sounding casual, “You must know how to manage these people. Fine him”. It was almost like preaching some sort of a universal philosophy. Sarmaji told Venkanna that he was fined five rupees. The reason: negligence of duty, he was further told.

The next day the DEO has inspected the classes, the school building, the laboratory, and the library. He showered praise: the school building is clean, the garden is beautiful, and the all the teachers appeared to be respectful. He shook hands with the headmaster and all the teachers. Gave his blessings to the young and advised them to work hard.

After putting the DEO and his gang on the train, the headmaster took a sigh of of relief. “Gosh, he’s gone. I could have easily performed the marriages for two girls,” he told himself. He also hoped that the DEO would not write a “bad repot” after all this stress and strain. Sarmaji proudly relayed DEO’s comments to his wife. The DEO said, “I should congratulate you”.

At the same time, Simmachalam was serving food for Venkanna, gave him a piece of pickle she got from madam’s house and saved for him. “You haven’t eaten for a week. At least now you sit, relax and eat well,” she told him with a touch of concern in her voice.
Venkanna took a bite of the pickle with great relish and went on narrating all the wonderful things that happened at school. “Can you imagine how happy the deeyivo saar was to see the garden; he praised it so much; he said very good. The young lady said oh, beautiful, lovely in English. The headmaster saar made me pack one basket full of flowers and two baskets full of vegetables to send with them. It seems he’d kill for green beans. And he also shook hands with the headmaster and all the teachers. A perfect gentleman!…”

Venkanna went on blabbering zealously.
Simmachalam was watching him and giggling.

There was only one detail Venkanna did not mention to Simmachalam. That he was fined five rupees the day before!

*****
(End)
Editorial note:
As a daughter of a school teacher and later as an administrator of a university library, I have come to know the low-class people– peons, janitors and maid servants. I was always impressed with their openness. I’ve also noticed the pride those low-class people have in their jobs, their big heart to forgive the transference of the frailties, fears and frustrations inherent in the middle-class moralists. And, at the end of the day, these small people enjoy their measly meal and sleep with content. How many of the middle class and the rich can say that?
Then there are questions: After we got our independence, we have democracy in place, have laws against untouchability professing equality, are working towards the eradication of the evils of caste system, and introduced western institutions in the name of progress. Instead of, or in addition to, higher castes now we have higher officials. Have we really progressed? Have things really changed? If so, for whom?

The award-winning Telugu story, chiru chakram has been published in Andhra jyothi weekly, April 2, 1971.

The Telugu original is available here

 

 

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))

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