Volga, acclaimed feminist writer and editor of Telugu: The Best Stories of Our Times, notes that she swam through an ocean and ‘reached the shore holding on to the twenty-six stories,’ that ‘stand as witness to the time’. The resulting panoply features a diverse set of celebrated writers and dives deep into an array of important themes. Translators Alladi Uma and M Sridhar are careful to stay true to the original text, retaining Telugu sentence structures, colloquialisms, expressions and words. The resulting voices are powerful, lyrical, raw.
In the collection, eleven of the stories speak to women’s issues (patriarchy; political, economic, sexual rights; domestic abuse, etc.), nine stories engage with caste (and caste forms a sub-text in several others), five with the trauma of displacement from traditional occupations, four with growing religious intolerance, while other themes include globalization, feudalism, agriculture, land rights, poverty, the environment and treatment of animals. Most stories deal with several themes at once. These thematic distributions reflect the preoccupations of contemporary Telugu writers and society.
The stories are meant to reflect our times. Published in 1997, BS Ramulu’s ‘The First Rains’ is the oldest in the collection. The most recent is MSK Krishnajyothi’s tender environmental story ‘Ocean Boy’ published in 2019. Woven into the narrative fabric are the seismic changes of the last three decades: economic liberalization and globalization, the growing encrustations of religious identities, continuing agrarian and climate crises, the disruption of work and social structures, and changing aspirations. Most of the writers in the collection are above 50. Manasa Yendluri is the rare writer below 40.
In Yendluri’s charming, canny ‘Bottu Feasts’, a young Dalit-Christian college teacher wears bottus, sings Carnatic music, eats Tirupathi prasadam, and earnestly proclaims, ‘But I keep saying we must respect all religions.’ Delighted, her upper-caste Hindu colleagues welcome her into their fold and she goes to work to ‘have fun with them and share everything.’ But their embrace has its limits. She arrives at work one day to find they’ve snuck away for a traditional picnic. She’s not invited—it’s for their caste only. In this and other incidents, the educated and privileged woman (she’s one of the few protagonists in the collection who owns a cell phone, drives a car) handles herself with poise, her self-respect remains undiminished. The sarcasm underlying the narrative implies the joke is on the colleagues.