It appears that the editors of this anthology of English translation—Bh. Krsihnamurti, a linguistics man and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, and C. Vijayashree, Professor of English at Osmania University—did not have much of a choice. They have translated a Telugu anthology put together by Vakati Panduranga Rao and Vedagiri Rambabu after a three-day workshop in 1997. This was published in 2001. Krishnamurti and Vijayashree have presented thirty of the original sixty published in the Telugu collection. It is to be taken that the English editors agreed with the choice made by the Telugu editors. Of course, the final rap and commendation for the anthology in this English version squarely belong to Krishna-murti and Vijayashree. This might appear to be a trivial issue but it assumes importance after the Penguin edition of Telugu short stories edited by Ranga Rao, which was focused and sharp, and there was a critical awareness of the translation process as well. Those qualities which marked the Penguin edition are not to be found in this one as a general principle. It is not that we are looking for a manifesto of translation.
The critical sensibility that we associate with an anthology seems to be absent here. And it appears to be more a bureaucratic failure, and no one but the Sahitya Akademi has to take the blame for it. It is strange that the Sahitya Akademi, which is in many ways a robustly independent body compared to the other Akademis has not learned to sharpen its skills of literary judgment and presentation.
This book presents short stories of the last sixty years—though it was originally selected to celebrate the 50 years of Independence—and they have been presented in a chronological order. That is a good thing because as you read through you can sense the changes, not that there are too many of them or that they are too radical. The exceptions are, of course, Kolakuluri Enoch’s ‘The Village Well’ and Boya Jangayya’s ‘Ants’. They voice protest in a creative manner, and the authors have adopted a strategy of subterfuge as it were in their narratives. You are bowled over by the sheer vibrancy of the story, and the political message of revolution erupting unheralded is an afterthought as it were. And that is what good writing is all about—the purpose of the story is refracted, and the impact is made.
While Jangayya excels in creating an atmosphere sizzling with the act and action, Enoch brings in the prowess of a great writer in embedding the minutiae of life and work. And one is tempted to ask for more of the work of these two writers and others like them. As a matter of fact, these stories imbued with the spirit of the politics of hardship and hatred are so readable because many creative writers of the political protest stuff fail to serve up a good story in the first place, and are content to rest on the virtue of exposing a social evil. Enoch and Jangayya understand that such naivete would not do. The two stories at the beginning of the anthology, Chaso’s “The Choice” (1947) and Palagummi Padmaraju’s ‘The Boat Moves On’ (1948), present a wistful picture of the middle- class writer looking into the heart of the poor people. Both of them are well-told stories, with a deep understanding of human psychology. Chaso’s realism, which resembles more Dostoyevski than Maxim Gorki, displays ruthless honesty as well as compassion. The daughter of a leper is asked by her father to choose a blind man for a husband rather than a lame one. And the father argues his point on the basis of inexorable logic, the heartless logic of a harsh world, which derives from a primordial life source rather than a distorted social reality. And the girl, Erri’s despair and helplessness are described in a laconic style: it seems to evoke Aristotelian pity and fear, and, yes, at the end of it there is a sense of catharsis as well.
Padmaraju’s story is mild, romantic and melancholic. This is the tale of Rangi—the woman bears the drunkard and unfaithful lover Peddalu’s petty crimes, including thieving and beating her up. When the genteel, middle-class narrator asks Rangi: “Then, why don’t you walk out on him?” she replies: “I feel exactly like that when he thrashes me. Still, there is no man like him, sir. You don’t know, sir. When he is sober, he is very tender, and he melts like butter. Even if he carries on with a hundred women, he will always come back to me. If he doesn’t find me, won’t he die of a heart-break?” This is an unlettered woman’s testament of life and love, something that goes against the feminist credo of self-respect and survival. But life and love are what Rangi says—unjust, unfair, and yet overpowering. And it does not seem to matter that Chaso and Padmaraju are not poor themselves. They are not merely empathizing with the plight of the very poor. They have been able to reach out, in the manner of good creative writers, to the very heart of human beings. These two stories with their realistic tenor transcend the bounds of shallow realism.
It is this miraculous transcendence that makes literature and is missing from the majority of the stories in this collection. This is not to say that they are badly written, or that they are not interesting enough. Many of them reveal the pains and pleasures, the trivialities of middle-class existence. D. Kameswari’s ‘The Cost of Tears’ is about a greedy Dr. Sarojini, who comes upon the moment of truth at a melodramatic turn. There is meaningless angst in Butchibabu’s ‘Shreds of Paper and Shards of Glass’ and in Turaga Janaki Rani’s ‘Pilgrimage’, the existential void stares at the reader again. But these stories fail to sound the depths.
There are some stories which could have been dropped from this selection. They include Viswanatha Satyanarayana’s ‘Three Beggars’, Chalam’s ‘A Flower Blossoms’ and Volga’s ‘Agony’. After reading Chaso’s and Padmaraju’s stories, Satyanarayana’s tale appears to be an exercise in virtuosity by a good poet. Chalam had better stories to write than this lustreless essay in abstract sensuality. Volga too falters because of the sheer abstractness of her narrative.
The meaningful thing to be done with this kind of a selection which spans half a century is a critical evaluation of each of the authors, and the changes that came into story-writing over the decades. What was needed was a separate introduction to each of the decades, and an assessment of the trends that came up during that time. The realism in Telugu stories is a many-hued one. It is ideological, playful, dark, and even trivial. There is a need to do a literary spectrum anlysis, as it were, of these stories. And it would be a rewarding one for anyone who cares to do it. The only caveat is that ideological and theoretical blinkers of any kind would not be of much help in this task.
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr. is a New Delhi-based freelance journalist.