Book Review: The Greatest Telugu Stories Ever Told

Reviewed by: Atreya Sarma U



The Greatest Telugu Stories Ever Told
Trans. by Dasu Krishnamoorty & Tamraparni Dasu
Aleph Book Company, 2022
ISBN 978-93-91047-30-6 | Pp 186 | HB ₹ 699



An eclectic mix of stories in the Telugu land across a century down to the present times by leading writers

U Atreya Sarma

Fact is stranger than fiction, it’s said. When such facts are inventively fictionalised it creates an alchemic impact on the readers’ minds. It triggers a churn of thoughts and stimulates them to cultivate a balanced view of life, develop qualities of empathy and essay their best for the betterment of the individual and the society – in a milieu of good-bad-and-ugly across the board. The Greatest Telugu Stories Ever Told is one such collection of 21 short stories by as many writers, rendered into English by veteran journalist and writer Dasu Krishnamoorty & his daughter Tamraparni Dasu, PhD (Statistics), founder of “India Writes Publishers Inc,” a non-profit literary organisation supporting “high quality translation and the dissemination of short fiction written in Indian languages.” Anyone reading this collection would appreciate the seamless translation.

The stories relate to various time periods across a century until now. With five women and seven Muslim writers included, the collection represents an eclectic mix. The stories by Chalam, Boya Jangaiah, and Jajula Gowri focus on the lives coloured by caste prejudices, poverty, exploitation and hypocrisy. While the professional services of the plebians are welcome, they aren’t given their due respect by the patricians. The salacious Brahmin character in ‘The Madiga Girl’ by Chalam has seven children from his beautiful wife, with the eighth one in the offing, yet he grouses about his “barren life” juxtaposing it with the irresistible “curves” of a Madiga wench whom he courts. ‘Signature’ by Jajula Gowri captures the throes of the marginalised stung by internecine differences and with governmental welfare schemes reeking of venality.

The stories by Achanta Sarada Devi (‘The Coral Necklace’), Kanuparthi Varalakshmamma (‘The Night After’), and Addepalli Prabhu (‘An Ideal Man’) point out rank opportunism, bureaucratic bossiness and urban snobbery. Presuming that her daughter’s costly chain was stolen by a poor family, a rich housewife squeezes money from them but when later on she finds it in her own house she is heartless to return the money (‘The Coral Necklace’). Likewise, an indigent family hosts an urban snob caught in in a raging storm and when he offers them some money, they politely decline it, and it puts his vanity and sophistry about the importance of education, to shame (‘An Ideal Man’).

A good number of Indians go abroad for higher studies and lucrative jobs. When they visit India, some of them hold the country to ridicule at the drop of a hat. One such character Dr Appalraju with his borrowed smartness and English tries to apply the American norms here in India, and reels off those rules, regulations, and rights. You’ll enjoy the punch and suspense in this humorous story (‘House Number’) by Kavana Sarma who taught in the American and some other foreign universities.

Whenever geo-political upheavals fulminate, lives hang on a Damocles’ sword. ‘Bad Times’ by Illindala Saraswati Devi portrays how the family of an affluent nawab in the Nizam State, given to a lavish lifestyle, at the cusp of its merger into the Indian Union goes broke and helter-skelter. One of them suddenly dies, some manage to migrate to Pakistan, and the others are caught in the twists of fate, each in a different way. We can measure this gravity in the light of the recent political upheavals in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Ukraine. Here, the unsaid but glaring reality is the hapless plight of the Indic minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan as also in the Kashmir valley.

Adult franchise and political reservations per se may not be a fool-proof guarantee for the uplift of the downtrodden, hints Madhurantakam Rajaram (‘Exiled’). An illiterate ‘harijan’ (Dalit) becomes a village sarpanch sans any salary (during those times). He is robbed of his only means of livelihood that is manual labour, for no one is willing to engage him owing to the political halo he is supposed to have. Nor does he know the tricks of his trade as Sarpanch because of his illiteracy.

‘Yaatra’ by Turaga Janaki Rani delineates – the financial plan of a retiree in a lower-middle-class family for a relatively restful life, the differences in the extended family, and the compulsion of greasing the palms for the settlement of the long due pension arrears. ‘Water’ by Bandi Narayanaswami details the hardships of people in the water-starved areas especially when tangled with political skirmishes. ‘Adventure’ by Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao presents a smartly intelligent marriageable girl in a cryptic setting of one-sided love equations.

‘Morning Star’ by Palagiri Viswaprasad depicts the dilemma of an educated mother whose husband was slain in a faction feud in a village in the Kadapa district notorious for its infectious factionalism, where even women are sucked into being inexorably vindictive.

Though loose living is now kosher and fashionable, still there are women even in the poorer sections treasuring love and chastity beyond anything else, as in ‘Festival of Love’ by Vempalli Gangadhar.

While every writer in this collection deserves kudos, the Muslim writers merit a special mention. Their stories are inclusive or talk of the problems within their community.

‘Predators’ by Syed Saleem deals with the searing misery of those living on the corpses, and the corrupt cops that are parasitic. ‘The Truant’ by Dada Hayat provides an empathic peep into the psychology of a school going naïve little lad. ‘Eye-Opener’ by Chaduvula Babu draws our attention to the unenviable position of the older lot in the families. It also distinguishes between those who are outwardly curt and reserved but silently philanthropic, and the home birds who lack the warmth to spread it in the lives of the deprived.

‘Adieu, Ba’ by Baa Rahmathulla is a narrator’s memoir of his father and grandfather – dynamic, friendly, trustworthy bullock-cart drivers operating in a symbiotic and harmonious relationship across caste and community lines. The narrator becomes a B.A. graduate thanks to his father’s vision.

In ‘A Mother’s Debt’ by Mohammed Khadeer Babu, a Muslim family with limited means is ignored by the well-settled married daughters who needlessly revile their mother. This could happen even in a non-Muslim family. ‘The Curtain’ by Vempalle Shareef exposes the insouciance and hatred an old woman faces from her son and his wife in the name of superstitions but with double standards.

‘Breeding Machine’ by Shaik Hussain Satyagni unveils the male chauvinism and the abuse of Triple Talaq unsettling many of the Muslim families. The victim in the story pledges to be chaste, and become a lawyer to protect the interests of divorcees like her with a conviction that the Quran hasn’t sanctioned a one-way Triple Talaq. And the stories by these progressive Muslim writers turn our attention to issues like the hijab of Muslim girl students where the supporters are aggressively and defiantly uncompromising; and also to regimes like Afghanistan and Iran where even the basic rights and sensibilities of women are savagely wiped out and the demon of multi-fanged religious terrorism fuelled by conspiratorial international funding has been relentlessly rearing its ugly head across the world – all because of outdated, deliberate. expansionist and exclusivist misinterpretations of the religious tenets.

The translators observe that “ethics offer no solution to the compulsions thrust upon the dispossessed” (viii) but they don’t suggest any specific solution even as the heartening reality is that there are many poor who stand upright with their moral fibre, and this reality reflects in the translators’ observation on the next page that “A poor hut-dweller nearby offers him shelter and food for the night” and the guest is “a city man… stranded at the breached banks of the river” and also in several stories in this book.

In short, this book is worth reading from every angle – stimulation of positive thoughts, critical introspection, quality of translation et al.

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