Political and Social Reality in Telugu Fiction

 

V. V. S. Sarma

Indian Institute of Science

Bangalore

 

1.        Introduction

 

Asatoma Sadgamaya

Tamasoma Jyotirgamaya

Mrutyorma Amrutham Gamaya.

 

 

Through this prayer from Upanishads, our ancients requested divine guidance in leading one from untruth to truth, from darkness to light and from death to immortality. Whether the seeker is a writer of fiction or a research scientist or a person engaged in any other activity, this remains the stated or unstated top level objective. From darkness to light really implies the journey from ignorance to knowledge. A person sees the world around him through his senses and interprets what he sees with his intellect. His vision gets reflected in his writing. In scientific writing, the natural scientist attempts to present objectively verifiable statements obtained through hypothesis, experiment and confirmation cycle. A social scientist, on the other hand, gets his data from subjective impressions of members of a society and tries to interpret them to the extent possible by scientific methods. In fiction, on the other hand, his unique perception of a situation is presented as a story narrated with hypothetical characters.

 

Twentieth century is unique in several respects in the history of mankind. The industrial revolution followed by the information revolution, the two world wars, redrawing of the political map of the world, and the scientific and technological revolutions have changed the world beyond recognition. Independence struggle, partition of India in 1947, formation of AP state, Kashmir problem, annexation of Tibet by China, creation of Bangladesh, civil war in Afghanistan, Sept 11 attack in USA and ethnic trouble in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) were some of the major political events, which affected India in this century. These events had tremendous impact on the Indian Society. If each of the following cities and towns in the Indian subcontinent were to narrate their own stories at 25 year intervals from 1900 to 2000, contemporary Indian history will reveal itself: Ayodhya (Oudh), Delhi, Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai (Bombay), Chennai (Madras), Dhaka (Dacca), Karachi, Lahore, Hyderabad (Deccan/AP) and Puttaparthy. Each of the ten human habitats on the Indian subcontinent has its own unique story to narrate the changes in the lives of millions of human beings. Each individual, one time resident of these cities, has a unique story to narrate with his experiences, his encounters with reality of life and death, his agony and ecstasy and his survival in a society in these troubled times. The societal changes even at the level of every village were no less significant. Many works of fiction have captured some of these events and Telugu writers have also witnessed many of these events and documented them in their works.

 

The short story and the novel are two popular forms of literary expression in Telugu in the twentieth century, often classified as fictional literature. These have replaced poetry, which was the traditional vehicle for literary expression in the previous nine centuries of literary activity in Telugu. The English word novel itself, modified as navala, is the Telugu word denoting the same object. In contrast, the corresponding Hindi and Kannada words are upanyas and kadambari, respectively words borrowed from Sanskrit. The early novels of Kandukuri Veeresalingam have taken inspiration from English novels. In the second phase, translations of Bengali novels and stories, particularly those of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (Sarat Babu), created a taste for fictional literature providing a true reflection of contemporary society.

The two words - fact and fiction - are often used as antonyms. A fact denotes a statement verified to be true or assumed and generally accepted to be true. Science is supposed to establish objectively verified and verifiable facts concerning the universe and nature, while the newspapers are supposed to present the facts regarding the events happening around us. The statements in some religious texts are fundamental truths requiring no further verification for the followers of those religions. Fiction denotes something unreal, created purely out of imagination of a human. If fiction describes a completely imaginary world, what is its relevance to the real world? The world in which a human being lives influences him (or her) and he (or she) is attached intimately with the world around. Even in fiction, it is the reality of the world that the author perceives around him that gets reflected in his work, presented in a created environment. It is the personality or ego of the author that provides him or her the viewing glasses with which he or she observes the world around. What is straight might appear crooked, what is clear might appear hazy and any one with modest familiarity with optics knows the problems of vision and even those of optical illusions. What one perceives in a situation varies from person to person. Similarly, facts often turn out to be one's set of axioms or beliefs and many a time the author cannot go beyond his own rigid frame of mind. There is a subtle difference between truth and reality. Logic explores this difference. How we go about knowing the truth concerning an object has been the subject of investigation by philosophers for millennia. Science is concerned about sensory, perceptual knowledge and using the internal instrument of mind to explain the physical (including biological) phenomena we see around us. Modern psychology explores the mind. Is mind distinct from brain? Are there things (e.g. God, Soul) which are beyond sensory perception? Is it necessary to consider several layers of mind to explain the enormous diversity in the behaviour of human beings such as the layers of lower mind[1], intellect[2], consciousness[3], ego[4] and soul[5]?

 

 

Many works of Telugu fiction have effectively captured and documented some of the events of Twentieth century. There were several conflicting cultural currents from the rest of India and from all over the world and many writers are enamoured, confused and even submerged by some of the new waves. They were confronted suddenly with a large number of new concepts and movements, of which they had no first hand experience. Some of these are regionalism, nationalism, political independence, democracy, communism, socialism, technology, radical humanism, modernism, atheism, Christianity and religious fundamentalism and large-scale conversions. In addition, rapid developments in science, attraction of rationalism as against misunderstood traditions, a new vision of the society and promise of fairness, equality and justice forced many writers to look for new avenues, values, solutions and social structures. Rabindranath Tagore prayed for a free country, "where the mind is without fear and where the clear stream of reason has not dried up in the dreary desert sand of dead habit". The average Telugu writer became impatient and Communism promised quick results through revolutions. He had been brain washed by many that Hinduism, the majority religion of the country was the origin of all social evils in India. It was assumed that an average Hindu was basically superstitious: he believed in astrology, in rebirth, in the results of his karma (actions, good and bad yielding results even in the next life), in Vaastu (traditional architecture), in good and bad times for commencing many activities etc. The Hindu society suffers from a stifling caste system, a supposedly ridiculous polytheistic set up with gods such as a monkey god[6] and an elephant god[7] and built-in exploitation of untouchable castes by upper castes. Hinduism thus became the root cause of the social problems plaguing the country, which had to be denounced and destroyed for creation of brand new world. Christian missionary activity in India is helped by the set of distorted perceptions unrelated to the real Hindu religion. It is the fictional literature that is partly responsible for this misinformation campaign assisted by the cinema and the TV in the later days. The missionaries and evangelists, even now, are trying to win many Indian Hindus into the fold of the good shepherd, and this activity has been described as the continuing great harvest of Indian souls in missionary circles[8]. The long and some times painful interaction with Islam, particularly with Muslim invaders such as Mahmud of Ghazni and Nadir Shah and the fears of Muslims regarding what would happen after independence have led to partition of India in 1947 and created recurring communal riots in the country.

 

 

2. The World of the Fiction Writer

 

The fiction writer, in general, is a keen and sensitive observer of the world around him. He describes characters interacting with each other displaying various emotions and acting in several ways to convey the viewpoint and real world experiences of the author. Some times he may have to mentally move to a different time and place, as the setting of the story requires. Examples of this are Ekaveera of Viswanatha and Himabindu of Bapiraju set in different eras and locations. A story depicts a chain of events or situations and the reactions of the various characters. The author presents a series of episodes involving several individuals from which the reader may draw his own conclusions. The behaviour patterns of various characters produce an overall impact on the reader. Literary effort itself is compared with gardening. In this context, I remember Madhurantakam Rajaram's story "Halikulaku kusalama?" The metaphor in this story is that each book is like a plant or tree in a garden. Some have fragrance, while some may have beautiful flowers and yet have some thorns. Some may be fruit yielding trees or plants but there are also weeds, wild shrubs and plants like the opium poppy. There are coffee and tea plants for milder excitation and tobacco for long term addiction. There is illegal cultivation and genetic mutation in literary field also. I have read Somerset Maughm adaptations in Andhra settings without acknowledgements. The Ramayana and the Bhagavatham are compared to Kalpa-Vriksha (the wish yielding divine tree). Even today people read with devotion chapters from these books daily for finding solutions to their day to day problems. Attempts to condemn these epics are also many. A favourite example of some writers today is Drona's asking of Ekalavya's thumb in the Mahabharatha interpreting the event as Brahmin exploitation of Ekalavya, whose caste status in 3000 B. C. being identified as equivalent to that of one of the Scheduled tribes of 1950 Indian constitution. Poor Ekalavya was also denied admission to the Royal Academy of Archery, Hastinapur!

 

In one short story, Rachakonda describes a series of conversations between some two persons, each one, soon after a devastating war. The wars were the Mahabharatha war (3000 B. C.), the Kalinga war (200 B. C.), the war of Panipat (1500 A. D.) and the World War II (1945 A. D.). The implied conclusions are many: Wars seem to be inevitable to mankind. Humans do not seem to learn many lessons after each war in spite of the enormous destruction each war brings. The world goes on with its major conflicts. May be the horror of nuclear weapons has prevented World War III so far but conflicts seem to be unending. Conflict itself is part of human nature, traditionally called the battle between the Devas and Asuras in Indian tradition pictured in the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha or it is the recurring clash of civilizations as a modern author remarked (e.g. Crusades, Jihad or Maoist Cultural Revolution). Puranas are post-Vedic narratives of stories of creation and accounts of ancient kings and sages of India. These were dismissed by early Western critics as useful sources of information on early Indian History as the time spans proposed in these texts did not fit into their world view of creation prompted by Biblical time scales. On the other hand, the Indian contributions to Astronomy and Calendar (Panchanga) computations indicate, Indians knew a lot about the notion of time and its relation to planetary motion. Vishnu Purana contains a detailed view of Indian Cosmology. The modern dating of the Mahabharatha is based on the astronomical data in the epic such as that of a large number of eclipses occurring within a fortnight.

 

Contrary to expectation, history texts and newspapers contain many examples of fabricated stories or fiction described as facts. Aryan Invasion Theory in Indian History is one such example. Dravidian -Aryan race theory is another. The former term refers to the southern region of India and the latter term refers to a noble man! What was Sepoy-mutiny in 1857 to British rulers, was the first war of Indian independence for Indian historians. A native (red) Indian's view of who is a real American, might differ considerably from that of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant American from Boston and that of an Asian who has acquired US citizenship few days ago. In the hay days of Communist rule, Russia used to have two newspapers titled Ijvestia and Pravda, literally meaning news and truth respectively. The popular joke then was "There is no news in The Truth and no truth in The News." In India today, the newspaper calling itself "The Hindu", indulges in the most vocal "anti-Hindutva" campaign. Similarly, there may be lots of instances reflecting various degrees of truth and reality in the so-called fictional literature. The characters an author describes in a novel often appear to be quite similar to the real world men and women the author encountered, with fictitious notes or located in fictional settings. P. V. Narsimha Rao's[9] recent political novel "The Insider", has been labeled by several critics as autobiographical. R. K. Narayan's fictional town Malgudi, could be any small town in South India.

 

Fiction by itself is not an innovation of recent times. The ancient epics and puranas of India carried countless stories. Whenever Yudhistira asked a doubt, the grand old man of the Mahabharatha, Bhishma used to narrate a story dealing with the problem, from which Yudhistira could draw his own conclusions. The questions spanned a wide range from "Who is to be called a true Brahmana?" to "Is it a woman or man, who experiences greater pleasure in the amorous play?"[10] Panchatantra and Hitopadesa are pure fiction conceived to teach human nature as stories with morals to youngsters. Whatever may be the setting, the aim of fictional literature is to entertain and to educate. How the twentieth century Telugu authors fared in the context of this branch of Telugu literature is the question we briefly attempt to answer in this essay.

 

3. Some Well Known Writers of Telugu Fiction

 

It is difficult to select few stories or novels from among a large number of stories or novels, which appeared in print in the last century. I can not claim that I have read all or even a significant percentage of them. I shall give only the names of some of the authors I have read. They are: Kandukuri Veeresalingam, Gurajada Appa Rao, Chilakamarthy Lakshmi Narasimham, Adavi Bapiraju, Viswanatha Satyanarayana, Palagummi Padmaraju, Kalipatnam Ramarao, Chalam, Sripada Subrahmanya Sastry, Munimanikyam Narasimha Rao, Arudra, Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao, Tenneti Hemalatha, Malathi Chendur, Yaddanapudi Sulochana Rani, Koduri Kausalya Devi, Kandukuri Linga Raju, Kandukuri Anantham (Karuna Kumara), Mudigonda Sivaprasad, Ranganayakamma, Kavana Sarma, Buchi Babu, Yendamuri Veerendranath, Mullapudi Venkataramana, Madhurantakam Rajaram, Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry, Tripuraneni Gopichand, Bina Devi and Bhanumathi. These are some of the names I recollect offhand. I should state that I read these works of fiction long ago more for entertainment than for enlightenment. Reading Telugu magazines with these novels and stories was a favourite pastime in my student days (1955 - 1970). I am sure I read a lot more. Detective novels were popular in 1960s but they were no where near the standard of the stories of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Connandyle) or lawyer Perry Mason (Erle Stanely Gardner) or detective Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie). Arudra's police inspector Venu in Telugu novels of this type was way behind in maturity and popularity and was not a trendsetter.

 

Among the Twentieth century authors in Telugu, only one person stands apart as the mighty Himalayan Peak of Mt. Everest in Telugu literature. Undoubtedly the century belongs to Viswanatha Satyanarayana. It is unfortunate that he was disliked by many, often for wrong reasons. He was a poet, scholar, and novelist and had a range of scholarship which none could match in the Telugu speaking country at that time. He was equaled by probably very few in the whole of India, like Rabindranath Tagore, who got the Nobel prize for literature for his many Bengali works and is a multi-dimensional personality. Viswanatha matches him in some, excels him in some more and might be lacking in some like painting or institution building (Viswa Bharathi and Santhiniketan of Tagore) due to his middle class social context. Tagore was a born aristocrat, and the Bengali society helped him to attain his standing in the literary world. Viswanatha was disliked because of his world-view that Sanathana Dharma (loosely referred to as Hinduism) was the essential ingredient of Indian life in all its dimensions. In addition, all others around him were just mediocre, whether it was with respect to the depth of knowledge, command of language or literary style. For example, Viswanatha, Sri Sri and Devulapalli Krishna Sastry were considered the trinity of Telugu poetry. Viswanatha represented the classical tradition, Sri Sri, the progressive revolutionary tradition (based on a Marxist worldview) and Krishna Sastry, the romantic tradition respectively. Today, if one is to reassess their roles objectively, (none of them is alive today) the latter two turn out to be almost insignificant, in spite of their top class poetry. A study of the complete works of Viswanatha shows how the Telugu country did not treat him well and could not benefit from his powerful literary presence spanning over sixty years. Viswanatha's "Veyi padagalu " (thousand hoods of Adisesha the divine serpent carrying the earth, and the bed of Vishnu) is a symbolic presentation of the multiple dimensions of Dharma (the guiding principle of the world). He observes that one survives in India today, the sacredness of the institution of marriage as a foundation of civil society. His "Cheliayali katta" deals with human behaviour trying to cross the lines imposed by Dharma.

 

4. Telugu Fiction - Some Glimpses

 

Fifty years of independence has not solved any of these problems facing the Hindu society or the problems of fair governance of a large and diverse country in a democratic mode. The Telugu writer of the twentieth century had no option but to face the reality of the complex world around him. Along some of the dimensions, world class literature has been created and some of the representative works are being made available to the other language readers through translations. In certain other dimensions, Telugu literature suffers from the fact that the vision and the canvass of the Telugu fiction writer are quite limited. Often, his view is some times that of a frog in a well and he is carried away by first thoughts rather than well-reasoned and well-researched study. Let us illustrate both the dimensions with some examples:

 

4.1     Hindu family

 

Sanctity of the institution of marriage is the hallmark of Hindu culture. From the classics such as Narayana Rao of Adavi Bapiraju and Veyipadagalu of Viswanatha, several stories and novels focussed on the Hindu family. The Joint family system provided family level social security. How the joint family system worked and how the system gradually started breaking up in the post independence urbanization process has been the subject of many stories and novels. The incidental benefits such as how the old were looked after in stead of spending their last days, neglected by the family, in an old-age home, which is a new globalization aftereffect visible in Indian society today are also described. In addition, the novels of Bapiraju and Viswanatha have enormous educational value to the average reader on several facets of Indian culture. Bapiraju's "Toophan" describes the mental conflicts of the youth in choosing between modernity and tradition. The conflicting claims for Madras City (now Chennai) between Telugus and Tamils (the conflict in which Telugus lost) and the background of the conflict was an interesting sidelight of the novel. When I read Kodavatiganti, I was impressed by his keen observations of middle class life (e. g. Kotha Kodalu, Kotha Alludu). But some of his so-called galpikas narrating Upanishad stories (e. g. One on the Sage Yajnavalkya's debate in king Janakas's court) are simply mediocre. Debunking sacred literature does not lead any one anywhere. A usual statement in Telugu usually attributed to leftists ridiculing a classical scholar is "annee vedallone unnaisha!" (It seems everything is in the Vedas). This remark only exposes the shallowness of the speaker.

 

4.2     Hindu women and their problems

 

The status of women in Indian society varied from ancient times to the recent past significantly. On one side, Hindu religion has given supreme importance to the concept of God as Mother (Adisakti) and the country itself was called Bharat Matha (Mother India), a form of Mother goddess Durga herself in the song "Vande Matharam". Women like Maitreyi and Gargi were famous in Vedic times. Similarly, Kunti and Draupadi excelled in the Mahabharatha. But in recent past (past few centuries, in fact, for a variety of reasons) the status of women has considerably gone down in Indian society, particularly after invasions by Muslim rulers. Dowry, child marriage, restricting the role of women to home, shabby treatment of widows, denial of economic independence by way of a fair share in property etc. have become social evils of considerable importance. Numerous stories and novels dealt with these including problems of domestic violence by drunken and gambler husbands exhibiting criminal behaviour. Ranganayakamma considered these issues with considerable merit. She has also described the real life problems of inter-caste marriages. After women started working, the exploitation of women at the work place has become a common affair[11]. Rachakonda, being a lawyer, has described how the legal system in India can even work against the poorer sections or the middle classes. While the dowry problem exists in some sections of the society, the myth of much advertised dowry deaths in India is a popular misnomer. In fact, a foreigner recently commented that "arranged marriages" in Indian society have become death traps. It is true occasionally a death of a young wife is reported in press and is often promptly labeled "dowry death". The statistics are analogous to saying that air travel is a death trap. The odds of dowry death in a marriage in India are far less than the death of an air passenger in an air crash! The strength of the Indian marriage is based on the multiple dimensions of the match looked at by the family of a girl in arranging a marriage! (Kanya varayathe rupam, matha vitham, pitha srutam etc.)(The girl looks at whether the boy is handsome, the mother looks at his financial stability and the father looks at the report regarding the boy and his family.)

 

4.3     The Happy Indian Joint Family

 

Munimanikyam among early writers showed the bliss in a lower middle class home. Ranganayakamma's "Andallamma garu" and "Sweet Home" and Bhanumathi's stories (Athagari kathalu) belong to this class. Bhanumathi's mother-in-law and daughter-in-law present a nice portrayal of the generation gap. Ganapathi by Chilakamarthi portrayed in a humorous way the decay in Brahmin families at that time. Barrister Parvatheesam by Mokkapati, was a hilarious narration of a village youth's travel to London. These were the days when fiction provided healthy entertainment. Budugu is a novel experiment by the Ramana-Bapu duo in children's stories. Runananda Lahari, Gireesam Lectures on Eleven Causes for the degeneration of Telugu Cinema by Mullapudi have satire and healthy humour in good proportions.

 

4.4     The Hindu Society

 

It is true that by the beginning of the Twentieth century the Hindu society has decayed considerably. Gurajada's "Kanya Sulkam", Kandukuri Veeresalingam's stories and Panuganti's Sakshi essays were aimed at social reforms, which were the need of the society then. Kandukuri was in forefront in social reform taking up issues such as widow remarriage. He had a multi-dimensional interest in Telugu literature and used literature as a tool for social reform.

 

4.5     Indian politics

 

Independent India adopted a democratic form of governance. Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi were ardent supporters of socialism. Nehru's vision resulted in a centralized planning system with the government trying to do every thing - from education, electric power, telecommunications and road transport to bread, watch and car making. A welfare state was promised and the terms "secularism" and "socialism" were introduced into Indian Constitution through its 46th amendment in 1976. This resulted in enormous corruption and inefficiency leading to what is described as license-quota-permit-Raj. By 1991 the state bankruptcy has led to the so-called liberalization and a forced and unplanned return of the economy to a Capitalist pattern. The corruption in government affects every section of society and is a way of life in India today. Telugu fiction has recognized this. An interesting political satire is Mullapudi Venkata Ramana's "Rajakeeya Bhetala Panchavinsatika", in the lines of the classical Bhetala stories of children. The Telugu story magazine for children Chandamama has popularized this form of story telling in the past decades.

 

4.6     The Caste System

 

The Hindu society as is well known is divided into four major castes - Brahmana (or brahmin, the religious scholar, the priest etc), Kshatriya (the warrior), Vysya (the business man) and Sudra (the service provider - the goldsmith, the blacksmith, the farmer, the barber, the washer-man etc.) The outcastes from the system are treated as untouchables, who took to menial jobs such as workers in leather goods. Even at the Mahabharatha time (3000 B. C. according to Indian scholars or 300 B. C. according to some Westerners), there were discussions on how to go about fixing the caste label of an individual or whether it is to be determined by birth alone). Some types of intermarriages (for example, between an upper caste woman and a lower caste man) are prohibited. The Sudra caste has subsequently evolved into hundreds of castes depending on the avocations they pursued. It is true that caste system has almost disappeared while caste-ism still raises its ugly head in several contexts in the independent India. Naturally, caste issues have been considered quite extensively in Telugu fictional literature. Communists have condemned caste and they often represented caste conflicts as class conflicts. The eternal theme was that of Brahmins and other upper castes exploiting the lower castes. If one looks at the caste distribution among writers it so happens that a significant majority of them are brahmins. Whether it is Gurajada (Kanyasulkam), Chalam (Brahmaneekam) or Rachakonda (Illu), the focus was on brahmins, their superstitions, their hypocrisy and the brahmins were the target of ridicule. The brahmin characters of Lubdhavadhani, Agnihotravadhani and Gireesam of Kanyasulkam may be found with some probability among brahmins here and there but they are not certainly in a majority. The fact is that it was the brahmin, who was the custodian of culture, religion and knowledge of India for several centuries. The brahmin was, by and large, never rich but he was the purohitha (the priest, literally the well-wisher of the town and the people of the town took care of his survival). It is the critics and those attracted by communism among brahmins, who ridiculed the community. On the other hand, rarely you find the self-criticism of this type among the writers of the other castes. This debunking has gone to such an extent that in many Telugu movies, the brahmin temple priest is often shown as an accomplice to the villain, usually a higher Sudra land lord. Every Christian priest (in the white robe of a Jesuit father) is often depicted as a paragon of virtue, in the mother Theresa or Jesus Christ mould. On the other hand, there is never any great discussion about characters of other castes, religions or their caricatures in the modern Telugu literature. There was certainly ill-treatment of the untouchable castes in villages, but it is often more in the context of lack of cleanliness, because of the professions they used to undertake - like a sweeper, a leather worker etc. which lead to observance of untouchability. It is this fact which the Christian missionary exploited and he promised that there would be no castes in the Christian religion and the convert would be of the only caste as that of King George, the Indian emperor. Karuna Kumara exhibited this nicely in one of his stories. A brahmin returning from Kasi engaged a bullock cart man to take him home from the railway station. On the way, he was shocked to find that the cart man, who called himself Polayya belonged to an untouchable caste. He complained about it to the village-elder, belonging to an upper caste (reddy, if I remember correctly), and when both of them were trying to harass the cart man, the cart man said that he would complain regarding this harassment to the church father. The brahmin-reddy duo realized that the cart man's name was Paul-iah and that he was a Christian convert. The duo was scared that the cart man belonged to the same religion as the British district collector and the British emperor. By and large the representation of the good and bad features of caste system in Telugu fiction is only one side of the real story. The predominance of brahmin writers only showed that caste - good and bad - in limelight, with lot of exaggeration. At the other end of the caste spectrum, the lowest, like mala, madiga (later named Harijans by Gandhi) and their plight was shown realistically in the early twentieth century literature. The intermediate castes particularly Vysya and upper Sudras (in Andhra Kamma, Reddy, Velama, Kapu etc.) represent the people who control the wealth and political leadership today. Discussion of issues pertaining to these castes is less often seen in the fictional literature. The pro-active reservation system brought in the constitution for scheduled castes and tribes and later for other backward castes and its effect on the quality of education system etc. are not honestly discussed in the literature. Caste often does not imply an economic class and the communism inspired literature in this direction, while extensive, is more fiction than fact.

 

4.7     Freedom struggle

 

Twentieth century marked the struggle for freedom from the British rule in India. Division of Bengal by the British created an environment in Bengal for freedom struggle. In literature, Bankim Chandra's novel Anandamath with the embedded song "Vandematharam" provided inspiration. The encounter of Gandhi with racism practiced in South Africa provided a historic event in his life and he arrived in India in 1920s to take leadership of the national struggle. The short story "Nalla tholu" (Dark skin) by C. Ramachandra Rao deals with this problem. This has a rare setting for a Telugu story on a tea estate probably in Darjeeling. (Reminds the experience of Gandhi in a South African train - a cooly barrister did not have the right to travel first class, when a white-skinned chap boards a train, even when the former had been travelling from an earlier station with proper ticket.) In the story "Nalla tholu" an Indian, was asked to get out of a party of whites, where the British couple who invited him became helpless onlookers. The irony is that among those present, only the Indian was Oxford-educated, but still his skin was dark!

 

 

 

4.8     The Encounters with Islam

 

The Telugu speaking state of Andhra Pradesh was under Muslim rule for several centuries. The encounter between Islamic rulers and the majority Hindu population is never properly and adequately represented in Telugu literature. The Islamic invaders from the North had destroyed several temples in Telengana, Rayalaseema and coastal regions of the state. But in the first half of twentieth century both the coastal and Rayalaseema regions were in British India as part of the Madras province till 1953. The minority Muslim population in this area (may be less than 10%) lived peacefully, but the Telugu literature had hardly mentioned about this segment. Occasionally a tailor or a jutka-wallah (horse cart man) or a shopkeeper was a Muslim character in the story. I remember one Muslim boy eloping with a Hindu housewife in a story of Chalam, who tried to show through this the bliss of such a union, lacking in a conventional wedlock. One of the friends of the hero in Adavi Bapiraju's novel Narayana Rao is a Muslim. Only Telengana was under Muslim rule till 1948. The Nizam's tyrannical rule gave primacy to Urdu in the region and utterly neglected Telugu. The language issue, the terrorism displayed by an Islamic group called "rajakars" and the ruler's aborted attempts to join Pakistan in 1947 have found some place in Telugu fictional literature emerging from Telengana-based writers such as Narasimha Rao and Dasarathi Rangacharya. Today issues such as the Madarsa (the Muslim religious school) education, the presence of ISI (the spy agency of Pakistan) and its support by a segment of Muslims, the impact of Sept 11 episode in USA in the world history are of considerable importance to Indians in India and abroad. Telugu fictional literature has not so far touched these issues. The experiences of Salman Rushdy after writing "Satanic Verses" and that of Taslima Nasreen after writing "Lajja " scares an average Telugu author to write about Islam. Kavana Sarma in his short novel "Paridhi" refers to the bigamous second marriage of a character. The character says that he had embraced Islam for this purpose. In India, the personal law for Hindus, Muslims and Christians is different. A Muslim alone can have four wives. But the character in his novel does not change his name nor does he say that he came out of Islam later, which is considered quite seriously in Islam. A recent news item in Bangalore concerns the murder of a Muslim girl and her husband, when she married a Christian boy. She had a child but her husband refused to convert to Islam and started bringing up the girl as a Christian. The father and brother of the girl are the accused in this murder case. Shah Bano's case in an Indian High court concerning the divorce and settlement of divorced Muslim women created waves. But these issues concerning the Indian Muslim society have not found any place in Telugu literature so far. Lack of literature concerning several segments of society might create problems of a different type. When Bangladesh (East Pakistan during 1947-72 and East Bengal of India prior to1947) wanted to adapt Bengali as national language, they found that most of the Bengali literature had only Hindu characters. They had to freshly commission books reflecting the social reality. (Probably our Telugu school books are now attempting to reflect the present demographic character of India with phrases like "Bassulo Hussenu", and introducing Amar-Akbar-Anthony type of character mix included in the stories in the school curriculum.)

 

4.9     Encounters with Christianity

 

Chrstianity as per oral tradition entered India through St. Thomas a disciple of Jesus in the first century A. D. He won few converts in Kerala area. A major event is the opening of sea route by Vacso da Gama. An unpleasant memory of the activities of missionaries arriving in Goa is that of Goan inquisiton. During the British rule churches received patronage and Christianity came to East Coast. Guntur, Chirala, Narasapuram, Bheemunipatnam, Machilipatnam were some of the places where churches were established. Writings of Vivekananda and Gandhi described their activities in some detail. The single most important factor causing demographic changes in Indian society today in Andhra is the spread of Christianity. We mentioned about the name Harijan[12] introduced by Gandhi. The word is no longer used because it is now factually incorrect. Most of them for the reasons explained under caste have become Christujan. Hari is the name of God, the protector in the Hindu Trinity and when these people turn to Christianity, the corresponding name is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. For political reasons, the fact is not advertised. There are several, who are Hindus as per official records for the sake of reservation benefits, while they are actually practicing Christians. The church is now fighting for recognition of the practice of caste system among Christians as well. Thus Christianity could not solve the caste problem, though it was effectively used for conversion. At least one Telugu book by a freedom fighter refers to the fact that some upper castes among them have become Protestant Christians while the lower have joined the Roman Catholic church. There is thus a Northern Ireland like church angle to the dispute among the scheduled castes. People did not want to sit in the same church. Similarly when upper castes got converted, they came to the conclusion that it might be convenient to retain the caste name even when they adapted a new religion. Names like Solomon Siva Reddy and David Somayajulu have become a reality. Matrimonial advertisements in Telugu newspapers confirm the prevalence of caste among Christians, while the fictional literature is yet to come to grips with these problems. English medium schooling has become the monopoly of Christian institutions and a well to do Telugu child today goes only to a convent. The Telugu child therefore knows only saints like St. John, St. Peter, St. Joseph and St. Anthony, at least by name and has no knowledge a Valmiki or Vyasa. The cultural backdrop of the Telugu country is undergoing rapid changes. Again the fictional literature has not kept pace with the reality of the surroundings. I read about a thesis by a Christian scholar of Telugu, Dr. Kripacharya on the contributions of Christians to Telugu language and literature. The printing in Telugu was due to the efforts of missionaries in Nineteenth century when they brought out The Holy Bible into Telugu. There are some discussions in literature about translating the Bible into Indian languages with title "Sathya Veda", with Jehovah referred to as Parameswara and the church as Devalaya. Sanskrit has also entered the church service with mantras such as "Sri Krista Yesavenamah".

 

4.10  Encounters with modernity

 

The avocations of people have changed with times. In olden days people used their caste to indicate what they do. A brahmin was a priest, a washerman washed clothes, a vysya did trade, a potter made pots, a barber did hair dressing. While some trades survive, several new trades came up. In the early days of Telugu fiction, like in Kanyasulkam, a police constable was a powerful person. A Tehsildar was a powerful post in the revenue department. A district collector and a governor are of course the top of the line jobs. Many Telugu stories concerned themselves with the behaviour of persons in these jobs. The term officer becomes adhikari in Telugu, denoting a higher power. The corruption, which goes with the government jobs, is an essential part of Indian social life. Many Telugu stories dealt with the corruption in government and politics. There were a few stories, which dealt with laboratories and research scientists. Kavana Sarma probably is the only Telugu fiction writer who wrote satirical stories concerning Ph. D. dissertations, brain drain, scientific conferences, science academies etc. Lellapalli Sarma wrote stories on unemployment and underemployment among educated youth. Vemuri Venkateswara Rao, a long term resident of U. S. A., has written science-based fiction in Telugu. But very few novels have the technical depth of other modern professions such as hospitals, air travel, drug companies and large corporations in the lines of Arthur Hailey's novels in Indian context. Yendamuri Veerendranath attempted this in some of his novels. Some of his other works (e.g Tulasi dalam) dealt with black magic, which is a favourite theme of TV serials. House surgeon, a novel by Kommuri Venugopalarao dealt with the problems of a fresh graduate doing his internship. The highly educated segment of Telugu population does not probably read or write much in Telugu. There is an oft-cited remark that says that Telugu fiction is often of kitchen-reading variety and the scope of the problems is restricted to the world of the middle class housewife. Even this may not be true, because the matrimonial ads of US based professionals now require a B. E. degree or M. C. A. (Master of Computer Applications, a unique Indian degree) for the would be bride. I have not seen much fiction describing the lives of software engineers or the recession in IT industry. Dharma, artha, kama and moksha are said to be the goals of life of an India. With the increasing distance from tradition, artha (or pursuit of wealth) to realize kama (desires) has become the only remaining goal. The dollar-rupee conversion ratio of 50:1 has made the quest for the US dollar the primary priority of life. Its effect on the finer values of life is becoming clearer by the day. The programmes of the Telugu TV channels and the stories of Telugu movies (and literature aiming to catch the TV producer's attention) illustrate this trend. It is usual in India to remember the dead parents on their dates of death and to perform some religious ritual. The concept of father's day and mother's day - remembering them for one day a year when they are alive caught on the enthusiasm of the Indian public. Similarly, the Valentine's day advertised by TV channels and print media is used for promoting "love-marriages" with the attachments of dating, exchanging gifts etc. All these are treated as symbols of modernity, just as cutting a birth day cake with putting off of lighted candles has now become a semi-traditional ritual for birth days. The fictional literature abounds in the instances of such encounters with modernity.

 

4.11  Encounters with Communism

 

The greatest influence which the Telugu fictional literature has drawn from outside in twentieth century is from the philosophy of Marxism. The word encounter itself has acquired special significance in the late twentieth century political jargon of Andhra Pradesh. The Russian revolution and later the Chinese version have attracted many intellectuals in India. They all thought (naively, in retrospect) that an ideal society will emerge, where there will be one class with equality as the basis with the old baggage of religion and culture (described as the opium of the masses) discarded. The promised "New World" (Maro prapancham of Sri Sri) would be under the red flag and unify the proletariat. The entire history has been recast as class conflict - between the few (rich and powerful) exploiters and the many (poor and innocent) exploited. The seemingly simple solution for establishing the utopia is the annihilation of class enemies. While the arm-chair version produced progressive writers forming Arasam, Virasam (associations of progressive and revolutionary writers respectively) etc., the fact that the original Lenin-Stalin-Mao versions only inspired bloodshed was not clearly understood by Telugu writers. Destruction of existing structures remained the soul aim. Ranganayakamma evolved into a writer of this category. After a successful beginning as a fiction writer, Ranganayakamma embarked on her Ramayana Vishavriksham, which proposed the thesis that Ramayana is the root cause of all evils pervading Indian society. She followed this book with a series of essays years later entitled "Ambedkar and Buddha will not do, the only solution is Marx". This echoes the history how orthodox Christianity, which proclaimed "Jesus is the only saviour", was replaced by Communism in USSR with Marx and Lenin respectively as God and His Son. The trouble with Ranganayakamma's effort is that the millennia old classic, which is the foundation of Indian culture, is viewed through the looking glass of hundred year old untested Marxism. She herself has not studied Valmiki's original nor was she conscious of its antiquity but depended on biased criticisms of others. Her effort is comparable to that of trying to measure earth's perimeter with a foot-rule. Similar, almost ridiculous fiction style efforts are those of a Dalit protagonist and other-backward-caste (OBC-in Mandal sense) intellectual, Kencha Illaih's writings such as "Nenu Hindu Etlaitha?" (How am I a Hindu?)" Indian communists even now lack the wisdom of a later day Gorbachev and his perestroika and glasnost. Mao has been replaced by capitalism in Communist China soon after Mao's death. The PWG naxalites (the peoples war group) also known as Communist (M-L) have committed hundreds of murders and destroyed properties worth hundreds of crores of rupees. The unsuccessful attempts of the police to curb this banned organization are called encounters, where some naxalites are killed in a police action. A section of Telugu writers are connected to the revolutionary group of PWG even now.

 

4.12  Encounters with USA and the Western Civilization

 

The Indian indentured labour had contributed to agriculture in South Africa, Fiji, West Indies, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Guyana and other places of the Globe. Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul, the Nobel laureate in literature, was born in West Indies. While in eighteenth century, the labour migrated to several lands, it is the turn of the educated Indian to migrate and be cut off from Indian roots in the Twentieth century. North America, Europe, Africa, Australia and Gulf are attracting Indian professionals in large numbers. The advent of the Internet and the giant leaps in communications are helping these people to stay in touch with the information from the home country. USA is a popular destination. A modern Andhra student thinks that Varanasi and Kolkata are far away places to study, while Vancouver, Los Angeles and New Orleans are perfectly okay with him. The American Dream and the Almighty dollar lure many youngsters to the land of opportunity. The dream bridegroom of a typical Andhra girl lives in the Silicon-valley, which is today more accessible and friendlier than the Srinagar Valley. Every one knows about the implications of H-visa, green card and citizenship. For the parents also, new centres of pilgrimage are available with a sprinkling of the waters of the Pacific on the head to purify, completed by a visit of Venkanna at Pittsburgh and Meenakshi Amma at Houstan. Telugu movies and short stories have adequately catered to this segment of the population.

 

4.13  The Global Village

 

Twentieth century has revolutionized the world we have been living in for millennia. The jet aircraft the telephone, the cell phone and the Internet have converted the world into a single large city. But unfortunately the human mind is not ready to accept. We divide amongst ourselves by sex, sub-caste, caste, race, region, state, language, religion, nationality, etc. We some how feel more confident about belonging to one group than other. We try to restrict the subsets where we belong while keeping a healthy interaction with all the other sets. Changes occur all the while, but preservation of what is of a lasting value is also important. That gives a colourful and distinct identity to one's life. We should remember about Telugu and Sanskrit, while learning English, French, Japanese, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, C++ and Java as necessary for our livelihood. Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry in one of his stories advises one to have daughter in law from Kashmir, son in law from Gujarat etc. Now we hear many Telugu households with global relationships - son-in-law from England and daughters in law from Australia and America. "America Ammayi" and "Padamata Sandhya Ragam" are Telugu movie stories representing this trend.

 

 

 

4.14  The Hindu religion and spirituality

 

A large section of Andhra population is very religious. Whether it is Kasi, Tirupati or Sabarimalai in Kerala, Andhra pilgrims are there in large numbers. Lakhs of devotees attend the discourses of Sai Baba of Puttaparthi and visit the tomb-temple of Saibaba of Shirdi. Similarly, Indians spend millions of rupees on pilgrimages from Amarnath in Kashmir, Manasa Sarovar and Mt. Kailas (in Tibet - China) but some how the fictional literature in Telugu of today does not talk about these. Hindu religion is distinct from Judaism, Christianity or Islam. It does not depend on a single prophet or a single scripture. It is more like a quest for truth seeking answers concerning basic questions on life, its origin, death and existence of an individual and the discovery of God. The seeker aims to get true knowledge by meditating on questions such as: Who am I? Am I the body or the soul? What is the relationship between a human and God? Who is a Guru? What is the path to release from bondage? There is also a large segment of population whose path is that of deep faith. I know of a temple in Telangana (Veerabhadra temple at Kuravi) where villagers wait in the temple till the Lord answers them. Implicit in their faith is the fact that the Lord does not stay in distant heaven but is a resident of the heart of every being as Antaratma. This is the lesson of Atma-Vidya learnt by Nachiketa from Yama, the Lord of Death in Kathopanishad. The experience we can gather is that Lord answers these simple villagers around Kuravi faster than scholars or skeptics. There are many paths to the ultimate truth.

 

Literature also concerns humans, their relationships, desires, emotions, behaviour, values etc. Exploration of the thought process of a human being is central to both. Control of mind through breath is the basis of Yoga, which is popular all over the world now. I have not come across Patanjali's name anywhere in fiction. What human beings do and what they ought to do - the descriptive and the prescriptive - should both be the concern of literature. Krishna five thousand years ago guided Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra and advised him to perform his duty with appropriate attitude. That made Krishna a World Teacher (Jagadguru). Fascination with Krishna is the norm and Latha's novel "Mohana Vamsi" brings out with grace the eternal charm of Krishna. The reader is taken to the banks of the Yamuna to hear the notes of Krishna's flute on a moon lit night. It illustrates the path of Bhakti Yoga and this type of devotion to the Lord is called Madhura Bhakti. A young prince 2500 years ago saw an old man, a sick man and a dead body. He tried to spend the rest of the life to find the reason for human suffering. When he became the Buddha, he enunciated the path of proper behaviour for the mankind. Fiction writers have the duty of analyzing the situations in today's context and offer plausible and positive solutions. Both the newspapers and fiction seem to concentrate more on bad things, misbehaviour, perversions and crime than on positive values. This is a characteristic of recent literature as opposed to older literature in India. Authors such as Chalam repented in their later days for their early writings and turned to spirituality seeking solace at the feet of the Sage of Arunachala (Ramana Maharshi). But still many writers seem to side with the movie-makers that the stuff that sells is vice rather than virtue. Whether much of this literature will stand the test of time is the question. The book of the hour and the book of all time are different, as philosopher John Ruskin observed in his "Sesame and Lilies". Kalipatnam wrote insightful stories on the weaklings of society but the wonderful thing about him is his appreciation of Pothana's Bhagavatham and his respect for healthy tradition in family like, for example, performing religious rituals for dead ancestors. Buchibabu is said to have used the technique of the "stream of consciousness" in his novel "Chivaraku migiledi" but I have not read it. Freudian fantasies have dominated writings of some authors. Science and rational thinking have their limitations. Psychologists like Herbert Simon (Nobel laureate in Economics) have talked of the bounded-rationality of humans. Wilber at Harvard had the Atman project and in his literature thoroughly reviewed the destruction of world by Science (not by nuclear weapons alone but by making people look to science as panacea for human suffering) and the need for spirituality, consciousness and control of mind. Indian philosophy excels in this direction. The Telugu fiction writer has to grow beyond the mundane and the well-beaten track. World cannot be understood by purely intellectual exercises. There is nothing wrong if fiction is created around what a Saibaba, a Ramana and a Jillellamudi Amma taught and their devotees writing stories with their experiences while practicing a guru's teaching in their lives. One can describe his experiences with God and divinity. Trailingaswami's (1607-1887) exploits as a great yogi make fiction pale in comparison. Gandhi's autobiography is called THE STORY OF MY EXPERIMENTS WITH TRUTH. TRUTH is God - Sat, Chit & Ananda. A remarkable autobiography - more delightful than any short story is recently published by AJO-VIBHO - in Telugu - Hampi nundi Harappa daaka (From Hampi to Harappa) - by Tirumala Ramachandra - is a must reading for every Telugu. Each chapter of his life depicts a thrilling story. Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahamsa Yogananda (Telugu translation available), Living with Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama, Life of Shyama Charana Lahiri (translation into Telugu by Poranki Dakshina Murthy) and "Ramana Leela" by Krishna Bikshu in Telugu are examples of biographies and autobiographies of this type. They are classics far superior to any fiction. Anubhavalu, Jnapakalu (Experiences and Memories) by Sripada Subrahmanya Sastry is an autobiographical narration of life in a Telugu village in early Twentieth century, which has all the appeal of good fiction. Ramaraju's "Andhra Yogulu" bringing out the stories of Yogis linked with Andhra is a remarkable collection. As per Krishna's promise of "Sambhavami Yuge Yuge" several remarkable saints and rishis continue to appear in India even today, whose stories are fascinating.

 

5. Concluding Remark

 

In "The Hindu" of August 4, 2002, a German novelist Ilija Trojanov wrote an essay entitled "Cloning Gods, reading bar codes: Discontinuity in India Today" about the sadhus of India at Kumbha Mela 2001 and the MTV fans of the high society of Mumbai 2001. He is currently a free lance journalist based in Mumbai. He concludes "India today is a series of paradoxes a discontinuous system, yet complex; a country on the edge of being dysfunctional, but one that functions nevertheless; an entity on the verge of being incomprehensible but which still defines and refines its identity every day. From all this emerges the central issue of discontinuity, highlighted in public discourse and in political combat, and instrumentalised by people with an archaic mindset". He used a lot of Sanskrit words - sadhu, yajna, japa, snana, kalpa, mandir and ohm (not Aum) without really understanding Hinduism. A reading of his essay shows the utter confusion in his mind when he views modern India. A reading of Nehru's autobiography shows the influence of his education in England on his so-called "Discovery of India".

 

Through this essay I attempted to present some Telugu fiction writer's visions of society. This is not a conventional literary critic's view of the world of Telugu fiction. My attempt was to see how far my perceptions of contemporary Indian society and Telugu society as a subset of it are reflected in the literature I read and remembered after a long gap. I am aware of the fact that a creative artist's imagination produces his literary work and the reader's job is to appreciate his effort and enjoy the diversity of human perceptions. I have, of course, no prescriptions for good literature but only vaguely feel that each story or novel should contribute to the evolution of the reader in his or her life's journey.

 

6. Acknowledgement

 

I am benefited by the comments of a well-known fiction writer in Telugu on an earlier draft of this essay. She is Smt. Nidadavolu Malathi, now based in the USA and she is trying to bring out the best of Telugu fiction and poetry in English through her e-journal "Thulika". Another effort in this direction is done by Prof. B. Bhaskar Rao of Sydney, Australia, who brings out a Telugu e-patrika, which republished some of my earlier articles in Supatha through the Internet.

 



[1] manas or collection of random thoughts,

[2] buddhi or viveka producing discrimination between good or bad, capable reflection and reasoning,

[3] chitta capable of concentration and meditation,

[4] ahankara which makes the inquiry of "Who am I?" possible, and

[5] atma which is eternal, and which carries the tendencies of a human being to life beyond life.

[6] Hanuman, thegreat personality of the Ramayana, who is described as a vanara is given this nickname by our present day Indian English journalists, illustrating their attitude.

[7] Vinayaka or Ganesa has this epithet in Indian-English journalistic lingo. Other words of this category are god-man, the epithet for holy men of India such as Bhagavan Satya Sai Baba and the mixed Persian-Sanskrit word Hindutva for a kind of imagined Hindu fundamentalism.

[8] To illustrate the point the usage of the meaning of the word Juggernaut in English and the meaning of the root Jagannath (from Ratha-yatra of Lord Jagannath (the Lord of the World) in Puri, Orissa) may be compared. The distortion is due to the untrue descriptions of Christian missionaries.

[9] Rao, a distinguished Telugu scholar, was the Prime Minister of India during 1991-96. He wrote short stories in Telugu and translated some Telugu classics such as Viswanatha's Veyi Padagalu into Hindi.

[10] For answer see Anusasanika Parva, the story of king Bhringaswana.

[11] Recent news stories show that even the White House in the U. S. A. cannot be a safe place for a working woman and the threat could be even from the top level as the Clinton-Monica episode had shown. At least, in the US, the justice system provides a quicker monetary compensation to the victim.

[12] The politically acceptable name is now Dalit (meaning "the exploited" probably inspired by the class-conflict hypothesis of communists, in spite of the presence of a significant creamy layer in them today.)