The Short Story in Telugu
BY SRIRANGAM SRINIVASA RAO
The short story is essentially a product of the modern age. Tales like the Panchatantra or Aesop's Fables have been, no doubt, in existence in all times and all places. It is almost impossible to explore the origins of the story. Stories, indeed, are as old as human culture itself. But the "short story" or "le conte," as perfected by the great masters from Edgar Allan Poe down to the most vigorous living writers of Europe and America, is peculiarly a modern growth.
Sending messages is no new invention; but the telegram and the cablegram are. The troglodyte seeking shelter from rain and cold had his ideas of housing and ordered his cave-dwelling according to a taste of his own. The art of building houses is a gradual growth. Today we have the furnished flats and one-man apartments. Story-telling and, later, story-writing had a similar development. If the present-day short story differs from its ancient compeer, it does so as the automobile from the Roman chariot.
This form of literary expression has found fertile soil in the field of Telugu letters. Here it has blossomed into a flower of rare beauty. Many writers have achieved outstanding results in this direction, as also in the handling of another, and in many respects analogous, art-form, the lyric. Technically the short story and the lyric poem present many similarities. Indeed, there is very little to choose between the two, as far as problems of construction are concerned. If the lyric poem catches a fleeting mood on the wing, so does the short story flash a moment’s light into the vast gloom of our lives.
Among all the distinguished story-writers of Andhra the first name is Sri Gurajada Apparao’s. Unfortunately he is not with us. But his spirit pervades the entire literary output of the last fifty years. His is pioneer work. He led the path, made headway in several directions, lyric and drama, essay and short story. We have only two of his published stories. Yet competent critics regard them as the very best, and on their strength acclaim their author as the father of the modern short story. One of them, the longer of the two, is a marvel of craftsmanship. It is very long but every word in it is absolutely necessary to bring out the full force of its tremendous climax or finale. In spite of its length it moves with remarkable tempo. A crystal-line style, characters chiselled to perfection, rich pervasive humour which nevertheless does not obtrude on the story interest, these are some of the merits which mark it out as a great work of art. And it is very difficult to find a story to be placed by its side among all the innumerable stories that followed it.
Next in order, though not chronologicaly, stands Sri Gudipati Venkatachalam, "Chalam" as he is known to hundreds of his readers. He has written more stories, perhaps, than any contemporary of his. His published work fills a shelf, and his unpublished work a whole room. His best work is contained still in his first collection of short stories with the deeply moving, title ‘The Stream of Tears.’ Again, among the half a dozen stories in this book, the best story is the last, ‘The Nayudu Girl.’ This story also comes under the category of long short stories. Maupassant and Chekhov have made us familiar with this type; especially the former’s stories like ‘Yvette’ and ‘The Olive Orchard,’ and the latter’s ‘The Party.’ These stories prove that, notwithstanding its length, a short story can be "short" in the technical sense of the term. ‘The Nayudu Girl’ is one such story. It is a study in character: a full length portrait of a woman who is the victim of social injustice, an erring woman who learns her lesson in the school of bitter experience, her fugitive spirit tossed hither and thither
by successive blasts of relentless fate. The story portrays sympathetically the illicit love of a rich old man’s wife for a young friend of her childhood days. A son is born of this forbidden love. Then her troubles begin. She deserts her husband and child, and goes to live with her lover. The story develops, the child dies, the Nayudu girl falls back weakly on the sustaining love of her sweetheart. A commonplace theme, but in the hands of its author it flames into passion and throbs with powerful sentiment. This narrative brings out all those faculties which place "Chalam’ in the forefront of contemporary literary artists.
Yet "Chalam" cannot be judged by any single story. He stamps his personality and his peculiar ways of approach towards life on every story that he writes. His work is censured as being immoral. Realistic to the utmost sordid detail, he is often accused of offending the canons of decency. But his detractors are prudes, and he is an artist.
When "Chalam" first published his stories in an obscure Hyderabad journal, the few people who read them were shocked and scandalized. It was thought that these stories were like mushroom growths that appeared with the first rains and vanished with the first snows. But there were others, more discriminating, who were impressed with his sincere, passionate, uncompromising attitude towards sex, his steadfast championing of the cause of the lowly, the abandoned and the downtrodden. Above all, what impressed them was his style, racy, fresh, powerful, devastating. In his writings, words assumed a new meaning and a new significance. As a stylist alone Chalam’s place among the literary figures of his country is quite safe. He wields this sword-like style to cut through the prejudices of people, exposing a hundred lies and a hundred social evils. In his writings appear like feeling phantoms the widows and prostitutes, hooligans and jail birds, the pitiful creatures bearing their burden of sins, the miserable victims of an iniquitous social order.
It requires more than this sketchy article to analyse Chalam’s entire work or to appraise the exact debt he owes to foreign influences. But this much has to be said about him, that he is greatly influenced by such Continental writers as Guy de Maupassant, Alexander Kuprin and D. H. Lawrence. From the first of these writers "Chalam" translated a good deal and modelled his technique on the incomparable work of this master. And Kuprin opened up to him a sympathetic vision that smiles kindly on defiled and degraded womanhood. And D. H. Lawrence provided him a philosophic and speculative base from which to conduct his major assaults on the engrossing problems of sex.
As great a writer as "Chalam," and more greatly cherished by all people alike, is Sri Chinta Dikshitulu. His stories are the finished products of a choice, if exclusive, culture. With him every thing is chaste and pure, his style, theme, treatment. There are a good many of this writer’s stories scattered in several journals, but there is only one collection of his stories, ‘Ekadasi,’ containing eleven stories as the name signifies.1 Mr. Dikshitulu’s stories are idealistic–in the sense that they seek to represent life not as it is, but as it ought to be. There is a vein of poetry running in his best stories. And his religious bias is well known.
But all this should not lead one to suppose that he does not touch the lighter side of life. Indeed he is the master of whimsical humour and delicate satire. ‘Horoscopes,’ and ‘Report on the Conference of All-Andhra Mosquitoes’ are instances to the point. In his latest series of ‘Ladies’ Culture Club’ he makes many sly digs at the militant feminist movement. Yet he does it in such a good-humoured manner–so utterly without malice–that anyone, even that buoyant belle of the Culture Club, Mrs. Vati Rao herself, cannot take the least exception to what is written about her and the activities of her Club.
Variety, that rare commodity among Telugu short-story-writers, is found in abundance in Mr. Dikshitulu. He even wrote a few detective stories and adapted in collaboration some Sherlock Holmes stories. Then there are his admirable child studies. Of these, the naive charm of his tales of Guri, Seeti, and Venki is irresistible. Children and grown-ups alike find them immensely delightful. They are, in effect, worthy to be placed by the side of Tagore’s Crescent Moon and some works of Robert Louis Stevenson.
These are the three important figures in the realm of the Telugu Short Story. There could be no two opinions about the importance of their work or its greatness. The rest are all there, but opinions about them differ according to one’s tastes. At best they have produced stories that any representative anthology cannot do without, yet they are lacking in stature, in personality, in that something which separates the genius from the merely gifted writer.
So after the Princes, the illustrious trio of whom I have just written, I shall mention a few others whom I would like to call the Minor Aristocrats.
Sri M. N. Sastri, the creator of Barrister Parvatisam, has written some stories of abiding interest. In the hey-day of the Sahiti Samiti, of which he is one of the high lights, Mr. Narasimha Sastri produced sketches and stories, grave and gay. Some of them he collected and published under the name, ‘Reflections,’ but his best stories exist outside this volume. I think that the chief drawback in his stories is a certain prolixity that militates against concentrated effect. If he is strong in certain qualities such as a deep understanding of character and a sure touch in its delineation, he has also some weaknesses as strong. He strains at an effect almost to the breaking point and he does not bestow the care that his thematic treatment demands. But genuine humour he has, which is really the chief string to his bow. He draws freely from this quality of his, and puts it to the best use, as in his latest story, ‘Gandhi of Gajupalem.’
Sri Sripada Subrahmanya Sastri has written stories that no one but himself could have written. He is an adept at reporting the conversation, its tones and undertones, of a certain type of middle-class Brahmins. With this he fills pages and pages, heaping detail on minute detail. Yet he can maintain unflagging interest in the minds of his readers. This is a great gift, and if he lives within a limited circle, it is hard to beat him on his own ground.
The stories of Sri Adivi Bapiraju transport us into a realm of dream and fantasy. He weaves unending variations on the theme of Art and its votaries–of Dance, Music and Sculpture. Sri Bapiraju is first and foremost a poet, and as such a lyrical impulse pervades everything that he writes. He is also a painter seeking inspiration in the ineffable art of Ajanta and Amaravati. Verily it can be said of him, as it has been said of D. G. Rossetti, that his poems are pictorial and his pictures poetical.
If in his stories Sri Bapiraju remains mystic and mystifying and refuses to be precise, it is because he dreads the prosaic banality of the common light of the day. So we leave him in a twilight world of romantic visions, searching alone in those sacred secret haunts after a Beauty that forever eludes his grasp.
Sri Burra V. Subrahmanyam belongs to the Younger Brigade. His refined taste and shrewd observance of men and manners find exquisite expression in some of his well-constructed stories. It is to be wished that this accomplished writer would translate into English some of his stories such as ‘Discordant Notes’ (‘Cacophonies’) to reach a wider audience.
Another young insurgent is Sri K. Kutumba Rao. Some think that he is a genius, and others a bore. He is neither. We have to search for his worth between these two extremes. Here is another prolific writer whose career deserves to be watched with interest. At present the influence of Sri Gudipati Venkatachalam is too greatly on him. Once he shakes it off he can be expected to scale the higher reaches of artistic endeavour.
I cannot close this essay without mentioning one or two women writers who achieved distinction in story-writing. Srimati K. Varalakshmamma has some good stories to her credit, beautiful little tales of domestic happiness or unhappiness. Srimati Y. Sitakumari, a younger writer, has made a mark by her un-orthodox approach towards life. Her work is rich in performance and richer in promise.
1This nomenclature was imitated by one of his admirers, calling a collection of five stories "Panchavati." The name does not seem happy; and the stories themselves are clever reports of commonplace occurrences. But their author enjoys a measure of popularity with a section of the reading public. I mention him not because of any outstanding merit but merely to correct the unbalanced judgment of a reviewer who compares this writer’s stories to Dostoievsky’s.