Telugu Women writers-20

-Nidadvolu Malathi

          Vasundhara Devi’s long story, “Penjeekatikavvala” [Beyond the Dense Darkness] received critical acclaim for its profound discourse on life and death. The story opens with a brief description of a location in the city, where the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ lived side by side. For all the wealth and the amenities Jayalakshmi, the protagonist, possessed, she was also suffering from an inexplicable dissatisfaction and frustration with her life.

          She did not have the mental stability to explain any of her actions. She was haunted perpetually by confounding questions: Why things happen the way they do? What is meaning of life? What happens after death?

          Her husband was exactly the opposite of her in his deportment. He would cherish the same human values at work and home. They had two daughters, Radhika, a smart sixteen-year-old, and Chandrika, a six-year-old retarded child.

          One day, Jayalakshmi went to the circus with her teenage daughter, Radhika. Even there, she could not stop herself from worrying. She was worried about the little girl who was performing gymnastics risking her life on a stack of bottles.

          She returned home and found little Chandrika playing with a sick dog. For no obvious reason, Jayalakshmi was upset and took it on the little girl. Her husband came to the child’s rescue and stopped the mother. A host of philosophical questions beset Jayalakshmi once again.

          A series of incidents followed. Her husband’s uncle was admitted in the hospital, and Jayalakshmi went to see him. She watched the cancer patients there and started reflecting on their mental state. That set her off again on the countless questions about the meaning of life. Each time something happened, she was pushed towards her internal struggles, into the innermost corners of her heart searching for answers about the meaning of life, and her role as a mother and a human being.

          The more she pondered the more she was convinced that her life was bizarre and hideous. She could not help wondering, “How can I move on when I do not have the strength to put my trust in anything? How can I feel safe and secure amidst this cavernous darkness?”

          At the same time, she also seemed to spot a glimpse of light far beyond the dense darkness. Not even the burial ground behind her house was revolting to her any more.

          A peddler came to the door with his portable slide show. As he started flipping the slides and singing the story of each slide, Jayalakshmi continued to wonder at a philosophical level what the show meant to her.

          After the show had ended and the peddler left, things became clear to her. She concluded that all these things—the people, the sun, the trees and the birds—they all would continue to exist, whether she lived or died.

          The story is a philosophical treatise. The author described the mental state of a woman confronted with serious questions about life and death.

          Among the stories by Achanta Sarada Devi, “Paaripoyina Chilaka” [The Escaped Parrot] and “Okanati Atithi” [Guest for One Day] received critical acclaim. The story “The Escaped Parrot” was about freedom from attachments.

          Kamakshamma and her husband Sundara Rao were living in a big house on the outskirts of the town. One day she found an injured parrot. She picked it up, nursed it, and kept it in a cage. The parrot became her whole world.

          A few days passed by. While cleaning the room, she opened the window and the parrot flew away, breaking her heart. She tried to find comfort in the thought, “Six months back there was no bird. Nobody knows why it came to me at the time, and why it went away now, or even where it went. There is no way of knowing.” Kamakshamma stared at the empty cage and went into a fit of sobs.

          The gardener put away the cage. Sundara Rao thought his wife was crazy to worry about the bird as he rushed out to catch his train. He was not aware, not even in the slightest, that there was another life in that house. Kamakshmamma sat there staring into the emptiness for a long time. “Nobody understood the bond she had developed with the parrot, what she had gained and lost in the process,” the narrator commented.

          After several days, spring came and the trees sprouted again. With the arrival of spring, birds came chirping noisily into the garden. The gardener noticed the glow in Kamakshamma’s face as she watched the birds. He said, “Madam, see the mango sprouts and the parrots are back. If we hang the cage in the garden for a day, we might catch a bird.”

          Kamakshamma twitched and said, “No, no. Don’t do that. See how happy they are to be free. Let them live like that. Let them come and go as they please. That makes me happy. … Why capture one bird and force it into a cage, and invite trouble for ourselves in the process. Unnecessary bonding.”

          The gardener could not understand her words.

          The birds in the garden chirped merrily.  

          The story is a poignant comment on the freedom that is available to non-humans. The reference to bonding as unnecessary is Kamakshamma’s way of dealing with her loss. 

          In the second story, “Guest for a Day”, Sarada Devi once again focuses on the emptiness every person feels in the innermost corners of his or her heart. 

          A young woman, Ketaki, was living with her father in a hut on the outskirts of the town. It was set up as a resting place for the passersby by a kind-hearted man. The place was mostly lonely but for an occasional passerby. Into that loneliness, one young man came and filled the empty space in Ketaki’s heart. He was handsome and spoke very little yet stole her heart. In the night, he saw Ketaki. “Come here, sit next to me. Let us talk,” he said but there were no words. Neither of them had anything to say. He saw the pogada flowers lying around, made a garland, and gave it to her. The next morning he left. She asked him if he would stop by again, on his way back. He said he was a wanderer, would never go to the same place twice. 

          Eventually, Ketaki was married. Her mother gave her a bunch of pogada flowers knowing she was fond of them.

          Ketaki’s husband kept boasting of his reputation and status in his village.   As they were ready to leave, Ketaki threw away the bunch of flowers her mother had given her. Her husband asked her why.

          “Too heavy,” she replied. 

          To me, both the stories together seem to emphasize the Hindu philosophy that each person enters this world as a lone soul and departs as a lone soul. In between, he or she yearns for a soul-mate but rarely finds one. Even when one finds solace in another human being, it is going to be only for a fleeting moment.

          The next story is from a writer not specifically known for her philosophical musings but I thought it made a powerful comment on our beliefs and for that reason worthy of inclusion here. Vasireddy Sitadevi is known for her understanding of farming communities. She is known specially known for her Marxist ideology. Regardless, this particular story, “Tamaso Maa Jyotirgamaya” [Lead Me From Darkness to Light], stands out for its philosophical tone. I find this story one of the best-written stories in the sixties.


          Gopalam, a young man, desperately searching for a job, developed a cynical attitude towards life and God. Avadhani, an astrologer and scholar, believed in the Almighty God, and that life follows a preordained course. They often w argued about it seriously.

          One day, they both went to watch a circus show, where a little boy was preparing to douse in kerosene, set himself on fire, and jump into a deep pit.

          Both Avadhani and Gopalam had learned that the boy’s father and grandfather died while performing the same feat. They feared for the young boy’s life and tried to stop him. The boy insisted that the feat had been a family tradition for many years and he was sure he could pull it off. Besides, he needed the money. Moreover, the circus manager would not be happy if he backed out now.

          Avadhani and Gopalam sat there hoping against hope. Avadhani was hoping and praying that some divine power would intervene and save the boy. Gopalam was hoping that things would not go wrong for some inexplicable reason.

          However, much to their dismay, the boy was engulfed by the flames and died.

          Both Gopalam and Avadhani were shaken out of their wits by this tragedy. They fled the scene feeling a horrific rage at the turn of events.

          The event changed their philosophy of life forever.

          The story, with a Upanishadic aphorism for its title, is skillfully crafted. It is a well-written story. The author does not take sides, does not attempt to convince the reader to either trust or distrust God but presents both sides objectively.

          Majority of the stories however were written about ordinary people and incidents and in a lighter vein. For instance, K. Ramalakshmi, one of the well-known writers of our time, started publishing her stories in Telugu Swatantra in the early fifties. I vaguely remember a series of stories she had spun around a couple, Parvati and Krishnamurti. The stories were about small, meaningless arguments the couples would engage in, mixed with a little teasing, a little pouting and ending happily.

          Some of the stories written in a lighter vein became a significant part of the history of Telugu fiction. Bhanumati Ramakrishna was the first woman writer to earn the name as a female humor writer in Telugu fiction with her immortal character, Atta garu [mother-in-law]. She wrote about thirty stories with Atta garu as the main character and earned a permanent place in the history of modern fiction.

          Each one of these stories is woven around a naive mother-in-law, who meddles constantly in the matters of her family or that of others around her, gets herself into a sticky situation and then leaves it to the daughter-in-law to sort it out. The stories are hilarious. The readers just loved them then and they do even today.

          Bhanumati has written a few serious stories also and published them in two anthologies, Jeevitamlo Agaathaalu [The Dark Abyss of Life] and Bhanumati Kathanikalu [Stories by Bhanumati].

          “Pathita” [Fallen Woman] is about a woman falsely accused of an illicit affair and in the process had her life ruined by a superannuated village accountant. “Jeevitamlo Agathalu” [The Dark Abyss of Life], provides us with author’s psychological insights into a character that laughs too much. Readers do not see the dark side of his life until the narrator explains his wife’s condition; she is suffering from a kind of neurological attacks. The story ends with a comment that “probably people, who laugh too much do so in order to hide their pain in the deepest corners of their hearts”.

          From her mother-in-law stories, here is one story “Kamakshi katha” [Story of Kamakshi] written in serious tone:

          A family was looking for a household help. The milkman introduced Kamakshi to them. Kamakshi was very attractive. The male employees (the cook, the gardener, and the errand boy) were hanging around her and craving for her attention. Kamakshi told them that her husband was abusive and she was scared for her life. As always, Atta garu offered to save her. Soon enough she learned that Kamakshi’s husband always carried a knife and would not hesitate to use it if anybody meddled with him or made a move on his wife! At the mention of the word ‘knife’, Atta Garu stepped back. The other household staff became alert. 

          Matters precipitated after Kamakshi revealed that her husband had contracted possibly a contagious disease but was refusing to seek treatment. He would go to the doctor only if Kamakshi gave him 200 rupees. Kamakshi told Atta garu and the co-workers that she had no money to help her husband. Atta garu and co-workers helped her out. Kamakshi left with the money and gone for good. 

          Atta garu asked the milkman and learned Kamakshi and her husband were known to be con artists, and that they had been swindling people for a while. He added that he had his suspicions that even their marriage could be a sham, for all he knew. 

          The story ended with Atta garu “looking for another maid but this time an older woman and with no attachments!”

          From the few summaries given above, it is obvious to identify the range of topics the women writers depicted in their writings. The novels presented a bigger picture of the social conditions as perceived by the women writers of this period. In the next few pages, I will present synopses for a few novels illustrating the breadth of their perceptions. The topics in these novels also, like short stories, cover several issues surrounding the educated women, economic problems faced by middle-class families, and familial relationships.

          One of the early novels by Malati Chendur, Champakam And Chedapurugulu [Champakam And Parasites] addresses the new problems that surfaced as a result of women’s education and their earning power. Here is a synopsis of the novel:

          In a family of four children, Champakam was the second of three daughters, Indu, Champakam, and Radha, and one son, Satyam. Their father died leaving the family responsibility to Satyam. Satyam was pursuing an acting career without success. The family was not excited about his choice, but did not discourage him either.

          Champakam was a quiet and unassuming girl in her childhood, never expressed her views concerning what she wanted in life.

          At school, one day a rich connoisseur of fine arts, Lalji, came to her music class. The teacher called on all the other children to sing but not Champakam. “Anytime someone comes to our school, I am not one of those to be asked to sing,” Champakam told herself. At the end, however she was asked to sing.

          Later Lalji went to her home and offered to take her to Calcutta with him and help her to become whatever she wanted to be. “Sometimes you see someone, feel you want to help that person, hard to explain why. You want to save her from the injustice meted out to her,” Lalji told Satyam. He tried to convince Satyam, “Poverty is not your fault. Champakam needs proper environment to grow—good food, good clothes and an inviting atmosphere. There are many things in this world that can destroy a beautiful object—poverty, greed, stupidity, selfishness, and lack of self-esteem. All these things can work as her enemies. You and your mother probably do love her. Nevertheless, it is natural for parasites to feed on a flower like Champakam. I enjoy creating new opportunities for children like her. Her eyes touched my heart. They are sad like the blue clouds”.

          Satyam discussed Lalji’s offer with his mother but without giving her all the details. They decided not to tell Champakam about it. “The Goddess of Fortune came and knocked on her door. Champakam did not hear it. A sort of despair and worry shut her heart down. The opportunity slipped away silently,” the narrator commented. 

          Champakam managed to get her high school diploma and a small job in a magazine office. Eventually, she started writing and publishing her stories first in the same magazine and later in other magazines. She made a name for herself.

          Satyam continued to be the head of the family with no income of his own. He got used to leaning heavily on Champakam for financial support. The family started viewing Champakam as a potential earning member, without giving the respect she deserved for the same.

          Mother favored Satyam because he was son and Indu because she was meek. Indu was not doing well in school. The mother’s excessive attention turned her first into a moron and later into a deranged woman. The youngest daughter Radha was a woman of independent spirit and self-will. She was aware of the inner workings of the family but chose to keep her distance.

          As the years passed by, Champakam became famous and started making good money on her writings. Mother wanted Satyam to study law but he would not let go of his dream of acting. In effect, he became neither. He got used to living on Champakam’s income. He had his mother’s full support in this regard.

          Champakam’s self-esteem had improved after she became a successful writer. She started paying attention to her looks. Started using facial cream and make up. “Even without eye make up, Champakam’s eyes are beautiful. Those eyes carry a candid smile, sad though. They are hiding the mischief of the first Champakam from her childhood days, the sadness of the second, and the insubordination of the third Champakam”.

          Satyam met a woman of his dreams, Kamala, while pursuing his acting career, and decided to marry her. They were engaged but Kamala’s father objected to the marriage. He told Satyam to get a steady job first. Three years passed by.

          Champakam met Raja Rao, a young man from a wealthy family, and they decided to get married. Kamala was not happy about it. In a fit of jealousy, she used gullible Indu to add a chemical to Champakam’s facial cream. Champakam sustained burns and was scarred for life. She canceled her wedding with Raja Rao.

          Raja Rao was disheartened and joined the air force.

          Satyam eventually married Kamala. Radha decided to marry Venkat Rao, a local grocery store owner. Mother was not happy with her decision but could not stop the wedding. Radha and Venkat Rao were married.

          All the family members got used to borrowing money from Champakam. She began feeling that their familial bonding was only a pretense, and that they all were coming to her only for her money. That became obvious to her in the way they all used the pronoun “we”. Satyam meant his wife, his kid and himself when he said “we”. Her mother would say “we” to mean Satyam, Indu and herself (mother). Champakam was no part of that equation at any time.

          Champakam began feeling like an outcast in her own home. They had no family values; she had no place in their hearts. They might have assumed that she had no problems and no feelings. She even began to wonder, “Am I making money only for their sake like a machine?” Such thoughts were chewing her up. Sometimes she would confront her brother or brother-in-law when they approached her for money. She would even snap at them but she never stopped giving them money. It was getting monotonous.

          Venkat Rao enlisted in the army. He had two children. Indu was admitted in a mental hospital in Vizag. Mother accompanied her to take care of her. Champakam was paying for their expenses.

          At work, her boss died. His wife Santadevi assumed the administrative duties. Santadevi was kind to Champakam. She was the only friend Champakam could count on.

          Kamala died of pneumonia. Radha died leaving behind Venkat Rao, who continued to prey upon Champakam.

          One day, Champakam received a parcel from the air force headquarters. The parcel contained Raja Rao’s belongings and his journal. Champakam found her photo in his journal and an entry. It read, “Souls are more important than bodies. I shall tell Champakam if I see her again.” Champakam went on brooding over those two lines and cried for several nights.

          Indu died at the mental hospital.

          Champakam was sick and admitted in a nursing home. While she was in the nursing home, the goddess of fortune knocked on her door for a second time. The wealthy Lalji, who had met her in her childhood, remembered her prior to his death. He left a few shares in his will for her, which would bring six thousand rupees a year for Champakam.

          After Lalji’s death, his lawyer brought the news and a letter from Lalji to Champakam. For the first time, Champakam discovered that there was more to Lalji’s will than she had known. She questioned her mother and learned that her mother and brother had colluded to ruin her chances for a better life. Just to spite the mother, Champakam told her that she would not accept the money from Lalji. She had lost both, Raja Rao’s love and Lalji’s generosity.

          Champakam committed suicide leaving a note. The note said, “My life of thirty-five years is a stream of sadness. All the stories I have written were only a way to make money. My own blood relatives preyed upon me like a flock of crows. But, there is a lot of love and kindness in the world.”

          This is one of Malati Chendur’s best works in her early literary career. She has written a few other short stories and novels on this topic—the problems of educated women in middle-class families.

          Another famous writer of this era is Dwivedula Visalakshi who wrote about the problems the educated women were facing during this period.

          Arranged marriages acquired a new dimension because of the women’s education in middle-class families. The educated women would not accept the arranged marriage with the same docility as their counterparts from the past. Now they wanted their preferences to be considered as well. Some of them would refuse to marry the men who demanded dowry.

          On the men’s side, their choices also were correlated to woman’s education. On one hand, an educated bride meant a second paycheck. On the other, it was also a cause for concern. The fear that an educated bride might not be as docile and submissive as an uneducated woman became an issue for the groom’s family.

          Visalakshi portrayed this complexity effectively in her novel, Marina Viluvalu [Transformed Values]. Unlike in Champakam And Parasites, Visalakshi presents a middle-class family from a different perspective in this novel. We see an additional dimension of family values and relationships. 


          Janaki was the eldest daughter in a family of five children—two daughters, Janaki and Santha, and three sons, Surya Rao, Prakasam, and Sambu. Surya Rao was married to Kanakam. They all were living under one roof.  

          The second daughter Santha announced that she passed the high school exam. Mother was disappointed that the last son Sambu failed the same exam. In her mind, education was important for men but not for women. Kanakam, sister-in-law, expressed genuine pleasure at Santha’s success and wished her well.

          Janaki reminisces on her disrupted wedding. That happened several years ago.

          The ceremony had ended abruptly because her father  had not been able to meet the additional demands by bridegroom’s father. The groom’s father dragged the groom away leaving Janaki behind at the scene. By this time Janaki had been married technically, since “tying the tali around her neck by the groom” was completed.

          Janaki went to the railway station alone at night, and tried to persuade the bridegroom to think for himself independently. The young man scorned her pleas and turned her down. Thus, her marital bliss had ended even before it started. Their father died of broken heart, and Surya Rao being the eldest son shouldered the family responsibility.

          Prakasam was not doing well in school but had the initiative and drive to go into business. He started newspaper sales business with the blessings of Janaki and Kanakam. Surya Rao considered it demeaning and inappropriate for their social status and was upset. Ignoring the eldest brother’s displeasure, Prakasam continued his business.

          Janaki accepted a job at a children’s home.

          Santha was growing up and paying more attention to her youthful fantasies than to education. The youngest son Sambu lacked self-confidence. Surya Rao kept pushing him. Sambu failed the exam again. Janaki tried to help him to gain confidence in himself but without success. Sambu committed suicide.

          Prakasam was doing very well in his business. He opened a bookstore.

          At the children’s home, Anasuyamma, the founder, was treating Janaki kindly. Her cousin, Govinda babu, came to town for a brief visit. He and Janaki became friends. They both shared the same views about running the children’s home.

          Santha ran away with a young man and returned home after learning that she was cheated. Surya Rao refused to let her in fearing public scandal. Janaki moved out with Santha. Anasuyamma welcomed them both wholeheartedly.

          Santha got closer to Govinda babu. They decided to get married.

          After several years, Janaki’s husband came back and asked her to come back to him. During the years gone by, he had married for a second time, had fathered three children, and now the second wife was dead. Therefore, he wanted Janaki to come back to him to take care of him and his children. He sounded like he was doing her a favor. Janaki rejected his proposal. She would rather stay at the children’s home and take care of the children.

          The two novels, Champakam And Parasites and The Transformed Values illustrate the educated woman’s struggle at home.

          The next novel, Kalateeta Vyaktulu [People Ahead of Their Time] by P. Sridevi, portrays the educated woman’s struggle in society. It is a story of two young women and two young men and their aspirations for a better life. A fifth character was introduced towards the end. They all were educated, had no families of any significance, and, each one of them was looking forward to do something with his or her life.


          Prakasam was a medical student. His father died. His maternal uncle was taking care of his mother and their property back in their village. Prakasam was suspicious of his uncle and his sleazy dealings but did not have the courage to confront him.

          Krishnamurti was doing his final year B.A. second time. He had plenty of money, and for all appearances, no intention to finish school. 

          Indira and her father moved into an apartment in the same building Prakasam was renting. She was working as a clerk in some office and supporting her father, who was idling away his time between drinking and gambling.

          Kalyani’s father tried to arrange her marriage but could not for financial reasons. He was in no position to pay the hefty dowry the bridegrooms were demanding. Therefore. he sold his land, put her through high school and sent her to a college in the city.

          Indira invited Kalyani to rent an apartment in her building.

          Indira was assertive and playing Prakasam. Prakasam was meek. He felt pulled in two directions—his obligation to his uncle on one side and his interest in Indira on the other.

          Kalyani fell ill and Prakasam took care of her. He told her about his shaky financial situation. They became closer. 

          Krishnamurti took Indira to the beach, and gave her a present for her birthday. Prakasam was jealous of Krishnamurti. He promised Indira to take her out.

          Prakasam was constantly worried about his own inadequacies. He sought Kalyani’s advice to buy a gift for Indira. On the way to the store, Indira suggested going to a movie. Prakasam once again felt guilty and bought a poetry book for Kalyani. Kalyani was genuinely happy for the gift and told him so. Prakasam was flattered. “He put one arm around her shoulder, and took her hand into the other, and told her, ‘Today, I see you for who you really are.‘ Kalyani did not try to pull her hand away from his”.

          Kalyani learned that her father was sick and went to see him. He died, which put an end to all her ties with the village once for all. Kalyani completed the final rites and returned to the city. 

          On the train, she met an old friend, Vasundhara, and learned that Indira was spreading rumors about her. Kalyani understood that she could not count on Prakasam. She accepted Vasundhara’s offer to move in with her.

          Kalyani went to her old room to pick up her belongings. She ran into Prakasam and Indira there. Unlike in the past, neither of them showed any concern for her. Indira said, “Ever since Kalyani moved to this building, she had nothing but troubles. First, she fell sick within the first six months. Now she lost everything”. The word everything hit Kalyani hard.

          Prakasam was perplexed by Indira’s indifference to Kalyani’s loss of her father. Prakasam and Indira made love.

          Indira defaulted on rent. Krishnamurti helped her out. He and Indira started to go out frequently. Prakasam had mixed feelings about them.

          Indira offered Kalyani’s room to Krishnamurti to rent. Her apathy towards Kalyani surprised him too. She wrote an anonymous letter to Prakasam’s uncle stating that Prakasam was hanging out with girls and neglecting his studies. His uncle came to the city and reprimanded him.

          Indira told Krishnamurti more lies about Kalyani and Prakasam. Krishnamurti was intrigued by her character. He could not figure out, “Is Indira a good person or bad person? Why is she teasing everybody like this? Why can’t she find a way to be happy without harassing others? Why does Kalyani have to suffer? Why does she have to make all the sacrifices and lose everything? She is accursed but why?”

          Indira tried to convince Prakasam to rebel against his uncle and take charge of his land and life. Prakasam went to his village but could not confront his uncle. He returned the same old person, much to the dismay of Indira.

          Indira was disgusted with him and told him, “Your mother cannot leave your uncle. You cannot leave your mother. Go to hell, all the three of you jump into the river”. She further told him, “I’ve been watching you. You are a coward, always have been. At first, I hoped that you would build muscle after a little massage. I even thought, after some experience, you could become a man. I provided that too. What’s the point? You’re born one half of a child. Your personality is cracked from the start. I’ve tried but I cannot fix you. I can’t. No woman can ever trust you and survive”. She broke up with him.

          Krishnamurti went to Kalyani’s house. A gentleman from her village came to hand over the proceeds from the sale of her house. The man became sick.  Kalyani and Krishnamurti took him to the hospital where he died.

          The attending physician, Chakravarti, befriended Kalyani. After her father’s death, Krishnamurti, Chakravarti and Vasundhara offered to help her but Kalyani refused to accept their help. On her 20th birthday, she decided to move out, start a new life and make it on her own.

          Indira explained her life and philosophy to Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti was scared of Indira’s hold on him but his desire for her prevailed. Indira and Krishnamurti decided to get married in Tirupati.

          Chakravarti and Kalyani decided to travel by car to attend the wedding. They were involved in an accident.  Finally, they arrived at the destination. Krishnamurti married Indira.

          The story was about a new direction the younger generation was looking for in the sixties. Strangely, things have not changed much in the last forty years. The problems remain the same even today. Plausible solutions are yet to come.

          Rural life has been a big part of Telugu fiction by both male and female writers. One of the acclaimed novels of this period is Matti Manishi [Son Of The Soil] by Vasireddy Sitadevi. The novel depicts the collapse of zamindari (landownership) families due to political reorganization and the lure of urbanization.


          The protagonist, Sambayya, started out as a farmhand, while raising his son, Venkatapati, alone. Sambayya’s father, came to the village from another village and being an outsider, never commanded respect. Therefore, for Sambayya, rising to the status of a landowner was an obsession. In an attempt to elevate his status, he arranged his son’s marriage with a local landowner’s daughter, Varudhini.

          Varudhini insisted on moving to the city and Venkatapati went along with her decision. In the city, Varudhini was carried away by its glitter and the movie industry. She went overboard. She had no qualms about sleeping with other men to accomplish her goal.

          Venkatapati got used to drinking and was lost in his own world. At the center of this dreary scene, the one redeeming feature was their son, Ravi.

          By now, Varudhini was seriously involved with Ramanatha babu, an influential man in the movie industry. With his help, she sent her son to an expensive school in Hyderabad.

          Eventually, Varudhini and Venkatapati lost all their money. In a fit of rage, Varudhini arranged to have Ramanatha babu murdered. Later she regretted her action and committed suicide, unaware that her plan had failed. Ramanatha babu was not murdered.

          Venkatapati realized that he was in no position to support either himself or his son. He brought Ravi back to the village but could not face his father. He told Ravi to go to his grandfather and left. Sambayya welcomed Ravi into his home and started teaching him farming.

          Ramanatha babu had a soft corner for Ravi despite his sneaky dealings with Varudhini. He came to the village and told Sambayya that he would like to arrange for Ravi’s education in the city.

          Sambayya left the decision to Ravi. Ravi chose to stay with his grandfather.

          Some women writers wrote novels to give voice to their ideologies. These are didactic in nature and the authors are the narrators.

          Lata and Ranganayakamma started writing in the early fifties, and became household names within a short period. Both of them courted the social cause with great fervor, dug deeper into the root causes and vehemently opposed the injustices dealt to women in our society.

          There is, however, a difference between the two authors in their approach to the issues. Lata’s quest for answers was not only about the injustice in the society but also philosophical meaning of life. In that, Lata accepted Hinduism and its tenets. Ranganayakamma, on the other hand, believed that Hinduism was the root cause of all evils. She rejected religion, caste system and a host of others that are the foundation of Hindu society for centuries.

          Having said that, let us examine first a novel by Lata, Gali Padagalu Neeti Budagalu [Kites And Water Bubbles]. The novel portrays prostitutes on the streets and their gruesome life from their perspective. It opens with a captivating remark that “the city was stretching like a prostitute, exhausted from demonic sex”. A brief description of the brothel house follows:

          A brothel house, run by Rajamma, was located in Vijayawada. Nine women were living under her roof and working for her.

          One of them, Damayanti, met Suseela, newly arrived in town. Suseela played extra roles in the movies and offered sexual favors for additional income. She moved to Vijayawada hoping for a better life. Ironically, she ended up once again in Rajamma’s brothel house.

          Suseela described prostitution in the movie industry in Madras. Damayanti and the others were astounded by her story.

          The nine women described the pain caused by their clients—a writer, a doctor, and a chettiar (businessman). The writer was in the habit of sleeping with the prostitutes at night and writing about their horrible stories the next day. His wife was aware of his sordid conduct. She criticized his hypocrisy frequently. 

          Pantulu, a philanthropist, opened an ashram to save the prostitutes and give them a decent life. A compassionate woman, Parvati, joined hands with him to help the needy women. They took in three women to start with. The three women did not trust the intentions of Pantulu and Parvati. They even suspected of an illicit relationship between the two. 

          Pantulu approached the writer and asked him for a donation for his ashram. The writer called it a charade and threw him out. Pantulu met with scorn wherever he turned; he could not raise one paisa in donations. Out of desperation, he suggested to Parvati to go to Madras, become a movie star, and support the ashram. Parvati agreed rather reluctantly and moved to Madras.

          One day, the writer found out that Sumitra, the woman he was sleeping with, had contracted syphilis. Sumitra begged him to arrange for her treatment. He offered no help and left the place quickly. Sumitra was disgusted, decided to sleep with other men out of vengeance, and spread the disease. She gave some money to Sita and persuaded her to join Pantulu’s ashram.

          Sumitra committed suicide. The writer felt guilty and remorse. His wife resented his pretensions and fired away a volley of curses at him. The writer stopped visiting brothel houses. He even started giving donations to the ashram on a regular basis.   

          Pantulu arranged Sita’s marriage with a lower division clerk, Subba Rao. Subba Rao agreed to marry Sita for the five thousand rupees reward Parvati had offered. He never trusted Sita and refused to accept Sita’s child as his.

          One day the child was sick. Subba Rao refused to give money for the child’s medication. Sita was disillusioned and went back to Rajamma’s house.

          A woman writer named Madhavidevi came to Rajamma’s house to gather information for her book on prostitutes. She was horrified by their stories. She invited Sita to her house to learn more about her. Sita was taken by her kindness and impressed by her wealth.

          After a few days, life became unbearable for Sita. She left her child on Madhavidevi’s doorstep and committed suicide.

          Parvati was disillusioned after learning how Sita’s marriage had ended. She received a letter from Pantulu informing that the ashram had failed; one woman ran away with one of the visitors, the second woman died, and the third went back to the brothel house.

          Another friend of Parvati, Annapurna came to see her. She told Parvati that her own husband had turned her into a prostitute. She came to Parvati, hoping to change her life.

          Parvati introduced her to Madhavidevi. Madhavidevi, with all the information she had gathered, wrote a novel called Gaali Padagalu, Neeti Budagalu [Kites and Water Bubbles] and published it as a serial in a popular weekly magazine.

          This grim account speaks of the author’s outrage at a society that failed women in general and prostitutes in particular. Unlike most of the Telugu novels, this is not long, just ninety-six pages. Yet each line is poignant, each paragraph is filled with author’s caustic comments on the devious nature of men.

          As mentioned in chapter 2, the book met with harsh criticism. That did not stop Lata though. She wrote a second novel, Raktapankam [Quagmire Of Blood], on the same subject, a longer version of the same story.

          Ranganayakamma believes that our traditional values kept woman under subjugation and hindered any progress, which may be feasible otherwise. She is highly confrontational in her novels, and expressive of her opposition to patriarchal society, caste system, male domination, oppression of women, and so on.

          Balipeetham [Sacrificial Stone] is one of her early novels, which depicts her views on inter-caste marriages based on altruistic principles.


          Bhaskar was a young doctor, a Harijan by birth. He started out as a volunteer in a shelter for the homeless, and soon became a full-time administrator. At first, he had no intentions to marry anyone but his friends convinced him that marriage was a fulfilling part of one’s life. He met a young woman named Tara accidentally. He wanted to marry her, was waiting for the right time to propose.

          Before he had a chance to propose to Tara, he was sent to Hyderabad on business. In Hyderabad, his long-time friend, Ramanatham, arranged for him to meet with a Brahmin child widow, Aruna. Aruna had a severe heart condition.

          Bhaskar and Aruna talked freely and openly. She told him that her one dream in life was to die as a sumangali, the status of being a married woman, a much-coveted status for Hindu women.

          Bhaskar was moved by her condition and her frankness, and proposed to her. “I will consider this an opportunity God has bestowed on me. If I could fulfill the one wish of a desperate woman, I will consider myself blessed,” he told her. Then he added, “I have no intention of hiding my caste. I am a Harijan.” Aruna accepted his proposal. They were engaged.

          Bhaskar admitted her in a famous clinic for nature cure. After she recovered, they were married. Soon Aruna started noticing the differences in their lifestyles and beliefs. She wanted to live up to her family customs, which included rituals and celebrations in style. Bhaskar preferred a low-key, modest lifestyle. While the disagreements were driving them farther and farther apart, they had a daughter.

          In the past, Aruna had been married to her maternal uncle’s son. Her uncle, Sastry, and aunt, Jagadamba, had performed the wedding while both Aruna and the boy were little kids. The boy died leaving Aruna a child widow. Aruna had no memories of this first marriage.

          Both Sastry and Jagadamba were dead-set against Aruna’s marriage with Bhaskar from the beginning. They contributed heavily in making Aruna develop negative thoughts about Baskar’s family and their customs. Things started turning sour.

          Bhaskar, at his sister’s request, brought his nephew, Gopi, home in order to help him with his education. Aruna was not pleased with this arrangement but kept quiet.

          Bhaskar went to Bombay for a year for training in Cooperation. Aruna moved to her uncle’s home for the period with her daughter and Gopi. Prior to his departure, Bhaskar advised his wife to obtain her Bachelor’s degree and get a job, and pay off the outstanding debts. Aruna agreed. Eventually she received her degree and got a job.

          After returning from Bombay, Bhaskar realized that, during his absence, Gopi had been treated as an errand boy, and Aruna had gone overboard with expenses. Contrary to their original plan, Aruna had not paid off the outstanding loans.

          Aruna started suspecting him of infidelity. She went back to live with her uncle and aunt. Bhaskar filed a petition seeking her return to his home. The court ruled in his favor. Aruna ignored the court order and stayed with her uncle and aunt. Aruna was pregnant with their second child.

          Aruna’s sister, Vimala, decided to marry an Anglo-Indian young man, James. Both Bhaskar and Aruna tried to explain the pitfalls in inter-caste marriages. Vimala convinced them that their decision was based on love and not on some offbeat ideology.

          Sastry and Jagadamba started ill-treating Aruna and her children. Aruna was feeling financial pressures in addition to the pain caused by her failed marriage. The situation caused her heart condition to relapse.

          The naturopathy doctor, who had cured her earlier, offered to treat her free of charge. She was admitted into the clinic. There was no improvement in her condition. She understood that Bhaskar was paying her bills anonymously. At her request, Bhaskar came to visit her and she died in his arms, just the way she had wanted. Bhaskar performed the death rites appropriate for a sumangali, per Aruna’s wishes.

          Ranganayakamma dealt with this theme of man-woman relationship in her later novels also. She broadened her perspective and correlated it to the patriarchal society and Marxist ideology.

          Not many Telugu female writers proved their aptitude in writing romance and humor, but the few who had tried their hand in these genres made history. In the fiction written by Bhanumati Ramakrishna and Yeddanapudi Sulochana Rani, the core issue is not so much the story as conveying, effectively, a rasa, a mood or an experience. In Bhanumati’s stories, it is hasya rasa [humor] and in Sulochana Rani, it is sringara rasa [romance].

          The first romance novel in modern Telugu fiction by a female writer was Chakrabhramanam [The Revolving Wheel] by Koduri Kausalyadevi, serialized in Andhraprabha Weekly in 1961. Soon after, Sulochana Rani entered the field with her first novel, Secretary published in 1964. Both Kausalyadevi and Sulochana Rani enjoyed extraordinary popularity in the sixties and seventies. Sulochana Rani enjoys huge readership even today.   

          Sulochana Rani’s talent lay in her narration—in capturing the readers’ attention and keeping them on toes for months on end.


          A young beautiful middle-class woman, Jayanti, started as secretary at a women’s organization. One day she went to a member’s house for his signature on some papers. The member was not home. Her husband attempted sexual assault on Jayanti. Jayanti managed to escape, and later understood that she was not going to get any support from the organization in such matters. 

          She met a handsome and influential young man, Raja Sekharam, better known as Sekharam. At the organization, push came to shove and Jayanti submitted her resignation. While waiting for bus, Sekharam saw her, and offered her lift to her home. On the way, she told him about her resignation. He offered her a job as secretary in his home office.

          Jayanti and Sekharam were attracted to each other but neither was willing to admit it openly. Jayanti fell sick. She needed surgery and Sekharam took care of her during her sickness.

          Jayanti learned that Sekharam had been close to other women in the past. She decided to abide her time.

          Jayanti’s grandmother, her only living relative, became sick. Sekharam brought both of them to his home and helped them. During their stay, he learned from the grandmother that they were related, which made him Jayanti’s cross-cousin, an eligible bridegroom for her. The grandmother died. Sekharam insisted that Jayanti should stay in his house since she had no other place to go, and Jayanti accepted it.  

          One of the members at the women’s organization sought Jayanti’s help in arranging her daughter’s marriage with Sekharam. Jayanti, disheartened, left town, and after a few mishaps, landed a job in Madras. During her stay in Madras, she learned that Sekharam and Vijayalakshmi, her boss, had known each other.

          Jayanti accidentally met Sivaram, a former friend of Sekharam. Sivaram advised her to go back to Sekharam. Jayanti went back and married Sekharam.

          The novel had all the elements of a romance novel. The most important element, which could not be captured in the synopsis, is its readability. That in fact is the strongest forte of Sulochana Rani.

          I attempted to show the range of topics that characterized women’s fiction in the fifties and sixties. The topics ranged from women’s issues to the evils in society and human conditions. On the home front, they dealt with the awareness of one’s identity initially at a basic level, a feeble attempt to make other members be aware of it, and vocalize their protest. There were also issues of the rite of passage for youth and their search for new directions, the newly emerging problems surrounding the educated woman, and personal relationships. In terms of social and metaphysical issues, a wide variety of topics such as fear, hunger, self-awareness among the working class, and social evils like caste system and prostitution were part of the fiction of this era. Another angle in some of the novels was poignant questions relating to the meaning of life, purpose and death.

          This is only a tiny sample of the enormous amount of fiction published during this period. Numerous writers such as K. Ramalakshmi, Aravinda, Vacaspati, Parimala Someswar, Abburi Chaya Devi, Adimadhyam Ramanamma, I. V. S. Atchyutavalli, Kavilipati Vijayalakshmi, Polkampalli Santadevi, and Pavani Nirmala Prabhavati, Nidadavolu Malathi had written on numerous topics relevant to the times.

          I included a list of the writers from this period. Let me however stress that it is only a partial list. That is one of the areas further research is needed.

          Let us examine their craftsmanship in the stories presented in this chapter. 


          The synopses provided in the preceding chapter help to familiarize readers with the range of themes in the fiction by women writers in the fifties and sixties, and to facilitate a discussion of their craft of storytelling.

          The women writers of the fifties and sixties narrated their stories in the tradition they grew up. In evaluating their works, we need to make this important distinction. Let me briefly explain my views.

          Most of the critiques of short stories by Telugu scholars published included women writers nominally and comments on their works from an academic perspective marginally. Presumably, the critics judged fiction in accordance with Western methodology, which meant scrutinizing structure, development of plot, solution or denouement, characterization, diction, and the author’s point of view or message, as prevalent in the textbooks of Western methodology. In contrast, Telugu women writers told their stories in Oral tradition they were accustomed to. A vast majority of readers responded to that technique for the same reason. They also grew up in the same tradition, and thus felt at home with those stories.

          In other words, while the academy continued to disregard or dismiss the fiction by women writers as non-literature based on their criteria, the public embraced it to a point hitherto unknown because they felt at home with the technique that was present in the women’s fiction.

          In this period, most of the readers possessed minimal education. The three elements mattered most to them were theme, conflict and resolution. In general, non-scholar readers would not make a conscious effort to look for other elements such as plot, development, characterization and linguistic peculiarities. I do not mean that these elements will have no bearing on the story’s appeal to the readers. My position is that the readers tend to overlook such specifics at a conscious level and continue to read the story for the sake of the story. They continued to read even when the integrity or structure was remiss, characterization unrealistic, and the diction imperfect. On the other hand, critics went to great lengths to scrutinize the structure, the opening, presentation of problem or conflict, development, resolution or denouement, language and imagery systematically. Possibly, this accounted for the academy’s dismissal of the women writers’ fiction as non-literature.

          In this chapter, I will attempt to highlight the salient features that were instrumental in capturing the widest audience. I will also include a few comments on some of the elements from an academic standpoint. Presumably, it helps to study the two perspectives in juxtaposition and underscore the distinction the readers had made in their appreciation of the women’s writing during this period.

          A major breakthrough in the fiction of the fifties was the awareness of woman’s identity. For the first time, the women writers moved away from the Bhakti tradition, in which the woman would devote herself entirely to the prosperity of her husband and the family, and turned to self, in which she saw herself as an individual, conscious of her needs and desires. She became aware of her right to feel good about herself.

          The story, “Eduru Chusina Muhurtam” [The Long Awaited Moment], opens with a six-year-old girl, Durga, yearning for a frock, just like the one her friend at school had. She asks her mother, without success. That is the first and last time she has ever asked anybody for anything for herself. She does not understand why Mother yelled at her but she has learned the one lesson that there is no point in asking. That is the reality of middle class economics.

          However, the crux of the issue is neither their financial position nor her silence but her awareness of the fact that nobody has acknowledged her as an individual. She desperately wants somebody to view her as a person and show she is cared  for, bring something for her, tell her, “I brought this for you”. Even after she starts earning, she does not see that kind of concern among the family members. She is in a position to buy something for herself but that is not what she wants, craves for. She wants someone say, “you go and buy something for yourself,” at least. That does not happen either. Instead, her mother expresses relief that Duran’s income will come in handy for her younger sister’s education and other household expenses. Durga is completely disgusted with life, “What a miserable life! Whatever have I done to deserve this? Is this a curse from my previous life? There is not one person who feels like spending one paisa on me, why?” The last question sums up the protagonist’s yearning to be recognized as an individual.

          The author, Saraladevi, weaves the story from start to finish, from childhood to death, through a series of incidents, each incident reinforcing the one perception, that of the protagonist—her acute awareness that she is not recognized as a person. This issue is not limited to her family alone.

          The social context also plays a critical role. Durga starts noticing the people around her ever since she has turned six. She sees the things her friends have been showing around and wants the same things they have—the printed frock of Padma at school, red ribbons, a new school bag, and dolls to make other girls jealous of her. She is mortified since she has no answer when somebody asks her, “Where is your new sari?” When her friends show her their new items, and say, “My brother brought it from Bangalore”, or “My sister got it from Delhi”, all she can do is to stare at them, heartbroken. Will she ever be in a position to say similar words in her life? If not a sari, a piece of ribbon, at least. No, that has never happened as long as she lived. I could not help wondering, what if she did not have to compare her lot with others at school or in town constantly? What are the mores in our society that are driving us constantly to compare ourselves with the others around us?

          In the final analysis, Durga’s one wish has never been realized. In her childhood days, she never had an opportunity to show off her new clothes and make her friends jealous of her. In her adult life, there was no occasion validating her existence as an individual.

          The dominant message in the story is the protagonist’s wish to be acknowledged as an individual in relation not only to the family but to the society as well and that was never fulfilled.

          The moment she was waiting for in her entire life comes at the end but by now, she is far beyond feeling it. Somebody in the room says, “We need a new sari to drape the dead body in”. Son offers to bring it, “reaching for his earnings in his pocket.” That is the final blow for a person who wants to be recognized as an individual in her lifetime. Additionally, the statement also speaks of the emptiness of rituals. The reader can almost hear the protagonist ask, “Why did you not think of it while I was alive?”

          The narrative is well structured. The conversations are taken from everyday life. This story is one example of the way the women writers would take the dialogues from their living rooms and kitchens and use them to make a powerful statement.

          The awareness of one’s identity—a woman’s perception of self in relation to the family and society—originated in the fifties and further developed in the sixties. This portrayal varied from a simple perception in their own minds to mild protests and then to highly vocal statements.

          The story “Madanta Mabbu” [A Fleck of Cloud] projects yet another perspective of the same theme. The protagonist in this story is aware of not only her identity but also her husband’s one weakness, jealousy. In the process, she learns that, between the two of them, she is the one who can save their marriage. The narrative is particularly evocative for the way natural climate is built into the story.

          The story opens with a short description, “At a distance, a fleck of cloud appeared hanging over the farm. Bhagyam returned home from the lake, put down the pot and started reminiscing. She felt a shower of nectar in her heart. In the next second, she shuddered.” 

          These four sentences suggest the incidents to follow. The fleck of cloud at the start brings a downpour at the end. This reminds me of a Telugu proverb, chiliki chiliki gaalivaana ayindi (little sprinkles turned into a tornado eventually). She holds a pot full of water and feels a shower of nectar at her heart—symbolic of abounding joy. She is scared in the next second. She shudders at the thought of what her laugh at the lake might bring.

          These images set the stage for the pleasure and pain she has been experiencing in her life. There are only two incidents for the reader to understand the conditions at their home. Bhagyam and Peddiraju are cross-cousins. They are raised by Peddiraju’s mother. Therefore, Bhagyam is fully aware of his jealous nature. “Bava cannot tolerate when I speak with anyone other than himself. He is strange in a way. In all other matters, he is none other than the god himself.”

          There are two sets of incidents, running parallel to let the reader know the complete story of their marital bliss: One set illustrating his affection for her and the other depicting his jealous nature, which sets off the conflict in their marriage. All the incidents except the last one are narrated in flashback.

          The first incident takes place when Peddiraju goes to a village fair and returns early. He sees his wife with flowers in her hair and a glass of milk on the window ledge. He is upset, which confuses Bhagyam. The precise explanation is not given for his anger or wife’s confusion but left to the readers’ imagination—a common practice in oral tradition. The author says, by the time Bhagyam finished explaining to her husband, the rooster crowed. “Peddiraju felt mortified for suspecting her and felt ashamed of his behavior”. For the purpose of the story, that is sufficient. The author wastes no words.

          Bhagyam continues to give us her husband’s good side. He pays attention to her likes and dislikes. On one occasion, the village munsif’s wife gave her two lotus fruits. Bhagyam said they were her favorite fruits. The next day, Peddiraju jumped into the lake risking his life and brought a huge bunch of the lotus fruits. Bhagyam was touched and her eyes were filled with tears of joy. She remembers that his horoscope said large bodies of water are a menace to his life. In that sense, he risked his life to make her happy. Similarly, at the end, he remembers his promise and brings the black sari with gold-threaded moon print for her.

          They both are aware of the problem that is tearing them apart, and both want their marriage to work. Human nature being what it is, it just doesn’t work. Nobody is perfect. The husband has a weakness and the wife is willing to make allowance for her husband’s one weakness since he is also a  very caring person. She understands the value of ‘give and take’ as an important and pragmatic approach in a relationship. Additionally, for a woman to feel responsible for keeping the family together and making it work has been all too common in our culture. In a way, it highlights the woman’s sensitivity in such matters.

          In the final episode, he keeps his promise but does not have the patience to wait for her or her explanation. For all he knew, she is not even aware of his return at the time. What made Peddiraju not to wait for his wife and ask for an explanation? My guess is that is the breaking point. Possibly the author is trying to tell us that the little sprinkles turn into a heavy downpour at some point. There is always a time when things break if not fixed in an appropriate manner.

          The imagery—the lightning which bounced from the supper plates and the incessant downpour—is a premonition of possible happy end. Bouncing is indicative of return and downpour may be symbolic of life.

          The settings in these two stories give us glimpses of two different environments. The first story, “The Long Awaited Moment”, happens in a middle-class home. The second story, “A Fleck of Cloud”, takes place in a rural setting.

          A few stories depicted characters, which are naïve at first and then become vocal, if need be.

          In the story, “A Desperate Cry”, the experience of a working class woman is taken to illustrate the insecurities of the middle-class women in our society. The story opens with Kannamma, a working class woman, appearing at the doorstep of Radha, a middle-class housewife. It begins with Kannamma telling her miseries to Radha and ends with Radha realizing the insecurity in her own marriage.

          In terms of technique, the author needs to create an environment that is convincing to the middle-class readers. The author used Kannamma’s story to achieve that end.

          In the opening paragraph, Kannamma tells Radha how every man she has come across tried to hurt her. There is one exception. Her brother-in-law does not assault her but politely proposes to marry her. In their caste, as he points out, it is common for a woman to remarry. He has not violated any rule. Then why did Kannamma reject his proposal, if she was looking for security? In this, I think the author created a condition for the middle-class readers to identify themselves with Kannamma—an indirect but clever way to appeal to the middle-class readers. Otherwise, there is a possibility of them feeling “we are not like her.”

          That may also account for the twist at the end. The desperate cry comes from not Kannamma, the original protagonist, but from Radha, a middle-class woman. Once again, the chances of readers empathizing with Radha are greater than with Kannamma. 

          One brief note about the end. In a personal letter addressed to me, Ranganayakamma mentioned that Kannamma was a real person, the experiences narrated in the story were real and, Kannamma in real life committed suicide by jumping into a well. In the story, Kannamma simply leaves Radha’s house. The readers would not know what happened to Kannamma. After that, it turns into Radha’s story.

          The story opens with Kannamma’s desperate predicament but not with Radha’s concern for the mores of her husband. It stands to reason for us to expect the desperate cry to come from Kannamma. This shift in focus from Kannamma to Radha can be viewed as a structural flaw. The tragedy of the real life Kannamma has not been accounted for. The rationale for this, I believe, is the author’s concern with the issues of middle-class women.

          A second flaw in the structure is the lengthy incident involving the sickness and the possible death of the grandmother. The incident is intended for Radha to be away from home for a few days, thus providing an opportunity for the husband to transgress. The question however is whether this lengthy episode filled with frivolous arguments of Radha’s brothers and sisters is justified in a story about the miseries of a working class woman. Once again, I need to refer to the aforementioned letter, wherein the author had given me permission to abridge the scene at my discretion.

          I believe Ranganayakamma introduced the episode as a comic relief in this otherwise gloomy story. Digression is an element of oral tradition and humor is an intrinsic part of our culture. Readers had no problem accepting this kind of digression in the fiction of fifties and sixties. 

          While the narrative as a whole is not structurally strong, but each incident makes an interesting reading. That is what appealed to a vast majority of the readers in the sixties. The integrity suffers from an academic standpoint.

          The literary career of Sridevi barely stretched over a period of one decade yet she had written a few remarkable stories dealing with the issues of youth of her times. Like many writers of this period, Sridevi was superb in creating convincing characters—husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, and neighbors. In “People Ahead of Their Times,” the setting, crowded with uncles, aunts, and cousins, is an authentic representation of a middle class home.

          For young Rama Rao, who just turned sixteen, the entire gamut of relatives and their ways are overwhelming. The characters are real, with all their idiosyncrasies and frailties. Readers can relate to them right away. 

          Srinivasulu is the only person that makes sense in Ramam’s eyes. His logic about maintaining a household with two wives may or may not be acceptable but the insecurities and the weaknesses of all other characters are all but too familiar and that is what captures Telugu readers’ attention. It does not bother that Srinivasulu was promoting wrong kind of ethics. The story illustrates the frailties, which many people do not admit openly. It was a wake up song for many, a song nonetheless.

          Rama Rao first goes to the city because his father told him to. He sees the light of day only after Srinivasulu laid out the life he is going to have, that is living per dictates of his father or somebody else. His decision at the end to defy father and attend college is a step in the right direction. It is a rite of passage for him. The tradition is not easy to shake off. It is not in his blood. For that reason, he does not go straight to his father but goes to the beach, where he will have time to rehearse what he is going to tell his father. That is a convincing argument.

          The message in effect is not one of ethical values but of worldly wisdom. Srinivasulu and his wife have solved their financial problems by inviting the ‘other woman’ into their home. All the relatives who hated his morals or guts or both, have no problem taking money from the same woman they have been badmouthing.

          The complexities of human nature surpass the wisdom the schools and colleges teach. That being the message, sending the young man to an educational institution by way of buying time is superb in terms of technique!

          Hunger is a universal problem. While the poor are starving and putting up a fierce battle for each morsel of food, wealthy people sit in the comforts of their home, and gloat over possible solutions or pass judgments. Kameswari depicts the issue from a different perspective in her story, “Idi Katha Kaadu” [This Is Not Fiction].

          The story opens with a working class mother roughing up her little daughter on the street. Readers, along with the narrator, wonder how any mother could be so cruel towards a little child. The characters of the mother and the child unfold gradually. Arguments on both sides of the issue—some condemning and others supporting the actions of the mother vouch for the author’s insights into the issue of poverty and hunger.

          The child’s death is not the end of the story though. In a skillful twist, the author takes the story to a new level. Like self-sacrifice in Bhakti tradition, the maternal instinct and familial bonding are overplayed in our fiction, at times to a point of fault. Kameswari points out the anomaly in this approach.

          In the first half of the story, a few middle-class women are critical of the maternal instincts of a lower class woman in harsh terms. In the second half of the story, after the child’s death, the focus shifts to the maternal instincts of the middle-class woman, the narrator. This is one more dimension that adds to the story in a larger context—the attitudes and hypocrisies of the middle class. The question raised by the narrator at the end is a poignant summation of all these characteristics:

          “Is there anything more ridiculous than I commenting on the virtues of maternal instinct and familial bonding, when I could not wait for my son,  not even one and a half hours?”

          The message appears to be only those who had experienced hunger, or other physical pain for that matter, can grasp the intensity of suffering at its worst. Others may lecture, debate and pass judgments but can never really grasp the extent of it.

          The story is well written in terms of structure, characterization, and narration. In addition, the narrative contains the multilevel structure that is common in oral tradition. For readers, one story is not just about making one point. It depicts the core issue, hunger, from several angles.

          The only flaw I think is in the title, “This is not Fiction”. It is flat. I would like to think, maybe naively, that this story escaped the critics’ attention because of the fuzzy title. In the fifties and sixties, giving suitable titles was a skill yet to be mastered by some of the writers.

  1. Vasundhara Devi’s long story, “Penjeekatikavvala”, [Far Beyond the Dense Darkness] is a philosophical narrative, reflecting on the significance of life, the relevance or irrelevance of material possessions and death. The title is a phrase taken from a popular Telugu verse, a prayer, which roughly translates as, “I bow to that Supreme Lord, at whose behest the world is created, in whom it lies dormant and into whom it is merged; and who lives manifest far beyond the dense darkness.”

          The story opens with a crisp description of a neighborhood of the wealthy, which the ordinary people can comprehend only by a stretch of imagination, and a colony of the poor right next to it. Additionally, there is a burial ground, constantly emitting revolting smells from the smoldering dead bodies.

          Then follows a description of Jayalakshmi’s character. Jayalakshmi hates the poor and the burial ground. At the same time, she cannot explain why she has chosen to live in that neighborhood which she hated so much. She suffers from frequent lapses into logical thinking. She is very kind and concerned in one moment, and irascible in the next. Sometimes she is very happy; her heart jumps with joy for no apparent reason, love abounds, and she is kind to her husband, children, and each human being she has come across. She experiences the meaning, the very essence and fullness of life in one moment and, at other times, she finds life insipid and meaningless. All the ties—husband, children, and all other relationships in the world—seem to be restrictive and selfish. Then, she finds all the things like decency, kindness and love illusory. Depression fills her heart and a sense of futility pulls her down.

          This incongruity in her character as well as her mode of thinking pervades the story throughout. Each incident is built around this one character. Each time Jayalakshmi is thrown into a bout of the same haunting questions repeatedly. Questions such as “What is the meaning of this incident or that incident? Who am I? Why things happened the way they did? Is there a message? Am I supposed to do something about it?” constantly haunt her.

          Although the story is too long for a short story, probably, it is necessary considering the gravity of the central issue. The reader needs to feel the intensity of the internal struggle of the protagonist at the end and arrive at a conclusion similar to that of the protagonist. At the end she comes to terms with herself, and “her heart is filled with joy. All these things will be here even when I am not. All these people, the trees, the birds, the sun, and the sky … they all continue to exist in this world.” 

          Simply stated, the story “Far beyond the Dense Darkness” is a personal journey of a truth-seeker. During one of our conversations, Vasundhara Devi mentioned that it was about revelation of the Ultimate Truth that is manifest in a place far beyond the densest darkness, and the protagonist’s intense struggle to acquire that knowledge. 

          The other strong point in this story is the narrative style. Each incident is crafted with several details, which helps to invoke the specific image or environment in the reader’s mind. The first description of the neighborhood at the beginning and the cancer patients’ ward at the hospital vouch for the author’s attention to detail.

          Two stories by Achanta Sarada Devi are significant for their unique style. The author succeeded in recreating the pensive undertone without making it a tedious reading. 

          The story “The Escaped Parrot” opens with a brief description of nature.

          Big chunks of clouds are scurrying around in the sky as if they are in a hurry. A small white fleck of cloud slithers in one path and another baby cloud in another path. Then the two stop in the middle and merge into one piece. In a split second, they break up and each goes its own way. They are taking over the sky and changing into various shapes … like scattered cotton balls, or jasmines that slipped away.

          Kamakshamma sat by the back door, watching the floating clouds. She is depressed. How quickly the clouds are changing shapes! … Before one can get used to one shape, it is changing into another! They all are gliding away so beautifully! Embracing each other snugly and breaking away the next moment! Momentary attachment!

          These two paragraphs set the mood for the reader. The entire story reverberates with the stillness that filled her home and the heart. Her husband built that house on the outskirts since he liked peace and quiet, wanted to live far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The irony is he is never around to enjoy that peace and quiet, and he is not even aware of it. She is left with the quietude, which she has not asked for. She is tired of it.

          She asks him, “All your work is in the city. Why not we move to the city?” He says, “How can we get this peace and quiet in the city?” He leaves at dawn and returns home after it got dark. Only he should know what kind of peace and quiet he is enjoying. Kamakshamma cannot understand but does not say a word either.

          The main plot stresses the anomalies in his mode of thinking. Sundara Rao talks about the peace and quiet but has no time to enjoy it, does not even attempt to make time to enjoy it. He seems to be stuck on the pigeonhole images of what is important in life, without understanding its ramifications.

          The secondary plot in the story is human relations. Sundara Rao inherited the garden on the outskirts of the town, and built the house because he wanted, or thought he wanted to enjoy peace and quietude. He thought, “It would be nice to have a thing called wife in the house,” and married Kamakshamma. The phrase a thing called wife conveys his mode of thinking powerfully. For him, wife is an adjunct, a material possession similar to the house and the garden. His reason to marry is not that he needed someone to run the household. He has servants for that. He is never bored because the city is there for his entertainment. From the curt one line conversations he has with his wife, it does not appear like he needs her for company at home.

          The one question that keeps coming up is why did he marry? This is one more example of writer’s awareness of the lack of communication between husbands and wives in our society.  

          Kamakshamma does not seem to know what she wanted from life until she has bonded with the parrot. She comes from a middle class family with limited means. She never had much of jewelry. When her marriage with Sundara Rao was arranged, her first question was, “Will they give me the entire set of jewelry, head to foot?” As it turned out, Sundara Rao’s mother had plenty of jewelry and Kamakshamma became the beneficiary of all that jewelry. Since she was the only daughter, the loneliness in her husband’s home did not bother her for a while. Servants are there to take care of the chores. She has nothing else to do.  She wears her jewelry, looks in the mirror and be happy. After twelve years, she gets tired of her jewelry, the old battery-operated radio, and the husband who is in no mood for a friendly chat. Everything around her looks insipid. The jewelry becomes bothersome but she can not remove them. “We invite these fixations into our lives on our own. Eventually they become burdensome yet we can not break away from them,” the narrator reflects. 

          Into that uneventful life, a bird with a broken leg enters. That is the first sign of radiance in her life. She starts building a new life around the bird, which lasts only for six months. After the bird flies away, she understands the value of freedom for the first time.

          All the events—her marriage to Sundara Rao, moving into the new home on the outskirts of the town, resounding solitude in and around that house are described cleverly. Her husband’s reference to the peace and solitude sounds hollow in the face of his daily commute to the city. While he talks about it, the wife is at the receiving end of the peace and quiet she has not asked for. Her mental state is described succinctly in just four lines.  

          Six months passed by. Kamakshamma’s heart was jubilant. Chinnari’s [the parrot’s] heart in the cage squealed. Kamakshamma’s face lit up as she smiled. Chinnari’s wings flapped against the cage frame until exhausted.

          These four lines conceptualize the entire theme. The bird is a metaphor for Kamakshamma. Her interest in the jewelry is her handicap parallel to the injured leg of the bird. In both the cases, the snare is accidental. Sundara Rao put Kamakshamma in a beautiful house the same way she put the bird in a cage. It is befitting that Kamakshamma should comprehend the depth of the analogy only after the bird flew away. By contrast, Sundara Rao never understood Kamakshamma’s mental state. He could not understand why she was pining for the bird or what he did to her life. Possibly the underlying message is “only those who experienced the pain can understand the depth and intensity of it”.    

          The narrative builds up slowly and systematically. There are no needless details, no philosophical lectures. A simple narrative from the heart of a woman who felt unfathomable depth of quietude. The secondary plot illustrating all human beings, men and women, want another living soul to anchor around is equally important. The story may appear to be from a woman’s perspective but I think the author seems to have generalized her perspective.

          In “Frostbite“, a very naive, young woman was married to an impotent man. The marriage was a ploy to hide his condition of impotence. Apparently, it was also hidden from the girl’s parents. The story opens with a young woman Kalyani coming in touch with her elementary school friend Vakula. There is not much communication since Vakula keeps totally quiet. In a series of incidents, Kalyani understands Vakula is married into a family, who think Vakula is afflicted with some uncanny disease and subject her to various treatments.

          As the story develops, her husband and his parents accuse her parents of cheating and forcing their son into an undesirable marriage. They even spread a rumor that Vakula is possessed. They perform some demonic ritual, causing her physical harm in the process. All along, Vakula takes all the ill-treatment but refuses to open her mouth. That is her weapon. Her silence drives them up the wall. That is her way of wreaking vengeance.

          At the end, Vakula shares her pain with Kalyani. She speaks just one sentence, “He is impotent.” That was shock to Kalyani. No other words, again total silence. That is what reader feels too–shock. All the intrigue around Vakula has been shattered in three words. Reader will be able to understand her shock, the frostbite, Vakula must have received when she learned about her husband’s physical condition.

          The story caught the attention of well-known writers and put Malathi on the map as a good writer. However one notable comment is Vakula’s life need not end in death. Possibly her life under the circumstances is as good dead.

          So far, I have discussed short stories illustrating the range of women’s writing. Now I shall discuss novels by the women writers of fifties and sixties. They have produced novels in record numbers. Several of them wrote a few but others wrote in considerable numbers. These novels highlight their sensitivity and talent in depicting larger issues.

          In the next few pages, I will discuss the six novels for which themes have been provided in the preceding chapter.

          One of the most popular subjects during this period was the educated woman and the new challenges she was facing subsequent to her newly acquired education. The two novels, Champakam And Parasites and The Transformed Values, by two popular writers of the time illustrate two perspectives of the same issue.

          Every phase of progress comes with a downside to it. Education and the subsequent earning power alone are not enough to provide freedom for women in the Indian context. There is no freedom until and unless the old family values change as well.

          In Champakam and the Parasites, the novel opens with the young Champakam in her music class. Champakam, sitting in a corner, has been noticed by a benevolent stranger despite her shy demeanor. Her shyness is befitting to a typical young woman in middle-class families. That she is noticed by a stranger, Lalji, is unusual and captures reader’s interest.

          Then follows a discussion between her older brother, Satyam, and her domineering mother. They decide not to tell Champakam about the offer by Lalji. That part is unusual. The traditional values require family members to look after each other’s interests. We do not see that here. The brother and mother collude to ruin Champakam’s chances at a better life. Possibly the brother is jealous and the mother has always been supportive of son. Arguably she does not have complete details, and thus not in a position to make informed decision.

          Eventually, Champakam’s earning power becomes a pivotal point in the story. Her brother and mother never liked her getting education to begin with. Yet they have no problem taking her money. Strange as it may sound, in our homes, earning power for a woman does not translate into freedom from family ties and responsibilities. It actually works the opposite way. A woman, who is normally considered a burden to the family, becomes an asset because of her earning power. The male family members, who are not supposed to take woman’s money [called stri dhanam] according to tradition, are now using her money freely for their pleasures, which in itself is a major departure from tradition.

          The problem reaches climax when her impending marriage is ruined by Kamala, her brother’s fiance. Kamala uses Indu to add a chemical in Champakam’s facial cream. The episode in which Kamala uses Indu to disfigure Champakam’s face is handled skillfully. “I did not ask you to do anything,” Kamala says slowly, “That’s a lie. I did not ask you to do anything. You just imagined that I did. You always imagine things. You are crazy”. Kamala is the first one to notice Indu’s gullibility and take advantage of it.

          After sustaining burns, Champakam grows stronger. She is able to stand up to Raja Rao and tell him that things between the two are not the same anymore; and the love he had for her cannot possibly be there anymore. He will not be able to say, “You are beautiful” without being hypocritical, she argues. This is one of the powerful episodes in the story. Champakam displays unusual strength of character as she poses the question to Raja Rao.

          At the end, she shows the same courage one more time when she confronts her mother. After receiving a copy of Lalji’s Will, she understands there might be something more to it than she has known and confronts her mother. 

          Most of the writers during this period identified the problems surrounding the “educated woman” but were not sure of plausible solutions. As a result, we find death/suicide as a solution in many stories of this decade.

          Champakam leaves an upbeat note, prior to committing suicide, that “there is plenty of love and kindness in the world”. This final note is not convincing. Why would an intelligent and successful writer like Champakam commit suicide if she genuinely believed that there is plenty of love and kindness in the world?

          Secondly, after Champakam starts making good money, the family members depend on her for financial support. After her face has been disfigured, she is depressed. She even shows resentment toward the family members. That being the case, why does she not rebel? Why does she not live her life as she pleased, especially when she has the money to do so? That is the point. During that period, the hold of centuries-old tradition of familial bonding prevailed. That is the reality in Telugu homes. From academic standpoint, this can be viewed as a flaw in characterization. The protagonist falls short of being a hero. Once again, I reiterate, it was the changing times, heroes just started emerging; it was the start of things yet to come.

          The central theme is the economic problem an educated woman has been facing at home. In the post-independent Andhra Pradesh, the women’s education just started gaining ground in middle class families. Not everybody supported it. Champakam obtained her education, despite the opposition from mother and brother. It was in a nascent stage in the women’s education movement.

          After she finishes her schooling, she starts writing and making money. Significantly, the family, who objected to her education, does not object to her writing and publishing! That again was a social reality of the times.

          Then the next logical question is whether the family has forgiven her writing and publishing for economic reasons. There is no mention of such attitude in the novel. 

          After Champakam becomes a popular writer, she gains self-esteem and starts using make up, and dressing up fashionably. In that context, the narrator comments, “Her eyes are hiding the mischief of the first Champakam from her childhood days, the sadness of the second, and the insubordination of the third Champakam.” It is not clear whose voice is that. Is it the narrator’s evaluation of Champakam’s character or that is how Champakam sees herself? Champakam has not been depicted as having enough courage to rebel. Should we consider her mild protests against her brother and brother-in-law as insubordination? The protests are not strong enough for anybody to take seriously. The brother and brother-in-law do not seem to have taken them seriously or they would not keep coming back to her for money until the last day. In the entire novel, there is not a single incident to substantiate the first and third comments—about mischief and insubordination.  In terms of integrity, these three episodes are lapses in an otherwise well-knit story.

          For the vast majority of readers however the strong points in this novel are the story and characterization. The story is about an educated woman and her earning power. Let us not forget that most of the readers were women, and most of them had only minimal education at the time. They could relate to Champakam. Secondly, the setting was a middle class family—brothers, sisters, and their education, the arguments between the siblings, and caring and sharing. Readers could position themselves in that setting and respond to the storyline.

          The name Champakam has metaphorical significance. Champakam is a beautiful flower, orange in color [symbolic of education] and has a strong aroma [symbolic of earning power], both known to attract parasites. Another significant factor is that the parasites themselves, Satyam and Venkat Rao and even mother, survive in the story. The other beneficiaries of Champakam’s economic status are Radha, Kamala and Indu, and they die.

          Raja Rao is a beneficiary-hopeful of her beauty but he fails in his attempt to get her attention and dies. He dies without ever telling Champakam that he genuinely loved her for who she was and not for her looks.

          Lalji’s death is supposed to bring a ray of hope for Champakam but fails. His death does not serve the intended purpose. There is no reason to kill so many characters. The author seems to have strained to fit the narrative to a known paradigm—a closure for each character.

          In the next novel, The Transformed Values, we see a broader perspective. It is not a story of one person but of a family. It is a portrayal of the old values taking on a new hue.

          Janaki’s failed marriage is the pivotal event in the story yet the story goes far beyond her marital status, and to the structure of a new society in the making. In that sense, there is really no single moment that can be identified as the crux of the problem. It is a series of incidents and they keep a family moving in a new direction. It is a piece of history.

          In Champakam and the Parasites, we see one constant struggle, the parasites feeding on Champakam. We see only one side of each of the family members. We do not know what they will say or how they will act in other situations.

          Visalakshi covers a broader perspective. While Malati takes individual characters and weaves a story around the development of a character, Visalakshi takes a piece of history and presents it on a wider canvas. In her novel, readers hear everyday conversations in the living rooms and the kitchens of middle class families, some self-examination on the part of the characters, and some thinking on human level, and thus providing a more convincing environment. The caring for each other among the children including the sister-in-law is authentic. I think many readers responded to this unique talent of Visalakshi.

          The opening episode unveils a pronouncement on women’s education.  Santha announces that she passed the high school exam. Her mother is disappointed that the daughter passed the same test, which her younger son failed. That was one of the prevailing sentiments at the time, which the older women cherished and the younger women resented. As the mother puts it, passing a test is immaterial for girls but a matter of life and death for boys. This is particularly significant in that there is already one woman in the family, Janaki, who has received education, and has a job. Yet the mother’s opinion has not changed. Janaki’s education and her earning power does not stop mother from belittling Santha’s achievement. The readers would want to know “Why she does not see that?” That is motivation enough for the readers to want to continue to read.

          The next episode, pivotal in several ways, explains how Janaki has come to receive her education. Her marriage turned into a sham on the very day she was married; it was aborted by the groom’s father right after the tali was tied, a decisive factor in the marriage ceremony. Technically, she was married by the time the groom walked out on her.

          These events—Santha’s achievement, Prakasam failing the same exam, Janaki’s broken marriage—comprise the conflict in the first chapter, enough to capture readers’ interest. Janaki’s trip to the railway station in the middle of the night and her confrontation with the bridegroom would not be considered an ordinary event in those days yet the readers appreciated it as a welcome sign in times of changing values.

          After that, the author weaves several incidents in to the story with flair. All the events—father’s    death, the eldest son accepting the family responsibilities halfheartedly, Prakasam’s entrepreneurship after failing high school and the support he receives from Janaki and  the sister-in-law, Kanakam, giving a sari to Kanakam on the first anniversary of his business venture, Sambu’s suicide, Santha running away from home and returning disillusioned—they all are developed with flair. The story, as a history of a middle class Telugu family, is strong structurally.

          The break up of Janaki’s marriage at the beginning is not an everyday incident but not a fabrication either. Visalakshi took a very powerful incident and illustrated how it would affect the lives of the rest of the members in a family. It forced Janaki to take a stand, caused heart failure in the father, created havoc in the mother’s mind, and pushed Santha off track from education and caused her to run away with her teenage fantasies.

          Acutely aware of the changing values, Janaki supports Prakasam in his new venture in spite of Surya Rao’s opposition. Sambu is a weakling. Janaki tries to reinstate his confidence but to no avail. Sambu misplaces his trust in his eldest brother, who is deep-rooted in traditional values. Sambu has become a casualty in the process. At the end, Surya Rao, unable to cope up with the changes in the system and in his own family, moves to another town. Both, Sambu and Surya Rao are misfits in a society where the intrinsic values started changing dramatically. 

          A notable slant is depicting Surya Rao as a defender of tradition, and Janaki and Santha, as women with progressive views. Traditionally, women are considered the guardians of tradition. In fact, this is one of the notable features of the sixties’ writing. Several stories depicted male characters as ineffective and conservative pitched against strong, sagacious and shrewd women.

          Another strong feature in this novel is characterization. The mother is a traditionalist but confused by the fast changing values. Kanakam is an ordinary, ingenuous woman who accepts everything with almost childish candor. Janaki is willing to take on whatever comes in her way to survive. Prakasam is willing to try new things. They all are depicted astutely. Surya Rao sticks to his old values with uncanny stubbornness and turns Sambu into an imbecile in the process. The special bond between Prakasam and Kanakam is true to life. Similarly, Janaki’s trust in Prakasam’s abilities, her concern for Sambu’s inadequacies, and her fears and forethought concerning Santha are everyday realities in the middle-class families. The novel is aptly named Marina viluvalu, transformed values.

          In her preface to the novel, Visalakshi referred to a letter she had received from a reader. The reader had commented that the novel was incomplete since the author had not explained what happened to Janaki, Prakasam, Surya Rao and their mother at the end. Visalakshi’s response was, “There is no real end to the history of a family. Even if we take into consideration a few generations on either side, it still remains incomplete.”[1]

          The reader’s comment and the author’s response are interesting for two reasons. First, the reader’s comment speaks of his emotional involvement in the story, which caused him to want to know more about each character in the story. Secondly, the author’s response reflects her views on how much a writer should tell in a story.

          A brief note on offering solutions in a story is appropriate here, I think. Ordinarily, readers look for solutions in fiction. Telugu writers I have spoken with are divided on this issue. Some writers, Kameswari for instance, believe that writers do have an obligation to provide solutions. Visalakshi on the other hand, believes that a writer’s responsibility is only to identify an issue, and present the logistics of it or a few other angles and leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions.

          I met Visalakshi in 2009. During our conversation, she mentioned that a movie producer C.S. Rao approached her for permission to make it into a movie and also to change the ending. He wanted to make Janaki apologize to the man who left her at the wedding and go with him to take care of him and his children by another woman. His rationale was that is the movie-goers would want that kind of ending. .

          Visalakshi refused to change it claiming the change defeats the very purpose with which she had created the character and ruins its integrity. This incident once again highlights women writers’ strong position they held.

          People Ahead of Their Times, serialize in in Telugu Swatantra, 1957-58, is one of the most acclaimed novels. The novel portrays two young women and two young men, and their struggles to succeed in the new, emerging world.

          At first, Indira is introduced as a self-willed, free spirited, unmarried young woman. She is working to support herself and her idle father. That was a newly emerging issue for many middle-class families in the sixties decade. Traditionally, parents are supposed to take care of their daughters and arrange their marriages. In this case, not only the daughter is forced to take care of her father but also to arrange her own marriage. 

          In the fifties education became a nemesis for middle-class women, a double-edged sword. On one hand, she was a financial asset first to her natal family and, after marriage, to the in-law’s family. On the other, arranging marriage for her became harder because of her wants and needs. Thus new kinds of conflicts started arising within the family.

          Indira enjoys her freedom and that is a welcome sign. She also has her own criteria concerning her choice of bridegroom. She is looking for a “man with a strong character, a man that offers comfort and assures her to stand by her side always”. This kind of mixed thoughts is prevalent in real life even today.

          During this period, a major shift in the family values took place. In the past, the individual was expected to put other’s interests ahead of his or her own but the younger generation especially the educated women became entangled in a new double-bind. They ended up in a situation where they had to take care of the family as well as their own interests. The line between the give and take—how much of their newly found freedom they had to let go—was blurred.

          This complexity is strikingly obvious in the philosophies of Indira and Kalyani. Indira is the central character around which the other three characters revolve like meteoroids. Indira enjoys the position briefly, and later, realizes that her future depends on taking action herself. That is evident in her words as she put it so bluntly:

          This is a cutthroat world. The big fish eat up the small fish. If I don’t eat you, you’ll eat me up. All human beings are the same. This is a challenging time for all of us. We all are eating out of the same fuzzy carpet. I am not looking for a life with lofty ideals. In fact, you don’t either. We all want the same thing, are trying to do the same, that is to live a carefree life. That is what you are doing, and that is what I am doing too.

          I did not make a special effort to ruin anybody’s life. I know I can accomplish nothing by doing so. I am building my own house. Sometimes bricks slip and fall on the passersby. What can I do? It is not my job to watch for them. They have to watch out for themselves.

          The last two sentences record the radical changes that have been taking place in our society. Up until then, the community spirit, the idea of common good had been the rule. After the achievement of independence, the focus shifted from “we” to “I”. That was one significant perception on the part of the women writers of this period.

          Readers may not empathize with Indira, the carefree, willful, lying, cheating and arrogant woman. However, they can easily identify the harsh realities of contemporary society she laid out for herself and by extension, for the readers.

          The educated women realized for the first time that they were caught in a double bind. The following passage is a telling comment on the social conditions of the period:

          If you act like a bug, you are sure to be crushed under somebody’s foot. Those who want to live a life of high ideals are sure to face the same fate. This woman [Indira] has understood that very clearly. If you want to live a life of high ideals, you have to have plenty of support. With enough support, you can beat the odds, no doubt.

          From what I’ve seen, the rulers are gone but the practice of ruling is still here. Probably this stupid world has always been like that. That is why this woman has learned to worry about only herself, and to make herself comfortable any way she can. That looks strange for people like you, people with a given set of rules.

          Trust me. We all are like the sweets made of cheap ghee. We think we have wings and so we try to fly but no. We do not have wings. If you say we have them, well, I’ll say, they are wet. Poverty soaked my wings and wealth soaked yours. That is why the race is the same for both of us. You are like an expensive watch, the make of a fancy company, listed as one thousand rupees in the company’s catalog. I am an ordinary make. The problem is these watches do not have hands. Forget the seconds hand. They do not even have the hours hand. What does it matter if the mechanism inside is great? It does not matter. That is why you should learn to live smartly and live well,” she said calmly.

          She sounded like a scientist who has understood the secrets of the universe.

          Another major development of this period was the shift in the attitudes of men and women. The two women characters, each in her own way, proves to be stronger compared to their male counterparts, Prakasam and Krishnamurti. 

          Among the male characters, Prakasam is the weakest and Indira loathes his weakness. She has no problem dropping him as soon as she found out that she had no use for him. He is a jellyfish who could not stand up to his uncle or Indira. He is constantly looking for others to solve his problems. He could not tell Kalyani that he was attracted to Indira; could not tell his uncle that he wanted to marry Indira; and he could not tell Indira that he had feelings for both Indira and Kalyani. He is just incapable of expressing his opinions or making decisions.

          Indira realizes that she cannot mold Prakasam according to her idea of a man. In a final bid, she coaches him to go to his village and claim his property from his uncle. He goes to the village but returns the same old self, unsure of himself and looking to Indira for guidance as usual. That is the decisive moment for Indira, a markedly debilitating experience. Dismayed, she gives up on him. She would rather compromise her convictions and agree to marry Krishnamurti in a temple.

          It sounds a little odd that “a person ahead of her times” should agree to a wedding ceremony in a temple. It is weak in terms of technique. For us, Telugu people, however compromise is a cultural value.

          Like Prakasam, Krishnamurti also is portrayed as a feeble character. He is not prepared to accept any responsibilities. The only difference between the two is Krishnamurti’s financial status. His wealth allows him to live a carefree life. Like Prakasam, he is also attracted to both Indira and Kalyani and he decides to marry Indira because Indira proves to be the lesser burden of the two. This however must not be construed as a negative comment on Kalyani’s character. This is about Krishnamurti and only Krishnamurti.

          Like Indira, Kalyani is portrayed as a strong character. Unlike Indira, Kalyani maintains certain poise. She is not prepared to step on other’s toes for any reason. All the tragedies in her life—loss of father, property, and Krishnamurti—have taught her the hardest lessons in life. She has the guts to pick herself up and move on. The speech she gives herself on her 20th birthday is poignant:

          She stood in front of the mirror. The reflection of herself in the mirror said to her, “Today you have turned twenty, Kalyani! You have decided to live on your own. Let us see what you are going to do.” It is as if she is challenging herself. She felt relieved and rejuvenated at heart. On that day, the same old coffee tasted a little better, the breeze blowing through the window felt cooler than usual, even the cheap mill sari and the blouse she was wearing looked more beautiful on her than ever before.

          “It is okay, Kalyani! You have to be brave. There is no reason to worry. You are sure to make it in this world; why not?” she told herself, comforting herself, and continued, “You don’t have to live under Vasundhara’s roof. You don’t have to worry about being on time and eating only when her aunt served the food. You are not a parasite. Krishnamurti need not pay your school fee. Do not be afraid, Kalyani!”

          The idea of a single woman living alone and making a life for herself was still new in the fifties. Possibly, that was the beginning of family’s disintegration. So also some of the incidents narrated in the story—-young men and women going to the movies and the beach, women offering financial support to their families, women’s education-—were all new and they captured readers’ attention. The readers welcomed the fresh approach to the future fervently.

          Another timely topic was the marriage of the educated woman. Unlike in the past, Indira and Kalyani can not count on their families for arranging their marriages. Indira has father but the situation is reversed. Instead of him taking care of his daughter, he becomes a dependent on her. Indira points it out when she refuses to rescue him from jail.

          In the case of Kalyani, her father tried but could not arrange her marriage due to the huge amount of dowry he was asked to pay. There are no discussions about Vasundhara’s situation in the story. She seems to have a comfortable life. She develops some feelings for Krishnamurti but puts them away after learning that Krishnamurti decided to marry Indira. One thing is clear. Vasundhara is also thinking for herself.

          Women’s education played a big part in postponing the marriageable age for both men and women. However, it became a bigger problem for women. They were caught between seeking jobs in order to make use of their education on one hand, and waiting for their parents to arrange their marriage on the other. While they were waiting to get married, they would get entrenched deeper and deeper in their careers; and their income would play a critical role in their decisions in turn. The lives of both Indira and Kalyani turned upside down because of their education.

          Very few women writers expressed their views on other women writers of their times. Lata’s comment on this novel, People Ahead of Their Times, is one of the few I came across. Lata stated that Indira was a superb creation but the character was flawed for two reasons: first, because of her cheap talk about Kalyani; and secondly, when she feared facing Kalyani right before her wedding.[2]

          I am inclined to disagree with this argument. Sridevi did not intend Indira to be a character of epic proportions. Indira is shown as having weaknesses from the start. She has been lying constantly, cheating, and bluffing her way out all the time. Even her own explanation at the end of her reasons for acting ruthlessly and insensitively sounds like a lame excuse but consistent with her character.

          The novel was written in the fifties. I am not sure if things have changed significantly. Still there are women who make money and share family responsibilities. On the bright side, when they accept marriage proposals per parents’ suggestion, women are more vocal in expressing their likes and dislikes, and stronger in their demeanor. In that sense, Sridevi succeeded in creating characters true to life.



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