In India, a land of many languages, not all languages are created equal. In particular, the government has designated a half dozen as being “classical” and therefore deserving of special support. One of these is Sanskrit, but others are still being spoken (albeit in versions very different from the ancient times). One of these officially venerable languages is Telugu, spoken in two southern provinces Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The “best” in Telugu: The Best Stories of Our Times—a collection of works from 26 writers, selected by award-winning Telugu writer Volga and translated by by Alladi Uma and M Sridhar—is not meant as a superlative or subjective but rather as a reflection of Telugu-speaking society since the 1990s: the “our times” of the title.
The early 1990s witnessed two turning points in the economic and social fabric of India. The former was the opening up of its economy with liberalization, privatization, and globalization in 1991; the move to welcome multinational corporations into the country was being celebrated for creating more jobs and bringing in prosperity. The latter was the demolition of the Babri Masjid by a Hindu nationalist mob followed by nationwide communal violence in 1992. Together, these watershed years set in motion a shift in reality that the stories selected for this anthology document.
Story after story documents the pain of suddenly becoming redundant.
Yet one aspect of the narrative of economic prosperity is a corresponding loss of livelihood for many people. Story after story documents the pain of suddenly becoming redundant. K Varalakshmi’s “The Midwife” is the story of a woman impoverished because of the opening of hospitals and the coming of doctors and nurses. What the character is at a loss to understand is that age-old ways of assisting in childbirth become reduced to nothing because of notions of hygiene or education. She thinks to herself:
What need of education to help in deliveries? Where was the happiness for those who were educated to put their hands into that which was covered with blood and filth?
However, she also recognizes that doctors could save women who were in very critical condition: something beyond the capability of midwives. The problem is not science but despair: women who were once valued for their skills are not even allowed to clean the filth in the hospitals. It is the shunting aside of the traditional vocations in the face of Western modernity and the accompanying shift in gaze that is unsettling in the Indian context.
This gaze and the tragedy it holds for different groups feature in most of the stories. “Farmhand” by Sannapureddy Venkataramireddy is about one Obulesugadu who works as a farmhand. He is unable to marry because toiling in the fields is no longer respectable and implies that such a man’s wife too would be forced to assist him. In the end, he moves to Bengaluru in search of a “respectable” job:
Civilization clearly means going about on a motorcycle. Having a smartphone. Wearing a T-shirt and trousers. Acquiring TVs and mixies … civilization simply means moving away from hard work … Obulesu is not going to Bengaluru because he is unable to survive. He is going because he is unable to get married. He is not going because he is incapable of hard work. He is going because he wants to assure his future wife’s family that he can take care of her without making her go through any hardship. He is going there for the sake of fathers who think it civilized to raise lazy girls.
“Our times” is contrasted with those witnessed by an older character recalling a time when he could not get married because he was seen as unfit for manual labor, and thereby strong enough to take care of a family.
Readers of the volume will come to discern the economic confusion in the vicious cycle of problems that the poor face. A story about farmers being forced to buy seeds from a multinational company on the assurance that the same company would buy the produce find themselves stranded when the company backtracks, a story about the labyrinthine system of loan-sanctioning processes that makes some suffer at the expense of those who are educated enough to swindle the money, and a story about being forced to sell one’s lands to get rid of the debts incurred because farmers are no longer the priority of the government in the way roads and infrastructure are: all of these are examples of the economic injustice that accompanied the economic “reforms” of the 1990s, of the registering of a “disruption” that modernity brought to India and the resulting conflict between traditional economic systems and full-blown capitalism: a “shock” which the West did not experience.
Translators Alladi Uma and M Sridhar have left quite a few Telugu words in their translations.
The second aspect of the shift in reality as documented in the stories is the hardening of religious identities. While the economy was “opening”, communities were “closing” into themselves. At least two stories that illustrate this closing deserve mention.
In Manasa Yendluri’s “Bottu Feasts”, the narrator, a young open-minded Christian lecturer freely mixes with her Hindu colleagues. They are surprised at the way she mixes with everyone as her partaking of their rituals for an older co-religionist colleague does not. However, the narrator finds herself isolated when she is left out of one celebration because they see her as someone belonging to a family that converted to Christianity rather than as a Christian. They also do not reciprocate her gestures: when she invites them for a Christmas feast, they make excuses such as “We are fasting” or “We tried to come but are caught up with something urgent.” She realizes that her older Christian peer, whom she earlier found as snobbish or even fanatic, was being more honest in saying that she does not eat prasadam, an offering to God, as per a Hindu practice, that is later distributed among devotees.
Another story is about the legacy of the Hindu-Muslim divide widened by the 1992 riots. “Get Published” by Mohammed Khadeer Babu records a journalist’s attempts to document the misery of Nayab, a poor Muslim family man, one among those nabbed by the police and tortured brutally in the aftermath of the Taj attacks of 2008 on the suspicion that they had something to do with the attacks. Nayab is abducted by the police and is returned home after sixteen days, a wreck. The journalist wants his story about Nayab to get published but it does not because such stories do not find a platform because of the way they expose the Indian police and the judiciary.
Translators Alladi Uma and M Sridhar have left quite a few Telugu words in their translations. They write:
How many times have we not read original English texts and let our imagination run riot? Never having seen daffodils, have we not enjoyed William Wordsworth’s poem by that very name?
These stories could have taken almost anywhere in India, yet thanks to their decisions, this collection lets readers experience a uniquely Telugu flavor via the place names and the retained Telugu words.