Book Review: In These Telugu Stories, a View From Below the Line of Privilege

There are 26 narrative lenses with which you can view marginalisation in the pages of Telugu: The Best Stories of Our Times. Unfortunately, there are innumerable more unexpressed and unrecorded ones. But you see enough in this collection to leave you nauseated with outrage; and make you ask – are we so massively insensitive and blinded by rancour as to be living in such a morally eroded society?

This collection of short stories brings together the finest contemporary Telugu writers, and is edited by Volga, a poet, writer and forerunner in feminist literature who is also credited with bringing a literary-political influence in Telugu literature. In the preface, Volga writes that the Telugu short story has been on the side of the people right from the 19th century – walking the path of “reformation, progress and revolution”.

Telugu: The Best Stories of Our Times
Edited by Volga; translated by Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar
Harper Perennial India, 2022

Translators Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar were faced with the challenge of capturing nuances of different castes, religions, regions, genders, dialects and themes. The two decided that most readers are “interested and involved enough to read and enjoy…‘not proper’ English and ‘unrecognisable’ words.” This included accommodating Urdu words transliterated in Telugu script, a trend started by Muslim writers in Telugu “to emphasise their identity as Muslims who write in Telugu”.

In the ’90s, the united state of Andhra Pradesh, like many states, witnessed economic liberalisation, an upsurge in religious politics, technological advancements, caste violence and identity movements. The Telugu short story, writes Volga, will remain a truthful representation of the living conditions and distress of this time. The stories from the 1990s also took upon the task of representing identity politics.

The stories are populated by characters who are marginalised: by caste, religion, gender or socio-economic conditions. The backdrop of liberalisation and political violence is subtly and actively woven into the stories. Liberalisation pushed people towards cities that helped reduce caste discrimination considerably, but it also diminished human bonds. Migrants were cut off from familiar faces and routines, and pushed towards the urban jungle to eke out a life.

Though the selection comprehensively covers the experiences of both men and women, somehow the stories where the protagonists are women hit harder. Perhaps because among the marginalised, women are further marginalised. When you are poor, a minority or of a lower caste – and also a woman – the challenges are manifold.

The women in the stories are particularly vulnerable. In some instances, the woes of identity and poverty are added to the burden of gender. In ‘Yours, Swarna’ by P. Satyavathi, Swarna, a shopgirl, has to make do with a basic mobile phone and hunger pangs while her brother gets a fancier phone and better food because she is a daughter – a liability. This despite that the fact that it is her salary that makes up a substantial part of the household income.

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In ‘MPTC Renukellu’ by Joopaka Subhadra, the titular panchayat representative is bullied by her fellow local politicians because she is an outspoken lower caste woman. Interestingly, an upper caste Reddy man is using a sarpanch from Renukellu’s own community to harass her. The co-caste man obliges, possibly to please the Reddy man who can’t directly attack Renukellu because of political considerations within caste dynamics.

Then there is is Devamani in ‘A Villain’s Suicide’ by M.M. Vinodini, who as an agricultural worker and has to do back-breaking labour for a pittance, on an empty stomach, like any labouring man. But added to this, she has to bear the repeated anguish of being physically assaulted by the landlord.

Moving to an economically better-off landscape, we have ‘Sorry Jaffer” by Volga. It is the story of two best friends, Jaffer and Ramarao, who are reuniting after 15 years. A long gap in years and developments. The now middle-aged men in the past grew up admiring and assimilating each other’s cultures. But Ramarao’s son Vinay is aghast to know that his father will be hosting his Muslim friend. “It won’t look good if my friends see them. In any case, why does Father have Muslim friends?” he tells his mother.

This is not some uneducated, unemployed youth but a man who is getting ready to go to the US. Somehow, he reminds you of the boys who made apps like Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals. Boys who are protected by caste and economics, but yet have inculcated an explicable hatred that does not originate in any personal misfortune.

In ‘Get Published’ by Mohammed Khadeer Babu, the protagonist is a Muslim journalist who wants to tell the story of a destitute Muslim family that was once leading a decent life but lost it all because of their identity. Life made them beggars just because of their religion.

The father of the family is arrested and tortured because he happens to be a Muslim with other Muslims on the way to a dargah. The result is a man with disabilities, a mentally unstable son and a woman reduced to begging to keep the family going.

The journalist, who is telling their story, is relatively privileged. But as the story progresses he becomes aware of his shared identity and feels more vulnerable. “In this country, not everyone is able to reveal their identity. But they cannot live without having an identity either,” observes the narrator. This could happen to any Muslim, he feels, not because of what they do but who they are.

In ‘Dog Father’ by Satish Chander, the protagonist sees himself and his dog not just as sharing the same name but a similar life. Raju, the dog, is not of any pedigree and Raju, the boy, too is not considered to be of an acceptable caste. He is rejected by his love because of his caste. And later he rejects his dog because its injury stinks. The dog’s wound is a physical affliction whereas the boy’s identity is a social wound that makes both of them unacceptable to the people they love.

Though it looks like caste is restrictive and suffocating only for the lower strata, perhaps it os not so. As the story unfolds, we see the price that the high caste actors too have to pay when they violate the code. But can the players create a separate world if they are willing to give up their identities?

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‘Bottu Feasts’ by Manasa Yendluri is about a well-off Christian Dalit woman, who is privileged enough to be tolerated by the high caste teaching faculty at her school. But yet, she remains an outsider for both Hindus and Christians because of her caste. Her older colleague Lena (a fellow Christian but a Reddy) keeps to herself because she knows that at the end of the day for them she is a Christian.

But the younger Christian woman, who is not church-going, sings devotional classical songs and sees Christmas as a social event, gets superficially assimilated with the upper caste teachers. She later experiences just how superficial the acceptance was. All along, she fails to see things from the prism of those who are selective in their inclusion (sharing prasad) and exclusion (special prayer functions).

In the end she is alone because she can’t socialise with anyone. The woman of her caste is the cleaning lady at the school. Her co-religionist Lena is of a higher caste. And, of course, the upper caste teachers don’t want to socialise with her outside of the staff room.

Some of the stories are hopeful as the characters embrace their identity and move on. The protagonists are not passive, but are working towards changing their lot. Trying to attack the stacked up mountain of prejudices, trying circumstances, visceral hatred and vindictive propaganda is not an easy task. Society is the big villain here, neither letting them forget their identity, nor allowing them to live with it.

The unifying theme in many of these stories of exclusion is that they don’t end on the note of a broken spirit. The characters find a way to get around the rejection and continue their struggle. The mood of the stories may be dismal and perplexing, but the spirit is resilient. The pages are filled with stories of a land and a people who are cynical, despondent, moody and droll – but always irrepressible and energetic.

Rehmat Merchant is the features editor of the Bangalore-based daily newspaper News Trail.

This article was first published on The Wire.