The 21 stories in this latest episode of The Greatest Stories Ever Told Aleph Book Company’s series can be any or all of these things for readers: a reminder in translation of a rich literary culture they grew up with but have since forgotten, a portal to worlds and words that remind them of a home they miss, or a way to access lives and sensibilities that are both familiar and different in their idiom and register.
Dasu Krishnamoorty and Tamraparni Dasu, a father-daughter translator duo, have compiled a list of Telugu short stories by modern and contemporary stars, ranging from 1894-born philosopher Chalam to 2011 Sahitya Akademi winner Yuva Puraskar Vampalli Gangadhar. The idea is to provide an overview and introduce the English reader to the big names in the Telugu canon.
Still, there are some big duds, despite their warning that “it is impossible to select a handful…from the overwhelming ocean of the…Telugu literary world”. In an anthology where the translators acknowledge that “a thread of change runs through their stories,” it’s glaring not to have two writers who pioneered the use of the short story for social commentary and change.
The Greatest Telugu Stories Ever Told: Selected and translated by Dasu Krishnamoorty and Tamraparni Dasu, Aleph, 200 pages, ₹699.
A failure is Gurazada Apparao (1862-1915). He is perhaps best known as a playwright and poet, but, as G. Sriramamurthy wrote in a 1974 edition of the Sahitya Akademi’s journal of Indian literature, “…the merit of deliberately creating a new literary genre short stories in the modern sense… with a social purpose, perhaps, should be his… That he wrote only a few stories – only two in their final form – does not diminish his stature. The other is Bhandaru Acchamamba (1874-1904), who wrote strong and questioning feminist stories.
What lends itself well to the flow of change is the flow of stories in the chronological order of the lives of their authors. This highlights a timeline of gradual social transition. Including the year of the original publication of each story would have reinforced this.
The subjects dealt with in the stories are very varied – that of Bandi Narayanswami Water talks about the violent factionism of Rayalaseema and the water crisis; Illindala Saraswati Devi’s bad times is about the fate of a nabob as the territory ruled by the nizam joins the Indian union; At Dada Hayat Skip school is about a boy who decided to leave school. Telugu Muslim commentary on social experience is poignant, with stories like The curtain by Vempalle Shareef and A mother’s debt by Khadir Babu. The Dalit experience also covers notable writers including the late Boya Jangiah with his Eclipse and Jajula Gowri with Signature.
Overall, the tongue flows unhindered. This is evident in stories like that of Addepalli Prabhu An ideal manwhich brings to life the atmospheres of the Godavari during a hurricane, and Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao Adventurewhich captures the complex thoughts and actions of a fiery “marriage-aged” girl in a middle-class home.
A title with a declarative superlative is always risky business. But this volume comes close to doing it justice, with its wide variety of tones and themes, and its accessible yet nuanced translation.