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Posted at: Feb 11, 2018, 12:54 AM; last updated: Feb 11, 2018, 12:54 AM (IST)BOOK REVIEW: MOISTURE TRAPPED IN A STONE TRANSLATED BY KN RAO.

Vignettes from Telugu life

Vignettes from Telugu life
Moisture Trapped in a Stone Translated by KN Rao. Niyogi. Pages 484. Rs 595

Shiva

This book is an anthology of 28 Telugu short stories, translated into English by K.N. Rao. Drawing on everyday experiences and struggles of common people, this collection imports sketches from Telugu way of life and makes these accessible to readers worldwide. Featured writers include old gems as well as the current set of writers who strike a chord with contemporary realities. This diversity is also reflected in the themes of stories, which range from rural to urban, from deprivation to determination, and from oppression to innovation. But what binds this wide spectrum of narratives is a sense of simplicity, both in substance and style.

Loudly bleating goats, verandahs full of peepal and banyan trees, people using neem twigs as toothbrush populate the stories that are based in the hinterland. The villages are famine stricken, and landlords brutal. While some narratives showcase the absolute abuse and misuse of power by feudal lords, others highlight the plight of underrepresented communities, like forest tribes.

Their world is harsh and unforgiving — Subbaiah, an old man and a master of Vedic knowledge, is forced to make a living by accepting tiladaanam, a gift of gingelly (sesame) seeds. In another harrowing tale, Darkness to Light, circumstances push a 16-year-old boy to set himself ablaze and jump into a well. All these narratives point towards the extreme class divide that exists in our society. This have/have-not binary is aptly worded in The Homing Pigeon. “These victors do not seem to have any sympathy for the not-so-lucky, the not-so-victorious. They, the victors, do not seem to understand love, sacrifice, and sense of oneness of man.”

This apathy as well as antipathy is not restricted to class. In fact, it takes on a tyrannical form in the battle of sexes. Satyavathi, a young girl struck in a loveless marriage, meets a brutal fate when she comes back home from her husband’s house. She has no identity, ‘is not entitled to any likes or dislikes,’ and only exists as an embodiment of family honour. In another story, The Case, Ramya is subjected to domestic violence when she demands equal contribution of her husband in child care. She busts the concept of a ‘good man’ by remarking, “A man – the male – is good so long as the woman is obedient.” Equally powerful are the stories Oh! Madhu and Bumblebee that deal with the issue of infidelity and give a strong message that rights and duties of both husband and wife are the same. “A husband who broke the marriage vows has no right to question his wife’s conduct.”

Continuing the theme of fightback, Outsourcing offers portrayal of a domestic help, Lakshmi, who starts an outsourcing agency for domestic chores after her services at a house are terminated. Hers is a story of insight and innovation, of determination and perseverance.

But, not all is serious in this mixed bag of tales; this anthology has ample space for idiosyncrasies and pranks. Ramanatham is an exceptionally amusing character who would not have coffee at anyone’s house because he offers only tea when guests visit his place. His obsession with keeping account of his daily human transactions is absolutely hilarious. No less entertaining is the story Cartoon, in which Chalapathi gets married as a result of a practical joke.

As explorations of daily life, these stories do their work quickly and loudly. With utmost ease and simplicity, these tales depict both ends of the spectrum — serious and humorous.

 At last, these varied fictional accounts leave us pondering over the character of life, in general and of grandmothers from two different stories, in particular. One who always awards devilish punishment even to someone who goes to help her, while the other who lovingly shares her wisdom – “You should learn to be fragrant like jasmine bathed in the coldness of night. Absence of such fragrance from life leaves a void – there would, then, be nothing left to reminisce about.”

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