The 21 stories in this latest instalment of the The Greatest Stories Ever Told series from Aleph Book Company can be some, or all, these things to readers: a refresher-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 at once familiar yet different in idiom and register.
Dasu Krishnamoorty and Tamraparni Dasu, a father-daughter translator duo, have curated a list of Telugu short stories by modern and contemporary stars, ranging from the 1894-born philosopher Chalam to the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar awardee Vempalli Gangadhar. The idea is to offer a bird’s-eye view and introduce the English reader to the greats of the Telugu canon.
Yet there are some big misses, despite their disclaimer 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 common thread of change runs through their stories”, it is glaring not to have two writers who pioneered the use of the short story for social commentary and change.
One miss is Gurazada Apparao (1862-1915). He may be known more as a playwright and poet but, as G. Sriramamurthy writes in a 1974 edition of the Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature journal, “…the credit of deliberately creating a new literary genre of short story in the modern sense of the word…with a social purpose, perhaps, should go to him.... That he had written only a few stories—only two in their finished form—does not diminish his stature.” The other is Bhandaru Acchamamba (1874-1904), who wrote strong, questioning feminist stories.
What does lend itself well to the thread of change is the flow of stories in the chronological order of their authors’ lives. This brings into focus a timeline of gradual social transition. Including the year of each story’s original publication would have grounded this further.
The topics the stories deal with are wide-ranging—Bandi Narayanswami’s Water is about Rayalaseema’s violent factionism and water crisis; Illindala Saraswati Devi’s Bad Times is on the plight of a nawab as the nizam-ruled territory joins the Indian union; Dada Hayat’s The Truant is about a boy who has decided to bunk school. The Telugu Muslim commentary on social experience is poignant, with stories like The Curtain by Vempalle Shareef and A Mother’s Debt by Khadeer Babu. The Dalit experience, too, covers notable writers, including the late Boya Jangiah with his Eclipse and Jajula Gowri with Signature.
Overall, the language flows unhindered. This is evident in stories like Addepalli Prabhu’s An Ideal Man, which brings to life the atmospherics of the Godavari during a hurricane, and Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao’s Adventure, which captures the complex thoughts and actions of a feisty girl of “marriageable age” 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 sheer variety in tone and theme, and accessible yet nuanced translation.