Moving beyond the clichéd portrayal of Rayalaseema, Kethu Viwanatha Reddy populates his works with real people from real life.
From his texts arises the aroma of the volatile Kadapa geography. Nature's denial and social conflicts naturally defined for long the narratives born in the region where the environment alternated between drought and destitution. From such a milieu emerges its earthy diglossia of which Kethu Viswanatha Reddy is an authoritative spokesperson. He populates his works with real people from real life, inhabiting and trusting the region's angry terrain. For the most part this is the landscape of his stories, characterised by a striking fluency and resonance of prose. Thus Kethu enriches the iconography of Telugu fiction.
His texts, replete with the solidity of Kadapa stone, portray the vulnerable underbelly of the life of a people hungering for a hearing. He creates a world we are familiar with. His early stories Kethu Viswanatha Reddi Kathalu have become part of the region's legendry and won the Sahitya Akademi award for the best Telugu short story collection of the year. Power of the dialogue and the inherent humour in the folksy phrases Kethu employs constitute the kinetics of his art. Fittingly, some stories reflect introspection about the state of the short story.
The early period of his writing reveals his distress at the deep-rooted caste dissensions that permeated every pore of the rural life: agriculture, religion, services and mockery of self-government. They, the early stories, introduce an eyewitness who sees the degenerate setting through the eyes of Kethu. Some of them written in first person sound autobiographical, betraying his emotional proximity to the dilemmas that visit the daily life of the Seema people.
Later years saw a shift of focus from the regional scene to a cosmopolitan canvas evident from his second collection.
The Kadapa theme yields place to a much wider canvas, sometimes across continents and cultures. Two stories (Astride Two Worlds and Distances and Proximities) record the delights and dilemmas of the Diaspora, one through the eyes of an old woman visiting her son and daughter-in-law abroad and the other through the eyes of diasporic kids visiting their ancestral home. The experience leaves both with a sense of void and doubt. These two stories highlight the clash and concord of civilisations.
An absence of contrived predicaments or conflicts features his works. There is no pontification, as the author doesn't proxy for his characters. Kethu does not believe that real life happens according to short story formats set by authorial conceit.
Kadapa becomes a tragic metaphor for an atrophied human condition congealed in Kethu's narratives. They simulate the conflict between the people pervading Kadapa social structures and the alien cultural forces subverting them.
For nearly three decades his stories highlighted the ups and downs of life in Rayalaseema, the convulsions that periodically unsettled it, market hegemony, caste cancer, rural factionalism, and the flip side of unplanned industrialisation. He appears in many of his stories in different incarnations. In The Face of Love he is a curious writer who meets his waterloo at the hands of an old woman gifted with a wealth of humour and worldly wisdom. She stuns him with her avant-garde interpretation of matrimony. The Custom shows the cancerous spread of casteism to temples of learning. Several stories (The Peeru House for example) depict the rape and dumbing down of our electoral process, arch stone of our democracy. Dadi is about the breakdown of the primary health machine accounting for unquantified rural mortality.
Kethu provides crystal clear glimpses of the moral and material decline of an India that awoke to life and freedom at the stroke of the midnight hour more than 60 years ago. Kethu's stories are the outpouring of a deeply hurt psyche, made less painful by humour and the gift of literary alchemy. Stories like Attachment show how state credit becomes a noose around the neck of the small farmer by the time it reaches him through a multiplicity of filters. Natal Garment illustrates the inhumanity that awakens in us at the sight of a disrobed woman.
From Kethu's erudite cornucopia have flowed novels, short fiction, literary criticism, and linguistics. The popularity of his narratives rests on a deep understanding of life and its vicissitudes at all levels. I am not mentioning the plethora of awards, laurels and honors that came and continue to come his way purely to show that his literary effort transcends any system of public or private certification. His works shine with their own merit. Absence of cliché in style, idiom, and even subject matter, is his DNA.
One last word of caution: Kadapa in Kethu's stories is not a narrow spatial concept but stands for a world fashioned by the artistry of Viswanatha Reddy.