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Updated: March 3, 2012 20:51 IST

A forgotten masterpiece

GITA RAMASWAMY
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Swarajyam, Mahidhara Ramamohana Rao, translated from Telugu by Vegunta Mohan Prasad, OUP, 2011, p.358+42, hardback, Rs. 495.
Swarajyam, Mahidhara Ramamohana Rao, translated from Telugu by Vegunta Mohan Prasad, OUP, 2011, p.358+42, hardback, Rs. 495.

A moving story of how the nationalist movement impacted ordinary lives in Andhra Pradesh.

Among the major Indian languages, Telugu has had the fewest of its literary masterpieces translated into other Indian languages and English. The few that have been translated and published have been badly done with minimal editing. Reading an English translation of a Telugu book often gives the reader the impression that Telugu writing is superficial. But, of course, as with other languages, Telugu has a rich and varied heritage, a complex landscape and maybe, more than other languages, has felt the impact of huge upheavals in society. The longstanding Communist movement with its different hues in Andhra Pradesh, ranging from the parliamentary Left to the Naxalites, has impacted Telugu literature in curious ways. While it has perhaps delayed the expression and creativity of many writers, it has also sharpened expression in other areas. Several political novels have been written with the backdrop of the Telangana armed struggle of the late 1940s, the Srikakulam revolt of the late 1960s and the subsequent Naxalite-inspired peasant revolts.

Swarajyam (Kollayigattitheynemi in Telugu), written in the early 1960s, is one such novel. Oddly, while the writer Ramamohana Rao was a Communist (and called himself one till his death), Swarajyam revolves around the Congress-led freedom movement. “I wrote this novel to show the hidden springs of the Indian national movement to the Communist cadre of the Telugu land,” he says in his note.

In no man's land

Though the Telugu book won the Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi award in 1969, it fell between two schools of Communist thought — the first of the older anti-Congress Communist movement and the second, the Srikakulam-Naxalbari inspired movements. Ramamohana Rao was always conscious of the fact that while critics acclaimed his book, it was not appropriately welcomed by the Communists themselves — the just-divided Andhra parliamentary Left because it seemed to accept the Gandhian path unquestioningly, and the radicals because they were too far away historically from the freedom movement and its experiences. Sectarianism in the Left was one of the reasons for an entire generation missing out on this book.

In its centenary year, OUP has appropriately retrieved this great historical novel and placed it before us to read and savour, without the prejudices of earlier times. Munganda, Ramamohana Rao's own village in the Godavari districts, is the stage for the novel. Not just the stage, the novel is itself autobiographical as the author's note reveals.

The novel revolves around the idealist young Brahmin Gandhian Ramanatham and Swarajyam, the young discarded wife who looks eagerly to the new social mores. The brilliant 20-year-old Ramanatham leaves college and his education in response to Gandhiji's call in 1921 to students to work for a free India. He returns to his agraharam, Munganda, where Dalits are not allowed to even walk on the streets. Married to a policeman's daughter, there were hopes of Ramanatham writing the ICS exam and making a brilliant career. Ramanatham dashes these hopes of his family and returns home to take up full-fledged nationalist activity. Returning home by boat, he meets Swarajyam, the daughter of a freedom fighter and a bride who is rejected by her in-laws because she insists on continuing her education. His new activity does not win Ramanatham many allies and he is soon sent to prison on a false charge. The story of how he comes to terms with the unexpected results of his work and his marriage to Swarajyam brings the novel to a close. The various currents of activity in the little agraharam and its immediate vicinity, the reactions of Ramanatham's family and friends to the changes sweeping India make up the fascinating study of why and how the nationalist movement impacted Indian life, something important to not just academics and writers, but also for readers to understand how history impacts real living people, and how changes in society bring about great literature.

Well translated

A competent and impartial introduction by Alladi Uma and Sridhar is not only useful for English readers, but also for Telugu ones. It stands as a credit to both the translator and editor that the translation does not pall anywhere, though the book is all of 400 pages. This English translation, apart from adding to the already existing canon, is bound to positively impact Telugu literature too.

Swarajyam, Mahidhara Ramamohana Rao, translated from Telugu by Vegunta Mohan Prasad, OUP, 2011, p.358+42, hardback, Rs. 495.

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