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Updated: July 5, 2014 17:10 IST

Stripping the veil of familiarity

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Ballad of Ontillu; Kesava Reddy, OUP, Rs.250.
Ballad of Ontillu; Kesava Reddy, OUP, Rs.250.

Kesava Reddy’s story has a fable-like simplicity.

“Just as they knew that Duryodhana’s obsession with power was as boundless as Yudhishtar’s for the truth, they now knew from their own experience that a farmer’s obsession with his land could be equally boundless.”

Kesava Reddy’s novella tells us the story of a farmer who keeps raising loans to dig a dried-up well deeper and deeper in the hope of striking water. Eventually, when he runs up a huge debt and is unable to repay the loan, the bank auctions his ancestral farmland to recover the dues; and the dispossessed farmer dies heartbroken. Farmers’ suicides are of course a ‘familiar’ story. We read them in the newspapers or watch them on television so often these days. But the story of Bakkireddy that Kesava Reddy narrates is anything but familiar. The author strips the veil of familiarity from the story and shocks us into recognition.

The story is grounded in the time-space specificity of classic realism. In June 1950, five acres of wetland belonging to Kadati Bakkireddy, son of Kadati Rangareddy, of Ontillu village, Chittoor taluq, Chittoor district, are auctioned for Rs. 24,000 to recover the amount he owes the bank. Yet, the life and particularly, the death, of Bakkireddy transcend the specificities and acquire a myth-like quality. Bakkireddy dies overcome by exhaustion while ploughing the land which is no longer his. But at least he dies like a born farmer: with ‘the plough handle in his left hand and driving stick in his right’. He also dies a contented man: knowing that after all it was his own land that he lay in, and that after his death, his mortal remains would be buried in his land.

Strange things begin to happen in the village after the honest farmer’s untimely death and when all explanations fail, a beautiful myth takes birth. Thanks to the intervention of the elements, Bakkireddy is able to redeem the promise he had made to his father — that he would “protect the land like the eyelid protects the eye”. Bakkireddy becomes a part of the village lore and his five acres of land acquire a sthala-purana.

Kesava Reddy’s story has a fable-like simplicity. But, like with all modern fables, the simplicity is deceptive. While the matter-of-fact tone, the understated emotions, and absence of melodrama are all very effective, the use of refrains, repetition, narrative deferral, and the mixing of history and legend give the narrative an oral tale-quality.

One doesn’t always need to compare the translation with the original. But when Ballad provides the original dirge in transliteration (on page 91-92), one cannot help but notice the significant deviations, both in content and form, in the translation: three children become four, God is involved, and a needless sing-song quality is introduced. The English title too may not match the lyricism of the original (roughly, ‘The flute of the mute’), but at least it locates the story in a poetic tradition (remember Yeats’s “The Ballad of Father Gilligan”?). That the original title is given at all, and prominently too, signals a forward movement in the way translated works are published. Not so progressive, however, is the glossing of common Indian words, concepts, and characters like ‘thali’, ‘Tahsildar’, ‘Duryodhana’, ‘Harischandra’ etc. The footnotes not only make you wonder about the target reader but are, in this age of Google and Wikipedia, quite out of sync with the times.

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