BOOKMARK The English translation of Gurajada Apparao's classic “Girls for Sale” is now on stands

I n recent times we have seen a couple of Telugu writers practising their art, though in English. At least two books — both fiction — come to mind; “Drunk Tantra” by V. Pandu Ranga Rao and “Weft and Warp” by Sujatha Bhaskar Rao, both easy-to-read novels. But English readers haven't had access to good translations of Telugu classics. That void is sought to be filled by Penguin, which has just brought out the English translation of Gurajada Apparao's immortal play “Girls for Sale” (Kanyasulkam). The work, considered one of the greatest works of Telugu literature, has been translated from Telugu by Velcheru Narayana Rao.

Set in the times of the Raj, it is one of the first stories that openly abhors the English language and lampoons the Englishmen for all the bad influences on Indian society. The story revolves around an elderly Brahmin who covets the beautiful young daughter of another Brahmin. While the girl's father is more than willing to accede to this ‘arrangement' of ‘selling' his daughter to the old man, his wife stoutly opposes the deal — she has an elder daughter, Buccamma, who is widowed. The wife approaches her brother for helping her out. He agrees and promptly disguises his disciple, a young boy, as a girl and offers to ‘sell' ‘her'.

The courtesan

In comes the courtesan, the fiery but beautiful Madhura Vani, another central character, who, as is her wont, manipulates her lovers. Soon after the hurriedly conducted marriage, the ‘boy-girl' disappears and the old Brahmin is charged with murder. But a reformist lawyer, Saujanya Rao, steps in to defend him. There is also another interesting character, Girisam, an English-speaking conman with a smooth tongue. Girisam, also known for his roving eye, manages to seduce Buccamma and on the eve of the marriage elopes with her!

The play is dotted with humorous interludes and considering that it is set in the 19th Century it is pretty expressive in content as far as the dialogues go between the courtesan and her suitors. Sample this: Ramap-Pantulu (a village Brahmin) addressing the courtesan Madhura Vani: “Everything has been finalised. I am keeping you as my woman, and I am just waiting for an auspicious day to take you to my village. Why do you still act as if you were under some nincompoop's hold? What's this pretence of chastity?” To this she replies: “Just because I am a pleasure woman you can't take me lightly. Even we have our morals. I will call my master Girisam-garu and tell him, ‘Sir, I will go my way and you go your way'. I will cut myself loose from him but until that time, consider me his woman.”

Apparao was a great thinker and social reformist, way ahead of his times, and this play is a telling indictment on social evils, especially the abominable dowry system and child marriage rampant those days. Of all the characters, Madhura Vani, despite her open admittance of doing ‘wrong' things, comes out much cleaner than the other protagonists in this very absorbing play. Despite at one time being Girisam's woman she dares to expose him in the end, thus saving the life of the widow. This Penguin Classic — under the class ‘The best books ever written' — is at once “witty, humorous, serious and devastatingly honest” and is priced at Rs.350. Incidentally, “Kanyasulkam” has been made into a film too.