Controversies are not entirely new to Telugu literature (any literature for that matter) especially where awards are concerned. But the latest controversy regarding this year’s Sahitya Akademi winner for Telugu raised more than an eyebrow; it raised furore. Though it appeared as if the whole mantle of protest was taken over by the RSS camp, it isn’t entirely true. Sane, thinking, broad-minded and even feminist critics shared the view that this was an award that would only bring shame to Telugu literature. The rage is still going on and it may not really result in any concrete action. But it has provoked many legitimate questions about rewriting myths (the book in question is a novel named Draupadi).
Poor Draupadi. The end of the Kurukshetra war did not bring an end to her suffering. Not even the end of Dwapara yuga. She seems to be suffering even in Kaliyuga. Of course, she is, by far, the most interesting female character of Hindu mythology with all her strengths and weaknesses. And thus, very tempting to authors who run out of subjects. The latest novel by Padma Shri Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad, a former Member of Parliament, has now portrayed her as a woman whose life revolves around romantic (I am being very gentle and polite) endeavours. In an otherwise prosaic rendition of the Mahabharata (which, of course is not his), the only places he deviates are those describing her nights with the five husbands and her obsession with Krishna. Both these interpolations are tasteless to say the least, and improper, too. My objection is not about the harm done to the sanctity of a Puranic character or maligning a Pativrata; it is a question of interpreting a known character, someone who has been part of our collective unconscious. Everyone has a right to interpret our traditional literature in their own way. But any interpolation should have at least two credentials; propriety and probability. The reader should feel that this character could behave in this way; could feel this way; and could be interpreted in this manner. Moreover, care should be taken to see that at least the basic nature of the character does not suffer. (one can offhand recall Bairappa’s Kannada novel Parva based on the Mahabharata, which was an intellectual exercise with good insight into the mythological characters). This is where the present author could not do justice to the text or the character. Even if it weren’t Draupadi and some fictional writing, this book would classify as an undignified statement on womanhood.
But, all said and done, one can write only what one is capable of; no one blames Padma Shri Dr Y Lakshmi Prasad for writing what he did. That was what he was capable of. The point of the argument is, how can such a sub-standard novel be selected for a prestigious award? This selection presupposes that this is the best representation of Telugu writing in the past three years. It will obviously be translated into all languages recognised by the Akademi (it already has a Hindi translation) and be known as a sample of contemporary Telugu literature. Therein lies the tragedy. When there were much better and, more importantly, original writings available, for some ignoble reasons, this is selected for the award. All this boils down to the taste and integrity of Telugu readers and pundits who send nominations and who occupy the jury. I wish we Telugus could send better nominations for this award so that the deserving would be honoured. The Akademi can only carry the recommendations sent by us and the onus is on the Telugus.
is a well-known writer of short stories, a translator and a critic email@example.com