‘I must get back to town, Atta,’ he insisted.
It was difficult to refuse a meal with ulavacharu, offered by the lady. ‘The town is ten miles away and it will take three hours of hard riding,’ he said slapping the rear carrier of his bicycle, already weighed down by bundles of leaf tobacco.
‘What’s so urgent?’ she asked, looking at his well-built chest as he removed the shirt and rolled it in paper carefully before stowing it under the saddle. He’s certainly the most handsome young man… if only I had a daughter, I would’ve got him to marry her and tied him up in my yard, she thought wishfully.
‘I’ve promised to meet Satyam Meshtaru, my Telugu lecturer,’ he said heaving the bundles of leaf, tied in pairs with lengths of rope about three feet long, and draping them like garlands around his neck, a dozen on each side.
‘You can make another trip?’ she frowned, ‘without the shirt the ropes may pinch your skin.’
‘What to do, Atta? This is the only decent shirt I have and I don’t want it to smell of tobacco at the college,’ he gave a lovely smile straddling the bike. ‘By the way these shoulders are strong enough to carry any weight,’ he called out as he rode away.
The road to Bezwada was bumpy and uphill all the way, the sun overhead not helping much, hungry and thirsty he rode on, regretting his earlier choice of refusing the meal, he tried to think of nicer things to draw his mind away from the road ahead. What is more pleasant than the upcoming drama fest?
Intercollegiate Drama Festival…
This year it will be held at Guntur during the Sankranti, more than twenty colleges will be vying for honors and for the first time he will be eligible to partake.
That thought alone renewed his strength and he rode harder, eager to get back to the town and to the shop where he lived. The owner of the tobacco shop was from his village and had allowed him to sleep there without any rent, for as long as he attended the college in town, an obligation he tried to repay with such errands like he’s presently doing.
Finally, it was late afternoon when he dumped the load at the shop, the owner was more than pleased and handed him a coin, half a rupee, enough to take care of his needs for the rest of the month, but, ‘I’ll do anything for you sir, but not for money, you’ve let me sleep here and that’s worth tens of thousands,’ he refused politely and ran out of the backdoor to the yard facing the Rhys Canal, had a quick dip to wash off the smell and was ready to go.
The milk-flower bushes with their pinwheel carnations greeted him as he stepped into the compound. His teacher, Satyam was in the open veranda engrossed in a book, so heavy it was resting on a plank placed across the arms of his easy chair. He looked up, pointed a bench placed against the whitewashed wall and dived back into the book. After an interminable wait, the teacher folded the book and made a short notation on a pad placed next to it, and finally turned towards him.
‘He said no,’ it was a grim face.
He was not expecting this. It’s a wonderful play written by you, and in Telugu, the words and verses are so beautiful, certain to make the audiences go berserk, he wanted to say but the words refused to come out, all that he could manage to say was, ‘Why’.
‘Hmm… he didn’t say. As principal, he said, he had taken the decision.’
‘Didn’t you tell him sir, that the play is based on the Battle of Palnad, a glorious chapter in our history?’ he asked sounding more anxious than complaining.
There was no answer, he waited as the teacher removed his spectacles and began wiping them, rather for too long, whatever the spot or a smudge must have disappeared long back, but he continued wiping them. The pupil could feel a mind in turmoil. He knew that the teacher was reliving his meeting with the principal, must’ve been very unpleasant, he was sure now. Then finally the teacher cleared his throat, his voice strained, ‘Didn’t I tell him? Yes, I told him in as many words,’ he banged his fist on the chair-arm, sending the papers flying.
‘He laughed at me. You know what he said? He said…’ by then the teacher was gasping with rage, ‘he said that we Andhras have no history.’
The pupil stood up, drew himself to full height, livid and furious, words hissed out as though he was breathing fire, ‘Leave it to me Meshtaru, I know what must be done,’ he turned on his heal and stomped away.
‘Don’t do anything rash,’ the teacher called after him, now worried even more.
It’s called Nuzvid Bungalow, the townhouse of the Zamindar.
Satyam knew why he was called there. His pupil had put him in this fix. He’d gone ahead and entered his play in the competition against the wishes of the principal. Now his choices are clear, disobey the college administration and resign for the job, or withdraw the entry, which is contrary to his convictions and more importantly it’s against his self-respect being a Telugu-man.
The Zamindar of Nuzvid nodded gravely as he entered, not his usual affable self. Mr. Reddy, the other founder of the college rose from his sofa and pointed him to a seat opposite the principal who refused to acknowledge him. The mood was serious. ‘What is this, Meshtaru?’ Reddy arrived straight to the point, ‘the principal complains that you’ve been disobeying his orders. Is it true?’
Satyam braced his nerves, the answer cannot be a simple yes or no, he must explain himself, then again he cannot blame his pupil and put his future in jeopardy, any defense of the act will be construed as defiance of authority, there’s no question about the order, the principal was clear in his instructions. Unless he can prove that it’s the right thing to do…
‘Yes sir, in this case it is true, my students are right in thinking that we do a Telugu play and I felt that they must have it, and so I had to accede to them.’ He said this with a straight face and remained thus stonily facing them.
‘Look.’ The principal cried, ‘look at him, not an iota of repentance. He’s right, his students are right and are I the only one who’s wrong?’
‘Calm down sir, calm down,’ Reddy intervened, trying to cool things down. ‘Meshtaru, our principal is a man of great learning, an M A in literature; it’s us who have invited him here all the way from Madras to take care of the college, is it right to defy his decisions?’
The principal was clearly impatient with Reddy’s tone, which was conciliatory. ‘Why are you asking him? The decision was made and after agreeing with me, he goes behind my back and enters the play. That’s sheer insubordination and calls for action.’
Satyam knew, he had no justifiable defense. But the reason given to him by the principal for rejecting the play was certainly unfair. His only option now was to guide the topic to the merits of that decision. ‘Sirs, here’s the play we have entered,’ he pulled out a folder that contained the play and placed it on the coffee table in front of the Zamindar and was quietly pleased when he picked it up and started browsing. ‘This is a play steeped in our history and shows the glory of our Telugu culture and boosts the reputation of our college.’
‘Reputation?’ the principal flew into a rage. ‘Isn’t that my job to ensure that? How will a Telugu play improve our reputation? We’re an English college and we are new. An English play, let’s say of Shakespeare will be more apt, not this Telugu gibberish.’
It was apparent to Satyam, from the reaction of the other two gentlemen, that the principal had gone too far, now is the chance to redeem his position, but he must play his cards right. ‘He’s possibly right, and we know we’ll be competing with the old colleges mostly founded by missionaries with their European teachers and all. But the audiences are mostly locals, there’s a good chance our play may not get noticed.’
‘Telugu or English…’ Reddy butted in, ‘the play will get noticed if it’s good.’
‘I tend to agree with Meshtaru,’ the Zamindar joined in, still smarting from the slight to his mother tongue, ‘we are a new college, hardly three years old and what we need is noticeability, and competing with the big boys of Bandar and Guntur may be suicidal.’
‘But sir, the English play may improve our status and…’ the principal tried to intervene, but was cut short by the Zamindar. ‘I heard you sir, but this play has merit and it is already entered,’ he placed the file in front of Mr. Reddy making his decision final, ‘so, it cannot be pulled back.’
‘But sir, it is impossible to carry it out,’ the principal changed his tack, ‘the play has a female protagonist, and girls in our college are too conservative to go on stage,’ he said with a sly grin.
‘Hmm…,’ the Zamindar agreed, ‘Nagamma, the lead role in your play is a woman,’ he turned to Satyam, ‘that’s a tricky issue, how’ll you manage that?’
‘I’ve someone in mind sir,’ Satyam replied, ‘by the way she’s here, waiting outside right now, let me call her.’
‘Oh!’ the surprise was evident.
Their surprise doubled when they saw the girl. She was tall, well endowed, and her face stunningly beautiful. They were mesmerized by her look, unable to take their eyes off her face.
The principal stared at her, ‘I don’t remember seeing you, which class are you in?’ he stammered.
‘First-year sir, Intermediate,’ her voice was so rich and pleasing. There was no doubt left in anyone’s mind, she’s well suited for the role, that of a lady who had caused one of the bloodiest battles in history. The principal was seething. Who is this girl? He thought he had the Telugu master in a fix. Intermediate, eh? Let me see how you’ll pass your exams. As long as I’m in power, I’ll make your life so tough you’re going to regret this and quit the college, he tried hard to keep his vengefulness off his face, but it showed. The girl noticed and her eyes also showed it.
‘Where are you from, young lady?’ Reddy asked, unaware of the interplay, ‘will your parents permit you to act on stage?’
‘They will have no objection, sir,’ she said, and told them the name of the village she hailed from.
‘Oh, I know that place. Isn’t it on the way to Bandar?’
‘Nevertheless Meshtaru,’ the Zamindar turned towards Satyam and said with finality, ‘you must first speak to her parents and seek their permission.’ Then he looked at the girl and asked, ‘and you my dear… what’s your name?’
Satyam steadied himself to control his laugh, when she reveals her true self. And pride overwhelmed him looking at his pupil who had taken the lead in entering the play and now will be demolishing all its deterrents.
‘My name is Rama Rao, sir,’ the girl said with a straight face.
When we write about history, we write about places, persons, and certain events; but more importantly the narrative tries to reinforce the collective identity of a set of people or the whole, who share that ancestry. The history of Amaravati is so rich and its influences spread so wide, its legacy is shared by the whole world, and more importantly it is of particular pride to us Telugu speakers. This series of short stories titled ‘Amaravati through Ages’ highlights some of the seminal episodes, and it will forever be incomplete if it doesn’t touch upon that one man who perhaps was the greatest man who had been a son of this soil, the man who had given a new meaning to our identity. Words are inadequate to describe his contributions and more so his living legacy.
It is an undisputed fact that N T Rama Rao’s interest in our cultural antecedents and his pride in Telugu are deep-rooted and visible right through his career. His name alone is sufficient to mark the political and cultural convergence of our Telugu heritage. All great men will have certain events and circumstances early in their lives that have driven them throughout to accomplish those heights. Some are recorded for perpetuity and some have gone unnoticed. The finale of the series is the story set in the times when the speakers of Telugu were without a capital city to call their own, and were struggling under the acute dominance of neighbors.
The story brings together two great men, the teacher Viswanatha Satyanarayana, who is the greatest Telugu litterateur of modern era and the pupil, N T Rama Rao, who had brought the Telugu consciousness to its fruition.