Memories of another time

If one were to chronicle Bezwada's literary saga, there would certainly be a chapter assigned to Indraganti Srikantha Sarma. This includes his stepping into Andhra Jyothi daily, which is a part and parcel of the saga of Telugu literature.

The last time I had a conversation with Srikantha Sarma was on the January 20. For about four hours, I had been in his presence laughing and sharing jokes– although compared to my earlier occasions with him, this time, he did not sound too healthy. But that spark of meeting an old friend did not diminish in him. "This joyous energy in him is because of seeing you and remembering Bezwada," said Janaki Bala and other family members.

A peek into the past: I joined Andhra Jyothi 8 years after Srikantha Sarma had left. Though he moved to All India Radio, I never missed hearing his name, which would come up almost regularly. Puranam, Srikantha Sarma and Sri Ramana were 'Jyothithrayam' of that era. During that time, Nanduri was the editor; and he would always refer to these three doyens. Though we worked for the daily edition, we never heard Nanduri discussing many political issues, he was passionate about literature, new wave films and music. Srikantha Sarma had similar tastes.

The first write-up of mine published in AJ was 'Pessimistic Stalwart Antony Chekhov'. Nanduri used to have numerous problems with the article. He strongly believed Chekhov was not a pessimist. At the same time, I vehemently argued that Chekhov was a pessimist (frankly even now I haven't understood the distinction between the two!). What this write-up did to me was something amazing; it brought me into the distinguished company of the literary giants of Bezwada of that era. Especially, with Srikantha Sarma, an ardent fan of Chekhov.

That evening I met SS for the first time. I was 19 and the association continued for 35 years. Before that what SS meant to me was merely the book, he edited along with Nanduri 'Mahasankalpam' and 'Anubhoothi Geethaalu'. 'Mahasankalapam' to me was like a constant companion. After I had met him on Radio, our debates went beyond these two works. From then on, whenever someone visited Bezwada, Srikantha Sarma used to send me a word and, I would be there without fail. It became a routine. Sarma and the other numerous guests never felt uncomfortable with my being shy and frugal with words. They bore my atypical silence and the a few words spoken sporadically here and there with great patience. Ushasri was an exception to this behaviour of mine. He could not take my silence. Bequeathing me to Srikantha Sarma he said, "Rei Sarma, teach him some words." Although making me vocal did not succeed as much, our friendship blossomed and fared forward. There is a noticeable age gap between me and SS. But his love for me has never conditioned by these parameters. He is not one of those people who changed words according to age and visage! He is perhaps one of the few great souls who have had such large heart. That same quality was what I trusted and may have driven our camaraderie this far.

SS was a resident of several worlds. He had been a songster, poet, radio programmer, journalist, editor and so on. If we shove him into only one of those categories, he would simply remain a stranger. He stepped into free verse very late. His priority had been in lyrics. The 'anubhoothi geethaalu' has smoothened his entry into free verse genre of poetry. That was a stopover for Sarma 15 years after he started his sojourn in poetry. Till then that lyric slant of his was discernible even in his vachana 'kavithwam'. His emotional lyrics testify the struggle he went through to overcome this lyric-slant in order to reach the requirements of 'vachanam'. Freezing the image in poetry, he traversed from its description into the world of signification. That's why his imagined or unveiled poetic images appear robust. This image may be of nature or of human nature.

Being inundated in the pursuit of trying to appreciate him in his numerous literary forms, I asked him, 'how do you want to be seen'? 'Just like a friend', he said laughing it off loudly. I persisted. He had to say something as to how he wanted to be understood in his numerous roles.

Although it is known to all that Srikantha Sarma has a strong inclination towards poetry, I believe from the start that it is only in his 'vachanam' we can get to see his life size potential as an author. Starting from his early stories -1962- to the recent 'Surname Indraganti', Srikatha Sarma's free verse is equally towering as his poetry. When Ismail's write up, published in the AJ in the 80s, became a huge controversy, Srikantha Sarma and a few others were pushed to take shelter in the shadows of the 'anubhootivaadam' a literary movement that privileged a subjective take on literature. I strongly believed then and even now that SS could not dissolve himself completely into that genre. Srikantha Sarma entered into all the available forms of vachana (free verse) poetry. Of all those vachana forms his journey in romantic poetry has a dissimilar tapestry. In fact, during the 30 odd years of our conversations there has been little talk on metric poetry. Be it western literature or Indian literature, his preoccupation had always been on the vachana writers. There was hardly an instance during our conversations when he did not think about the names of Chalam and Sripada, the doyens of Telugu free verse.

We kept discussing the literary merits of these writers almost on all occasions. The bonus point of these discussions was that in every discussion he would reveal an incident from their personal life that had never been known to the outside world. It was hard for me to restrain tears from flowing when he had shown me smallpieces of paper with Krishna Sastry as conduit for conversations. A few of those slips were under the safe keep of Nanduri and SS. That pretty calligraphy written on those slips appear to me still just like a rainbow. Srikantha Sarma meeting Chalam for the first time – his guidance in his love life and later marriage - Tilak's playing cards –Rachakonda talking after his thrid peg - the nocturnal strolls through the streets of Bezwada with Ajantha.

The other turn in my association with Srikantha Sarma was the Sakshi Club congregations on the terrace of Puranam's residence located on the Masjid street in Bezwada. 'A month a guest model' of conversations; they used to happen in two parts. First part was open to all and the send half was strictly private; open to a restricted a few; celebrated with all the due 'athithdhi' devo bhava type traditions of befitting hospitality. Although I did not have 'arangetram' into some of the consumptions on the menu, I had the entry pass purely because of my literary activism. It's this second part which I fathom was the truly revealing session, the guests who otherwise known to the outer world as the most refined and polite used to unveil their true selves unabashedly. SS used to be an exception to this behavior; he was the same in both the worlds.

Sarma's philosophy of life is to 'experience the nectar of friendship when it's available'. He had that inimitable knack to foresee phases when friendships turn sour. Moreover, that had been the times when literary comradery of Bezwada literary landscape was turning cross and hostile. That had been the era when Puranam had a faceoff with the Virasam. A few members stayed away from the Sakshi Club's meets. But Srikantha Sarma had no problem with the caustic situation that had just opened up. KV Ramana Reddy when visiting Bezwada used to visit and meet up with Srikantha Sarma without fail. Though Sarma sometimes booed and criticised KV Ramana Reddy, it's their friendship which won over the situation.

There had been a huge change in our life after we moved to Hyderabad; but not in Srikantha Sarma's friendship. When he was at the helm of affairs of Andhra Prabha weekly as its editor, we never stopped meeting. At least once a week we used to meet at some or the other place. Those were hard times- moneywise, for us both – Kalpana and me. He made us write, translate – which eventually helped earn some bucks to make the ends meet and stand. Srikantha Sarma and his wife Janakibala were some of the few important people who visited us at the hospital when Anindoo was born. First name given to the boy was Anindya. Saying, 'it doesn't sound modern', Sarma and Mohana Prasad changed it to Anindu. "Anindu means the Sun; who is not Indu, the Moon. Right?" he stated. SS had a successful life journey. There are very few who led such contented life.

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