The Story-Wizard of Vizianagaram
The Story-Wizard of Vizianagaram, Chaso Stories, Chaganti Somayajulu. Chaganti Somayajulu, popularly known as Chaso was a master storyteller and a compulsive cigar smoker. Born in 1915 in Srikakulam, he had spent most of his life at Chinnapilli Veedhi, residing in Chagantivari Haveli in Vizianagaram.
A lifetime dedicated to Andhra Abhyudaya Rachayithala Samgham (ARASAM); Chaganti Somayajulu - Chaso - had written only 50 stories during his lifetime. Yet, each of his stories remains a priceless jewel in the crown of Telugu literature and a study of his writings and philosophy stands as a beacon to the future generations. Poet, translator and literary critic RAMA TEERTHA revisits Chaso, his life and writings on the occasion of the beginning of master storyteller’s centenary year (2014-15) celebrations.
Chaganti Somayajulu, popularly known as Chaso was a master storyteller and a compulsive cigar smoker. Born in 1915 in Srikakulam, he had spent most of his life at Chinnapilli Veedhi, residing in Chagantivari Haveli in Vizianagaram. He was five years younger to Sri Sri, nine years to Sriramgam Narayana Babu, almost of same age as Ronanki Appalaswami (born 1909), and only Arudra was youngest of the lot, and a later day joiner at the Haveli Parleys that shaped the contours of the modern Telugu Literature.
Every one of them who emerged from the Chagantivari Haveli have become blazing stars of erudition, and their creative genius had stamped their class on different genres of the Telugu literature of the 20th century. After Gurazada’s house where he wrote ‘Kanyasulkam’, ‘Desabhakthi Geetham’ and other stories, it is Chagantivari Haveli, that is the second most important centre and heritage building for this had been truly a cradle of the formative minds whose burgeoning growth in the next decades on the literary scapes of Telugu language was of an elevated class.
Chaso, unlike Sri Sri and Arudra, did not start writing when he was a teenager. By the time his first story saw the light of the day, he was not only 27 years old, but a married man and a father too. In fact the first story he wrote was ‘Chinnaji’, about his daughter Tualsi and the literary environment that prevailed around them. The story describes the life in those times at the Chagantivari Haveli, frequented by the visits of Sriramgam Narayana Babu, Ronanki Appala Swami, Sri Sri, and Arudra in the later years. Narayana Babu also wrote a poem by name ‘Chinna’ which was anthologised in ‘Rudhira Jyothi’, a sheaf of poems that came to light only after his death.
Chaso, at that time of writing ‘Chinnaji’, was a politically conscious person and was spearheading the formation of Andhra Abhyudaya Rachayithala Samgham (ARASAM), which also incidentally held its first meeting in Tenali, in 1942 itself – it was Chadalavada Pichchayya who initiated the event and insisted on Tenali as the venue. Besides Pichchayya, the first members of ARASAM were Chaso himself and Setti Easwara Rao. Chaso right from 1942 onwards remained active in ARASAM which is the Andhra Chapter of the National entity; Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) founded by famous writer Munshi Premchand, Sajjad Jaheer and others at Lucknow in the year 1936.
Chaso started writing stories in 1942 and had produced only around 50 stories during his lifetime. He was known to have torn down many scripts because they were not satisfying enough for him. A strict quality control remained a yardstick for the stories penned by him or of others. Very discerning observer of the craft and the slips the writers have suffered, he was known to be a biting critic of the manuscripts presented to him for advice or scrutiny. Chaso was influenced by Chekhov as per his own admission, and the early reading of “First Lessons in story writing” by Barry Pain, which was originally a book from the library of Gurazada Apparao, brought to Chaso by Avasarala Surya Rao, for reference, was even mentioned by Chaganti Tulasi, (in Chaso Sapthati Sanchika) as one of the early guides in the art of story writing and was held in much esteem by him. Chaso by nature abided to the policy of Chekhov since it was dear to his heart as well. Once Chekhov said: There are “Six principles that make for a good story -1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. Total objectivity; 3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. Extreme brevity; 5. Audacity and originality: Flee the stereotype; 6. Compassion.
A demanding writer who never rushed through his scripts and at times wrote only one story in a year, Chaso remained a master of understatement, and a down to earth observer of life. His stories are without lengthy descriptions of persons and places, which he rather detests, as an irksome craft. He stated in an AIR interview, conducted after his 70th birthday, that he always preferred to let the situations introduce the story than the persons, and in the end if his story is effective then the reader will encounter the characters in flesh and blood.
What Chekhov said about the trivial and routine consuming much of the story space, and his advice to the writers to do away with such banalities, remained guiding principle throughout Chaso’s creation of stories. Chekhov was rather demanding when he stated that “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Chaso’s story “Dummala Gonde” (second grade predator like a fox/hyena), creates the effect of fear in the psyche of the characters - a bunch of friends crossing the Kumili Ghat in a pitch dark night.
This, Chaso achieves without showing the cause. While a few stories have bordered on the human predicament of crossing the borders, of social code, of conduct in order to survive, some other stories are about dominating the meaningless tilt of life towards the privileged. He always remained aloof from the flow of the story, and as a narrator minded his own business. Stories like ‘Lady Karunakaram’, ‘Elurellali’ create a Dharma Samkata (an ethical crisis) and pose questions rather inconvenient to the society of Bhadralog and Babu Moshais of Telugu land.
Stories on the economic principles like ‘Bondu Mallelu’, ‘Babbabba’, ‘Cheppaku Cheppaku’, ‘Karma Siddhantham’, ‘Ponee Thinu’ and ‘Junction lo Baddee’ reveal the stiletto-like touch of Chaso’s craft in dealing with human emotions. His stories on childhood dwelling on the street urchin Gaviri, a school going kid in ‘Emduku Paarestannanu Nannaa’ and Krishnudu in ‘Ratha yatra’, remain exquisite word portraits peeping into the child psychology.
‘Matrudharmam’ was a story without human characters, and it cold heartedly gives the details of a routine happening in the forest, where the birds lose their eggs to snakes and mongooses. The chilling narrative makes it a first class entry to the international literature, and a shining example of writer’s finesse in holding the reins, though he is not riding the horse, the task that he magnanimously gives to the reader. Chalam’s ‘O Puvvu Poosimdi’ is also one such kind of a short story, of course, on an altogether different turf.
Chaso wrote a few poems too in his formative years, but steered clear from the genre. His oeuvre includes short stories, a few plays, some essays, and a few interviews. Chaso stayed for his life with the ARASAM and as part of ARASAM activities and annual conferences, developed association with Devulapalli Krishna Sastry, PV Raja Mannar, Chadalavada Pichchayya, Chilakamarthi Lakshminarasimham, Ayalasoyajula Narasimha Sarma ( ANA Sarma). Sri Sri, Sriramgam Narayana Babu, Arudra, Anisetty Subbarao and others who have also joined the writers’ body. In addition to being a founder member, he had also had a stint as a President for the body. He declared steadfastly that art holds a responsibility to the common people.
Unfortunately, his English translators presented a rather petered down and oblique selection of his stories in recent times (reference is to the English edition ‘A Dolls Wedding and other Stories’ by Chaso, brought out by Penguin, translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman), which do not reflect the ideology and the cause which Chaso had championed throughout his life. Chaso retained the left ideology from the inception of ARASAM until his death and using phrases like “maverick genius” while introducing Chaso to the international community of readers is nothing but a travesty of truth.
His writings need to be translated into major European languages and adaptations to AIR and visual media are essential to make the present generation aware of his talent. Befittingly even Chekhov said something similar. “There is nothing new in art except talent.” All of Chaso’s stories represent either all or a few of the six elements that Chekhov stipulated as the criteria for good story writing. He always let the story speak for itself and had great respect for the reader’s intelligence, time and analytical ability. Chekhov passed way in 1906, and our Chaso was born in 1915, and demonstrably made himself a proud addition to the line-up of world class story tellers.
This year is the centenary year of Chaso. Out of his stories, 40 are available in the anthology ‘Chaso Kathalu’, published by Visalandhra Publishing House. His unpublished writings including his poetry need to be brought out as a single volume in the honour of the writer, in his centenary year 2014-15. A monograph on CHASO said to be in the making, and preserving the heritage of the writer (Particularly the Chaganti vari Haveli) at Vizianagaram, including a statue of the writer during the centenary year are not impossible wishes, provided, Telugu people act in unison demanding the required measures from the concerned authorities.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who was credited with the shortest story of the world, wrote a story of six words. “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn”. This story he evidently wrote on a cocktail napkin as part of a bar room challenge, would have been a cause of joy to Chaso as well. For, every story he wrote was a CHASO, and we can proudly claim that CHASOS CHARM FOREVER.