Review by Sadhana Ramchander
In 2016, when Anuradha Gunupati and I met 83-year old Abburi Chayadevi to tell her about our plans to publish a book on her writing and craft, she asked, “Why do we need this book? I am already suffering from fame.” I was delighted to find that she still asked questions! Witty, and with a very good sense of humour, Chayadevi’s eyes sparkled when she spoke. She always had a lot to say and laugh about, as she sat in the room that she shared with her sister Yashodhara in the home for the aged where she had chosen to live.
Our book – Why shouldn’t girls laugh? Abburi Chayadevi – her words and craft – was published by Saptaparni in 2017. It is a bilingual (English and Telugu) book that tells her story, combining her literary work and using her crafts as illustrations. There was no official launch because she did not want one. Little did we realise at that time that, two years later, she would be gone. Perhaps this was the answer to her question, “Why do we need this book?”
Abburi Chayadevi was a writer of Telugu short stories and essays, and a very important part of the Telugu literary world. She was a “gentle” feminist, and even though she led an apparently conservative life, she expressed her feminism through her stories. In this sense, her life was a series of short stories, mostly biographical.
When Chayadevi was growing up in the 1930s, Indian women were not supposed to smile or laugh loudly. “Why not?” she asked boldly. There was also a practice in traditional households, for a menstruating woman to stay away from everyone else, becoming a sort of untouchable person. She protested against this unjust practice in two short stories: “Moodu naalla muchata” and “Amalina malinam”.
Chayadevi found it strange that women who got married became meek and never spoke their minds. Her own father was very dictatorial. To vent her helplessness and anger at her father’s attitude, she wrote a story called “Anubandham” for her college magazine.
And then she herself got married, which gave her many more questions to ask!
In “‘Upagraham -1”, she asks why newly married men so quickly begin taking their wives for granted. Why did her husband marry her if he was busy working all the time and could not spend time with her? She also found it strange that men did not express affection the way women did.
In another popular story titled, “Bonsai brathukulu”, she likened the life of a married woman to a bonsai that is pruned and shaped. She tells her sister, “Look at the bonsai you have tended so lovingly. It looks proper and sweet, like a housewife. See how delicate it is. It can’t withstand a storm and is dependent on someone for its care. A woman’s life is like that of a bonsai.”
She challenged the status quo despite being married to Abburi Varadarajeswara Rau—the well-known journalist, intellectual and poet, who was supportive yet quite chauvinistic and gave her opportunities to ask questions!
She wrote a serious and introspective story titled “Prayanam”, in which she dealt with the subject of rape. The story concludes that a rape could be compared to a car accident: if the fault was of the other driver, then why then should the woman be blamed? The story ends on a very positive note, with the raped woman being supported by a man who respects her.
Her gripping and realistic stories not only answered her own questions but touched the hearts of many readers as they identified familiar situations. She also wrote an autobiography, using photos from her family albums to illustrate her narrative.
Chayadevi was more than a writer: she also very skilled at craft and doll making – all from recycled material. She was also very fond of selfies and cats. Always practical and independent, she gave away all her possessions and lived by herself in an old age home in the last years of her life.
Abburi Chayadevi passed away on 28 June 2019 after a brief illness, and as per her wishes, her eyes and body were donated to a medical college. She is someone I admire very much, and the book I did on her was one of my most challenging assignments. I feel as though I lost a dear friend. No doubt she will live on forever through her writings.
Note: Some of Chayadevi’s short stories have been translated into English. The collection has been published as Bonsai Life and other stories by Author Press. Why shouldn’t girls laugh? can be ordered from Saptaparni (mail[at]saptaparni.com).