It’s around 11 o’clock in Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh on a recent day. The day is still gray. Kasipatnam Rama Rao is reclining in a chair, at his youngest son’s home in Viashkha colony. At 93, he feels life acutely, a metronomic click of moments, minutes, and hours, thoughts lost and regained. But he always felt life acutely. His stories, especially of rural life and particularly of Dalits, don’t prompt us to think about the glory of literature or of creativity or the grand scheme of things. They make us look—really look—into the everyday life of the poor. He always portrayed the lives of people and how they eked out a living—the collapse of cheti vruttulu (doing work with hands); the loans people took and how it hollowed out their lives; the transfer of land from one caste and class to another; who, in turn, leased it back, effectively making people indebted forever; the dynamics of capital, labour and power; the beneficiaries and losers of development, and all the things life entails. His writing feels archaeological: uncovering layer after layer of human life, observing how individuals try to rise from the below the surface to the sky. By intimately sketching the worlds of personal lives of the poor and downtrodden, his work touches the universal, as if to say, you tunnel into the personal enough and long, and you end up with the universal.

His stories don’t take a position on what way society should go forward, on what characters and people should do, or on hopeful or grim views on life, or on the fate of characters.

His is a surgical examination of the present, life as it is lived and experienced. The unique feature of his stories is the characters—and thereby readers—happen on a series of understandings and insights into their own lives, which, hitherto, remained unacknowledged and unknown.  His stories don’t suggest any path forward, any plan of action, or any blueprint. He leaves it to the characters and readers—to their evolving knowledge of themselves and the society—to move forward the way the understanding guides.

He was a secondary-grade teacher of maths and English from 1946 until his retirement in 1977. Popularly known as Ka Ra mastaru or Kathala mastaru, (called so because of his habit of chewing ka ra killi (hot pan and also tobacco and of his feel for the story), he was never prolific and wrote intermittently but profoundly. He wrote 26 stories in total, 17 of which rank among the best of Telugu stories. He wrote a few essays on the mechanics and art of writing short stories to encourage young writers.

Some people say “Yajnam” is the best of the best, although some note others. It’s a story on rural economics, the loans and loan sharks, the tricks in calculating interest, the repayment, losing land in the process, and development, its beneficiary and losers. He won the Sahitya Academy award, among many others he has for his work.

He established “Kathanilayam”—Home for stories—in 1997, purchasing the site and constructing the building by using his awards’ money. Later well-wishers contributed. Its aim is to be a reference library for research scholars on Telugu stories. Mastaru’s eldest son, Subba Rao, 70, retired from the military engineering service, takes care of the centre and many voluntarily contribute their services.  The centre hosts magazines, newspapers and wherever stories appeared from 1910 (Gurazada Appa Rao’s “Diddubatu”, the first modern Telugu short story, was published in this year) to 2010. With the help of Mastaru’s well-wishers and philanthropic organisations, the centre has digitised 38,000 stories and uploaded them to website kathanilayam.com to reach out  to people across all ages and distances. (kathanilayam.com)

The centre maintains a story register, now clocking in at 90,000, detailing the publications’ name, date, author, story, and others. There are 30,000-40,000 stories to go still. People ask for stories, children of dead writers ask for their father’s or mother’s work, research scholars ask for stories from defunct magazines—the centre sends them all. It has plans for story workshops, more collections of stories and manuscripts, and writers’ photos. Lack of resources, both human and monetary, is slowing down its work.

A stone’s throw from Kathanilayam is where Mastaru lives. At this ripe age, his memory is giving way, he loses the chain of thought, expresses it by shutting down his eyes and scrunching up a bit. His son mends the broken bits. Otherwise, his face shines, luminosity born of clarity of thought and wisdom. He keeps his parents’ and his mentors’—Rachakonda Vishwanadha Sastry and  Kadavatiganti Kutumba Rao—photos nearby.  Books sit on the table. The day would get ever so slightly brighter towards afternoon.

In this conversation with Fountain Ink, Ka Ra Mastaru, tells his story.

 How do you spend your day?

In the morning, I get up around 7 and go to bed at 11p.m. I have medicines, and take them regularly. There is an order to them. One by one. I take Vasanta kusumakaram for general health. Then take a glass of Ragi java called ambali.  I read for 6 to 7 hours a day, with sometime for lunch and rest. (He has blurry vision in his left eye and is hard of hearing.)

People send me books. If they write my name on it, I read them. If I want to tell them something after reading, I will call him/her and tell him what I felt. In the evening, I watch TV serial Hara Hara Mahadev. It’s the same programme every day. On Sunday, I read more magazines, and there are many stories.

(He takes out his diary from the table and shows how long he slept, the medicines he took, the reading, entries stamped with time and duration. He is reading Sarat Chandra Chakravarthy, translated into Telugu.)

You’re reading many books. What more can they give you?

(Loses it.)

Please ask again. (What more can books give you?)

Knowledge, not for joy or anything. I never read for pleasure, I read for knowledge. Not for any intellectual pleasure.

I read a story yesterday, I forget what it is right now. The story is on Muslims. I don’t know many things about their life, how they deal with women, relationships between men and women, how their life is. The story may not be an exact representation, but it gives a view. I make it a point to read.

Sometimes, books don’t give me anything. This is for passing time.

(Lingers there, chewing tobacco...what you get out of reading books...)

Books show the life, the world, the nature of people, incidents and events of everyday. The context, the background, the causes behind events.

You understand their meaning, not mistake your perception as the only thing.

Please talk about your childhood.

Ahh, (beams as if he’s watching the movie of his childhood)

 In 93 years of life, the first 5 to 6 years, I am not conscious. The scenes, events, my childhood are clear in my mind. Nothing much belonging to later years comes up now, even if the events are big and great. They seemed to have dissolved into a void.

In my village Murapaka, (12 km from Srikakulam), I know every house, every tree, working class people, Dalits, and people from lower castes. There were first movies and later, talkies. The first talkies I saw was Prahlada, in 1935.

Villagers used to call me Rambabu, my friends were from all communities, lower-middle class, Harijans, Shaivaites and Vashnavaites. They are my friends, you know, till their death. They’re more than a hundred.

There used to be a Shiva temple, located at the village outskirts, and Jagannadha Swamy temple, in the middle of the village. There used to be a pond beside the Shiva temple. I used to accompany my grandmother for bath, with a lamp, in the wee hours, in Kartika masam. We used to have two cows, so plenty of milk and buttermilk.

Incidents you remember? Your father...

My gather was a karanam village officer for seven villages. A strict, unyielding man. My father sent me to Srikakulam to a teacher. In the teacher’s home, I used to study and stay.

Once I went to teacher’s home and after a few days, came back home again because there were three continuous holidays. I was pining for home. My father got angry. He was of the opinion that I should be studying with the teacher.

I wrote about that in ‘Abhimanalu’ (Affections).

There were pattusaaleelu (weavers). Potters. Farmers would hollow out palms, called donne (a kind of conduit) and use that for watering their fields. I observed their working. Whatever you know, in seven villages, what life existed, I studied.

All these pictures, scenes, childhood friendships, water ponds—do they make you happy when you recollect them?

I saw the world, I saw changes.  I haven’t confined myself to these scenes.  Now I cannot compare my village with what existed in my childhood. Roads came, electricity came, pumping machines came, new houses got built. The influence of all the changes is on me.

So, you describe the rural scenes in your stories.

No, it’s not picturising the scenes, but picturising the life. My father was a ‘karanam’. I helped my father in accounts. I once observed farmers were selling their lands. Who bought them? The businessmen. Because they cannot work the land, the businessmen lease it back to farmers. Those changes influenced me.

Your parents helped you in loving literature...

My father used to read magazines since 1918. There was also a library movement in those days. One elderly person worked hard to establish a library in every village.

There were two chests, beeruvas, in one there were Ramayana and Mahabharata, and puranas, and in another, there were novels of Jampana and Kovvali. I read them.

(Jampana and Kovvali were profilific writers in the early 20th century. Their novels were entertaining and middle-class people read them. Women especially read them to pass the time.)

When Vishwanadha Satyanarayana’s Veeyi Padagalu was printed in a magazine, I read it. Our village had no post office, which was two km away. On the due date, I would go to the post office, pick up the copy, and read it while on my way back home.

Who were your favourite writers?

In my childhood, I liked the novels of Jampana and Kovvali. High-class people used to look down upon them. Girls in those days would go to elementary school, they would not go to high school. These women used to read these novels, for passing time, making them remember the letters they learned in school. These novels helped educate people, especially women.

My mother used to read these novels and Kashi Majili Kathalu, out loud. Women would gather at my home to listen.

That influenced me. I read 12 volumes of Kashi Majili Kathalu in the library. The author of those kathalu, Subbanna Deekshitulu is my favourite writer. (Madhira Subbanna Deekshitulu is the author of Kashi Majili Kathalu, a series of short stories known for their witty brilliance.)

How did you start writing stories?

When I was 11 years old, I wrote a poem. An elderly person told me, ‘If you make a mistake in a poem with Chandassu (structural rules), it will not sit well’. That’s why I liked prose, confined to myself to prose. Read Grandhikam, literal Telugu, but vyvaharikam, colloquial Telugu, is easy.

Could you talk about the publication of your first story?

My first story ‘Platformo’ was published in Chitragupta in 1943.

How did it come about?

We write because we want to write. Sent it and it got published.

Did you do many drafts of your stories?

Yes, lots of them. I would write one, tear it off, start afresh, until I felt I got it right. Sometimes, 500 pages boil down to 50 pages.

Got rejected any time?

No. One was sent back, but my mentor published it in another.

Your writings are on rural life, in its various dimensions. How did you come to that?

Ahh.

At that time, Kutumba Rao wrote on middle-class in all its detail. Vishwanadha Sastry wrote on courts and police extensively. He shredded injustices in courts and police violence.

(Kutumaba Rao, born in a Brahmin family, wrote extensively on mostly Brahminic middle-class hypocrisy in all its flavours, like how middle-class people go to lengths to maintain their standing, their hollowness. Vishwanadha Sastry, a criminal lawyer, had an insider’s knowledge of how courts dish out (in)justice and how the police conduct their thing. He was a close friend of Mastaru.)

I thought about what I should do and settled on rural life. There are classes, categories of people, life of the poor, the Harijans. All my writings are on working class people and Harijans. They are labourers. Stories like ‘Aarti’ and ‘Chavu’ (death) reflect that.

Your family context was different. How could you write on them?

I could do it. I had relationships. In villages in those days, there were ‘karanam’ and ‘munasubu’. Barika (the man who runs errands for them) was from lower-caste. He used to drop me at Srikakulam for my stay in teacher’s home. He used to get me on the bus. He would comfort me when I pined for home and didn’t want to leave home. I found solace in him. I observed the society and people. I observed literature.

At that time, there was Unnava Lakshminarayana’s Malapalli. Not much more than that. It was a great book. Nobody wrote about Harijans and lower-castes.

I also used to take tuition in Harijanwada, before entering my job. People complained to my father. Why, father said, why bother. I then came to Vishakapatnam, and joined St. Anthony High School, a Christian school. I applied for AVN College and got invited there too. I asked my brother about it, and he suggested I go join AVN College. But I liked the school, its discipline. So, I joined there as a teacher.

Do you write for a reader?

No.

A writer has to play five roles. First, the seer—seeing an incident or event or life, see if there is a point. Next is the role of express-er, the ability to convey. Third is the role of reader, to know how it feels. Next is editor, correcting. The fifth is hole-picker, picking what doesn’t work, picking holes in the writing. We become our own readers. The reader inside will guide what works or not.

It’s through flailing, trial and error, mostly. Wrote tons of drafts. Whatever it is, I should feel satisfied before publishing. I told you about avatars, every sentence, every para, every page has to feel right.

Some people write with a complete picture in the head. Some think through writing. Unless it’s on the page or screen, they don’t know what’s in their heads. The physical sensation is the way that leads them forward. What is yours?

I wrote very few with a complete picture in my mind. I don’t have that stage.

It’s through flailing, trial and error, mostly. Wrote tons of drafts. Whatever it is, I should feel satisfied before publishing. I told you about avatars, every sentence, every para, every page has to feel right.

How did you study the economic life in rural areas, how they calculated interest and grabbing of lands.

I asked many people, listened and studied how they did it. A farmer would take a loan from a businessman or a merchant, for many purposes like seeds, household expenses. So, every year the loan entries are more, filling the pages. Then comes the repayment. Since the farmer took the loan, he had to sell his produce to the same merchant. This happens twice or at most thrice a year, when the produce comes. The merchants don’t calculate the interest as and when the produce comes to them. They add up all the loans in a year and then calculate interest for the whole year, instead of when the produce is sold to them. That becomes a heavy burden on the farmers.

Farmer needs money the moment he gets up, for various things.  So, they pawn things, which begets interest. In time and through subterfuge of the merchant, it becomes heavy. Farmers kept selling their lands. No farmer bought land, except one or two. Farmers became labourers.

In lower-castes, people would take hand-loans. They would pay back with minimal interest.

How do stories begin for you? Is it through an image, or a phrase, or something else.

Mostly from questions, why and how of life. Observations also.

I used to take tuition in Pandimetta. In those days, it was sand piles. In front of the tuition place, there used to be labourers. Later on, buildings came up. One person came and wanted to build a house. He was a good man. So he organised the people, and all of them petitioned for a water tap. The municipality granted their request, and a water tap came there, and to the man’s house. Had he not done it, water would not have come to the people living in that pit. There was a house taking up all the water, and pumping it to the overhead tank. The water would be released only for an hour or so a day and people were suffering. These labourers would have to go for work during the day, when the water would come.

There was a bungalow and they were using water indiscriminately while others were suffering for the lack of it. They were watering cactus, crotons and dumping the hose near a big tree. I wrote it in ‘Jeevanadhara’ (Lifestream). You write what moves you.

Another is everybody has holidays, but not maids working at houses. I wrote it in ‘Aadivaram’ (Sunday), the self-respect the maid has.

In those days, Nehru gave a statement on what he wanted to do and how it turned out. That became ‘Yajnam’ (Sacrifice), on what all this development is about, for whom, for what, who it’s useful for, who’s benefiting and losing.

I want to share what I understand from an incident or an event or a question. Readers take it. Or not.

What’s your view on caste?

There is no such a thing as higher or lower caste in my childhood. For each individual, his own caste is great. Each caste person did his/her own work For example, blacksmith worked with gold or iron, they got something for their labourers. So are Gollalu (shepherds). So are others. The exception is Brahmins. I don’t go so far as to say that they exploited people. They didn’t work hard, they didn’t put themselves to work. They lived off others.

There was interdependence, so, not much conflict, no power struggle, no advantage over the other. Each caste did their own work.

Things turned different later. People wanted political space; they wanted benefits from the government. So, there is this fragmentation.

Where do characters come from?

All my characters are the people I know. I take their mannerisms, their gestures, their movements, expressions, their way of talking and put it on the page.

Do you put in their life too?

No, my stories cannot host their lives. Just their movements, gestures and things like that.

Incidents, events, all the dialogue, characters are imagined.

What is ‘Teerpu’ (judgement), the story?

In a small house, the boys make writing pads. While all are the same, one is slightly fancy. A conflict comes up as to whom the fancy writing pad belongs. The father cannot resolve it, a grandma resolves it. It’s about capital, labour, and power.

Do you write on themes?

No. I have subject matter, why and how something in life is happening. I have never written for entertainment.  Never have a written a single letter for giving entertainment.

Please talk about ‘Kutra’ (conspiracy)....

Oh, I wanted to write a story without any characters. It’s a monologue of a person. The interior goings-on.

Why did you write intermittently?

World events have bearing on the nation. These come down to towns and villages. To understand the magnitude of these changes, you need leisure and energy.

I was taking tuition from 4.30 in the morning till 9, and going to school, and coming back and taking tuition up to 10 in the night. There was family responsibility.

No novels, why?

There were a couple of ideas but they did not pan out.

Do you go back to your stories? What do you feel about it. Do you feel any of them could have been better?

I am trying to read them again. See these new volumes.  I don’t feel they require any rework. If what I wanted to express gets expressed, then that’s it.

So, your stories felt whole to you when you wrote them, and now they still feel whole.

Yes.

Do you identify with your writing?

No, it’s abstract.  I am different from the story I am writing.

Did your stories change you in any way?

There is a story, an old man like myself. He is strict with children, making them study, beating them to stick to studies, for doing homework.

All of this, in the end, is for the benefit of the man, rather than for children’s benefit. He makes them study so they earn more, and take care of him later. From then on, my approach to my children changed.

(After this story, ‘Illu’ (Home), Mastaru stopped spanking his children.)

I don’t have any style, as such. If you say something in one sentence which requires four sentences that gets complicated. My sentences depend on events, incidents, characters. I am not into alamkara, or aesthetics. A sentence has to convey. Style depends on the story, on the thing you’re conveying.

Could you talk about your style of writing?

I don’t have any style, as such.

If you say something in one sentence which requires four sentences that gets complicated. For example, Vishwanadha Satyanara uses difficult, hard words and writes in simple sentences. Somebody else uses simple words and writes in complicated sentences. My sentences depend on events, incidents, characters. I am not into alamkara, or aesthetics. A sentence has to convey. Style depends on the story, on the thing you’re conveying.

Do you still want to write?

Sometime, I want to write. I have energy to write. But mind gives away, memory goes.

Picturisation of characters, the links and associations don’t remain stable. They don’t remain all of a piece. They are one way in the beginning, and change to completely different later.

How do you cope with that?

That’s what is happening. There is no frustration. It happens. You live with it. We cannot do anything about it.

We’re talking. So, there may be....lingers...’revitalization’.

Are you happy with your life?

Yes. There are our debts: debt to your parents, to your guru, and to society. I have done for society to the best of my ability. In that sense, I am blessed. I want to read more. There is a lot to know. See that book. I want to read our Vedas and Upanishads.

(First published in the October 2017 edition of Fountain Ink)