Excerpted from Song of the Cuckoo Bird by Amulya Malladi. Copyright © 2005 by Amulya Malladi. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Amulya Malladi
Amulya’s mother, Lakshmi Malladi, helped her write Song of the Cuckoo Bird. Not just by saying all the encouraging things mothers say, but by telling her the stories that found their way into this book. Amulya feels that this book is as much her mother’s as it is hers.
Amulya Malladi: So, how did you think the book turned out? I took a lot of the stories you told me to write this book. I made them my own stories, but still . . . they started from your descriptions.
Lakshmi Malladi: You wrote the stories differently, but I felt that they were still real, still very down-to-earth, not contrived at all. I liked the book. I liked the characters very much, maybe because they seemed so real to me.
AM: A friend of mine, Jody Pryor, who always helps me with my books while they are being written, felt that the book was quite an experience for her. She thought everything was new and fresh. I think she might have even felt that parts of the book were unbelievable.
LM: No, no, I was not surprised by any of the stories of the characters. I have seen it all . . . nothing was unrealistic or unbelievable. But tell me, which character did you feel had the unhappiest life in the book? Let’s see if we agree on that.
AM: I think that would be Charvi. She got pushed into a life she never really had a chance to reject and in the end she was all alone. She lived the life that others expected her to live. She was this Guru, this goddess and she never had a husband, a lover, children . . . she was lonely in the end.
LM: I agree that she was the saddest person in the book, but not for the same reason. I think that her life was the most painful because she was never sure if she was a goddess. She doubted herself all the time and probably lived with guilt that she was cheating all these people by taking their money. To not be sure of who you are, especially if you feel you are being dishonest . . . that is probably the hardest way to live. What do you think?
AM: I agree. I never thought about it that way, but you are right. That is a hard way to live. So, who did you think had the fullest life?
LM: That has to be Chetana. I don’t like her as a character, she is self-centered, thankless . . . I just didn’t like her. But she managed to have a full life. She got married, had children who did well, and she was the only one who did whatever she wanted. Her husband died and she wanted to have a boyfriend, so she went and got one. Her daughters took care of her in her old age. She was the luckiest of them all.
AM: I think Chetana was the happiest, and she is also my favorite character in the book. She is so spirited and she was a lot of fun to write. She is very selfish and yet, there is something redeemable about her because she is Kokila’s friend and Kokila is the best person in that entire story. She is the one with the big heart and good soul, the one who wants to help others, save others.
LM: Yes, Kokila is the person with the big heart, but her life was so tragic. You know, all the others who lived at Tella Meda were people who had lost something before they came there. Kokila came there and lost her life. She lost her parents, yes, but it was after she came to Tella Meda that she lost the chance for having a life . . . you know, to be a wife and mother.
AM: But she got to become a mother; she adopted Karthik.
LM: Yes, yes, but it isn’t the same thing. She had no man, no husband, and even the men she had been with . . . What good would even the sex have been with that old man, Ramanandam? Why did she go with him?
AM: I think she was in love with him. I think Kokila is the kind of woman who needs to be needed. She loved Ramanandam because he needed her, which is never a good basis for a relationship.
LM: And it was the same with the professor whose daughter committed suicide.
AM: Yes, Manjunath. He was also a sad man who needed someone to hold on to him, so she volunteered.
LM: Manjunath I can understand, he sounded like a good-looking man, but Ramanandam?
AM: Love is blind!
LM: What I can’t understand is why Charvi didn’t do something to stop the relationship. She seems very possessive about her father, so why didn’t she?
AM: First, I think she did try, in her way. She spoke with her father and then she also spoke to Kokila, she–
LM: She didn’t speak to Kokila about it; she just told her that she knew she was sleeping with Ramanandam.
AM: I think that was her way of trying. Charvi, I think, has a strong moral code and she feels she must not interfere in anyone’s life. She would never forcefully try to make anyone do anything. But no one else in the ashram said anything either. Subhadra actually tells Kokila that she thinks it is a good thing that she is having a relationship with
Ramanandam and Kokila is furious. She has always thought of Subhadra as a mother but a mother would never be happy about her daughter sleeping with a man twice her age, a man she could not marry or have children with.
LM: Still, it is a shame that no one did anything to help Kokila. She was just a child, what did she know? Do you think Ramanandam did not encourage her to go with her husband because he liked her?
AM: No, I don’t think he had designs on her from then. I hope not; that would be even more disgusting. I think he truly believed that children needed to do what they wanted to do without interference from elders.
LM: That girl needed some elders in her life, people who would have told her that staying at Tella Meda was going to ruin her life.
AM: Okay, I have a specific question. Some women writers, especially from South Asia, are accused of always portraying men in a bad light. Were all the men in my book bad?
LM: No, no, not at all. You had Shankar, who was a very good man. Narayan Garu who lives at Tella Meda, he is also a good man. But Ramanandam was not a good man, and that professor . . . Manjunath, he was somewhere in between. And you also had women who were not very nice. There are good people and bad people; it is not specific to being a man or a woman. And then there was that American man, Mark. Do you think he was interested in Charvi?
AM: No, I don’t think so. I think he was interested, even fascinated about this side of India, but he was not really interested in Charvi. He had a crush on her, but that was about it.
LM: He seems not to believe in her, so why did he come to Tella Meda?
AM: He came looking for something new, but he didn’t come back. And he respected Charvi, I think. He thought she was a smart single woman making the best of the hand she was dealt.
LM: When Mark asks her why she takes money and gifts from people, Charvi says that if they want to give something, who is she to say no. Which is really nonsense! Still, it must not have been easy for Charvi to accept that money and those gifts when she was in doubt of her godliness.
AM: But don’t you think she felt she deserved the money and the attention because she was making so many sacrifices by being a goddess?
LM: I don’t like Charvi much. But then again I have to like her as well because she helped so many people by giving them a roof over their heads.
AM: I agree. Tella Meda is part ashram, part women’s shelter, part orphanage, and part home for the elderly.
LM: But she also never helped anyone get out of there. She never encouraged Kokila or Chetana to have better lives, to leave Tella Meda and become productive members of society. And they didn’t make much of an effort either.
AM: People get used to something and then they are afraid of making changes. Chetana and Kokila were used to living in Tella Meda and they were afraid of going out and facing the real world.
LM: It is like a goat that is tied up; it gets used to eating the grass around it and does not want to wander away from the pasture where it is tied up. Who knows what is there beyond the pasture? Here it gets food and it is safe, god only knows what the goat will find outside. I feel that is why they stay.
AM: That is a fine way of putting it.
LM: And also, they are a family at Tella Meda. They are not related by blood but there is a sister Þgure, there are sort of children, a father figure, a surrogate mother . . . all in all, with all these broken pieces, these broken people, they get together and become a family in Tella Meda. And there is security with family!
AM: Yes, there is. They fought over things and didn’t get along all the time, but all through they remain a family.
LM: What was your favorite part of the book?
AM: Several things, but my favorite chapter was the one where Tella Meda gets a television. I had to send a lot of e-mails to Daddy to Þnd out how much televisions cost in 1984, how many televisions a small company would make . . . it was a good chapter to write. I had fun writing it.
LM: I like the last pages the best. After Charvi dies, you write about how Kokila looks at the house and feels that after having tried for so many years to leave Tella Meda she and Chetana would live in apartments built over the same land. I thought it was very fitting. It was a good ending.
AM: The ending used to be different. I wrote the Prologue and Epilogue from the point of view of the house first, but my smart editor, Allison Dickens, told me that it took away from the book, and she was right. But it means a lot to me that you liked the book. So . . . do you think it’ll be a bestseller?
LM: Of course, the book is very good; I liked it very much, but . . .
AM: Did you like the book because I wrote it or would you have liked it off the rack at a bookstore?
LM: I think I would always like this book because it is so real to me. And that is why I worry, that maybe people who read it will say, "Oh that doesn’t sound real." These situations are real; I have seen things like this happen all my life, and I don’t want people to think that this is completely made up. These things happen, have happened several times, will continue to happen . . .
AM: I think with this interview we will convince them that the book is as close to reality as it can get without being nonfiction.
LM: I hope so.
AM: Thanks, Mama.
LM: I hope I asked all the right questions. If I didn’t, just change it to something better, okay?
AM: I don’t think I will need to. (And I didn’t!)
1. Perhaps the most pivotal moment of this novel occurs at the beginning when Kokila decides to leave her marriage and stay at Tella Meda. Did you agree with her decision? Would you have made the same choice at her age in her situation? Would you make the same choice knowing how her life turned out?
2. Do you think Kokila was satisfied with her life and, at the end of the novel, felt she had lived a productive and worthwhile life? Do you feel she lived a productive and worthwhile life?
3. In Song of the Cuckoo Bird, the women of Tella Meda frequently discuss their need for a husband and children, and the placement those things will guarantee them in society. How important is marriage and having a family to a woman’s identity today where you live? How much is it a part of your own identity?
4. Which of the women at Tella Meda did you identify with the most closely? Did you have trouble connecting to any of the women and if so, why do you think you found her difficult to understand?
5. Both in the novel and in the conversation between Amulya Malladi and her mother in this reader’s guide, there is much discussion of whether Charvi is a good person, particularly in terms of her acceptance of money. Did you feel she was a good person? What inconsistencies of character did you spot in Charvi? Can a person be both good and bad?
6. Are there any purely good or purely evil characters in Song of the Cuckoo Bird?
7. How did you feel the men in the novel were portrayed? Fairly or unfairly? Realistically or unrealistically?
8. Did you find the news headlines at the start of each chapter helpful or were they unimportant to your understanding of the characters and setting?
9. Would Tella Meda be a good place to grow up, whether it was located in your hometown or in India, or during different time periods?
10. What do you think happened to Vidura?