DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
Samskara. A Rite for a Dead Man by U.R. Ananthamurthy (Trans. A.K. Ramanujan). Oxford India Perennials. 143 pp. $14.95
Bharathipura by U.R. Ananthamurthy (Trans. Susheela Punitha). Oxford India Perennials. 277 pp. $26.75
Bhava by U.R. Anantha Murthy (Trans. Judith Kroll, with the author). Penguin Books India. 183 pp.
U.R. Ananthamurthy is arguably the Kannada language’s most important twentieth-century author and certainly one of the preeminent literary figures in India in his time. His nomination for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize brought him to the attention of a Western audience. (Even English translations of his fiction have historically been confined to Indian printing presses.) Born into the highest rung of the caste system, Ananthamurthy has produced a body of work that has established his reputation as a scathing critic of his own community, its biases and superstitions. Yet he has elected to document them in his own vernacular, the South Indian language Kannada—forgoing the ideological power and prestige of English in India.
Ananthamurthy’s novels are populated with figures who struggle with heritage and social identity in myriad forms. In Samskara (1965), the body of a dead iconoclast rots in his hut while his neighbors squabble over ritual, kinship, and the responsibility of cremating him. Bharathipura (1971), a cornerstone of caste literature, centers on a wealthy young landowner who returns to his native place with an aborted doctorate and a broken heart, determined to shatter the oppression of the lower castes and to prove his manhood to his lost lover. More recently, Bhava (1994) brings two men face to face with their possible sons. Their attempts to trace the painful chains of memory find the links to certain answers irrevocably broken.
Codified by the fragmented, exclusionist world of caste and by 20th-century Indian political realities, Ananthamurthy´s works are strongly embedded in their local context. His choice to write in an Indian vernacular even as he dismantles the very foundations of traditional society is in many ways reflected in his works’ thematic concerns with social identity in a modernizing world, from the overarching laws of caste to the intimate question of fatherhood. Yet Ananthamurthy’s protagonists grapple with conformity and rebellion in ways that transcend such specificities and speak to the archetypal struggles of man in society.
Born in 1932 in a small village in the then-Kingdom of Mysore, British India, he grew up in an orthodox Brahmin community as the grandson of a priest. His schooling commenced in a traditional Sanskrit school, but led by way of the University of Mysore to Birmingham, England, for a doctorate in English on a Commonwealth Scholarship. A teenager when his country gained its independence from Britain, Ananthamurthy entered the world of letters at a time when India was grappling with self-determination and the shaping of a national identity on an unprecedented scale.
While the newly-formed nation struggled to build a coherent polity from a fragmented colonial identity (there were over a dozen British colonial provinces, hundreds of princely states, and a handful of non-British colonial enclaves when India won its freedom), language became a crucial marker of identification and contestation to the notion of national unity. A bitter debate over the choice of an official national language was to mar the first two decades of independence. Battle lines were drawn between a pro-Hindi faction in the North, which wished to expurgate the English language from the country along with English rule, and a South Indian coalition that saw English as the only feasible pan-Indian language—and, ironically, as a necessary evil to protect their own native vernaculars against the onslaught of Hindi. Protests against the planned phasing out of English from official use culminated in riots in Tamil Nadu in 1965, and English remains one of the Indian union’s official languages to this day. In the mean time, the politics of local vernaculars did much to shape the face of the nation. Several state maps were redrawn on the basis of language, including that of Karnataka, which was created in 1956 to unite South India’s Kannada-speaking population. No choice between languages could thus be apolitical—especially if one of those languages was English.
In many contexts, writing creatively in your native tongue would be a matter of course, a decision so instinctive as to be invisible. But for Ananthamurthy, himself poetically fluent in English, the choice to write fiction in Kannada entailed a conscious distancing from the Indian English literature that had been emerging since the 1930s through the works of of R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao, and others. His decision evinced a deliberate alignment of interests with the culture and traditions that inform Kannada—including the very Brahmin orthodoxy skewered with such skill by his pen. “If I had begun to write in English,” he noted in a conversation with N.M. Chakravarthy,
I could have taken to modernist thought with great glee. But because I write in Kannada, it gives all my writing, all my thinking, a certain rootedness. I do not think that these two novels [Samskara and Bharathipura] could have come in any language other than an Indian language. It can come in English as an idea. But a work of art chooses its own medium and, I think, for an Indian, the Indian language is the medium.
The choice to write in Kannada is thus not only integral to Ananthamurthy’s articulation of ideas, but also presents a key to understanding the thematic concerns raised in his writing. Figures such as Bharathipura’s Jagannatha and Samskara’s Naranappa, for all their idol-breaking rebelliousness, never shed the bonds of society. In rebellion and even death, they are constrained by their place in the social hierarchy, a part of the very order they subvert—though Jagannatha does wonder whether the only way to be a true revolutionary is to withdraw from society and become an ascetic. Rejecting the ascetic’s path, Ananthamurthy himself describes his writing as “a way of belonging to a community with which I could quarrel, as if it were a quarrel with myself.”
In “Ghatashraddha,” an early story by Ananthamurthy, a little boy enters the woods at night to search for a friend, accompanied by a man who bears a burning torch. In the brooding darkness, he wants to hold the man tight to dispel his fear. The man dissuades him, saying “You cannot touch me.” Overcome with fright, the child runs away. The story frames one of the most complex and stereotyped aspects of Indian culture, the practice of untouchability. The boy, a Brahmin, reaches out to his Dalit companion for comfort, in poignant violation of the strict ban on physical contact between them. Despite his position in the social order, the older man becomes the arbiter of ritual and purity to a child of the priestly caste, forbidding the touch that would ‘pollute’ the boy.
The theme of touch recurs throughout Ananthamurthy’s work with a frequency bordering on obsession—one he has himself acknowledged, and attributed to an abhorrence of untouchability dating back to his childhood days. The power of touch to twist destinies, and the symbolic transformations that such a gesture can undergo through desire, fear, and denial, hold real experiential meaning in his fiction. It is the outgrowth of the author’s own early experiences. Growing up in an orthodox community as a priest’s grandson, Ananthamurthy’s childhood was spent in an environment where religious rituals and taboos—including those of untouchability—were very much a living reality. During his childhood,
Everything was sacred. We were told the stone under a tree was sacred. There were many things we could not touch. . . . Many of us used to experiment with going into the smashana [cremation ground] in the night and come back and feel we had overcome the notion of the bhoothas [ghosts] and so on. Also, we used to urinate on the bhootha stones to prove to ourselves that they were not sacred.
From a child’s mischievous desire to defeat the sacred with the scatological matured an understanding that such sacrality must be destroyed, that each taboo must be “deconstructed and overcome.” But how?
Bursting forth onto the literary scene in 1965 with the controversial novella Samskara, Ananthamurthy quickly gained a reputation as a scathing critic of Brahminism, its superstitions and hypocrisies. While labeling him as anti-Brahminical is deceptive and highly oversimplified, his fiction probes the depths of the religion’s taboos and tensions, raising myriad questions but declining to provide an answer until, in the words of poet and translator A.K. Ramanujan, “the question is no longer relevant.”
Written while a student in Birmingham, Samskara remains Ananthamurthy’s most famous work. Samskara depicts a Brahmin agrahara—an exclusive orthodox settlement like the one the author himself grew up on—confronted with an intractable conundrum. The news arrives early one morning. Naranappa, the community’s resident iconoclast, is dead. A thorn in the side of all his neighbors, he had flaunted his rebelliousness with remarkable relish: he ate meat, invited Muslims to his house, kept a low-born prostitute as his wife, and enticed young men to break caste rules. Worst of all, he had the gall to die childless, leaving no heir to perform his death rites. In the absence of an heir, another Brahmin can (and must) volunteer for the duty. But who will perform the death rites of such a man?
Was Naranappa, who rejected every rule of their community, truly a Brahmin? Can his neighbors risk their own Brahminhood on his behalf, either by allowing an outcaste to perform his last rites, or by taking the duty upon themselves? Under the leadership of Praneshacharya, a Banaras-educated Vedic scholar, the Brahmins attempt to find a solution—a process that is complicated by motives of greed when Chandri, Naranappa’s low-born lover, offers up her gold jewelry to pay for the ceremonies. While Praneshacharya hunts for an answer in the sacred texts, his remaining neighbors bicker and drop hints in service of their own agendas, their own self-interest and hypocrisy seeping out between the lines. And time is short: Naranappa’s body is rotting in the tropical heat, and “according to ancient custom, until the body is properly removed there can be no worship, no bathing, no prayers, no food, nothing.”
The narrative is structured around the opposing characters of Praneshacharya and Naranappa, the devotee and the hedonist. Their battle of wills continues even in death, with Naranappa proving a potent transformative force even from beyond the pale. Yet they have more in common than they would care to admit, and are bound together by a mutual need to justify their own existence and ideology. Indeed, it is Praneshacharya’s constant internal conversation with Naranappa’s memory that Ananthamurthy gives shape to his sharp-tongued, heterodox antihero:
“Quite a lusty lot, those sages. What was the name of the fellow who ravished the fisherwoman smelling of fish, right in the boat and gave her body a permanent perfume? And now, look at these poor brahmins, descended from such sages! . . . Let’s see who wins in the end—you or me. I’ll destroy brahminism, I certainly will. My only sorrow is that there’s no brahminism really left to destroy in this place—except you.”
But even Praneshacharya’s Brahminism is not without its flaws. His eyes firmly set on attaining release from earthly desires, Praneshacharya has taken an invalid for a wife to advance his self-imposed asceticism. From this he derives rather too much pleasure: “He proudly swells a little at his lot, thinking ‘By marrying an invalid, I get ripe and ready.’”
The novella’s title, the Sanskrit word samskara, can signify a rite of passage, initiation, ritual, preparation, acculturation, or transformation, and its implications for the work are manifold. An exchange of cultural codes between hero and antihero brings out the beautiful ambiguity of the word, as they are mutually initiated into each other’s worlds.The samskara of Naranappa—his death rite—causes, even necessitates, that his nemesis undergo his own rite of passage, though not the one he has readied himself for. As Praneshacharya’s prayers and preparations come to naught, transformative grace appears in an unexpected guise—that of Chandri, Naranappa’s low-caste mistress:
Praneshacharya waited desperately for the god’s favour, His solution. . . . “How can I face the people who have put their trust in me?”—he said, mortified. . . . He tried to persuade [the god] Maruti: “Don’t you think that it’s my test. Keep in mind the rotting corpse.” Maruti, unhearing, unyielding, stood there, His profile turned forever towards the mountain on His palm. . . . Listening to his gentle grief-stricken voice, Chandri suddenly overflowed with compassion. . . . As she bent as if overcome with grief, she didn’t quite fall at his feet. Her breast touched his knee. . . . The Sanskrit formula of blessing got stuck in his throat. As his hand played on her hair, Chandri’s intensity doubled. She held his hands tightly and stood up and she pressed them to her breasts now beating away like a pair of doves.
This unexpected touch becomes Praneshacharya’s own samskara, his own moment of transformation. In order to solve the conundrum and eradicate his nemesis from the world, Praneshacharya must symbolically become him—not only replicating his sin, but lying with the same woman.
This may be Naranappa’s final triumph over Brahminism, but to call Ananthamurthy’s work anti-Brahminical on this basis is to ignore that this moment is encoded through language and structure as a transcendent rebirth. A Sanskrit blessing on his lips, Praneshacharya confronts his sinful arrogance, destroys it, and is reborn.
As if he had become a stranger to himself, the Acharya opened his eyes and asked himself: Where am I? How did I get here? What’s this dark? What forest is this? Who is this woman?
His sense of superiority dismantled, Praneshacharya embarks on a pilgrimage in Naranappa’s footsteps into to the cacophonous, modernized outside world. There he drinks coffee with a low-caste acquaintance, attempts to bring him into a temple, lusts, lies, and listens, before returning to his village at story’s end, future uncertain.
The sky was full of stars. The moon, a sliver. A perfectly clear constellation of the Seven Sages. A sudden noise of drum beats. Here and there, the flames of a torch. The hard breathing of the bullocks climbing the hillock. The sound of the cow-bells round their necks. He will travel, for another four or five hours. Then, after that, what?
Praneshacharya waited, anxious, expectant.
Praneshacharya might have been waiting for the events of Bharathipura, the novel in which Ananthamurthy tackles India’s most enduring demon, untouchability. English-educated Brahmin landowner Jagannatha returns to his small town with a plan. Hardened by pub talk of socialist reform with London friends, he is determined—or would like to become determined—to lead several Holeyaru, members of the Dalit community of toilet-cleaners, into the hallowed temple of Lord Manjunatha.
His repeated, clumsy efforts to befriend the Holeyaru and draw them out of their shells reveal more of his own prejudices than their concerns. Having barely taught them a few letters, he is preparing simplified readings on the French and Russian revolutions for them, and his effort to dress them in a higher-caste style fall flat in poignant comedy:
Only when the Holeyaru came closer did Jagannatha realize that they had not lifted up the lower edge of the dhothi and tied it round the waist to leave their legs free; they had torn them lengthwise and worn half a strip each. . . . Jagannatha swallowed his anger. They looked ridiculous; feeling awkward about wearing something they were not used to, they had folded back the collars and mismatched buttons with the button-holes.
Jagannatha is just self-aware enough to recognize that he is failing, time and time again, to connect to the Holeyaru. He is as bound to the hierarchies of the community as they are when they call him ‘Odeya’ (Master) and obey his every order because, as a friend tells him, “they happen to be [his] slaves.” But how can he transcend his social position to effect change? Is the only resolution, as his childhood mentor Adiga would have it, to leave the social order entirely behind and become an ascetic? This conclusion would seem unacceptable to Ananthamurthy, running contrary to the very idea of quarreling with your community as if with your self. Yet the social order cannot be left undisturbed.
If the question of social hierarchy is fundamental to Ananthamurthy’s works, then paternity and masculinity play a crucial role in giving it shape. Common to his Brahmin characters is a strain of anxiety over their masculinity and virility, present in Naranappa’s barbs about the pitiable descendants of the “lusty sages” and given anxious significance in Jagannatha’s attempted letters to his former lover, Margaret:
If he wanted to be honest with her, he should be able to write, Dear Margaret, I’ve failed you because I’m not yet a man. Through the Holeyaru, in this act of getting them into the temple, I’ll be a man again.. . .No, even that was not the truth.
As communal anxieties over Jagannatha’s impending desecration of the temple build to a boiling point, an anonymous letter arrives alleging he is illegitimate, the natural son of a clerk in his father’s household.
His struggle to “overcome the anguish of who might have fathered me through Amma’s [mother’s] vagina” becomes the subject of meditation in Bhava twenty years later. Perhaps the most lyrical of Ananthamurthy’s novels (and also the only one co-translated by the author), Bhava eschews politics and poses the question of paternity and identity in humbly intimate terms, as potential father and possible son share sweets on board a train:
From the questioning way that the man looked at Shastri, it was clear that he did not know Kannada. Shastri felt relieved: the man must be someone other than whom he imagined. . . . the young man said ‘Achcha’ and held out his hand for the kuttavalakki. Shastri poured it affectionately into the palm of his hand, and the young man put it in his mouth. As he chewed the kuttavalakki with closed eyes, he seemed to be trying to recover some distant memory . . . and this created in Shastri both hope and fear.
Am I a man? Am I a father? Where do I come from? To whom do I belong? Being who I am, what must I do? From the theological to the familial, the sexual to the political, Ananthamurthy’s writings reveal how these questions structure the intricate hierarchies of kinship and community. And though Samskara’s preoccupation with the niceties of ritual can verge on the pedantic at times, and every second character in Bharathipura seems to be the enthusiastic advocate of one ideology or another, Ananthamurthy’s ability to turn the world on the most unexpected pivot gives these works an enduring human dimension.
Jagannatha’s most poignant failure to connect with a fellow human being in Bharathipura is not his clumsy relationship with the Holeyaru, but his self-centered dismissal of a neighbor’s daughter-in-law whom he initially finds attractive:
Nagamani cannot bloom. Probably no one can bloom. . . . How is it that Nagamani doesn’t have secret ways of fulfilling herself . . . ? She stared at me with no feelings whatsoever. Wasn’t she even aware that she was a woman?
Nagmani leaves the room and, moments later, hangs herself. Ananthamurthy offers no explanation to console his shell-shocked protagonist, who is haunted by this moment for the rest of the novel. Defying the determinism of the society that would eulogize her only for doing “all the work in the household without complaining,” Nagamani’s action simply exists, beyond anticipation or explanation.
In a letter to The Telegraph on the occasion of Ananthamurthy’s eightieth birthday in 2012, esteemed historian Ramachandra Guha asserts that “no man now alive in India better deserves the term ‘public intellectual’ than Ananthamurthy.” His contributions to Indian literature have been recognized by the establishment with awards ranging from the Jnanpith (India’s highest literary honours), the Padma Bhushan (the country’s third-highest civilian award), and the presidency of the Sahitya Akademi, the national literary academy. But most importantly, his work holds enduring importance to the community whose ideas he has tested time and again. As Guha writes, “Certainly no English writer in India has anywhere like the social standing of Ananthamurthy, the deep, lifelong, connection with his readers and his public. . . . When Ananthamurthy meets his Maker, his writings and his legacy will be discussed and debated in every district of Karnataka.”
“A European,” Ananthamurthy has observed, “had to create the medieval times from his reading and scholarship, but for an Indian writer it was an immediate experience—an aspect of living memory.” While this very statement reveals him as modern in his sensibility and intellectual underpinnings, he nevertheless succeeds in rooting his literature firmly in his cultural context. Spinning ideas and critiques of Marx and the Mahabharata unassumingly into a single thread, his novels seamlessly articulate the unity and discord of the medieval and the modern.
María Helga Guðmundsdóttir translates into English and Icelandic and divides her time between Reykjavík and New Delhi.
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