Rebellion in a Temple Town

U.R. Ananthamurthy is known in non-Kannada circles for Samskara and for being himself. How many know that he has four other novels, six collections of short stories, five collections of poems and even a play? He is one of those writers who have become larger than their works.

However, I am always surprised by the time lag between productions of significant works in Indian languages and their translation into English, the language in which I can access them with the most ease. A.K. Ramanujan's translation of Samskara (1965) came a decade after the publication of the original Kannada novel and perhaps introduced Ananthamurthy to the wide world and also cemented his place in Kannada. Susheela Punitha's English translation of his second novel Bharathipura (1973) comes after 37 years. (Another translation by P. Srinivasa Rao was published by Macmillan in 1997.) Since I don't have access to Rao's translation, I cannot comment on the Series Editor's dissatisfaction with it. However, I have another complaint. It is a great loss that all the works of a writer of the calibre of Ananthamurthy haven't been translated into English so far.

But what we have is very good indeed. If Ramanujan set the benchmark for translators of Indian fiction, Punitha has done an equally commendable job. The book ought to be read because it is a leading writer's creative mediation on questions of caste, untouchability, traditions, beliefs, relationships and modernity. This is almost a continuation of Samskara; indeed, it would be difficult to talk of one without talking of the other. This is emphasised in both the introduction written by N. Manu Chakravarthy and in the interview that he conducts with Ananthamurthy that is included in the publication.

One of Ananthamurthy's abiding concerns has been caste and untouchability, as he says in his Author's Note. He is acutely conscious of being born a Brahmin and what it means in the caste-ridden society that is ours. Influenced by both Marxism and Existentialism, the young Ananthamurthy set out to explore the world of belief in his early novels, particularly Bharathipura. This is a novel about the paradoxes of Nehruvian India one where freedom fighters became either successful or failed politicians, where idealism gave way to cynical pragmatism, where social and political change brought about greater social stratification (a precursor to the identity politics rampant now). An India where the changing economy was seen as a chance to serve vested interests, a socialist society where religion played an even greater role than before.

Set in the temple town of Bharathipura, the novel is about a young idealist landlord Jagannatha, who has returned to India after studying in England, leaving behind a girlfriend with whom he cannot see a future and yet is still attached. The ferment of ideas is from this sojourn in which he had debated issues, discovered his sexuality and also felt an emptiness, especially after the rejection by Margaret. The novel is about his inner life, his intense desire to bring about a social revolution, to shake the social and economic structure of his temple town, to shatter its prevalent belief system. It is about his plan to accomplish all this by persuading the Holeyaru, the community that cleaned toilets, to enter the Manjunatha temple. Once his plan is set in motion, other people's lives are intertwined with this. In any case, the fine writer that Ananthamurthy is, the novel is thick with other characters who are etched brilliantly. You cannot forget Nagamani or Pilla, or Prabhu, or Chikki, or even Chander who enters the narrative tangentially. There is the delicious Raghava Puranik, who speaks only in English, living in the mini England he has created for himself after his daring radical act of marrying a widow.

Jagannatha, an interesting choice of name, is not a believer, and yet has to achieve his revolution by consciously "desecrating" images of belief. He is not asking the Holeyaru to touch the shaligrama worshipped in his house or enter a temple that he worships in. He is not ensuring that the Holeyaru have an equally touchable place in worship as others but is interested in showing up religion to be a sham and a scam. His attempt is to destroy the feudal order by attacking its centre. Does he, can he, succeed? How pure are his intentions? How clear? Is he exploiting the Holeyaru as much as others?

The book is also intensely about personal relationships familial, social, personal and sexual. Letters express minds as well as destroy mental peace. Ananthamurthy bravely explores what constructs the feudal world of Bharathipura and the ambiguities and ambivalences that revolutionary zeal carries for the sensitive individual. The book raises serious issues and confronts them head on. It is a relevant piece of work even for our times. Get to the nearest bookshop.

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