By Nawaid Anjum
One of the defining elements of iconic Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy’s fiction is his ability to step into the soul of his characters in order to shine light on their self-conflict, their moral dilemmas, quandaries and confusions. His fictional universe is a landscape of dichotomies: the personal meets the political, the sacred the profane, the pure the impure, the ascetic the erotic, and the abstemious the intemperate.
His debut novel Samskara (1965), a tale of existential suspense (his best-known work), is an exploration into the various denotations of the word samskara (rite of passage). Avasthe, first published in Kannada in 1978, which has recently been translated into English by Narayan Hegde, is an allegorical inquiry into the various meanings of the word avastha (state of being). Broadly based on the life of Kannada socialist leader Shantaveri Gopala Gowda, who led the Kagodu Satyagraha and was instrumental in a key legislative change beneficial to farmers, Avasthe revolves around the perplexities and inner conflicts of its protagonist, Krishnappa Gowda. A revolutionary peasant leader in his late 40s, we meet Krishnappa as he is lying in bed, paralysed, looking back on his life through bursts of memory, which come to him in fragments, and which he dictates to his acolyte, Nagesh, as “a means of making sense of his present state” and also as a means to mine the meaning of his life. His memories, as Prayaag Akbar writes in “The Afterword”, collide and nest into each other.
The incidents from Krishnappa’s life that span the three sections of the novel illustrate the struggles that unfold “when there is a gap between what we are and what we aspire to be, before our mask can become our face.” We get a glimpse into the state of mind of the shudra leader as he reminisces about his days as a cowherd, the life in his village, his mad phase, his relationship with singer and dancer Gowri Deshpande and his caste humiliation at college, his adoration of his mentor Annaji, his observation of the ways of a hermit, his torture in Warangal jail, his short fling with Lucina, “who shed him of inhibitions and showed him that every bend and nook of the body could come alive”, and his loveless marriage with Sita, whom he beats, and his equation with their daughter.
Though the novel flits between the past and the present, village and cities (Bangalore, Delhi, Warangal), its terrain remains Krishnappa’s mind. As he embarks on the remembrance of things past, Krishnappa lets us in on the social and political developments of the state that are inevitably wound up with the country’s — the Prime Minister is trying to be a dictator and Krishnappa’s followers see him as someone with the moral and political capital to stop the national party from going down that path.
A novel of ideas, Avasthe’s central preoccupation is whether Krishnappa, an idealist, can continue to cling to his ideals in the dirt and grind of politics marked by rampant corruption and erosion of moral values? At several points in the novel, as he grapples with his conscience, Krishnappa is assailed by philosophical questions: Did something mystical enter his life? Is such a belief necessary in order to transcend the banality of the present? One of the things his mentor, Maheshwarayya, who appears in his life whenever Krishnappa is in difficulty, teaches him is this: “Be in the world, not of the world.” We get to know that while Krishnappa is in the world, he is also of the world. “When corruption is so ingrained in human nature, isn’t it absurd to look for absolute purity in daily life?” he ruminates as he stares at the several “dichotomies” in him and how they came to be.
That the novel has uncanny parallels with the present will be stating the obvious. Ananthamurthy’s characters, even those on the fringes of the narrative, are well-rounded, endowed with flesh and blood, and memorable. He is a stylist and his prose sparkles with originality, a deep understanding of the subtleties of human emotions, and the ambiguities of power and powerlessness. Although at several places, the translation seems a bit underwhelming, incongruous and flat, it does little to take away the joy of reading a novel that has the power to speak to several generations.
Nawaid Anjum is an independent culture writer-editor based in Delhi
Avasthe: A Novel
UR Ananthamurthy; translated from the Kannada by
Pp 211, Rs 499