May 23, 2011

Book Review: Samskara

Written in the sixties, this provocative, ahead of its time Kannada book helped bring attention to eventual Jnanpith award winning author, U.R. Ananthamurthy's work. Unfortunately, I didn't even attempt to read the original, and opted instead, to read the translation into English by A.K. Ramanujam. The latter has done a fantastic job of keeping true to the original, I can almost imagine what the Kannada lines might have been. This writing style might however, make it a bit more complicated for non-Kannadigas to follow.

Set in a fictional agrahara (brahmin community dwelling), but near actual places: Shivamogge, Thirthalli, Agumbe et al, it provides a location for your imagination, but as the translator says, its in Indian Village Time. It could have been set anywhere around the time of independence back into the medieval times.

Naranappa, a brahmin who shed his brahminism and lived in the agrahara laughing in the faces of the orthodox brahmins, has just died after a visit to Shivamogge. What the village doesn't know is that Shivamogge has a plague epidemic. While they try to answer the perplexing question of who should do the last rites (samskara) for the unbrahminical-brahmin, his low-caste mistress complicates the question by removing all her gold jewellery to pay for the last rites. Praneshacharya, renowned by brahmins everywhere having received a 'crown jewel of learning' title in Benares, tries to find the answer in his books, while aghast at the greed and gold-lust his fellow brahmins show.

Meanwhile, rats are dropping dead everywhere, and vultures-a very bad omen, swoop down from the sky to eat them. The writer conveniently ignores a few truths here: a village will know that a vulture would not eat a plague-ridden rat, and there are books and rituals that can be modified for such a death, Praneshacharya wouldn't have to search in his books for the answer quite so much. But these make the story possible, and we are so invested in Praneshacharya's tale that we can ignore the small details.

Praneshacharya married an invalid in a supreme gesture of self-sacrifice, but sleeps with Chandri, Naranappa's mistress in a forest, when Lord Maruthi fails to answer his question. His deep-rooted brahminism then suffers existentialist pangs, and a few hours later, he buries his now-dead wife and sets off where his feet might take him. He finds that however much he tries to leave his questions, faith and community behind, he cannot really be isolated by mankind, as Putta, a fellow traveler sticks to him like a leech, even though he doesn't know who he is.

The book draws a picture of brahmin wives as sexless, the low caste women as desirable, like Menaka and Shakuntala that seduced renowned sages of the ancient world, in the books that Praneshacharya taught to his rapt pupils. Praneshacharya and Putta go to a temple festival in a village, and as he watches a cock-fight egged on by a drunk,crazed-eyed crowd, he feels fear, that lust is demon-like, and in his desire to leave everything behind and make a life with Chandri, he might have to experience such base feelings as that of this cruel crowd, watching a cock-fight.

What most of the characters in the book do not know is that Chandri had taken the help of a muslim man and cremated Naranappa, they are still trying to answer the question of who should cremate him, and decide to wait for Praneshacharya to return and give them the answer. While Putta suggests Praneshacharya spend the night with a prostitute, and he considers it, tempted, someone at the temple festival recognizes him, and he runs away, frightened at having to answer questions. Frightened that someone will realize he partook of food with other brahmins in spite of him being in the 'pollution' phase, having just buried his wife. Frightened of hurting his reputation. He decides to return to his agrahara, if only to cremate Naranappa, and confess his truth to the rest of his community.

The book ends, without us knowing what path Praneshacharya will take, what his Samskara will be. Samskara, being a word of many connotations, without having been used explicitly in the book, remains as the perfect name for this marvelous book.

1 comment:

shweta said...

thank you! its a nice summary!!