Saturday, January 17, 2009

Kanthapura - Raja Rao

This is one of those books students of English literature study as a part of their curriculum in the universities. I got to hear about this book from a friend Priya who is a gold medalist from Mysore University.

The author, Raja Rao, is a critically acclaimed writer from the same district in Karnataka where I belong, namely Hassan. :-) He lived in France and the United States in his later years.
He participated in the Quit India Movement of 1942.
A winner of Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and International Neustadt Prize for Literature, Rao died on July 8, 2006 at Austin, Texas, at the age of 97.

The story, as suggested by the title is about Kanthapura, a fictitious village in North Karnataka near Mangalore and its people. The time of the story, of course is the historic time of freedom struggle led by the towering figure of Mahatma Gandhi.

In a quiet village that moved in its own slow pace, where people live in the midst of their customs, traditions, superstitions and skirmishes, a disturbance is caused when sparks of awareness cause certain young boys and girls to act differently from the rest – when some of them enter the pariah quarters, when a 12 year old widow walks about without shaving her head, when young people hold secret meetings to cause revolt against the British, etc.

One of the important characters is Moorthy who not only becomes a devotee of Gandhi but inspires other young fellows as well to follow him. Eventually, the entire village, including the women folk, children, Brahmins and untouchables become involved in the freedom movement and in their own small way, contribute to the movement.

The story is very dry.
It’s somehow difficult for me to believe that the picture he is trying to paint itself is dull and dry.
This is because RK Narayan, Khushwant Singh, Ruskin Bond and others have painted the same rural India and their writing is so charming, interesting, engaging and amusing while providing insights into the social life in rural areas.

The specialty of this book I believe, is owing to the fact that although it is an English book, it is as good as a Kannada book translated into English WORD BY WORD.

Is he my uncle’s son that he should favour me?
That son of concubine!
Corner house Moorthy
He wants me to be his dog’s tail... I refused…
If we do not stop this...We all shall eat mud...
If you are the sons of your fathers....then fight that rascal…
Broad filigree Benares saree…
Lantana lane…
Paraiah Rachanna, Beadle Timmayya…

Even as I read these sentences, I know which particular sentence in Kannada the author conceived in mind which he then translated into English.

He has painted the most accurate picture of rural life of India during pre Independence era.
It is accurate but certainly not beautiful.

Another thing : I am not sure if the nuances are all captured although the narration is accurate.

The nuances contained can be read but not felt or understood.

If you read the book for nuances, then you are reading the lyrics of a song but not listening to the are reading descriptions of a painting without actually seeing the painting.

He spat thrice to the east and thrice to the west as he stood at the village gate...
They beat their cheeks before the Kenchamma goddess and said “ We will never let these thoughts enter our minds”...
Women with shaven heads will welcome the bridegroom during the marriage...Wait and watch!

Would a non-Indian know what these mean? A non Indian or even a non Kannadiga will not be able to make any sense of the book.
This is one of those books authors write for themselves but not for readers.

While all the above observations summarize my experience of reading the book, I must mention that the book is what it is because the author meant it to be that way.
The story is narrated as seen by a grandmother in the village who is one among the characters, part of the story and part of the scene she is portraying.
It is therefore so matter-of-factly. If the narration had been as seen by someone outside the scene, an observer who had understood what was happening, then he would do justice to the nuances of Indian village life as he would have paused to observe and explain the purport of gestures and the meaning of words uttered by people.

The same rural stories told by RK Narayan, Khushwant Singh and Ruskin Bond are so different because they were bystanders and onlookers who observed village life (although they may have been villagers themselves sometime).

I did not find any literary splendour on the language front. The language is simple and that’s the only thing about the language.
It’s neither lyrical, nor beautiful nor rich nor juicy, nor crisp, nor brisk.
Imagery and portrait are also painful to follow.
On those fronts such as character sketching, beauty of language, plot, imagery and portrait, the book offers what can be expected from a grandmother’s narration; not fine, not subtle, not polished, but matter-of-factly, exaggerated and somewhat crude.

There are way too many characters. Ramaiyya, Thimmayya, Rachanna, Rangamma, Lakshamma, Seethamma, Venkamma, …and a hundred more… making the reading extremely painful.
The book could have done with half of the characters; for it is not as if each is a distinct character but one among the herd. Instead of giving a name to everyone in the herd, the author could have picked just one in each herd or category. Characters seem redundant because they are all the same and all doing the same thing.
Once again, if a grandmother would be narrating, she would simply say all that she could remember and exaggerate some. She would not care to summarize or organize or structure her story.

The book at best, it gives me glimpses of things such as the way people in rural India conversed among themselves, their demeanour, disposition, mindset, social system, caste system, the state of widows in a society, the place of God in society, etc.
Such a book would of course deeply interest the westerners who cannot stop being fascinated by the rural life, buffaloes on roads, hungry children, customs and traditions of India.

And this was the only one-liner I noted down.

Less strange are the ways of Gods than are the ways of men.
If you have patience, you may read this book.


Pramshanks said...

I remember reading Kanthapura as a student and being mesmerized. I would love to re-visit it, and discover new meanings. I feel whatever one describes, it does not need to be charming or witty... it just needs to be a reflection of the reality (or non-reality) he wants to describe. Each writer writes in a different metaphor, a different language... and the reader either connects or doesn't.
I don't remember much, but I recall that he had re-shaped the English language to fit into an Indian rural idiom. Believe me, it's different from making it seem like a translation from an Indian Language.

Sowmya said...

Yes Pramod. I do think it's a very different book. I should read another book by this author to know his true style of writing as it seems to me that the author might have adopted this style of Kanthapura only for this book.

I dont always expect 'a particular benefit' from reading a book like language or wit or thrill, but there must be 'some benefit' for all the trouble I take. I did not see any in this book. :-( except may be, the unique style of this book itself, which you may not find anywhere else.

Satish said...

Another popular agrarian translation is " Whose father what goes"......

Sowmya said...

what about "No asker, no teller..."

Pramshanks said...

In Malayalam we say "Without hand and mathematics". Sowmya, please read 'Serpent and the Rope' by Raja Rao. The benefit in reading comes from being able to vibe with the writer. If you don't vibe, the fault is not always with the writer.

Sowmya said...

I will pick a copy of 'Serpent and the Rope'.

BTW, what is "Without hand and mathematics"???

ambudu said...

Ofcourse Kanthapura is not a very different story. but it is treated in a different manner.......... Kanthapura is a microcosm of India during the freedom struggle.. i dnt want much to tell abt the story but it is interesting to read kannada in English.