Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Review #6 - Samskara By UR Ananthamurthy

This is one of those novels where writing review is a difficult task. Moreover, it is not a book which had covered around thousand pages like the novel "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth.
This novel is just about 100 odd pages in Kannada (Which was originally written in) and about 140 pages in English (Translated by AK Ramanujan).

The author UR Ananthmurthy is a renowned kannada novelist, a controversial debater and self proclaimed secular who has also written several english literary works. And, he was awarded the prestigious Jnanpith award in 1995. About this novel Samskara, that revolts around the Caste dominnant culture of 1930's and 40's. This novel was published in 1965 originally in Kannada, later it was translated to English by AK Ramanujan in 1976. This novel was also made into a feature film by another renowned Kannada novelist, play-writer, actor, director Girish Karnad in 1971. This movie has received equal number of accolades as well as criticisms in those days. It has also won the prestigious President's Gold Medal award for the best feature film in those days.

If the review or the intention of the novel can be put in few lines, this is a mere experimental writing with the new facets of language and reality and thereby ushered into modernism into Indian Literature.

Ever since its publication, Samskara has been highly controversial as it has been highly popular. It has been widely praised by critics, as well as been harshly attacked by some people. The arguement was, this novel is interpreted as a forceful portrayal of the decaying Brahminical practices and people are open to modernism. I would like to emphasize that, there is also another dimension to this novel. The focal point in the novel is not about the practices followed by the Orthodox Brahmins, their struggle to keep their practices untouched and always kept in high regards. It is rather a moral and spiritual journey of one through what might be called as a "Fortune Fall" defines the theme of this novel.

The epicenter of the novel is the character Naranappa, who was a Brahman by birth, but, never lived like one. He can be best described as a Non-Brahminical Brahmin, who indulges in various Non-Brahminic acts like consuming meat, consuming alcohol, indulging in prostitution and befreinding the low-caste people.

Now readers should not get an impression that, Brahmins are fanatics, fundamentalists or radicals. This is the actual picture in the earlier days of Pre-Independence era of India. However, I fail to understand, why the author has not made any significant effort to convey his readers that, not all the Brahmins were practicing this kind of life, rather a one or two which can be hardly found. Anyways..

The novel opens with the death of Naranappa, a Non-Brahminical Brahman, who involved in practicing a modern way of life, denouncing his Brahminical rituals by consuming alcohol, consuming meat, he also left his wife and was living with a prostitue Chandri as a man and wife. When this was challenged by some of the fellow Brahmans in his village "Durvasapura" (An Agrahara, where the population of the Brahmins is considerably more)., he often criticized them and responded them with his own justifications, saying

"To bell hell with your Brahminism, Congress Government is coming to power and all the people will be equal from then onwards. You have to open up the temples for all the low caste people as well"

This is a point worth to be noted, since, the story happened somewhere around 1940's and it was the time when India was on the verge of getting her Independence from the clutches of British. And, Congress is going to form their first ever democratic government.

Back to Novel...

When the news of Naranappa's death has been brought before Pranesacharya (another Protagonist in this novel, whose story is revealed in the later part), by his acting wife Chandri a prostitute. Praneshacharya who was known as a leader among the MADHWA BRAHMINS in Durvasapura, and he has gained profound knowledge of Vedanta and has studied vedic subjects in Kashi. He was kept in high regard or rather in a cheif guru positions by the fellow Brahmins of that village. Praneshacharya was popularly known as "Crest Jewel of Vedanta". By sticking to his renounced way of life to attain Moksha, Praneshacharya married a woman who is bed ridden. By serving her through his entire life, Praneshacharya maintained the chastity to attain the Moksha, thereby setting an example for the other's in the village. But, what follows later in the novel, is a pure realisation.

Now Paneshacharya was in a dilemma about who will conduct the "last rites" or "Samskara" for Naranappa's dead body. This is because, Naranappa has followed a Non-Brahminical practice throughout his whole life in that village and almost everyone in that village has hated him. And, no one dared to conduct his last rites/Samskara for his body.

Looking into the confusions among the Ace Brahmins, Chandri took all her jewellaries out and announced that whoever conducts the last rites for Naranappa, these jewels will go to them.  Due to this bribery of Gold, one of the other Brahman Garudacharya says that, he is ready to conduct the last rites, provided Praneshacharya's consent/approval. As the story further goes, several other Brahmins would come forward to conduct Naranappa's last rites for the love of Gold that Chandri has offered.

Now, everyone in the village has agreed on a common point that, Praneshacharya would study all the vedic scriptures about how to conduct the last rites for an outcast person.

In this time, Praneshacharya failed to come to a conclusion on how to solve this problem. He studied throughout the night and couldn't able to find any clue. He then realises that, he would seek the devine permisson and he went to a Maruti temple inside the forest. He sat there in a praying position and was seeking any revalation from god about his problem. The reader must understand that, Praneshacharya was thinking about his reputation as a cheiftan among the Brahmins, and he also thinks that, what would other Brahmins would think of him. A profound Pundit of Vedanta, who failed to find a solution to this problem. His reputation was at stake at this time, and Praneshacharya wouldn't wish to damage his reputation.
Meanwhile Chandri has followed Praneshacharya into the woods and observes what he does.

Even after praying for the whole day, Praneshacharya failed to get any divine revalation and disappointed he comes to a conclusion that. Any person from the adjacent village (that was SMARTHA BRAHMINS village in majority) should be called and Naranappa's last rites should be made accordingly. He tries to move out his place and walk towards his village. Due to darkness he accidently falls on Chandri who was sitting next to him, and his hands fell straight on the bossoms of Chandri. In that moment, Praneshacharya's mind blocks and all his chastity in his entire life was crumbled within seconds. Within no time, he had sexual intercourse with Chandri..!!

The 2nd part of the novel starts from here..

When Praneshacharya woke up in the morning. He was still sleeping in the laps of Chandri who satiated Praneshacharya's sexual desires. He felt like a child sleeping in his mother's lap. Later, Praneshacharya asks Chandri to get back to village and explain the villager's what had happened and his decisions of not returning to village. There are 2 aspects of this decisions:

1. Being ashamed of himself, and to avoid the wrath of his fellow villagers. He decides to stay in woods like a fugitive.
2. The other angle is, having committed such a crime, and spoiled his chastity. He denounces his GRIHASTASHRAMA (one of the 4 cycles of BRAHMAN). He decides to step into VANAPRASTHASHRAM.

The readers are left with their own imagination about why Praneshacharya deicdes to stay in the woods.

As the story further reveals, Villagers were waiting for the return of Praneshacharya their guru. Hoping to find a solution to the last rites/Samskara for Naranappa's dead body. Here, Chandri returned from forest and secretly meets a Muslim man from another village and pays him money to perform the Samskara for Naranappa's body and conducts the last rites without informing aybody. After the last rites she leaves that village for permanent and travels to another town.

Wandering aimlessly in the forest Praneshacharya remembers his bed ridden wife and he suddenly feels guilty of himself for not taking care of his wife. He rushes to village secretly and by the time he comes to his village, the entire village was being evacuated because there was an epidemic. When he enters his house, he finds out that, his wife is dead already. Cursing himself for not being to able to take care of his wife, he performs the last rites of his wife and then decides to go deep into the forests with the intention of not to return.

From here, the third and the final part of the novel starts..

This part mainly emphasizes Praneshacharya realization about the life and the way he is looking at this all his life. In forests he meets another wanderer who goes with the name PUTTA, who was a low caste Malher by birth, and a pimp by profession. Putta was not so deep into the life and the way of living at it. He has lived in that moment, caring less about the repurcussions later. He befriends Praneshacharya and he takes him to the fair that was happening in the nearby town. Even here Praneshacharya tries to maintain his dignity. Whereas, Putta, involves in all the amusements that was happening at the fair, he gambles in cock fight winning some bets, he eats at a hotel, he donates money to beggars and he purchases articles and ribbons for his wife. He was content and happy at that time. By seeing this, Praneshacharya realises that he has indeed stuck to an old form of life, and whatever he has practiced for his whole life was not accepted by the new modern city. At some point of time he realises that, he must go and meet Chandri (the prostitute with whom he had sexual contact) and decides to live his rest of the life with Chandri. But, soon backed off by his decision, he tries to reveal everything infront of Putta, even here he couldn't manage to do that. Fighting within his own daemons, Praneshacharya finally decides to head back to his village Durvasapura and accept his guilt infront of the villagers and accept whatever fate that was coming before him.

Praneshacharya realises that his knowledge has no application in practical life. He proves to be weak in whatever resolution that he has taken. He runs away to forests right after cremating his wife like a coward. Though there was an epidemic in the village, he was constantly reminded about his guilt sexual act with Chandri, this leads him to not to care about the people of his village, and runs into woods. Thinking all this in his mind, Praneshacharya realises that, Our Shastra's and Veda's are not the ultimate thinking ?, There is life beyond to this. This is dogmatic and superstitious and it has got no relevance in modern society.

Praneshacharya informs Putta about his decision to go back to his village and boards a bullock cart that was heading to his village "Anxious and Expectant".

The entire novel abruptly ends here, leaving the readers to imagine the rest of the story themselves.

It is I think, overall, a mistake to interpret Samskara, primarily as a assault on Brahminhood. At the same time, it is equally mistake to look this novel as a complex apparatus of rules, rituals and taboos, which is responsible for the decay of Indian civilization. The novel merely interprets the orthodox theological doctrine of falling from a forture on a human and universal plane and dramatizes effectively through a delicate interplay of character and situation.

My Rating: 3.5/5

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