Translated by Susheela Punitha,
“I shall await the new man from within me – seeing with one eye the present reality with compassion and, with the other, cruelly lancing it in a bid to transform it, loving it passionately and yet being detached from it; understanding why there’s a caste system even within me, but trying to overcome it through action, I shall await the man who walks tall with his head held high. Letting go and at the same time embracing; gradually getting into shape; walking the wake of cruelty, abuse, greed…” p 234
This reverie of Jagannatha at the end of the novel Bharathipura provides an entry into it and the conflicts and yearnings of the man, who is caught between several contradictions: West and East, modernity and tradition, brahmin and dalit, secular and religious, skepticism and belief. Bharatipura is the name of Jagannathan’s native village and the novel begins with his return to it after discontinuing his studies in
He is the typical post-colonial middle class (brahmanical) intellectual who has to bear the weight (or burden) and the liability of tradition on the one, and has on the other, tasted the freedom of modernity, of being anonymous and free-floating in an exhilarating world of flux and fluidity, where you are not ‘fixed’ by your caste or social identity. It is the hardness of tradition and the enchanting lure of modernity that splits his world into two: there is a certain past that keeps on haunting him, one that is loving, tender, nostalgic and assuring. But he is also pulled by an imagined future – uncertain yet thrilling, potentially tumultuous yet exhilarating. Not at home in both the worlds, he flits between the two, rending his body and mind apart. While one yearns to fly high, the other weighs him down, while the one wants to destroy and demolish, the other wants to cherish and hold on. And the characters in the novel turn into embodiments of his existential angst and conflicts. Jagannathan’s childhood hero and mentor Sripathi Rao, is a Gandhian idealist, who finds himself left behind in the post-Independence scenario, and is skeptical of everything: ‘swallow your atheism and survive’ he advises Jagan. Raghava Puranik who too was once a revolutionary by daring to marry a child widow, totally cut off from his ‘medieval’ surroundings and has created a fort around him with everything British. According to him, ‘the only way is to Westernise ourselves’. There is Subbaraya Adiga, his childhood pal, who had godly visions earlier, and is now a drifter: ‘All of us are in Manjunatha’s womb – the good ones, the bad ones, the greedy ones like me, the brave ones like you..” Likewise the local believers, sycophants and politicians who swarm around Jagan are also post-colonial phantoms or unexorcised spirits of the past.
For Jagannatha, only by fulfilling his mission can he finally purge the seething duality within him; so his every brush with the outside world and the real becomes an encounter with himself. For instance, the sudden suicide of Nagamani, hurts him ‘personally’ and he seethes with self contempt: ‘Yesterday afternoon, I was rejected all over again. I guess I’ll continue to be a slimy, formless mass despite my anguish to firm up unless I take on Manjunatha’ (p75). In another instance, he rants: ‘I must split open in anguish. And I must strain to push forth a shoot from the darkness of the earth into the light’ (p83)
Bharathipura is one of the most wrenching portrayals of the ambivalent post-colonial brahmin subjectivity – one that is sensitive and also condescending to the pettiness and cruelty both within and without; sometimes it breaks out as hatred for blind beliefs and explodes as rage, like when Jagannathan takes out the saligramam from the prayer room in his house and forces the holeyaru to touch it, and desecrate it. In other situations, it also manifests as hatred towards those he wants to arouse, the holeyaru; he often frets and fumes over their sloth, blindness and fear. It is this constant shift and grappling with perspectives and positions that weaves the complex web of the novel’s narrative, with fragments of thought, letters to Margaret, diary notes to himself, storytelling, quotations, reminiscences, memories, and also actual dialogues and events...
Obviously, a novel like Bharathipura that abounds with allusions to local myths, usages, rituals and beliefs, does not easily lend itself to translation. But Susheela Punitha’s translation conveys the spirit of the original, with Kannada words and usages easily melding with the flow of English. The introduction and interview with the author by Manu Charkravarthy put the novel in its historical and cultural perspective, especially as the English avatar comes almost three decades after the novel was published.