Author: U. R. Ananthamurthy
Translated by: Susheela Punitha
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Place: New Delhi
Price: Rs. 375
I did once hear that "Moby Dick" was originally intended as a scientific study on whales which was later wrapped up in an adventurous story to make it more palatable. I went through a similar sensation while reading this particular novel which could rather be called a philosophy treatise. Arguments and debates abound throughout, with the story patching it together to form an interesting read.
'Oppressed class', 'untouchability', 'Dalit' -- all these words have become a part of common vocabulary nowadays, providing a platform for many a fancy seminar and conference. How many really empathise with them . . . is another matter to consider. Siding with the marginalised has become the new fashion lately just like the charities offered by the multi-millionaires to enhance their social profile.
The novel presents its protagonist Jagannatha in the same mould. Being a western educated young man, he comes back from England carrying a new version of "white man's burden". His efforts to educate the Holeyaru, or the untouchables in Bharathipura, appear ridiculous as many instances reveal that his actions revolve around impressing his white girlfriend. He plays the hero by assuming the position of the light bearer to the untouchables whose names he keeps forgetting. His intended actions were noble but the hollowness behind it makes him less likeable.
But that doesn't dim its charm as the story gives one of the beautiful and realistic portrayals of village life in Karnataka. It discusses the role of religion in the continuance of age-old and sometimes illegal customs and also mocks the lofty politicians who take advantage of this ignorance. All in all, it is slow but still, an enjoyable read penned by one of the popular Jnanpith awardees.
The story is set in the town of Bharathipura which is noted for its famous temple with its deity Manjunatha and his henchman Bhootharaya, the God of the untouchables. It is one of the major pilgrimage sites in the country. Yet even after independence, the place has retained its attitudes toward untouchability.
Jagannatha, the son of town's wealthy landowner comes back from England after six years, determined to alter these situations. He wants to transform the town by leading the Holeyaru (the untouchables in the place) to the temple. The people there believed that if Holeyaru dares to enter the temple, he will spit blood and die.
But these rebellious decisions of Jagannatha are not purely selfless. He also wants to impress his girlfriend Margaret that he can also be the tool of change. He writes long letters to her detailing his life in Bharathipura and the course of action he is planning to take. Margaret doesn't show the same enthusiasm as she later leaves him for his friend Chandrashekar towards the end of the story.
The upper caste people are not happy either. They isolate him when he starts training a group of Holeyaru youth for temple entry. Even his mentor and lifelong family friend Sripathi Rao thinks that this attempt won't make much difference in the general attitude of the society. Jagan is also shocked by the way the educated and employed Dalits behave toward their own caste people. They insert maximum effort to alienate themselves from their caste and to become a part of the upperclassmen.
As the day for the temple entry draws near, others too join the mission. Neelakantaswami and Ranga Rao, members of the Mysore Socialist Party organise it as a movement. Ananthakrishna, a former freedom fighter also joins hands with them. A few days before the planned entry the Holeyaru huts catch fire though the source of this arson is never found. One boy dies in the fire. But Jagannatha was determined to continue his mission. He was even accused in an anonymous letter that he is an illegitimate son to his mother. Jagan suspects that this could be true, but looks ahead with all the strength he can muster.
Meanwhile the chief priest's house witnesses another set of incidents. His son, Ganesha Bhatta supports Jagannatha inwardly as he is tired of the customs Manjunatha's presence impose. His father treats him as a mere boy and he craves for some freedom. The day before the temple entry he decides to put an end to all this. He goes to the inner sanctum and somehow dislodges the deity and throws it into the river. Then he attacks his father and shuts himself in the temple waiting for Jagannatha.
The next day the Holeyaru hesitate before the temple gate. Neelakantaswami pulled the first man, Pilla, inside while Jagan stood there motionless. Others followed Pilla inside the temple. But they found that the deity is removed by Ganesha who opens the door only when he hears Jagan's voice.
|U. R. Ananthamurthy|
Rumour soon spread through the town that the deity is not polluted since the priest's son removed it through some divine inspiration. They refuse to accept that Ganesha had a nervous breakdown. The glory of Manjunatha heightens as the preparations to reinstate the deity progress.