U.R. Ananthamurthy’s nomination for this year’s Man Booker International prize may have delighted his admirers throughout India but it has stirred an old debate among a small but vocal section of Kannada readers: is Ananthamurthy really the best novelist in the language? For them, his fame is not the result of his great novels—Samskara, Bharatipura, Avasthe—but a left-wing conspiracy to elevate him over the novelist who is not only the best in Kannada, but perhaps in any Indian language: S.L. Bhyrappa.
And who is Santeshivara Lingannaiah Bhyrappa? Winner of the Sahitya Akademi award, he’s the author of 21 widely read and sometimes very controversial Kannada novels. These achievements are overshadowed, however, by a single fact: S.L. Bhyrappa is pro-Hindutva. His unvarnished political opinions—he opposes religious conversion and cow slaughter, and thinks that Tipu Sultan is a religious fanatic rather than a national hero—embarrass even his own admirers. It would be convenient to celebrate only Ananthamurthy, who is staunchly secular, and forget that the odious Mr Bhyrappa exists at all. The problem is that his writing can be so infuriatingly good.
The 81-year old Bhyrappa, a resident of Mysore, came to prominence with his 1965 novel Vamsha Vruksha (The Dynastic Tree), the tale of the intertwined lives of two families in pre-independence Mysore. One of the central characters, Katyayini, a young student at Mysore university, falls in love with her charistmatic teacher. The attraction is natural enough, yet marriage is forbidden to Katyayini: she is a widow. It is a recurring Bhyrappa theme. Instinctual drives collide against dharma, and the results are often tragic. Though the prose rarely approaches the verbal artistry of a work like Samskara, Bhyrappa’s skill in exploring the inner lives of his characters (especially the women), his minute attentiveness to detail, and sensitive use of landscape and setting (Mysore’s hills and lakes play a central role in the story), make Vamsha Vruksha a deeply moving novel.
From the publication of Vamsha Vruksha, which came out just before Samskara, Bhyrappa has been accused of being the anti-Ananthamurthy: a conservative whose goal is the defence of upper-caste Hindu society. This is a crude charge. Widely read in English, Kannada and Sanskrit, and educated in Indian and western philosophy, Bhyrappa can quote authors ranging from William James to V.S. Naipaul. The sight of Hindus converting to other religions, or of cows being slaughtered, seems to freeze all his erudition, and in his essays he can sound like the reactionary that his critics say he is. His novels are much more ambiguous. In Jalapaata (The Waterfall, 1967), a painter moves from Mysore to Bombay to find that the city is dehumanising—its antipathy to Hindu values is summed up in a vast abattoir, filled with cows, in the suburb of Bandra. Deciding that he cannot paint in such a soulless place, he moves with his family to a village in Karnataka—only to find that the villagers are far more rapacious than anyone he has met in the city. Chastened, he returns to Bombay. The novel ends with the hero revisiting the abattoir in Bandra: he understands that only by bearing witness to modernity’s horror, and not by fleeing from it, can he become an artist.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, while he lived in Gujarat, New Delhi and Mysore, Bhyrappa wrote prolifically, shifting at will from the contemporary to the historical, and urban to rural settings. Foul-mouthed, stupid, money-minded, yet overflowing with vitality, Bhyrappa’s villagers are among his finest creations. Griha-Bhanga (House Destroyed, 1970), a snapshot of village life that is in equal parts intimate and satirical, ends when the hero, his mouth full of paan, watches his son leaving the village, probably for all time. Does he say something, does he try to call his son back? But he knows he has no more paan left; so, rather than spit, he simply watches his son go past with a full mouth. The boy can’t believe his father isn’t saying a word of goodbye, and keeps turning around. Bleak and comic, the image sums up an entire way of life.
By the mid-1970s, the novelist’s genius for detail—the smell of sandalwood soap on a lover’s body, the toothache that distracts the hero, the tiger’s skin against which the scholar rests to study the Vedas—and his ability to create memorable voices, especially for his women, were strengthened by a new interest in formal experimentation. In 1979, after having won the Sahitya Akademi award for Daatu, his novel about caste, Bhyrappa published the work that defines him for many readers: Parva. On the surface. an anthropological retelling of the Mahabharata, in which the Kurukshetra war is freed from mythology and magic and presented as an actual historical event, the novel is really a study of human character under extreme stress. Innovative in structure, Parva is built around long interior monologues that are like arias; one by one, Bhyrappa enters into the minds of the major players, Pandava and Kaurava alike, to create complex, almost Cubist, character portraits. First we see Karna being stupid and lustful, goading the Kauravas on to rape Draupadi; then, we see him about to bathe in the Ganga, thoughtful and insecure, having just discovered that he is the illegitimate son of Kunti; now we see him in battle, a cold-blooded killer; and finally, as a man torn between his loyalties, who lets himself be killed rather than betray either side. Melancholic in tone—the world of the Mahabharata is coming to an end in every page—Parva reads like a Hindu Gotterdammerung. Though Bhyrappa’s characteristic failings are present here—repetitiousness and occasional verbosity—it is one of the most breathtaking of 20th-century Indian novels.
Post Parva, the books kept coming, with mixed results. Tantu (1993), an 888-page chronicle of the rotting of India after independence, starts when a journalist who is studying Nani Palkhivala’s report on Centre-state relations is informed that the Saraswati statue from the temple in his village has been stolen. The overlapping of personal, religious and political motifs continues throughout the length of this uneven, but often very powerful, book. Perhaps the most original of the later works is Saakshi (1986). The novel opens in the after-life, where Parameshwarayya, a man who committed suicide after giving false testimony in a court of law, is given a second chance to tell the truth—in the court of Yama deva. What follows is a febrile and unsettling examination of how human beings lie to one another. In 2002, the novel Mandra, whose theme is classical Indian music, duly won a national award, and it appeared that the career of S.L. Bhyrappa was headed to a quiet, honourable finish.
Then came Aavarana. For decades, Bhyrappa had said that an artist ought not to preach. In 2007, he broke his own rule. Aavarana (The Concealing), though technically his 20th novel, is a polemic—a list of all the sins that Muslims have allegedly wreaked on Hindus and their culture for generations. Ananthamurthy criticised the novel, and Bhyrappa entered into a rancorous public debate with him (the two men have a long history of attacking each other). A bestseller in Karnataka, Aavarana earned the aging Bhyrappa a cult following of young, rabidly right-wing readers. He seems to enjoy his new role as spokesperson for Hindutva causes, and recently urged the government to scrap its plan to name a university after Tipu Sultan. The result is that the term Aavarana now describes what has happened to S.L. Bhyrappa himself: swallowed by his weakest novel, passed over for the Jnanpith (the traditional crown for the bhasha writer), and in danger of having a fanbase composed entirely of bigots.
Ananthamurthy and Bhyrappa are the opposite poles of the modern Kannada novel. If one is its Flaubert—the author of a compact, exquisite body of work, left-liberal in its sympathies—the other is its Balzac—prolific, unruly, and suspect in his politics. Ananthamurthy may be the better writer, but Bhyrappa inspires more affection in those who speak Kannada. More than 20 years ago, as a student in Sydney, Australia, I knew one of that city’s richest doctors, a man from coastal Karnataka. When he compared the state of Australia with that of India, the doctor felt depressed; at such moments he flicked through an old copy of Parva that he had brought with him to Sydney. Seeing how Bhyrappa had modernised the Mahabharata gave him hope that India too could become a prosperous country—without losing its cultural identity. For nearly five decades, S.L. Bhyrappa’s richly imagined and deeply felt novels have helped his readers tide over difficult moments in their lives. It is time for them to return the favour and rescue this great Indian writer’s legacy from the biggest threat it faces: Bhyrappa himself.
(Aravind Adiga won the Booker prize for The White Tiger)