Review: Bara by UR Ananthamurthy
Bara is set during the Emergency but the novel’s strength is its abiding relevance to the Indian situationbooks Updated: Feb 03, 2017 22:56 IST
UR Ananthamurthy was already established on the Kannada literary scene when AK Ramanujan translated his controversial novel Samskāra into English. While most translations from the original bhāśā are by and large ignored by the English-speaking readership in urban India, Ramanujan’s translation was not. While it is difficult to say how much of this was because of Ramanujan’s own formidable stature as an excellent poet, translator and scholar of international repute, the translation made Ananthamurthy something of an icon among several of the English-speaking intelligentsia. Samskāra focused on the prejudices and fallibilities of an agrahara, and its critique of Brahminical bigotry was a recurrent theme in Ananthamurthy’s work. Both Samskāra and his hard-hitting short story Ghatashraddha (made into a powerful, disturbing film by Girish Kasaravalli) reiterated, among other things, that female sexual hunger was real and did not necessarily end with widowhood. Though this theme was hardly new to Indian literature the bourgeoisie outrage that greeted it (as also the work of Vijay Tendulkar and several other creative artists around the same time) was characteristically extreme.
Anananthamurthy’s novella Bara, meaning drought, was published in 1976, over thirty years before its belated translation appeared posthumously (he died in August 2014). MS Sathyu directed a Kannada film based on the novel in 1982 and a Hindi version titled Sookha a year later. Bara’s context (the Emergency) is specified at the very start of the novel with an ironic reference to the CPI’s support of Indira Gandhi’s government but the novel’s strength is its abiding relevance to the Indian situation. Being in denial for political gain is a familiar enough strategy and the CM’s fear of his rivals means that the deaths of men and cattle go unremarked while corrupt locals and police officials enjoy political patronage.
Ananthamurthy spares no one. The bureaucrat Satisha sees the contradictions between his idealism and his life-style but enjoys his power and perks as district commissioner, the nawab’s erstwhile palace which houses him and his family, the nawabi stature people consequently bestow on him, and lets “the iron grip of his ethics” relax without realizing it. Though he and his wife Rekha try to stay true to their beliefs, sending their son Rahul to the ordinary local school and not the privileged one run by the Armed Forces, Rekha cannot resist telling her Delhi buddies about the “crude language and… lice” Rahul had picked up in school – a detail that is sardonically described as having “enhanced” their “stature in influential social circles in Delhi.” Despite his anguish over the prevailing drought Satisha bathes in “more water than there was in all of Kalamma Street” which he had just visited while Rekha channels the used water to grow a green lawn so as not to “waste” it. Solicitous friends and colleagues bring the couple tomatoes, eggs, a birthday cake from Bengaluru – foods that are almost vulgarly out of place in a village where nothing grows.
Satisha’s efforts to enlist the help of Bhimoji (president of the local farmers’ unit and secretary of the Municipal Workers’ Union) accentuate the incongruities of his situation. Bhimoji is a seasoned unionist, a “small-time politician” who ribs Satisha about their differences in social status, Satisha’s leftist brother-in-law, and his naiveté about political realities, terming him a “socialist bureaucrat” out of sync with the times: “Let me be honest with you. Are you a bureaucrat? A revolutionary? You delude yourself that you can be both… Why can’t you get what a petty politician like me can understand? ...I don’t make a mishmash of a clean conduct, a hefty salary, and revolutionary thoughts. The forces that stand still will move due to people like me. Why doesn’t it occur to you that I could have a vision too?”
There are many bizarre dimensions to the visions of people like Bhimoji. The CM sees the drought as a photo-op for him to inaugurate two more “gruel centres” with the corrupt hoarder he is shielding presiding over the ceremony and donating land as a measure of his goodwill. The secretary of the Cow Protection Group berates Satisha’s position (“what is the point of saving barren cows which only gobble up the feed?”) with unassailable if dubious rhetoric: “Aren’t our poor people barren too, Sir? Are they educated? Are they strong? Can they give birth to healthy children? They can gobble up the entire stock of grain. Why don’t you let them die, Sir?”
In the end it is Bhimoji who becomes the catalyst for change, leading the poor in a revolt which tests Satisha’s principles. Ostensibly a move against the hoarders, the situation soon deteriorates into a riot which ends with Satisha ordering the SP to fire at the mob. The CM resigns, the government is forced to declare a drought, and Satisha loses his job, becoming a lecturer instead – a demotion that is a rueful reflection on our sustained devaluation of academic life!
In the lengthy interview with Ananthamurthy at the end of the book, the author frequently plays the Devil’s advocate, making for a somewhat mystifying experience. Ananthamurthy has always been controversial and outspoken but the interview has him express views on topics ranging from the Emergency to communism to cow protection to smalltime politicians, and some of his responses are disappointingly flat. He describes Satisha as “a JNU product”, Rekha as coming “from the world of JNU” – whatever he means, such phrases are stereotypes one would not have expected from him. In the same unsatisfactory vein, the cow protector Govindappa’s perspective becomes “one way of describing inhumaneness… he has a point of view”; Bhimoji is “a great pudaari”, someone who “knows every ideology…can use them and misuse them, and change them”. There is even a flip-flop on the Emergency: it did “a few good things” and men like Devraj Urs “used caste to go beyond caste.” These well-intended but rather jumbled thoughts appear to have punctuated the storyline in Bara as well, weakening its powerful essence. Ananthamurthy himself admits that he was not happy with the work initially but changed his mind later (“I got back my respect for the story” is how he puts it). It remains a politically valid piece as he says at the end of the interview, but it lacks the compelling thrust and cogency of his earlier work.
Vrinda Nabar is an author, critic and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University