Book review: Shiva’s Drum by Chandrasekhar Kambar is a story of our times
In Chandrasekhar Kambar’s book Shiva’s Drum, a feudal village, spurred by the greed of its chief, lurches towards modernity only to discover the terrible cost of progress.Updated: Sep 03, 2017 07:56 IST
The village novel is almost impossible to pull off. The characters risk coming across as dull-minded simpletons, the landscape too lush, the plot twists trite and the mood etching uprooted. Add to that a translation into an alien language with little common in culture and we usually have a disaster hiding between glossy covers.
Chandrasekhar Kambar, however, is a master at the genre and forms a fourth of my entire exposure to Kannada literature. His broad brushstrokes deftly bring to life an idyllic Shivapura that is slowly transitioning into the breakneck chaos of modernity, and from his minute etching spring characters that are deliciously contradictory – they give in to desires and live to regret it.
At its heart, Shiva’s Drum (Shivana Dangura) is a simple story. A village struggles to move on with the times and lurches ahead by the greed of its chief, only to discover the terrible cost of progress. Outsiders dump chemicals in its lakes, the fruits get poisoned and the villagers sick – all sanctioned and approved by the local and outside government. Enmeshed in this modern fable is a love story that transgresses caste shackles and a delightful bit about electoral democracy pedalling the ugliest form of feudalism.
The hero of the story is a strapping young man Chambasa – the writer lovingly lingers over his sinewy back and broad shoulders – who is born to a dominant caste village chief but begins his life in the lap of a low-caste woman. But in true Kambar style, the narrative actually revolves around his uncle Baramegowda, a degenerate debaucher who leads the village feudally but is strangely shown to have some warped wish of goodness for his constituents. In his death and decay lies the allegory of the book on modernity and progress.
The strongest bits of the book are in the first 100 pages when the main plot is still building and the reader can happily immerse in the characters – the lascivious Baramegowda trying to juggle his wives, the mystique of the only holy man in the village and a young Chambasa learning about himself and falling and getting thwarted in love. The build-up is then steep – the last section I read pacing up and down in my bedroom, unable to put the book down – until it slowly, and tragically, collapses into a muddle of a happy ending. There is too much local mysticism in the ending pages that have not translated well into English at all.
This is a pity because the translation is otherwise spot on, doesn’t dawdle and is taut. The narrative occasionally lapses into wondrousness about the beauty of nature or the magnificence of culture but such blips are few and far between. Krishna Manavalli has done a stellar job transporting a book about a rural oasis into the exact environment it despises.
The second half of the book is also where the chinks start surfacing. I groaned at the pointed description of the “cripple” as the villain and the constant invocation of his disability as a part of his machinations. Chambasa’s adopted daughter Madevi’s disabled leg is given more prominence than her personality and I was cringing at the description of a most clichéd race involving a bunch of disabled children.
Too many of the women are described as extensions of the men in their lives who fret about marriage and death, and the strong characters aren’t given adequate space. Much of the narrative around Chambasa and his wife developing doubts about each other’s affections is anchored in ad-hominems about love and they drag the story down.
But the strength of the book convinced me that these flaws belonged to not just the book, but to what it was fundamentally about: Modernity.
Shiva’s Drum stays with you, despite the blemishes. It is a story of our times.
By Chandrasekhar Kambar
Translated from the Kannada by Krishna Manavalli
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 299