A Death and its Dilemmas: On U.R. Ananthamurthy’s ‘Samskara’

Soon after U.R. Ananthamurthy died, members of a Hindu right-wing organization responded by bursting firecrackers in celebration. The images, put up on YouTube, remind us once again of the illiteracy of fascists. We do not know what they thought they were celebrating: perhaps, they felt that death had proved a point in their favour, that it was the final arbiter in a dispute against an opponent who would not give up.

That death resolves no arguments, however, is something Ananthamurthy realized quite early. In many ways, it forms the pivot of his first novel — Samskara. Samskara begins with the death of the iconoclast Naranappa, a man who turned his back on the faith and caste he was born into. He abandoned the traditional rites; shaved his top-knot and wore western wear; he left his wife and lived instead with the low-caste Chandri; he shared meals with Muslims, openly drinking liquor and eating meat; his only incantations were forms of abuse, and he made every effort to incite the younger generation against the old ways.

In the ritual world of the brahmins of Durvasapura, “[a]live, Naranappa was an enemy; dead, a preventer of meals; as a corpse, a problem and a nuisance” (Ananthamurthy 1976: 5) Because he has no children, there is no one to cremate him, and conflict surrounds the issue of who should take up the task. This unwillingness on the part of the community is a final act of denunciation: alive, they do not consider him one of their own; dead, they do not wish to have him as a pitru or ancestor. Although Naranappa rejected brahminhood, it is held that brahminhood never left him. He was never excommunicated formally, and so, remains a brahmin even in his death. The death rites for him have to be performed.

To resolve this dilemma, the community turns to their saintly leader Praneshacharya. But though Praneshacharya contemplates the sacred texts, though he scans Manu’s law code, and fasts and meditates at the feet of the god Maruti, he is unable to come up with a solution. The answer does not appear to lie within the parameters of their tradition.

Naranappa’s body rots, but the story which begins with him does not continue to revolve around him. Midway through the novel, the problem that is purportedly at its centre — the question of who will cremate Naranappa — has been resolved. Not by the Brahmins, who continue to be stalked by fear. Nor even by the low-caste cart-man Sheshappa, who when appealed to by Chandri, refuses to implicate himself in the ‘sin’ of meddling with a brahmin corpse. The final decision is Chandri’s: it is her last act of love, a measure of her regard for Naranappa. She alone has the clarity to understand that is corpse is “not her lover Naranappa. It’s neither brahmin nor shudra. A carcass. A stinking rotting carcass” (Ananthamurthy 1976: 61). Eventually, the deed is performed by Ahmad Bari, a man in debt to Naranappa, who loads the corpse and firewood onto his bullock-cart, sets it afire in the cremation ground, and then leaves, as fast as he can. The cremation completed, Chandri too leaves the village, walking to catch the morning bus to Kundapura.

Yet, even in its absence, the stench of the corpse lingers, and in the claustrophobia of the agrahara Naranappa becomes for some, a preta who continues to challenge them, a ghost who will not leave them alone. He no longer has a speaking part, but continues to live on in the questions that he leaves behind. The critique turns inward, transmuting itself, and eating away at the mind of Praneshacharya.

Praneshacharya is the good brahmin, ideologue and conscience-keeper of his entirely fallible community. In word and deed, he is presented as the polar opposite of Naranappa. But on one of the nights following Naranappa’s death, disturbed by the unresolvable nature of the problem, he finds succor in the arms of Chandri. The next morning, seized by doubt and horror, he tells himself, “I am sin, my work is sin, my soul is sin, my birth is in sin” (Ananthamurthy 1976: 68). Fleeing Durvasapura, he runs headlong into the melée of the world, into a tangle of temple fairs and cock-fights and prostitutes. These wanderings do not help resolve his dilemmas: by the end, the only resolution he can make is that he will return. But by now, plague has beset Durvasapura, and we know he will return to an atmosphere of death. A series of events have been set in motion, and everything suggests the impossibility of return.

Samskara is a novel filled with the portents of doom. It uses the old imagery of the Kali Yuga, of a time of pestilence and non-believers, to create a new allegory. It was written when Ananthamurthy was still a doctoral student at Birmingham: he was thirty-four. He had accompanied his teacher Malcolm Bradbury to a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The film had no subtitles, but Ananthamurthy ‘experienced’ the story, relating to the story of the plague and the indecision faced by the protagonist. It led him to remember a plague that had taken place in his own hometown, where the upper castes had been treated by the doctor, but the lower castes had not. Bradbury challenged Ananthamurthy to write, and Samskara was written following this, over “four furious days” (Reddy 2014).

Published in 1965, the book earned the wrath of traditionalists, who saw it as an assault on their culture. It was subsequently made into a landmark Kannada film. It was the film which brought the novel to the attention of the poet, linguist and translator, A.K. Ramanujan, then already teaching at the University of Chicago. Ramanujan expressed a desire to translate Samskara in a letter to his friend and editor Bonnie Crown:

Last week I read a Kannada novel which moved me more than anything I have read in that language. It is by a young writer and was published a couple of months ago. It is about a sinful Brahman’s death in a Brahman colony, and the problem is who should perform the funeral rights [sic] of the sinner… I would like to translate it, though it is going to be very difficult because of the interweaving of Brahmanical mythology and daily ritual in the telling of the story. But if this is translated I am sure it will be important as it is intense, complex, rich and absolutely authentic. I hope to write to the author who is a good friend of mine, now in England on a doctoral fellowship. Are you interested? (Ramanujan, cited in Nakul Krishna 2013).

Ten years were to pass before Ramanujan’s translation of Samskara appeared. Subtitled ‘A Rite for a Dead Man’, it was initially serialized in the Illustrated Weekly of India, where once again it attracted a barrage of responses, some of them pure vitriol. In the many years since, the stories surrounding Samskara and its retellings have come to acquire the status of folklore.

Ananthamurthy and Ramanujan in Minnesota, circa 1976

Ramanujan’s presence has been writ large over the ways in which Samskara has been received by the English speaking world. The Afterword to his translation has him provide a long disquisition on the meanings of term; so much so, that one may wonder if he does not perhaps overinterpret the theme. The problems posed by the story, although phrased within a traditional vocabulary, are distinctively modern ones. Naranappa is able to violate the old rules with impunity, precisely because he knows he is afforded protection by colonial law. At the same time, Samskara crosses many time-zones in its interweaving of modernity and folklore, riddles and myths. It cannot be viewed only through the lens of the brahmanical or the classical tradition.

For, at its heart, Samskara is also a story about love, although not a love-story in the conventional way. In a society marked by close-fisted boundaries, it shows how these divides were complicated and negotiated by the relationships entered into by women and men. Doubts besiege the minds of the male characters, and it is only Chandri, incandescent, who appears to have a clear sense of self. In an encounter that takes place in Praneshacharya’s memory, Naranappa tells him a story about their agrahara:

There was a young fellow in the agrahara. He never once slept with his one lawfully wedded wife because she wouldn’t sleep with him — out of sheer obedience to her mother’s orders. But this young man didn’t miss an evening of this Achari’s recitation of holy legends — every evening he was there. He’d good reason. It’s true, that Achari had no direct experience of life, but he was quite a sport with erotic poetry and things like that. One day he got into a description of Kalidasa’s heroine, Shakuntala, in some detail. This young man listened…But now the young man felt the Achari’s description in his own body, felt a whole female grow inside him, a fire burn in his loins — you know what that means, don’t you, Acharya-re? — He couldn’t stand it, he leapt from the Achari’s verandah and ran. He couldn’t bear to hear any more, he ran straight to plunge his heat in the cold water of the rover. Luckily, an outcaste woman was bathing there, in the moonlight. Luckily, too, she wasn’t wearing too much, all the limbs and parts he craved to see were right before his eyes. She certainly was the fish-scented fisherwoman type, the type your great sage fell for. He fantasized she was the Shakuntala of the Achari’s description and this pure brahmin youth made love to her right there — with the moon for witness (Ananthamurthy 1976: 23).

The passage is not a philosophical rejoinder. It is not even a political comment. It is emphatically meant to titillate Praneshacharya, to throw a question in his face. It sets alight the spaces of exception that exist within the brahmanical tradition and shows how they are also spaces of hypocrisy.

The iconoclasm of one age may seem timid in another. The furor that surrounded the initial publication of Samskara has since died down, only to be replaced by other battles. Both Ramanujan and Ananthamurthy have been the targets of attack from the Hindu right, that wishes, among other things, to narrowly determine the scope of all Hindu culture. But the old stories still speak to those who can harness them: Samskara shows us the insidious critique that is made possible by a man who knows his culture’s stories.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s