Monday, February 16, 2009

SL Bhyrappa's sAkshi - a quick reflection

"dharmAviruddho bhuteShu kAmo.asmi bharatarShabha"
(O bull among the bharatas, I am kAma not opposed to Dharma in all beings)
declares the Lord in the bhagavadgItA. kAma and dharma are fundamental puruShArthas in the Indian psyche. It is easy to understand why Krishna qualified kAma with the additional adjunct of not being against Dharma. But still, in this age, when kAma and the artha are the more favored and attractive puruShArthas, sAkShi - Bhyrappa's novel, underscores the importance of Dharma and sounds a sobering note to those solely focused on the the second and third values of life.

sAkShi (English: witness) is in my opinion, Bhyrappa's most explosive novel. AvaraNa might be more controversial and tantu or parva more voluminous and philosophical. But no other book I have read recently packs profound, even mind-blowing philosophical questions with such a complex but gripping story line. Written in 1986, it is puzzling to me that this title is not on the lips of people. Bhyrappa is more identified with Parva, vamshavrikSha, dharmashrI and more recently with AvaraNa - but never so much with sAkShi.

sAkShi - the novel - is on a different plane altogether. While most of his other novels are mostly bound in a definite time and place, for example dATu (post-independent rural India) or tantu (India during emergency), or even Parva (mahAbhArata age) sAkShi with a few changes can easily transcend space and time, for, the concerns it raises are universally human. It is not that the others I mentioned lack parts of timelessness - but that this novel when stripped of its particulars can be equally at home with ancient India or with even modern America or medieval Europe. And it would be quite easy to strip them out lending itself quite well to an English adaptation (not just translation).

sAkShi also marks the creation of a great character, from a literary perspective - Manjayya. More about him later.

Some words of caution : sAkShi is not for the weak stomached. For example, I would shudder to share it with some one who is puritanical minded or some one who has just started reading.  People with Victorian mores are to be shooed away from this book.

The story begins and ends with a unique plot-device - discussions in the judgement court of Yama, the Supreme controller and arbiter in the Hindu puranic realm. It sounds fanciful, but does not come across as such and ends up enhancing the appeal of the novel. The novel begins with a dead soul in the court of Yamadharma narrating the conditions of its suicide. The spirit is then given permission to passively witness the mental conditions and thoughts of other actors in its earlier life.

Back in the real world, the story is set in the surroundings of Tiptur, Channarayapatna and Hassan - as Bhyrappa is wont to do. I suppose he has this particular choice of region for a couple of reasons. The first and most obvious is that Bhyrappa is himself intimately aware of these settings - given that he grew up there. The second one is that he probably finds it convenient to get the necessary scaffolding for his story out of the way as quickly as possible before grappling with the more fundamental issues. To explain it a little further, Bhyrappa is keen on exploring the universal in the particular. The structure of a novel demands that he give a certain "believability" to his characters and the plot. If he chose a place different from his customary surroundings, he would have to do research about a topic that he is peripherally interested in at best. By using a place he is already familiar with he achieves a wonderful narrative very easily and can set his mind to digging deep into each character's innards. Look at sArtha for a diametrically opposite kind of novel. Set in ancient India, Bhyrappa had to probably do enormous amounts of research to lend authenticity to the story. Here, he gets to the core quickly.

When the soul that has committed suicide is given a chance to explore the minds of its acquaintances as a silent witness, it chooses to do so. The characters range from the silent but thoughtful rAmakrishnayya (reminds you of shrInivAsa shrotri of vamshavrikSha), his wife, a money-minded Sukanya (a predecessor to tantu's kAnti) and their son Ganesha.  Manjayya is a coconut farm owner in the same village. Nagappa, the epitome of artha as an independent value, is Sukanya's father and Satyappa the Gandhian is Ramakrishna's brother-in-law. Savitri is the daughter of the house. Mention has to be made of Lakku and Sarojakshi who bring about profound changes in the story.

Continuing in the aftermath of a murder trial, the story serially narrates different events from the perspectives of different characters. Of course, we, as readers are also sAkShis in the book. It is quite difficult to go into the character without narrating some of the plot and that conflicts with the objective of this post - getting readers from this post to the book. However, the questions it raises are worthy of examination.

What is truth/falsehood? Are these absolute values?

Is concealment different from lying? Why do some people keep lying?

Is stating a truth a different way the same as lying?

Is it better to control one's base desires and falter occasionally or go all out in self-gratification?

What is the basis of carnal desire? Is it just the body or is there something else to it? When would it stop?

What is better - to have base desires secretly without satisfaction or treat it the same as any other bodily affliction?

Are suicides primarily caused by disproportionately morbid amplification of a momentary setback without a thought for the bigger picture?

What is Dharma in action? How do you recognize it?

The notion of purity and conversely, of sin- how much of the body and how much of the mind?

Is abstinence a virtue? How so or why not?

The Ego and its power

Manjayya is so much of this world - we see a lot of his likes everywhere - as anonymous statistics and reports in newspapers and sometimes in ourselves. Yet, there is something other-worldly about him; for no where else can we see such single minded self-indulgence. Manjayya is on par with a Duryodhana or a rAvaNa - Note that these characters are
not simple minded "evil-doers" - they are complex and layered. Manjayya is like that. Bhyrappa has created several characters - but Manjayya ranks with the highest, of course from a purely literary stand-point. SLB portrays Manjayya so convincingly that at times, there is no way to refute his arguments. 

The situation of Satyappa is very similar to that of Praneshacharya in URA's Samskara. The difference between URA and SLB is basically in what happens to each of their characters after they succumb to desire. Praneshacharya becomes a libertine whereas Satyappa is mortified. Satyappa is shaken out of his ivory tower and is ostracized by his family and society. However, Satyappa himself does not change - he sees the folly of his earlier ways and uses his fall (his perception) to achieve more focus on his life's mission.

Nagappa is another finely etched character. While self-indulgence for Manjayya is through bodily desires, the miserly Nagappa devotes his life to amassing wealth. Bhyrappa portrays the extreme nature of his desire brilliantly.

Sarojakshi is an intriguing character as well. While her similarity to Manjayya is alluded to on the surface, it ends right there. Her character could not be more different from that of Manjayya. Towards the end, the face off between the two shows how different they really are. While Manjayya epitomizes single pointed kAma, Saroja shows how kAma could be spread across pursuits. 

The story progresses towards a climax with two dramatic events. Between AvaraNa and sAkShi, there is a similarity of motif in the brutal nature of the first event. The second event - a revelation - is not as brutal but more disruptive to the characters and the reader. The plot twists are both unexpected and powerful, impacting both the reader and the story. 

However, Bhyrappa offers a vision of what he sees as ideal. For him, the ideal of disinterested karma as a tool to purify the mind is an important one. His focus, as seen in other works, on nirlepa karma (tantu, dATu) is echoed here as well.  The following sentence of Shankara in his introduction to the gItAbhAShya - "dvividho hi vedokto dharmaH | pravRttilakShaNo nivRttilakShaNashcha|" ("..Dharma is two fold, one characterized by activity and the other by renunciation") finds an echo in Bhyrappa's characters.

The two faces of his ideal are Ramakrishna and Satyappa. The former - distant, worthy of respect and immersed in Vedanta - is in the tradition of nivRtti dharma. The latter -  more down to earth, realistic and worthy of sympathy - is in the pravRtti path.

Bhyrappa leaves us with a question - "what is the origin of lies?"

To summarize, Bhyrappa is in his element here - so much so that the reader does not care for the name of the author when reading it. For all readers of serious literature, don't miss this.

PS: My apologies for writing this review in English. In hindsight, a review in Kannada would have been a lot better. Also, it seems that this book has been translated into both Hindi and English.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

India's $10 "laptop" - a media circus?

Why India's $10 Laptop is a Load of Hype | Technomix | Fast Company

I hate to tell "I told you so" for this - but this merely confirms my suspicion that the device would be far from a laptop. 500Rs is too low a price to get any decent "computer" (unless subsidized by long term contracts etc.,) and this device is not by any standards a laptop.

This "laptop" word associated with the device seems to be a hyped-up concoction of some clueless Indian media-person and less probably, some government busybody. I am quite sure folks in IISc and IIT-M would shudder to call this a laptop.

Of course, any "thing" can be a laptop - a book, a hard drive, or even a child. After all, it sits on top of your lap, right?

The only unfortunate thing is that this enterprise, worthy as it is, got all the publicity for the wrong reasons and now, instead of being appreciated it is called "Load of Hype", "massive exaggeration" and "downgraded by reality" among other things.

I wonder who called it a laptop - Indian media does have a fancy for hyperbole and this may be just it. Indian media seriously needs to tone down its hyperbole, sensationalism and shrillness factor. Anybody from Indian MSM reading this?