S. L. Bhyrappa

On Saturday we heard the best-selling Kannada novelist, S L Bhyrappa in a leisurely two-hour conversation with Uma Kulkarni, his translator into Marathi. The event was the first of a series that a mainline Marathi daily has planned with the aim of opening up the public space for free and friendly dialogue. The most beautiful thing about the evening was hearing three Indian languages, Kannada, Marathi and English, flowing warmly into each other without the frozen obstructions of politics.

The conversation, lasting over two hours, was a virtuoso display of Bhyrappa's unquestionable erudition. Lightened by an easy wit, it covered themes as wide ranging as world literature, the performing arts, dharma, homosexuality, intolerance, politics and philosophy, Bhyrappa's field of study. It also revealed why he has been at the centre of so much controversy in Karnataka's literary circles, his chief sparring partner having been the Jnanpith award winner U R Ananthamurthy. Bhyrappa, a staunch supporter of Hindutva and Ananthamurthy an equally staunch supporter of secularism, made what one may call, natural enemies. But the weight of numbers was always with Bhyrappa. The more he was criticised, he said, the more his books sold!

In the midst of the many interesting stories he narrated about his life and work, he also made a few observations that were embarrassing. He gave us a totally unsubstantiated version of Indian history that led, by a mysterious route, to the recent events at JNU. He also said that the unalterable definition of marriage was a physical union between man and woman that led to babies. The word marriage could therefore not be used for the union between homosexuals. The idea of love as a reason for marriage was conspicuous by its absense.  But we will let that pass. We will instead address a somewhat naive observation Bhyrappa made about the nature of literature, an art he has been practising for over 50 years, producing a whopping 24 novels. In his opinion, Dalit and feminist literature were ideologically driven and therefore blemished as art while his books were free of ideology and therefore 'pure' literature.

One thought it had been settled long ago across the world that no work of fiction was free of ideology. If we define ideology as a belief system, and assume, as we must, that every thinking individual subscribes to some belief system, it is only a matter of reading a writer's work closely to see the ideology embedded in it. Even to hear Bhyrappa speak about his Vamsha Vruksha,  the first novel to bring him stupendous popularity, was enough to tell us that the writer stood firmly on the side of the collective, the carrier of tradition, against the individual whose aspirations were encouraged by modernity. It was natural then that he would be dismissive of Dalit and feminist literature, not so much because it was bad as literature, but because it was disruptive of tradition. Tradition demands that every member of society be happy with her/his given lot. That is how it has been down the ages, so there's no reason why it should be different now.

Trouble is that the untraditional idea of human rights has made Dalits and women equal in the eyes of the law with men of caste. The two marginalised groups have come to realise that the oppression they have suffered at the hands of tradition has not been god's will but man's will. A traditional Hindu, the beneficiary of this oppression, is naturally blind to its existence. To him, Dalits and women militating against the system through their literature seems like uncalled for belligerance. Bhyrappa himself was orphaned in his youth and lived through many hardships before he could return to his education. While his life experiences were dire, he was never discriminated against for his gender or his caste. Tradition was good to him and he has been good to tradition in return.

Strangely, while dismissing Dalit and feminist literature cavalierly as ideological, he himself departed from "pure literature" when he wrote the outright Hindutvavadi novel Aavarana (The Concealing). Aravind Adiga who won the Booker Prize for his first novel, The White Tiger, has said in a finely balanced review of Bhyrappa's work that Aavarana is "a polemic—a list of all the sins that Muslims have allegedly wreaked on Hindus and their culture for generations", earning him, naturally, "a cult following of young, rabidly right-wing readers."

Whither purity of literature now? Better to admit that all literature is ideological and therefore impure.

Published On : 04-04-2016