SL Bhyrappa has been a great success of our times despite all the criticism of his ideological stance. His commitment to the novel as a genre and the fact that his novels run into several reprints in no time with a wide readership across the country make him a unique novelist. He eluded literary trends of his time but is deeply rooted in Kannada’s cultural milieus. Scion (2023), the third and the latest translation of his Vamshavrishka (1965) by R Ranganath Prasad, narrates the story of two Brahmin families set in the south Indian towns of Mysore and Nanjangud after Independence.
Bhyrappa’s afterword to the Kannada version, Sahitya hagu maulya samvedane (Literature and Perception of Values), which is not included in this translation, gives us some clue as to what the novelist is up to. As Bhyrappa asserts, values change from epoch to epoch, giving rise to tension and tumult not only between different individuals but also between an individual and society and, above all, within the individual.
Accordingly, Scion explores the individuals caught in the vortex of what they value and the complex realities of life. Srinivasa Shrotri, a character brought forth with flesh and blood, upholds the value of grihastha dharma, believing that “man and woman unite in the name of marriage for the sole purpose of furthering the cause of the lineage.” No carnal desire outside this aim shall serve the institution of marriage, he believes. When, therefore, a doctor advises him not to unite physically with his wife due to her health issues, he refuses to do it in spite of his wife’s insistence. But he is disillusioned in the end when he discovers that he is not the biological son of his father, who had forced his wife to sleep with a wandering minstrel so as to beget a child to avoid bequeathing his property to his brother’s children. Shrotri’s coming to terms with reality serves to critique the society that believes in the purity of family lineage, and it compels us to reflect on material practices versus ideals. Shrotri, as a fully developed character, is one of the most powerful delineations in Indian literature.
In contrast, Shrotri’s widowed daughter-in-law Katyayani, a bold portraiture in Kannada literature of the time, sees a value in following instinct rather than social norms and marries a foreign-returned English teacher Raja Rao. Ultimately, she regrets deserting her in-laws and Cheeni, the son she had with her deceased first husband. She dies guilty. Though Katyayani was a bold creation, feminists found much to criticise as she met her tragic end. They seemed to ask, was Katyayani’s end the logic of patriarchal society?
Then there’s Raja Rao’s brother Sadashiva, a man who believes in the value of scholastic pursuits. A historian, his ambition is to write the history of Indian civilisation in five volumes. He is attracted to his Sinhalese research assistant Karuna and marries her, abandoning his wife and son. But the same scholarly obsession affects his health and he dies of a heart attack.
As the characters are committed to specific values, they make choices only to get disillusioned. The narrative neither endorses nor negates either tradition or modernity. On the other, it explores the fragility of the human condition via familial relationships. The novel presents a tragic vision of life by showing human values as tentative binaries.
In the end, why should one read this novel written nearly six decades ago? First, Bhyrappa weaves the plot to make it interesting by giving twists and turns to the Shrotris and Raos; it is indeed an absorbing narrative that connects the dots marvellously. More importantly, it documents a particular kind of transition in our culture, especially the Brahminical society in its interaction with post-independence modernity. As Sadashiva Rao puts it at the novel’s beginning, “It is when the fundamental values of a people clearly morph that a new era begins. Then, history, too, assumes a new form.” Therefore, this work can be read as a prologue to what followed in our social history and many of Bhyrappa’s forthcoming narratives.
Though the novel may not be ranked as a masterpiece of Indian literature, it was adapted for the stage several times, and a movie based on it, directed by BV Karanth and Girish Karnad, bagged a national film award for the best direction. Two English translations of the novel have already gone before, first as The Uprooted (1992) by K Raghavendra Rao, and later by Bhyrappa and Sushma Chandrasekhar as Scion (1996). In this new translation, R Ranganath Prasad, for whom translation is a vocation, had an opportunity to improve upon previous endeavours. The labour of translation is quite visible here, but his rendering gives the feeling of reading a translated novel more than reading one in English. More work on the language would have been better. However, when a lot of bhasha literature in India is being made available in English, the manner of Indian English used in translations such as this intends to speak to fellow Indians — a good practice indeed.
The writer is professor, Department of Studies and Research in English Tumkur University, Tumakuru
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