Even at 84, all that Yashwant Chittal worries about is his writing. After six decades of writing, he says he still has many stories in him
For over 60 years he has been writing fiction of unmatched intensity, diverse in its themes and endlessly innovative in its narrative form. Yet, Yashwantha Chittala, one of the finest writers in Kannada says that he has, “many more stories in him” in his preface to Koli Kooguva Munna (Before the Cock Crows, Prism) which includes his 72nd short story.
Chittala’s is an amazing career as a writer, not for its longevity, but for the single-minded creative energy with which he has made fiction-writing a complex means of exploring the mysterious and the unknowable in human life. He very frequently uses a narrative structure which grips the reader by its liberal use of the unexpected – both in terms of the incidents and of human nature. His great novel Shikari (The Hunt) could easily be called the most extraordinary ‘corporate thriller’ for the manner in which it hauntingly unravels the inhuman murderous strategies the corporate world uses to hunt down the protagonist, who as a sensitive human being, is also haunted by his own fears and past memories. Despite his skill of creating such psychological thrillers, this aspect of the mysterious is only the narrative props of his fiction. Beneath it is an exploration marked by intense moral seriousness of the equally powerful dualistic principles of life – loving and caring which protect and nurture life, evil and hatred which can destroy not only individuals, but an entire community or civilization. The two forces seem to be primordial, everlasting and capable of assuming myriad shapes. For a writer who has used fiction with such purity of artistic intention to express such an unrelenting vision of human life, Chittala’s canvas is small and by now familiar to his readers. Almost all his major characters are from either Hanehalli, a hamlet in Uttara Kannada or from the crowded two room apartments of Bombay. These are not merely geographical places. They are two existential worlds only apparently different, a hamlet and a cosmopolis, but both anchoring and housing human beings capable equally of survival and self-destruction. In his fiction there are no traditional or ‘given’ frameworks of religion, philosophy, familial bonds or community relationships to ensure protection from pain and suffering. Instead, fear and angst are the basic existentialist realities and happiness, like grace, is elusive and transient. It is in such a world that human beings are constantly buffeted by the unexpected and the unknowable and seem to lose their way desperately trying to unravel them. But as the stories bring home to the readers, albeit after a tortuous and disturbing struggle by the main characters, the truth that what is important is to take a stand, in the drifting sands of uncertainty and confusion. The resolution in his better stories is not a solving of the mystery; it may not be important at all. It is a moral resolution in which the participants take a resolute moral and emotional stand, drawing consciously or unconsciously on the human resources of endurance, acceptance (sometimes of their guilt too) and human bonding.
These perennial themes of Chittala’s fiction figure in the short stories in his latest collection, In each of the stories, the mysterious impinges upon the non-descript, quotidian world of ordinary individuals (and as the title tells us this happens before the cock crows quite often). Chittala evolves powerfully the gray area between night and daybreak, between dream and awakening. It could be the stranger sleeping on the ashwathkatte or a twin sibling lost and now come back or two strange figures running one behind the other in a circle. Each such incident shatters the re-assuring routine and incidents move swiftly to a startling conclusion. But the focus is on the search for a firm moral response to the unexpected situation. In the powerful story ‘Digbhandana’, an absolute stranger walks in to tell the couple that the house they have inherited and are living in was taken away from his father by force. He does not make a claim on the house; in fact he disappears. But he leaves behind him a dark cloud of uncertainty and ambiguity. Have they inherited a house wrongfully taken away from an innocent man by the father who then must have been evil-minded? Will they also remain culpable if they continue to live in the house? Chittala is a master at depicting the ambiguities of choice in human affairs. Choices have consequences for oneself and for others; but they have to be made on very shaky grounds. In all the stories there is no dependable way of sifting fact from illusion or dream from reality. Chittala plays with this theme trying out all kinds of tone; from intensely tragic to the comic. In a couple of the less successful stories one feels that the conclusions are contrived by the author to ensure a happy ending (as in ‘Naga Panchami’ in which the snake god leaves in response to the prayer), The strength of Chittala lies in immersing deep into the destructive elements rather than in seeking happy endings and easy solutions. In the story ‘Belagu Javada Kanasu’ (The dream at dawn) the stranger turns out to be the twin separated at birth, which has little credibility within the story.
It may no be wrong to read all the stories in the collection as variations on the same theme. With masterly assurance, Chittala experiments with all the possibilities, both dark and lighter of the theme.
In the Navya (modernist phase) phase of his career, Chittala wrote powerful stories which retained their ability to disturb, despite the formal perfection and self-conscious symbolism which made some critics feel that he kept too tight a leash on raw experience, thus curbing its autonomy. Chittala, who has been very sensitive to the literary cultural contexts of writing, responded to the new area of experience which dalit and protest movements introduced in Kannada, in the post-navya phase. Since then his fiction has also been more open-ended, less self-conscious about its aesthetic perfection. The one comparison that comes to mind is that of a master musician who plays the same composition with endless creativity.
Every major story by Chittala has broken new ground in terms of the human experience which in turn is shaped by the changing social conditions. Abolina, the flower of innocence and literally hunted down by the evil Manvela is the prototype of Nagappa, the victim of corporate ruthlessness in Shikari. But in portraying them, Chittala has taken the Kananda short story from its regional-rural location to the cosmopolitan world of Mumbai. He has been the first major Kannada writer to explore the distinctive experiments of urban modernity and of living in the cosmopolis. What is unique is despite this major shift, his stories are also ‘local’ in the most enriching sense of the word. There is an ongoing and apparently unending debate over the essentially local/regional nature of Kannada literary sensibility. As part of the debate it has also been argued that major writers of Kannada fiction have invested all their creative energy in exploring their childhood and adolescent world (which is almost invariably rural) and have not addressed their urban experience with the same complex imaginative energy. Chittala overcomes this hurdle, but by allowing both the experiential worlds to co-exist. His fiction demonstrates that it is not inevitable for the two worlds to be severed completely.