Literary Review

Confluence of passions

Hunt Bangle Chameleon: Selected Short Stories of U.R. Ananthamurthy; trs. Deepa Ganesh, Prism Books, Rs.225.  

Few writers in regional languages have had as much visibility and influence in the Anglophone world as U.R. Ananthamurthy. This is largely due to his insistence on a public, intellectual self that walked arm-in-arm with the novelistic and short-story writing self. It is thus fitting to read together two newly published works — a collection of essays called Rujuvathu (translatable as ‘evidence’), and Hunt Bangle Chameleon, a set of short stories (both from Prism Books, 2014).

Rujuvathu, edited and introduced by Manu Chakravarthy, consists of 18 essays that showcase the diversity of Ananthamurthy’s interests, ranging from issues of Kannada cultural identity, to writership, to travels and education policy. The longer essays are at the beginning, where Ananthamurthy writes with graceful lyricism of the Karnataka countryside, of his childhood, of the sense of how large the world looked from his small village, and of his early encounters with many of the beloved writers of Kannada, such as Kuvempu and Karanth. There is precision in the writing, the distilling of experience into wisdom and learning. Even the magical is precise, as when he writes of Tulu rituals of possession. The reader is enticed, and wishes to know more. This is, perhaps, where the collection disappoints, for the perspective on this cultural ecosystem does not gain much depth as one reads on — there is a lot of repetition as the same events are revisited without significant growth in insight. Many issues are raised with humility — the “feeling that I can’t handle with ease truly urban material” (40). But some of these are too quickly explained away as a Kannada/English problem. Indeed, for someone as fundamentally, and astonishingly, bilingual, as Ananthamurthy, it is the narratives of the interleaving of the literary history of Kannada with the literary history of European literature (with English often standing in too easily for the ‘West’) that are most generic and unrewarding.

Many of the same qualities of the classical clarity of the writing are prevalent in the short story collection. Some translations work best when they evoke richness, rather than mimic it; the first story, ‘The Uncanny’ is about a meeting that has both slightness and contingency to it, as well as a weight (as it is shadowed by two near-deaths). The translator has captured some of that evocativeness, though it is understandable (and apt) that the exact poetic quality of the language, both introspective, casual, as well as freighted with the unsayable, may be lost. In the title story, Ananthamurthy again displays his ability to write evocatively of a range of difficult, contentious topics — of the rural, of the ancient world, of ritual. He works like a sculptor, finding the consummate, decisive image that triggers varied, delectably thoughtful moods in the reader. This is also why Ananthamurthy, who works for the most part within social and domestic realism, is able to, at his best, explode the semantic range of realism. However, these traits sometimes have to be picked from within the story as part of the plotting is overly contrived — the title story itself has some rather heavy-handed treatment of rapacious French multinationals, a sweetheart who turns inexplicably into a conniving woman who then dies in a bomb blast, and whose daughter turns into a theory-spouting academic — all this alongside the laboured use of the (ultimately inexplicable) metaphor of a chameleon.

The more successful stories may be the more straightforward ones such as ‘The Story of a Decade’. Here, the translator ably achieves the communication of a difficult tone — both a gentle undermining humour, as well as an affectionate, understanding sympathy for students taken in by the revolutionary cause. The wit, made more effective by clever structuring of the stories, is also evident in stories such ‘Kamaroopi’, which is about the ubiquitous Indian politician figure — the comic consciousness is aware that these figures of fun are also figures of immense, and uncontrollable, power and terror. The crisp, colloquial tone of much of Ananthamurthy’s writing is inviting and intimate; it effectively disarms the reader. And in his best works, this disarmed reader’s mind is then lured into unexpected epiphany. In ‘Coincidence’, the last story in the collection, one encounters again the mature, mixed tone of Ananthamurthy’s voice — on the one hand, an irrepressible contempt for the banal life of a minor clerk, on the other hand a catalysing sympathy for this clerk whose life too was full of loss. The two books together thus give an integrated insight into the confluence of Ananthamurthy’s passions.

Rujuvathu: Selected Essays of U.R. Ananthamurthy; edited by Manu Chakravarthy, Prism Books, Rs.425.

Hunt Bangle Chameleon: Selected Short Stories of U.R. Ananthamurthy; trs. Deepa Ganesh, Prism Books, Rs.225.


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Printable version | Jul 22, 2021 12:20:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/two-books-that-showcase-the-diversity-of-ur-ananthamurthys-interests/article6842294.ece

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