The man who saw the future: Yashwant Chittal and his place in modern Indian literature

Who was Yashwant Chittal? What is his place in modern Indian literature? As an English translation of his cult novel, Shikari, releases this month, a look at the life and times of the Kannada writer, who saw the “nightmare” of the city long before his contemporaries did.

Written by Amrita Dutta | Updated: November 20, 2017 12:56 pm
Yashwant Chittal For a generation of writers who were inspired by Yashwant Chittal, his work opened their eyes to the home and the world. (Illustration Subrata Dhar)

The city — as a place of immense possibility and wrenching displacement — made only a fleeting appearance in Kannada literature in the decades after Independence. In the 1970s, Bengaluru was more Malgudi than Mumbai, more a sleepy town of towering rain trees and slow living than the city it burst into three decades later. For readers, a foretaste of life in a teeming metropolis came in Shikari, a novel written in 1979 by one of the most important Kannada writers and modernists, Yashwant Chittal. “To read Chittal is to see the whole nightmare and vision of a city,” says Girish Karnad, writer, filmmaker and playwright.

That nightmare is seen through the eyes of Nagappa, the protagonist of Shikari, an engineer at the peak of his career in a chemicals company in Bombay. The novel begins, dramatically, by shoving Nagappa right into a mysterious ordeal: “As the situation he found himself in began to make some sense to Nagappa, he recalled K, the hero of Kafka’s novel The Trial that he had read years ago. Just like it had happened with K, somebody must be spreading false rumours about him.” Those rumours have led him to be suspended from his job on “serious charges” that have not been specified. As the novel proceeds, Nagappa is swept away by a swirl of paranoia and conspiracy in a cut-throat, competitive world in which nothing is as it seems to be. In an essay written for the Outlook magazine in 2012, author Aravind Adiga had described Shikari as a searing Bombay novel, and Chittal as a novelist “who has captured the city as well as Suketu Mehta or Salman Rushdie”. An English translation of the novel, Shikari: The Hunt, published by Penguin Random House, releases this month.

So, who was Chittal? What is his place in modern Indian literature? How does he imagine an urban modernity? Was he the man who saw tomorrow?

Yashwant Chittal was born in Hanehalli village in Uttara Kannada district in August, 1928, in a family of remarkable talent — the eldest of five brothers, Damodar, was a lawyer and politician; Gangadhar, five years older than Yashwant, was one of the finest modern Kannada poets. Chittal was educated in Dharwad, where he was influenced by the radical humanism of MN Roy. He had wished to join the JJ College of Arts in Bombay, but ended up with a Bachelor’s degree in science — and a successful career at the polymer manufacturer, Bakelite Hylam Limited. “There are very few Indian writers, who have this experience of the corporate world. [As a result,] Shikari is unlike anything I have read in Indian literature,” says Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag, whose internationally acclaimed book Ghachar Ghochar is dedicated to Chittal.

Yashwant Chittal, Shikari, Mooru Darigalu (From left) The original Shikari (1979); the translated volume; Mooru Darigalu (1964).

Despite a demanding corporate life, Chittal dedicated himself to writing: waking up at 4.30 am every day to read and write in the hours before the city stirred from its slumber. His first collection of stories, Sandarshana, was published in 1957. Short stories were what he excelled at — they were inventive in form, and language. “He has written close to 80 stories,” says Shanbhag, who counts Chittal as one of his biggest literary influences.

The Navya or modernist movement in Kannada literature in the 1960s threw up a galaxy of writers, including Chittal, P Lankesh, UR Ananthamurthy, Poornachandra Thejaswi, and poet Gopalkrishna Adiga, among others. “But Chittal was unique. The others were concerned with the caste system, Lohiate socialism and the politics of that period. They wrote about the society of the hinterland. He lived away from all of this in Bombay, and dealt with issues which the others were unaware of or not interested in, including me,” says Karnad. “We didn’t value him enough. But now we know that he was the one who saw the future.”

Before Chittal, there had only been Shantinath Desai, who wrote about urban life in his novel Mukti (1961). “The people who brought the big-city sensibility in Kannada literature were Desai, Chittal and, much later, Jayant Kaikini. When I say city, I mean the anonymity that the city gives, what it has to offer, its pressures and extreme stress,” says Shanbhag. One of the novels Chittal wrote after Shikari was another Bombay novel, Purushottama (1990). “It is about how the real-estate mafia slowly takes over a city. For Kannada literature, no one had thought this could be a subject. Now, people in Bengaluru can relate to that story,” said Shanbhag.

A city carries within it the stencilled outline of what has been left behind: the memories of villages and small towns, the networks of clan and community. In Chittal’s work, too, the village and the city are always in conversation. Not too far from where the Gangavali river meets the Arabian Sea is Hanehalli, the tiny village where he was born and spent the early years of his life. “Like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Hanehalli is a way for Chittal to see the world. It appears in some way or the other in all his works. As he writes in one of his essays, Hanehalli is not a physical location, it is an emotional world that has shaped his sensibility,” says Shanbhag.

Yashwant Chittal MG Raja at his shop in Balepete, Bengaluru. His publishing house, Sahitya Bhandara, owns the rights to print Chittal’s books since 2005. It will also print his unpublished novel, Digambara.

His son, Ravi Chittal, a doctor in Bombay, recalls his father as a great story-teller and as someone who was deeply emotional about the village he grew up in. “I must have been in my 20s, when I travelled with him to Hanehalli. I remember him arriving in front of the house he had lived in. He could not stand there even for a few seconds, he was so overwhelmed,” says Ravi.

For a generation of writers who were inspired by Chittal, his work opened their eyes to the home and the world. “He captured that transition — from village to big city — of our generation. That’s why he is so important,” says Shanbhag. As a teenager with dreams of being a writer, growing up in Ankola in Uttara Kannada, Shanbhag fretted that since he had not seen the world, he could not write. “Then I came across Sandarshana. All of its stories were set in Uttar Kannada villages, about incidents happening in these small places. They were brilliant stories. I realised then I did not have to go around the world. The stories were all around me,” he says.

How to allow a small village — its modest geography, the encounters on its streets, its church and temple — to speak for primal human emotions is a lesson from Chittal’s Hanehalli. Shanbhag cites the example of a story, ‘Aabolin’, about an innocent girl ruined by rumour and scandal. “There is a scene where the father walks down the steps of the church after being told his daughter is pregnant. He walks with a heavy heart and, when you read, those seemed like endless steps. Once, with Chittal, I went to that church in Hanehalli. There were only three steps there. Suddenly, it taught me what literature is, what literary space and time is. No creative writing course could have taught me that,” says Shanbhag.

In 1976, Jayant Kaikini joined the great throng of people seeking a life in Bombay. All week, the biochemist from Gokarna, a young man in his 20s, would spend looking for a job in that vast city. On weekends, he would head to Chittal’s home. There, in a flat in Bandstand, in a balcony facing the sea, Chittal would read out the chapters of the novel he was writing. “I was initiated into Bombay through my experiences, but there was a second initiation through Chittal’s novels. For me, he was also an emotional anchor in that big city,” says the 62-year-old, who is also a short story writer of considerable renown in Kannada.

Kaikini remembers him as a meticulous man, particular about the brand of spiral-bound notebooks he would write in. “He has bothered publishers and editors by sending telegrams — there were no phones at the time — saying, change that sentence, that word,” says Kaikini.

Yashwant Chittal, Girish Karnad Yashwant Chittal with Girish Karnad.

From his seat in the balcony, Chittal would speak about the “urban terror” he saw all around him. “By that he meant human aggression — he was influenced by [ethnologist and author of On Aggression] Konrad Lorenz’s work. In a city in the making, which is changing horizontally and vertically, so many equations are changing — there is a nexus between politics and money. He examined what it does to the vulnerable common man,” says Kaikini.

Kaikini points out that his writing also contained recurring descriptions of domestic life: “In his fiction, there is always someone asking someone to wait for tea, asking them to stay for lunch. I used to sometimes find them irritating. But he would say, ‘Domesticity is the only antidote to the human aggression around us.’”

Both Shanbhag and Kaikini agree that the Kannada literary establishment did not give him his due. The 1970s were the heyday of the Bandaya movement, which stressed on the social relevance of literature. In such a context, Chittal’s novels, says Kaikini scathingly, were “out of syllabus”. “The critics had no parameters to judge his work by. He was dismissed as a writer who writes about Bombay, as an urban writer — as if it is adequate to describe writers by their address,” says Kaikini, who jokes that he is a “Chittal chauvinist”.

When the iconic Kannada publishing house based in Dharwad, Manohar Grantha Mala — which printed works by AK Ramanujan, Girish Karnad, among many others — published Shikari, it became a sensation. In the final stages of its publication, Chittal had sent his publishers the cover of Frederick Forsythe’s thriller The Day of the Jackal. The first edition of Shikari, too, depicts a man silhouetted in the crosshairs of a rifle. “‘I had felt like a trapped rat,’ Chittal had told me when I asked him about what led him to write this novel,” says Shanbhag.

Nagappa is a hunted man in Shikari, but the novel’s complexity also arises from the fact that much of it happens in the protagonist’s mind. Pratibha Umashankar Nadiger, who translated the book in four months despite a debilitating illness, says,” “This is a very literary novel, and to translate it, I had to first decide firmly that I would not be intimidated by Chittal’s reputation.”

Author Vivek Shanbagh. (Express Photo by Amit Mehra)

Shikari is a portrait of extreme urban alienation. The Bombay Chittal describes does not correspond to the uplifting vistas you can see from the Taj, or what Chittal saw from his balcony. It is the inner city which seems to close in on Nagappa — the rumours that dog him in the Khetwadi chawl in which he lives, the news of his professional fall that is relayed to the Udupi restaurants he eats in, and the whisper campaign that follows him, even to his dive of choice.

The vast anonymity of the city is also no antidote to the memories of the violence of his own family. Nor does it free him from the tyranny of caste. “In that way, this is a typically Indian novel. The caste system from the village catches up with Nagappa in the lobby of the Taj hotel,” says Karnad.

What makes his work resonate with successive generations of writers, from Adiga to Kaikini, is this portrait of the individual as a cog in the machine, and the ambivalent relationship that develops between humans and wealth in cities. “A key sentence in Purushottama, for instance, was: the hero of this novel is he who can say no to money. Only after 1991, do larger parts of India experience this,” says Shanbhag.

Like his inspiration, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, the father of the Kannada short story, Chittal believed that storytelling was an act of poonya, a good deed. “It was not a naïve statement, given that his stories relate the mindless evil that humans can inflict on each other. Literature is one way of becoming human. It develops us, enhances us and brings out the good in us,” says Shanbhag. “He would say that medical science and literature were doing the same thing. Both of us are trying to understand man, his pain, his silence and trying to heal him,” says Kaikini.

For a man who lived away from his readers, in a house where no one could read the language he chiselled to such beauty — his mother tongue was Konkani, and neither his wife nor his two sons read Kannada —Chittal was centred in his work and writing. “It was everything to him. He would ask, ‘What is the point of living if I can’t write?’” says Kaikini.

Chittal died in March, 2014 at the age of 85. To the last, he kept reading and writing. Last month, a little over three years after his death, his family found the manuscript of the last novel he was working on, Digambara. “I had gone twice to his home to look for it, but couldn’t find it among his papers. Now, we are terribly excited about publishing it,” says Kaikini.

The city is an act of collective imagination, but writers — from Orhan Pamuk to Vikram Chandra, Charles Dickens to James Joyce — play no little part in filling the outline with colours. A lot of Chittal’s time was spent sitting in the balcony — which is a recurring trope in his fiction — watching the waves reach the shores of Bombay, which he said would “nag him to write”. “When he died, we decided to immerse his ashes in the sea. It seemed the right thing to do,” says son Ravi.

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