Written by Rajendra Chenni
SL Bhyrappa, author of 24 novels and several non-fictional works, with probably the largest readership of all living Kannada writers, is a controversial figure. Mainstream Kannada criticism has been disapproving of the authorial manipulations, reinforced cultural stereotypes and the conservative brahminical ideology in his fiction. In the last two decades, Bhyrappa has published novels which are badly-written ideological tracts with themes in consonance with the right-wing agenda. Kavalu (2010) is a misogynistic attack on feminism and Aavarana (2007) is a communalised narrative of Indian history. Saartha (1998) alleges that Buddhism enervated Hindu valour and, thus, made India vulnerable to foreign invaders. However, he is also an enigmatic figure because, in his five-decade-old literary career, he has also produced some of the finest writing in Kannada fiction. Gruhabhanga (1970), Vamshavriksha (1965) and Parva (1979) are testimony to Bhyrappa’s great talent.
Uttara Kaanda (2017), recently translated into English by Rashmi Terdal, is one of the most significant novels in Kannada. A powerful narrative which demythologises the Ramayana, it deconstructs the epic from the perspective of Sita. In this long soliloquy, punctuated by other voices, a reflective Sita narrates her life with Rama. A foundling, discovered by the king Janaka in a furrow while levelling the ground for a sacrifice, she is marked by a deep sense of separateness and solitude. The greatest influence on her has been her “Appa” Janaka, who educates her in dharma and the philosophical systems. But her destiny had other plans. Few women could have survived, unscathed, what she experienced: marriage to Rama — which took place owing to his resolute defence of dharma in the face of Dasharatha’s opposition on the grounds that Sita is a foundling of an unknown caste — a 14-year-long exile, abduction by Ravana, war, and public humiliation when Rama cast doubt on her chastity twice. Sita meditates on the ambivalence in human relationships and wonders what happened to the Rama who would comb her hair with tender, almost maternal, love, protect her through the hardships of exile and teach her dharma by example? Did he do all that only because of his adherence to dharma, which she now sees as rigid and abstract. In the last sections, unequalled in intensity and transparency of language, Sita concludes that the present Rama, king of Ayodhya, is not the Rama she loved.
In this bold retelling, Sita refuses to sit with Rama as his wife to conclude the ashvamedha sacrifice and, when he dies, refuses to go to Ayodhya for the 10th-day rituals. She has realised that, born of mother earth, she can only be happy tilling land and leading a farmer’s life. She ask whether this is because of her abandonment by Rama. The novel convinces the reader this is not bitterness but a higher form of vishada yoga, deep contemplation on the unresolvable ambivalence of life. Dressed as a bride, the now-widowed Sita goes to eternal sleep in a furrow of the land she had been tilling, saying, “In my end is my beginning.”
The strength of the novel is the way in which Bhyrappa rewrites the epic as an earthly tale which could be happening next door. He had done it with the Mahabharata in Parva, and, in Uttara Kaanda, he moves close to the spirit of the Ramayana which is, first and foremost, a kaavya (poem) and not a dharmic text, as another great Kannada writer, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, had forcefully argued. Fleshing out the novel are original and distinctive recreations of Urmila, Lakshmana and Valmiki, as well as a host of characters like Sukeshi, Ahalya and Shabari.
The excellent translation by Terdal succeeds in staying close to the rhythms of the everyday speech employed by Bhyrappa to demythologise the Ramayana. She has also retained the narrative power of the original. It is a fine addition to the host of Indian literary works which explore the ‘Uttarakanda’ part of the Ramayana which, scholars say, was not by Valmiki but a later interpolation. In Indian literature, interpolations seem to provoke more original recreations than the original texts.
Rajendra Chenni is a writer and activist and former professor of English