Book Review – Kusumabale: A Lover’s Death, and the Novel as Rebellion

From realism to Dalit-Bandaya writing, Devanoora Mahadeva’s Kusumabale challenged many norms of Kannada literature. An English translation, while competent, flattens his linguistic innovations.

Written by Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi | Updated: May 16, 2015 12:00:14 am
kusumabale, kusumabale book review, kannada books, kannada book review, devanoora mahadeva, devanoora mahadeva book review, susan daniel, susan daniel translation, susan daniel book review, oxford books, indian express book reviews Along with other early Dalit writers, Mahadeva had made Shudra and Dalit lifeworlds appropriate subject matters for literary exploration and had fashioned a new literary language to describe them.

Title: Kusumabale
Author: Devanoora Mahadeva, translated from the Kannada by Susan Daniel
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 152, Price: Rs 250

The publication of the Kannada classic Kusumabale was a milestone in Kannada literary history. By the time it was written in 1984, the Dalit-Bandaya (or Rebellion) school had established a robust presence. Its author, Devanoora Mahadeva, had already been recognised as the most talented Kannada writer of his generation, despite his modest literary output. Along with other early Dalit writers, Mahadeva had made Shudra and Dalit lifeworlds appropriate subject matters for literary exploration and had fashioned a new literary language to describe them. Yet, despite emerging from within the mainstream Dalit literature, Kusumabale is a major departure, as it constituted a challenge to the form of the novel itself. In this slender novel, Mahadeva attempted to imagine the political through the aesthetic, thus reversing the basic tenet of Dalit literary imagination.

Since its inception, the Kannada fictional imagination had been guided by realism. Writers had fashioned an appropriate literary language to go with this. Kusumabale constitutes a challenge to this realist tradition of writing fiction and short stories. Here, Mahadeva eschewed a linear narrative, created spirits and other extra humans as significant characters and introduced an element of the fantastic to the narrative. He dissolved the boundaries of poetry and prose, with the narrative language and descriptive style being quite similar to the rhythm and language used in folk epics, particularly the Male Mahadeshvara epic.

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Moreover, when Mahadeva sought to capture the social life of caste relations, social mobility, cheating, and adultery, he did so in a non-ideological fashion. He didn’t limit himself to the portrayal of the experiences of untouchability and caste relations from the perspective of the exploited.

The novel is ostensibly about the murder of an untouchable young man, Channa, who has an affair with Kusuma, an upper-caste girl. But the plot is more complex as it introduces numerous characters and describes social reality through the perceptions of these characters; even Channa’s murder is narrated through mythical retellings and not through a realistic portrayal of what happened to him.

It could be argued that Mahadeva reintroduced realism into his novel by scrupulously projecting the folk worldview of that region. In doing so, he departed from the fierce commitment to hyperrealism in Dalit writing. Progressive writers accused Mahadeva of prioritising the aesthetic over the political. Hence, they branded Kusumabale as a work written in bad faith.

Mahadeva’s most significant, and perhaps most controversial innovation, was to use the spoken language of the Chamarajanagar region, not just for dialogues, but for narrative purpose as well. This move alienated even Kannada littérateurs, some of whom demanded that Kusumabale be translated into Kannada. In dismissing Mahadeva’s linguistic innovation, his critics missed how a regional dialect had been transformed into literary language.

Mahadeva used long, running sentences often following the poetic rhythms of both oral and classical poets; he also used two verbs in combination or a verb and an adverb to enhance the intensity of description of action. More significantly, Mahadeva also democratised language by making non-human entities as characters or subjects of experiences. For instance, “worry” becomes a character and enters into conversation with humans. Mahadeva’s stylistic and linguistic choices produced a new form of prose, which his critics felt made Kusumabale inaccessible to the general reader. But from a literary historical perspective, the novel represented the beginning of something new, though ironically not emulated by other writers. Mahadeva himself abandoned writing fiction and has published only one collection of essays since 1985.

Now three decades later, as Kusumabale appears in English, Mahadeva’s aesthetic strategies return to haunt the translator. The novel demands the fashioning of a new literary language in English, one that can capture the lyrical quality of long complex Kannada sentences (or stanzas as pointed out above) and recognise the subject of each sentence. If Susan Daniel’s translation doesn’t capture the literary historical dimensions of the novel, that’s because she has chosen to be pragmatic and prioritised readability in English. Her choices, however, flatten Mahadeva’s true linguistic innovation. Yet Daniel has produced a competent and eminently readable translation although one may quibble on occasion about her choice of words (shandy for weekly market, for instance), the break-up of chapters and chapter titles. Daniel’s “Translator’s Note” and Vivek Shanbhag’s introduction enhance the value of this publication.

The reviewer is a critic based in Mysore.

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