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Bharathipura (Oxford India Paperbacks) Paperback – 26 Jan 2012

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About the Author

U.R. Ananthamurthy, a teacher of English literature and one of India's leading contemporary writers, does all his creative writing in Kannada. A Jnanpith awardee and author of five novels, including the widely acclaimed Samskara (English translation, OUP 1976), he has six collections of short stories, five collections of poems, a play, and sixteen volumes of critical writings. He was Vice-Chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi University (Kerala) and President, Central Sahitya Akademi.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 5.0 out of 5 stars 2 reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars An engrossing story. An incredible overview of the Untouchables’ situation in 1950s India. 10 Sept. 2016
By Patrican - Published on
Format: Paperback
Bharathipura is an old-fashioned novel, with a captivating story that moves along Flaubertian lines: no pointless side-trips. At the same time, the story incorporates social observation reminiscent of Orwell’s ‘Wigan Pier’, as well as incisive personal introspection. It’s a remarkable package, and the English translation only enhances the pleasure.

It’s the late 1950s. Bharathi Pura is a rural town in south India, probably in Karnataka. The lower castes, the Shudras and Dalits, worship a god of the spirits, the bhoothi. Bhoothiraya has been their god from time immemorial. But, within the historical past the upper castes, the Brahmins, installed in the temple another god, Manjunatha, an incarnation of Shiva. Somehow, in a process mentioned but not described, the Brahmins convinced the lower castes that the spirit-god Bhoothi is an insignificant low-level god, completely subservient to the all-powerful Hindu god-of-creation, Shiva. Thus, the lower castes are unable to enter the temple; if they ever cross the threshold they will die immediately, vomiting and bleeding. Because Bhoothi now takes his orders from Shiva, he continually commands the lower castes to obey the upper castes. Impoverished tenant farmers not only pay exorbitant rents, they also give away much of their crop. The upper castes are effectively using the Hindu religion as a tool of oppression. At the bottom of the system are the untouchable shit-carriers, known locally as “holeyaru.”

Note that Ananthamurthy establishes all this background within the story line. It’s a remarkable writer who can bring such a peculiar situation so vividly to life simply via a natural, fluid, story.

A local young man, a landowner of great wealth, returns to Bharathi Pura from 5 years of university in England. He’s greatly troubled by the town’s unchanging, almost medieval, ways. Agricultural practices never change. There’s no cultural or technical movement of any kind. He often meets with his father’s old friends, most of whom were vigorously engaged in Gandhi’s peaceful revolution, at considerable personal cost. One of these friends is a Muslim, living in the Muslim quarter. Ananthamurthy paints a large well-populated canvas. Eventually the young man develops a plan to expose Shiva’s power as a sham. The plan requires him to take bold action, and to engage with the holeyaru. At the very least, he is sure that his own class will shun him as a traitor.

It’s an engrossing story, real-to-life with its everyday miscarries, confusion, surprises. Many different interests are engaged in cross purposes. Personal intrigues are everywhere. Nothing goes smoothly; no reader could ever predict how it turns out. Life is so tangled.

Gandhi’s revolution succeeded in wresting India from the British, but it failed utterly at ending the caste system. When Nehru came to power in 1947, his priorities were economic development and international politics. He also pushed improvement in the lives of children, especially their nourishment and education. But his administration was staffed largely by technocrats who had little time for Gandhi’s vision of a caste-free India. By the late 1950s, many of the aging Gandhi ‘warriors’ felt that they had achieved little more than a transfer of power from the British to the Brahmins. Particularly appalling was the role of the Hindu religion in maintaining the caste system, which did not originate in Hinduism. The original Vedic literature contains no mention of caste. It was probably introduced by the 16th century Mughal invaders as a way of co-opting parts of the population, as well as an administrative tool. The British took it even further, establishing a strictly defined classification system for their censuses. The false connection between Hinduism and the caste system is one of Ananthamurthy’s primary concerns here.

The book contains a lot of soul-searching by the rebellious young man and his colleagues. Two questions in particular loom large. (1) What is his true motivation? Is it his craving to be in the spotlight, to be renowned as a true Gandhi spirit? Or, is it for his own self-actualization? In several places he expresses severe disdain for intellectuals who do nothing but toss ideas back and forth. Only action can bring a man to life. Our hero also admits that he finds it impossible to love the lower castes. He feels he must do something. But why? (2) If his plan succeeds, will the upshot be beneficial for the lower castes? Clearly it’s going to cause social turmoil, and people may get hurt. People live by their faith; what right does he have to destroy it?

It seems possible to me that the soul-searching here is, in fact, Ananthamurthy’s own. He lived most of his life in Karnataka, as an academic and a writer. Although he spoke out against the caste system all his life, he never put his body on the line, aside from one unsuccessful run for parliament. Whether he’s justifying his inaction, or condemning it, the soul-searching here feels personal, self-referential.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 25 Sept. 2016
By Susan mass ad - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
his voice is very powewrful even 40+ years past.
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