In UR Ananthamurthy's seminal novel Avasthe, rare insights into the human condition
Politics can make things better, UR Ananthamurthy seems to suggest, but only if its wellspring is a love of the world, not a desire to conquer it.
UR Ananthamurthy's 1978 Kannada novel Avasthe, in a chiselled new English translation by Narayan Hegde, is presented to us as “an allegory that suits our times even more than the times when it was written”. At least, those are the poet K Satchidanandan's words on the first page of the translated volume, published at the fag end of 2020. And it is true that Ananthamurthy's protagonist Krishnappa Gowda – poor Shudra boy-turned-revolutionary peasant leader, now immobilised by paralysis and parliamentary politics — spends much of the novel contemplating how best to engage with the corruption of the body politic, represented by defections, money, the backing of industrialists — and an unnamed prime minister with dictatorial desires.
It is also true, however, that from the absurd heights of 2021, even that disturbing moment in the life of the nation looks immeasurably distant. This is despite the fact that Avasthe unfolds in the long shadow that Indira Gandhi's Emergency cast over Indian democracy. It also describes, in unforgettable and graphic detail, the police state, its violence already institutionalised and banal. One of Krishnappa's mentors is arrested and killed in a fake encounter, and when a youthful Krishnappa protests, he finds himself in jail, suffering excruciating torture.
What makes that world unrecognisable is that Krishnappa seems authentic even in decline. Edging towards chief ministership, he contemplates his own power with mingled thrill and distaste. He may compromise for his health and to provide some middle-class comforts to his long-suffering wife and child, but he is aware of each step away from his ideals. His rest cure at an urban farmhouse makes Krishnappa feel disconnected, but his roots aren't yet severed. In one of the novel's loveliest moments, his mother brings him tender mango pickle, asking him to identify the particular village tree the fruit was picked from. I felt an inexplicable joy when Krishnappa passed the taste test.
Krishnappa is no uncomplicated hero. When we meet him, he is bedridden and nearly immobile, his legendary rages reduced to ineffectual tears – but still hitting his wife.
Yet his capacity for reflection and change gives him a rare appeal. And that capacity is shaped by the people he has been close to. In Ananthamurthy's fluid telling, we hurtle from person to person, bumped along by Krishnappa's stream of consciousness. The first to see something special in him is the memorable Maheshwarayya — a “great pleasure-loving man” who is “also a great ascetic”. Hearing the young Krishnappa sing on the riverbank, Maheshwarayya tells him: “What a dumb boy! All this time you haven't understood who you are, have you?” Giving his stupefied family a talking-to, he arranges for Krishnappa to live in a hostel so that he can continue his education. Later, Krishnappa meets Annaji, a leftwing organiser who teaches English as a cover – and for a living.
If Maheshwarayya represents a traditional feudal Indian masculinity that exposes the goatherd boy to classical music and Sanskrit poetry, Annaji is his introduction to modernity. He opens Krishnappa's mind to the contradictions of politics – and life. What the two men discuss are the questions of the mid-20th century: What is the relationship of workers to production? What is the role of religion in society? Is romance bourgeois? Does individualism lead to fascism? Krishnappa and Annaji don't just dream of revolution, but argue about what it would mean for ordinary people. All political dispensations are up for criticism, at the level of the village, the party, the country, the world.
Then a rot sets in, its banality revealed in Krishnappa's cringeworthy marriage, and the worshipful Nagesh to whom Krishnappa is dictating his memoirs. Yet now, on his sickbed, he suddenly finds himself able to hear criticism again: from his scathing younger colleague Nagaraj, his old love Gowri, but most of all, himself. “That he can talk contemptuously of the corrupt makes him pleased with himself, but it also worries him that deriving such pleasure has now become a habit with him.”
This self-reflexivity makes Krishnappa endlessly interesting – whether he is remembering the complexity of his filial relationship with “the brahmin Joisa” (his village teacher), the caste politics of his university days, or his response to Annaji's way with women – simultaneously judgemental and jealous.
Such honesty forces the reader to be honest, too. An insistent openness about love and sex, in fact, is at the heart of the novel, with Ananthamurthy displaying a rare ability to parse the politics of sexuality in the Indian context. Again, Krishnappa's strength is to learn as he lives. So, for instance, his early mentor Maheswarayya is described as “so decent towards women of respectable families that he would not look at them” – while also having a fancy for prostitutes. That seeming contradiction resolves itself later, when Annaji tells Krishnappa that seeing women as sacred is part of his feudal upbringing: “Tell me, why is a woman sacred? Because she is someone's property... Those who say she is sacred are themselves wifebeaters, who think women are good only for cooking, for singing and as ornaments.”. It still takes practically a lifetime for Krishnappa to unblock himself, to stop being one of those millions of Indian men who “regard the women who are willing to sleep with them as trash”. But he manages it. By the end, he is able to wish the same to others, with generosity and without judgement.
For me, the crux of this magnificent novel lies in Krishnappa's realisation that politics is inseparable from life, and yet, life is greater than politics. Politics can make things better, Ananthamurthy seems to suggest, but only if its wellspring is a love of the world, not a desire to conquer it. I closed Avasthe with the fervent hope that we may again have politicians who can hear the wind in the bamboos, who can experience sex as something deep rather than shallow, who have old friends that laugh at them.