In Brink, SL Bhyrappa's depiction of romantic love and stream of consciousness style find a perfect translation
SL Bhyrappa and his translator R Ranganath Prasad discuss the themes of Brink (Anchu), how he developed his style, and why romantic love is not always a happy thing.
A depressed, suicidal woman meets a man who eventually helps her out of her mental illness, their love eclipsing any need for a psychiatrist. It’s what seemed to me, at first glance, a deeply problematic premise. And it’s to challenge this snap judgment that I decided to read Brink.
Through telling the story of an individual, and portraying that person’s truth with empathy, fiction fully engages with and validates a life story. It brings back complexity to a vocabulary of thinking that focuses on groups and stereotypes. Brink reminded me that there might very well be a woman somewhere tackling depression, not comfortable going to a psychiatrist, and through the support of a lover, finding the strength to combat her mental illness.
A testament to the intellectual prowess and imaginative power of author SL Bhyrappa, a towering figure of Kannada and Indian literature, Brink was first published in 1990 as Anchu, and has now been translated by R Ranganath Prasad for English-language audiences. The novel details the love saga between Amrita, an estranged, depressed, literature professor, and architect and widower Somashekhar.
On the back cover of the book, Prasad quotes an excerpt from a talk given by author and scholar Dr R Ganesh about the book, which explains the choice of title, perfectly capturing Amrita’s mental state:
‘Brink’ is the apex of passion – a point at which one either regresses to safety or tumbles over detrimentally. The term ‘brink’ is both apposite and guileful. At the very moment we choose to resign to the culmination, or think that it is cessation time for our clamour and desires, some force somewhere transports us back to the core. It either thus transports us of shifts the frame so that we find ourselves at the core of a new situation despite being stationary.
The basic idea for this novel was based on a real-life story Bhyrappa had heard, of a woman who was cheated by her aunt, and neither being able to take revenge nor accept what had transpired, spewed all her anger at a person who was close to her and comforting her. “Later I came into contact with a psychiatrist, and read some books on psychiatry,” Bhyrappa tells Firstpost about his research process. “Those who suffer from depression vent their anger on those who give them comfort. Normally, people will express their anger at those who cheated them. But when they cannot do that, they vent their anger on the people who show affection.”
With this, he set his imagination to work, crafting astoundingly real characters, their stream of consciousness displaying Bhyrappa’s acute mindfulness; every sentence falls exactly where it must, none of his characters’ thoughts escaping the writer’s pen. “I don’t plan my characters very consciously. As I go on writing, the story develops, and as the story develops, the characters also develop,” he says. This writing technique is something he has spent several years mastering, supplemented by knowledge about the different literary traditions he has acquired. “Because I have studied literature, I’ve read most of the Indian and European novels and all that. I have also studied philosophy and studied the nature of stream of consciousness. So all these techniques emerge in my imagination automatically, depending upon the situation,” says Bhyrappa.
Besides my own, other reader responses are also testament to the mastery with which Bhyrappa’s characters are developed. “When medical practitioners and psychiatrists read the novel, they said it was a wonderful case study. But actually, it is not a case study, it’s a literary creation,” he says with a laugh.
To fully lay down the intricacies of the characters’ minds, Bhyrappa employs a writing style where the stream of consciousness, encompassing several disjointed thoughts, runs for long spaces as one sentence. “The stream of consciousness is very typical of him and you can find it in every one of his novels,” says Prasad. Bhyrappa also easily shifts perspective, narrating what’s actually happening in the story, the author’s perspective or commentary on it, and the characters’ thoughts and dialogues; sometimes all switches occur during the course of a single sentence. “This stream of consciousness does not adhere to grammar. You’ll experience it yourself. One thought is going on in your mind, suddenly another thought will get in even before this is completed, and those need not be even closely related. So he writes with thrust. He’s a consistent writer, there is no inconsistency,” adds Prasad.
Translating such a work meant Prasad sometimes had to break one sentence into several smaller ones, and selectively retain such intra-sentence perspective switches. While with a new language minor structural and narrative changes were necessary, Prasad’s translation successfully guides readers through the story, and although the narrative switches so frequently, as a reader I was never confused about thought, dialogue, and perspective.
Besides his skill in translation, this is also a reflection of his approach to translating, since Prasad’s aim as a translator has been to be entirely invisible. “The first rule of translation is that the translation element should not be visible,” says Prasad. The focus should be communicating the story as closely and accurately as possible, without making oneself felt, believes Prasad. “When you’re before a Goliath like Bhyrappa, nobody would take [changes] lightly,” he adds.
This writing style, while a challenge to translate, is a treat for the reader, offering an immersive reading experience. For instance, as their relationship develops, one notices an unhealthy behaviour pattern. At every stage, as they get more intimate, Amrita snaps at Somashekhar and they fight. Each time he vows not to go back to such a hurtful woman. Yet they reconcile, both having suffered extensively in the interim.
As a reader, one often wants to tell Amrita not to take that thing he said so personally and that no, as a reader I’ve been in his mind, trust me, he didn’t mean it like that. And tell Somashekhar not to keep huffing and running away from his own feelings, but try to understand why she may have behaved that way, since as a reader I’ve been in her mind, and her cruelty is not a true reflection of how she feels about you.
But Bhyrappa takes his time, portraying the same cycle, with a greater intensity each time. As the characters become more invested in their love, so does the reader. And when not the characters, one wants to rail at the author, asking, did you write this to highlight how hard it is to love someone who has depression? At other times to ask, can you read minds? There were times I wanted to fling the book at a wall, and other times I slept with it in my arms. While reading, I’ve shared love-hate relationships with both the characters and the author.
I consider it a victory of fiction that it can invoke such strong, contradictory feelings in a reader, that it can so fully express an aspect of the human condition.
In Brink, Bhyrappa explores every facet of romantic love, detailing the moral, philosophical, and physical aspects upon which a relationship is built. He points to morality as the primary component for love to develop, and then philosophises about the inevitability of pain when experiencing love. It’s also once these stages are past that the love develops into a mature, peaceful experience.
On the surface, romantic love is essentially attraction between two people. “But when there is mutual goodwill, and a moral basis for their relationship, then gradually the love becomes mature,” says Bhyrappa. A couple might be happy together but this cannot be sustained if one of them comes across someone more attractive and leaves their current partner. For love to last, there has to be commitment. “And commitment is always moral,” says Bhyrappa. “For genuine love, there is moral commitment. Then only love develops.”
In the early stages of this developing love, Bhyrappa points to the certain existence of suffering, highlighting with Amrita and Somashekhar’s turbulent relationship how deeply love and pain are intertwined. “Love is not always happy. Once a person falls in love, there is anxiety, and expectation, and sometimes anger, even for small things. So it is always a tumultuous thing,” says Bhyrappa. “It is not like the love of a mother and a child, that’s not tumultuous. Whereas [with] romantic love, especially in the adolescent or early period, there is always disturbance. It is not always an enjoyable thing.” He elaborates on this with an anecdote about a newly married couple:
A wife has prepared special food, and the husband promises to be home by one in the afternoon. But it’s 1.30, 2, 2.15, and he hasn’t come home. “And when he comes so late, do you think she welcomes him with a smile?” No, she will berate him about how she waited and how the food has now gone cold. Add to this, suppose he’s disturbed as well. He wanted to leave office early so he could reach home on time for the meal, but his boss gave him some urgent work to complete before going. It’s not usual for the boss to assign last-minute work like this, but today he had that extra work to get through. “He also feels disturbed and angry about his boss but he cannot express it before his boss. He must show a smiling face.” And then when he comes home, she doesn’t sympathise, or inquire about what happened at the office or why he’s late. “If she asked such soothing questions, then he feels happy with his wife. And then he hugs her. But suppose she doesn’t do it and starts shouting, and he also starts shouting, then whatever good food she has made, he’ll say ‘to hell with it, I’m not eating it’. And she won’t eat it either.” Each then will storm off to separate rooms.
“So in love, if there is not sufficient maturity, and sufficient moral maturity, disturbances always happen. Romantic love is not always a happy thing,” explains Bhyrappa.
It’s once a couple is past this stage that their love settles into a mature, comfortable routine. For Amrita and Somashekhar, reaching this point meant first addressing the main cause of her depression. Her aunt had cheated her out of her ancestral property, and gotten her married to someone she didn’t want so she could further secure the property. These betrayals weigh heavy on Amrita’s life. But unable to express her anger at her aunt, the emotions suffocate her from within.
She’s suicidal, holding up a revolver almost every night, but unable to pull the trigger. It is through Somashekhar’s encouragement that she later sets about finding a lawyer, taking her aunt to court, and slowly making her way out of this mess. She then clarifies that she’s only going to look after the property till her sons are adults and can take over, and that her own expenses will be handled by the money she earns through her own hard work, not relying on the property at all.
Through this, Bhyrappa is exemplifying certain lessons taught in the Bhagavad Gita. First, that one must face challenges instead of cowering down. “What the Bhagavad Gita says is, you have to fight. You should not submit yourself to injustice,” says Bhyrappa. With the decision to go to court, Amrita, after years of being exploited by her aunt, is finally fighting back. It also ties into nirlipti, a value detailed in the Gita, translated as selflessness, unaffectedness, or disconnectedness. “So what does it mean? She gives up her attraction or desire for even the ancestral property. Therefore, fighting with detachment. This is [expressed in the] Bhagavad Gita. And taught to her by Somashekhar. Therefore it’s not psychology, there is a philosophy, and this philosophy helps her come out of the mental problem,” says Bhyrappa.
While Somashekhar’s suggestions and guidance are what Amrita is following, it is important to clarify that it is she who actually implements the changes. Following a fight, the couple are in the midst of a long spell of not talking when Amrita, by herself, goes out to find a lawyer and sets the legal proceedings into action. Though she refuses to see a psychiatrist, Somashekhar doesn’t cure her of her depression, nor works as a knight in shining armour who dispels all her problems. A compassionate individual advantaged with clarity, he offers her support and perspective while she brings herself out of her own depression, as can be the only way; making what seemed a problematic premise an endearing, and startlingly honest, love saga.
Brink by SL Bhyrappa, translated by R Ranganath Prasad, is published by Niyogi Books
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