Writer, philosopher, and teacher Sundar Sarukkai’s most recent work of fiction, Following a Prayer, is the story of 12-year-old Kalpana. The young girl, who lives in a village in Karnataka, goes missing one morning. When she returns, she has gone silent. Nothing can get her to speak. What happened in those three days? What prevents her from communicating with her parents and sister except through notes and scribbles? And why does her grandmother’s presence provoke such a strong reaction from her? As the village gets ready to celebrate Deepavali, a rumour spreads that Kalpana will speak on the day after the festival. What will she say, and what will be the impact of her words?

Talking about his novel, Sarukkai said he wanted to write about the way children think, and it was “natural” to ask these questions through his young protagonist. His novel is about the absence of language and yet, he emphasises, language is alive and is in fact a character too in the book. The novel is set in rural Karnataka and regarding this, the author said that even though he wrote the book in English, the “girls spoke to me in Kannada”.

In a conversation with Scroll, Sarukkai discussed another of his recent books, The Social Life of Democracy, whether Following a Prayer is more “philosophical” than other novels, and why reading the novel as a “Kannada text” can be a limiting experience. Excerpts from the conversation:

Two of your books have come out around the same time. One, a “critical” commentary on democracy, titled The Social Life of Democracy, and the other, a “philosophical” novel set in rural Karnataka, Following a Prayer. Emphasising these adjectives, I wish to ask whether the two genres operate differently for you as a thinker and author – and how.
When viewed through the framework of disciplines of philosophy and literature, these two books are different. But when seen from my perspective as an author, they are not too different. Both are an expression of my thinking through a set of themes. In the first case, I was worried about the idea of democracy and the challenges posed to it in recent times, and was also inspired by Ambedkar’s larger vision of democracy. These two preoccupations came together in this book.

There is an obvious difference between the two books in that the former is more rhetorical and aims to convince readers of my arguments for making democracy a part of our everyday lives. It was a delicate attempt to balance the demands of an academic text and the flow of a popular book. However accessible this book may be to a general reader, it is nevertheless a book with a particular form that differentiates it from my novel.

One way to capture this distinction is by recognising the particular role of emotion. In the novel, instead of using arguments as a rhetorical device, I am using language and stories to provoke certain emotions and thoughts. I am not stating my position and producing arguments in the novel. I am “telling” a “story” – as a consequence, the reader has to think in the gaps I have left. The story catalyses feelings and thinking in the reader. I don’t really talk about the themes in the novel – such as the idea of god, the meaning of prayers, the function of language, the nature of music etc – as I would if it was a work of academic philosophy.

Your emphasis on emotion, as opposed to an argumentative case, also seems to underlie a particular reader and what your novel has to offer to them. Do you consider it a unique possibility granted by fiction to, in your own words, catalyse feelings and thinking in the reader?
I invoked the age-old association of fiction with emotion because I was reminded of a reader’s comment who said he would suddenly burst out laughing while reading this novel. But by the end, he also felt that it emotionally disturbed him a great deal. Such responses will never be heard from readers of academic philosophical texts! Emotional responses are a less tedious way to incite thinking but are also limited in what we can do with it. I think, in this novel, I move more towards an emotional register because of the nature of the questions that arise in the novel. By locating these questions in the minds of young girls who learn how to explore, ask, and think, any reader can follow not just their thoughts but also the experiences producing these thoughts. Thoughts in the midst of our daily experiences and not merely in some inner recess of our “minds”.

I think fiction gave me the freedom to show how deep thinking arises amid our lives and amid “ordinary” social interactions. In academic writing, we tend to remove the lifeworld from the ideas we produce. That is useful, of course, but by doing so, we have colonised thought only to the realm of the mind. It is also why so much of fiction hesitates to engage with thinking as a mode of storytelling. Through my novel, I believe, I am also questioning this colonisation of thought to the mind.

Deep and insightful ideas often arise in the midst of our everyday preoccupations in everyday stories, but are often not seen as such. Some people may call this a “philosophical” novel, but what exactly does it mean? I think most good novels have philosophical themes in them, such as the nature of one’s life, the meaning of existence etc. They may not arise explicitly as such because the author may not want to stick with these questions. If my novel is seen as a philosophical novel, perhaps it is because I stick with the questions more than might be usual, as these questions are integral to the story.

Philosophical themes are not transplanted artificially into the story. I see this novel basically as a gripping story with some philosophical elements. It so happens that the questions which children ask, and the answers they discover, are also questions we think about but do not know how to ask. Fiction has the capacity to produce philosophical insights and cannot be seen purely as an experiential description or only as a particular form of narrative.

These days, many novels are described as “historical” novels. They are not history books per se. Most novels have a sociological element. Some of the more realist novels that describe social processes can be seen as “sociological” novels. But we don’t see them that way since the historical, psychological, and sociological have become part of what we call fiction today. We do not dismiss the claims of fiction in these genres.

But with philosophy, there is a different reaction. Philosophy, like everywhere else in society, remains on the margin of the world of fiction. I guess you could say that my novel is a philosophical novel, just like many others are sociological.

The sociological and psychological also operate in your novel, as they would in any other. Yet, the prioritising of the philosophical – by you, by the story, or by our reading – stands out. You briefly mentioned the marginal position of philosophy in the world of fiction, like everywhere else in society. Do you then think of this work of fiction in continuation of your vision and work at Barefoot Philosophers?
In a sense, yes. The Social Life of Democracy was also catalysed by the need to produce critical and deeper reflections by the public on the democratic process. In 2012, the National Book Trust published my book, What is Science?. This book was an attempt to share some basic philosophical ideas on science with the general public. I guess the Barefoot Philosophers was an idea that came about due to my enduring concern that academic work had become divorced and fractured from the social world. I used to do summer schools and workshops in philosophy for the public and non-specialists right from the time I started my career. The shift to the novel genre is not all that distant from these attempts. For me, novels were always an important medium for writing.

Following a Prayer is the third novel I have written, although it is the first one I tried seriously to get published. I have written a few plays before, and some have even been performed. It is not that I want to intrude into different domains. I write because I have to: I think through writing. Sometimes when I start writing, it leads to the form of a play, a story, or an academic work.

I have little idea of what I am going to write when I start – even in my academic books – and as I write, ideas begin to make more sense. I think there is an experiential sense to my writing – you may “see” ideas being formed as you read. My students have told me that when they read what I have written, they feel I am talking to them. Of course, editing repacks this flow based on the demands of the text. So what I am saying is that the novel is an innately natural medium for me to write. Even this novel was written in such a mood, as a way of thinking and being with the three girls.

So did I write the novel to make philosophy more accessible? No. That was not the reason at all.

Almost all my books have been triggered by very specific questions that I am seeking answers to. I had always been struck by the act of prayer and its relation to language. So I wanted to explore this relationship. I was convinced that this exploration could be done best through a story. After a long time, during the pandemic, I decided I would go back to writing fiction again. I had quit my job, was concerned with what academic jobs had become, and had also written my book, Philosophy for Children, by then.

So I took a notebook and started writing this story. I did an earlier version that began with the question – where does a prayer go? – that is asked by an adult character. After many pages, I realised I was bored of that story and chucked it! I think after my workshops with children on philosophy, I was confident to write about the way children think. So it was natural to make them ask these questions through the novel. Once I got the idea about Kalpana running behind a prayer and coming back silent, the novel was mostly done. Because of the three young girls in the story, philosophical questions had to arise organically through their experiences. I found that a most natural way to write.

You see philosophical questions arising organically from the life experiences of the three young girls. It makes one ask, is the novel, then, about situating philosophy in a life story, or is its emphasis on a break from language actually about a break from life – a movement from speech to silence? For we don’t generally spell out the questions the novel asks through its many characters – we think them, but we don’t speak.
Novels allow discussions that are otherwise difficult to do as an analytical text or in today’s political context. It is difficult to write about religion today, to talk about atheism, and to have critical questions about the nature of religious search. A novel allows me the freedom to deal with these themes more effectively and, ironically, more honestly. Thousands of young adults have questions about religion and god. They go through a phase of atheism. When these girls in the novel ask questions about the reality of god, it doesn’t seem offensive.

It is interesting that you ask whether the break from language in the story was actually a break from life. For me, the lifeworld of the girls and their surroundings are what create their thinking. This story was possible because they are so deeply immersed in the world around them – learning to pay attention to what they see and hear. So it is not a break from life but a call for a deeper immersion into life. The intellectual world leads us into a deeper immersion into language, but what does it mean for our daily lives? Where does language fit into our lives? As the girls ask, without language, will we be able to speak lies?

When they decide that dogs cannot lie because they do not have a language, we are confronted with this unique relationship we have with language. And when it is connected to the question of god – whether gods are also produced by our language – it no longer remains an abstract question. It is imbued with an urgency, an urgency that can only be expressed through a story.

There is another reason why language becomes so important in this novel. It is so in my earlier novels too. As a writer, I am extremely conscious of the language in which I am saying something, and I keep asking myself how it is that language can do the job that I want of it.

Often, when we read something, we are so caught up in the story that we take language for granted. We make language invisible and subservient to the story, plot, ending, drama etc. For me, language is alive. It is a character in the novel. I don’t want you to read without stumbling, without finding something awkward, or without stopping to wonder about what I am saying.

Neither do I want you to think that I have the language worked out to tell a story to you without you being aware constantly that the story is being created and constituted by the language I decide to use. In this novel, I purposefully chose a very simple narrative style since the themes were so deep. In so doing, I was also conscious of not giving into the aesthetic performance expected of English literature. My first novel was on death and time, but it is far more complex and dense in its writing.

Finally, you point out that the we don’t spell out the questions asked in the novel, although we think them. I agree. But why don’t we articulate them? Is it because we don’t know how to? Because we don’t know what to ask after the first question? In a sense, the three girls catalyse our thinking of our own questions that we didn’t know how to ask. I do believe it has something to do with the story and these three girls. It may not have worked with other characters trying to make us think what we don’t consciously think about. That is why I have found very strong responses to the lives of these girls from almost all readers of the novel.

For you, language is alive and a character in the novel. The story is set in rural Karnataka and written in English, with its characters asking questions about language – awkward and experiential – in the same register. You say you are creating and constituting the story by the language you decide to use. Have you, as a result, created a Kannada story, an English story, or a general story about the work of language?
A Bengali reader said that when she read the book, she felt like she was reading Bengali. A Tamil reader said something similar – when he read the book, he was reading Tamil in it. I must say I was not too surprised by these and other similar responses from those who read the novel because there is a specific experiment that I am doing with language in this novel. That may not be obvious to all readers. One reviewer, who is a translator of Kannada novels into English, completely dismissed this novel by “reading” it as a “Kannada” text and then comparing it to the literary tradition in Kannada. And this comparative mistake was compounded by a very restricted view of both language and translation.

This response showed the fault lines of understanding a novel purely in terms of the language in which it is written. The source of this mistake – not only in the position described above but also in that of those Kannada writers who have a deep suspicion of novels written in English about “their” world – is based on the belief that Kannada is just a language, a set of linguistic tokens strung together. Kannada, like other languages, is a culture. And that culture speaks in multiple versions of Kannada (and, therefore, potentially of English, too).

When we demand that the world of Kannada – which would include other languages spoken in Karnataka, including Tulu, Konkani, Kodava, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, English etc – be “faithful” to one person’s (or one group’s) interpretation of the Kannada language, it is a dangerous claim. What exactly is a Kannada story? Are all stories based in Karnataka Kannada stories? It is easiest to define it by identifying it with language, but that is precisely what I am questioning in writing this novel in English.

I wrote the book in English. The girls spoke to me in Kannada. I would ideally like to have written a novel in which both these languages are present. Would that have made my story a Kannada story? The world described in a novel does not have any one natural language associated with it. Each language used to describe the world, nature, people etc, produces images of these entities. A novel written in Kannada can only be true to the spoken aspects of that language by the people who inhabit that novel. Everything else can, in principle, be in another language!

You make an interesting distinction between speech and writing, positioning yourself between the Kannada you heard and the English you wrote. Is the author of this story then only an interlocutor translating between two worlds of language and thought? Thus “translated”, does the novel become an English story based in Karnataka or a Kannada story written in English?
Translation plays an important role in bringing novels written in Kannada to English readers. One might question the relevance of translation itself. Why translate Kannada texts into English other than to make these books available to other language readers? There is a growing industry of translating novels written in Indian languages into English. I have always felt that this was extremely important since so many good novels are written in these languages but are not read by a larger community within India and elsewhere. We need much more support for the translation of these novels.

But there is also a flip side to this development: a growing narrative that only novels written in these Indian languages are “authentic” and truly capture the societies described in these novels. Because of this self-proclaimed claim of authenticity, it becomes difficult to critically engage with translated novels. In this politics of authenticity, translators have become king-makers, if not kings themselves.

Translation itself is an understudied area in India. Theories of translation from diverse traditions, including Indian philosophies of language, are rarely studied and used. For some translators, the value of being a translator is primarily in functioning as the medium between one’s literary world and an other literary world. There is a danger that translators – if they are not sufficiently self-critical about their role – become like priests mediating between the gods and the people.

Here, the god or the true original entity is the novel in an Indian language, say Kannada. The self-important translator becomes the priest who sees themselves as the only agent capable of rendering that original text into the common language of the readers, say English.

When I wrote this novel, I was the author and the translator. And I chose not to translate those Kannada words in my mind into “proper” accepted English. It was a deliberate choice. It is often argued that a good translation should convert a text in Kannada into a similarly readable text in English. I questioned this claim in the way I wrote the text. The Kannada in my novel is a world that is unfamiliar to non-Kannada readers. I do not want a translation that will smoothen this unfamiliarity. Nor be cute or correct in my use of English to make the English text less awkward. My point was exactly the opposite. I wanted to keep the unfamiliarity of Kannada in the English novel. I did not want the reader to become so smoothly engrossed in the text (one way is through reproducing clichés in English) that they forget that this is a world they are not used to.

In translation, the unfamiliarity of another language is often reduced to exotic characters, locale, events, etc, but little is done to the language into which it is translated. I use translation as an alienation technique, like in theatre, to jolt the reader to recognise that all is not well in the language being used to tell the story. How do we produce the unfamiliar that is a mark of another language, another culture, in the translated text? That was my major experiment in the text, and I am surprised and glad that most “common” readers of the novel seemed to have grasped this element.

In translation, very often, dominant emphasis is placed on writing and meaning. But writing is fundamentally different from speech. How does one translate “sound” and not just words and sentences? After all, language is, first and foremost, composed of sounds. Kannada and English are differentiated as much by how they “sound”. Good translators (should) try to retain the prosody, cadences, and such of the original language. But in my novel, I was trying to retain some sense of the sound of Kannada.

It is thus not a surprise that readers think that they are actually reading an Indian language text. These sounds of another language, when superposed on a translated language, might sound odd at first. But that is really the point – to make the reader recognise that although they are reading a text in English, it is not the English they have become comfortable with, an English that has come with its own history and cultural baggage.

Now they have to “hear” English differently as they read the novel. You have to feel uncomfortable when you read across languages. The point of good translation is not to make you comfortable in another language. That is why I said that I am an author-translator. I am writing only in English but also translating from Kannada and finding ways to incorporate the sounds of Kannada into the English I write. In this sense, it is a Kannada story but yet not one.

Could you elaborate on the discomfort that being too familiar with something, say the world of Kannada in this case, produces? And what possibilities can an attempt to let the unfamiliarity and the unease remain in the reader engender? What is to be challenged here, if at all, especially in the context of your writing a novel about the cultural world of Kannada in English?
It was not easy to create deliberate linguistic phrases to jar the reader away from becoming too familiar in the translated language. I had many email exchanges with my editor about it. I explained to her why I wanted to keep phrases that were different and that sometimes might have sounded awkward. I was lucky I had such a fantastic editor, VK Karthika, who was so open to new ideas and also had a deep knowledge of language and literature.

Perhaps some of the anger of Kannada writers toward a novel in English about “their” world is as much anger about their own literary world. Average English writers may get more prominence than good Kannada authors, and that is a pity. But this cannot be a reason to be suspicious of any work written in English about the cultural world of Kannada. Knowing this problem, I took upon myself an added burden to make sure that I work as truthfully within the idiom of Kannada.

So, yes, I do see this as a novel about the cultural world of Kannada (a world that includes its language). It opens up this world to readers in other languages. But at the same time, it also opens up a world of ideas that are universally expressed in every language, such as the meaning of language, of gods, of prayers in their languages and so on.

The three girls in the novel discuss whether all our languages are a lie. That message is present at the heart of the novel, a message that makes me question whether any story I tell using language can ever be truthful. There are many such markers about language and about reading this novel. It is simple enough that youngsters can read it, but there is enough complexity in it that can make an intelligent adult reader want to read it a second time.

The challenge for me was to produce a language and not just use what is accepted as “correct” language. It means taking ownership of English, modifying and mutating it as required, and reflecting critically on how language functions. Thus, to very casually claim that English itself does not have the wherewithal to do the work of telling stories of rural India, for example, is a flawed assumption. It is based on fundamentalist and essentialist assumptions about language and its relation to culture. Such attitudes about culture, in general, are what lead to right-wing fundamentalism. It is the lethal combination of arrogance (that one knows best a culture, a language, a religion, etc) and ignorance (about the basic foundations of culture, language, religion, etc) that leads to such fundamentalist views.