Karimayi, by the Jnanpith laureate Chandrasekhar Kambar has recently been translated from Kannada into English by Krishna Manvalli. Karimayi is the name of the village goddess, and the fable-like novel is about the clash of values between an older order represented by the Gowda (a dominant caste in Karnataka), and the more youthful order represented by Gudsikara. As the novel is set before Independence, Gudsikara’s ideals chiefly represent modernity (to make the village more like the neighbouring city Belagavi), and technologies such as the radio, electricity, etc.

The novel seeks to differentiate itself from conventional social realism by having the narrative voice mimic a “folk” quality. This essentially means that the voice seeks to be colloquial and oral, referencing local myths of temples, gods and so on. This works insofar as it makes the novel occasionally more engaging and humorous.

However the larger move away from realism to “folk” is less convincing. There are few categories today as musty as the idea of “folk”. Often, it is a cover for deeply unexamined and conservative tendencies. In Karimayi, the narrative sympathy is clearly with the Gowda. He is trusting, thoughtful, a perfect aesthete and patron, belonging to the first family of the village: “It’s a real pleasure to see him laugh. In that fair face, his teeth look like a row of pomegranate seeds…women can’t help stealing glances at him.” In contrast, Gudsikara is prone to anger, impatience, alcohol, lust, jealousy, loquacity and self-aggrandisement.

Glossing over realities

The Preface (by the author) and the Introduction gloss over this. The Preface contains an unexamined rhetoric of myth/folk/community, while the eulogistic Introduction writes of the “South Indian non-brahmin myth” conveniently gliding over the more uncomfortable relations of the dominant, landowning middle castes (such as the Gowda), with the disadvantaged. It remains unclear what exactly Gowda stands for, and this difficulty of articulating the substance of tradition – beyond the avowed self-interest of the rural landowner and the cultural forms he patronises – is a key weakness of the rhetoric of “tradition”.

In terms of the plot, disadvantaged communities – such as the “village eunuch Ningu”, who kills his father and wife for their incestuous affair with each other – are reduced to plot-catalysts having little subjectivity of their own. The term “eunuch” itself necessarily remains an insufficient translation. There is no effort to understand Ningu’s feelings about his action, for all the other characters immediately interpret his feelings in terms of village honour, state justice etc.

Unsurprisingly, this is the case with all the women characters too, who too stand for types such as city-actress, “whore from the next village”, or traditional melodramatic plot-points like unwanted pregnancies. If one plays with types, then all should be typecast equally, and not have subjective value given only to male dominant caste values. Thus the Preface and Introduction, which might have better served to historicise the idea of the “folk” in the 1970s (if indeed it had value then) serves in the present work only as simple encomium.

Vignetted storytelling

The plot of the novel concerns how Gudsikara and Gowda disagree on how to punish the eunuch. Gowda feels that the matter should be hushed up and resolved in the village itself, whereas Gudsikara wishes to involve the police and judiciary. Since the novel is a series of vignettes, there is little demand for intricate plotting. A chapter on a new personality is followed by a chapter on the description of the village, which is followed by a description of an event or dream or hunt, and so on. Hence the principal early issue of the eunuch’s violence can be indefinitely deferred.

What might have been more beneficial than the conventional city-versus-village conflict would have been to attempt to trace the eunuch’s subjective journey through the criminal justice system as it extends from village to city to jail or freedom. Instead, the introspective weight of the novel focalises on Gowda and Gudsikara, but is unable to give either a sense of evolving complexity.

Where the novel succeeds is a certainly fluency and mastery of narrative flow. One gets the sense of the author being able to leisurely detach or involve himself, and determine pace, lyricism and humour. There is the occasional toying with a mock-didactic Kanthapura-esque tone. If one ignores the rhetoric of village mystification – all those looming but ultimately inept gods – there are fine touches in the interstices. For example, Gudsikara seeks to win the villagers over by putting up a different kind of play, one that uses electric lighting and female actors from the city, and the play serves as proxy for popularity and elections. Given Karnataka’s fertile theatre traditions this might even have been historically plausible. The easy descriptive quality of the prose – of plays, temples, caste-gods, masks, percussionists, pickpockets – allows one an informed tour of a world that can and must sometimes be seen as rebellious, joyous, drunk with being.

Karimayi, Chandrasekhar Kambar, translated from Kannada into English by Krishna Manvalli, Seagull Books.