Some books are intuitive and prescient. They have a way of catching our eye, snuggling into our hands, traveling with us across distances, staying up late with us in bed. Some books find us when we need them the most.

Vivek Shanbhag’s Kannada novel, Ondu Badi Kadalu (One Side The Sea, 2007) has been such a companion to me in recent weeks. Reading an entire novel in Kannada posed a formidable proposition even though I can speak, read and write the language with fair proficiency. My childhood was a splintering between languages as often transpires with children whose parents’ job(s) takes them across state (linguistic) borders within India. We spoke Konkani at home but no printed literature in Konkani had come my way when I first discovered books (in English), and Kannada was still an unknown entity to me.

Kannada made an emphatic entrance in my life when I was telescoped all the way from the alphabet to the start of a fourth grade text book on account of my father’s untimely job transfer from Panjim to Bangalore. I was eight years old, sent ahead to stay with family friends for a few weeks, my first time without parents, deeply absorbing the weight of unfamiliarity. Something of that fear (whether of uncertainty or language) tarried in me.

I now write novels and teach literary studies for a living (often my class reads Indian texts in translation). In recent times I have also read and written about an exceptional Kannada novel – Sharapanjara (Cage of Arrows, 1965) by Triveni – because there was a literary argument I felt compelled to make. But would I read a Kannada novel entirely for pleasure?

I was desirous but hesitant, self-doubting. However, when the covid-19 pandemic forced isolation on me, I found myself unexpectedly reaching out to Ondu Badi Kadalu.

Drama in the delta

Vivek Shanbhag’s slim, powerful, perfectly constructed novel Ghachar Ghochar (2013) when translated to English by Srinath Perur (2015) was enthusiastically embraced by the literary community – the accolades, reviews, translations in other languages all testify to this. But so little else by Shanbhag has been translated to English, truly a loss to the wider literary readership, and Ondu Badi Kadalu convinces me again of this.

The novel is set in the coastal district of Uttara Kannada in Karntaka and the title comes from a poem by Dinakar Desai that celebrates the beauty of the place (“one side the Sahyadri, one side the sea/in between fronds of areca and palm”) as also a deeper longing and belonging (“I will be born here again”). Shanbhag reflects on this in his introduction to the novel, about the several rivers that join the sea in this region – a mingling that looks peaceful from a distance but at close quarters reveal great tumult.

This drama of the delta thus becomes a metaphor for the lives of the people in the region who are grappling with change. I have known few novels that can unfalteringly balance the demands of an intricate plot alongside profound lingerings of affect not rigidly tied to that same plot. Lives that seem placid and conventional from a distance may contain furious undercurrents, or personal choices that appear intensely rebellious may have no long-term reverberations – the mastery of the writing lies in the meticulous unfolding of this narrative scape.

Multi-storeyed and multi-layered

Ondu Badi Kadalu keeps returning to a young male character called Purandara who, having lost his father at a young age, has to struggle his way to a college education and secure job. The time period of the novel stretches for several years and reference to changes in the banking system pegs it around the early seventies. Purandara’s maternal uncle is married to one among four sisters – two of these sisters are hoping Purandara will marry their only daughters, and most episodes of the novel are linked to the shifting emotions around Purandara’s desired wedding.

If the family tree appears tangled or confusing, it does not matter, for the novel does not carry even the slightest strain of explicating it. No character feels minor or major, each one of them framed with equal delicacy, the same loving detailing and same affective impartiality.

There is also a parallel plotline of a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, both widowed at the age of twenty, and the transformation to their lives brought about by a trivial preoccupation of Purandara’s while he is in the tenth grade – his gathering fallen mangoes from a backyard with contentious boundaries. It takes a writer like Shanbhag to execute multiple interlocked plot-points and profound emotions (or sections that are entirely “mood pieces”), even as he lovingly and repeatedly places the seemingly mundane at the heart of his telling. This brings us to the question of genre or rather the defiance of it.

Literary scholars are too quick to talk in terms of the social realist narrative (the Victorian novel with its extensive social scape) and the modernist (with its formal inventiveness and the “ache of modernism” as Thomas Hardy writes in Tess of D’Urbervilles) without adequately accommodating the many spaces in between. Ondu Badi Kadalu contains extensive detailing of place, family and social mores of the social realist novel as well as the “luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” that Virginia Woolf attributed to modern fiction.

However, Shanbhag’s novel does not fully settle into the preoccupations of social realism; nor is it pinned to the modernist aesthetic. It is perhaps an astute amalgamation, perhaps a proud standalone – but either way a storytelling triumph.

Language as narrative

As I slowly made my way through the 214-page novel, marvelling at its filigreed narrative intonations, I slowly became aware of a curious sensation. I was reading Kannada but I was hearing Konkani. An explicit reference to caste and language is made on page 53 (2018 edition by Akshara Prakashana) – the characters belong to the Goud Saraswat Brahmin community that speaks Konkani – and yet I was aware of the cadence of Konkani in the Kannada dialogues from the opening pages of the novel.

In the coastal region that Shanbhag writes about, both these languages coexist in proximity. Nonetheless, there is a cultural and linguistic pooling that sets Konkani apart from the official language of the state, and it is this blended apart-ness that Shanbhag effortless places on the page while showcasing the literary dexterity of Kannada.

Perhaps my own roots in Konkani helped me in the reading, but the storytelling register (an observant and untethered third person voice) never falters from its nuanced consistency. Not only did I feel the pure delight of reading sentence after sentence “as clean as a bone” (the goal of writing articulated by James Baldwin) in a language to which I had limited literary exposure (Kannada), but I also felt the warm blanketing of another language that was also mine (Konkani).

In a country where we move between several languages, this nesting and layering of linguistic consciousness as narrative device and affect is significant. It should make us wonder how the delicate minutiae of the book would fare in translation, a worthy challenge that I hope many translators will attempt.

Ondu Badi Kadalu turned out to be the book that reached out to me when I needed it the most. Stranded alone in a hostel room in a foreign country with mostly overcast skies, making my way through terminals and airports for a trying journey in a pandemic, isolated for days in a room with sealed windowpanes, this book kept alive in me the scent of the coastline where my home awaits me. It stirred memories of people and languages, it reminded me of the frailty and grit that form the human heart, the way we stride into the eye of emotional storms and survive.