In all his fiction, UR Ananthamurthy does more than narrate a story; he interrogates it. In his hands, the story must speculate on its own tale, search for meaning, and teem with ideas. Accordingly, while the plot of his novel Avasthe concerns itself with the life and times of the political leader Krishnappa Gowda, its pith lies in the questions it asks through the protagonist’s life.

What kinds of politics do we embrace and champion? Why do we need political revolutions? Is political engagement a means for better lives, or are our lives vehicles for political engagement? Does spirituality have answers to questions that politics fails to even consider? Can we love – supposedly a personal and pleasurable activity – while mired in politics? Is love a pure experience? Are we living, and well? From the specific to the general, Ananthamurthy packs entire questions about the individual and the world into this slim volume.

The Ananthamurthy touch

At the outset, Avasthe shares many themes with Ananthamurthy’s more well-known novels, Samskara and Bharathipura: the existential conflicts of the male protagonist; the politics of caste; the redemption of sexual union; relationships defined by norm and necessity and those forged by desire; the force of the ungraspable mystical world; a search for equality and integrity. In his brief afterword, Prayaag Akbar also reads Samskara and Avasthe together as exposés of the hypocrisy of great men. And in a biographical study of Ananthamurthy’s works, DR Nagaraj posits that Bharathipura and Avasthe explore the “making of a rebel.”

Samskara and Bharathipura, though, are rooted in the inner towns and villages of Karnataka, with critiques of tradition arising from within its structures. Avasthe spans villages and cities and states – Bangalore, Warangal, Delhi – populated with ideologues of socialism, liberalism, crony capitalism, and parliamentarianism.

This novel is not, however, a deliberation on failing political systems, like Ananthamurthy’s novella Bara. Avasthe’s real location is Krishnappa Gowda’s mind, as he lies dying in his late forties: in that state (“avasthe”), he reminisces about the other stages of his life – childhood (“balya-avasthe”), youth (“yauvana-avasthe”), adulthood (“praudha-avasthe”), and about the effect of time (“avasthe”), with its attendant political stances, desires, arrogances, and mistakes. Like always, Ananthamurthy enables the different meanings of his title to unfold themselves through the narrative.

To be or not to be

The obvious resonance in Avasthe is in fact with the Mahabharata, and, more specifically, with the Bhagavadgita. Ananthamurthy names the protagonist after Krishna, makes him a cowherd, accords him a bamboo flute, orchestrates a spat with his uncle, gives him a dark-complexioned body and a charming wit that attracts many women, and appoints him the shrewd arbiter in many crises in his state. In the heroic parts of this tale, Krishnappa forges ahead on principle when the occasion arises. He leads a peasants’ revolution; he coordinates the Tenancy Act.

But Krishnappa is no god, although he may be a god-like saviour to his political companions. All too human, Krishnappa is himself the Arjuna of this story. In his memories we find him internally lost, hesitant, doubtful: musing over the words and deeds of his political guru Annaji, seeking metaphysical answers from a strange hermit later christened Sarpasiddheshwara, wandering the city aimlessly to evade his desire for Gowri Deshpande, puzzling over the socialist leanings of his rich friend Gopala Reddy.

Avasthe prioritises Krishappa’s second role over the first. While we hear about his miracles – even if from his self-deprecating reflections – it is his dilemmas that we read in flesh and blood. In a scattered recollection, we are taken to the scene at his hostel, for instance, when his friends (or followers) punish (bully) the mischievous boy tainting Krishnappa’s name on the walls.

What is he doing, Krishnappa thinks, silently condoning his friends? Does he in truth prefer to bully such boys, although indirectly? Or, in another instance: why can Krishnappa not bring himself to confess his affections to Gowri? Too much pride, or too much belief in the idea of a “pure” woman about whom he should not fantasise?

Ananthamurthy tells us why these memories are important in the very first lines. “From the few incidents he recalls and relates, battling his death, we can infer the state of his mind” (reviewer’s translation). In other words, Krishnappa Gowda is harking back to these specific memories because he is stuck in a dilemma in the present – the third section – of the novel.

When a newspaper article vilifies his association with “sorcer[er]” Maheshwarayya, “moneybag” Veeranna, and “call girl” Gowri Deshpande, and slanders him as “a puppet of the corrupt and the wealthy,” vying to become the chief minister, Krishnappa slips into distress. Indeed he has accepted Veeranna’s favours on account of his health. And indeed he is being goaded to become the chief minister to thwart the Prime Minister’s efforts to declare themselves dictator. He is thus given to think:

“Is my becoming the chief minister of the state necessary to break the fascist conspiracy? Is this the desire of a dying man to regain his vitality through political power? Or is it the wish to put an end to the kind of cruel display of power which I saw in the Warangal jail? Can the class interests of people like Veeranna stand up to fascism? By asking all these questions, am I intellectually justifying my own self-interest?”

This is Krishnappa’s final test. But Ananthamurthy has already arranged a response to such a dilemma, in the second section of Avasthe. There, Krishnappa is held as a political prisoner at Warangal, in the same unfair way his mentor was encountered during an arrest. That experience – the physical, psychological, and sexual harassment, and the subsequent psychic drive for reform – changes his life. All his questions find a port of call: he decides to leave college (and Gowri) for good, he resolves to mobilise a revolution, he elects to join politics. Ananthamurthy adds contingent circumstances to explain Krishnappa’s personal and political choices.

So when Krishnappa says, “There are no real moral dilemmas…If the soul is pulled more firmly in one direction, then it is not in a moral dilemma…we wish to look good to ourselves,” the sentence is not suggestive of hypocrisy. Instead it proposes that the notions of integrity (and its other face, hypocrisy) are beliefs we use for narcissistic pleasure. For Krishnappa, the search for the ethical must in fact take the inevitable contradictions of our actions as conditions.

Krishnappa may hate the underhand dealings of Veeranna, for example, but he disregards it to help his nurse and her boyfriend. The defeat of the Prime Minister is crucial to Krishnappa, yes, but the post of the Chief Minister is also his symbol for regeneration. Here is a more complex relationship between the personal and the political that begs acknowledgement.

Listless in translation

Even as we pick up these thought-provoking strands from the novel, we should remember that fiction is not a means of disseminating arguments for Ananthamurthy. Reading Avasthe, we realise that he pays attention to craft and language.

Consider the rope torture at the jail in Warangal: to bear the pain of the ropes holding him, Krishnappa has to distract himself to memory (and could that be a metaphor for Krishnappa’s general trajectory in the novel?). From the unsentimental reality of the prison, we shift – and the language shifts – to the quaint meadows in Krishnappa’s villages, the sweet banter between Krishnappa and his mother, the enchanting Kumaravyasabharata recitation from his brahmin teacher Joisa.

For those moments, we forget with Krishnappa that we are actually in a jail: such is the power of the language of that memory… Until we remember the effects of Rukminamma’s “madi” – a sophisticated word for untouchability – on Krishnappa. Unpleasant memories – and we snap.

In the following paragraph, as Krishnappa traces the sounds outside the prison complex, he is described as being “chakita” – startled, jolted: film songs in the hotel, the bullock cart and the whip? The phrasing of this scene is as if Krishnappa learns, like a child, that out there are other sounds, another world even.

Generally, then, Ananthamurthy is a stylist. He weighs the words in a sentence. He listens to the sound of a word before etching it on the page. The word, the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph must come together for emotional apotheoses: sorrow, helplessness, tenderness, etc.

Narayan Hegde’s translation, however, renounces these literary preoccupations of Avasthe in favour of paraphrasing the plot. From the first sentence of the novel, Hegde is only successful in translating the “plot” into English, with no care towards the craft, or tone, or voice, or style that is crucial to the experience of Avasthe. Now, is it necessary to compare the “original” and the “translation”? Not always. But the premise of a translation is that readers do not receive merely a transcript of the story, a novel-length summary of the novel. The translation also promises to be literature.

Take, for instance, the concluding lines of the stunning paragraph in which Krishnappa questions his questions: “namma prāṇaśaktiyannu eraḍaralli ondu dikku heccu seḷeyuttiddare āga dharma sankaṭa nijavalla. adu lālase. tīṭe. namage nāvē cennāgi kāṇisikoḷḷabēkemba vyāmōha.” A Kannada reader can understand the effect of the style here. Ananthamurthy pins “dilemma” in the position of the subject of the first sentence, and in the next three, relates it to three versions of desire: greed, fad, and obsession. These sentences, successively rendered, each build upon the previous, an explanation rounding off the ending.

Of course, it is impossible to reproduce everything in English. But it is disappointing that there is no attempt even. In Hegde’s translation, we read: “If the soul is pulled more firmly in one direction, then it is not in a moral dilemma. It faces an impulse. An itch. We wish to look good to ourselves.” By making the soul the subject of the sentence, Hegde takes away the soul of the paragraph: the focus should rightfully be on dilemma. He is also forced, because of this choice, to replace the subject of the last sentence with the universal pronoun “we,” thereby destroying the rhythmic arrangement of the final three sentences.

While we undoubtedly understand the meaning of the lines, the beauty of Ananthamurthy’s prose is lost. And this is one example among dozens of important passages gone awry. To use a musical metaphor, Hegde’s translation is out of śruti with Ananthamurthy’s text.

The scattered narration of Krishnappa’s memories, central to the storyline with its organic flux, seems more like a careless tabulation in the English rendition. And the political dialogues of Annaji and Krishnappa feel like lecture notes rather than human correspondence. The many tense issues, sudden voice changes, and syntactical incongruence make us wonder about the objective of this rendering.

Reading the English Avasthe in the present moment, we are stuck in a dilemma ourselves.

On the one hand, we should want to celebrate its arrival. There are, in the first place, uncanny reflections of our current realities in the novel’s political situations: leaders of state becoming dictators, police functioning for the wealthy, unfounded arrests and brutal enquiries, and the sorry state of a political opposition. But there is also the more important literary function.

For long now, AK Ramanujan’s dull translation of Ananthamurthy’s Samskara bears the weight of the Jnanpith winner’s genius. The other, richer translations – Bharathipura by Susheela Punitha, Bhava by Judith Kroll, and Bara by Chandan Gowda – are unfortunately not as widely read. Not only can the publication of Avasthe remind us of the novelist’s writerly brilliance as well as his intellectual prowess, it can also introduce one of India’s best writers to a generation of readers like mine – even the Kannada ones – that treats Ananthamurthy as a synonym of Samskara. So many reasons to welcome this translation.

On the other hand, we want to ask: Does all of this make up for a mediocre translation? Can we only expect content from a translation? Should we not want more from a translation such as this one? Because Ananthamurthy’s work is too precious to afford this literary shortchanging. Because such translations are one-time opportunities in a world ridden with copyrights. Because we should not be in a position to ask “what is the avasthe of this translation?” even if the novel is about the many avasthes of our lives.

Avasthe: A Novel

Avasthe: A Novel, UR Ananthamurthy, translated from the Kannada by Narayan Hegde, Harper Perennial.