How much a book impresses or affects me depends, quite obviously, on when I happen to read the book in my journey as a reader and individual.
There have been lesser books that I have picked when I was starting out, when my ideas were nascent, that have had a much larger impact than more profound works that I have picked up much later, well into my adult life. It is also the reason I hesitate to recommend books without understanding where the recipient reader is in their maturity of ideas and individuality, not to mention the fear that I am robbing them of the thrill of discovering great books on their own serendipitously.
Samskara is one of those books that I suspect might have had a greater impact on me had I read it a decade ago. Over the past years, I have read quite satisfactorily and variedly on caste, gender, religion, mythology, and politics, especially from an Indian context. By that, I by no means claim academic robustness on these subjects, but just that I have enough depth in opinion, underpinned by my readings to critique simplistic or reductionist ideas and speculative fiction around these topics.
I have known of Samskara from a couple of different contexts. I had come across the work when browsing for literature dealing with the caste system in India, and U R Ananthamurthy’s work invariably crops up. I had heard of it because A K Ramanujan, the English translator of this Kannada work, is an author, translator, and critique, of considerable reputation of many works of the Tamil Sangam literature, Indian Epics, and Indian folk tales. Recently, I came across a rather extensive analysis of Samskara in V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization, where a merciless Naipaul, who is full of scathing scorn for India as a civilization, and Indians as writers, writes of Samskara with uncharacteristic restraint and respect.
One of the reasons I put off reading Samskara was because I read S.L. Byrappa’s Aavarana first and erroneously grouped U R Ananthamurthy in the same camp.
As an atheist, esoterism not only bores me, it also does not baffle me. I appreciate the social, psychological, and even the material gain, that these constructs provide people – as a balmy opioid that binds subgroups within highly unequal societies, providing a sense of tribal belonging and survival mechanism.
I might have outgrown literary treatments of personal conflicts, especially those about the spiritual coming out variety. The realities of how to handle it, legal aspects, analysis and application of the results of such revelations, hold my attention today. Speculative fiction about these aspects is like debating whether unicorns exist.
Samskara deals a lot with the rote ritualization of philosophies espoused within the Hindu Brahmin society. It deals with one Brahmin’s, Praneshacharya’s, questioning of his orthodoxy bound existence, and his subsequent introspection of the validity of those rituals and his roles and motives in upkeeping those sectarian rules. There is Naranappa, another character, whose rather ostentatious acts of rebellion is hinted at and partially fleshed out. There are other slimly fleshed out characters representing the lesser castes, the mixed castes, and outcasts, all of whom are used as plot devices to further the storyline of the enlightenment of the main character. There is also enough mythology and symbolism thrown in to keep the story moving.
I’ll compare this work with two works.
The first is the body of work by B R Ambedkar. I feel, with good reason, one has to compare any critique or literature about the Indian caste system with that of Ambedkar’s. Nobody has analyzed, clarified, and deconstructed, as thoroughly and clearly the caste system as Ambedkar. If there is one flaw that can be levelled against Ambedkar’s works, it is that they are incomplete. Within mortal bounds, his clarity of thought, integrity to the cause of eliminating social evils and ensuring political justice, make him a benchmark against which to measure anyone in their understanding of the caste system in India.
Samskara muddies the water. With it’s forced ambiguity, the literary and fictional treatment of the subject, it falls flat in its purpose, if the purpose is to critique the caste system that is. That is not to say Samskara is not a welcome addition to the canon of literature dealing with this topic. Samskara does not do particular damage to the debate even if it is not particularly useful.
I came across quite a number of interviews where U R Ananthamurthy insists on not viewing Samskara as a work dealing primarily with caste and religion. He claims it has larger and more complex themes.
The other work then I want to compare it with is Les Miserable.
Les Miserable has characters, who are not even among the top 20 most important characters in the work, who have a better fleshed-out profile than the main character of Praneshacharya, making Samskara sorely lacking in literary terms too.
U R Ananthamurthy as the author of Samskara, is a simple man, claiming to be a better man.
In my opinion, U R Ananthamurthy makes some irredeemable mistakes that cannot be explained away by the his posthumous explanations after the book was published.
By painting Naranappa with a one-dimensional personality, a starkly caricatured rebel, Praneshacharya (and by extension the reader) is left with no-one to debate with seriously. In painting the women of the agrahara as uniformly shallow and petty, Ananthamurthy’s critique of their casteism rings lazy. By reducing the non-brahmins Putta, Chandri, Padmavati, and Belli to sexualized simpletons, Ananthamurthy’s depiction of the society is severely imbalanced and hasty. U R Ananthamurthy’s understanding of willfulness and unwillfulness, as expressed in an interview, is so basic that it almost makes me question how much of the novel’s depth is intentional.
If one is willing to overlook these telling signs, enough fodder to dissect the author as much as the author, in turn, tries to dissect his characters, Samskara is a read that holds enough water without leaking.