Fifty years of solitude for a Kannada literary masterpiece

Kota Shivaram Karanth’s Jnanpith award winning novel ‘Mookajjiya Kanasugalu’ was published 50 years ago in 1968. Revered, feared and often idolized, the polymath was sometimes panned even by admirers

Collage by Giridhar Khasnis

The first edition of Mookajjiya Kanasugalu (The Visions of Mookajji) came out in 1968. In the preface, its author Kota Shivaram Karanth clarified: “This novel does not have any hero or heroine. Even Mookajji is not a heroine here. Her job is to gently soften the hard-bitten, tradition-bound minds. If one were to doubt whether such an ajji (granny) exists at all, just assume that she is a sceptical devil questioning our beliefs in the prevalent culture. But in many of us, she survives not as a devil but as the very embodiment of an honest enquiry.”

The novel embraces a wide canvas: aspects of mythology, archaeology, history, and antiquity merge seamlessly with a relatively modern life, human relationships and triumphs/failings of ordinary men and women. In the beginning itself the reader learns that Mookajji’s own life is one of early tragedy; married off even before she was 10, and widowed within 3 or 6 months of matrimony. Now in the autumn of her life, the septuagenarian agnostic granny has unique visions which compliment her supernatural powers of mind-reading and predicting future incidents/accidents.

The narrator of the story is Subbaraya; Mookajji is his grandfather’s sister. The young man’s special love, respect, admiration and tolerance for the old woman contrasts with many others who see her as just another old, bitter, cantankerous, cynical, foul-mouthed mad woman. Subbaraya, however, recognizes that Mookajji’s visions, actions and conduct go beyond normal comprehension. “Mookajji’s dreams are unlike any others,” he says. “They are not visible to people like you and me. They are special and evident to her alone...Ajji is like tamarind: her words combine both the sweet and the bitter.” Subbaraya’s warm reflections of Mookajji’s persona and exceptional insights come through a complex web of seemingly ordinary incidents, forming the core of the fascinating and gripping novel.

When Mookajjiya Kanasugalu won the Jnanpith award in 1977 no one questioned the author’s merit; it was the choice of the work which raised eyebrows. “Some critics complained,” recalls critic CP Ravikumar. “They preferred his Alida Mele (After the end). But Karanth himself was pleased with the choice of the awards committee. This is not the only occasion critics raised their eyebrows. When Masti Venkatesha Iyengar was awarded Jnanpith for his novel Chikkaveera Rajendra, some critics complained that short stories were Masti's main contribution. The truth is that ‘Mookajji ...’ was one of Karanth's lesser known novels until it was awarded the Jnanpith. But after reading the novel, few disagree it is a gem in Kannada literature.”

Love of nature
Karanth who diligently and creatively dabbled with many art forms and social movements remained some sort of an enigma through his life and thereafter. “My personal background is almost horrid,” he said in an interview in 1993, four years before his death. “I have been a writer and novelist, and penned more than 80 plays. I have tried almost every conceivable medium of self-expression. I wrote a three-volume children's encyclopaedia in 1934, an exhaustive popular science and technology encyclopaedia between 1958 and 1964 and finally an encyclopaedia on art, architecture and sculpture of the world, all in Kannada.” Recalling his birth in a small village called Kota, he reminisced: “I grew up in the lap of nature, in a region that is really beautiful...I consider nature a temple. At one time, I went through a phase of piety and visited several pilgrim spots. But the peace I find in a river, in a hill and in the sky, I don't find in places of worship.”

A true renaissance man, Karanth was revered and feared in equal measure. He received many awards and accolades during his lifetime including the Padma Bhushan from the Government of India in 1968. However, when Emergency was imposed in 1975, he returned the Padma Bhushan in protest. In his letter to the President of India, he wrote: “In 1922, I like many others, joined Gandhiji in the Non-Cooperation Movement in order to serve my motherland. I felt I was doing my bit by fighting for the freedom of India. We all felt happy when freedom came to India in 1947 and our land became a democracy. Its Constitution gave me joy. But it was not to last long. As years passed, the Fundamental Rights assured to the people were removed bit by bit, through amendments, negating the assurance given by the very leaders who took oaths to maintain them . . .Today, at the age of 74, I hang my head in shame at the turn of events. I don’t believe that a single soul has a right to bypass human freedoms under any cloak. Though for decades I have refrained from active politics, I feel impelled to protest against such indignities done to the people of India. As such, to calm my own conscience at least, I feel impelled to surrender the title to your Government. May truth prevail over untruth.”

Karanth who lived a full life and waged many a battle died on December 9 1997 (aged 95). “Among the many tributes paid to Karanth after his death was one by the Prime Minister who said that his work exemplified Indian philosophy,” wrote HY Sharada Prasad (The Book I Won't be Writing and Other Essays) who knew the author intimately. “It did anything but that. Evidently the person who drafted the statement for Mr. Gujral was unfamiliar with Karanth’s work. While Karanth wrote copiously of Indian life, landscape, sculpture, painting, the performing arts and other branches of culture, he was strangely unmoved by Indian philosophy, particularly religion. If he referred to dharma at all, it was in the sense of personal duty and not as a spiritual value. Most of the religious men portrayed by him are scamps, cheats or parasites. In his autobiography, he gives a long account of why he became disillusioned with religion. Besides, he wrote a full-length book in defence of his agnostic outlook. His was a wisdom derived from observation and contemplation, not drawn from books and authorities… I thought it was somewhat incongruous that the great ‘state funeral’ with men in khaki taking possession of his body before it was consigned to flames…The Bangalore edition of the Times of India also said that Vedic hymns and all-religion prayers were recited at the funeral. If true, what an end to the life of a forthright unbeliever!”

Critical voices
Shivaram Karanth’s legacy remains unblemished to this day. It does not, however, mean that there were/are no critical voices against some of his ideas, thoughts and actions. While admiring Karanth’s ‘sincerity and earnestness’; as well as the authenticity of his characters and story, well-known poet Gopalakrishna Adiga (1918 - 1992), saw in his writings a lack of imagery. “Only when a novelist’s intellect, feelings, contemplation, values, dreams, memories at the conscious and unconscious levels – only when all these ingredients are cooked to a delicacy, does it create a new experience for the reader.”

UR Ananthamurthy (himself a recipient of the Jnanpith in 1994) was another writer who simultaneously praised and complained about Karanth: “His novels are rich, readable, authentic; yet they do not contain invisible eddies that catch the reader and draw him into subliminal depths.”

In recent years, authors like Vasudhendra who have admired Karanth’s work have also questioned some of his ideas. “Mookajjiya Kanasugalu is one my favourite novels, but I cannot excuse Karanth’s ending. He did not understand the complexities of this world. Masti, who we all think was conservative, had a more compassionate view. ‘I can understand,’ he said of gay identities.” Vasudhendra was obviously referring to the final scene of the novel where Mookajji makes a derisive and dismissive comment on a gay character.

Writer, thinker and critic G Rajashekhar is also surprised by some of Karanth’s debateable actions. He finds it odd that the great writer continued his relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even after the destruction of Babri masjid and the Bombay riots. “The last public event attended by Karanth was an RSS meeting. He was a frequent visitor of Bombay. He loved the spirit of that city, it is evident in his novel Alida Mele. But Bombay riots of 1992-93 did not disturb him. This is a great puzzle to me. In spite of all this I have the highest regard for his literary works … I disagree with the politics of Adiga or Karanth, but that does not diminish my appreciation of their works. In fact, I have learnt my lessons of social criticism more from them than from an activist like Niranjana.”

All said and done, one could say that Karanth himself displayed many qualities of Mookajji: like his lifelong fight against obstinate, tradition-bound minds; never hesitating to call a spade a spade, and always trying to expand the horizons of an honest enquiry.

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