In an astute Afterword to the late U.R. Ananthamurthy’s novel Avasthe, writer Prayaag Akbar sums up the theme of the book in a powerful phrase. First published in Kannada in 1978 and translated into English by Narayan Hegde recently, Avasthe, like its predecessor Samskara (1965), is about “the hypocrisy of great men”, Akbar writes. One is tempted to add that it is also about the impossibility of having a morally upright career in politics.
The story begins with Krishnappa Gowda—a former freedom fighter, a shudra, and leader of the people—struck by paralysis at the age of 50. Bedridden and at the mercy of corrupt benefactors, the firebrand communist who once organised the farmers of his village to protest against the venal upper-caste landowners recalls his past adventures, in both life and politics, as he dictates his memoir to a young lackey called Nagesha. Feared for his foul temper, Krishnappa is now semi-vegetative, dependent on a bedpan and wheelchair, but bristling with unresolved emotions. His marriage to Sitamma is full of discord, even though they have a young daughter, Gowri, whom he has named after a former love interest. There is violence and emotional abuse, bitter resentment and jealousy, and a fundamental lack of respect and trust. Yet, as is the dichotomous law of matrimony, there are also moments of unspoken tenderness between them, borne as much by habit as necessity.
A similar see-saw of emotions carries over into Krishnappa’s political career. A veteran of the freedom movement who fought in 1942 and 1947, he overcomes the stigma of his low-caste origins through his wrathful outbursts. His associations, with an infamous communist leader for instance, land him in trouble. Tortured in Warangal jail, and later mistreated at the hands of upper-caste landowners, Krishnappa rises to become a revered leader, who, even as he is laid supine by a stroke, is being promoted to become the next chief minister of Karnataka.
Avasthe is thinly based on the life of Shantaveri Gopala Gowda, a pioneering leader of peasants who stood up against the fascistic tendencies of former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s regime. Reading the novel in 2021 is uncannily resonant because of this twofold braiding of oppressive political systems and farmers’ revolt. But Ananthamurthy’s interests run deeper. As a deft craftsman of prose, he explores the very nature of memory in this novel, the meandering pathways through which Krishnappa travels back to his past and is forced to surface in the present from time to time. These restless peregrinations between different time frames are reflected in the unfolding of the narrative itself, which may seem a little rambling and unsteady in parts. Hegde’s translation, though largely elegant, also wobbles somewhat as the tenses shift from the past to present and an odd continuous future.
Although Avasthe is centred on Krishnappa’s life and work, his character is illuminated by the contrasts presented by others, especially the women, around him. It is only in his infirm middle age that Krishnappa has a chance to rekindle his love for Gowri Deshpande, who is now a divorced academic living in Delhi. As she returns to Bangalore (now Bengaluru) to spend time with him, she brings back the whiff of an old fervour into his life, a memory of his youthful days of uprightness and idealism, which becomes the undoing of Krishnappa’s ambitions. There is also the unforgettable Lucina—a young woman Krishnappa had saved from the wolves once, only to find refuge in her arms. Her memory, too, acts as an anchor to revive his spirits when sickness and unrelenting political compromise have left him depleted.
The beauty of Avasthe lies in its wavering moral compass—from its depiction of benign caste discrimination in the villages, as experienced by Krishnappa from his loving Brahmin mentor Joisa, to the flickering shadows of humanity that cross the Telangana police as they torture and interrogate Krishnappa to uncover his communist leanings. In a masterstroke, Ananthamurthy also brings in an enigmatic hermit, who lives in a cave and speaks only to reply to the most obvious and banal enquiries. His mysterious ways baffle Krishnappa long after he last met the hermit, who denied him answers to the big questions, of right and wrong, justice and morality.
It is only as he lies on his sickbed that these pieces of the jigsaw puzzle called life begin to cohere in Krishnappa’s mind. As he revisits them, and the actions they provoked in him, he discovers the greatest knowledge of all. As Akbar puts it, “When we think back on our lives, this novel tells us, we will recall how we have loved and how we have failed.”