Vivek Shanbhag’s novel, Sakina’s Kiss,is a thriller from start to finish. Beginning with the title, until the last page where Venkat, the narrator, says he is “waiting to be assigned meaning”, this translated novel from Kannada (2023) is an invitation for the reader to make sense of it. Over nine chapters, there is considerable intrigue related to Venkat’s life, going back and forth in time: Where does Rekha, Venkat’s teenage daughter, mysteriously disappear? Where is Venkat’s maternal uncle, Ramana, hiding, and why? What is stolen from Venkat’s Bengaluru apartment even when it had no valuables? The narrative unfolds these troubled scenes without necessarily offering a definitive resolution. Why not? Because these troubles are not the point; the larger point lies elsewhere. Hence, the gratification one gets breezing through this apparently simple, gripping good read is akin to the satisfaction one feels after completing a five-star sudoku or a cryptic crossword. As engaging, as playful.
Venkat is at the centre of all the intrigue, often without being directly responsible for it. We have in Venkat—shortened from Venkataramana to roll more easily off all tongues—an all too familiar figure in the urban Indian landscape of the last three decades—the proverbial “techie”. Venkat is a man from a village that is still 3km from the nearest bus stand and served by just one autorickshaw, a man who has migrated to the nearest city for his education, and, subsequently, to the metropolis for a career in IT that has no bearing on what he has studied. Once settled in the job, Venkat marries Viji, an educated and employed woman, with good reason: “After all, a float under both arms makes it twice as easy to swim.” With their double income, they buy a flat, have a daughter and live comfortably, secure in their perfectly conformist, predictable middle-class life. In addition, Venkat fancies himself to be a liberal. For, you see, he does not believe in caste and all, and subscribes to notions of equality of the sexes, and freedom of expression. Or does he?
Like water imperceptibly seeping and shaking the very foundation after a time, the cracks in the family—“the smallest democracy at the heart of society”—begin to show up. His pleasant wife Viji, who, to his secret delight, refuses to take off her mangalsutra in the early years of the marriage, puts it away casually in the safe, making him wonder when their relationship of ardour turned into merely doing one’s duty. The fissures also show up in their daughter Rekha’s words and acts of rebellion. The young blood boils at their meaningless life: “Your lives are so ordinary,” a sentiment echoed later in the novel by his uncle Ramana, a character who could be read as Venkat’s alter ego. Viji is full of disdain that Venkat does nothing about Ramana’s land being unlawfully taken over by Venkat’s family elders.
But the biggest blow comes with the idealistic Rekha disappearing without trace for a couple of days, involved in the more “meaningful” pursuit of righting a wrong. This event mysteriously unleashes a gang of thugs who heckle him. Being the “man of the house”, Venkat is compelled to act. But unable to comprehend how or what has so destabilised his life, he is lost.
Shanbhag’s text, located in the ambience of a globalised Bengaluru, is utterly contemporary, even when he brings the village into it. Kannada writers have abundantly captured the travails of internal migration and the emergent middle class, especially the trials of the working woman in having to manage the double burden of home and work in the city. While feminist thought has valourised an empowered woman as “the new woman”, it has also underscored the need for the emergence of “the new man” for a more gender-just society. Sakina’s Kiss vividly captures the story of the emerging “new man” who has had to confront the fact of the “new woman”—confident and economically independent. This is a substantive change brought about by the double income family, thanks to the IT boom. It is a transformation that strikes at the root of a feudal, patriarchal ideology destabilising given notions of the family.
Sakina’s Kissbrilliantly deploys the first-person narrative to give us a peek into Venkat’s character by focusing on his interiority. The “unreliable” narratorunravels the uncertainties, illusions, contradictions and ambiguities shrouding Venkat, who is much like Prufrock, a figure created by T.S. Eliot in the shadow of the looming war to symbolise the existential angst of the indecisive and ineffectual man.
Ranged against the forces of change, Venkat’s masculinity is imperilled. The traditional order that had afforded him a host of privileges is shaken to the core. His class, his caste, his gender, his education—everything that had once constituted his world now seems to be falling apart. In an earlier era, he could be sure of his authority at least within the family. Now even that last bastion of power has given way under his feet, leaving him bewildered. Hence, Venkat’s narration is shot through with genuine confusions, internal inconsistencies and defensive manoeuvres. Rather than signalling a weak hero, a recognition of his vulnerabilities points to a larger social crisis that marks our times.
In Sakina’s Kiss, Ramana’s periodic letters to his sister in the village are an event in themselves. “Because we could not be certain about a single word in his letters. It wasn’t even clear what script these knotted, twisted, winding, slithering, overwritten, crooked, jagged marks on the paper represented.” While deciphering the hieroglyphics, one of the visitors reads a squiggle, entirely improbable in the context, as “Sakina’s kiss”, to everyone’s mirth. “This journey from strange squiggles and marks to script, from the letters of a script to words, from words to intelligible sentences, and finally, from sentences to meaning, felt like a speeded-up demonstration of how language evolved in human civilization,” says the narrator.
Shanbhag’s narrative makes potent use of this riveting humour to couch a deeper philosophical quest about the nature of perception and reality—the eternal question of the serpent and the rope—in our post-truth society. It highlights the gap between one’s desire to understand oneself and the other, and one’s inability to do so, in a world that has moved away from a single, linear, truthful narrative. Ramana’s unintelligible letter, open to wildly differing interpretations, is a metaphor for Venkat’s life, devoid of all certitudes. Much like Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, Sakina’s Kissexplores the multifaceted nature of truth in the context of a vastly altered family life in urban India. Venkat’s life is read by him and his family, his friends and society, in equally diverse ways. Not quite sure how to wind his way back from the muddled and muddied quagmire, Venkat is bewildered. And so are we. His troubled quest for certitude, for an unchanging truth that one can hold on to amidst the confounding array of contending, often elusive, truths. The well-meaning, sensitive, open-minded Venkat lingers in our memory as an endearing presence.
In Srinath Perur’s able and empathetic translation, Sakina’s Kissis seamless. While the choice of his text, which is always already modern in its tone and tenor, might have made for the unselfconscious ease of the translation up to a point, one cannot take away from Perur’s felicity with English. One test of a good translation is how proverbs and local idioms, still a staple of our everyday talk, are translated into a culturally distant language. Perur has accomplished this task very well. Eschewing cliché, he translates proverbs rather literally, which imparts a touch of the local, making for a certain freshness. Consider his choice of “pouring gheeinto the flames” rather than “adding fuel to fire”, or the literality of “squeezing water from stone”, or “Ramana’s crows-feet-sparrows-feet writing”.
Such visible choices apart, Perur’s subdued translation has succeeded in embodying in English not only what is said, but also the unsayable in Shanbhag’s meditative Kannada text—the unspoken tensions, the unarticulated reproaches, the unacknowledged guilts and the unbearable silences—carrying them across, retaining that touch of feather-light humour in the original. The unique chemistry of working together on Ghachar Ghochar (2015), the first of Shanbhag’s Kannada novels to be introduced to an Anglophone audience, has ensured that Sakina’s Kissalso reads engagingly as a text in English.
Vanamala Viswanatha, who translates Kannada literary texts into English, has been invested in translation as translator and teacher for four decades.