Shantinath Desai (16929-1998), one of the leading fiction writers in Kannada, came to prominence during the Modernist movement of which he was an effective spokesman. He established himself as a Modernist writer with is very first novel Mukti which has been translated into many Indian languages. He distinguished himself as a short story writer as well and quite a few of his stories, Kshitija for example, can be found in representative anthologies. A teacher of English by profession, he has to his credit substantial writing in English as well. He was closely connected with literary and cultural institutions like the Jnanapith and Sahitya Akademi and was the first Vice Chancellor of Kuvempu University, Shimoga. He was the recipient of several awards inckuding the Karnataka State Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ideal Teacher award instated by the Government of Maharashtra.
G. S. Amur (1925-), formerly Professor of English at Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Aurangabad, is a well known critic in English and Kannada. He has won several awards including the Sahitya Akademi award, Bharatiya Bhasha Parishat Prashasti, Pampa Prashasti and the Karnataka state Award.
Shantinath Desai (1929-1998) was one of the most gifted writers to emerge from the Navya movement in Kannada. Though he began his literary career as a poet, he son realised that the medium most suited to his genius was fiction. He published in all eight collections of short stories- Manjugadde (1959), Kshitija (1966), Dande (1971), Ayda Kategalu (1977), Rakshasa (1977), Parivartane (1984), Kurmavatara (1988), and Samagra Kategalu (2001); and seven novels- Mukti (1961), Vikshepa (1971), Srishti (1979), Sambandha (1982), Antarala (1983), Bija (1993), and Om Namo which won the Sahitya Akademi Award, posthumously in 1999.
Though Desai is remembered chiefly for his first novel Mukti which started the vogue of the Modernist novel in Kannada, his finest work in fiction is undoubtedly his last novel Om Namo.
All of Desai’s novels have a strong ideological base but they are powerful narratives as well. Om Namo tells two interrelated stories. The first of these which may be called a ‘love story’ is about two young British citizens, Adam Desai and Ann Eagleton, who come to India on a research project in social anthropology. The relationship between the two which begins in friendship based in friendship based on common interest matures into a strong commitment to each other during their stay in India. Ann’s serious involvement in Jaina religion and Adam’s reluctance to enter into a long term commitment create some obstacles but these are finally overcome. The second elates to an old family belonging to a place called Krishnapur located in the northern parts of Karnataka. This story which begins in the last decades of the twentieth century progresses into the seventies and the eighties. In the India context this story may be characterised as a story of modrnisation. The family undergoes drastic changes because of its exposure to English education and involvement in business and politics and gradually loses its feudal character. The phenomenon gives rise to new problems which demand new solutions.
Desai’s interest in the novel, however, is not limited to the telling of these stories. The novel acquires significance through its ideological content, the exploration of man-woman relationships and the inquiry into the nature of the process of modernisation in a specific Indian context. Adam and Ann are products of Western culture and civilisation. Adam has Indian connections through his father but his upbringing has been entirely Western and there are no cultural differences between him and ann. Both are committed to the ideal of individual freedom and share liberal attitudes towards matters like sex. The Desai family, in contrast, is at least outwardly committed to the Indian values of family and community. But it is also undergoing a process of modernity. The entry of Adam and Ann into the family adds momentum to the process. Adam kin his turn experiences change through his involvement with the Desai family which receives him warmly. Ann’s researches in Jainism result in her serious involvement with Jaina religion and Jaina society, but her relationship with the Desai family is superficial.
Through Ann, the foreigner, the novelist creates a new perspective for looking at India, in particular Jaina religion and society, from the outside, there is also the insider’s perspective provided by Dr. Nirmalkumar who teaches philosophy in college and his daughter Roja, a committed Marxist. Bharatkumar, a younger member of the Desai family who has lost his faith in Jainism but lacks the courage to rebel against it provides an ironic perspective as well. Details like descriptions of places of pilgrimage, observations on Jaina rituals and references to Munis and Bastis combine to create an authentic Jaina environment. Philosophical discussions about Jainism from the Indian as well as the Western points of view add and intellectual dimension to the narrative.
We may now examine then two interrelated narratives in some detail. First the Adam-Ann story. Though both of them study in the same University and share many interests, their family backgrounds are different. Adam’s father, Dr. Neminath, is an academic working in a British University. He is married to an English woman and has broken off his relations with his Indian family which includes a former wife. Adam is half Jaina and half Christian but he identifies himself as a British citizen and a Christian. Ann’s family background is more problematic. She hates her stepmother and India is a kind of escape for her. India affects Adam and Ann in two ways. The warmth and affection with which Adam is received by his ancestral family awaken in him a new sense of belonging and responsibility. It is he who settles difficult problems in the family after Appasaheb’s death. His temporary attraction to Roja springs probably from this new feeling. Ann too drifts away from Adam because of her involvement with Jainism. But Adam soon disxovers that Roja is looking elsewhere for a companion and Ann is disenchanted with Jainis,. Shie has deep respect for Jaina values but she finds that she does not fit into the Jaina community. India which initially separates Adam and Ann brings them together in the end and the narrative closes with their commitment to each other.
The novel pays equal attention to the other narrative which traces the gradual impact of modernity in the Desai family. The family which was once a large joint family when Adappa was the head has already broken up into three units. Shrenik, the youngest of Adappa’s sons, has moved out of Krishnapur with his share of the property. Devendrappa, the eldest, is educated but continues to be strictly orthodox in his beliefs and practices. But modernity has crept into his familty through his son Neminath who has migrated to England and settled there. Appasaheb, Adappa’s second son, is a keader of the local Jaina community who has gained prominence by earning wealth and power through his business activities and participation in politics. He takes pride in his feudal origins and has retained many of the old feudal ways. Appasaheb’s son, Bharatkumar, represents the new generation of Jaina youth. He has lost his faith in the Jaina religion but maintains a hypocritical relationship with it with an eye on social propriety and personal interest.
The phenomenon of modernisation is not limited to the Desai family in the novel. It can be observed in the lives of Dr. Nirmalkumar and his daughter Roja and the institutional canges in the Jaina maths. Nirmalkumar is the prototype of the colonial intellectual. He is a fairly good scholar in the traditional mould but his eagerness for recognition abroad makes him slightly ridiculous. Roja, his daughter is totally lost to Marxism.
Modernisation, in the context of this novel, is not a totally positive development. It has, for example, commericialised and vulgarised many of the Jaina customs and practices. Ann’s description of the great Mahamastakabhisheka as a big Indian fair is not completely mistaken. But the novel discovers real value in Devendrappa’s orthodoxy and catholicity. Modernity has hardly touched the older women in the family –Lakshumbayi and Padmavati.
Shantinath Desai was an experimental novelist and paid great attention to matters of technique. He has said that he could not make much progress with his first novel mukti till he discovered Durrell’s Justine. An innovative feature of the technique he adopts in Om Namo is the dialogue the ‘novelist’ Conducts with his readers and critics at crucial stages in the narrative. Desai had used this technique in Srishti, and earlier novel but here it is more effective. Apart from guiding the reader through the novel, the ‘novelist’ as an insider provides valuable insights into his craft. The self-reflectiveness in Om Namo suggests that it is a conscious postmodern experiememnt.
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