samskara by u.r. ananthamurthy
reviewed by jim hepplewhite
Samskara is a fine, precise novel of the psychological kind that New York Review of Books can be proud of. They can sincerely discuss Samskara's literary merit, how the characters journeys parallel or mimic each other. There are sweeping themes, played out on small, intimate stages of a person's mind or a cluster of brahmins (though I read it as a critique of religious persons generally) looking for an excuse to derelict their religious duty. No one's clean, but no one's too dirty, either.
U.R. Ananthamurthy avoids many traps. A prostitute is one of the only characters who diligently avoids selfishness. There are all types of religious men, one of whom goes through an apocalyptic spiritual crisis in order to answer an unanswerable question. Samskara's often called a classic and I witnessed why. I closed Samskara's last page with a sense of respect but not connection.
"'Please. Go home now, all of you. I'll find the answer even if I've to turn the whole science of dharma upside down. I'll sit up all night,' said Praneshachrya, very tired.
It was evening. He hadn't yet offered his prayers or had his dinner. Agitated, Praneshachrya walked up and down, indoors, outdoors, and back. He asked Chandri, who was in the verandah, to come in and sit inside. He lifted his ailing wife with both hands like a baby, took her to the backyard, let her pass water, brought her back to her bed and made her drink her evening dose of medicine. Then he came back to the middl shall and sat there turning over and over the ancient books in the light of the kerosene lantern."
That could be a couple things. I'm not a brahmin or an Indian citizen and most of the work goes over my head. There's an afterword from Samskara's translator A.K. Ramanujan in the back and an illuminating interview that shows Mr. Ananthamurthy's work. Those two pieces of errata helped immensely, despite my shame at needing a reader's guide. There's a lot going on in the book, from theme to character and even plot. I'm shocked that U.R. Ananthamurthy packed so much into 130 pages.
There's one problem.
I found the translation wooden, and so did Susuheela Punitha, the translator of Mr. Ananthamurthy's Bharathipura who conducted the interview with Mr. Ananthamurthy.
"When I read Samskara in English, I found it wanting. I felt the English version lacked the natural voluptuousness of Kanada that this novel needs, without the negative connotation associated with the word 'voluptuous'; here it is fulsomeness, vitality… I felt A.K. Ramanujan's translation misrepresented the spirit of his text. For instance, in the passage where Chandri thinks of how she feels about Praneshachrya, the English version reads: 'Her mother used to say: prostitute should get pregnant by such holy men.' A more faithful rendition of the original would be, 'Chandri tells herself, 'Remember what Amma used to say about the kind of men for whom a prostitute should receive the fruit of the womb? Such a man is Acharya, in looks, in character and in charisma.' My version brings out the essence of URA's text: that Chandri was seeing Praneshachrya as a stud. It is an image of the primeval desire to procreate, so natural and therefore so pure. AKR changes the impact by making it moral, by making a prostitute feel the need to be redeemed by a 'holy' man. URA's text does not imply that at all.
And so I asked him about how he felt about AKR's translation and he said, 'Well, not everyone would agree but that was the problem with Ramanujan. He tried to write English like an Englishman.'"
Why not commission a new translation?
My limited experience imagines a parallel: reading the bowlderized British version of The Wild Palms that Borges translated. It's still The Wild Palms, with all the flaws and sexism and everything else that made Faulkner a major American writer, but we're aware of the glass between us and the work. I read Samskara and enjoyed it, but I couldn't take that next step to it. Some carnality makes it through Mr. Ramanujan's work, but the impurity or profanity feels inelegantly executed.
"The Acharya did not return to the agrahara after his wife's cremation. He thought of nothing, neither the fifteen gold-lace shawls in his box, the two hundred rupees, nor the basil-bead rosary done in gold given by the monastery.
Meaning to walk wherever his legs took him, he walked towards the east."
Samskara's a dense, masterful work. I doubt I'll read it a second time.