Review: A Dense Artefact of Cultural Memory

Shrinivas Vaidya's 'A Handful of Sesame' tells a tale of the constant cares and worries in the lives of a Brahmin family of Navalgund. 

In 2004, the Kannada writer Shrinivas Vaidya published Halla Bantu Halla, a novel set in pre-independent India, which described the making of a nation through the story of a single family. Vaidya’s allegory was subtle but rich, picturing the life-world more than the political or historical plot-lines of the nationalist movement.

The novel was an immediate sensation in Kannada literary circles, widely hailed as a remarkable work of social realism. It won the 2004 Karnataka Sahitya Akademy award, and in 2008, the Central Sahitya Akademi award. Halla Bantu Halla has finally been translated into English as A Handful of Sesame, giving a wider readership to this important example of 21st-century Kannada fiction.

The novel tells a tale of the constant cares and worries in the lives of a Brahmin family of Navalgund. The story begins in 1857 when Padmanabh and Kamalanabh – emissaries of Shrimant Nanasaheb of Kanpur to the satrap of Naragund – reach Navalgund in the middle of the conflict between the Indian princely states and the East India Company.

Shrinivas Vaidya
Translated by Maitreyi Karnoor
A Handful of Sesame
Manipal Universal Press, 2018

The protagonist, Vasudevachar, is the elder son of Kamalanabh, who marries into a local family and settles down in Navalgund after his brother Padmanabh is executed by the British while attempting to reach out to the Babasaheb of Naragund. The north-south axis of the storyline symbolically implicates a broader national framework.

The novel follows the birth and growth of this migrant Brahmin family, who turn to medicine, farming and occasional priesthood to manage a burgeoning household. Vaidya is not particular about telling the story chronologically. Like Raja Rao of Kanthapura, he tells the story in a loosely connected, looping, garrulous, encyclopaedic manner.

Moving between the domestic affairs of the protagonist and the social life of Navalgund, it develops into a competent period novel. Vaidya uses humour, mild irony and dense detail to retain the reader’s attention. While rendering the repetitive everydayness of rural life, Vaidya still manages to make the story charming. Idioms, proverbs, tone, rhythm, rhymes, vividness, give us a novel that eschews being strictly historical, but succeeds in evoking cultural memory.

The primary perspective is restricted to upper-caste life, especially that of the Brahmin community. Adopting what Clifford Geertz has termed as ‘Thick Description’, Vaidya develops this text into a dense artefact of cultural memory – a rich resource for sociologists, especially to ones interested in understanding pain, evil and suffering.

The most powerful aspect of this novel, in fact, is extra-literary; it is its all-round thick description of a culture giving a vivid account of the language, idioms, slang, rituals, recipes, customs, daily practices, inter-relations within and across families. The novel determinedly uses the dialect of Kannada used in Navalgund – presumably during the periods it narrativises.

In short, the novel is a minute portrayal of a lifeworld – but of only a Brahmin community, with others being referenced merely functionally.

Moving resolutely through the very particular, and focusing almost entirely on a small corner of the country, Vaidya still implicates all of India by allusion and parallelism. Allusions to Bengali novels, to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gandhiji, Nehru, Sardar Patel, newspapers, the Quit India movement, and so on, frame the story within a broader “national” context.

Shrinivas Vaidya. Credit: HPNadig (CC BY-SA 3.0)

An important book like this needs to break borders and reach readers far away. Local flavour and cultural particularities are no doubt a challenge to convey. Maitreyi Karnoor has done a fine job with the daunting task of translating not only the story of the novel but indeed its spirit.

She brings to the art of translating an insider’s understanding of the culture and an able translator’s sense of what can be carried across – and what cannot. She is bold in her decisions to include what will work in English and exclude what won’t. She dares to translate so that tone, humour and lyricism also are transferred. Starting from the title, readers of A Handful of Sesame are spared unnecessary estrangement.

Karnoor’s preface deserves a special mention. It brings up many issues related to the craft of translation and provides a nuanced reading of the text. For example, she points out the underrepresentation of the north Karnataka region in Kannada literature, especially in translations to other languages including English. To her credit, she pertinently historicises this neglect:

“The mainstream cannot look at this linguistic nuance without othering it, and hence, fails to understand that the essence of our language – the irreverence, the mockery – is our way of making light of the inscrutability of life.”

Karnoor’s decisions with respect to those nuances that defy easy translation to English are convincing and effective. About her choice to translate the Kannada phrase “mali-byali” not as ‘rains and crops’ (their literal meaning), but as “rains and gains”, she says, “It is a fair balance of lexical and aesthetic faithfulness”, as the Kannada spoken in the region in which the novel is set too is full of rhymes, rhythms, adages and proverbs.

Another example of her perspicacious approach is how she translates the Kannada expression for how a female character “was making the men go mad” as “[the men] were madly in love with Maina” because, she prefers not to allow “disavowal of men’s agencies for their own lecherousness and attributing it wholly to the woman”. Suffice it to say that the translator has ensured that readers enjoy reading A Handful of Sesame as much as she enjoyed translating it.

The Indian Literature in Translation imprint of Manipal University Press is a commendable project. They have already translated some of the most important Kannada works into English. Their choices, including of this novel, ably introduce to non-Kannada readers the very best that Kannada literature has to offer. There are many works in Kannada, fictional and non-fictional, that need to be available across borders. With competent and enterprising translators such as Karnoor putting their heart to it, the task of wider dissemination of our literary cultures can succeed.

Kamalakar Bhat is a Kannada poet and is a translator between Kannada, English, Marathi and Hindi. He teaches in the Postgraduate Department and Research Centre in English of Ahmednagar College, Maharashtra.

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