have now finished reading Samskara, a novel by U.R. Anantha Murthy. It
was published in 1976 by OUP but before that in 1965 by an Indian publisher. It's the story of a Brahmin community in
India. They have all these things they can and can't do to retain their
Brahmin caste category. It reminded me a little of the Calvinist caste
system in which you had to prove you were among the elect. But there's a
lot more rules for the Brahmins! One guy has thrown it all away and
moves in with a whore and drinks with Muslims. He's teasing the others
all the time. When he dies, they don't even know how to bury him because
they can't touch him because of how he lived, but no one else of other
castes can touch him either. Buzzards gather. Plague spreads. The whore
he lives with finally just pays some Muslims to burn him and they move
on and she disappears after seducing the top Brahmin. I had a hard time
reading this novel because the names were very long. Praneshacharya was
the name of the central Brahmin. Once I got the names down I cruised.
Should I read all the criticism now of the book, or should I just get
another novel set in India and read that? I've decided to read ten books
about India because their situation is so similar to ours:
multicultural problems and disintegrating caste systems, and religions
going to pieces as they face the modern world with all its seductions.
The brief afterword explains that some of the novel is historical and literal. Real names of places are in the book, and actual newspapers and stories are named. Except for Benares, I had never heard of any of these places.
Plus some stuff isn't accurate. The buzzards gather to eat plague-ridden rats, and no buzzard would be so stupid as to eat a plague-ridden rat. (Birds aren't exactly birdbrains.) This was pointed out in the afterword. I was puzzled by this. I wondered if buzzards could eat plague-ridden rats and if they had some kind of gastric juice to fend off the plague. They don't. They have brains that would steer them clear. Is it logic or instinct that the birds have? If it's logic they'd have to discuss this, because there would be no second-chances.
The whole novel is filled with beggars, lepers, whores, filth, death, and yet, amidst all this, a kind of paradoxical enlightenment among the Brahmin but also the other castes. Even the whore (Chandri) thinks, and her thinking is beautiful. Only she and Praneshacharya are capable of appreciating beauty, the novelist asseverates. The others are going through the motions of thinking and living, but exist in a shadow world of conventions.
After the whore's once-Brahmin lover (Naranappa) dies, Praneshacharya has to figure out what to do. He has to go and ask a god because there is nothing in the law books to explain to him what he should do. Naranappa is dead, but what caste did he belong to? He was no longer Brahmin but wasn't anything else either. Until the situation is resolved, Praneshacharya is not permitted to eat. It would be pollution for him to eat. But the situation drags on for days, and he secretly eats plantains (I think these are a kind of banana).
"As the forest silence deepened, his heart began to clear. He dragged his feet slowly as he peeled his plantains and ate them. Since he saw the villager , the problem had touched deeper. One must hold it by its tuft of hair, look at it face to face. The origin of it all was a thing that had to be burned. That thing was Naranappa, who had lived kicking away at Brahminism. ... Thinking that the problem belonged to the realm of the Law of Dharma, he had run to the Ancient Law Books; he had run to god, but at last in the forest, in the dark..."
Praneshacharya is confused, and yet he is the only one in the village who is entitled to clarify what everyone should do. He looks up the chain, but can find nothing.
The book apparently became a popular movie in Bollywood in some language called Kannada (pictured above is the movie poster).