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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Samskara

by
U.R.Ananthamurthy


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Samskara



Title: Samskara
Author: U.R.Ananthamurthy
Genre: Novel
Written: 1965 (Eng. 1976)
Length: 147 pages
Original in: Kannada
Availability: Samskara - US
Samskara - UK
Samskara - Canada
Samskara - India
Samskara - France
Samskara - Deutschland
  • A Rite for a Dead Man
  • Kannada title: ಸಂಸ್ಕಾರ
  • Translated and with an Afterword by A.K.Ramanujan

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating depiction of a brahmin community struggling with the demands of tradition

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Samskara is set in Durvasapura, an agrahara, a closed-off brahmin community that lives according to tightly -- and ultimately suffocatingly -- circumscribed rules and norms, the weight of tradition now crushing a community that is unable to adapt.
       The story begins with the death of Naranappa. Long a thorn in the side of the community, as he had undermined the local ways every which way possible, he nevertheless had not been excommunicated and was still technically one of their own. In death this became a problem that previously they managed to sidestep: hard caste rules mean that only a brahmin can handle the body, and the appropriate rites can only be performed by a relative or, if need be, another brahmin. However, given who Naranappa was -- "a smear on the good name of the agrahara" --, no one wants to associate themselves with performing the vital rites for him.
       Matters are further complicated by Naranappa's concubine Chandri throwing her gold jewelry into the ring, as it were, offering it to anyone willing to perform the rites. The two thousand rupees worth of gold is a fortune to the villagers, and obviously a great temptation -- yet no one wants to be seen as having been bought off, so in fact Chandri's offer makes it even more difficult for anyone to step forward.
       There is also considerable urgency to resolving this problem. Not only does a corpse not fare well in this climate, but caste rules are firm:

According to ancient custom, until the body is properly removed there can be no worship, no bathing, no prayers, no food, nothing.
       Indeed, as soon as village guru Praneshacharya learns of Naranappa's death he madly rushes to the others in the village to make sure they don't take even a bite of food. So:
Alive, Naranappa was an enemy; dead, a preventer of meals; as a corpse, a problem, a nuisance.
       The community looks to Praneshacharya -- not yet forty, but the most learned and devoted brahmin, and treated like the local wise old man -- to find a solution, trusting him to get this important matter right (and reminding him: "The brahminism of your entire sect is in your hands. Your burden is great."). Praneshacharya consults the religious books, but is paralyzed by the issues. He carries his own burden, too: his wife of twenty years is an invalid, and so in some respects he has not been able to live the life expected of him, either -- no sex, no family beyond the ill wife -- and clearly the rigid rules of this community leave him feeling boxed in.
       As he eventually recognizes:
But, my dilemma, my decision, my problem wasn't just mine, it included the entire agrahara. This is the root of the difficulty, the anxiety, the double-bind of dharma. When the question of Naranappa's death-rites came up, I didn't try to solve it for myself. I depended on God, on the old Law Books. Isn't this precisely why we have created the Books ? Because there's this deep relation between our decisions and the whole community. In every act we involve our forefathers, our gurus, our gods, our fellow humans. Hence this conflict.
       It is Chandri who takes matters into her own hands again in dealing with what becomes of Naranappa. Praneshacharya's inability to make a decision is, in a way, ultimately freeing: he has failed, but Chandri's solution is presumably the best outcome for this bad situation. And Praneshacharya also moves further from the constricting bonds of the community -- finding release with Chandri, and then going on what amounts, in a way, to a pilgrimage, facing a world in which he encounters much that goes against what the small community permits, even as he debates what path to choose.
       Naranappa had once told Praneshacharya: "Your text and rites don't work any more", and his death seems emphatic proof of that. And, as others note:
     'If you really look -- how many real brahmins are there in this kali age, Manjayya ?'
     'I agree, I agree, Acharya-re. The times are rotten, it's true.'
       And even Praneshacharya, the embodiment of a 'real brahmin', ultimately fails to fully live up to the exacting standards of caste.
       The rot is evident throughout Samskara, too, beyond just the moral rot, with the decomposing body and the rats and cockroaches. Death is pervasive, too, and as the plague sweeps through the area Naranappa is not the only one to die, with others, outside the community and within it, also succumbing.
       Praneshacharya, long devoted entirely to the cause and tradition, is forced (and/or allowed) by circumstance to question it, freed, over the course of the story, from several of his burdens. Tellingly, however, Ananthamurthy does not offer a resolution here: Samskara remains open-ended.
       Samskara is an effective tale of a community choked by unsustainable tradition. Ananthamurthy offers fine portraits of a variety of characters as they struggle between natural urges and societal expectations, and has crafted an impressive story here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 January 2013

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Links:

Samskara: Reviews: Other books by U.R.Ananthamurthy under review: U.R.Ananthamurthy:
  • Finalist, for the Man Booker International Prize 2013
Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Kannada-writing (i.e. from Karnataka) Indian author U.R.Ananthamurthy (also: Anantha Murthy; Udupi Rajagopalacharya Ananthamurthy; ಯು.ಆರ್.ಅನಂತಮೂರ್ತಿ) was born in 1932 and died in 2014.

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© 2013-2014 the complete review

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