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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Saga of Dharmapuri


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To purchase The Saga of Dharmapuri

Title: The Saga of Dharmapuri
Author: O.V.Vijayan
Genre: Novel
Written: (1985) (Eng. 1987)
Length: 160 pages
Original in: Malyalam
Availability: The Saga of Dharmapuri - US
The Saga of Dharmapuri - UK
The Saga of Dharmapuri - Canada
  • Malayalam title: ധർമ്മപുരാണം
  • Translated by the author
  • Originally meant to be serialized in 1975, The Saga of Dharmapuri first appeared in serial form in 1977, and in book form in 1985

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Our Assessment:

B+ : wonderfully savage satire, strong stuff

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
India Today A 15/7/1988 Tony Jesudasan
TLS A 7/12/1990 David Selbourne

  From the Reviews:
  • "At the simplest level of the reader's comprehension, the novel is a theistic affirmation of revolution and an examination of the conflict between tyranny and destiny. One does not need to be a Hindu to understand its universal allegories. One does not need to be an Indian to ingest its volatile political hype. One needs to be a bohemian in Gotterdammerung to roller-coaster through his aberration of mythology and political sociology. (...) The sheer originality of Vijayan's novel and the sledge-hammer blow of his language clearly establish him as a major writer of our times. His dark humour hurts even as it entertains. It will be difficult to ignore his eclectic-tour deforce and equally difficult to live with his cynical presage." - Tony Jesudasan, India Today

  • "The Saga of Dharmapuri is one of the great works of modern Indian literature. (...) Set against Vijayan's heroic and scatological Candide -- originally written in Malayalam and finely translated into English by the author -- the timidity of our own English talent for political satire is embarrassingly laid bare. For this is dangerous stuff, and cut close to the bone. (...) Fiercest of all is Vijayan's Voltairean recoil from Indian cringing to power." - David Selbourne, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Saga of Dharmapuri is a thinly-veiled political allegory of India in the early 1970s; as Vijayan explains in an Author's Note, he began writing it in 1972, and it was to be serialized in 1975 in a Malayalam magazine, but because of Indira Gandhi's State of Emergency could not be published before 1977 (and only appeared in book form in 1985). Just how thin the veil is is clear from the two powers that throw their weight around in Dharmapuri, described in a Glossary as The Red Tatar Republic -- "Guided by infallible dialectical and materialist sorcery, the Republic claims to be the natural ally of all decolonized peoples. [...] Gives Dharmapuri solidarity and slogans" -- and:

The White Confederacy: A trans-oceanic capitalist imperialist power practising the sorcery of consumerism and hardsell. One of the traditional 'enemies' of Dharmapuri, the Confederacy yet replenishes Dharmapuri's armouries, and supplies the President with candy.
       Vijayan's satire is devastatingly sharp, from what amounts to the opening scene, in which the President squirms on his throne in his ritual "Hour of the Second Defecation" (disconcertingly an hour earlier than usual for his evening ... ablutions). Dharmapuri is a country where even every last bit of the President's excrement is venerated (they take their shit seriously in Dharmapuri ...) and each bowel movement examined by the press ("'Magnificent,' said one; 'great stability,' said a second") -- suggesting that this has become a land of mindless, groveling courtiers, oblivious to reality.
       Meanwhile, the two great powers -- the Red Tatar Republic and the White Confederacy, use Dharmapuri for their own purposes, ranging from propaganda to relying on it as a source for corpses for their medical schools (yes, the country is so corrupt that it sells out even the dead). Both continue to support the corrupt government when it is under attack -- both backing: "the President with guns and aphrodisiacs".
       A contrast is offered by the character of Siddhaartha -- "Not the Buddha of history, but a parallel creation", who follows a Buddha-like course here and is the novel's redemptive figure, suggesting the possibility of a better future.
       Dharmapuri is under attack -- yet the real attack comes from within, the rot of the President and the government (which, in turn, is supported -- for their own ends -- by the foreign powers and ideologies). Vijayan's vision is near-apocalyptic, this society so rotten to the core that collapse seems inevitable -- and yet, for so long, it creakily staggers on.
       Among the complaints are those of the wives of the Persuaders -- their men kept apart from them so long that, as one laments:
The State of Dharmapuri has accomplished the ultimate divestment of its citizens. It has kept my Persuader-husband away so long that I cannot put together his image any more.
       When a Persuader-husband returns home with lots of medals but missing his manhood the wives rise up and grab their scissors, surging forward in "a tide of vengefulness" and leading to the Partisans' "anti-imperialism now turned into castration neurosis".
       Yes, this is a messy, visceral satire, a mix of myth and all too much realism that criticizes a sclerotic 1970s India -- both leadership and citizenry -- and condemns the self- (and no-one-else-)serving influence of outside powers that undermine any efforts for salvation from within.
       The rollicking, angry story is a powerful piece of work (and nothing like Vijayan's The Legends of Khasak, for readers who were hoping to find more of the same). Somewhat dated because of some of the specifics of that era (and the corresponding figures), it is nevertheless a fascinating read -- strong stuff, and good (if very ugly) fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 December 2011

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Reviews: O.V.Vijayan: Other books by O.V.Vijayan under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the Index of literature from and about India

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About the Author:

       Indian author Oottupulackal Velukkutty Vijayan (ഒ.വി.വിജയന്‍, 1930-2005) was a leading Malayalam writer and a prominent cartoonist.

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