An English translation of Kannada writer Yashwant Chittal’s 1979 novel mirrors the faultlines in modern Indian society.
When it was published in 1979, Shikari was a novel that talked about caste and corruption. Four decades may be a long time in a developing country dealing with rapid changes, but don’t expect the English translation of the Kannada novel—now out as Shikari: The Hunt—to evoke any nostalgia. Author Yashwant Chittal set his book in the Bombay of the 1970s. It is 2018 now, but nothing much has changed since 1979 when it comes to the defining and divisive issues of caste and corruption. Chittal, a short story writer, novelist and poet born in northern Karnataka, sought to talk about the two issues in one book. The author chooses the mind and body of a 39-year-old man from the same village he was born in to do his task. Nagappa is a senior scientist in a chemicals company. He is popular with people and versatile in his work. One day, against the run of play, Nagappa receives an order suspending him from work. The order doesn’t cite any reason and the bewildered man is left to wrack his brains to find out what has gone wrong. He gathers the spirits of Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to analyse his position. He even turns to MN Roy and Karl Marx.
Not satisfied, he tries to understand the situation through the works of Konrad Lorenz on animal behaviour and the transactional analysis of Eric Berne’s Games People Play. Kafka and Lorenz are not of much help, as Nagappa grapples with his inner demons to deal with the outside forces working against him. The story takes place during a period of two weeks, mostly in Mumbai, where his company is based, and for a brief time in Hyderabad, where it has a factory. Chittal may have been thinking about the first two decades of a newly independent India that was building new chains for the ones that it had broken. It turns out that Nagappa has to slow down in his progress from a boy born into a low caste into a man aiming to rule the world. He also has to give way to the powerful who want to share a slice of the nation’s progress.
The city of Mumbai is a silent spectactor to Nagappa’s travails. The same Udupi restaurants where he found his fraternity in the past become vehicles in his downfall, as his caste and corporate troubles tumble out of the closet. The rich in the city are not ready for a talented man from a low caste. The novel, however, also shows that corruption has its own caste system, where the colour of money rules the roost. The division created by corruption is as deep as the one dug by caste. When the two faultlines of caste and corruption collide, the result is cataclysmic. The author manoeuvres most of the tremors from the collision of caste and corruption to the realm of the mind. Nagappa is caught at the epicentre of the earthquake as a symbol of suffering. The churning in his mind is felt from the beginning till the end of the novel, skillfully translated by Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger from the original Kannada to tend to the tensions running through its pages.
Chittal, who started his literary career with short stories he wrote towards the end of the 1950s, always kept the focus of his works on the flaws within a fledgling democracy. His first novel, Mooru Daarigalu (Three Ways), published in 1964, was adapted into a film by celebrated Kannada director Girish Kasaravalli. The film is rated as one of the best Kannada films ever. Shikari was Chittal’s second novel in which he massively invested his experience of living and working in Mumbai first as a student and later a city- and US-educated scientist in a chemicals company. Chittal, who passed away three years ago, made the real estate mafia of Mumbai the subject of his probing pen in the novel Purushottama, published in 1990. He wrote several short stories and six novels, one of which (Digambara) is awaiting publication. Faizal Khan is a freelancer