Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man

Reading this 1966 novel by U.R. Ananthamurthy, and translated from Kannada by A.K. Ramanujan was a strange experience. On the one hand, I loved a lot about the story of religious rigidity coming to into question when faced with real-life dilemmas. On the other hand, the details of the story seemed much harder to follow than they needed to be, even given how different the setting was from my own experience and anything I’ve read about.

The novel is set in a South Indian village where a man named Praneshacharya is the leader of the Brahmin community. When a man named Naranappa dies, he’s faced with a problem. Naranappa had abandoned Brahmin ways, even eating meat, getting drunk, befriending Muslims, and taking a mistress. The Brahmins had not excommunicated him, so technically they were still responsible for his burial rites, but they also believe it is wrong to bury a heretic as if he were a proper Brahmin. So a debate ensues. It becomes further complicated when his mistress, Chandri, offers all her jewels to cover the cost of the burial. Given that the jewels are valuable enough to cover more than the cost, burying Naranappa looks more appealing, but which family will get the honor? More debate. And then events ensue that cause Praneshacharya to question his beliefs and his ability to be a leader. Is he actually any “better” than Naranappa?

What I loved about this book is the comical approach Ananthamurthy takes to the community. Their debates appear so ridiculous! And I think that’s intentional because so many things happen to show how pointless their conversations are. For example, when eventually Chandri decides to take matters into her own hands and take care of the burial in secret, they continue to fret and complain about the smell of the decaying body, a body that they refuse to enter the house and view. I could see the same kind of thing happening in a satirical novel about a hidebound English village, caught up in the technicalities of some tradition or other.

I also loved the ending, when Praneshacharya seems to have come to an understanding of himself and his relationship to the world. It is open-ended, which I suppose could frustrate some readers, but I loved it. It felt hopeful and appropriate because he is now more open to possibilities.

But I also found myself frustrated with the book at times. It’s very short, only about 130 pages, but it took me a long time to read because I kept having to go back and reread to grasp what was going on. Some of this was certainly due to my unfamiliarity with this particular slice of Indian culture. The names of the characters are long and unfamiliar, and so many are similar that I frequently got mixed up. So that’s not a flaw in the book. And I’m sure there are subtleties and nuances about the time and place that I simply missed. But some of my struggle came from not being able to get a sense of time spans. The events would suddenly leap forward, or a whole lot of things would happen all over the village at once in a very short time frame. Character deaths happened in a blink of an eye, easily missed. And the prose seemed weirdly unnatural and clunky, but I couldn’t decide whether it felt that way because so much of the material was new

When I finished reading the novel itself, I read an interview with the author that appears in the back of the NYRB edition. The interviewer, Susheela Punitha, noted that the English translation lacks the liveliness of the original text in Kannada. Even the English title shuts off meaning. Samskara is a word with numerous definitions, all of which come into play in the book, but the English subtitle (A Rite for a Dead Man) points to the most bland and prosaic meaning. It’s too bad, because it seems like a better translation could have made this fascinating story a much more exciting read.

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