Book: The House of Kanooru
Author: Kuvempu

This is a fantastic bildungsroman set in the hill country of Southern Karnataka. Captures the arrival of modernity in a village called Kanooru and the surrounding areas and the disappearing of the old ways and gods. MN Srinivas’s Sanskritization is evident through the choices the protagonists make, for example naming a child Ramesha over the traditional Hiriyanna or Thimayya. The impetus here is not the seeking of status or upward mobility. It is already the long dominant landed caste that’s making these choices. The momentum instead is provided by the wider national movement, and the enormous impact of the Bengal renaissance on the lay religion. The author doesn’t characterize it as such, but we can now clearly identify the reshaping of popular religion in early 20th century, by the Brahmo Samaj first, and eventually the influence of Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Tagore and Aurobindo.

The book is set in a fascinating place and time and I found myself unable to put it down. A caste, the Halepaikadas, is characterized as low, with the dominant caste landlords denying them entry into the house. But this caste was once part of the Vijayanagara armed forces. How did they fall in status? The depiction of the relationship between the castes endlessly interesting. Halepaikada Thimma is not allowed inside the Kanooru house, but he’s a drinking buddy of the lord Chandrayya Gowda. Every landlord is a Vokkaliga, and they are the patrons of the brahmins from the nearby agrahara. The brahmin depends entirely on this patronage for sustenance. The aberrant josiya from the agrahara is as ignorant as the people he’s serving. The Belas who work in the fields seem like bonded labourers without much agency, but the Tulu speaking Shettys who they work alongside are active agents, making their own fortunes while being subservient to the Gowda. Everyone, high or low, is shown petty in their own way.

It’s the landed folks who can afford to get a modern education first - Hoovayya, Ramayya, Vasu etc, and they carry everyone else along with them headlong into the future. As with any good bildungsroman, it is love that throws dust on everyone’s plans. There is more to this book than caste. Kuvempu captures the beauty of Malnadu that comes across strongly even in translation. The animals in the peoples lives have names - Nandi the bull, Tiger the dog. One learns that the cheetah was prevalent in that region once upon a time. An extraordinarily moving scene in the beginning of the book describes the destruction of a bird and its chicks. What’s evident is the worshipful attitude Kuvempu had towards nature, as reverent as the attitude Hoovayya once seemed to have towards the Baghavad Gita.

First published in 1936, the cheerily optimistic ending shows the age of the book. Who after all writes fiction these days set in India that shows as much zest for life and the future?

Much recommended.


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