The modernist movement (navya) in Kannada literature was significant in many ways. The navya writers created an idiom which even to this day resonates with the many new twists that came into the “being” of a literary work. The idiom of the navya writers was multi-dimensional and accommodated varied experiences and diverse ideas. However, the divergences that emerged from the writings of the ‘navya’ poets, short story writers, novelists and playwrights did have an underlying element of commonality—of examining the existential state of the modern individual situated as she/he was in a modernizing community/nation with very strong traditional roots. The navya writers were deeply preoccupied with the multiple realities of individuals, communities and societies in transition. Hence, in them, tradition and modernity are juxtaposed as antithetical bases upon which individuals inevitably rest, and, more importantly confront their dualities, contradictions and paradoxes.
The navya writers worked out elements of existential angst, despair, self doubt when portraying individual existence, and created images of alienation, loss of selfhood and the search for identity while describing social realities. The works of the ‘navya’ tradition extended the framework of conventional literary expression and experience by raising basic questions about the nature of societies, whether traditional or modern, and the choices of individuals in relation to their personal and social selves. This vital dimension of the navya tradition continues to shape the consciousness of Kannada writers after three decades and, more interestingly, even in those who oppose the navya tradition for various reasons.
Vivek Shanbhag is one of the younger generation of writers with a full and open exposure to the navya and other literary movements of Kannada literature after it, like the ‘Bandaya’ and the dalit movements which gave expression to the muted voices of the marginalized and the oppressed and opened up many realms that had not been significantly noticed or recognized till then. Vivek has published four collections of short stories, a play and Innoo Ondu is his first novel. A rough translation of the title would be “Yet another”.
As a land, as a territory and as a consciousness Karnataka, like India in general for that matter, has changed quite beyond recognition. Both the landscape and the mindscape of Karnataka, especially during the last two decades, have gone through momentous changes, at times quite unbelievably dramatic, making it necessary for a writer to capture the spirit of the times with a consciousness that never overlooks the intricacies of these changes that apparently look different and separate. In other words the changes have been shaped by the forces of a ‘new modernity’ quite radically different from what appeared as ‘the modern’ four or five decades ago. It is this ‘neo-modern’ element that a writer like Vivek Shanbhag tries to capture in his novel Innoo Ondu. In this sense the novel’s narrative structure has a striking resemblance to the narrative mode employed by the navya writers. But in terms of the new aesthetics the novel unfolds, and in its thematic preoccupations the novel is truly a new incarnation that reshapes and reconstitutes our understanding of the spirit of modernity—in relation to both the world and the characters it brings before us. The different characters and the varied spaces they inhabit that the novel portrays represent the fragmentary nature of the world we live in and the chaotic, irregular, unsteady beliefs, attitudes and values that form our consciousness. There is nothing homogeneous or unitary either in the external world or in our own interior spaces, which we mark through our articulations—emotional and ideational. Yet, underneath this seemingly anarchic pattern there is a very subtle and sophisticated mosaic of unity that each one tries to comprehend and attain. On the one hand, the novel is about a young, emancipated girl, Swathi, who is trying to come to terms with all her relationships—her boyfriend whom she cannot relate to anymore; her mother, a well-known dancer who is conscious of her ageing and is struggling to preserve her beautiful exterior; and, very importantly, a profession she wishes to excel at. Swathi is irritated by the idle curiosity of her boyfriend who pries into her personal world and is equally vexed by her semi-modern mother who, at every given opportunity, peeps into her daughter’s private spaces. Moving from one situation to another, Swathi is the modern girl in an urban world struggling hard to determine her identity as an individual.
On the other, the novel is, in a distinct way, all about Kashyap, mysterious, fascinating, and, even, eccentric. Kashyap is particularly interested in studying the ecology of the western Ghats, is specifically preoccupied with the amazing world of butterflies, is interested in almost everything under the sun, passing his ‘expert comments’ on them all, and is equally an expert at cooking. More mysterious than the man is his ‘origins’ which he always seems to fictionalize but consistently keeps referring to. Kashyap, as a scientist, an environmentalist, a connoisseur, is an urban creature trying to find his identity through his ‘origins’.
The protagonist of the novel, also the narrator, Manohara, is the one who is at ease with all these characters and attempts to understand them without making any value judgements, which, remarkably enough reflects the open vision of the work itself. Manohara is from a non-urban locale and through him one enters the landscape of remote Uttara Karnataka, far removed from the urban cosmopolis, and the mindscape of non-urban individuals with their values, concerns, dreams, aspirations and struggles. What is of supreme importance is that there is in that remote world a dynamism, a life rhythm in no way inferior to what one usually associates only with the urban landscape. It is through Manohara that we get a clear, unprejudiced view of the richness and complexity of life in those parts of the world, which would, in passing, appear unrelated to the modern spaces most people belong to.
Innoo Ondu through its shifting narrative structure, its multiple images of diverse landscapes and its seemingly fragmentary pictures of different individuals, subverts all our conventional views, opinions and ideologies as far as space, time and human behaviour and attitudes are concerned. The novel achieves this by eliminating all binary opposites that we have constructed about tradition and modernity, the urban and the rural, the past, the present and the future and the local and the universal. The subversion succeeds in fusing all surfacial contraries and posits a holistic point of view which integrates the urban and the rural, the neo-modern and the non-modern and the present and the past. It is for this reason that even when we look at the remote world of Kumta and its unsophisticated people we get a glimpse of the modern spirit in the landscape and in the consciousness of those individuals. In fact Manohara’s uncle Yashwanth is one individual, who, in the ambience of a so-called unevolved environment, takes the radical step of owning up to his relationship with Champa, who, going by conventional parlance, is a ‘mistress’.
Innoo Ondu, through its consciously structured disjointed narrative style compels us to understand the nature of a neo-modern world where ‘the origins’ of individuals, places, institutions, systems of knowledge and bases of experiences are multi-layered, complex and inextricably bound to one another. The search for authenticity of the self leads to the exploration of one’s roots, which inevitably means digging into one’s past and, perhaps, going back to one’s original landscape, which, of course, has undergone such a transformation in a neo-modern world that one cannot even figure it out with any degree of certainty. It is then, perhaps, that it becomes a necessity for each individual in such a neo-modern world to correlate with the past by disowning/disinheriting what it used to be then, and by trying to recover its identity through a new self shaped by a new world. The paradoxical/contradictory relationship between the rural and the modern, the non-modern and the neo-modern, the urban individual and the rural one is what Innoo Ondu explores with enormous energy, but in a restrained manner, a characteristic feature of Vivek Shanbhag’s writings.
Innoo Ondu is a rich metaphorical work that is deeply rooted in the conflicting realities of the heterogeneous landscapes and mindscapes of Karnataka. It is a work that is remarkably rich in its vivid description of local worlds even as it abounds in thick descriptions of individuals in modern spaces enveloped by a ‘wanderlust’ spirit. The manner in which the novel explores the hidden terrains of the physical world and the submerged areas of individual consciousness without privileging either of them enables it to throw up fresh images of modern life without any ideological or philosophical hierarchy overriding them. Innoo Ondu images the complex, multiple realities of a neo-modern world eliminating all irritating conclusive judgements that mark most of our narratives. This Kannada novel reads not merely the realities of the cosmos it describes, but reflects the paradoxical and contradictory spirit of our times. Innoo Ondu, “Yet another”, only means that our modern civilization needs to make yet another attempt to recognize and understand its nature.
- Manu Chakravarthy is a Professor of English at Bangalore.