Hilda’s character is a fair representation of the industrialized West’s—especially, the post-world war II American—conception of the human as an economic being whose major (and arguably, primary) function in life is to create wealth. A society organized almost entirely around economics will eventually escalate the primacy of aggressive individualism with deleterious long-term consequences for the society as a cohesive whole, a phenomenon that we are witnessing today. To place Hilda in the proper socioeconomic-historical context, she belongs to an America that was shaped by two extremely influential theorists.
The first is the German theorist Max Weber who can be called the father of modern capitalism and the second is the Russian migrant, Ayn Rand who apotheosized capitalism as the be all and end all of life itself. In hindsight, Max Weber comes across as an unabashed Calvinist Protestant bigot who believed and wrote that most successful business leaders and capitalist countries in the world were Protestant Christians as opposed to Catholics, Confucians, Hindus, and Buddhists. He argued that these religions placed barriers to the pursuit of capitalism. It is notable that Max Weber had not visited India or understood the Hindu society firsthand. In his highly influential essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he writes how
The development of the concept of the calling quickly gave to the modern entrepreneur a fabulously clear conscience—and also industrious workers; he gave to his employees as the wages of their ascetic devotion to the calling and of co-operation in his ruthless exploitation of them through capitalism the prospect of eternal salvation. [Emphasis added]
The notion of “calling” is defined as an individual choosing an action in a capitalist system which would lead him to the Christian idea of Salvation. The widely used term, “work ethic” is derived from “Protestant ethic.” Across the world, “work ethic” has since become received wisdom.
Ayn Rand’s notion of capitalism was Max Weber minus his Protestantism. Akin to how Communism is Christianity without the Church. Her 1957 bestselling novel, Atlas Shrugged is an unabashed aggrandizement of what Max Weber called, “ruthless exploitation.” Atlas Shrugged not only gained cult status but was the second highest selling book in America after the Bible.
There’s a fundamental reason Max Weber’s thesis took such strong roots and became pervasive in the United States. The Pilgrim Fathers were Puritan Calvinists and America is one of the world’s large countries with a substantial Protestant population.
Needless, Hilda’s worldview and beliefs—including her belief in the infallibility of science as the answer to everything—are shaped by and in this American climate. When we extrapolate this in a larger context, it is unarguable that an alien culture’s economics also brings its culture with it. Tabbali provides a powerful picture of the clashes and the all-round tumult that ensue as a consequence.
Indeed, the charged conversations and heated debates between Hilda and Venkataramana bring out precisely these facets of a cultural clash.
Venkataramana is an Archaka of the temple that the elder Kalinga Gowda had built in honour of the original Punyakoti cow. He is also the family purohit of Kalinga Gowda’s lineage, a position he has inherited after his father’s demise. Trained in the rigorous method of traditional Vedic learning, he is endowed with razor sharp intellect and blazing eloquence to match it. Hilda, in a limited sense, is his intellectual match. As a result, the reader is treated to some truly thrilling and profound discussions and insights in these episodes.
A fundamental element of this cultural clash is revealed by Hilda herself when she ruminates about how she can never have a true conversation with Venkataramana because every interaction with him eventually leads to a bitter argument. It is rather an evenly matched intellectual duel in which there are no clear winners. Yet, Dr. Bhyrappa’s artistry and keen grasp of the Sanatana cultural ethos becomes evident when we probe a little deeper. In one encounter with Hilda, Venkataramana says that in the Indian tradition, a debate is not just an idle pursuit to pass time but to genuinely seek or establish Tattva or philosophy, evident from the phrase, vaade vaade jaayate tatva bodah (Philosophy will be understood through debate).
Dr. Bhyrappa’s artistry lies in the manner in which he deliberately builds up this tension between them all the way till the extraordinary climax of the novel. Even more significant is the aesthetic distance he maintains throughout. He does not show Hilda in poor or inferior light because she is an American and because she eats beef. This quality of artistic integrity is what separates Dr. Bhyrappa from and makes him tower above his literary contemporaries who largely came armed with a favourite ideology or perspective to disseminate which they used literature as a medium.
To understand Hilda’s basic character, one needs to understand her attitude towards India at the subconscious level. As she herself tangentially declares, her very reason for marrying Kalinga and coming to India is akin to what is known as benevolent colonialism: she wants to somehow solve the problem of food scarcity in India by applying western scientific methods here. In other words, she subconsciously carries the racist notion of the white man’s burden without her active realization. This must not be confused with her genuine concern for India’s poverty, food shortage, backwardness and other stereotypes about India that were popular in the west. Even her knowledge about India’s food situation—not to speak of its culture and society—is quite naturally derived from books and newspapers and magazines that she has read in America. And what she sees in Kalenahalli only reinforces these stereotypes instead of propelling her on an open-minded inquiry. The sight of these villagers freely mingling with cattle, feeding them by hand, washing cows and bulls and buffaloes, cleaning up their urine and dung, treating them like family, and actually living with them appalls her. In a telling episode, when she questions the unscientific method of having calves sleep next to humans, Kalinga says “this is how we have always lived.” Her nonchalant reply is revealing: “no wonder your grandfather died so early.” However, the elder Kalinga Gowda has lived a full life and died when he was nearing eighty. Throughout his life, he would not fall asleep until his back was licked by a cow or calf. These are everyday realities of the lives of Kalenahalli’s inhabitants that Hilda witnesses throughout her stay here but fails to acknowledge them let alone understand them.
This precise attitude and outlook is what prevents Hilda from understanding the socio-cultural life in India of which Kalenahalli is a representative microcosm. It is the attitude of the colonial master who insists on treating a living, throbbing civilization and culture as a laboratory specimen or a museum artefact and then lapses into frustration and fury because the inhabitants of the culture do not conform to the derivations and the conclusions that seemed so flawless in the lab and so historically precise in the museum. Once again, Allan Bloom traces this mindset and phenomenon from the insider perspective of being an American.
One should conclude from the study of non-Western cultures that not only to prefer one’s own way but to believe it best, superior to all others, is primary and even natural—exactly the opposite of what is intended by…a study of these cultures. What we are really doing is applying a Western prejudice—which we covertly take to indicate the superiority of our culture—and deforming the evidence of those other cultures to attest to its validity. The scientific study of other cultures is almost exclusively a Western phenomenon, and in its origin was obviously connected with the search for new and better ways, or at least for a validation of the hope that our own culture really is the better way, a validation for which there is no felt need in other cultures. If we are to learn from those cultures, we must wonder whether such scientific study is a good idea. [Emphases added]
The solution if the lab conclusions do not conform: tinker more.
The episode where Hilda savagely slaughters the cow of the Punyakoti stock and eats its flesh illustrates this mindset in an oblique fashion. Hilda simply cannot accept—much less understand—the timeless Hindu devotion and reverence towards the cow, which Venkataramana explains by quoting copious verses from the Dharmasastras and tries to repeatedly reason with her using logical reasoning. The answer to her aforementioned rumination as to why she cannot have a true conversation with Venkataramana lies here: she finds it impossible to accept the reverence for the cow without hammering the reverence on an intellectual plane. Her insistence on and the actual act of cutting it open to inspect whether it contains the 33 crore Hindu Gods that Venkataramana mentions evokes several fundamental questions: of the notion of violence in different cultures, of the limits of logic, and the interplay of unchecked Rajasa, which translates to Krodha in this case. Thus, a logically-inclined Hilda is powerless against her own fury, which results in a heartless but entirely avoidable slaughter of a poor animal which died for no fault of its own. There is really no fundamental difference between Venkataramana’s “blind” belief and Hilda’s murder as an exercise to test her logic despite knowing the outcome.
Had Hilda shown a respectful or compassionate acceptance, she would’ve perhaps taken the first step to a real cultural understanding of India.
The same applies to her marriage with Kalinga. By all counts, Hilda and Kalinga share an unequal relationship although they’re man and wife. At a subliminal level, he is in awe of her because he is in awe of America. And awe is tinged with the brush of inferiority. Kalinga doesn’t bother to correct her when she passes the aforementioned erroneous judgement about his grandfather’s death at an early age. Neither can he explain even the basics of his own culture’s customs, practices, traditions and festivals because his formative years have denuded him of that knowledge. In this case, her ignorance is not her fault but he lacks the emotional and cultural equipment to help her overcome it. The marriage between India and the West comes with a loss to India.
To be continued