History as Fact and Metaphor in Tabbali

This article is part 4 of 13 in the series Analysis of Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa's Novels

Loss and Progress

An illiterate and uneducated in the modern sense but a truly learned man in the Sanatana traditional sense, the older Kalinga Gowda’s character is indeed one of the marvels of Dr. Bhyrappa’s literary creations. The several parallels between Gowda’s character and the Punyakoti lineage reflect this. One of the most heartrending scenes that show this parallel in Tabbali is when his pasture is sliced into two to build a new tar road passing through the Kalenahalli village. It is not an ordinary geographical incision. The part that Gowda loses has housed the graves of his beloved son, Krishna next to whom is buried the cow for whose sake he was killed by a hyena. In an extraordinary emotional storytelling, the author shows how this cow literally gives up her life by refusing to eat and take medication just so she can be with him in heaven. Two major metaphors stand out in this whole episode. The first is the suggestion that technology-driven modernity, in the name of progress, doesn’t respect sanctity even in death. The second is a facet of the first: the road that cuts through Gowda’s land is both a foreboding and a suggestion that Gowda’s generation has ended and a new era is about to begin. Indeed, the older Kalinga Gowda too, dies of heartbreak shortly after the graves are destroyed. His vivid dream of Sri Krishna before he merges into silent death reminds us of the Shakespearean, “How he solicits heaven,
Himself best knows.”

Conviction in Dharma

Kalinga Gowda represents what can be called an uncorrupted magnanimous heroic character. The strength of his heroism derives from his unswerving conviction in tradition. As his character unfolds, Dr. Bhyrappa also paints a leisurely picture of the typical life of rural India of the period. The unraveling of this picture is accomplished by a prose style that resonates this leisure largely through the brilliant use of action verbs, simple, straightforward dialogue and descriptions of routine activities.

From this we get a picturesque sprawl of a daily life of rural India whose ethical and moral life was underscored by the simple dictum of virtue and sin whose boundaries lay not in law books but in personal conduct. In simplified form, it was an abiding conviction in Dharma whose application in real life included devotion to God and fear of committing a sin, both inseparable. Thus, the Sun is the only witness to a transaction involving the sale of a cow. The oath is taken by both parties by holding its tail and affirming the transaction. The inviolable sanctity of the spoken word trumps over the reams of papers of a sale deed. Sanctity of the spoken word emanated from sanctity of thought on the part of both the buyer and the seller harking back to the immortal Vedic lines, rtam vadishyami satyam vadishyami.

Neither was this ethical system restricted to villages. In fact, it was the cultural  inheritance that pulsated throughout India for thousands of years. In India’s long maritime trade history, there is a wealth of records and testimonies left by foreign businessmen and traders who repeatedly sing praises of the innate trustworthiness and business ethics of Indian merchants. A loose paraphrase of an ancient saying is relevant in this regard: “A Hindu merchant’s word is worth more than the money he gives or owes you.”

History as Metaphor

We can reasonably place the older Kalinga Gowda’s period as beginning roughly at the end of the 19th century up to the middle of the 20th century. That is, from the height of the colonial British rule of India to the height of Nehru’s culturally-alienating rule of India.

Selecting this timeframe also shows Dr. Bhyrappa’s mastery over both the medium and the craft. In a very broad sense, the author has brilliantly narrated not just history but the impact of the unquenchable British hunger for looting and exploiting India, a global criminal plunder that is unparalleled in the history of any colonized country in the world. Specifically, Tabbali presents the economic, social, cultural and ethical consequences of this colonial exploitation on real people in India.

From time immemorial, dedicated grazing pastures was one of the central economic drivers in India. Every major king and minor feudatory and chieftain had earmarked large tracts of such pastures on which no other activity was permitted. With the advent of the colonial British, these were systematically converted to agricultural lands under the “liberating” and “compassionate” excuse of producing more food grain. Yet, once this extra food was produced, it was promptly shipped to England to feed British soldiers engaged in expensive wars to monopolize the world’s resources. One of the darkest and the most painful chapters of this barbaric exploitation was the British-induced Bengal Famine in which a staggering 25 lakh Indians died due to starvation, a tragic story of genocide which Madhushree Mukherjee narrates in her masterly, Churchill’s Secret War on India.

Tabbali narrates the actual process of this conversion of pastures complete with the details of the bureaucratic nightmare involved in it. The suffering and agony that the older Kalinga Gowda undergoes in trying to save his precious pasture is extremely painful. If this is the external consequence, the cultural destruction and social disharmony that occurs due to this conversion is even more tragic. As cowherds and farmers begin converting their pastures to farmland, their ancestral and age-old devotion towards the cow gets proportionately diluted. The feeling of brotherhood that had existed so far within and among villages is steadily replaced by the supremacy of money in these relationships. With it, the novel hauntingly shows how the ethical quotient among such people is eroded by a government that enables the erosion by passing such laws. They begin showing fudged revenue, find ways to evade taxes, and allow their cattle to trespass into others’ pastures (in this case, Kalinga Gowda’s pasture) and indulge in other such unethical activities. Thus, a society that had till then operated harmoniously based on the unwritten rules of Dharma begins to hurtle towards its inevitable downfall.

And as we have seen earlier, the elder Kalinga Gowda fights a lone losing battle in which he not only loses his pasture but quietly passes away into the merciless folds of a history and a future not of his making. In a cruel twist, his grandson recovers a substantial sum of money from the government of independent India in back compensation for his grandfather’s land lost to road building. And the erstwhile pasture to save which Kalinga Gowda fought now becomes an expansive tobacco farm.    

Indeed, Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa has accomplished an extraordinary feat of philosophical investigation using a small slice of history as the backdrop. The forces and consequences of this history are both facts and metaphors.  

To be continued         




Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

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