In Ramkumari, sex doesn’t merely remain on the plane of beauty or emotion but elevates itself to the status of a value. Her encounter with her employer, the wealthy lawyer and musical connoisseur Gore is one of the most splendid literary episodes. Indeed, Gore’s character is also quite an extraordinary creation of the author. The sexual attraction that he develops towards Ramkumari is rooted in a complex mixture of emotions: pity, compassion, respect, and most of all, in her steadfast faith in her rustic, traditional values which makes her bow down to none except those who share her values.
So when Gore expresses his wish to bed her, she has no confusion in her mind. The question of its morality never enters her mind. The entire episode is best savoured in the original.[i]
[Ramkumari]: Sahib, I have deprived you of breakfast and meals for three days. Please bear this wretched woman’s mistakes.’…Later, she touched both my feet and said, ‘The fact that a person like you, so noble and great, sought my friendship is my good fortune. I know that you don’t go behind any random woman. I thought for three days. I went to the Amba Bhavani temple where I got married and asked her. ‘That fellow did this to me. He married another woman in spite of being married to me, having two children…So what is wrong if I also have a secret marriage?’ This is what I asked her. Devi appeared in my dream last night and said, ‘His sins and virtues are his. You don’t commit any sin. Your Saheb is really a good man. Tell him this frankly. Serve him with Bhakti.’ Please correct me and advise me with wise words if I make any mistake. If you wish to have me, please have me. I am a rustic woman who has neither brains nor learning.
[Gore’s stream of consciousness]
I can tell her after breakfast tomorrow that it was not Devi’s words that you heard in your dream but the anxiety in your own mind. But suddenly, a sense of greater responsibility flashed within me. If I convince her to sleep with me, it means I will be embedded in the place occupied by Amba Bhavani, her Devi who is giving her strength to bear all her difficulties. From then on, will I have the strength to erase all her external and internal difficulties and give her peace?...I will transform a woman who is working, earning her livelihood and living in contentment into a clandestine whore of a rich householder. What noble quality or emotion is there in such a relationship?...The thought of not dragging Ramkumari into a base relationship began to fortify…If one develops a relationship with a woman, it must be a relationship based on the pure emotion evoked by ragas like Bibhas, Bairagi Bhairav, Todi, Jeevanpuri…Bhimapalasi, Kalyan. What musical value will remain if one gives a false assurance to a poor woman only in order to sleep with her?...It was not at all difficult to touch her other body parts. But my mind desists. If one reduces the unblemished emotion of the Bhairavi Raga to the level of the flesh, nothing will remain.
This is pure art. Exalted art. And the whole of Mandra is a grand honeycomb of such magnificence.
From this decisive stage, the relationship between Ramkumari and Gore coalesces into what can be called the true spiritual dimension. As Gore reflects within himself, it takes on the tinge of Madhura Bhakti on her part and a contented acceptance of it on his part. It is an intensely moving journey of a relationship where dignity is elevated into Madhura Bhakti. At no stage does he feel or exhibit a sense of overlordship over her although he has the power and entitlement to do so. This relationship fittingly reaches a truly ennobling climax where both Gore and Ramkumari appear to compete with each other in celebrating the strength of their respective characters. The end of this episode evokes a blissful calm akin to the silence that follows a masterly Indian Classical Music concert. Even here, Mandra truly lives up to its title.
The other great strain of Ramkumari’s character is her fierce independence, self-reliance, and innate dignity. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in her retorts to Mohanlal who returns to meet her after two decades. The literary architecture of each of these situations and the flow of conversations bears the characteristic hallmark of Dr. Bhyrappa. As well as in the pointed and piercing moral and ethical questions she poses to her grown-up children. These are great treats best savoured in the original.
Ramkumari’s decisive rejection of Mohanlal when he resurfaces after twenty years is the real beginning of his downfall. It is a layered study in human nature. The real feeling of Mohanlal towards Ramkumari is a sense of pity rooted in a subconscious contempt for her background. And when such a woman, based purely on the indomitable strength of her values, rejects this world-renowned Vidwan, the impact this has on his psyche and ego is akin to a sledgehammer blow. In a manner of speaking, Ramkumari takes revenge without harboring any feeling of vengeance.
As with all his novels, characterization is one of Dr. S L Bhyrappa’s strongest fortes, be it Srinivasa Shrotriya, Katyayini, Satyabhama, Melagiri Gowda, Bheema, Kunti, Draupadi, Krishna, Tayavva, Kalinga Gowda, Venkataramana, Ravindra, Kanti, Kumarila Bhatta, Razia/Lakshmi, Hamdullah, Mohanlal or Ramkumari.
The author’s grasp of the literary craft is readily evident in the manner in which he makes Ramkumari seek employment as a cook in Gore’s household. The selfsame Gore is an ardent admirer of Mohanlal’s matchless musical talent and knows everything about his debauched lifestyle. Yet he retains a dignified separation between the artist and his art. On occasion, he also offers free legal advice to Mohanlal. And simultaneously acts as the protector of his hapless, innocent wife and a guardian of sorts to her children.
Among other things, this architecture of plot affords a beautiful delineation and unfoldment of Ramkumari’s character. Throughout the novel, Ramkumari’s character is fully revealed through other characters, most prominently through the thoughts of Gore.
First there’s Mohanlal who treats her no better than an object of pleasure but slightly better than a maidservant. Then there is Mohanlal’s Tabla accompanist, Rajaram Tipnis who genuinely sympathises with her plight. It is Tipnis who gets her employment at Gore’s house and also regularly enquires about her well-being. Both her children regard her as a rustic loser who hasn’t done enough for them but have no qualms in using her. Then there is Gore, whose role we have explored at length in the earlier passages.
But the most profound unfolding of Ramkumari’s character occurs in her conversations with Amba Bhavani. It is in these episodes that Ramkumari comes alive in flesh and blood, so to say. A representative excerpt[ii] should suffice in this context.
Ramkumari…reached the Amba Bhavani temple…and stood before the sanctum sanctorum and folded her hands. She stared at the marble Devi who was wearing the warrior’s attire holding a sword in her hand and seated on a tiger. She filled her eyes with this sight and closed her eyelids. ‘Mother, if I have committed any sin, if I have had any evil thoughts, take that sword in your hand and chop my neck. Else, if I have uttered any sinful words, cut my tongue off. If I beseeched you for a good husband in my next birth, how will that be a sin? You tell me.’ She secured these lines within the confines of her closed eyelids…’If it was a sin, you should’ve told me yourself. But you didn’t. If it still is, tell me even now.’…Her eyes remained closed. No voice within her told her that it was a sin. After a while, she opened her eyes. The Pujari drew a streak of Kumkum vertically on her forehead…and gave her some Prasad…She circumambulated thrice on the same spot and emerged from the temple. As she walked towards her home, her steps were firm. Her composure was equanimous.
Further elaboration on this point will be superfluous. This is extraordinary literary latticework, a fine specimen of textual embroidery. Needless, Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa exhibits the same finesse in developing all characters in Mandra.
In closing, the character of Ramkumari stands shoulder-to-shoulder with all other memorable characters spread across Dr. Bhyrappa’s literary corpus. The real triumph of Ramkumari is the full gamut of her journey from a naïve, rustic and traditional Hindu woman who is heartlessly exploited but ultimately grows to the stature of a Tapasvini.
- Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa. “MANDRA.” pp. 186–9., Sahitya Bhandara, Bangalore. Excerpt translated by Sandeep Balakrishna
- Ibid pp. 408-9