Pan Indian Canvas
Like most of his acclaimed classics, the action in Tabbali occurs in a tiny slice of India but the canvas is pan Indian. Few writers have displayed Dr. Bhyrappa’s unique talent for projecting the macrocosm by embedding it in the microcosm. Even in an epic novel like Tantu in which all of India is itself the canvas, the action opens in a small village in Dr. Bhyrappa’s favourite region, Old Mysore.
In Tabbali, the fictional village Kalenahalli is a great metaphor of time, space and presents an extraordinary use of a literary technique where the imaginary and the folk merge with the real. The sthalapurana (local legend) places Kalenahalli in Karnataka but the sthalapurana, which narrates the story of the village’s origin is the aforementioned Govina Haadu. The name of the village is said to be derived from that of its headman, Kalinga Gowda (or Kalinga Golla) from unknown antiquity. On closer inspection, it appears that the name “Kalinga” is well-chosen for its inextricable link with Sri Krishna, the endearing emperor of cows.
Kalenahalli is an idyllic timeless Indian village of the type that actually existed even fifty years ago throughout India, marked by countless generations of settled life and largely, blissfully isolated from the world even thirty kilometres beyond its confines. Kalenahalli is precisely the village that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi so loved and wanted to preserve because “real India lies in its villages.” It is self-sufficient and self-contained, content with the natural rhythms its inhabitants are attuned to for ages. They are happy to be left alone to grow their crops, tend their cattle, celebrate their festivals, and disputes are usually resolved without stepping outside. The “Sarkar,” government is only a hazy reality in their minds…something to which they pay agriculture tax ungrudgingly but which they generally fear.
On the physical plane, the plot of Tabaali unfolds on three enmeshed tracks as it were: the progressive fate of Kalenahalli, the progressive (or downward) fate of the cow, and the generational change of Kalinga Gowda’s family with changes brought about by time and technology. In many ways, both Kalenahalli the village and the cow are helpless victims of domineering forces beyond them, even unaware why they are suddenly undergoing suffering for no fault of theirs. When we regard it even from this bird’s eye viewpoint, Tabbali appears to us as a novel of profound tragedy.
In a very limited sense, we can draw a parallel between Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane and Vamshavruksha, the novel that catapulted Dr. Bhyrappa to literary fame. In both novels, the story is set in what is known as a Sandhikala, or a generational junction: the grandfather’s generation giving way to that of the grandson.
In both novels, customs, traditions, and lifestyles have continued unbroken from time immemorial. In Vamshavruksha, this continuity is broken with Srinivasa Srotri taking Sanyasa, and in Tabbali, with the death of Kalinga Gowda, the grandfather. In both cases, an entire cultural inheritance is lost forever.
Equally, in both Vamshavruksha and Tabbali, the intervening generation—i.e. the father’s generation—is rudely snuffed out. In the former, Srinivasa Srotri’s son meets a watery grave and in Tabbali, a hyena kills Kalinga Gowda’s son.
Srinivasa Srotri in a way, embodies a great pillar of Sanatana Dharma: the Grihasta (householder) life and has unshakeable, almost supernatural conviction in traditional Sanatana Dharma, in performing all the prescribed rites, rituals, and charities as a devout Brahmin householder. The elder Kalinga Gowda is almost his exact copy. As a proud Golla Gowda (cowherd), his conviction in the sanctity of the cow as the very manifestation of Dharma and the Devas matches that of Srinivasa Srotri. This unlettered Gowda at the level of his soul, intuitively grasps the essence of any speech or occurrence and is able to accurately tell whether it adheres to Dharma or no. As Dr. Bhyrappa makes it explicit, the Govina Haadu is not merely a poem, it is the Veda of his lineage, and the Punyakoti cow in this song is his lineage’s Veda Mata. The scholarly Srotriya and the unsophisticated Gowda are united in the sanctum sanctorum of the Santana Spirit.
Although their respective grandsons, the junior Srinivasa and the junior Kalinga Gowda share a similar fate, there are two major differences.
In Vamshavruksha, the grandson pretty much loses the aforementioned cultural inheritance, which was the very lifebreath of Srotri. However, he maintains a hazy respect and devotion towards it.
However, in Tabbali, the gut-wrenchingly painful details of this generational transition is narrated in fashion that has a lifelike quality to it. Here, the grandson, Kalinga Gowda has imbued himself with a borrowed attitude of casual and entitled violence against the selfsame inheritance. Thus, one of the central elements inseparable from the Sanatana Dharmic tradition becomes an element of consumption in Tabbali. The spiritual becomes a slaughtered delicacy on the human platter.
The parallels stop here and should not be overstretched. Among other things, they offer a profound window into the manner in which and the dimensions that Dr. Bhyrappa offers to examine the same cultural problems not at the superficial level but at the level of nuance and philosophy. At no point in either Vamshavruksha or Tabbali does the author deliver a “final judgement” of sorts. As an insightful observer of life, his novels akin to life, are punctuated largely with commas; as a literary sculptor par excellence, these parallels also afford a wealth of tools for both the serious student and the aspiring writer of enduring literature.
The title of the novel, Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (You’re Orphaned, my Son) is meaningful and poignant on several planes. Under the protracted Muslim rule, cow slaughter occurred for an explicit religious reason: the humiliation of Hindus. But it was the British who transformed cow slaughter into an industry like say, textiles or automobiles. The British left in 1947. However, in less than half a century of their departure, India steadily zoomed up the ladder and eventually became the world’s third largest exporter of beef. Until recently, the business of cattle meat was largely in the hands of Hindus, a reality that is depicted in a revealing scene in Tabbali, where a wealthy slaughterhouse owner is a devout Hindu, showing reverence to our sacred Tirtha Kshetras like Badrinath, Kashi, and Kailas Manasasarovar. If the original home of Sanatana Dharma has earned this grim, living distinction, no greater proof is needed for Bharatavarsha’s orphaned state at a very fundamental stratum.
A culturally-orphaned country will soon forget its civilization, the precise lesson that the downfall of all civilisations tell us.
This orphaned state also occurs at multiple levels, and shows us multiple facets throughout the novel as we shall see.
To be continued