Tayavva, Punyakoti and the Value of Milk

This article is part 10 of 12 in the series Analysis of Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa's Novels

Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa is deservedly renowned for his memorable female characters be it Katyayini, Nanjamma, Satyabhama, Ram Kumari, Lakshmi (or Razia), and for his brilliant, original explorations of the inner lives of Kunti, Gandhari and Draupadi. Tayavva’s character in Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane most definitely belongs to these extraordinary annals.

However, a key difference in Tayavva’s character compared to the others is the fact that she also stands as a great symbol and metaphor, a feature that becomes quite evident quite early in the novel. Equally, to merely call her a female character is limiting her soundless sublimity, inexpressible magnanimity, and a quiet spiritual evolution that reaches a ripe fruition.  

As Dr. Bhyrappa himself declares in his preface to the novel, the character of Tayavva has been intentionally created as being mute by birth for a reason. However, she is not deaf. She clearly stands as a metaphor and symbol for the cow, and for everything that Hindus have reverentially associated the cow with. This is also brought out in the manner in which her family and the villagers of Kalenahalli regard Tayavva. Everybody understands her except her own son, Kalinga whose brush with English education purloins the language in which he can speak to her and understand her. This phenomenon occurs almost in a neat parallel. When he returns to Kalenahalli during his school summer holidays, he feels irritated and bored to take the cattle out for grazing. Similarly, he feels bored to talk to his mother because she is, literally, dumb.

The elder Kalinga Gowda, in his characteristic, earthy manner, remarks on this in a very revealing fashion:

But after Putta returned from Mysore, he has never taken the cattle for grazing on his own volition. When the grandfather asked him one day, the grandson said, ‘I feel bored there. You tell me, who can stay there all alone till the evening? There’s no company either.’

‘Aha! Why should anyone be with you? Won’t the cows be with you?’

‘If cows are around with me, does it mean I have company? Are cows humans?’

The grandfather couldn’t think of an answer immediately. If somebody questioned a truth which was deeply rooted in experience for which no evidence was necessary, how could one answer such a question instantly?

            […]

            The grandfather felt hurt by this. He said: ‘You’re corrupted.’

            […]

he asked his grandson directly the next time the boy came home: ‘My boy, why can’t you speak to your mother when you come home?’

‘How does one talk to her, grandpa?’

‘How? In the same way... how do you talk to us?’

‘You speak, and I speak too. She’s mute, right? How does one speak to a mute?’

[…]

His daughter-in-law Tayavva might be a mute, but from the day they brought her home, everyone has been speaking to her. She too, speaks to all of them. ‘Does one need only a tongue to speak?’

In this, there is also a hint and a suggestion that the India of Kalinga’s generation is on the anvil of losing its native cultural vocabulary.

When Kalinga is an infant, Tayavva’s breastmilk dries up. This is a sliver of a plot point which the author sets up and recalls towards the very end of the novel, showing his command over both the medium and craft. The infant Kalinga then drinks milk directly from the udder of a Punyakoti cow till he is weaned away. And when his own wife Hilda slaughters one of the Punyakoti cows, we recall the Kannada school poem about the cow’s soliloquy, early on in the novel:

I seek dirt and grass on the wayside and on the streets and
Munch on them, return home and give elixir.
And drinking it you betray me. Tell me
what good have you done to anyone, O Human?

And when Hilda’s own breastmilk dries up owing to a painful medical condition, her own infant daughter is almost on the verge of dying. However, no cow in their scientific barn allows itself to be suckled because they have never experienced motherhood. And there is no Punyakoti cow in the barn because Tayavva has donated them all to Venkataramana. It is at this juncture that Kalinga has to abandon his self-respect and beg Venkataramana for getting the Punyakoti milk to his infant. And just as Punyakoti saved Kalinga, it saves his daughter as well.

This whole episode in turn evokes a chain of fundamental questions such as the real meaning of milk on several planes: as a natural food, as a commercial “product,” and as a cultural and civilisational value. The author explores this theme with great intricacy and in great detail. As far Kalinga Gowda’s lineage and the people of Kalenahalli are concerned, they devoutly abide by the ancient Sanatana dictum that it is a sin to sell milk. This is the ingrained value system of a people in a country renowned for centuries as one of the world’s largest milk producers. And this in turn stems from another value, another timeless Sanatana tenet: that which is available in abundance must be available to everyone at no cost.   

As far as Hilda, the lactating mother is concerned, secretion of milk is merely the natural outcome of childbirth. Indeed, Hilda’s ruminations during and after her delivery spread over fifteen-plus pages of excruciating detail on this and allied topics present a dense picture of a culture which has no notion even, that milk can be looked at as a spiritual and cultural value. Yet, Hilda who is mortified at the pain in her breasts which have stopped secreting milk, has no qualms of depriving the same milk to newborn calves. Even further, when Venkataramana finally accedes to Kalinga’s pleas for Punyakoti’s milk which saves his infant daughter, Hilda thinks that it is their right to demand milk from Venkataramana, and that he had done them no favour or kindness.    

This is the work of a true literary master.

***

The Sthayi Bhava (or basic nature) of Tayavva is Aardrata (compassion; sensitivity) and Saranagati (surrender). Her tender motherly love for Kalinga remains unchanged and steady till the point that she learns that his wife has slaughtered a cow. At this point, her sense of Dharma takes precedence, giving us an extraordinary treat of a raw, civilisational value system that erupts intuitively within her, in whose defence she stands against her own son. We are reminded of the story of an ancient Tamil king who inflicts the same cruelty against his errant son as punishment for his crime.

As a dutiful daughter-in-law, she has long ago earned not just the affection but respect of the doughty but kind-hearted Kalinga Golla Gowda and his wife. On several instances, he stands by her and remonstrates with his own wife and grandson. He is unfailing, unselfish and genuine in his praise for her. He understands her speech and mirth and melancholy. In fact, more than anybody, it is only Kalinga Gowda who is attuned to her in the same way he is attuned to his cows. He remarks characteristically that as a mother who has given birth to a child, Tayavva is akin to the Gomaata, which too, can’t speak. Her muteness is not even a factor for him.

Indeed, the artistry with which Dr. Bhyrappa has portrayed her character is worth a separate study. Starting right from her name, Tayavva, which, literally translated means “mother mother” or at most, “mother of mothers,” and sounds rather absurd in English because even the most faithful translation fleeces out the innate cultural richness embedded in the term.

However, the compassion, sensitivity and surrender of Tayavva does not invoke our pity because we intuitively sense the strength and the strong petrichor that emanates from and inextricably complements it. Dr. Bhyrappa, in creating such a character, has maintained a fine aesthetic distance. At no point does he step in and speak in her favour or add even a hint of glorifying her. Instead, he simply lets the character unravel itself.  

To be continued

Author(s)

About:

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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