The Triumph of Venkataramana

This article is part 9 of 13 in the series Analysis of Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa's Novels

A key, fundamental difference between Venkataramana and the Americanised Kalinga is the latter’s sense of fierce ownership. This ownership or possession extends even to the cows in his barn, which he merely treats as economic inputs, which should be given up once they outlive their utility, a factor we have examined in the earlier parts. Until recently, the term “condemned” was widely used in the parlance of manufacturing industries (in the sense of “condemned parts and machinery). It is this internalized notion that leads Kalinga to nonchalantly sell non-milking cows and other aged cattle to slaughterhouses. Hilda explains the full, real-life details of this notion to a horrified Venkataramana.

“Look, each country has its own, different customs. In my country we do everything scientifically, calculatedly. In any industry, we calculate the cost for each item and we examine whether that cost is inevitable from the overall perspective of that industry. And if we find that it’s not inevitable, we remove that item itself. For example, see: milk production is an industry. Is the calf inevitable for it? In the past, they had believed that it was. But we learnt that it wasn’t so based on the conclusions from modern scientific research. But then if we destroy all the calves, how will the stock of cows grow? Therefore, we preserve only that number of healthy calves required for breeding the stock and kill the rest of them. Else, what’s the cost of all that grass that these remaining calves eat and needlessly waste?”

In Venkataramana’s—and Sanatana Bharatavarsha’s—conception, this is not only inconceivable but is deemed an act of savagery, something that he says to her face.

Kalinga’s public humiliation at being made to pay a fine to the village for slaughtering the Punyakoti cow quite obviously transforms into vengeance, which he wreaks upon them. This in turn sets in motion another elaborate chain of conflicts culminating in a climax that is simultaneously brutal, moving, and profound. The real-life feel to these events punctuated by intricate details elevates the novel’s literary merit to a consummate work of art.

After Kalinga’s revenge is sated, his life in Kalenahalli moves from a self-sought privacy to total alienation. All villagers are now prohibited from working in his farm and in his milk-producing, scientific barn.

It is the selfsame notion of ownership operating at the subconscious level that also causes the final rupture between Kalinga and Venkataramana. When the latter tries to advise Kalinga to make amends with the villagefolk citing the Dharmasastras regarding the sanctity of the cow and the temple, the pent-up fury surfaces. Kalinga threatens him with a court case and says that the land grant his grandfather had given was mere alms, and that he was in a way, Venkataramana’s master. The Puja that he performs is “unproductive work.” Venkataramana curses him in the traditional fashion. The irony is unmistakable. In his capacity as the Purohita of Kalinga Gowda’s lineage, he constantly blesses the elder Gowda but curses his grandson, wishing the extinction of the lineage.

The final rupture.

From the embers of this humiliation, we witness the spectacular flowering of Venkataramana’s true strength of character, which unfolds in the trademark style of Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa. We are treated to a fine weaving of the tumults in Venkataramana’s Inner Life. He is caught in a twofold bind. On the one hand, he faces the threat of forsaking the temple Puja and the land. On the other, he also needs to make a decision whether he has to give up his government school job because he had participated in a campaign against cow slaughter or apologise for participating in it. No amount of paraphrasing will do justice to the brilliant majesty of the original.

An inextricable bond had grown between Venkataramana and the temple. It was impossible for him to let go of it. Kalinga had threatened to snatch away the grant made for performing the Puja and not the actual Puja itself. And so, even if the grant went away, the Puja would still remain with him. Yes! The moment this revelation struck, his mind rejoiced like it had found light amid darkness. Let him take his land if he wants to… Mother, me, my wife, my two can I manage a family of all these people?... They transferred me only because I participated in the movement to prohibit cow slaughter. Which means if I plead with them to revoke my resignation, I need to admit that I made a mistake. Kalinga too, is asking the same kind of admission of guilt in order for me to enjoy the land grant. Both the Government and Kalinga are demanding the same sort of obedience. And in a haste to free myself from Kalinga’s clutches, I must fall in the whirlpool of the Government. If I need to really free myself, I need to free myself from both. He was now resolute.

In a stroke, the author delineates the true meaning of freedom drawn from the Upanishadic annals. In this case, Venkataramana derives strength and succor from the grand Katha Upanishad. He begins to spend time revising the Vedic lore, tending to his cows, and spending greater time in the temple. In a way, life itself provides for his material needs.

On the practical plane, the villagers of Kalenahalli and its surroundings who are aware of the fracas between the friends begin to support Venkataramana’s livelihood in their own way.

Kalinga who has chosen to live separately, away from his ancestral home, is now thoroughly ignored even by his own mother, the supremely noble Tayavva. She has all but disowned him after the slaughter of Punyakoti. And then faces the ultimate humiliation: of being treated as a nonentity even as Tayavva passes away and even after her death, as we shall examine later. Venkataramana who minsters to her dying needs and request, emerges almost akin to a compassionate sage, an episode that is intense, haunting, and moves the reader to tears.

Needless, Venkataramana also officiates Tayavva’s last rites, which are performed by the orphan Honna who takes the place of her biological son thereby opening up another extraordinary insight into the multiple dimensions of orphanhood that Dr. Bhyrappa offers throughout the novel. On the physical plane as well, Venkataramana has thoroughly fenced off the temple so that it is inaccessible to Kalinga.

However, towards the end of the novel, we do observe some grey shades in Venkataramana despite his formidable courage of conviction and innate nobleness of character. As the last resort to save his infant, when Kalinga pleads with Venkataramana to allow the suckling of Punyakoti, he unleashes the full force of his grudge and fury to the extent of saying that the infant of a cow slaughterer is better dead than alive. He eventually laments his harshness and relents and saves the baby.

This extraordinary climactic episode also becomes the catalyst for Kalinga to rediscover his lost roots. Or as the author says, these roots were never fully cut off and Kalinga grapples to re-grasp them on the intellectual, and not on the emotional and cultural planes. Dr. Bhyrappa doesn’t tell us whether he fully achieves this homecoming, which extracted such terrible costs: the loss of his mother, the permanent estrangement of his friend, the likely end of his marriage, and the near-death of his infant daughter. At the centre of all these tragedies is Punyakoti, or the cow, generally speaking.

By all accounts, Venkataramana is a tour de force in the treasure chest of Dr. Bhyrappa’s memorable characterisations. Venkataramana’s triumph lies in the conscious discovery and lived realization of the Sanatana ideals that he reveres as a matter of tradition, a tradition which becomes a serene reality owing to a cruel blow of circumstance.

For gold is tried in the fire and acceptable men in the furnace of adversity. (George Santayana)    

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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