The House of Kanooru
I finished reading The House of Kanooru, translation of Kannada novel Kanooru Subbamma Heggadithi by Kuvempu. Initially I was prejudiced against this book because of it's cover page. It had a still from Girish Karnad's movie Kanooru Heggadithi based on this novel. I haven't seen this film but the still reminded me of some TV soap. I didn't like the cover page. After reading the book I realized that it would have been a loss if I hadn't read this outstanding novel.
Kuvempu's story happens in a Malenadu village in the pre independence era. Feudalism is in its decaying stage and youngsters, influenced by English education and idealists of the freedom movement, are appearing to rebel against old customs and superstitions in the society. The novel starts when Hoovayya and Ramayya, young men of the Kanooru house return to their home after studies. Kuvempu uses an interesting technique to introduce all characters in the novel. In the second chapter an accident happens to a bullock cart and Hoovayya gets injured and is taken to the Muthalli house. In the next twenty chapters, until Hoovayya recovers and returns to Kanooru, the novelist swings in time to and fro and introduces various characters and various incidents before the cart accident.
Hoovayya's father is dead and the family head is Chandrayya Gowda, his uncle. His character sums up all typical vices of a feudalist of the 19th century. After the death of his second wife, Chandrayya Gowda marries Subbamma, a young woman of lower social status. Subbamma, enjoying power and wealth for the first time in her life, starts to rule over everyone, with the Gowda giving blind support for her. But things change when Hoovayya comes back home. His gentle behavior and idealistic ways irritate Gowda and one incident after another leads to division of the property. Hoovayya moves to another house. Suspicions rise in Gowda's mind and he starts hating Subbamma, and eventually she escapes from Kanooru to her old place, where she is abused by the people. Hoovayya's love affair with a girl Seethe of the Muthalli house doesn't succeed, one of the reason for which is his inhibition in bringing up the matter at appropriate time. Meanwhile Chandrayya Gowda conspires with an astrologer and designs for Seethe's wedding with his son Ramayya. But Ramayya's marriage turns out to be a disaster. Hoovayya's life is in a total dilemma. He thinks about leading a spiritual life but is often tormented by feelings of loss and jealousy. Subsequent events lead to a tragic end. Kuvempu adds an optimistic note in the last chapter, about incidents "many years later", where he shows Hoovayya and Seethe rejoining and leading an ascetic life and serving the society! But I felt it doesn't fit well in the book. One reason is that an optimistic tone is not built smoothly in the novel and Hoovayya's psychological journey leading towards this climax is not properly etched. So, the last chapter looks like an abrupt transition. In fact the charm of the main thread started fading after Ramayya's marriage in the 58th chapter.
Even though the main theme of the story is somewhat ordinary, the important thing in the novel is the ambiance created in it of the life of Malenadu in those days, with farming, toddy shops, cockfights, strange customs and animal sacrifices, hills, forests and tiger hunts. If in real life I witness the petty quarrels among workers and the dirty toddy shops, definitely I might have felt it as very disgusting. But when it comes in the novel even as a plain narration, it sounds appealing and interesting. Kuvempu goes into giving detailed accounts of thought processes of characters, especially Hoovayya, Seethe and Ramayya, even though the characterizations are not absolutely faultless and consistent. The author shows a good sense of humor and makes many interesting observations which are meaningful, interesting and sometimes made me just laugh : Chinnayya does some fishing when Hoovayya is expected at home, but then the accident occurs. Kuvempu writes about the fish: "..the fish Chinnayya killed, plucking it from the bosom of its family for his friends repast, remained on the bank to be consumed by insects.". During an animal sacrifice, the goat starts eating with great difficulty the hibiscus flowers of the garland round its neck. Somebody says: "See the greatness of Bhootha! Even the animal knows it! Standing with such devotion!". When Hoovayya tells the story of Buddha, and about his abandonment of family and ".. The same night his wife gave birth to a child...", suddenly a question comes from the female audience: "Boy or girl?". When the little girl Lakshmi asks questions about Death to her sister Seethe, "one of her fingers peeping out of a hole in the bottom of the pocket in her dress and dancing like a gecko's chopped-off tail was proof enough of the fact that the seriousness of her question had found no place in her mind". All these may seem very trivial but I feel such observations are what makes a novel great.
The translation by Ramachandra Sharma and Padma Ramachandra Sharma, is brilliant. Kannada words for trees, animals and food items are generously included as they are, giving the reader a feeling of being very close to the original Kannada work. I think The House of Kanooru, the title of the English version is more appropriate for the novel rather than Kanooru Subbamma Heggadithi. Subbamma heggadithi is an important character but there are people who are more important than her like Hoovayya, around whom the story revolves. In fact Subbamma's character finds importance only in few places in the first part of the novel, and then towards the end when she returns back to Kanooru during Chandrayya Gowda's last days. I don't know why the original title of the book is her name. The House of Kanooru definitely looks to be a more apt title.