A Book Review by Rakhi Dalal
Title: A Handful of Sesame
Author: Shrinivas Vaidya
Translator: Maithreyi Karnoor
Publisher: Gibbon Moon Books
Originally written and published in Kannada as Halla Bantu Halla by Shrinivas Vaidya, this book won the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award in 2004 and Central Sahitya Akademi Award in 2008. The author of many critically acclaimed literary collections, Vaidya is also the recipient of Karnataka Rajyotsava Award.
The English translation A Handful of Sesame by Maithreyi Karnoor was shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize. Karnoor is the recipient of the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship for creative writing and translation. She has also won the Kuvempu Bhasha Bharati prize for translation.
Written with the backdrop of India’s struggle for independence, spanning a time period of almost a hundred years from the mutiny of 1857 to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, this book chronicles the life of a Hindu Brahmin family over a century in a town called Navalgund in Karnataka. It is the narrative of a family, whose seed originated in Kanpur in Northern India but which took roots in the small Southern Indian town of Navalgund during a period of political upheaval and then made it a home for generations to come. This story, as Tabish Khair notes in the foreword, thus also becomes a story of internal migration, recording the adoption and assimilation of cultural and religious practices in everyday living. More than that, it offers us a window into the socio-cultural mores of a family affected and shaped by changing times.
Vasudevaachar is the son of Kamalanabh-panth of Kanpur who marries the daughter of a Brahmin from Navalgund and stays back during the chaotic times brought about after the suppression of 1857 mutiny. Like his father, he practiced medicine and takes on the responsibility of the entire household after Kamalanabh’s demise. The narrative deals with a detailed account of the struggles of running of the household with regular events like birth, death, marriages and so on in the big joint family with Vasudevaachar at the centre even as various occurrences like natural calamities, fight for freedom, world war and political turmoil keep altering the contours of their daily life.
Vaidya essentially creates a Brahmin household, suffusing the narrative with a rich language, idioms and slangs and vivid description of rituals, food and daily practices which are rendered in a delightful manner to the non-native reader through a fine translation by Maithreyi Karnoor. It palpitates with both rhyme and rhythm, of language and everydayness, concocting a gripping tale that captivates imagination.
The major characters that inhabit the world of A Handful of Sesame are diverse and non uni-dimensional. They evolve with the progressing narrative, forging the complex web of relationships within a large family that change as the time moves. Vaidya’s skilful portrayal brings forth the nuances in their interactions and connections which tie them as a family.
Vasanna or Vasudevaachar, the head of the family, a religious and orthodox Brahmin is shown to be burdened by perpetual looming financial burdens of the family. Tulsakka, his wife, is a quiet yet determined woman. Ambakka, sister of Vasanna, is a shaven widow who lives with them. Impatient and irritable, she however assumes bigger role in caring for the newborns of the family. Venkanna, younger brother of Vasanna and a widower too, instead of marrying again keeps a relationship with a Muslim woman. A firm and resolute man, he shares the financial burden of his brother. Rukkuma, an orphan adopted by Panth family and belonging to a lower caste, lives as a house-help while Narayana, another orphan adopted by the family and son of a distant relative lives with them too.
As the world around them keeps changing, family dynamics change too. When English schools open up in Dharwad, the young sons of the family are sent for an education there. With opening of newer avenues for livelihood, the next generation keeps moving onto newer and bigger places, adopting new ways of life but remaining connected with their roots.
Struggle for freedom, which remains a constant in the background, is employed to portray the rising collective consciousness across the nation which influenced the lives of ordinary people. We are offered glimpses into how the events like Salt Satyagraha or Congress meetings had an effect on the routine life of people of a small town like Navalgund. The author also offers a peek into the larger social construct surrounding the Panth family, which though fragmented by caste and religion, lived in harmony with each other. An orthodox Brahmin like Vasanna goes to a dargah to offer sugar to ward off evil eye. In the present context, this might appear contradictory to the very definition of an orthodox, but it simply means that a rigidness in following one’s own rituals did not translate to a dislike of others’ and the minds were more open to accepting the customs believed to bring a greater good.
Such times did exist. How wonderful it would be able to have access to more such works written in regional languages — works which open up bridges to the past of distant lands, connecting to our present, making the present improbable possible and bridging the divide; works which bring to us the account of lived lives of a people separated only by language. Perhaps this is why it becomes important that these works be made available to varied readers through translation.
For an English reader, Maithreyi Karnoor’s perceptive translation presents a view of the ‘most underrepresented region in Kannada literature’, thereby offering us not only the linguistic nuances neglected by mainstream Kannada but also a compassionate insight into the regional life which is critical for a better understanding of the period.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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