Saturday, August 30, 2014
K. Gopalakrishna Rao (1906-1967) was a very popular writer of short stories in Kannada, in the pre-independence period. He was a contemporary of Masti Venkatesha Iyengar (Rao was called the ‘patta shishya’ - ‘pet disciple’ of Masti), A. Seetaram (pen name: ‘Ananda’), R. Shivaram (pen name: ‘Rashi’), and others. As an administrator, Gopalakrishna Rao served as the private secretary of the then chief minister of Karnataka, Kengal Hanumanthaiah, and as the secretary of the great association, Kannada Sahitya Parishat (1956-1961). Although Rao wrote many stories, during his life time, he could publish only three short-story collections and one collection of his selected stories. After his death, his daughter, Janaki Shrinivas, collected, with admirable perseverance, all of his published and unpublished stories and brought out a collection of forty stories in 2011. Now, twelve stories from that collection have been selected and translated into English. This is a matter of great satisfaction for all lovers of Kannada short stories; and I am very happy to write a Foreword to the collection, in order to introduce Rao’s stories to non-Kannada readers.
The period in which Gopalakrishna Rao’s literary sensibility was shaped and his stories were written was a turbulent period of contradictory pulls and pressures. Since the Freedom Struggle was being waged throughout the country, there prevailed a strong sense of nationalism and search for cultural identity. At the same time, owing to the introduction of English education and exposure to Western literature and ideas, Reformist movements like Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj were seriously engaged in questioning and exposing Hindu orthodoxy and traditional religious/ social customs. Consequently, a sort of ‘love-hate’ relationship existed among Indians of that period toward Indian/Hindu culture as well as English literature and ideas. It was in such an ethos that many new forms of literature like the Lyric, the Sonnet, the Novel, and such entered Kannada literary field; and among such new forms, one was the Short Story. All the forms of literature including the Short Story, written during that period, reflect such contradictory pulls and tensions and Gopalakrishna Rao’s stories are no exception. They reflect Idealism and a Romantic view of life as well as the harsh and unavoidable realities of contemporary life. Most of the successful stories of Rao are those which authentically capture such contradictory pulls and pressures prevalent in the Indian society in the first half of the 20th century.
Gopalakrishna Rao’s stories depict the experiences of urban and educated middleclass people, of the early decades of the last century, in a leisurely style that is controlled and emotive. Many major stories, following the structure of Masti’s stories, have multiple narrators: the first narrator tells the readers what he had heard from his friends and others. Also, most of the stories of Rao are ‘incident-centred’, full of coincidences in the lives of the protagonists. Long estranged or separated lovers, parents and their offspring, brothers and sisters, and friends meet each other unexpectedly, in strange places; and accidents take place for no fault of the victims. In fact, in one of his stories, Rao himself admits this fact through his narrator: “to tease others pretending to give them something and then to snatch it away is a game played by children; and God also loves to play such games” (“The Birthday Gift”).
However, the most significant features of Rao’s stories are two: dissatisfaction with the then-existing Hindu beliefs and customs, and an unflinching faith in the innate life-giving values of Indian culture. To start with, influenced by the reform-movements of that age, many stories of Rao mount a critique of traditional values and practices, particularly the discriminatory caste-system and the treatment of women in a Hindu society. The writer sadly records how lovers, owing to caste differences, have no choice but to run away from home and suffer, cut off from their parents for life (“ True Love Is Raised on Self-sacrifice”), and how, on some occasions, the caste-differences could lead even to murder of either the man or the woman involved (“Actress”). Contemptuous treatment of women makes the writer sadder. In those days, in Brahmin families, once the husband died, his widow was expected to lead a very secluded and ascetic life, getting her head completely shaved and not allowed to wear kunkum and flowers. She was not expected to participate in any public programmes or functions. Rao registers the inhuman cruelty underlying such treatment of women in many of his stories: “She whom I Beheld – Just Four Times” (in this story, early marriage makes a young woman widow, and even the famous pontiff of a Math refuses to give her ‘teertha’); “Dr. Susheela Sanketh” (in this story also, a young widow is taken forcibly to a holy place to get her head shaved; with her friend’s help she escapes from that horror, goes to Pune in Maharashtra, and becomes a famous doctor); and such.
More importantly, Rao has a firm belief in the moral/ethical values of traditional Indian culture imbibed by one; these are the values which save one at the decisive moments of one’s life. The best example of this point is the story, “Dr. Susheela Sanketh.” On her way to a holy place with her in-laws (to get her head shaved), Susheela, a young widow, accidentally meets another young man in a choultry at Hassan. At night, both get attracted to each other and the young man brings her to his room with carnal intent. However, just before anything untoward happens, moonlight floods the room and the young man sees the idol of his god, Sreenivasa. Suddenly, his conscience pricks him and he falls at her feet and Susheela lifts him up and tends to him like a mother. Later, renouncing everything the young man becomes a monk and the young woman, now a doctor, remains unmarried, serving her poor patients. Even when illegitimate relationships do develop, the woman remains loyal to her man though he is long dead (“Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction”).
In fact, it is in this context of asserting the life-giving values of Indian culture that Rao endorses in his stories the Orientalist construct of the ‘Indian Woman’ (‘Bharatiya Nari’), who is a personification of Loyalty to her family and husband, Forgiveness and Renunciation. In the story “The Rarer Action lies in Forgiveness,” the husband abandons his wife and goes after another woman, condemning his wife to extreme suffering both mental and physical. Still, when he returns to his wife repentant, she lovingly accepts him, and the narrator comments: “Vengeance? How can you find it in a Hindu wife?” Similarly, Murthy’s step ‘mother’ in “Truth Is Stranger . . .”; Susheela in “Dr. Susheela Sanketh,” the protagonist in “Communion” -- all display the qualities of loyalty and renunciation, characteristics of an idealized Indian Woman.
Prof. N. Nanjunda Sastry, the translator of these stories, says in ‘A Note by the English Translator’: “As I have said earlier in this note, mine is not a verbatim translation. The method I have followed is to absorb the soul and spirit of the origin and then give it an English garb without its plot-structure, characterization and their details.” Given this framework, he has done a very competent job as a translator and deserves appreciation for his sincere efforts. I am sure, these stories in translation give the non-Kannada readers the same deep experience that the Kannada readers got through the originals.
*********** C. N. Ramachandran
July 10, 2014