Fiction moulded by truth

The Edge of Time, the English translation of Tembare, is not only a fine work of imagination but a product of deep research in folklore and anthropology, writes M.P. Yashwanth Kumar

The Edge of Time
by M. Veerappa Moily Translated by C.N. Ramachandran from Tembare Rupa. Pages 230. Rs 295

M. Veerappa Moily
M. Veerappa Moily

Bhutaraadhane, the ritual worship of holy spirits, known as bhutas, in Tulunadu (coastal Karnataka), constitutes the backdrop of M. Veerappa Moily’s novel The Edge of Time.

The headquarters of the district (Dakshina Kannada) is at Mangalore. It is primarily an agricultural region wedged between the sea and the western ghats. This is the land of the Tuluvas who speak an oral language, Tulu, which has survived over the years without a written script. It is a land rich in legend and folklore.

Yakshagana and bhutaraadhane are two distinct and characteristic cultural expressions of Tulunadu. Yakshagana is traditional dance drama. Bhutaraadhane (bhuta worship) is a religious-cum-cultural ritual in which bhutas (holy spirits) are worshipped. During the ritual, a person impersonates a bhuta and functions as a guide, judge, and benefactor. Disputes could be referred to him for a decision.

His decisions are final. The ritual bridges the cultural/class/caste divide by bringing together the oppressors and the oppressed. Those who organise the ritual belong to the oppressor class. Those who impersonate the bhutas belong to the Pambada, Parava, Nalike, and other Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

The Edge of TimeThe oral epics and narratives of bhuta worship celebrate the dynamic relationship between the past and the present. Tembare redefines and remoulds the form called novel. The novel portrays two characters, one who stands for change and revolt, the other continuity and conformity.

Lakana and Aitha are two brothers whose father takes part in bhuta worship. Lakana turns his back on the family tradition. He makes a clean break and opts for government service as a revenue officer. His younger brother, Aitha, who has not received much formal education, works for some time as an overseer but later quits to continue the family tradition of bhuta worship. He takes a vow that he would be different from his father and never become a pawn in the hands of landlords and politicians. Aitha’s resolve would soon be tested. Buda Mulya, tenant farmer of a small piece of land, which his family has cultivated for generations, files a declaration of his rights under the Karnataka Land Reforms Act.

This is opposed by Cheluvayya Shetty, a big hotel owner who is trying to grab the land. Buda Mulya engages a lawyer who succeeds in blocking Shetty. Cheluvayya Shetty then organises a bhuta worship with Aitha impersonating the bhuta. Shetty even attempts to bribe the bhuta with Rs 20,000 in two bundles of notes. This does not work. The bhuta warns Shetty not to act improperly and accept the truth. It assures Buda Mulya that it will ensure his success in court.

When the case comes up in court, the magistrate orders that Shetty and the concerned police officers of the district be served nonbailable arrest warrants and produced in court.

Buda Mulya’s triumph is short lived. He plants paddy but when he begins harvesting his crop he is attacked by five men in a jeep and killed. That night the five went to Aitha Pambada’s house and set fire to it. Aitha is not in the house at the time, but his mother Maire is trapped in the burning house and dies. This is the price Aitha has to pay for his honesty and faith.

The novel ends on a note of optimism. Lakana has begun acquiring the new knowledge that can create a new society. Aitha has become a very popular Ayurvedic physician. The children of the family are wondering which road they should take – Lakana’s or Aitha’s. If these roads converge to create a new road, the problem of choice will not arise. The children of the future, says the author, need both the humane face of traditional religion and the analytical face of modern science.

"Works of literature should be like oases, sources of love and life," says the author in his preface. More years of hard work (four) went into researching the novel than in writing it (one year). So much so that the author feels that it is not a work of fiction. "Truth has transcended and transformed the fictitious nature of the work." Interviews were taped with Aitha Pambada of Perra and others in Tulu.

Coming from one of the marginalised classes of society himself, the author has doubtless had personal experience of the hardships, brutalities, and taunts that the characters in his book have endured.

M. Veerappa Moily was Chief Minister of Karnataka from 1992-1994. He had earlier (1989-92) held major portfolios like Law, Information, and Education. His published work includes four novels, three plays, and three books of poems.

He is presently Chairman of the Administrative Reforms Commission, New Delhi. He is writing a book on the steps to make India a superpower by 2020.

C.N. Ramachandran who has translated Tembare into English, is a professor of English who has taught in several countries including the US and Saudi Arabia. A recipient of the K. K. Birla Fellowship and the Katha award, he has published several critical works in Kannada and English, including the English translation of the Kannada oral epic Mala Madeshwara.

(The author is former Editor, Deccan Herald, Bangalore)