Amongst readers in Kannada, the language that Chandrasekhar Kambar has built his oeuvre in, and in which he won the prestigious Jnanpith Award, he has always been known for delving deep into the mystic, the magic and the realism of folk culture. His language has rarely been easy for a superficial reader, urging one, instead, to pay attention to, and constantly grapple with what being connected to an older world must mean.
Within these premises, Shiva’s Drum, originally published in Kannada as Shivana Dangura, and translated into English by Krishna Manavalli, stays in line with Kambar’s larger concerns and worldview. In the complicated plots and multi-linear narratives, Kambar again tells a story that reflects the problems that plague various societies, being at once both a story of just Shivapura, and set in the universal.
Shivapura, the fictional village that appears in several of Kambar’s works, “didn’t have history. It only had mythology”. It is a quaint old place, this village that lives on the banks of the Ghataprabha river, where the people gossip, like all humans everywhere do. They fight, plot against the other, grow things and go about their usual lives, like all humans everywhere do again.
The sweet waters of the Mallimadu pond feeds the verdant trees that line the expanse of the village, and the villagers are relatively at peace within the social constraints they have invented and now follow. The affairs of Shivapura are running rather smoothly as you enter the novel, though you know enough to anticipate the disaster that will unfold in future pages.
The villain on the scene arrives in the cloak of the headman and rich landowner, Baramegowda, who wants to hurtle Shivapura and its people onto a path of swift ‘development.’
The lifegiving crops are replaced with sugarcane, pesticides are poured into the previously un-poisoned soil and the earth around the village is changed faster than anyone can recognise. The flesh and cash-worshipping Baramegowda, goaded by men who recognise and encourage his follies, signs away land to city folk to build a private English-medium school and college over where Mallimadu lies. By the time he begins to comprehend the effects of his actions, it is, as the familiar story goes, already too late.
Parallelly, there is the story of Chambasa, Baramegowda’s estranged nephew, who stands against age-old convention, social stigma, caste differences and accepted worldviews to marry a devadasi. He tries to
save the pond and correct the course of events that life has taken in Shivapura, but then again, it is inching towards being too late.
Kambar’s novel is layered and demands full immersion into its several plots for the reader to be able to stitch together the magnitude of the whole story. The addition of folklore, characteristic of his works, places another layer of nuance that becomes, at times, difficult to negotiate for the reader.
The translator does a fine job at bringing to English the complications that Kambar’s Kannada presents. And in doing so, she helps further universalise the oft-told story of ‘development’ and what it can mean to a people.