For an “infuriatingly good” wordsmith whose 21 works fetched him the Saraswati Samman and Sahitya Akademi awards, it is an odd twist of fate that, at 81, the Kannada writer S.L. Bhyrappa finds himself reduced to a Hindutva mascot, who supports bans on conversion and cow slaughter, and thinks “Tipu Sultan is a religious fanatic rather than a national hero”.
“For decades, Bhyrappa had said that an artist ought not to preach. In 2007, he broke his own rule. Aavarana (The Concealing), though technically his 20th novel, is a polemic—a list of all the sins that Muslims have allegedly wreaked on Hindus and their culture for generations. U.R. Anantha Murthy criticised the novel, and Bhyrappa entered into a rancorous public debate with him (the two men have a long history of attacking each other). A bestseller in Karnataka, Aavarana earned the aging Bhyrappa a cult following of young, rabidly right-wing readers.
“He seems to enjoy his new role as spokesperson for Hindutva causes, and recently urged the government to scrap its plan to name a university after Tipu Sultan. The result is that the term Aavarana now describes what has happened to S.L. Bhyrappa himself: swallowed by his weakest novel, passed over for the Jnanpith (the traditional crown for the bhasha writer), and in danger of having a fanbase composed entirely of bigots.
“Anantha Murthy and Bhyrappa are the opposite poles of the modern Kannada novel. If one is its Flaubert—the author of a compact, exquisite body of work, left-liberal in its sympathies—the other is its Balzac—prolific, unruly, and right-wing in his politics. If India can absorb an Islamocentric poet like Iqbal, it can accommodate S.L. Bhyrappa. Anantha Murthy may be the better writer, but Bhyrappa evokes more affection in those who speak Kannada.
“More than twenty years ago, as a student in Sydney, Australia, I met one of that city’s richest doctors, a man from coastal Karnataka. When he compared the state of Australia with that of India, the doctor felt depressed; at such moments he flicked through an old copy of Parva that he had brought to Sydney. Seeing how Bhyrappa had modernized the Mahabharatha gave the doctor hope that India, too, could become a prosperous country—without losing its culture. For nearly five decades, S.L. Bhyrappa’s richly imagined and deeply felt novels have helped his readers tide over difficult moments in their lives.
“Now it is time for them to return the favour and rescue this great Indian writer’s legacy from the biggest threat it faces: Bhyrappa himself.”
* Disclosures apply
Read the full article: In search of a new ending
Also read: Anantha Murthy, our greatest living writer?