Bara – A Commoner’s Review

It was during the Bangalore literature Festival that I first heard of Bara. This book of U.R. AnanthaMurthy was discussed by a panel moderated by Chandan Gowda. Chandan Gowda indeed has translated this super short novella into English from Kannada. I had no idea what Bara was about during the panel discussion but what got me interested in it was the mention of a string of thoughts as experienced by the protagonist, an IAS officer of a drought stricken district. Sathisha, the protagonist looks at people standing in a queue for their evening meal in front of the gruel centre and thinks that – “Had I starved like these people, I would be holding an aluminium plate along with them and waiting my turn, depressed. It’s only because I’m not in the line that I’m able to see all the rows. And therefore, I’m able to think about hunger, drought, the waning of humanity and what I could do to alleviate them. Their eyes swollen and listless, no one notices the shriveled hands and legs and the parched tongues trying to moisten dry lips.” This was the part of the panel discussion I remembered clearly apart from Chandan Gowda’s meek moderation and Shiv Visvanathan’s confusingly different perspective which seemed different just for the sake of wanting to be different.

After all the adulation, when I finally picked the book, my first reaction was disappointment. I was disappointed not at the book or its subject, but the translation. I still wonder why was this translation hailed so much. Having attempted translations, I do understand how difficult is the job of the translator, especially in a completely rural set up like in Bara. Any translator must take care to carry the essence of the original script without destroying the literary indulgences of either language. When Chandan Gowda translated, “There was not even a crow in sight on the way”, probably a reader who speaks Dravidian language might understand the phrase and what it means. But the translator is translating for an audience who reads in English and they might not understand the actual thought behind such phrases. I feel literal translations in such places does injustice to both the languages. I have not read the earlier translation of Bara which appeared in the 1983 short story collection titled ‘The Sky and the Cat’. However, I had the chance to read a part of Susheela Punitha’s translation of U R AnanthaMurthy’s BharathiPura and I am pleased with the way she retained the native flavor of the book. And that is why I strongly believe that Chandan Gowda could have done better with Bara. Even in Chandan Gowda’s translation it does get better as you progress with the book, however the initial disappointment stays.

Bara is a short read but it does make some impressive political observations in just a handful of pages. What surprises me the most is that this was written more than 30 years ago, yet the questions that the author raised then are still relevant. When he tells the protagonist, “Are you a bureaucrat? Are you a revolutionary? You delude yourself that you can be both”, doesn’t it remind you of the likes of Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal or Irom Sharmila? The author says the inspiration for the story came during the Emergency period and one can see how disappointed he was with the Communist Party of India for having supported Emergency by siding with Indira Gandhi. Probably his disappointment made him speak out this timeless truth about leftists in India – “The leftists of this country either exaggerate or believe that they can manipulate people and create a revolution”. Equally interesting is the justification he gives for Cow worship. Although the character through which he speaks for cow worship is rooted in religious bigotry, the argument he makes is better than any right-wing activist can ever make.  He also establishes a counter argument by stating “Haven’t our lower castes eaten beef for thousands of years? “although he seemed to have forgotten to mention that there is also a certain level of bigotry in the act of beef-eating. Beef-eating is no longer about beef being the cheaply available source of meat. Today beef-eating is part of an identity that is considered opposing to the ideology of right-wing. Isn’t it sad that it has been over 30 years and we are still stuck at the same place despite all the development in science and technology.  And these are just examples of relevance to recent times. One will find more of such instances of relevance in Bara .

There was something amiss about the book despite all this relevance. I found the answer to this in the later part of the book which also had an interview of the author with the translator. U.R. Anathamurthy says – “I was myself not happy with Bara because that was not how I wrote stories. I wrote much more ‘spontaneously’. Yes, spontaneity is the word I was looking for. By the time you finish the book you will realize that with every character starting from the Ajji who refuses water to Satisha to Bhimoji’s wife whose presence is barely felt, the author is trying to drive home one or other point.  All his characters seemed to have been deliberately built in a way to establish or condemn certain social or political condition.  This forceful characterization killed the free flow in the story.  So in my opinion, Bara  might be a very relevant political piece of work but it can’t be U.R. AnanthaMurthy’s best literary work. As unfortunate as it may sound, the book is being celebrated in literary circles not for its literary value but more for the author’s face value and its political worth.

I must say more than the story I enjoyed the translator’s Afterword and his interview with the author. All the hype from the literary critics who had nothing but praises for the book had set such high expectations from the book that I think make me more disappointed than I should be. After a bit of dispassionate retrospection, I think it is a good work but need to be read with a grain of salt.


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