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The calf became an orphan

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Robert J. Zydenbos

Author’s preface to the second, digital edition

Robert J. Zydenbos

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Author’s preface to the second, digital edition

1It is a great pleasure for me that the Institut Français de Pondichéry and the École Française d’Extrême-Orient have decided to my re-publish my study The Calf Became an Orphan – a study in contemporary Kannada fiction in digital form, long after they brought out the original book in 1996.

2 Twenty-three years is a long time. I am still pleased with my original work: still today it stands alone as the only one of its kind, and it still has its value; but if I were to write this book again today, it would be different in a few respects. Kannada literature has of course not stood still and has continued to develop. But also I have continued to learn more: about the Kannada language, about its literature, and about the general cultural setting. Therefore I am grateful that the publishers have agreed to add this new preface, as a kind of a brief update.

The history of this book and the state of Kannada studies

3 It is appropriate to say a few words about the history of this book first, because this explains a bit about the general state of Kannada studies.

4 The Kannada language and its literature have long been a sadly neglected area of study within Indology, and it is only most recently that a bit of change is taking place. Among all the living mother tongues of South Asia, Kannada is the one with the second-oldest literary history (second only to Tamil), and it was with good reason that the Government of India granted it the status of a ‘classical language’ in 2008. Perhaps therefore, in recent years, a few young scholars in Europe and North America have made efforts to study medieval textual materials in order to improve our understanding of southern Indian social, political and cultural history. ‘India’ as a cultural entity is comparable to ‘Europe’: but just as Europe is unthinkable without the various national or ‘regional’ cultures that constitute it, India does not exist (except on a very abstract level) without its so-called ‘regions’ with their ‘regional languages’ and ‘regional literatures’. (Strangely, no one ever seems to have asked what would be a ‘non-regional’ modern pan-Indian literature or language.) This fresh interest among young scholars should be welcomed and encouraged. At the same time, however, there has been hardly any academic recognition of the great amount of high-quality scholarship on Old and Middle Kannada that has been produced in modern Kannada for the Kannada-reading public. The only reason for this is the language barrier. Also there has been hardly any academic recognition outside India of the fact that contemporary Kannada literature is one of the leading literatures of India today: the number of times that the foremost Indian national literary award, the Jnanpith Award, has been given to Kannada authors already sufficiently shows this. The most famous modern Indian novel in an Indian language, U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Saskāra (of course also discussed in the present book), is the novel that has been most translated into non-Indian languages: but only A.K. Ramanujan’s English translation was made directly from the Kannada original, and all the others are re-translations of Ramanujan’s work.

5 It was not easy to study Kannada in Europe in the 1980s. After I learnt elementary Kannada at the Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht from the professor of Dravidology, K.V. Zvelebil, who at the time took an interest in medieval Vīraśaiva literature in Kannada, I went to the only university in western Europe where Kannada could be studied at an advanced level: the University of Heidelberg, in Germany (and after my teacher Dr. K. Parameswara Aithal retired, Kannada studies in Heidelberg were discontinued. Not only Dravidology, but Indology as a whole has been discontinued in Utrecht). A fellowship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) enabled me to study in Heidelberg, and I consider it an amazing blessing that at that time, I was the only student of Kannada in the South Asia Institute and therefore had the immense benefit of private tuition from my patient and able teacher Aithal. In 1983 I moved to India, and in the years in Mysore that followed I had to learn much more, on the basis which Zvelebil and Aithal had given me.

6 The present book is a slightly revised version of my doctoral thesis. When my promotor (supervisor) for the doctorate, the late Prof. Kamil V. Zvelebil, handed me my doctoral diploma in 1989 in the ceremony immediately after the oral examination, he praised my dissertation as a pioneer work, wished that I would continue working for the development of Kannada studies, and predicted that this would be a lonesome road precisely because I was doing pioneer work. He was absolutely right. It had already been difficult to find an external adjudicator for the dissertation, because that person had to hold a position at a recognized academic institution abroad, had to read English with ease, and had to understand the Kannada literature that was discussed in the dissertation. A.K. Ramanujan of the University of Chicago did us the great favour of accepting this task. Thereafter the publishing of the dissertation proved nearly impossible. Among all the publishers whom I contacted, only two large German academic publishers were honest enough to admit that although they were interested, there were commercial risks involved in publishing the book, and they were willing to take those risks only if I would provide them with a printing subsidy. I did not have the financial means for that. Only when I had the pleasure and honour of temporarily joining the EFEO in 1993-95 on an allocation de recherche did things change: François Gros, the French scholar of Tamil literature, insisted that the Pondicherry institute should publish my work. Thus the dissertation was finally published, in late 1996, more than seven years after the doctorate had been awarded.

7 Then came the difficult reception of the work after it was published. Most of the persons in Karnataka who saw the book were delighted; the late Prof. M.M. Kalburgi of Karnatak University, Dharwad, who later served as vice-chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi, wrote me a personal letter of praise in which he expressed the hope that more such studies would appear. Others regretted that the book had not appeared in Kannada, but in English, and hoped that a translation would some day follow. The problem of reception was exactly the same as in finding the external adjudicator: there were hardly any people who read English and were well conversant with Kannada literature. A silly review appeared in a respected French journal by a girl who was not able to read a single column of Kannada newspaper text, and she made some utterly vague, sweeping remarks about ‘methodology’ (this is a standard trick among incompetent reviewers: a kind of terminological bluff to impress their readers). An American journal sought the help of an Indian critic, who in his review tried to discredit me personally by writing details about me that were deliberately misleadingly inaccurate; presumably only few readers at the time realized that the reviewer was a Hindu fundamentalist who did not appreciate, for his own racially tinged ideological reasons, some of the conclusions of my study. However, my academic career did continue, proving that incompetent reviewers do not necessarily matter.

8 This state of affairs is typical of any field of studies in which only a few competent persons are active. The tragical aspect of the aforementioned classical language status of Kannada is that the Government of India wishes to support the serious study of Kannada (especially Old Kannada), but it is becoming difficult to find qualified scholars who could carry out the work. The great scholars of the previous generation (such as T.V. Venkatachalashastry, M.M. Kalburgi, M. Chidanandamurthy, L. Basavaraju and others) are either long retired or are no more. Hardly anyone in the following generation continued their work, and there is a serious danger that their expertise will cease to be a living tradition and will soon be found only in their writings in libraries.

9 The position of Kannada in academic institutions outside India today remains deplorable, in spite of the obvious importance of Kannada for the study of various aspects of Indian cultural history. In large measure, the Kannada people are to blame for this. Languages such as Tamil, Malayalam and Bengali have been enthusiastically supported at various universities outside India by individual lovers of those cultural heritages as well as by the governments of the home states of those languages; but no such serious attempt has been made for Kannada. Karnataka had the chance to establish a lasting academic foothold for Kannada studies in Germany: in 2013, a government order to financially support Kannada teaching and research at the University of Munich (at an institute which had already attracted students for Kannada also from neighbouring countries) was issued by the Government of Karnataka, but the funds never reached the university, in spite of several queries by myself and by the Indian Consulate General in Munich, all of which went unheeded. Also the next Government of Karnataka evidently saw no reason to honour the commitment of its predecessor. Equally evidently, the Government did not realize how disrespectful, embarrassing, bitter and damaging their failure was.

10 In an academic teaching environment where only large numbers of students seem to justify the continued existence of a subject (a situation which has been severely exacerbated by the so-called ‘Bologna Process’ in the European Union, which tends to treat all traditional university disciplines as if they are mere varieties of business management studies), specialist subjects like Indology are constantly in danger. Under such circumstances, the development of a new sub-discipline like Kannada studies is particularly challenging and demands creative defences against these new threats. This year my new teaching manual, A Manual of Written Kannada is due to appear as an Open Access publication, and I am exploring the possibilities of long-distance online teaching.

What would be different in this book today

11 In the intervening years, a number of prominent writers whose work is discussed in the present book, like Niranjana, Anupama Niranjana, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Shantinath Desai, Yashwant Chittal, Chaduranga and Basavaraj Kattimani (to name only a few with whom I have had fruitful and happy contacts while working on this book) have passed away. Other authors, who in the early 1980s were at the very start of their literary careers and had not yet established their significance, were not included in this study; this would of course be different if I were to write this book today.

12 The book was published with the subtitle a study in contemporary Kannada fiction, at the suggestion of the then head of the Indological section of the EFEO in Pondicherry. The original subtitle was a culturally specific thematology of post-Independence Kannada fiction. This was surely long-winding, but it was descriptive of the subject matter. It was not my intention to discuss the whole of post-Independence Kannada fiction, but only such works of literature with themes that represented questions which demanded the attention of Kannada authors and which did not exist as thematic questions in the literatures of western Europe. This was meaningful, because we always learn about new things – irrespective of what those things are – through contrasts with corresponding things which we already know.

13 These themes have lost nothing of their importance in contemporary Kannada writing. However, I would discuss some of the themes with a little more restraint now than I did in the 1980s. I let myself be influenced by the sense of urgency which I read in the writings of the Kannada authors. It is only natural that an author is gripped, perhaps possessed, by the problems which he discusses, and this becomes visible in his writing. For the sake of clarity, or for the sake of driving home a point, a writer may exaggerate. As a reviewer of the ideas which these authors expressed, I should have perhaps taken a step back sometimes and have looked at the problems and the proposed solutions with a bit more aloofness.

14 At the same time, it is clear that some of the themes have gained in importance, especially the question of the relationship between India and ‘the West’ in the context of ‘modernization’. India has opened itself considerably to the outside world since the 1980s in the wake of the economic liberalization which it undertook then, and it is making its mark across the world in a number of areas. But it is also suffering under the cultural impact of ‘globalization’ (which in effect means Americanization), which is not an undifferentiated blessing for many cultures. In this context, U.R. Ananthamurthy is a writer and thinker of great, underestimated importance, and his demise is a great loss not only to Kannada literature but to Indian literary and cultural life as a whole. (I hope to devote a detailed study to his work in the years to come.) At first a young professor of English and admirer of several things which one could call ‘modern’ in his cultural setting, he rose to international fame, travelled the world as a prominent Indian author, and in time realized the limitations of modernization, without becoming uncritical of Indian traditionalism wherever he saw its drawbacks. He repeatedly expressed his concern about the cultural perils of unbridled globalization, and he urged Kannadigas to realize the value of their cultural heritage and to cherish their rich language. However, Ananthamurthy was a thoughtful, reasonable and critical person, and it may be that Indian cultural life, and with it Kannada literature, have now entered a less reasonable phase. Towards the end of his life, in failing health, Ananthamurthy tried to fight against the increasing polarization and radicalization in Indian society, and he became a favourite target of criticism by persons who seem to think of themselves as good Indian patriots but whose only defining intellectual characteristic is an unthinking kind of dogmatism that is fashionable at the moment. – If I were to write this book again, I would discuss a larger number of works by a more limited number of major authors, to show how their thinking has developed in the course of their literary careers.

15 In the present book, writings by authors of the so-called Navya literary movement are strongly represented. The obvious reason for this is that the topic of the book concerns post-Independence literature and that the book was written in the 1980s, when the previous trend of Pragatiśīla writing was being superseded by the newer Navya movement and still newer movements, like the Dalita and Baṃḍāya, were still developing. This may make the book appear a bit dated. However, I do believe that Navya writing has certain qualities that are particularly valuable for an intercultural study, which is what this book implicitly is. Navya writing is by its very nature introspective, reflective, analytical and thereby explicit, as one sees in the works of a writer such as Shantinath Desai or U.R. Ananthamurthy. These qualities make such writing more accessible for debate and for a further exchange of thoughts: the reader feels invited to think along with the authors, follow their thoughts and try to understand why they have such thoughts (whether the reader agrees or disagrees, is a different matter). The later Dalita and Baṃḍāya writing is the writing of agitational protest; it can at times be forceful and impressive, but often unfortunately does not go far beyond the expressing of complaints and dissatisfaction, without analysing more deeply what causes the undesirable social circumstances that are described, or what the solutions could be. On the other end of the social spectrum, the agitprop of S.L. Bhyrappa, who quite explicitly propagated a fascist ideology in support of Hindu fundamentalism, is technically quite cleverly and at times beautifully written; however, it is the expression of a closed mind that does not invite its readers to think but tries to convert them to religious, ethnic and racial enmity. Either one is hypnotized by the anti-humanistic, religiously fundamentalist, and racist propaganda and joins that crowd, or one is appalled and turns away. The weakness of much Dalita / Baṃḍāya writing and of fundamentalist writing is that they take place within rather closed worlds, with little effort to analyse and depict those sub-cultures in such a way as to open them to readers from other sections of society.

16 If I were to write this book again, I probably would not limit the literature under discussion to fiction but also include essayistic writing.

17 Kannada literature is entering a new phase, and I believe that this indicates a change not only in the social and cultural life of Karnataka but is representative of a trend throughout a large part, if not the whole, of India. Emigration in recent years (with the USA as the most preferred destination of emigrants) has led to changing educational preferences among the more highly educated sections of society, resulting in a brain drain away from certain traditional fields of learning as well as in an increasing disregard for the Indian mother tongue in favour of English. Ananthamurthy’s warnings about cultural loss and the mental strain on young school pupils (as written down already many years ago in essays like his Igli brāhmaa, kannaa śūdra) seem to be largely ignored. This brain drain is already an internal Indian one, and it seems that newer Kannada literature is becoming a domain which is, to some extent, being abandoned by those sections of society that previously dominated it. This impression is shared by colleagues of mine who work on other Indian languages and literatures. I hope that I am wrong, or that at least this is a passing phenomenon and that a still newer Kannada literature will be a rejuvenated medium for creative thinking and for generating new knowledge (which is a prerequisite, if a language with its literature is to remain a major language and not become a mere patois).

18 Kannada deserves to be recognized and honoured for its immense historical richness and for the beautiful refinement which it reveals in the hands of accomplished writers. I hope that the re-issue of the present book will help to draw more attention to this wonderful language and literature.

19 Where other governmental institutions fail, I am happy and grateful to see that the people of France, through institutions such as the Institut Français de Pondichéry and the École Française d’Extrême-Orient, uphold humanistic values and encourage the continuation of cultural exchange and the further improvement of intercultural understanding. The world has always needed this, but it needs this now more than ever before, for the benefit of all people.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1996

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