Samskara: A rite for a dead man

Samskara, a story by Kannada author U.R. Anathamurthy starts with a question, that of a dead body and what rites are appropriate for it. The body belongs to the bad sheep of a Brahmin community, a man who when alive, openly mocked the religious ways of this community, took a low caste woman as a mistress, ate meat, drank alcohol and defied every rule that the scriptures imposed on a man’s life.

The entire community is weighed down by the question of whether Naranappa the dead deserves a Brahim’s funeral. But the person who is weighed down most is the person who is the antithesis of the dead man – Praneshacharya. A man who has not only embraced the life prescribed by the scriptures, but gone a step ahead by even changing the nature of his grihastaashram by marrying an invalid woman. His marriage thus becomes an exercise in caring for the sick instead of the snare of a physical or emotional relationship.

The question unsettles this man who feels responsible for his community . The hungry Brahmins repeatedly implore him to resolve the problem so that they can return to their normal lives. Anxious that his knowledge is not enough, Praneshacharya retires to a temple seeking answers from an idol. This is the moment when his carefully constructed virtuous life is thrown into chaos – he has a sexual encounter with the dead man’s mistress. A stranger to physical intimacy, he loses his head at this encounter. What follows is a dream-like journey in the style of lost weekend. He walks to distant villages, forms an acquaintance Putta, a man who refuses to leave his side and insists on helping this unworldly man. Walking through a religious carnival, the colourful sights and invasive sounds scare and overwhelm Praneshacharya into further indecision. He has lost his context, his identity and is almost paralysed in the world he is unfamiliar with.

My favourite part of the story is Acharya’s transformation – from a person sitting on a high dry ground, to one who is suddenly thrown into a gushing water and anxiously follows the flow. The greeds and ugliness of the community is telling but an exaggeration. The plague (which is the cause of Naranappa’s death) is almost comical and superfluous to the plot. A plague cannot be a background score- I kept waiting for it to take the center stage, but it never did, and that was an unnecessary distraction to add to the story.

At times, I couldn’t help wondering that Acharya had defied the essential part of being a Hindu – it is a householder’s religion after all. But in his pride, he had chosen to dispense with the engagement of the household and skip to an ascetic life. Interestingly, this is what Buddhism proposes. But a Buddhist would probably not have to deal with the question of a dead body or rituals surrounding them. In trying to bridge the line, perhaps Acharya skipped some samskara that were essential to his way of life. If he had passed through all his rites, may be he would not have been so baffled with the question of the body.

For all its great ideas and alienation imagery, the book is poorly written, at least in translation. It is overly dramatised and the characters are mostly caricatures. And yet, I walked away from it feeling a warm glow in my mind.

Acharya’s introspections are the most telling parts of the story. I leave with these:

Have I the authority to include another’s life in my decision? The pain of it, the cowardice of it. God, take from me the burden of this decision”

“Putta gave him an entirely new personality. In the eyes of strangers, one gets a new form, a new make up. Even to the point of doubting who I really am, I have become many persons in one single day”

“It becomes clear that he didn’t have the skills to live in this world of sharp and cruel feelings. One part of lust is tenderness, the other part a demonic will.

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