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Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man (Oxford…
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Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man (Oxford India Paperbacks) (edition 1979)

by U.R. Anantha Murthy

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Title:Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man (Oxford India Paperbacks)
Authors:U.R. Anantha Murthy
Info:Oxford University Press, USA (1979), Edition: 2, Paperback
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Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man by U.R. Anantha Murthy

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The blurb tells me that Samskara, a Rite for a Dead Man is a classic of modern Indian literature but I bought it when the author U.R. Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) was a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. In this edition the novella is only 118 pages long, but it offers plenty to think about and I’m not surprised that it enjoyed critical acclaim as well as popularity when it was first published in India in 1965.
The Translator’s Note tells us that Samskara is a religious novella about a decaying Brahmin colony in a Karnataka village, an allegory rich in realistic detail. That doesn’t sound immediately appealing, but the story absorbed me almost immediately. A dilemma arises when a man has died and the Brahmin religious rites must be performed – but he has no son and none of the Brahmins want to sully themselves by doing it for him because he was a bad man who had flaunted his sinfulness for a long time. And while the community deliberates over this, it is forbidden for any of the adults to eat, and what’s worse, the body is putrefying and making the whole village smell.
Naranappa’s sins are drinking alcohol, taking an ‘unclean’ woman as his lover, and breaking numerous taboos such as throwing a sacred stone into the temple pool. There’s no doubt that he’s been provocative, and he’s been a very bad influence on the next generation too. However, Naranappa remains a Brahmin despite all this because unless he is excommunicated he remains a Brahmin all his life – and Praneshacharya, (the spiritual leader of the community) never took that step because Naranappa had threatened to convert to Islam if he did. Under the new secular laws of the Congress, Naranappa cannot be evicted from his house, so the presence of a Muslim among them would mean that they would all have to leave their nice houses and comfortable way of life in order to stay ‘pure’.
When I discussed this conundrum with The Spouse who is a student of philosophy, he thought that the solution was simple. The risks to public health outweigh religious scruples: cremate the body and be done with it. (And that, in fact is eventually what happens, though the Brahmins don’t know it and go on agonising about it.) But it’s not as simple as that for people of faith. The problem for them, at heart, is the Brahmin fear of ‘polluting’ themselves because that would interfere with whatever karma they’ve accumulated towards their next reincarnation. (Karma is the universal causal law by which good or bad actions determine the future modes of an individual’s existence). Praneshacharya has spent his whole life in self-sacrifice in preparation for his next rebirth, and failing to live in accordance with his dharma puts that at risk. (Dharma means law, duty, code of conduct, righteousness, and rules.) (To put it crudely, he could plummet from being a highly respected sanyasi to being reborn as an Untouchable, or worse, some kind of despised insect…)
However, Samskara is not a simple religious parable. Praneshacharya is not the noble holy man that he seems to be.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/04/19/samskara-a-rite-for-a-dead-man-by-u-r-ananthamurthy-translated-by-a-k-ramanajan-bookreview/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Apr 18, 2018 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195610792, Paperback)

Made into a powerful, award-winning film in 1970, this important Kannada novel of the sixties has received widespread acclaim from both critics and general readers since its first publication in 1965. As a religious novel about a decaying brahmin colony in the south Indian village of Karnataka, Samskara serves as an allegory rich in realistic detail, a contemporary reworking of ancient Hindu themes and myths, and a serious, poetic study of a religious man living in a community of priests gone to seed. A death which stands as the central event in the plot brings in its wake a plague, many more deaths, live questions with only dead answers, moral chaos, and the rebirth of one man. The volume provides a useful glossary of Hindu myths, customs, Indian names, flora, and other terms. Notes and an afterword enhance the self-contained, faithful, and yet readable translation.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:52 -0400)

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