Folklorist’s tale

Print edition : March 29, 2019
The lore of an unknown commander of Tipu Sultan told in a blurry mix of the real and the imagined.

HOW we understand history is coloured by how and what racounteurs and historians choose to communicate, and our own distance from times past. In Krishnamurthy Hanuru’s short novel, the life and times of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan of Mysore only provide a context; the view is from the other side. Agnyatha is the story of a nameless commander in Tipu’s army, told in bits and pieces, revealing facets rarely considered except perhaps in historical fiction. Hanuru, who won the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi award in 2012, goes a step further.

In the introduction, he observes that while he was researching matters relating to folklore in Chitradurga district of Karnataka, he realised that “the historical details that one experienced on field was different from what we read in textbooks”.

Textbooks are always about rulers, whereas folk songs and stories speak about the people, for instance, the suffering of women following pillaging and looting by soldiers. He contends that it is because of this that shrines dedicated to saints who try to improve the lot of people become places of pilgrimage.

The novel opens with a description of a hero stone showing a bearded man bowing before a horse. This is Kudure Desigayya. A local man called Suleman is in possession of a manuscript that tells the bearded man’s story. Although many worship at the shrine, only some seek out Suleman for the story. The contents of the manuscript is revealed from the second chapter onwards in a blaze of shifting points of view, threaded together with various storylines. My confusion was cleared to some degree only after I re-read the beginning of the novel.

The overriding voice is that of the unknown commander who, we may assume, later became Kudure Desigayya. He talks about capturing tigers for his ruler and women for himself, one woman in particular. We see how enslaved women coped and how unstable the lives of soldiers were. We briefly see how Tipu’s mind works. When there is a religious disturbance in the south, he commands: “Do not meddle with the leaders responsible for this. See if the palace can confiscate the land which has been the origin of this dispute. Arrest and bring all of them in, irrespective of the numbers.”

We see the reluctance of soldiers to mount yet another assault despite being plied with incentives: “Let alone corn, the soldiers wouldn’t have agreed even if they could kidnap and bring home a beautiful maiden of the village. I was standing with folded arms with my head tucked into my shoulders.”

Suleman’s manuscript also contains detailed illustrations, descriptions of which intersperse the narrative. The reader is called upon to imagine the scenes as the story moves back and forth, peppered with songs and poems, anecdotes from myths and legends, and sketches of real life.

The folklorist in Hanuru comes through in the telling, which is a blurry mix of the real and the imagined. While history textbooks offer only linear narratives, Hanuru’s novel flows freely through shifting timelines, offering fresh perspectives and a challenging read. Has the English language flattened the narrative, eroded some of the nuances of the original Kannada? This question automatically pops up.

While Girish Karnad and U.R. Ananthamurthy have praised the novel and we can only humbly agree with them, some sections of the English version of Agnyatha seem laboured in translation or are simply awkward. A sentence like this one, for instance: “They have never served the people, believing only in soldiers for people were untrustworthy.” Or these sentences: “They would heap large stones and poisonous plants on the graves to avoid dogs and jackals from pulling out bodies from the graves. The ground was boggy and difficult to walk on.”

However, I would not make much of this. I would read Agnyatha and be enriched.

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