Book Review: "Ranganayaki" by K. Bharathi is the saga of a community

Print edition : September 10, 2021
The writer successfully captures the milieu of an upper middle-class Brahmin household with a keen eye for ethnographic detail.

K. BHARATHI’S Ranganayaki, set roughly between the 1910s and 1960s, is a Tamil novel in the social-realistic mode, a family saga and a cultural-ethnographic history of the times as seen in the transformations undergone by a section of the Tamil Brahmin society.

The principal character is the eponymous heroine, and it is through her consciousness that we see the slow but significant changes that impact the Iyengar community, of which the Srirajapuram family is a microcosm. Intelligent and sympathetic, Ranganayaki understands that changes are necessary, indeed inevitable, if her family and the community are not to become decadent. It is through her mediation, counsel and support that the next generations learn to accept and adapt to changes.

Ranganayaki is not a historical novel; historical personages like Mahatma Gandhi, Annie Besant and Rajaji make passing appearances, but their impact is seen not only in society at large but immediately in the Srirajapuram family. Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, pioneer of social reforms, appears right in the middle of the novel (p. 114), speaking passionately about the plight of devadasi women. Early in the novel, we are told about the prevalence of the custom in Kumbakonam town, the famed seat of Vaishnavite learning, piety and orthodoxy, with a suggestion that Ranganayaki’s father might have exploited one of those women who had undergone the pottu ceremony and been dedicated to the temple. Santanakrishnan, Ranganayaki’s nephew-in-law, honourably marries a girl from the devadasi community, subjecting himself and the girl to ostracism and humiliation.

Most revolutionary of all, a son-in-law of the family, brought up in the most traditional way and serving as priest in a temple, provides permanent shelter to the daughter of a devadasi because the girl, who is poor and ill, has no one to care for her after her mother’s death.

As for the impact of Gandhi, the most surprising Gandhian act comes from Ranganayaki’s daughter Thangamma, who performs a novel satyagraha within her home to reform her lawyer-husband Setumadhavan, who has been exploiting his clients by getting them to mortgage their properties to him. She imprisons herself in the large kitchen even while carrying out her cooking obligations. The familial and social pressure that her act builds forces Setumadhavan to mend his ways and release his clients from mortgage.

The novel records several other changes brought about by modernisation and urbanisation affecting the characters. Ranganayaki, on her visit to the city, is thrilled to attend D.K. Pattammal’s public concert. “What a far cry”, she wonders, from those days when she herself was not allowed by her in-laws to play the veena, which she had learned as a child.

How do you bring about change and reform, how do you create a society where everyone will have the space, time and freedom to strive for self-fulfilment without destroying the family as an institution? Parimala reflects on this: “This structure called the family looks so beautiful like a green and sheltering tree, but there are invisible venomous snakes hiding in it. They too are enjoying the comfort and coolness of the tree. But it looks as though everyone keeps silent for fear that if they hunt the snakes down, the tree itself might come crashing down” (pp. 134-35).

With a keen eye for ethnographic detail, Bharathi has captured the milieu of an upper middle-class Brahmin household of the mid-20th century. Of particular interest is the clear picture the novel gives us of the structure of the house with its various horizontal “tiers” (kattus), each signifying the power relations in the family, vis-a-vis men, women, children and servants. The backyard (kinattradi), too, is sufficiently large for people to meet and chat. Ironically, the very place where women first sit and grieve in isolation gradually becomes a site of debate, camaraderie, education and empowerment. Altogether, a sensitively crafted, highly readable, debut novel.

T. Sriraman is former professor of The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.