A prominent Kannada literary critic, Kirtinath Kurtakoti, in his Yugadharma hagu Sahitya Darshana (1962), a historical analysis of the Kannada novel, observed that our novelists hardly laboured over the craft and style of their writing—and this, unfortunately, holds true for most of our contemporary fiction writers from South Asia.
Thankfully, there are a few exceptions—authors who care about their craft. Vivek Shanbhag, an accomplished Kannada author and a master craftsman, is one of these rare writers.
A short story writer, novelist, playwright, and translator, Shanbhag is known to Anglophone readers through Srinath Perur’s translation of his novel Ghachar Ghochar (2013/2015). His latest Kannada novel, Sakinala Muttu (2021), also comes alive in Perur’s translation as Sakina’s Kiss (2023). With the entire narrative woven around the experiences of a middle-class engineer, Venkataramana, who is also the protagonist and the narrator, the novel reads like his memoir. As he tells stories in the past tense, vignettes of his memories flash before us. A criss-crossing narrative technique involving intriguing plots, hilarious episodes, serious anecdotes, and stories of objects brings forth an engaging lifeworld.
Three seminal events constitute the plot: the frantic search of Venkataramana and his wife for the missing Rekha, their only daughter; the mysterious disappearance of Ramana, the younger brother of Venkataramana’s mother; and the supposed theft that has taken place in our narrator’s house. In the scheme of the novel, information like where Rekha went missing and what finally happened to Ramana and the objects lost in the theft are not that important. While they help build up the tension, what is more significant is the thick description of ordinary life that they serve to reveal.
Readers into spectators
The narrator’s memory, which explores the nuances of contemporary middle-class existence, turns readers into spectators by painting one picture after another with carefully chosen words. In one such episode, someone struggling to decipher Ramana’s distorted handwriting (mis)reads a line as “I find Sakina’s kisses preferable” when it actually goes, “I find getting killed preferable [to falling into the hands of the police].”
Thus, the supposed kiss becomes a joke for all those who have gathered around to make sense of Ramana’s letter, when, read correctly, it says something serious. Ramana’s story stays mysterious until the end. As the novel takes its title from this incident, it makes us think about the ubiquitous presence of misreading and acting in day-to-day life. Is it a harmless Freudian slip, or does it unleash unseen chains of consequence?
The last episode of the theft is interesting in how it makes Venkataramana reveal the idiosyncrasies of his neighbours (who are onlookers in the post-theft scenes) and reflect on the objects he comes across as he searches for the things likely to be stolen by the thief. Venkataramana says: “Maybe my life’s story can be told through the act of tidying up this almirah. Everything needed for transitions and flashback scenes is right here. Degree certificates, mangalasutra, a photo of my parents, Nila’s letter, the voter ID cards….”
Each object, whether a visiting card, a book, or a hidden condom, evokes memories of past experiences. After the theft, such objects, once part of the familiar world, begin to look different; when things around us break, they are seen in a different light.
“The search for missing persons and objects reveals so much about the world that the narrator becomes the philosopher of everydayness and our guide. His monologue has several quotable quotes the reader can mark with a pencil.”
Thus, the search for missing persons and objects reveals so much about the world that the narrator becomes the philosopher of everydayness and our guide. His monologue has several quotable quotes the reader can mark with a pencil.
Sharp political commentary and subtle criticism run underneath the deceptively simple text. With the author never intruding in the narrative, Venkataramana’s point of view—witty, ironic, and self-reflexive—becomes ours. At the same time, the voices and faces of other characters like Viji (Venkataramana’s wife), Ramana, and Rekha are also distinct.
- With the entire narrative of Sakina’s Kiss woven around the experiences of a middle-class engineer, Venkataramana, who is also the protagonist and the narrator, the novel reads like his memoir.
- A criss-crossing narrative technique involving intriguing plots, hilarious episodes, serious anecdotes, and stories of objects brings forth an engaging lifeworld.
- Sharp political commentary and subtle criticism run underneath the deceptively simple text.
An excellent job
Srinath Perur, author of If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai (2013), a book about travelling with groups, comes to this novel after his success at translating Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar and Girish Karnad’s autobiography, This Life at Play (2021). His art of rendering the Kannada idiom and world in the manner of English is inspiring, though it has not worked all the time in the present novel.
Shanbhag’s linguistic cosmos is deeply rooted in Kannada tradition even though it is shaped by his mother tongue, Konkani, and his voracious reading in English. His Kannada prose is so meticulously chiselled that even a discerning reader has to give it a patient reading to appreciate its depth. While it is undoubtedly challenging to render his linguistic density and peculiarity in English, Perur has done an excellent job, even after a few gains and losses, which are inevitable in any translation.
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The translation of the very first line is superb. What would have been obviously translated as “There are no coincidences; interconnections behind certain events are hardly visible to us” becomes succinct in Perur’s hands when he renders it as “There are no coincidences, only unseen chains of consequence.” He has made some brilliant choices in translation, making the book read more like a novel in English than a translated one.
It is a matter of celebration that translation of bhasha literature is finding its niche at last. When a talented novelist like Vivek Shanbhag encounters a translator like Srinath Perur, the fiction that emerges is capable of making a mark on the global literary scene.
N.S. Gundur teaches English literature at Tumkur University, Tumkuru, Karnataka.