S L Bhyrappa’s book ‘Kavalu’ stands at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, where the author explores a multitude of contentious issues through a plethora of characters.
“There is a distinction between pure literature and ideological literature. You take for example, Dalit literature, it is ideological; protest literature, it is ideological; feminist literature, it is ideological; communist literature, it is ideological. I do not believe in any of these things. I believe in pure literature. Pure literature means, taking human life, human characters and going deep into human experience. And human experience is the same in all the times, all the countries and all the societies. Only such literature will survive, not the ideological literature.”
There is an ongoing churn in our society where issues of gender equality, as expressed in contemporary popular discourse, and family values are competing with each other. Which of these must take precedence over the other? The ‘constitutionalists’ believe that individual rights and equality must be taken literally. Hence we recently celebrated a judgement which decriminalised adultery. The traditionalist group (which prefers to protect traditions) finds itself on the back foot in the face of an assault by ‘constitutional values’ and ‘feminism’.
In the backdrop of this scenario, S L Bhyrappa’s novel Kavalu offers a compelling and pragmatic perspective on the competition between these two positions. The Kannada novel Kavalu (2010) is one of the recent works of Bhyrappa. Kavalu literally means ‘crossroad’. The title represents the theme of the book in a subtle manner.
The central character of the novel is Jayakumar, an industrialist. The story revolves around his experiences as a married man, widower, an estranged husband and a divorcee. Parallel stories of his second wife Mangala and her professor Dr Ila take off later in the book. Jayakumar’s life demonstrates the impact of faulty legislation on the institution of marriage in modern India. Dr Ila and Mangala serve as props for demonstrating the inner contradictions of feminist ideologies.
Though the story is woven around these three protagonists, the rest of the characters also contribute to the plot significantly. Vaijayanthi (Jayakumar’s first wife), Prabhakara (Mangala’s illicit lover), Nachiket (Jayakumar’s nephew), Mala Kerur (the feminist lawyer), Vinayachandra (Dr Ila’s husband) play important roles, helping to bring out the contradictions in the lives of the main characters in the book.
Through the characters, Bhyrappa explores several contentious topics like feminism, marriage, live-in relationships, sexual liberation, adultery, prostitution, divorce, dowry and the institution of family in India. Bhyrappa brings out the contradictions of the feminist movement and the cognitive dissonance in his characters during the course of the story. Simultaneously, he demonstrates that legality and justice are often out of sync with each other. While exposing what he calls the incoherence of ‘feminist activists’, the author does not take any ideological position during the course of the novel.
We live in an age where the concept of ‘constitutional morality’ has become a fashionable phrase. In this context, a fine moment in the novel is worth retelling here. Dr Ila, the feminist-professor questions her husband Vinayachandra for giving his share of the family property to his poor brother without consulting her. They end up having this conversation (this is an approximate English translation):
Vinayachandra : You have no faith in dharma. You opted for a registered marriage, which is a contract. This contract does not include the principles of dharma embedded in a Hindu marriage.
Dr Ila : So you are trying to subtly criticise me. All right. I have faith in the laws made under our Constitution. It represents my principles of dharma
Vinayachandra: So you mean that the wife has a right over husband’s earnings?
Dr Ila: Yes. I have a right over its management as well. Even if it is an inherited property, you have done a mistake by giving it to your brother without consulting me. Secondly, the baby conceived in my womb also has a right over it. I have to protect that as well.
Vinayachandra: Wow! Brilliant. Go to Supreme Court. Let there be a legal battle. Your modern Dharmashastra, i.e. the Constitution does not prohibit an individual from giving away inherited property to a financially weaker brother. It does not prohibit me from helping his ailing wife’s medical expenses.
This moment in the novel aptly draws the distinction between justice and law. It is also a brilliant example which demonstrates the author’s ability to criticise without taking any ideological position on the Constitution or dharma.
The plethora of relationships explored in the novel point to the fact that Bhyrappa’s endeavour to capture emotions take precedence over his criticism of the feminist movement. Mother-son, wife-husband, wife-illicit lover, employer-employee and daughter-father, nephew-uncle relationships in Indian society are captured well through conversations between different characters in the book.
The novelist demonstrates the art of juggling various parallel stories and characters while dealing with a multitude of contentious issues. His novel moves at a modest pace but still sustains the reader’s interest.
Kavalu is considered to be one of the best works of S L Bhyrappa. It stands at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. While exploring the emotions and insecurities of his characters, Bhyrappa plants dozens of questions in the minds of readers about the dominant ideas of equality and family system prevalent in India.
Bhyrappa often compares Indian values with those of the west, while cheekily exposing the latter’s inadequacies.
This novel may not find a fan in an ideologically inclined person. But it can entertain a centrist, commonsensical and liberal individual who can understand nuances of the modern Indian society. Going by Bhyrappa’s assessment of literature quoted at the beginning of this article, Kavalu will survive for a long time because it delves deep into human emotions and does not dwell on ideologies.