Indian Classics: ‘Teru’ – Raghavendra Patil

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Myth creation, the impact of the myth on the society and the human costs associated with maintaining the myth are the core issues that Raghavendra Patil deals in his SahityaAcademy winning novel ‘Teru’ (TempleChariot). The subject of myths are born and how ritualism is used to maintain the myth have fascinated creators with Aravindan exploring myth creation is his film ‘Estappan’ and Jeyamohan exploring the effects of ritualism and how ritualism is exploited by vested interest in his short story ‘mAdan moksham’. Patil’s ‘Teru’ is a good addition to this genre of literature.

‘Teru’ starts with the writer waiting for a bus in Gokak bus stand and an elderly gentleman, Somappa, from the village of Taramanatti meeting him there and explaining to him the ritual behind the pulling of the chariot of Taramanatti Vittala. Before the chariot of Lord Vittala can be pulled a person from a particular family dashes his head against the stone wheels of the chariot and then takes a bit of the blood oozing from his forehead and applies it to the chariot. Only after this ritual, called ‘raktha tilaka seva’, is completed do people start pulling the chariot. The writer is fascinated by this ritual and accompanies Somappa to Taramanatti to witness the ritual.

Two days before the ‘raktha tilaka seva’ the Kondaligas come to town. They are the ones who sing the ballad of the Taramanatti ‘Teru’. The writer hears them reciting the story how the ‘Teru’ refused to move initially and how a human sacrifice was performed before it could move. The Devappa family (who are puppeteers) , which gives up a son in sacrifice to move the chariot, is given the right to perform the ‘raktha tilaka seva’. It is a descendant of this family, who every year comes to Taramanatti on a specific day and then performs this ritual. The whole back story is narrated in a ballad form. (The impact does diminish when reading this part in translation. Pavanaan does a nice translation but this particular part would sound much more effective when it is heard in Kannada since the actual words would play a very important role in singing and story telling)

The story then moves from the ancient times to the modern times. Raghavendra Patil explores how the myth has taken firm root in the imagination of a few generations, the lack of interest of the present day youth in these rituals, the religious fault lines in the Taramanatti village, the internal politics and the impact of rituals on the descendants of Devappa family. Patil presents a clear picture of a complex social phenomenon which has multiple interlinked strands. In the process he also details the changing caste equations, exploitation and the general erosion of moral values in Taramanatti village.

More than exploring how a myth is formed, Patil’s deeper concern is about the people who pay the price for maintaining this myth. In this case it is Devappa’s family which pays the price for keeping the rituals intact. While they are initially given land for their sacrifice, a few generations later the land is usurped by the powerful Gowdas, leaving them with nothing to show for their steadfast adherence to the rituals. The back story about how a human sacrifice is needed to make the chariot move (which refuses to move even when hundreds of people try pulling it) and how the upper caste people quickly zoom in on the lower caste people is told in a tone of black humor. The price for maintaining such rituals is always paid by the deprived sections of the society.

It would have been easy to play this as an upper caste versus lower caste or a have versus have-nots tussle but Patil knows that the truth is much more complex. While it is clear to Devappa and his wife that the rich people have taken away one of their sons for the sacrifice since none of them wanted to sacrifice their sons. Yet, after the sacrifice, when a sadhu tells Devappa that God has chosen his family for the sacrifice, he starts believing he has a much higher role to play. Since he has to offer the blood from his forehead for the ‘rakta tilaka seva’, he ‘purifies’ his blood by taking medicines and then before arriving at Taramanatti village, undertakes a pilgrim visiting various temples along the way. Devappa thus starts a new set of rituals which generations after him follow. In this way the person exploited also sees a major role for him in the society, even if that role is only for one day in the year.

While the initial set of rituals are laid down by the priest and the upper caste people, Devappa adds his own set of rituals and slowly makes the whole rituals as his own. The rituals that everyone now follows are the ones Devappa has laid down. In this way the belief of Devappa that his family has been selected for this sacred task and his addition to the ritualism give center stage to the family during the festival. This complex interaction wherein Devappa accepts what his initially laid out and then expands on it gives him a certain autonomy and standing in the society, though the autonomy and standing is relation to only one aspect, the religious aspect.

Here we observe an important aspect of the society. It doesnt matter if you are the exploiter or the exploited. You need a role to play in the society. We can argue that the exploited Devappa sees a major role for him in the society and hence accepts the exploitation but uses that to cement his role in the society. This can lead the reader to think about the caste structure in our society with each caste playing a well defined role. This could probably lead to an understanding why this intricate web of exploitation coupled with need for a role in society is so deeply ingrained in our society that it is very difficult to break down this structure

Somappa represents the generation which is very keen on these rituals and for whom these rituals and Vittala have become part of their lives. They don’t worry about how the myth was formed but they have complete faith in these rituals. Once faith takes over myth becomes more important than history and slowly the rituals attain a rigidity which is difficult to break. Any break in the rituals is seen as an assault on faith and usually leads to disastrous consequence. People like Somappa completed this complex system of myth and rituals where the exploiters need the exploited as much as the exploited need the exploiters in order to give some meaning to their lives and to maintain their faith.

What happens when the person responsible for maintaining faith loses faith? This question is explored in the latter part of the novel. Devappa, the youngster of the current generation, the descendent of Adi Devappa, sees only exploitation around him. Their land has been usurped by the powerful Gowdas. He joins the ‘Navanirman’ movement and is jailed. Later he falls in love with a widow and wants to marry her. The condition to marry her being that God ‘Uddavva’ should give her consent. Unfortunately the consent doesn’t come and Devappa comes to the conclusion that what he sees in the temple is not God but just rock. He sees an idol which doesn’t care about the sufferings of the common people and he sees a God who is totally silent. He cannot reconcile the fact that inspite of his family following all the rituals with complete dedication they are still in bad shape and the upper class people still dominate. So he finally rejects the 150 year tradition refusing to turn up for the ‘rakta tilaka seva’. Patil then highlights how this act affects the village as a whole and how it affects common people like Somappa, who see the non-arrival of Devappa as a bad omen.

Along with the question of faith, ritual and myth, Patil weaves in the social issues confronting the village. Patil very cleverly highlights these issues with delving too deep into them. The constant religious fault lines as well as the plural nature of the village society is highlighted by the character of Somappa. Though he is a Jain, he believes in Vittala and is always in the forefront when the car festival happens. Unfortunately, vested interest in the village use his religion as a stick to beat him when convenient, always trying to distance him from Vittala. Patil also deals with the political ambition of the youth, their disinterest in tradition, the high handedness of the police and the caste and class dynamics prevalent in the village.

Patil writes the book in multiple styles. In the initial portion he tells the story of the ‘Teru’ through a ballad. Later the travels of Devappa on his pilgrimage are written in geat detail, almost classical in form. The later portion is neo-realistic in its approach when dealing with the current day realities. Yet Patil manages to maintain homogeneity by ensuring that the ‘Teru’ always takes centre stage. It becomes the symbol of pride for the village when it is built, a symbol for sacrifice when it is moved, a symbol for ritualism when the ‘rakta tilaka seva’ starts, a symbol of abiding faith for the villagers, a symbol for a great tradition which becomes the pride of the village and a symbol of oppression to Devappa who revolts against the tradition. Keeping ‘Teru’ in the centre of the novel, Patil ensures that all threads are wound around it.

We must also understand that while ‘Teru’ captures the complexities inherent in faith, this is not the whole story. The story of decadence, the story of exploitation and the story of a break with tradition is only a part of the larger story. All over country while one part of faith and tradition vanishes, a new one springs up. While one sanyasi’s name is forgotten a new Godman arises. Tales of religious intolerance and tales of great plurality are heard in equal measure. In essence, faith still dominates, tradition still dominates and ritualism still dominates our collective conscience. Patil gives us one slice of this multi dimensional issue and he does that very effectively.

The success of ‘Teru’, according to me, lies in the fact that Patil refuses to take the easy ideological route to the complex issues. While his sympathy lies with the likes of Devappa, he also understands people like Somappa who need their faith. That is why Patil keeps all the complexity intact making the reader understand that there are no easy answers to these questions. The combination of myth creation, ritualism, faith, class and caste conflict and exploitation paint an excellent picture of complex village life. The issues that Patil raises, the way he deals with them and the insights he provides to us make this novel worthy of the Sahitya Academy Award that it got.

I read the novel in Tamil. Sahitya Academy publication. Tamil translation by Pavannan.

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