Mix caste politics with equal measure of religious politics. To this mixture add a spoonful of college politics. Stir in a cup of government lethargy. Mix it with a full cup of superstition and environmental degradation. On the glass let there be a wedge of romance. This heady cocktail can be christened “Chidambara Rahasya”
Poornachandra Tejaswi’s dark comedy ‘Chidambara Rahasya’ is about a fictional town named Kesaruru in the Malnad region of Karnataka. Tejaswi brings alive this town with all its faults and traces how the life in the town degrades and rushes towards annihilation.
Shyamnandan Angadi, an intelligence officer, from the Intelligence Wing of the Cardamom Board is sent to Kesaruru on a mission. The mission: to investigate the drop in cardamom production in Kesaruru. The cardamom export business has dropped from 200 crores to a mere 50 crores and naturally the government is concerned. Angadi arrives in Kesaruru and finds that added to the mysterious drop in cardamom production he also has to look into the mysterious death of Jogihal, the chief scientist of the Cardamom Research Institute in Keasaruru. Is there any connection between Jogihal’s death and the drop in production? Is there a sinister ploy in the background by some enemy forces to reduce the cardamom production in Kesaruru?
While the government in concerned about the drop in cardamom production, the town itself doesn’t seem to be very concerned about this fact, for they are busy fighting their own religious and superstitious battles. Tejaswi slowly draws a complete portrait of the town. He starts with college students first. They have no idea about what exactly is happening in cardamom production, the spiece which is the livelihood of the town. Instead they sit together and talk about the impending revolution. They are inspired by the teachings of their college lecturer Ramachandra, who in turn is later terrified by the acts these students involve. Inspite of talking about revolution, the students only aim to somehow catch the attention of their female classmates. The difficulty the boys face when it comes to talking to the girls and how tongue tied they are when a girl speaks to them are hilariously described. The antics of the college students is spread all over the book and provides for most of the humor in this book. (The students attending their college annual function with expressed intention of disrupting Dr.Patil’s speech but ending up defending Dr.Patil when an opposite group disrupts the speech one the best set pieces in this novel. I would advice against reading this chapter while you are travelling. For your fellow passengers will be startled by your sudden burst of laughter.)
The other important thread in the novel is the arrival of Sulaiman Beri in Kesaruru and his subsequent success in business using dubious ways. It heralds the arrival of religious divide in Keasaru and holds a mirror to the religious confrontation that has been taking place in our country for centuries now. We are not introduced to Sulaiman Beri in the novel but he has a major impact on the social life of the town. He helps build a mosque in Kesaruru and that scares the local Hindus, who now have to work hard to preserve their tradition. To counter the call of the mosque a Vishu Suprabatham is played at all times of the day by certain upholders of faith. This divide affects all parts of the society and the institutions in Kesaruru.
If religious divide is a major concern for Tejaswi, superstition is another major concern. He highlights this through the incidents that happen at Krishna Gowda’s estate. Every night stones mysteriously rain on Krishna Gowda’s house and inspite of the best efforts of Gowda and his henchman, the culprit remains at large. Stones keep falling on Krishna Gowda’s house every night and no one knows who the culprit is. Krishna Gowda sets out one day with his right hand man only to come back running after they start seeing ghosts in the dark. The students efforts to catch the culprit late in the night is also humorously related and that also leads to an important encounter as far as the novel is concerned. Tejaswi uses Krishna Gowda not only to highlight the superstition but also to highlight the landlords relationship with the Dalits living nearby and the Lambadis who park themselves at the edge of the town once in a while. The portrayal of Krishna Gowda’s college going daughter and her dreams of a knight in shining armour (which leads to some hilarious moments) is sensitive and at the same time give us an indication of how repressed young girls are in towns like these where they rarely get a chance to interact with men.
Along with the religious and class divide, Tejaswi also deals with the caste divide. The scheming Brahmin, who for his own womanizing reason, who instigates Krishna Gowda to try and force the municipality to gift land to the Lambadis, the Dalits who understand the religious tension in the town very well and try to use the threat of conversion to get their work done, are some of the samples. The rot that has set in the educational institutions is highlighted by the activities of the ineffective Principal. There are so many threads in this novel that it is impossible to highlight each one in this review. Suffice it to say that Tejaswi deals in detail about almost all the issues which are pertinent to modern India.
This novel can be described as an absurd and dark comedy but behind the absurdity and the satire lies Tejaswi’s anger. He is angry with the environmental degradation that happens due to human greed. He is angry because people refuse to follow the path of science and are steeped in superstition. He is angry because the youth, instead of doing anything constructively, are only interested in impressing the opposite sex. He is angry with the inefficiency of the government departments. He is angry with the politics that pervades the educational institutions. Tejaswi converts his anger into satire and hence instead of polemic we get an extraordinary satirical and humor.
Tejwasi clearly believes that stupidity, greed and superstition are universal . So he ends up wielding a sharp satirical sword that cuts through all identities and exposes the vested interest of every group. The whoring Brahmin who exploits the caste and religious divide in order to enjoy the Lambadi women; The Muslim Sulaiman Beri, who illegally cuts down trees in the forest with connivance of government officials; the inefficient college principal; the investigator Angadi who tries to solve the mystery by the absurd method of asking a novelist to write a story based on the incidents ; the Lambadis who steal; the Dalits who also exploit the caste situation: Tejaswi spares no one in this novel. Only a few like the scientist Dr.Patil escape Tejaswi’s sword.
The novel progresses in an episodic manner. Tejaswi unfolds one humorous incident after another. Some of them extremely absurd like the college function involving Dr.Patil while some of them taking almost surrealistic hue as the bursting of the tar machine. The highlight is how even Guatamela and their coffee growers come to play a part in this drama. Tejaswei keeps shifting from one group to other and slowly gives us a complete portrait of the town and at the same time ensures our interest doesn’t wane. The characters are extremely colorful: the revolutionary college youth with their preoccupation with Krishna Gowda’s daughter, the eccentric Dr.Patil, the chicken stealing Maayi and many more. The language is colorful as well with lot of swear words being used. Tejaswi is a master when it comes to creating humorous incidents and it is this humor that keeps us engaged throughout.
This book can be compared to Srilal Sukhla’s ‘Darbari Raag’ which is in the same genre. While ‘Darbari Raag’ mainly focuses on small town politics, ‘Chidambara Rahasyam’s cuts a wider swath. The scope is much larger here with Tejaswi going beyond politics and touching many more aspects of the society. Tejaswi lets various vested interests to clash with each other sometimes and to supplement each other sometimes. In this way the story moves as a result of confrontation and collusion of vested interests. This leads to ‘Chidambara Rahasyam’ providing us a much richer holistic view of what ails our society than ‘Darbari Raag’. The novel ends darkly, metaphorically and literally, with Tejaswi warning us about the inevitable dark days ahead if we do not take steps to set right the various ills that plague our society.
‘Chidambara Rahasyam’ is an important book and should be as widely available as ‘Darbaari Raag’. It is our luck that ‘Dabari Raag’ is available freely in various translations. Unfortunately ‘Chidambara Rahasyam’ fate is the opposite. It takes tremendous effort to get hold of a translated copy. I am not sure how this situation will be corrected but I do hope this will get corrected soon. It is really sad that even very minor English books of the West are easily available but a book like ‘Chidambara Rahasyam’ which speaks to us directly about our society is difficult to find.
This novel is like a diagnostic machine which perfectly provides us with a picture of the current condition of the patient. Tejaswi provides no solution to the vexing problems he highlights. Understanding and accepting the problem is the first step towards providing a cure. Unfortunately no one wants to accept the problem. The ecological damage being inflicted on nature, the inefficient administration which is more keen on making money than saving the forests, people who would rather believe in superstition than in science. All these aspects are out in the open for everyone to see and yet no one sees them. They remain as secret as the Chidambara Rahasya to everyone in the town. Their eyes are blinded by identity politics, greed and superstition.
I read the Tamil translation of this book, which was published by Sahitya Academy. The book was translated from Kannada into Tamil by Pa.Krishnaswamy.