19/01/2017 4:37 PM IST | Updated 20/01/2017 10:49 AM IST

Was Draupadi Happy With Five Husbands? Kannada Writer SL Bhyrappa Asks At Jaipur Literature Festival 2017

Caste, fiction and the epics.

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Marriage of Draupadi. Liebig collectors' card 1931 (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

At 85, SL Bhyrappa remains one of the stars of contemporary Kannada writing. While his books sell vast in numbers and his popular appeal, even among non-readers of the language, was very much in evidence on the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2017.

At the Mughal Tent on the grounds of the Diggi Palace, Bhyrappa was in conversation with Vivek Shanbag, another well-known name in Kannada literature, especially familiar to readers of English for his novella, Ghachar Ghochar, which was recently translated to wide critical acclaim by Srinath Perur.

The choice of putting them together in conversation was intriguing, given the fractious history between Bhyrappa and the late UR Ananthamurthy, another icon of Kannada writing, who happened to be Shanbag's father-in-law. While their time on stage was nothing but civil, Shanbag slipped in several gently-worded but pointed questions at opportune moments. Bhyrappa fielded them with gusto. Speaker and moderator were a study in contrasts: the former's mild-mannered and soft-spoken firmness to the latter's impassioned self-confidence.

Throughout his decades-long career, Bhyrappa has cut a controversial figure, raising many hackles by his views on caste, religion and gender. Yet, his appeal remains undiminished. As his moderator informed the audience, his latest novel, out only four days ago, has already gone into a reprint.

In his autobiography Bhitti, Byrappa writes about the hardships of his early life — the trauma of losing several siblings and his mother to the plague epidemic. Death was a constant in his early life and haunts the pages of his fiction. At the age of 15, he had to carry the corpse of a 5-year-old younger sibling and cremate him.

In his youth, Bhyrappa worked at several odd jobs — as gatekeeper at a movie theatre, a supplier to an agent, a travelling salesman for an agarbatti company — but eventually studied philosophy to become an academic.

During the session, his interest in the epics and classical thought came up repeatedly, about which he had some trenchant observations to make. Here are some highlights.

On Caste

While Bhyrappa claims to not believe in caste and to perceive everyone as his equal, he did resent being left out of a scholarship for being a Brahmin. "The Congress leaders who speak of secularism today fought the first general elections on the basis of religion," he said passionately.

Taking on the current reservation policies, he argues that these have made people more caste-conscious. "Had the government made concessions on the basis of economic status instead, there would have been more harmony among different castes," Bhyrappa added.

The emphasis on caste has also magnified the importance of certain gods among specific communities, giving some deities supremacy over others, he claimed.

On The Epics

Bhyrappa has written extensively around the epics, challenging received opinions on figures like Draupadi and Gandhari. His novel Parva, based on the Mahabharata, is one of his most controversial. "Was Draupadi happy with five husbands? Could she love them equally? I have addressed these questions in my fiction," he said during the session, offering a novel theory about Gandhari covering her eyes. "I don't think she did it to show her devotion to her husband," Bhyrappa said, "But rather it was her protest against Bhisma forcing her father to give her hand in marriage to a blind prince, Dhritarashtra."

On Fiction, History And Religion

In one of the most stimulating moments in the conversation, Shanbag asked Bhyrappa about his style, which often moves between fiction and history — or rather he seems to turn fiction into history. On his position on the historical authenticity of the figure of Ram, Bhyrappa offered a safe answer, claiming to use his poetic license in his revisiting of the epics.

But on the subject of the plurality of religions, he was more unequivocal. "After Islam invaded India, our philosophers never studied it properly, except for Dayanand Saraswati," he said. Referring to the rise of religious intolerance in the country, he argued the most effective weapon against it would be "logical", as opposed to "emotional", language.

On Gender

Bhyrappa's novel Kavalu (2010) raised furious voices against its depiction of women. The depiction of one of the characters in it seemed to suggest that the woman's place was in the kitchen and that she can never get beyond her socially ascribed role. In his defence, Bhyrappa claimed that he doesn't impose his personal views on his characters, "I have to believe the feelings of the characters I create."

While defending women's roles in society, he pointed out child-bearing as a crucial function carried out by them. On the subject of violence against women he was scathing. "The only way to combat it is by teaching men how to behave," he said. "And this can only be done through culture."

Somewhat thinly attended, the session seemed to amuse those in the audience, who broke into an applause several times.

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