Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man

By Allston Mitchell, March 30, 2017

Samskara - Published by NYRB

Samskara – Published by NYRB

A masterpiece of modern world literature has recently been published by New York Review of Books Classics. The tale of a renegade Brahmin whose dissolute life brings consternation and doubt to his community when he suddenly dies.

Udupi Rajagopalacharya Ananthamurthy’s masterpiece was originally published in 1965.  The title is a complex affair with multiple meanings including: funeral rites; refinement; purification and a ceremony. The translation of the book is by the poet and scholar  A.K. Ramanujan who brings to life this struggle between the sacred and profane, the pure and impure and the ascetic and erotic in a decaying Brahmin colony.

The story is centred around the death of  Naranappa, a renegade Brahmin who during his life openly flouted the rules of his caste by drinking, eating meat, mocking God and marrying well beneath him. When he suddenly dies his fellow Brahmins are at a loss as to what to do with the body – should be buried as a Brahmin? The weight of tradition stifles and paralyses the community.

The rules of their caste are strict and demand that only another Brahmin can touch the corpse. The community turn to Praneshacharya considered to be the wisest of the Brahmin, to resolve the situation as nobody else wants to be associated with such a renegade, even as a corpse.  Praneshacharya is perplexed by the issue and finds himself unable to come to a conclusion.  He too is hemmed in by tradition and taboos but to an even greater degree as he is married to an invalid wife who he has always looked after. His  life has been proscribed by the constant assistance his wife demands, a situation that has imposed a life of total asceticism upon him.

Samskara - A Rite for a Dead Man by U:R: Ananthamurthy - published by NYRB

Samskara – A Rite for a Dead Man by U:R: Ananthamurthy – published by NYRB

Naranappa, the dead man’s mistress adds to the moral dilemma by offering her immensely valuable jewellery to anyone who will perform the funeral rites.  This creates expectancy and temptation  and muddies the waters.  But worst of all the Brahmin community are forbidden from bathing eating and praying until the corpse has been ceremoniously dealt with.  The days are hot and the corpse is decomposing as is the moral and traditional matrix that has sustained the community for generations.

It is an excellent expose of a community and civilisation in decline and at odds with itself, a book rightly compared to Tayyeb Salih’s “Season of Migration to the North” and Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”.


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