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Hankering for a deep read? Get Shikari

Published : Jan 14, 2018, 2:58 am IST
Updated : Jan 14, 2018, 2:58 am IST

The translation is very good, despite the translator’s fears about bringing this complex and densely-written Kannada book to another audience.

Shikari:The Hunt by Yashwant Chittal, Penguin, Random House, Rs 312
 Shikari:The Hunt by Yashwant Chittal, Penguin, Random House, Rs 312

Have you ever read a book that has overwhelmed you so much that you literally don’t know how to tell other people about it even though you’re dying to? I have, very occasionally, and one of those occasions has been just now, with a book called Shikari – The Hunt by Kannada writer Yashwant Chittal, translated by Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger.

Mind you, it took me a while to recognise that I was reading something not only good but great. That’s because my eyesight is getting poorer by the day and even wearing spectacles, I find it difficult to read small, tightly-spaced print which, unfortunately, is how Shikari is presented. This is the reason why I took three weeks over this novel — if the print had been larger, I’d probably have raced through it within 24 hours. Because I have never before read a book so focussed on what so many of us go through in our lives: Politics: office politics,  family politics, community politics, and Politicking between friends.

Shikari is about Nagappa, a brilliant scientist working at a chemicals company, a man loyal to his work, his company and his managing director, in that order. Unfortunately, the company’s deputy managing director has had something against the scientist right from the start and keeps questioning Nagappa’s antecedents, something Nagappa really doesn’t want to discuss. That’s because Nagappa also spends much time questioning his antecedents. He knows that though he’s a Saraswat Brahmin, there was something odd about the way people treated his parents in their home village. Nagappa’s father was also very odd: he got rid of his oldest son (so Nagappa has never met his brother) and deliberately lost his daughter in a Bombay (now Mumbai) crowd (so now Nagappa hopes to see his sister living among the prostitutes he visits, or in the shanties that line Mumbai’s roads; what else could be the fate of a girl child abandoned on the streets of a metropolitan city, after all?)

Nagappa himself survived a murder attempt by his father who set the boy ablaze while he was sleeping, and then killed himself. Despite all this, the boy went on to study further till he eventually got a science degree and a job. He was also a writer published often in a Kannada magazine though after a time his stories began to be rejected because they were written from a Brahmin point of view; still the urge to write remains strong within him and he continues to do so even though he no longer thinks of publication. So you could say that in some way at least, life has been sweet to Nagappa despite his brutal beginning. Yet, as the book opens, his life appears to be falling apart. On the most basic level, that’s because he has just been told he’s been suspended from work while an inquiry is made into a fire at the company’s Hyderabad factory. On several other levels, however, he appears to be so paranoid about the people in his life, including his friends, that you wonder if these are the ravings of a madman? Maybe they are, maybe not. The thing is that Nagappa is an introvert, a man who spends most of his time living in his mind. He knows he has no real friends though there are a fair number of people in his life. He knows he tends to over-analyse every little incident  and conversation that occurs around him. He knows he can be a whiner at times, at least, inside his head. This makes him question himself non-stop, so perhaps he really has no reason to be paranoid. Then again, perhaps he has.

How, for instance, does his old village acquaintance and former roommate Shrinivas appear to know that Nagappa has been suspended from work when Nagappa has merely told people that he is on leave so he can write a novel? Why are Nagappa’s colleagues behaving as though he’s a leper, though he is the one person who brought up the issue of safety regulations at the factory that later caught fire? What is the deputy managing director up to, making Nagappa fly to Hyderabad for the inquiry and then fly back to Mumbai the very next day with no inquiry conducted? Why has Nagappa’s neighbour, the tailor’s wife, Janaki, suddenly developed an interest in Nagappa’s broad shoulders and deep chest and then just as suddenly vanished? Is Mary, the MD’s secretary, trustworthy? And what about the MD himself, who has suddenly shot off to the head office in America, leaving Nagappa without a soul in his corner?

It takes a little time to get used to this book, partly because at first Nagappa is so completely in his own head that you get impatient with him, partly because you really have no idea whether he’s simply paranoid or whether his non-stop suspicions are true. But once you get over that, you find yourself totally gripped as though you’re reading an excellent thriller. (I confess, I often turned to the very last page to see how things turned out for Nagappa.)

The translation is very good, despite the translator’s fears about bringing this complex and densely-written Kannada book to another audience. The voice seems authentic and the style is low-key. If you have a hankering for something fairly deep to read, I’d say, get Shikari.

 The writer is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea

Tags: book review, shikari, community politics, nagappa