Title: The House of Kanooru
Genre: Adult fiction
Format: Kindle e-book
Published: By Penguin India on October 14th, 2000
ISBN13: 9780140280821 (Hardcover edition)
When Hoovayya and Ramayya return from their studies in the city to their ancestral home, much has changed, throwing the even tenor of village life out of joint. The entry of Subbamma, the young wife of much-married Chandrayya Gowda into the House of Kanooru, sets in motion an irrevocable chain of events which signify the coming of age of a resolutely traditional society. Acutely conscious of the burden of their education amidst the torpor of manorial life, the brothers are forced to witness the descent into cruelty of Chandrayya Gowda, who breaks old familial ties, and demands an impossible fealty. The epic conflicts of a decaying feudal order are seen through a multiplicity of characters, and voices that refuse to be silenced.
I picked up this book for the Indian Lit Readathon. As a Kannadiga, I was quite familiar with the fact that Kuempu’s works are considered some of the finest in Kannada literature even to this day. However, I don’t usually pick up adult fiction, so my expectations were quite low.
The book follows the lives of the Gowdas of Malenadu from multiple perspectives. At its simplest, it can be described as family drama but the author elevates the story to so much more than that. The portrayal of each character, with believable strengths and flaws, was masterfully done even though the cast was sizeable. I felt a range of emotions from pity for the worst of the characters to being frustrated by the best of them. My favourite of the lot was Hoovayya Gowda. In the case of Seethe, however, I was a bit disappointed because she didn’t get a lot of space in the narrative even though she was integral to the story. The plot started off slowly and got more interesting as it progressed, being mainly character-driven. Each chapter at first glance would seem like a completely random thread but they criss-crossed with the others to create a complex narrative that managed to be both suspenseful and expansive. The setting was done superbly as well. The vivid descriptions actually transported me to the lush Malenadu landscape.
What struck me most was the subtle social commentary provided on all the problematic content. Set in a time when India was at its conservative best (or worst?), the bias due to caste, skin colour and gender play a huge part in the story. I really enjoyed how the author challenged these attitudes by showing the different perspectives and mocking them through character interactions rather than go off on a righteous rant or become preachy. I also liked the portrayal of the female characters who were strong and resilient in spite of the rampant patriarchy of that time.
My only problem with this was the translation. Not only was my copy full of errors (much more than I expect in a finished copy anyway), the translation itself didn’t work for me. Many of the Kannada words were left as it is, which would make it very confusing for a reader who does not know the language. Also, it was more of a case of transliteration than translation in a few places which made it very awkward to read in English and also broke the narrative flow.
Although this is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read and has left a lasting impression on me, I’m not sure how those not intimately familiar with the Kannada language can appreciate the sheer genius of this work. However, I do recommend that you pick this up if you have the means as it is a worthy read, especially on a rainy day. Pair it with some ambient rain and storm sounds to really bring alive the atmosphere or some flute music to match the tone of the book. There are plenty of descriptions of food to make your mouth water, so I’d strongly suggest a bowl of rice and an accompaniment of your choice to go with it, preferable something Indian of course.
Have you ever read any Kannada (or even Indian) literature? Do you read adult contemporaries? What’s your favourite, if so? Let me know in the comments section below.