Travelling with Tantu: Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa’s Contemporary Epic

The first episode of a multipart analysis of Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa's 1993 epic novel, "Tantu" in Kannada.
Travelling with Tantu: Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa’s Contemporary Epic
Sandeep Balakrishna

— Chapter 1 — 

THE BLOCKBUSTER SUCCESS OF DR. S.L. BHYRAPPA’s Aavarana has sadly relegated the rest of his substantial corpus of invaluable literature to the shadows. Of these, Tantu (Strand or Thread) easily earns the high distinction of being a modern epic. Few novelists have explored the history of India from Independence to the Emergency with such precision, brilliance and insight as Dr. Bhyrappa. It would be only a partial truth to claim that Tantu is an ambitious novel based only on its scope and canvas. The complete truth is that it is a deeply introspective novel set on the canvas of India. No hidden nook or crevice of our national body and soul escapes its piercing searchlight. 

There’s no book that better narrates the full story of our unfortunate downfall after Independence.

Tantu is also our story. Yours and mine. Your family’s and mine. Your community’s and mine. Above all, it is the story of the Hindu civilisation which had the misfortune of getting entrapped in the body politic of Indian democracy. While the novel ends with the Emergency, the dark forces that unchained this despotism continue to wreak the same havoc using vastly changed tactics and arsenal. In that sense, Tantu is an ongoing story of the reality unfolding around us everyday.

When we think about it, it is stunning how India imploded in an all-encompassing fashion so swiftly. In just twenty-eight years, we went from being a free country bursting with the optimism of nation-building, economic progress, decolonisation and cultural renewal to becoming a snake-pit overflowing with inferiority complex,  industrial-scale corruption, political criminality, stifling statism, and haughty deracination. The Emergency ripped off the mask and gave a formal stamp of authority affirming all this. 

Tantu narrates this disturbing story in full using the trademark Bhyrappan verve of exploring real, human characters. They are in the foreground, and all the major events that take place in that period unfold through and in their lives. They play multiple roles concurrently — they are enablers, respondents and victims. 

Here is the partial list of the awesome gamut of themes that Tantu covers: the rampant abuse of Constitutional authority, bank nationalisation, the License Raj, the heartless tyranny of an absolutist bureaucracy, the abolition of privy purses, the Leftist vandalism of our education, the smuggling of sacred Hindu artefacts, the perversion of the timeless values of Dharma, the death of ideals and values, the slow but assured destruction of the Hindu family system and the climactic Emergency. To invoke Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh’s memorable words, Tantu is a contemporary epic, a present-day Mahabharata, measured by any yardstick: literary, philosophical, emotional, aesthetic and complexity. And like all durable epics, Tantu lends itself to multiple interpretations and invites us to read it repeatedly. Each reading ignites our intellect and stirs our emotion in newer ways. 

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Overall, Tantu is simultaneously a pronounced and a sublime metaphor for our individual conscience. In the parlance of traditional Indian scholarship, it is an Adhyayana-grantha. It is no exaggeration to say that a Kannada home that does not have Tantu is the poorer for it. This is also true for Indian homes. It is rather unfortunate that the work is not as well-known as it should be. It holds enough material in its oceanic depths for generating numerous PhDs given that these three letters have somehow become synonymous with omniscience. But that’s just the skeptic in me speaking.

In this backdrop, the present essay series starting with this episode can do little justice to the commanding majesty of the novel. The primary intent though is to offer a small aperture through which readers can savour the most delectable, brilliant and ennobling aspects of this work.       

— Chapter 2 — 

SPEAKING IN THE BROADEST SENSE POSSIBLE, Tantu is not for people looking for “answers” and “solutions” because the novel fundamentally is about Life itself. There is no “plot” in the strict sense of the term. 

The whole story is really the unfolding of the lives and destinies of four major characters related to one another in different ways. How they respond to and cope with powerful forces beyond their control forms the crux of Tantu. Their personal lives intersect and merge with and are impacted by the sweeping political changes exploding all around them. Families are shattered. Idealistic institutions are hijacked. Enduring values taken for granted are overwhelmed and inverted. The human conscience has become a tradable commodity. 

Every character in Tantu is put through multiple Divyas. In traditional Hindu jurisprudence, Divya means an ordeal. These ordeals existed even as recently as the 1960s — ordeals through fire, water, poison, etc. How the characters in Tantu face or evade or pervert ordeals makes for an independent study. However, because these ordeals no longer exist in their traditional form in the India of Tantu doesn’t mean that the value, notion and the reality of ordeal has disappeared. It has merely changed attire. Thus, the novel starkly shows how, for the contemporary urban Indian, maintaining integrity in perilous situations is itself an ordeal. But the source of his danger is not fire or poison but Government. This Government is the omnipresent and omnipotent fount of all evil and its facelessness makes it fatal. Even worse, there is no redress. 

Like in all other novels of Dr. Bhyrappa, the real God of Tantu is hidden in all such deliciously maddening details. We shall explore some of these major themes in the episodes that follow.

To be continued 

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