Naked in Deccan by Venkatesh Kulkarni (Stemmer House: $13.50)
"Naked in Deccan" is a comedy set in a Hindu village the way the television networks like to set comedies in a small Southern backwater.
Instead of a pudgy sheriff we have portly Police Marya, the son of a son of a policeman, who has been intimidating a village in the Deccan desert for generations. Instead of a plucky farm boy hero, we have Thimma, a low-caste Harijan, or untouchable, who succeeds in spite of the odds.
I won't belabor the analogy, but it is appropriate--the author of this short novel is an American born in India, and he brings to his study of village politics in the India of Mahatma Gandhi a distinctly American perspective.
Don't let that put you off. This is a good story about India, and utterly unlike anything else you're likely to find about the subcontinent. Kulkarni writes with a warm humanity and uplifts his characters even as he laughs at them.
We meet Thimma as a bright boy in the village school. As a Harijan, of course, he must sit on the floor and give way to his betters in everything. But even as a boy, he is a consummate politician and soon worms his way into the good graces of the village bigwig, a Brahmin known as the Master.
The Master adopts Thimma as a son, but after 40 years of friendship, he still won't touch him. For his part, Thimma skims a little off the Master's revenues. Everything would be just fine if it weren't for Police Marya, who grows from naughty child to lecherous bully. When Thimma marries, Marya sleeps with his wife and dishonors him in the village. In the face of humiliation, Thimma backs down--justifying his own weakness and inaction with a vague set of ideals imported from Delhi, where Mahatma Gandhi is saying all kinds of amazing things.
These are the same vague ideals that eventually come to destroy not only Thimma, but the whole fabric of village life.
We feel for Thimma, but this is a study of situation, not of character: Kulkarni is the Sinclair Lewis of India, at once satirizing and nostalgically idealizing small-town life.
A Quirky Tone
The tone is quirky and the syntax is bizarre--at least to anyone who has never read an Indian newspaper. Apparently this first novel was turned down by 375 publishers before it found its way into print, and you can understand why anyone would be hesitant to publish sentences such as: "Thimma remembered the thorn trees. Sparse as they were by the river bend, they were sufficient to conceal the married couple who wanted to behave like lovers."
Beyond the distinctly Indian English, the characters have a curious tendency to launch into naive political essays in the middle of impassioned soliloquies. It's as if they were all working at history books on the side:
"Why do you taunt your poor wife's cousins for becoming Christians?" the Master asks at one point. "We haven't done any better by them. We have taken every bit of religion and made it stand on its head. We have caused the unholy mixture of philosophy and sociology for more than a thousand years now and we have claimed quite mendaciously that God, our Hindu God, wanted it that way . . ."
Odd but wonderful tidbits like that crop up on every page.
The main thing on everyone's mind is the caste system, and they are all remarkably objective about it--like soldiers discussing rank in a military comedy. These are not the half-conscious slaves we like to picture in Indian villages.
A Curious Mix
Most perversely, perhaps, for an Indian novelist, Venkatesh Kulkarni has written a book for neither Indians nor Britons--but for Americans.
He has written for an audience that will probably never see more of India than it can glimpse through movies like "Gandhi," or at best "Passage to India."
"Thimma, listen to me today," the Master says. "The world is improving so fast and in some ways, so well. There must be something more than mere vulgar materialism to all the scientific progress that the Americans have made in advancing the longevity of their people."
This is a novel written by a "vulgar American" with great nostalgia for that time just before the tidal wave of progress hit India. As such, it is a curious mix of humor and tragedy, anachronism and farce.