10 February 2018

Book Review: Yashwant Chittal's Shikari

Bombay High

My review of Yashwant Chittal's classic novel Shikari, translated from the Kannada by Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger:

Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger's long overdue English translation makes it clear why Shikari, originally published in 1979, is perhaps acclaimed Kannada writer Yashwant Chittal's best-known novel. Offbeat and absorbing, it provides a stirring portrait of urban Bombay, and a rare insight into Indian corporate life under the Licence Permit Raj.
Chittal's narrator Nagappa (often modernised to Nagnath, and further to Nag) was born, like the author, in a village called Hanehalli in Karnataka's Uttara Kannada, and his memories often take him back there. But it is in the Bombay bylanes of Khetwadi, Prarthana Samaj, Charni Road, Grant Road, Chowpatty and Dhobi Talao that the novel unfolds -- largely on foot, with Nagappa's distracted meanderings often guiding his thoughts. Passing the Communist Party press reminds him of health hazards at his company's Hyderabad factory; buying the Times of India sets him dreaming of an alternative life as a news-stall-owner. He responds to urban stimuli like an automaton: buying a bus ticket to Worli makes him realize he is going to see his friend Sitaram.

Together with Shantinath Desai and Jayant Kaikini, Chittal formed a triad of post-independence Kannada writers for whom Bombay defined urbanity. A superb new translation of Kaikini's Bombay stories, under the title No Presents Please, came out in November 2017. Shikari is Chittal's big Bombay novel, and his fine-grained observations feel like an ode to its streets, even when its narrator is at his most anxious. But the familiarity of the chawl and the neighbourhood, Chittal suggests, can turn into oppressive social surveillance. And economic rise does not guarantee belonging: neither Nag nor his bete noire Shrinivasa are confident of retaining their social status.

If Shikari is presciently pessimistic about urban alienation, it is downright depressing on the inner life of the corporation. Despite a century and a half of industrial modernity, the white-collar workplace isn't a frequent Indian literary setting: off the top of my head, I think of Krishna Sobti's Yaaron Ke Yaar (1968) and Amitabha Bagchi's The Householder (2012), both vivid portraits of corruption in government offices. Shikari is about corporate intrigue in a Bombay world that feels contemporary in some ways – say, its liberal use of jargon like MD, DMD, R&D – but not in others: the only women in Nagappa's working world are secretaries, receptionists or airhostesses, who are either Parsi, Anglo-Indian or Goan Christian.

Shikari references Kafka's The Trial on page one, and yes, both books contain an unspecified crime and erotically charged encounters with most of the female characters. But Nagappa's paranoia also brings to mind Bob Slocum, the manager narrator of Joseph Heller's 1974 novel Something Happened, for whom, too, the office is a space of dread. The relentless mutual suspicion that forms the matrix of Shikari, though, is informed by sexual hypocrisy and naked appeals to caste and community. The transparency of those factors in this supposedly modern white-collar milieu makes this a tragically Indian classic.

An edited version of this review was published in India Today, 9 Feb 2018.

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