U.R. Ananthamurthy's Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man is a classic of Indian Literature. Published in 1965 and translated from the Kannada by A.K. Ramanujan it was made into a controversial film in 1970, which I am curious to watch (I think the full movie can be accessed via YouTube). I'm curious, too, why the film is controversial, though in the translator's introduction it is never explicitly stated (I can imagine why to some degree). It is a short novel (novella length really) that comes complete with detailed notes at the end as well as an afterword and "conversation" with the author in my NYRB Classics edition.
The story opens with (and concerns itself with through the whole text) the death of a brahmin, who has strayed very far from his religious ways. He has led a dissolute and dissipated life.
"The news of death spread like a fire to the other ten houses of the agrahara. Doors and windows were shut, with children inside. By god's grace, no brahmin had yet eaten. Not a human soul there felt a pang at Naranappa's death, not even women or children. Still in everyone's heart an obscure fear, an unclean anxiety. Alive, Naranappa was an enemy; dead, a preventer of meals; as a corpse, a problem, a nuisance."
You see before life can continue on, death rites must be said. Naranappa had no children and had been living with a courtesan, eating meat, drinking liquor and living an impious and impure life. There is no one to perform the rites and to see that his body is properly cremated. Until this is done, no one else can eat. As the villagers pose the question of "who" will perform the rites, the real question, they believe: "is he a brahmin at all? What do you say? --He slept regularly with a lowcaste woman . . ." So maybe they are all off the hook. No one will touch him, however, for fear or sullying their own hands and souls.
All eyes turn to Praneshacharya who is the holiest of the villagers, a guru and religious leader whose lifestyle is the polar opposite of Naparanappa's. Praneshacharya has devoted his life to caring for his ill wife for which he must do everything. Perhaps he only married her in order to lead a life of total piety and asceticism. What better way to live a life of selflessness. But everyone dithers, including Praneshacharya. So either undertaking the death rites, or finding someone who can and is willing becomes a moral dilemma.
As the hours and days pass everything begins to break down. The carefully lived lives of the villagers become more and more conflicted as hunger sets in. Some begin eating on the sly, gorging themselves. Maybe it is simply chance, a trick of nature or maybe it is symbolic and things begin to fester--quite literally as a plague arrives and the villagers begin to drop. Praneshacharya sets off to find answers to this moral dilemma and then it turns into a trial by fire almost as his own belief system is challenged. The holiest, the selfless are challenged in their own moral code and when no one is looking they are almost as bad as Naranappa, so he serves as a mirror really.
This is a story that is rich in symbolism, steeped in religious allegory and ethical questions (not so many answers) and if you peel back all the layers can find all sorts of morals to the story. Not being especially well read in Indian history or philosophy (or culture or religion!) this is a story that I think would take several readings to really appreciate and understand well. It's not difficult reading, but there is a lot to think about. It is a story I am not sure I could ever feel really warm and fuzzy about but it is one I very much appreciate having read and am glad to have been exposed to. It has been called a "masterpiece of world literature" and compared to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart as well as Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North, neither of which I have read (but are now on my mental reading list).
Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man was the January selection for the NYRB Classics book club. It was certainly a timely read set alongside Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, not thematically so much as culturally. I am not sure I would ever have picked this one up on my own, but my horizons have certainly been widened on the reading of this classic novel.