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Moments of epiphany

One of Karnataka's major literary figures, P. Lankesh (1935-2000) began his writing career with the genre of the short story. His first collection of short stories, Kereya Neeranu Kerege Challi, was published in 1963. This was followed by several more collections of short stories, three novels, three volumes of poetry, several plays, as well as critical essays and translations, notably of Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal" and Sophocles.

Popular force

He was also a theatre person and a filmmaker, with his 1977 film "Pallavi" winning the national award for best direction in that year. Apart from all these, Lankesh is remembered also for his contribution to contemporary journalism in the form of his weekly, Lankesh Patrike, which he launched in 1980, and which became a popular force to contend with in the world of letters.

Kallu Karaguva Samaya (When Stone Melts), was first published in 1990 and is his fourth collection of stories. Ten translators have translated these stories for this edition, which forms a part of Sahitya Akademi's series of award-winning Kannada short stories. Although one could have wished for somewhat less unevenness in the translations, the exuberance of Lankesh's prose shines out of virtually every story.

Many facets

At their best, these stories bring together the variegated facets of Lankesh's personality and his constant engagement with the people and the world around him. As Vanamala Vishwanatha tells us in her introduction, Lankesh was so rooted to his home landscape (he never left the country) that he even asked his friend, the theatre director B.V. Karanth, who was moving to Bhopal, "Why don't you stay back here, content, eating lemon rice?"

At the same time, as Vishwanatha points out, Lankesh's outlook reaches out into the universal. He is interested in the ways in which men and women interact with each other, with the State, and with the earth. In "Gratitude", a single woman, who had once been a student of literature, opens a bookshop when her general store fails. She is amused that Harold Robbins and Vatsyayana sell "like puffed rice"; and then, out of curiosity, she begins to read them; and as she does, she is slowly drawn into a strange, nameless relationship with her shop assistant. The story traces her conflicting desires, the loneliness and the independence that pull her in different directions.

In "A Door", the wealthy narrator supervises the construction of his house in his mango orchard. One of the labourers, an old woman, begs for a door for the hut she has built. The narrator impulsively decides to have a teakwood door made for her, with a frame; and this becomes a project, with the narrator obsessing about it, issuing complicated instructions, and generally brandishing his generosity at his staff. Another story, "The Officers and the Worker", is a marvellous if bleak satire on the world of the bureaucracy.

"When Stone Melts", the title story and the best in the collection, is set in a sylvan setting, with a lake and kedige flowers; but it is also "a violent, bloody village", the kind of place where "Panchayat sessions were occasions for burning wrongdoers at the stake."

Changing faces of Karnataka

Filled with quiet interior moments as well as violent external events, these stories describe the changing face of Karnataka, its rural and urban landscapes, working-class and middle-class, traditional and contemporary. Explaining the title of the collection, Vishwanatha tells us of the Kannada saying that the dead of night is the time when stone and water melt; and so Kallu Karaguva Samaya, when stone melts, is the moment of mystery at the heart of every transformation. It is a moment of epiphany, and there are several such moments in this collection.

When Stone Melts and Other Stories, P.Lankesh, edited by Vanamala Vishwanatha, Sahitya Akademi, p.178, Rs. 75.

UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA

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