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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Devanoora Mahadeva

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To purchase Kusumabale

Title: Kusumabale
Author: Devanoora Mahadeva
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 137 pages
Original in: Kannada
Availability: Kusumabale - US
Kusumabale - UK
Kusumabale - Canada
Kusumabale - India
  • Kannada title: ಕುಸುಮಬಾಲೆ
  • Translated and with a Note by Susan Daniel
  • With an Author's Note
  • With an Introduction by Vivek Shanbhag
  • Sahitya Akademi Award - Kannada (1990); translation into English (2019)

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Our Assessment:

B : challenging, but has its rewards

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hindu . 1/8/2015 Bageshree S.
Indian Express . 16/5/2015 P.D.C.Shobhi
New Indian Express . 5/11/2015 S.R.Ramakrishna

  From the Reviews:
  • "It moves back and forward in time and space, between prose and poetry, and between realistic and mythical narratives. (...) Typically, Mahadeva stretches the standard Kannada syntax to an extreme, as he jumps from prose to poetry. His style banks on extreme brevity of description, chant-like rhythms, and long evocative sentences densely packed with phrases. (...) The translation is particularly remarkable in dealing with lyrical prose passages, poetry and irony. It is humour that occasionally seems to trip the flow." - Bageshree S., The Hindu

  • "Here, Mahadeva eschewed a linear narrative, created spirits and other extra humans as significant characters and introduced an element of the fantastic to the narrative. He dissolved the boundaries of poetry and prose, with the narrative language and descriptive style being quite similar to the rhythm and language used in folk epics, particularly the Male Mahadeshvara epic. (...) The novel demands the fashioning of a new literary language in English, one that can capture the lyrical quality of long complex Kannada sentences (or stanzas as pointed out above) and recognise the subject of each sentence. If Susan Daniel's translation doesn't capture the literary historical dimensions of the novel, that's because she has chosen to be pragmatic and prioritised readability in English. Her choices, however, flatten Mahadeva's true linguistic innovation. Yet Daniel has produced a competent and eminently readable translation" - Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi, Indian Express

  • "In style, the Kannada original is so distinctive that many readers were confounded. Since 1988, the book has gone into 15 reprints, so that initial response has made way for much appreciation. (...) Kusumabale is charmingly and unapologetically sing-song, and draws inspiration from the idiom of the Neelagara story-tellers. Mahadeva's narrative also taps into a dialect confined to parts of southern Karnataka. Yet, Kusumabale is more than a dialect, more than a heroic ballad. Complex characters from today's world weave in and out of four story strands. It is a book crafted closely and lovingly, a delight to anyone who loves the cadences of words. (...) Without doubt, Kusumabale is an unparalleled work of literary-musical art, a classic with no parallel. Readers of this translation will get a drift of the original, even if some of the linguistic playfulness is lost." - S.R.Ramakrishna, New Indian Express

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A the beginning of Kusumabale a 'The People You'll Meet'-character-list is divided into "The Upper Castes" and "The Untouchables", suggesting already the factions if not the specific conflict(s) of the novel. As to what is arguably the central event of the novel, that is already summarized -- in the present tense, emphasizing its immediacy -- in what is essentially the opening chapter:

Following the birth of Kusuma's child, Kusuma and Channa's secret affair is out in the open, and Channa is done to death, and no one is in the know.
       As the cast of characters reveals, Kusumabale (Kusuma) is of the upper caste, and Channa an untouchable. But the upper caste cast of characters begins with Kusumabale's great-grandmother, and the novel too actually begins with a paragraph of family history, beginning with that great-grandmother, Akkamadevi, who returned to her parental home with a child, Yaada -- born twelve months after her husband's death ("to a bond servant 'twas said"), an original sin that already reveals the family's hypocrisy years later.
       Akkamadevi was not welcomed with open arms, but she established herself -- beginning with a tea-stall business -- and that branch of the family became the most successful: first son Yaada, then his son Somappa -- Kusumabale's father --, who would become: "the big man of the village". Shifting back and forth in time and focus in its short chapters, Kusumabale is not family chronicle, but even in its quick brushstroke descriptions of events gives a good impression of the succession of generations. There is Yaada, early on expressing dissatisfaction with following in his mother's business and suggesting he'd be better suited to take on livestock: "on a contract that I'll graze and multiply them; and I'll prosper -- just like that" -- meeting with success, but also at a cost. Yaada marries off his son to a woman adopted by a well-to-do family -- "seeing the image of his mother in her". The large family -- Kusuma is the "only daughter in a line of seven sons" -- includes one last son, but: "Parsada (God's gift) was born an idiot child", his parents ruing: "the day he was born"; a by-stander of sorts in much of the novel this nevertheless makes him more of a presence than many of the other figures; an innocent, he is a kind of blank-slate character, as opposed to the more purposeful others -- allowing Mahadeva effective scenes such as:
     And though no one heeded his call, he kept calling; and passerby smiled or grieved -- each one as he saw it.
       A similar panorama of untouchables is also on offer, including glimpses of Channa trying to establishing a place and identity for himself, after his attempts at getting an education only got so far:
At the end of it all his tussle with the English language had left him aimless, and adrift, with no BA -- that two-letter degree ! Fretful that his hungry belly would betray the swagger in his walk, he was now content to stick around with leftovers that his brothers (on bonded labour) brought home.
       Episodes include those surrounding Channa's uncle, Garesidda, called to account for having taken sixteen coconuts -- the debate being whether it was theft or justifiable. This is one instance of the class differences and conflicts -- the haves and the have-nots, and their different interpretations of what is right and proper -- which feature, in many variations, throughout the book as its underlying theme.
       It is a deep-rooted and knotted conflict: as is noted about the upper-caste men, even in contemporary times:
Their knowledge is not something they've come to on their own. You mustn't forget that their blood holds the remembrance of things past ! Of generations gone by. Even if they wished to forget, think their blood will ?
       The tension is palpable throughout -- but carefully handled by Mahadeva. The expectation is, from practically the first page, that the circumstances around how: "Channa is done to death" will feature prominently, yet his affair with Kusuma, and his fate, are not explicitly at the fore of the novel. Instead, more space is devoted, for example, to episodes such as the trial and treatment of Garesidda and his taking of the coconuts.
       There's some chronology to Kusumabale, but the novel also shifts back and forth across time. The chapters are short -- only a few pages each -- and typically are open-ended even in their headings: 'as if he'd guessed what went on ...' or 'contradictionn ...' (though some also suggest the more absolute: 'Channa comes alive' or, simply: 'Now'). Some verse is interspersed with the prose, and the prose itself tends to the poetic; as the introductory pieces all note, the narrative is challenging as far as language goes, even already in the original Kannada -- including because Mahadeva uses regional dialect --, and all the more so in an English translation that can only capture some of the original effects. It makes for a narrative that is by no means easy to read -- though the short chapters make for manageable and quite readily digestible bites, especially in often honing in on particular details, events, or characters. The larger whole -- even as it isn't all that large, simply considered page-wise -- is a more complex tapestry, all the more so for surely being unfamiliar in its compositional form to most readers.
       Kusumabale is an unusual novel, and makes considerable demands on the reader -- practically requiring a different frame of mind simply in the process of reading, rather than plowing through as one might the usual novel. There are rewards, however, for those who are able to go along with this unusual text and its flow, and that on many levels, from successful lyrical details to powerful scenes and episodes all the way to the underlying dark social tensions running through it all.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 May 2020

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Kusumabale: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Kannada-writing author Devanoora Mahadeva (ದೇವನೂರು ಮಹಾದೇವ) was born in 1948.

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