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Book Review - Tejo Tungabhadra: Tributaries in Time

by Ananya Sarkar
(Kolkata, India)

Translated by Maithreyi Karnoor
Tejo Tungabhadra
Penguin 2022
ISBN 978-0-670-09618-3
Pages 445, Price INR 699

Exploring the Problematic Past

Bestselling Kannada writer Vasudhendra’s latest book in English translation Tejo Tungabhadra: Tributaries in Time is a historical fiction that is as deep as it is expansive. The book spans a vast canvas of time and space – from the late fifteenth century to early sixteenth century, all the way from Lisbon in Portugal to Goa and present-day Hampi (then Vijaynagara) in India. It takes us through a journey in time where we witness the impact of imperial expansion and societal dictates on common people.

There are primarily two strands of narrative that run simultaneously: one involving Gabriel (Christian) and Bella (Jew) in Portugal and the other with Keshava (Vaishnavite or worshipper of Vishnu) and Hampamma (Shaivite or worshipper of Shiva) in Tembakkapura near Vijaynagara. As the story progresses, several characters, incidents, and events come into play and we get a close-up view of the trials and tribulations of ordinary people in the name of religion, caste, trade, ambition, and societal perceptions of respectability.

The novel is set at a time when Vasco da Gama found a route to India, the country of spices and other splendors in wealth. Consequently, as opulence starts flowing in to Portugal, there is a mad rush among young men to be sailors on ships trade-bound to India. When Gabriel is insulted for his humble means, he leaves for India, determined to earn wealth and respect. Life, however, pans out differently for him.

This was also a time when Europe was in the midst of the Jewish refugee crisis and anti-Semitist sentiment was rife. Jews are subject to groundless suspicion, injustice and hatred, and compelled to convert to Christianity to survive, as seen through Bella's family. But it is not only Europe that witnesses compulsive religious conversion. In India, stranded Portuguese sailors, bereft of rations, seek refuge under the Sultan of Bijapur and embrace Islam in exchange for being fed and clothed. It shows how basic survival reigns supreme over any other manmade construct.

People in power such as kings and generals only rise above religion when there is a mercenary interest involved. Thus, King Joao of Portugal invites displaced Jews to settle in his country as they are good at business and expected to bring prosperity. Similarly, King Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara readily befriends the Christian Portuguese generals as they supply valuable cannons and horses for war. The ordinary people are often caught in the wave of pervasive sentiments, but there exist moving instances when the human bond shines through, be it through love, friendship or simple heartfelt ingenuity.

There is no protagonist in the novel as such. Vasudhendra posits the rivers Tejo in Lisbon and Tungabhadra in Tembakkapura and Vijayanagara as silent witnesses to the actions of man within a so-called civilized society. The rivers surface in the lives of the characters unobtrusively, becoming a part of their mundane routine as well as attaining a prominent role during momentous events. Societal norms such as the practice of sati and pledging one’s life for the fulfillment of another’s wish are brought to the fore. We also observe the society’s perceptions of a devadasi (temple dancer), a sati (a widow who sacrifices herself in her husband’s funeral pyre) and matters that fall within the self-construct of propriety. The plight of women in both war-ravaged areas and peaceful towns are pitiable, with patriarchal mores everywhere.

The narrative style is engaging and easily draws the reader into the storyline. Vasudhendra gives a background story of all the characters that play a prominent role in various sections of the novel, which helps to make the ambit a composite one. Also, most of the characters are well-rounded, making them interesting and hard to forget. One of the most remarkable aspects of the author’s storytelling is the way he unspools the reason behind Ammadkhanna fishing all day in the Tungabhadra only to release them to the water again. At the end, he deftly ties together all threads of the story to bring it to a satisfying close.

Maithreyi Karnoor does a great job at translation and the prose exudes a lyrical quality at times. For instance, the description of moonlight on the ocean while Gabriel is on voyage runs thus:

“It was night and most of the sailors were asleep. The light of the full moon had drenched the whole ocean in a milky gleam. When moonbeams reach land unfettered by buildings and other structures, it creates a most sublime effect. But on the water, the full moon was reflected on every rising wave turning the whole ocean into a chandelier of thousands of moons.” page 230

At times, certain sentences have an aphoristic quality, such as Ammadkhanna’s observation on the religion of the inner spirit: “Heaven and hell are a matter of perception. One man’s heaven is another man’s hell. We must choose our own heavens based on our situations and goals in life. And others must respect that.” page 439 At another point, when Keshava expresses his fear in venturing to Vijayanagara to seek his fortune, his father says: “There is no event bigger than the resolve of the human mind.” page 89 Such nuggets of profound philosophy add to the reading experience.

The use of native Indian terms like “dhoti”, a garment worn in the lower part of the body by male Hindus (page 430) and the names of Vijayanagara’s currency coins of the time (page 115) help to retain the authenticity of the Indian context. There are, however, a couple of sentences where a typographical error has occurred – the word “new” is used instead of “knew” on pages 347 and 363. Barring that, the reading is a smooth and enjoyable process.

All in all, Vasudhendra weaves in history and politics with storytelling to create an overarching tale of love, ambition and suffering in Tejo Tungabhadra. This was originally published in Kannada in 2020 and became vastly popular, running into eleven editions. Its translation into English in 2022 is a welcome move.

The author’s earlier English translations comprise Mohanaswamy (trans. In 2016), depicting the stigmatization and ostracism of the titular gay character and The Unforgiving City and Other Stories (trans. in 2021), a collection of short fiction capturing the rapidly changing modern India. Tejo Tungabhadra takes a new direction – a telescopic view of the past in all its granular detail.


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