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The man who saw the future: Yashwant Chittal and his place in modern Indian literature

The city — as a place of immense possibility and wrenching displacement — made only a fleeting appearance in Kannada literature in the decades after Independence. In the 1970s, Bengaluru was more Malgudi than Mumbai, more a sleepy town of towering rain trees and slow living than the city it burst into three decades later. For readers, a foretaste of life in a teeming metropolis came in Shikari, a novel written in 1979 by one of the most important Kannada writers and modernists, Yashwant Chittal. “To read Chittal is to see the whole nightmare and vision of a city,” says Girish Karnad, writer, filmmaker and playwright.

That nightmare is seen through the eyes of Nagappa, the protagonist of Shikari, an engineer at the peak of his career in a chemicals company in Bombay. The novel begins, dramatically, by shoving Nagappa right into a mysterious ordeal: “As the situation he found himself in began to make some sense to Nagappa, he recalled K, the hero of Kafka’s novel The Trial that he had read years ago. Just like it had happened with K, somebody must be spreading false rumours about him.” Those rumours have led him to be suspended from his job on “serious charges” that have not been specified. As the novel proceeds, Nagappa is swept away by a swirl of paranoia and conspiracy in a cut-throat, competitive world in which nothing is as it seems to be. In an essay written for the Outlook magazine in 2012, author Aravind Adiga had described Shikari as a searing Bombay novel, and Chittal as a novelist “who has captured the city as well as Suketu Mehta or Salman Rushdie”. An English translation of the novel, Shikari: The Hunt, published by Penguin Random House, releases this month.

So, who was Chittal? What is his place in modern Indian literature? How does he imagine an urban modernity? Was he the man who saw tomorrow?

Yashwant Chittal was born in Hanehalli village in Uttara Kannada district in August, 1928, in a family of remarkable talent — the eldest of five brothers, Damodar, was a lawyer and politician; Gangadhar, five years older than Yashwant, was one of the finest modern Kannada poets.

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The Ballad Of Babel

A truly first-rate novel of the corporate workplace hardly exists in Indian literature; equally rare is a novel of sustained psychological intensity. A book that combines these qualities, hence, should be greeted by much acclaim. The odd thing is that there has been just such a novel around for years, and hardly anyone seems to know about it. Published in 1979, Yashwant Chittal’s Kannada novel Shikari tells the story of Nagnath, a migrant from north Karnataka who has risen to a high-ranking position in a chemicals corporation in Bombay. When the novel begins, Nagnath has just been plunged into the biggest crisis of his adult life: he has been suspended from his job for an unknown offence. Eventually, he discovers that he is accused of complicity in a fire that has killed three people in the company’s factory in Hyderabad. Nagnath is a brilliant, if somewhat eccentric, chemical engineer, who has been warning his superiors about safety issues in the factory: someone has set him up for a fall. This is the shikar of modern-day India, where Darwinian instincts of aggression and self-preservation have migrated into the business world. As he slides into a world of corporate intrigue and paranoia, rife with accusatory letters, secret alliances, and messages of sympathy from unexpected sources, Nagnath becomes convinced that he has been framed by his firm’s deputy managing director, the aptly named Phiroz Bandookwala—although why Bandookwala wants to destroy him is still a mystery.

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