Shikari is Chittal’s big Bombay novel, an ode to its streets
Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger’s long overdue English translation makes it clear why Shikari, originally published in 1979, is perhaps acclaimed Kannada writer Yashwant Chittal’s bestknown novel. Offbeat and absorbing, it provides a stirring portrait of urban Bombay, and a rare insight into Indian corporate life under the Licence Permit Raj.
Chittal’s narrator Nagappa (often modernised to Nagnath, and further to
Nag) was born, like the author, in Hanehalli village in Karnataka, and his memories often take him back there. But the novel unfolds in the Bombay bylanes of Khetwadi, Prarthana Samaj, Charni Road, Grant Road, Chowpatty and Dhobi Talao—as Nagappa’s distracted meanderings guide his thoughts. Passing the Communist Party press reminds him of health hazards at his company’s Hyderabad factory. Buying the Times of India sets him dreaming of an alternative life as a news stall owner.
He responds to urban stimuli like an automaton: buying a bus ticket to Worli makes him realise he is going to see his friend Sitaram. Together with Shantinath Desai and Jayant Kaikini, Chittal formed a triad of post-independence Kannada writers for whom Bombay defined urbanity.
Shikari is Chittal’s big Bombay novel, and his fine-grained observations feel like an ode to its streets, even when its narrator is at his most anxious. However, the familiarity of the chawl and the neighbourhood, Chittal suggests, can turn into oppressive social surveillance. And economic rise does not guarantee belonging: neither Nag nor his bete noire Shrinivasa is confident of retaining his social status.
If Shikari is presciently pessimistic about urban alienation, it is downright depressing on the inner life of the corporation. Despite a century-and-a-half of industrial modernity, the white-collar workplace isn’t a frequent Indian literary setting. Krishna Sobti’s Yaaron Ke Yaar (1968) and Amitabha Bagchi’s The Householder (2012) vividly portray corruption in government offices.
Shikari is about corporate intrigue in a Bombay that feels contemporary in some ways— say, in use of jargon like MD, DMD, R&D—but not in others: the only women in Nag’s working world are secretaries, receptionists or air hostesses, who are either Parsi, Anglo-Indian or Goan Christian.
The relentless mutual suspicion in Shikari is informed by sexual hypocrisy and naked appeals to caste and community. Their presence in this ‘modern’ white-collar milieu makes this a tragically Indian classic.
by YASHWANT SHIKARI CHITTAL Tr. Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger Penguin `399; pp 352