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Jul '21 & Jan '22



Reading versus Interpretation: The Problem of Interpreting Indian Fiction under Critical Theory with reference to the Novel ‘Daatu, Crossing Over’ by S. L. Bhyrappa

Dr. Prasanna A. Deshpande, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Fergusson College, Pune



The present paper aims to unfold how the emphatic methods of the Critical Theory as the interpretative templates problematize the reading and understanding of Indian works of literature.  Initially, the paper discusses the absolutist way the paradigm of Critical Theory is fostered as a necessary process of literary interpretation and literary criticism. The argument further develops into an observation of how the cultural, epistemological deliberations of Critical Theory cannot necessarily be recognised as the holistic approaches to the study of Indian literature. The paper also aims to argue how the novels of Bhyrappa reflect upon the Indian culture with an ethos from that of Western world, a location where the Critical Theory originated and proliferated. In conclusion, the paper observes how the propagation of Critical and Literary Theories in the academics of literature as an ‘interpretative tool’ leads to certain judgemental view of Indian culture.

Keywords: Critical Theory, Reading, Interpretative Deliberations, Epistemology, Culture, Indian Literature, Novels, Application



A novel is a story.  The microcosmic representation of human life and of the world renders a novel the quality of speculative, conceptual narrativization of life itself. The speculations, conceptualisation, nattarativization made by a novelist through the creative interlacing of all the elements of the novel, generate a view of life and of the world. Each novel offers a distinct view of life and of the world. This makes the world of fiction dynamic. This dynamism of life presented in novel is best understood by reading it with an open mind. The preoccupation with a theory, dogma or a philosophy influences the interpretation of a novel. It blurs the reading of the novel.

The Novel is definitely a form of literature that originated, developed and proliferated in the West.  Its presence in Indian Literature in English is due to the aesthetic, intellectual, cultural and literary aftereffects of Colonisation. The form has influenced Indian Novel written in many Indian languages as well as those written in English or translated into English. It is obvious that the structural, technical aspects of the form of Novel continue being incorporated into the Indian Novel in English or Indian Novel in English Translation. However, a novel is far beyond just a structure or technique. Besides being a work of art and a work of literature created and read for pleasure and entertainment, the novel can be read, analysed and interpreted as a cultural conduit. This cultural enforcement of novel comes from its reflections on the life of characters presented in a particular cultural context. Since a novel is essentially a story about humans, various humans bound to each other in a particular context of a country, times, society and culture; directly or indirectly, it tells us a lot about the cultural milieu, the cultural conflicts, ways of life and other features of the society which figures into the novel. In this regard, it can be said that the interpretative, critical approaches which are founded on and originated into certain epistemological, cultural, social, political, linguistic and psychoanalytical philosophies, methods and techniques must have some ‘cultural continuity’ with the particular literary texts or works which are ‘interpreted’ under the light of these approaches. The Critical Theory Tradition which makes firm cultural deliberations on human society draws a lot of its substance from the Western world. It requires no close analysis to observe that the basic principles of Postmodernism, Postcolonial Theory, Feminism, Neo-Historicism, Poststructuralist approach etc. are formed by the thinkers, critics and philosophers whose essential source of consciousness was that part of the world which they belonged to.  Europe and the entire western world becomes the focal point here. Quite naturally, the cultural, social, civilizational perceptions and perspectives made under a particular theory refer back to the culture of the location of inception of the theory.

Paradigm of the Critical Theory

The emergence of the Critical Theory as a conjectural body substantiating the understanding of literature vis-à-vis the particular theoretical perspectives has undoubtedly made literary studies a dynamic academic pursuit. The Postmodernist and Poststructuralist approaches to literature have practically opened up all possibilities of a vibrantly and vitally interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary analysis of literature. However, the Critical Theory driven hermeneutics has established the paradigm of ‘reading a literary work in the light of a theory’ to such a great extent that ‘reading’ is now mainly an activity of ‘interpreting’ and interpreting with a standpoint. These standpoints or perspectives have granted the ‘interpretative force’ to these theories so much so that the outcome of a critical or analytical study of a work of literature will be often predetermined even before the analytical process is completed. For example, the ‘critical’ reading of the play ‘The Tempest’ in the light of the Postcolonial Theory is bound to be concluded with ‘foregrounding’ of such discursive elements in the ever relishing Romance which refer back to the basic principles of the theory in function. Most these principles commit themselves to an often misleading exposition of the dichotomous relationship between different values or ideas that a literary work generates. Likewise, the Feminist reading of a literary work may commit itself only with the revelation of the elements comprised by the school of thought into the process of analysis. Such a theory-specific ‘renarrativization’ or attribution of a literary text may make the study a revolutionary enterprise but the determinedness of the thought processes to be located into a literary work limits the range of the text’s own expansive potential. This happens largely as a result of ‘applying a particular theory to a work of literature’ or reading literature in the context of the perspectival substance provided by a theory. Indeed, it is the ‘context’ of the theory that determines the understanding of the ‘content’ of learning. The ‘density’ of the theory determines the ‘destiny’ of the study. This critique of reading of literature in the light of a pre-existing theory as ‘an analytical exercise of Critical Theory specific conclusions’ mainly undertakes an inquiry into the problems of presupposition determining the interpretations of a literary text.  In other words, the present argument ideates the novel as a source of a theory reflecting upon the human life with most its aspects, the cultural, psychological, philosophical, and political unlike what the Critical Theory tradition would normalise- the application of a theory to a literary text thereby reaching conclusions determined by the theory itself. The ‘liberating’ principle of Critical Theory could also be extended to the theory itself opening up the possibility of reading of literature beyond the hegemony of the theory.

Expanse of the Critical Theory

The amalgamation of some tenets of a particular theory and a literary work might make the study and its outcome very vigorous and dynamic. However, this exercise cuts down the ‘art’ in literature to a mere ‘content’ to be filled in the ‘vessel’ of a theory. The emphasis on conformity to the standpoints of a particular theory in the process of analysis of a work of literature has locked the theories in a space of privilege. The ‘emancipatory’ agenda of Critical Theory, due to its inexorable expanse, has ironically constricted the scope of literary study and research as the ‘reverberations of theory’. The logical explication of ideas and principles under theories ranging from Formalism, Structuralism, Post-Modernism, Post-structuralism, Post –Colonialism, Feminism, New Historicism, Cultural Materialism, Archetypal Criticism, Feminist Criticism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, Reader-Response Criticism to Marxist Criticism have unquestionably challenged and subverted the epistemological foundationalism of the Enlightenment tradition. They have strongly offered a much varied and vivacious alternative methodology of literary criticism to the traditional, monophonic, biographical criticism often dwindling into ‘intentional fallacy’. The theories have subverted the authoritarian, foundationalist approaches to literature by establishing the alternative paradigm of reading literature in a much larger social, political, cultural , political contexts, thus, enhancing the compass and scale of significance of literature. Challenging the predominance and ‘centrality’ of a structure and resisting the ‘certainty’ of Modernism, the theories have reigned supreme in the realm of literary studies and research. However, this ‘supremacy’ of Critical and Literary Theories in the practice of literary studies has also made literary research an activity of drawing predestined conclusions. Breaking the framework of Humanist, Biographical, Positivist, Structural, Modernist traditions, the Critical Theories and Literary Theories have reflexively constructed a framework. If the theory of Post-Structuralism contested the epistemological foundationalism of ‘certainty’, it has come to establish the foundationalism of ‘uncertainty’. If the foundationalist epistemology of Enlightenment and Humanism narrowed the discursive possibilities of literature and made them judgemental and biographical emphasizing the ‘universality of truth’, the Post-Modernist and Post-Structuralist, anti- foundationalist avant-garde came to establish the epistemological supremacy of the ‘universality of untruth’. If the Enlightenment and Humanist epistemology was foundationalist, the Critical Theory, Literary Theory is anti-foundationalist.

The self-privileging contriving of the consolidation of Marxism, Feminism, Post-Structuralism, Post-Modernism is known as Theory. Theory came into prominence as an American variant of French fashion of epistemology deriving primarily from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. These writers tried to prove through their writings that what we know as reality, morality, values, the self, traditional literature, classics of work of art are merely “cultural constructions that serve to legitimize an oppressive social order. We suppose that we think our own thoughts, but it is really our oppressive culture’s discourse speaking through us…”.

The disillusionment caused among Americans due to the official mishandling of the issue of Vietnam War provided a ready platform for the launch of such ideas which challenged the authoritarian power structures. The hyped-up projection of reality in the form of language on the part of the authoritative classes prepared a ground for the philosophy of Derrida and Foucault to delegitimize authority in general. The phenomenal spread of Theory in universities all over the world owes a great deal to the massive number of publications the industry of Theory made. The 1970’s in American universities and intellectual scene was dominated by this booming industry of deconstructing language that constructs ‘reality’ and thereby deconstruct ‘reality’ itself. For the whole world, the centre of gravity of industry and academics had now shifted to America. No wonder that the colonized societies like the one we have in India imitated and took on the so called ‘contemporary’ academic and epistemological culture of Theory in the American universities. The emphasis on the ‘contemporariness’ of the Critical Theory avant-garde cannot be understood as its concluding significance because the temporality of ‘the contemporary’ may be not seen as existing in isolation from the progression of the previous and succeeding discourses that occupied the temporal and territorial spaces. A ‘deterritorialized’ and ‘detemporalized’ consideration of the contemporary tendencies prevalent in the literary studies may grant supremacy to a specific pattern of a specific region over the rest of the world. This may lead to a covert homogenisation of the various academic approaches perpetuating and restricting their position as ‘eternally marginalised’

Theory that Interprets

It is along the principle of ‘West’s best’ that the Critical Theories of the western intellectuals were introduced in Humanities in university education. This ‘new’ academics was soon ‘received’ as an ultra-modern, contemporary, much desirable disciplinary approach to the ‘Contemporary Critical Theory’. This happened roughly in the nineties that social sciences including Sociology, History, Political Science, Anthropology, Economics; Humanities like Literary studies, Linguistics, Law, Mass Communication, Media Studies, Women Studies, Gender Studies, Film Studies, included these theories as an avant-garde of the curricular plans of these disciplines.   In the late nineties, the outburst of technology and information created a global situation of knowledge sharing. But it is only customary to call it a sharing. Like the traditional ‘West dominates the East’ situation this ultramodern academic, philosophical Left wing intellectualism became a ‘fashionable enterprise’ in Indian universities. The Continental philosophy of Husserl (Phenomenology), Sartre (Existentialism), Simone de Beauvoir (Feminism), Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Habermas (Epistemology) and the Critical Theory or just ‘Theory’ as it is popularly called, were established as advanced academics in Humanities and aesthetic studies across the universities in India. Like the earlier colonial firms of knowledge generation, Critical Theory with a socialist propaganda occupied a central position in Indian higher education.

A civilization progresses and evolves with a passage of time. Its communicative cultures, linguistic patterns transform and develop through immense influxes which are perpetually operative at the cultural level. These mores and modes of life are not defined before they are lived out. Thus the culture which is lived out evolves through centuries and develops its own distinct character. This nuanced cultural character, this milieu; the civilizational identity and ethos form the basis of our ‘cognitive structures’. We develop our world view and we devise the linguistic, aesthetic, ideational means to express that world view in accordance with those cognitive structures. We sense the reality around us and we express what we sense. Experience of life in its totality is a prerequisite for forming our understanding and shaping the nature of communicating what we experience. The processes of communication, expression and explication of our world view are caused and affected by the ‘cognitive structures’ ingrained into our quintessential understanding of the society and the culture experienced by us embryonically. These structures are neither imposed nor can they be determined. Through the myriad social transactions between an individual and society they understand and influence each other. Hence, it is obvious that the grand narrative of Marxism reflected the socio-cultural, political, economic, industrial topography of that world, societies, people and culture. It got embedded with the cognitive structures of the thinkers, philosophers and academicians who found an ‘expression’ of the reality consummated by them into the communicative apparatus of Critical Theory and Literary Theory. They sensed their reality and communicated what they sensed. What they communicated constructed a sense of reality with which the followers of the Critical Theory tradition developed their world view. Each Critical Theory offers a particular world view, a standpoint or a perspective to be incorporated into the process of understanding, studying literature. It recommends a standpoint. Theory makes deliberations on epistemology. Thus, they have come to establish what some Feminists call ‘standpoint epistemology’. This standpoint epistemology rings up literature as an illustrative corpus through an academic engagement. The reinforcements of standpoints as the ‘templates’ for analysing the cultural, social, political, civilizational, psychological and aesthetic narratives and elements in a novel would also require a justification of the standpoints effecting the study and its outcome. In this connection, a general observation could be made that the literary works created by an author belonging to a cultural identity fundamentally distinct from the cultural and social environment in which the Theories were produced, may produce works of literature which could reveal features in its analysis not taken into consideration in the formulation of a particular standpoint recommended by a Theory. The civilizational consciousness reflected into the cultural corpus of a novel written by a writer hailing from a society which did not live out the civilizational ethos of a culture parenting a specific standpoint may not offer a holistic and culturally profound epistemological analysis of several aspects of that literary text. The ‘cognitive structures’ originating out of  the civilizational consciousness at a particular cultural location forming a particular epistemological standpoint may not succeed in the task of exploring the innumerable aspects of the cultural substance found in  a novel resulting out of the ‘cognitive structures’ originating in a civilizational consciousness of different, distinct and divergent cultural location. The critique of the ‘practising theory’ as a ‘standpoint establishment’ producing prototypical meaning, interpretation, understanding of literary works written by a novelist whose critical prowess and flair of writing and aesthetic consciousness is ‘rooted’ into a divergent cultural location is mainly an attempt to rationalise the approach of an unbiased reading of literary texts.  The standpoints provided by Theory might have added dynamism in the activity of literary studies but the epistemological, cerebral, philosophical substance of a literary text originating in a different cultural ethos from that of the Theory will require an academic engagement not only with the text but only with the text itself.

Daatu (Crossing Over)

Considering the observations made in the aforesaid arguments about the Critical and Literary Theory, the let us engage ourselves with the exercise of undertaking a close examination of the selected novel of S.L. Bhyrappa and analyse its various aspects by focussing on the cultural, civilizational and epistemological narratives thereby exploring the possibility of a philosophical formulation emerging out of the several elements of the novels found in the selected novels. The novel selected for study offers a vista of cultural and civilizational consciousness concerned with the post-independence period of Indian history. It reflects upon the lifestyles, values, morals, philosophies, social institutions, political insinuations and intriguing situations in the life of the characters. The multilinear view of Indian society in this period presented in the novel Daatu- Crossing Over creates a vast array of dialectical discussions and debates. The contesting, combating ideas are articulated, argued upon as a pursuit of higher truth about the cultural issue discussed at a particular moment. This tradition of dialectics of cultural struggles envisages pluralism.

Bhyrappa’s novel Daatu: Crossing Over analyses the complex caste system that is deep rooted into Indian society through different characters. The novel also highlights the hypocrisy of the system and the often violent struggle for equality. The novel is not only a strong indictment of the oppression, misery and injustice caused by caste distinctions but it is also an uplifting account of a steadfast and courageous woman’s journey of self-discovery. Satyabhama’s fight against caste system, her progressive values, her ideas of social reformation, position of women in society and her own journey of enlightenment are all suffused with purely Indian cultural consciousness. As an educated person, working in a college as an Assistant Professor in History Satybhama is a rational and a ‘modern’ being. She has had an exposure to the contemporary dominant trends of social and cultural philosophies prevalent in the university education system abroad and then imported in India. Her thoughts on social issues, culture and politics become very significant in the light of the topic and analysis of the present paper because she finds that Critical Theory or Theory functions as a propagandist exercise in its connection with the social reality of India.

Beyond Theory

The novel ‘Daatu’- Crossing Over is a very realistic and a powerful narrative of the disturbing and troublesome aspects of the caste system in India. It brings out the evils of social discrimination in a manner which compels us to question and counter the caste stereotypes. The narrative, the discourse, the message conveys all aspects of caste system. It criticises the caste system and presents a need for its abolition as the only possible solution to end caste discrimination. The central motif of the novel is to address this age-old social evil of caste system through the narrative of the progressive minded Satya and through her thoughts, talks and actions. The novel presents the horrifying aspects of caste system and discrimination in such a convincing manner that it suggests an urgency of a viable and feasible solution to this social crisis. It is at this point that the novel becomes a complex narrative. Mohandasa, the son of Bettayya, the lower caste man who is an MLA but has to bear the pains of discrimination practised against him, is an activist who thinks that revolution and aggressive agitation are the only means which can make people shed off caste consciousness. He has formed his opinion as a result of his own experiences of humiliation and discrimination by the dominating upper castes. Satya, on the other hand, thinks that adopting violent means to bring in equality in society only disrupts the social structure, only revolutionises the social scene but it does not bring in the desired reformation or the desired change in society. She maintains that if the status quo of caste system is bad, the emphasis on violence and stirring subversion are equally bad. The discussion between Satya and Mohandasa over this issue refers to the age-old debate between the two approaches to resolving the menacing reality of caste system. Mohandasa upholds the ‘universal’ solution of revolution and agitation as the only possible solution and means of reformation, social change as theorised in European History and social studies. But, Satya thinks that reality is relative in the social context and there cannot be a singular approach to social change. She disagrees with Mohandasa when he strongly proposes the European model of revolution as the means to social reformation in India. The manner of their discussion is the unique feature of how philosophical and ideological contradictions are dissolved in the dialectic tradition of intellectual discussions. Thus, in the light of the present paper, the cultural struggle in India as presented in the novel Daatu, this episode, which is a debate between Satya and Mohandasa, is quite significant.

Mohandasa meets Satya and asks her to write a book on the need for aggressive resistance of social order by the ‘shudras’- the lower caste people. He believes that ‘unless people are thrashed, they won’t behave justly.’ He states that like in European history, the existing social orders, customs, conventions practised by the upper caste people resulting in the suppression of the untouchables must be toppled only by revolting against it aggressively. In order to justify his argument Mohandasa refers to the European History and the revolutions in Europe which comprised the use of violence and aggressive agitation as the means of social change. Mohandasa argues,

“It’s the way history developed. Not just the history of our country but also that of Europe. For progress, there needs to be conflict. People must be thrashed, their waist must be broken. Then and then only reform can take place.” 2.  Daatu (Crossing Over) 334

Satya understands where this revolutionary fervour comes from. She is wise enough to understand that Mohandasa has picked up this aggression and acceptance of violence as the means of social reforms through his scanty and lopsided reading of European History. Moreover, she believes that truth is travestied when people distort history to accommodate particular political and ideological interests. She considered it as an intellectually bad behaviour to praise one’s own history out of egotism and it is equally a bad behaviour intellectually to misinterpret or give a tilt to historical incidents to suit a particular purpose or theory. She remembers what her History teacher had told her:

“History is the flux of life. However much one may try to understand life in the light of any theory, its depth, breadth and its complexities elude us. But all theories owe their origin to life. The basis of truth is life, not theories. History is similar. Just as we should not distort life in the name of truth, so we should avoid distorting history because of our commitment to a particular theory.” Daatu (Crossing Over) 335

Beyond Dichotomy

Thus, we find that Satya upholds a balanced approach to social reforms. She understands that he does not believe in the idea of peaceful resistance. He thinks that the only way people of the upper castes will yield and shed off their supremacist attitude is by being kicked. He has the idea of starting a revolution. She also gets to know that due to the caste prejudices among the untouchables, Mohandasa could not marry the girl he was in love with. This has embittered him against the upper castes people because he thinks that the upper caste people created the caste hierarchy. That is why he hails revolution as the only solution. Satya understands that these violent and aggressive methods of launching a revolution will neither ensure change in the way the upper castes practise discrimination nor it will facilitate desired reforms in the life of the untouchables. In fact, this will prove to be a counterproductive means and the upper castes will unite further against the lower castes and the social peace, harmony and unity will be disrupted beyond recovery. She understands that the upper castes have to shed off caste consciousness and stop discriminating against people. This will happen through bringing in awareness about the evils of caste discrimination and all the people in society have to practice patience and progressiveness to ensure this to happen. Reforms in this regard are possible only when the upper castes stop practising social discrimination and this can happen only when their mind set changes and after they shed off caste consciousness. This will not happen through violent means. Satya asks him several questions about how confident he is of bringing in social reforms through violence and Mohandasa offers his analysis as answers to her questions. His arguments are mainly centred on his and his father’s experience of suppression, humiliation and discrimination. Both take interest in each other’s point of view and their discussion also reaches the stage when the contradictions seem to merge into a mutual understanding of a genuine need of a casteless society. Thus, the dialectic manner in which they discuss the cultural struggle of caste consciousness reveals the inherently liberal and accommodative nature of intellectual tradition in India.

In the novels of Bhyrappa in general and in Daatu, Crossing Over in particular, we find that the social reality of social inequality is addressed with a remarkable sensitivity about the culture of India.  Satya’s usual criticism of customs and traditions is directed against those traditions which lead to discriminations among humans on the basis of birth, caste, creed and profession.  She is not a blind follower of culture at the same time she is not a biased critic of the ancient philosophical texts and scriptures merely because they were created in the past. However, she prefers to read, understand and interpret these ancient scriptures with her own rational, logical thinking. She does not take for granted the interpretations of these texts provided by the class of the blind followers or biased critics. Thus, we find that she offers her own realistic rendering of Bhagavadgeeta in a conversation with her father. She maintains that in the Bhagavadageeta a balance is made between the three systems of yoga. The three systems are: Jnanayoga, the path of knowledge, Karmayoga, the path of action and Bhaktiyoga, the path of devotion. She says that the reason for job discrimination based on castes is not the teaching of the Bhagvadgeeta but its interpretation by the then dominant castes in society. She continues that if there is a balance among these three systems and if these systems have inspired the ways of life how is this, then, that the shudras who perform physical labour protest and complain that theirs is a mean job while others’ is a refined one. How is it that they say that they will not labour in the fields. She adds that the others who were privileged for doing the so called respectable jobs used to pacify the complaining people by saying that even those entangled in physical labour have an equal right to salvation and hence they should not change their hereditary professions. ‘Better die in one’s own dharma: adopting another’s dharma is dangerous.’ Such a dictum is not the working of the Bhagvadgeeta. It came from the scholars who researched the scriptures and applied their interpretation of the texts to the society. These reasons have determined the writing of history. This is how the caste-job relationship came into being.

In an another discussion with her father Satya told him that the prejudiced criticism of Purushsukta- a hymn of the Rigveda, dedicated to the Purusha- the Cosmic Being’- interprets the text wrongly and those who interpret it wrongly maintain that the ancient text prescribes a social order of discrimination. She maintains that the text is only descriptive in nature and that it is simply a reflection of the social structure of that time. Thus, we find that Satya represents the dialectical nature of Indian intellectual systems and Indian culture. Her forceful pronouncement of ‘conscience being truthful and tradition obscuring the conscience’ reveals that any norm, custom and tradition will not go unquestioned and unexamined in Indian society.


The Critical Theory treats all traditions in all culture as fundamentally regressive. It subverts all foundations of a society by applying the same anti-foundationalist logic to all cultures in all societies. This attitudinally generalizing tendency of the Postmodernist, Postcolonial, Poststructuralist, Feminist Theories perceives the social reality of caste system in India as the Indian parallel of the ‘class’ structure or the ‘colour’ bias in the Western society. By applying the Critical Theory fashioned jargon of ‘subaltern’, ‘subversion’, ‘Deconstruction’ and by prescribing the generalised solution of reforming all societies with their unique cultural identities with a single and unidirectional commitment ‘to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them’, with an allegiance to Marxism, Gramschian philosophies the exercise leads to neither education nor social reformation.

In this way we can say that if the aesthetic autonomy of a literary text and the inimitability of its cultural context are retained, the pursuit of literary study becomes a constructive activity of reading but if the Critical Theory specific interpretation is prioritised over the textual significance of a literary work, the interpretative enforcement becomes a problematic exercise of drawing presupposed conclusions. This overemphatic approach of ‘applying’ Critical Theory specific principles to all literatures in general makes dogmatic interpretations a primary literary activity while the equitable reading of literature based on the textual narratives remains only as a secondary pursuit



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