In “Ghatashraddha,” an early story by Ananthamurthy, a little boy enters the woods at night to search for a friend, accompanied by a man who bears a burning torch. In the brooding darkness, he wants to hold the man tight to dispel his fear. The man dissuades him, saying “You cannot touch me.” Overcome with fright, the child runs away. The story frames one of the most complex and stereotyped aspects of Indian culture, the practice of untouchability. The boy, a Brahmin, reaches out to his Dalit companion for comfort, in poignant violation of the strict ban on physical contact between them. Despite his position in the social order, the older man becomes the arbiter of ritual and purity to a child of the priestly caste, forbidding the touch that would ‘pollute’ the boy. The theme of touch recurs throughout Ananthamurthy’s work with a frequency bordering on obsession—one he has himself acknowledged, and attributed to an abhorrence of untouchability dating back to his childhood days. The power of touch to twist destinies, and the symbolic transformations that such a gesture can undergo through desire, fear, and denial, hold real experiential meaning in his fiction. It is the outgrowth of the author’s own early experiences.

more from María Helga Guðmundsdóttir at Quarterly Conversation here.