(Published in the Business Standard, August 26, 2014)
The education of UR Ananthamurthy, the redoubtable Kannada writer who died at the age of 81, was as distinctively Indian as his writings would be. In an interview with All India Radio, he spoke of growing up in Kerekoppa–“Ours was the only home in the forest”—and going to the Kannada school in the small village of Tirthahalli, which seemed like an enormous world in his eyes.
“I could read a Bernard Shaw play, hear about the Bhagwad Gita at school, and discuss dvaita/advaita philosophies at the mutt,” he told his fellow writer Abdul Rasheed. “I became a writer because so many worlds commingled in little Tirthahalli.” His Brahmin family followed the ‘madi’ rules. His school shirt was considered polluted, because Ananthamurthy had worn it in the company of non-Brahmins—it had to be hung up on its own separate nail. “It was at school, while wearing this shirt, that I would come in touch with people of all castes—Muslims, Dalits, Gowdas, everybody. I became a writer not by wearing madi clothes but by wearing my school shirt.”
In college in Mysore, his world expanded even further—education was not just what happened inside the classroom, where Kuvempu and others taught, but the debates that continued in canteens, hostel rooms and coffee houses.
In time, Ananthamurthy would become as famous as any of the writers he had worshipped as a student, well-known for his novels, Samskara, Bharatipura and Awasthe as well as many short stories, essays and criticism. He was also a relentlessly energetic member of the Kannada and Sahitya Akademi literary worlds.
In a conversation with Chinua Achebe, Ananthamurthy spoke about the need to belong, but also to criticize your own culture: “When we forget the British and the West, we begin to have our own quarrels with India. To depict the complexities of such a situation, you need a narrator who is both a critical insider and an outsider,” Ananthamurthy said.
That was a reasonably accurate description of his position in Kannada writing in particular, and Indian writing in general. His natural literary ancestors and his peers were many, and included writers like Premchand or the brilliantly satirical OV Vijayan. Like them, Ananthamurthy was doubly rooted—in his preferred language, Kannada, and in place—but wrote in a universal idiom, channeling Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal as an influence just as easily as he was touched and shaped by DR Bendre’s poetry.
The novels by which he is best known have aged well, but they have aged. Samskara, Bharatipura and Awasthe no longer seem as iconoclastic as they once did. The tensions between touchable and untouchable, old worlds threatened when their boundaries turn porous that he describes still remain, but a new generation of writers and critics, especially from the Dalit community, have sharper inquiries and accusations to make. What was once radical in Ananthamurthy’s writings is perhaps now commonplace, in a time when caste and other privileges are increasingly under question.
But the power and resonance of Ananthamurthy’s images is still undeniable. At the centre of Samskara (1965) is a rotting corpse, Naranappa’s death plunging a rigid community into turmoil because of the old taboos about pollution. “When the question of Naranappa’s death-rites came up, I didn’t try to solve it for myself. I depended on God, on the old Law Books. Isn’t this precisely why we have created the Books ? Because there’s this deep relation between our decisions and the whole community. In every act we involve our forefathers, our gurus, our gods, our fellow humans. Hence this conflict.”
Ananthamurthy would continue to call out hypocrisies of all kinds, often angering the narrow-minded, the deeply conservative and the indelibly bigoted, right up to his last decade. He spoke his mind on his fear that Mr Modi and the rightwing’s ascent to power would be disastrous for India, and then he emerged from spells of dialysis in order to join battle with his vociferous detractors. In his last year, he faced attacks from a loud and aggressive rightwing fringe. He had to have police security at his home, after receiving threats for his remarks on Mr Modi; a case was registered him in a Bangalore court under the often-criticized offence laws; and some of his bitterest critics saw fit to celebrate his death by setting off firecrackers.
Ananthamurthy’s supporters, students, readers and well-wishers formed a less noisy but far more widespread community, a quiet majority who showed up in the thousands for his funeral, to say their farewells to a man whose words had meant so much to them.
In Bharatipura, he writes with a light, teasing touch about the dilemma of those Indians who knew only English: “I may have to rent a house in Bangalore, become an absentee landlord, talk in English — a radical, throwing parties, living somewhere in the Cantonment with similar rootless people, with an Indianness linked to Ravi Shankar’s sitar, the sculptures of Konarak, and folk songs.”
That reflected one of his strongest beliefs; he said in one of lectures: “The best thing to do as a creative writer is to be rooted in your language, but branch out into the world.”
Kannada critics might take years to fully assess Ananthamurthy’s gifts as a writer. For my generation of writers in today’s India, he stood as a reminder that you could be rooted in your own culture and place, but still claim a wider, more universal heritage. Where is the need to choose between home and the world, one or the other, when both are yours by right?