We are invariably disappointed upon meeting our favourite writers, sociologist D.L. Sheth once told me. In real life, they do not measure up to the image we build in our minds after reading their works. U.R. Ananthamurthy was the rare exception, Sheth asserted. Anyone who met Ananthamurthy would agree. He possessed an unusual openness, democratic spirit and zest for life. Despite being on dialysis for years, he told me in April this year: “You know, if I was sure I had another five years to live, I would run for Parliament.”
Udupi Rajagopalacharya Ananthamurthy was that supreme storyteller, popular teacher, generous mentor of young writers and fierce public intellectual who transcended each of those descriptions. A committed Indian bhasha enthusiast, Ananthamurthy wrote entirely in Kannada, with the exception of an occasional lecture or essay in English. He was perhaps the most acclaimed Kannadiga of the past half-century. In his autobiography Suragi, Ananthamurthy describes an instructive moment with his advisor, Malcolm Bradbury, who took a page from an essay the former had written and restated the same in three or four sentences. Seeing the subtlety of Bradbury’s expression, Ananthamurthy realised the futility of him trying to write good academic and literary English. He didn’t even publish his doctoral thesis. However, by then Ananthamurthy was already an established Kannada writer, and perhaps this experience prevented him from becoming a bilingual writer like his friend and translator, A.K. Ramanujan. Another conversation with Bradbury prompted Ananthamurthy to write Samskara (1965), which sealed his literary reputation in Karnataka and outside. His good fortune in finding gifted filmmakers and translators made this classic available to the outsider soon after its publication. Written in the realist mode, Samskara was a devastating portrayal of the decaying ritualistic world of a Brahmin village.
Cultural critic D.R. Nagaraj provides the key insight to understanding Ananthamurthy’s creative and intellectual life. Nagaraj argues that Ananthamurthy transitions from seeing India as a society in his early life (1950-70s) to perceiving India as a civilisation in his later writings. Nagaraj implies that sociological imagination and an inherent Western enthocentrism influence Ananthamurthy’s perception of India as a society. Ananthamurthy had grown up in Thirthahalli and Shimoga, then hotbeds of socialist politics. Hence, despite his Brahminical upbringing, Ananthamurthy’s radical sensibilities, especially his understanding of caste, had been shaped by Ram Manohar Lohia’s writings. He often claimed he became a writer by leaving behind the ritualistic rules of his Brahminical household, and by mingling with people of all castes. Samskara and early stories of intense examination of tradition were products of this sensibility. In this radical phase, Ananthamurthy’s modernist sensibilities also compelled him to examine the alienation and rootlessness that his protagonists had to confront. These protagonists were often rebels continued…