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 like their author, who defied his orthodox father to marry a Christian girl; Ananthamurthy’s political preoccupations led him to examine how rebels are made.
As a writer, Ananthamurthy often wrote in the autobiographical mode and remained committed to realism, wherein language and narrative became instruments to perceive social reality. However, the artist in Ananthamurthy transcends this commitment to realism; in his writing, Nagaraj observes, “language is no longer a tool of the referential world but an excessive reality in itself”. Such self-reflexiveness isn’t limited to language but extends to his writing and thinking too. He describes himself as a writer who possesses two ways: his own, and that of the other. An author, Ananthamurthy argues, should live with feelings and ideas opposed to his own. This frequently formed the basis of his critique of contemporary Kannada novelist, S.L. Bhyrappa. He prefers the problematic to the prescriptive.
In the second self-reflexive phase, by viewing India as a civilisation, Ananthamurthy seeks to move beyond a social-science understanding of Indian society. He seeks to make space for the non-modern and pre-modern forms of knowledge and art. Ironically, his creative writing from this second “self-reflexive phase” isn’t as well known or successful as his fiction from the earlier radical phase. Perhaps the major exception is his story, “Stallion of the Sun”.
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Ananthamurthy’s transformation occurred partly due to the internal cultural politics in the Kannada literary world. In the early 1970s, his socialist fellow travellers launched a Shudra-Dalit rebellion against the modernist Navya school of literature, and excluded Ananthamurthy from their deliberations since he was a Brahmin. This exclusion, along with other, broader intellectual trends of the 1970-80s, including the emergence of postcolonial thinking, led him to introspect, and a transformed Ananthamurthy began to see India differently. For instance, caste was no longer just a site of oppression but also the receptacle of culture, technology and knowledge. Further, Gandhi helped him to see the violence of modern life, as he began actively participating in environmental and anti-communal movements. Ananthamurthy saw himself not as a rebel but as a critical insider. His politics broadened and he often spoke of spiritual hunger as a necessity, along with the hunger for equality. When he headed the National Book Trust and Sahitya Akademi, he sought ways to strengthen Indian bhashas. So he became a more relevant thinker and activist while becoming a less successful fiction writer.
More recently, Ananthamurthy had emerged as perhaps the foremost critic of the Narendra Modi-led BJP. He had always been political but in the last decade of his life, he embraced politics with greater passion. In his unpublished doctoral research, Ananthamurthy had studied the emergence of Fascism in Europe. Now he returned to that theme and criticised the Hindu right’s vision of a masculine, strong India. He wanted a supple India. He feared that India would lose its pluralist ethos and inner voice. Often, his motivations were misconstrued and his critiques mischaracterised. During and after the elections, he was castigated and reviled by the Hindu right. Yet, he remained undeterred. In his interviews, he offered a sophisticated understanding of Modi. He spoke of the “self” Modi had cultivated, almost like a severe ascetic, by rejecting ties to a place, caste or family, almost unprecedented in Indian politics. Yet Modi had to be rejected, Ananthamurthy claimed, because at the very least he remained inactive when great violence occurred in Gujarat. Asserting that his morality exceeded his nationality, Ananthamurthy shared his fears that we may not be able to speak out about India’s errors.
In the end that remains his legacy: to speak fearlessly and insightfully but without malice. He may not have reached those standards always, but he did more often than not.
The writer teaches at the Karnataka State Open University