By: Ashok Vajpeyi
One of the most interesting and enriching things that happened to me was knowing, for nearly half a century, the outstanding Kannada writer, U.R. Ananthamurthy, both as a major writer of our time and a close friend. He was always ready to join any struggle against the devaluation of literature and language, against the growing influence of and space for parochialism, religious bigotry and casteism, and against the marginalisation of the pluralistic idea of an India self-critical, open and dynamic, as embodied in Indian literature. For him, Indian modernity’s true strength and inspiration lay in the vision of Gandhi and Lohia. I remember him asserting eloquently in Stockholm, where we had gone for a series of seminars, that Gandhi offered a radical critique of the West and thought that not only was Western civilisation not good for India, it was not good for the West either. When we were working together to create a Tagore reader for a university, he was equally emphatic, true democrat that he was, that we have adequate space for Tagore’s critique of Gandhi’s nationalism as well. Drawing inspiration from Lohia, he looked critically at tradition while acknowledging its power and continuing relevance in our society.
He was a social activist and never failed to raise his voice on many issues of the day, and he resisted all attempts at the colonisation of literature by ideology, politics, globalisation, market economy etc. He believed deeply in the autonomy and freedom of literature. He held that literature, at all times, was a kind of satyagraha through which writers expressed and embodied the spirit of freedom, creativity and imagination. As the then president of the Sahitya Akademi, Ananthamurthy led it to reject the Haksar Committee’s recommendation that the Akademi’s president be appointed by the government, on the advice of a search committee, as is the case with two other similar institutions. The practice of the Sahitya Akademi electing its own president continues to this day largely because he reinforced it through his bold stand.
Ananthamurthy’s Kannada writings speak of a self-critical but rooted modernism, with innovations and discoveries on both self and society. He firmly held, in his creative as well as his critical writings, that India is a civilisational enterprise that has survived millennia through its plurality of religions, languages, customs and cuisines. He emerged, in the face of the growing influence of English, as a powerful exponent of Indian languages. He was able to argue convincingly that literatures in the Indian languages were much more daring and innovative, deep-rooted and imaginative than the over-projected writing in English. He became the most articulate spokesman of Indian languages and literatures, both nationally and internationally. If Jansatta made the news of his death the banner continued…