By: Vinay Lal
One of the many stories based on Sanskrit tales that UR Ananthamurthy used to tell was that of a cow named Punyakoti, which went out to graze in the forest in the country called Karnataka. One evening, as the other cows made their way home, Punyakoti meandered into a particularly grassy area that was, however, the territory of a tiger, Arbutha. As Arbutha was about to pounce upon the cow, Punyakoti pleaded to be allowed to go feed her calf and return to become his dinner. If the tiger was hungry, so was her calf; and the tiger ought to be sufficiently well-informed in dharma to know that a promise thus given would not be broken. The tiger relented: Punyakoti reached home, fed her little one, bade her farewell, and then presented herself before Arbutha. Astounded by Punyakoti’s fidelity to truth and her capacity for sacrifice, Arbutha had a sudden change of heart and began to undertake penance — or so states the Sanskrit original. Recounting this popular story some years ago in an essay titled Growing up in Karnataka, Ananthamurthy said: “It is the dharma of the tiger to be a flesh eater. By a change of heart he cannot become a vegetarian. He has no choice but to die.” Contrary to the Sanskrit storyteller, the Kannada poet had Arbutha leap to his death: “The Kannada poet is more convincing. By a change of heart, the tiger can only die. It is as absolute as that.”
Encapsulated in Ananthamurthy’s pithy commentary on The Song of the Cow are many of the principal themes which shaped the literary oeuvre and worldview of an immensely gifted writer and critic. His death a week ago has robbed Kannada of its greatest voice, India of an extraordinary, decent man and supple writer, and the world, which sadly knew too little of him, of a storyteller and intellectual whose fecundity of thought and robust play with ideas shames many who style themselves cosmopolitans. Much has been written on the manner in which Ananthamurthy, not unlike other sensitive writers and thinkers in India (and elsewhere in the global South), negotiated the tension between the global and the local, tradition and modernity; but, as is palpable from more than a merely cursory reading of his criticism and fiction, Ananthamurthy also remained engaged throughout his life with the tension between Sanskrit and the bhashas, the marga and the desi, and what he called “the front yard” and “the backyard”. Ananthamurthy had a doctorate in English literature, taught English at a number of institutions, and was at home with the masterworks of Western literature; and, yet, he was profoundly rooted in Sanskritic and Kannada literary traditions.
In reading Ananthamurthy, one is brought to an overwhelming, indeed humbling, awareness of his deep immersion in a 1,000-year-old tradition stretching from Pampa, Mahadeviyakka, and Allama Prabhu through the Vijayanagar-era poet and composer Purandaradasa to his contemporaries K Shivarama Karanth, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, DR Bendre, Kuvempu and Gopalakrishna Adiga. In this, as in other respects, Ananthamurthy also inhabited a world where the simultaneity “of the ancient, the primitive, the medieval and the modern” was ever present, not only in social structures but “often in a single consciousness”. It is doubtful that anyone among the most celebrated of our writers who have made a name for themselves as notable exponents of the English novel or what might be termed global non-fiction have anything even remotely close to the knowledge that Ananthamurthy had of Indian bhashas. In his essay, Towards the Concept of a New Nationhood, he offered one of his ‘pet theories’ — “in India, the more literate one is, the fewer languages one knows.” In “the small town where I come from,” Ananthamurthy wrote, “one who may not be so literate speaks Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, some Hindi, and some English. It is these people who have kept India together, not merely those who may know only one language.”
Few Indian novels have been discussed as much as Ananthamurthy’s Samskara. Fewer still, especially in India, are the creative people who have been entrusted with the care of institutions and intellectual enterprises and not left them diminished. Ananthamurthy was not only a celebrated writer, but someone who stood at the helm of important institutions — Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, and the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune — and strengthened them. As President of the Sahitya Akademi, he strove to ensure that all the languages under the academy’s jurisdiction received parity; moreover, he ensured the autonomy of the institution by prevailing upon the academy to reject the Haksar Committee’s recommendation that the academy’s president be appointed by the government on the advice of a search committee. Those familiar with the Indian literary, artistic, and intellectual scene that extends well beyond the metropolises and even “provincial” capitals are more likely to remember Ananthamurthy as the principal mentor of a unique experiment which has run for decades in Heggodu, Shimoga District. Here, in the midst of arecanut plantations, the cultural organisation Ninasam attracts students, workers, and villagers for a week-long annual course to discuss literature, movies, music, philosophy, and science. Ananthamurthy unfailingly graced this gathering every year, nurturing the young and facilitating spirited conversations through the night.
Ananthamurthy might, thus, be remembered for many different things, but it is the categories through which he worked that mark his contribution to Indian literature and thought as distinct and enduring. It would be a grave mistake to view him merely as staking a middle ground: taking a leaf out of Gandhi, Ananthamurthy was quite certain that Western civilisation was unsuitable not just for India but even for the West. Consider, for example, his literary, emotional, and intellectual investment in the idea of the sacred, though this is something that his Hindutva critics, who fancy themselves to be custodians of the Hindu tradition, can barely understand. He has told the story of a painter who was traveling through villages in north India studying folk art; on one of these sojourns, he encountered a peasant from whom he learned something bewildering: “Any piece of stone on which he put kumkum became God for the peasant.” Ananthamurthy understood well that nearly every place in India is sacred: here Sita bathed, there Rama rested his weary body, and over there the gods dropped nectar. But he takes the idea of the sacred much further: place, bhasha, childhood — all these notions, so centrally a part of the worldview of Ananthamurthy, revolved around the idea of the sacred and the untranslatable. Sacred, too, is the dharma of the writer, laid bare by him in his Jnanpith Award acceptance speech: “There is something wrong with us writers if we do not lose a few of our admirers with every new book that we write. Otherwise, it may mean we are imitating ourselves…We should never lose the capacity to say those things in which we believe when we are absolutely alone.”
Lal is professor of History at UCLA