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Remembering U.R. Ananthamurthy, One Of India”s Greatest Storytellers And A Public Intellectual

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By Atharva Pandit:

Reinaldo Arenas, the exiled Cuban poet and novelist, once said that all the literature of his century was somewhat burdened by the theme of uprootedness, the trauma of being uprooted from one place and being quickly dropped into another, alien one. Arenas’ words couldn’t have been more true for U.R. Ananthamurthy’s writings- laced with humour and slyness, his fiction treads a fine line between what is philosophical and social, and then, ultimately, political. But then again, it’s not that simple either.

U.R Ananthamurthy

Ananthamurthy, one of India’s greatest storytellers and a public intellectual in every right, died on Friday, 22nd of August and as he bid goodbye to all of us, we lost not just a writer who had been a social critic, contemporary activist and a daring intellectual who did not hesitate to criticize even his own way of living, that is, the Brahmin sub-caste, but also someone who felt deeply for the language in which he chose to write, and the language which he felt should reach the global readership. He was born in 1932 in the Kingdom of Mysore as the grandson of a priest and grew up in a village which was known for its socialist traditions and upbringing, even though Ananthamurthy, as as child, grew up in an orthodox Brahmin family, a way of life which he would come to criticize in his writings- whether it is through writing about them with a smirk on his face, as in the famous novel of his, “Samskara”, in which he writes of an affair between a priest, Praneshcharya, and a prostitute, Chandri, or through the medium of articles and essays, in which he expressed his opinion on the right-wing fundamentalism and conservative ideology which he stated is growing and gaining favour. After Modi was announced as the Prime Ministerial candidate, Anathamurthy expressed his displeasure by stating, quite controversially, that he would leave the country if Modi is elected to the post- and BJP offered to sponsor his one-way ticket out of India, and then he chose to stay, stating that he had nowhere to go but India. Indeed, it was no surprise that some “sympathizers” of the party burst crackers in several cities and towns upon hearing of his death, an act which is as shameful as it is telling, since Ananthamurthy would, indeed, roll across his grave and shout, ‘I told you so.’

Ananthamurthy’s life, as his writing, was an intellectual one. He witnessed the class divide earlier on in his life, and became a staunch supporter of socialism. He studied at Birmingham to finish his PhD on the literature of Europe and the role of fascism in it, a study which he would find, years later, rolling out in his own country. Ananthamurthy held several posts, including that of a Vice-Chancellor at Kottayam and the Chairperson of Television Institute, as well as the head of the Sahitya Academy, India’s highest literary honour. He travelled abroad a lot many times in order to teach the noble pursuit of literature, but he never left India even though he had lucrative opportunities and offers from several universities across the world. Ananthamurthy once told Suketu Mehta, an eminent writer himself and a student of Ananthamurthy’s, as he came out of the Mumbai airport, beaming, for he had been upgraded to the business class by the cabin crew when they saw his name, that being a writer in India still counted as being somebody. But the incident also goes on to prove how Ananthamurthy, even though being an intellectual writer, and add to that a writer who wrote in regional language, was still recognized. He would have considered it a step, even though only a small one, towards the recognition of Indian regional literary tradition.

Ananthamurthy’s work casts a wide arc, from the social realities of Indian life, the wrath of casteism in the country- for which he was shunned inside his own Brahmin circle, and also, for marrying a Christian girl- the political disillusions of the public mind to the questions of fatherhood and relationship and the archetypal struggles of man in a changing and yet equally stringent society. His entry into the world of letters was at a time of turmoil, or more rather, at a time when India was still trying to gain a foothold in the World and grappling with identification and determination. And at such times, Ananthamurthy presented, along with other pioneers of the Navya Movement in Kannada literature, a fresh and critical look at what has been the old India and what and how should be the newer, independent one. His views and works were not, as I mentioned earlier, always praised- his novels were shunned and he was subject to a lot of criticism for writing what, in fact, was the truth of the modern society caught in the traditional way of existence.

That being said, Ananthamurthy was not a person who harboured controversies for the sake of it- he praised what he felt was right (no pun intended), and wrote against what he felt went against the idea of a modern social living. Take, for example, his shattering story-collection “Stallion of the Sun“, which carries with it some of his best stories, and it won’t be an exaggeration to call them, also, some of the best stories written in Indian literature, although the collection remains, unfortunately, invisible in his oeuvre. The stories in ‘Stallion of the Sun’ are indeed progressive in that they develop with each passing story in terms of style and themes. Ananthamurthy’s prose is simple- there are no big words thrown in for effect, because Ananthamurthy doesn’t need them. He had big themes for that. His subjects are somehow the victims of social and political changes of post-Colonial India, struggling through the changes of society and culture. He designs his stories to scratch the cultural biases of his community. In ‘Ghatashraddha’, for example, a Brahmin boy and an untouchable named Kateera enter woods in order to search for a missing friend. The Brahmin boy tries to dispel his fear of the dark by holding the hand of Kateera, to which Kateera replies, “How can I, a low-caste holeya, touch you?” It’s an important sentence in the story, wherein the divide in the society is laid bare- a Brahmin trying to seek solace with a Dalit is restrained from doing so all because it will violate the norm of a Brahmin society. The title story is a sad (and equally humorous) account of the meaninglessness in the life of the narrator’s friend. The narrator has made it big, while his friend has remained stuck to the rural, village life, and yet, he hasn’t failed- even though the whole premise seems to suggest so. He hasn’t failed because the friend completely understands and enjoys the meaning of life- this friend of the narrator’s, he finds comfort in simple things, and smiles even at a time when his family seems to be falling apart around him, before his own eyes.

And today, reading the great story-weaver of our, or any generation for that matter, is as important for the society he laid bare as for the understanding of his argument about the language in which one should write. R.K. Narayan was criticized for writing in a language which was foreign, and shunning his own mother tongue in the process, and in Ananthamurthy’s argument do we find the justification- even though himself fluent in English, Ananthamurthy felt, in the words of Shiv Visvanathan, “the real class divide, which was also cultural divide, was the split of our society between traditional school, which taught Kannada and created a million embryonic roots, and the expensive English school where a child lost his mother tongue.” That way, one could accuse Ananthamurthy of being a traditionalist, but he was not that simple a person either. His thesis is valid especially today, when the translated literature from Europe and Latin America, Japan and China is making its mark, but Indian literature, equally rich in language and culture, in large supply of mostly-ignored regional geniuses, has failed to make its mark.

Ananthamurthy rightly stated that the “work of art chooses its medium, and I think for an Indian, the Indian language is that medium.” Indeed, India does not feature in the festivals and events conducted by many organizations promoting translated literature, a shame, considering the amount of languages and the rich literature they produce in India. Ananthamurthy, as a true Indian would, felt for it and spoke for its cause.

U.R. Ananthamurthy was not just a writer, activist, and an academic, he was also an institution. He would leave behind his masterpieces, he would leave behind to us his acute point-outs of the mistakes in the way we lead our lives, and he would, across his grave, constantly strive to improve us. Reading a few collection of his stories and a couple of his novels will never let us know fully the thought of the man who wrote them, but, indeed, when one reads Ananthamurthy, one is left with a powerful sense that they understand the society they are living in, a little better. Rest in peace, U.R. Ananthamurthy, across intellectual circles, debate forums, newspapers and universities, indeed, across India, you will be sorely missed.

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