Voice of conscience

Print edition : September 19, 2014

U.R. Ananthamurthy at his residence in Bangalore, in 2009. Photo: K. Gopinathan

The house in which the writer was born, at Melige village in Karnataka's Shimoga district. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

U.R. Ananthamurthy (1932-2014), who inhabited a bilingual world, turned a searching gaze on the community in which he was born and remained committed to the idea of a secular and non-sectarian India.

He bathed Bhagirathi’s body, a dried-up wasted pea-pod, and wrapped a fresh sari around it; then he offered food and flowers to the gods as he did every day, put the flowers in her hair, and gave her holy water. She touched his feet, he blessed her. Then he brought her a bowlful of cracked-wheat porridge from the kitchen


Thus begins the novel that had a definitive influence on Indian literature and established Udupi Rajagopalacharya Ananthamurthy’s reputation as a young “modernist” writer in Kannada of the “Navya” school. The ‘he’ in the above passage is Praneshacharya, a Brahmin of the Madhva sect (a conservative sub-sect of Brahmins to which U.R. Ananthamurthy also belonged), who is the main protagonist of the novel.

At the heart of the novel is an existentialist quandary for the residents of a Brahmin village which Praneshacharya, being the most learned among them, must resolve. No one is willing to cremate the body of Naranappa, a Brahmin who had led a licentious and profane life. This presents a Catch-22 situation for the dead man’s body cannot be simply ignored. The conflict that this situation presents for Praneshacharya is not resolved even at the end of the novel. But the novel explores his engagement with his Brahmin identity, in the iconoclastic style typical of Ananthamurthy. It is set in Karnataka’s Shimoga district, where the writer spent his early life.

When Ananthamurthy passed away on August 22, almost everyone familiar with his work recalled this first novel that shot him to instant prominence. The searingly honest examination of the Brahmin community, turning on it a gaze that is almost that of an anthropologist, continued to be his trademark in many of his subsequent works such as Bhav a. Of course, his literary oeuvre went beyond the Brahmin milieu. Modernism in Kannada literature, as in other regional literatures, implied an emphasis on originality that was rooted in lived experiences. In this, Ananthamurthy excelled. Along with other exponents of modernism in Kannada literature such as V.K. Gokak, Gopalakrishna Adiga, G.S. Shivarudrappa and Girish Karnad, Ananthamurthy established himself at the forefront of this revolutionary change that was sweeping Kannada literature.

In a talk that he delivered at the International Writing Programme on the search for an identity in Indian literature at the University of Iowa in 1976, Ananthamurthy wondered why contemporary Indian literature took its bearings from the literature of the West. He then went on to describe the differences between the older generation of Kannada writers and the Navya writers: “Speaking of Kannada literature, I had observed that there were distinctly two generations of writers —those who belonged to the Gandhian era, and us. In order to clarify certain issues, I had ventured to generalise recklessly (which most of us were doing anyhow) and described these generations as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ respectively. Some ‘insiders’ even grew a tuft, wore caste marks, chewed betel, and, more often than not, came from a rural background. Along with their Gandhian idealism, their sensibilities bore the distinctive feature of their castes and regions, and they wrote as if the English education they received was inconsequential…. There is no doubt that we look and think differently from them. We admire their insider’s knowledge of Indian tradition but reject their celebratory attitude toward Indian traditionalism. They made it possible for us to write, but we had to rebel against their conservative clinging toward Indian traditionalism.”

On choosing to write in Kannada in spite of his formidable education in English, he said: “When the writer influenced by Western literatures chooses to write in Kannada, he has made a moral choice. If the ideas that are still not of my language are embodied in my language creatively, then it becomes a part of the living tradition of my language.”

Ananthamurthy was actively engaged in social movements in Mysore where he did his B.A and M.A. in English. He later taught at the University of Mysore. He was intensely aware of the political churning that was happening around him as the aura of the early decades of independent India faded, bringing about a sense of despondency among the youth of the 1960s and 1970s. Like other Navya writers, he was academically trained in English but chose to do his creative writing in Kannada, thus comfortably inhabiting a bilingual world. He did his PhD from the University of Birmingham on a Commonwealth Scholarship. He wrote his thesis on “Politics and Fiction in the 1930s”, exploring fascism. It was while he was in England that he wrote his controversial first novel, which was later made into a sensational film that received the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in 1970.

His corpus of literary work consisted of five novels. Of them, the well-known are Samskara (Ritual), Bhava (Being/ Becoming), Bharathipura and Avasthe (Stages of Growth), which deal with the caste identity. He also wrote a play, eight short-story collections, three collections of poetry and eight volumes of essays. His works have been translated into Indian and European languages.

Like many other discerning youth of his generation who were influenced by the ideas of Rammanohar Lohia and the socialists in Karnataka, Ananthamurthy became active in the socialist movement and was directly involved in the activities of the Praja Socialist Party and later, the Samyukta Socialist Party during the 1960s and the 1970s. He remained committed to his socialism until the very end, but his political ideas were also tinged with Gandhian philosophy. Thus his political position was on the left of the spectrum, but it must be said that it was never clearly defined. His nebulous political ideology and his own struggle with his caste and religious identity drew criticism from some critics who were harsh on him for his endorsing of Brahminical rituals. Even his cremation drew some criticism for the elaborate Madhva Brahmin rituals that were followed.

Critic of hindutva

However, he consistently saw the growth of the Hindu right as a threat to Indian society. Avowedly secular, he was a thorough and fearless critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindutva affiliates for the past few decades. Ever aware of the subtle and overt methods of the Sangh Parivar to communalise society, he fearlessly took on another popular Kannada novelist, S.L. Bhyrappa, after the publication of his novel Aavarana (To Conceal), which unabashedly upheld a majoritarian agenda.

Ananthamurthy, unsuccessfully, contested against a BJP candidate from the Bangalore South Lok Sabha seat in 2004. He also tried to lobby for a Rajya Sabha seat from Karnataka. His behaviour at this time came as a surprise and drew some ire from many of his liberal colleagues and followers as he attempted to use a chauvinistic “Kannada” platform to buttress his candidature. This was very unlike Ananthamurthy because he had always stated that Bangalore and Karnataka had a very open and absorbing culture.

Most recently, he courted controversy with his vociferous opposition to Narendra Modi’s candidature as Prime Minister and even went to the extent of saying that he would leave the country if Modi became the Prime Minister. While he later withdrew this statement, this did not stop certain rabid elements within the Sangh Parivar, exuberant at Modi’s victory, to send him a ticket to Pakistan.

As the news of Ananthamurthy’s demise spread, a few members of right-wing organisations burst crackers in exultation in Mangalore and Chickmagalur—towns that have seen a sustained rise in the lumpen activities of the Hindu right over the past few decades.

Historian Ramachandra Guha tweeted: “The writer, public intellectual U.R. Ananthamurthy is no more.” In a subsequent tweet, he also added: “UR Ananthamurthy had three simultaneous careers; as a novelist, educationist, and controversialist: and he was influential in all.” This is another aspect of his life that needs to be given some attention: he was one of the last great public intellectuals from Karnataka, a true chronicler of society, a man of letters and a trenchant critic of the move towards cultural and religious homogeneity that has gradually gained ground in the country.

Sitaram Yechury, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), stated in an obituary in Hindustan Times: “U.R. Ananthamurthy, a litterateur par excellence and a down-to-earth practitioner of equality and social justice, is no more. He lived a full life, remaining and working as a fearless champion of the idea of India—a syncretic civilisation that must celebrate its rich plurality and diversity and continue to evolve to greater heights as the churning crucible of human civilisational advances.”

Among the various literary accolades that he received was the Jnanpith Award in 1994. He was also nominated for the Man Booker Literary Prize in 2013. In recognition of his services to the world of letters, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1998. For some time, he was also the Vice-Chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala. He headed the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, in the past.

Several thousand mourners turned up to pay their last respects to Ananthamurthy as his body was kept for public viewing on August 23 at Ravindra Kalakshetra in Bangalore. The widespread sadness that his death evoked is a testimony to the esteem in which he is held by the people of Karnataka. He is survived by his wife, Esther, whom he met in 1954, a son and a daughter.