29 August 2014
Where in the world could the question of language politics be more relevant than in India? Colonisation’s trail invited a project of unification with a character and a scale unseen for centuries. If customs, cuisine, activities or traditions would tend to be at odds across regions, it is naturally languages that would rise to the surface as the most pressing concern. Languages of politics and governance, of course, but also, and especially, languages of the imaginary, of the fantastic and the mundane: languages of communities drawing their avenir. Piloting the creative drives of the millions, writers have been assuming the delicate task of arbitrating the dynamics of cultures, between unscripted patois, regionalisms, state languages and national vernaculars. And all this, in the midst of literary currents and aspirations crossing borders and millennia. Last week, India gave a final homage to an unmistakable voice, to a wordsmith symbolising an affirmation of the here within the all: UR Ananthamurthy. In our dialogue this week, Nikhil Govind evokes personal memories to portray an author whose passionate outspokenness was only equal to the constancy of his intellectual patience and to the depth of his commitment as a social figure. N Nagaraju celebrates the questions left by Ananthamurthy’s generation, and exalts the ‘hospitality’ that bridges languages.
Hold the cursor on the illustrations to display animations.
It would be impossible (and fatuous) to attempt to cover the corpus of UR Ananthamurthy’s works in their entirety — decades of impassioned writing, in so many genres, and in so many villages and cities of the world. This piece will speak of him only as I knew him, most of our conversations taking place in a privileged three month period in 2011, when he was Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Manipal Center for Philosophy and Humanities at Manipal University. From my first meeting, and through every conversation, he retained that direct, intense gaze that I can now see as I write.
At least with me, he was not one to indulge in small-talk, and was immediately curious to know of my work. I had just completed a Doctorate from the United States on the mid-century Indian novel, in Bengali and Hindi, and Ananthamurthy put his finger exactly on what had triggered my interest — the troubled marriage, in those novels, of forms of both literary and political modernism. This troubled marriage of politics and literature was of course very close to Ananthamurthy’s heart.
Understanding before condemning:
UR Ananthamurthy’s approach to Hindutva and VD Savarkar
Ananthamurthy began by sharing his memories of the great Hindi poet and novelist Agyeya, a figure central to my dissertation, and perhaps the most embattled exemplar of that marriage of the political and the aesthetic in twentieth century Indian literature. But Ananthamurthy also wanted to move more quickly onto present concerns. I had also published on the Hindutva thinker Savarkar, and, in what was his most heated conversation with me, he generously shared my conviction that one has to understand the mechanics (and also the almost somatic thrall) of Hindu conservatism before merely, and ineffectually, condemning or dismissing it. Hence, it is fitting that his last book is about one of the key swerves in our road — it is titled Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj or Savarkar’s Essentials of Hindutva? As everyone else, I cannot wait for this last text to be translated — no doubt, it will be less a final word, and more a new beginning.
To a national hegemon, Ananthamurthy championed stronger regional cultures, and thus a more federal structure. He was equally wary of the insularity of the large regional cultures (Hindi, Bengali, sometimes Tamil), as he was of English. These often led to provocative remarks such as how the Bengalis only read themselves and second-rate French literature, and not other regional languages. While these statements could perhaps afford to be less polemical, his convictions were prescient — the challenges in the future will be significantly determined by how regions read, and engage, with one other. This more egalitarian, fully-fleshed out and substantive nationalism underlay his advocacy of the regional.
Ananthamurthy’s public statements
combined polemics and raw insights
As Visiting Faculty at our Institute, he was asked to give a few public lectures. All of us naturally assumed (and hoped) he would lecture on Kannada literature, and the times and figures he knew so well — Adiga, Bendre, Kuvempu, the Navya Movement. But he insisted on discussing William Blake. He spoke with great feeling and love, clearly going back to the times when he was such a popular professor of English. The regional, then, appeared not incompatible, or even inversely proportional, to the international or the global. In later lectures, he spoke with equal warmth and insight of Kannada literature, from the Kavirajamarga (the first great Kannada work, on rhetoric , grammar and aesthetics, dating to the ninth century) onward, through the medieval age of Pampa, Ranna, Kumaravyasa, and then into the modern age of Karanth, Kuvempu, etc. In a world of hyper-specialised scholarship, the sweep of his literary imagination, covering literally a thousand years, made him seem very much the modern sage he often was. At home in Udupi (where his family originally came from, hence the Udupi in his name), he spoke among throngs of friends and admirers, very much at ease. He told me he felt his life was coming full circle — it is no surprise that he was also working then on his autobiography.
It would be hard to make such genuine, self-reflective, unself-regarding ‘public intellectuals’ any more. The term itself is compromised as we have a new generation birthed (and then perhaps murdered) in television studios, who have even learned to think in television-friendly sentences. But here was someone who was happy to leave as soon as he was off the dialysis machine, go to the smaller villages, and speak as an equal to anybody and everybody — something he had been doing, untiringly, for over five decades. To see him in these remote places, and to feel the adulation he commanded everywhere, was to learn something of what it is to truly expose oneself, physically and intellectually to the widest currents of ideas. And one could not but help feeling that this was the last generation who rode to public acclaim from literature, or the humanities in general, rather than the more technocratic, managerial class that seems to have usurped the idea of the universal intellectual.
After all his achievements,
Ananthamurthy remained an intellectual
grounded and approachable
Though Ananthamurthy has at last folded his wings, we know he will haunt us and rise again, as many of the issues of the future will have us return, and return again, to his works, which will keep waking into every new future with new wisdom and new irreverence. Hence, this is a time of mourning, but also, as I am sure he would rather have it, a time of affirmation, of faith, of dissent, of the reminder that in the last, the human is made of word alone.
Sometimes, institutions are the settings for great opportunities. Of all the years I spent at the Central University of Karnataka, the possibility of encountering and exchanging with UR Ananthamurthy has remained as one of my dearest memories. As he was appointed the first chancellor of the University, I could meet in person this writer I had been reading with several of my students.
Still a man from a small town, I felt elated and honoured to get to talk with him, to listen to him, to feel the presence of a true public intellectual – for that is what Professor Ananthamurthy had become, through the years. He would permanently be in the eye of the storm, literally, for one social or political reason or the other. He grew the capacity not only to see a particular event from several perspectives, but to lift it, as a critic once put it, into the public domain. This way, he managed to compel others to respond in the way they could. UR Ananthamurthy has been a major medium for an abundance of questions of society. In the last years, the ailing writer was still attentive to the latest social or political outburst, and always determined and strong in mind to fight them.
A generation that left questions
With AK Ramanujan, in 1976
Risking to repeat a cliché, I would say that Professor Ananthamurthy has been a man of his times. The Kannada writer was a quintessential man of the sixties, or perhaps a bit later. He inherited the reformist strand that had ran right from the struggle for independence, all the way to the later days of nation-making. The worldview of this movement was marked by the complex combination of a strongly felt need for freedom, intertwined with the hard-to-remove shackles of tradition. They were led to see a variety of issues and situations in the political and cultural spheres, informed by this complexity. Therefore, whatever political institution they wanted to put in place would ultimately suffer from some irredeemable inadequacies. There were always questions arising out of them, looking for answers. Ananthamurthy belonged to a generation of socially active writers of which the most precious legacy may be just this: questions.
Literature, and in particular the novel, perhaps more than any other cultural text, would capture this idea of the transition, of the boundary. A critic from Bengal gave it a name: liminality. In fact, this contradiction, this irreducible dilemma was already manifest in most of the regional literary cultures of the nineteenth century, and later, well into late twentieth century works. From Bankin Chandra Chattopadhyay to Ananthamurthy, one discovers a clearly traced line of literary sensibilities engendered by colonial modernity. A type of experience, a kind of social and cultural order, is found across regions. Bankim’s descriptions of Bengal in Kamalakanter Daptar and other texts, find echoes in the works of several writers around that time, in their own cultures.
Samskara, UR Ananthamurthy’s most acclaimed work,
gained great recognition through its film adaptation in 1970
Samskara is Ananthamurthy’s discussion of the same, in the Kannada context, albeit much later on. Beyond all the known songs of praise, what makes this text truly remarkable, I believe, is the gripping immediacy Ananthamurthy manages to set in the narrative, and his talent in placing it in an apt locale. Praneshacharya and Naranappa, two opposite figures from the same tradition, are inescapably touched by Chandri. What Ananthamurthy points to, is tradition reaching a measure of openness with modernity. Or better: modernity, as it marches on, gaining the potential of emancipation.
Ananthamurthy’s voice has thus permanently marked our critical understanding of traditions and social organisations. But he addressed many more domains. Ananthamurthy also looked at the tensions between contiguous linguistic communities. And always, without any prejudice. Strong of his enormous love for the Kannada language and culture, he would look at other regional languages, to quote his own words, “with hospitality”. Interestingly, for him, the measure of hospitality of a language is its openness to translations. Translation, from being seen as the risk of a loss of subtleties and uncommunicable beauties, becomes a medium of exchange, of opening. And he meant it: hospitality. During the course of our conversations, I would look at his face and feel the earnestness of the expression.
When will we explore the bridges of languages in India?
We are in the country where this intuition would be the most powerfully true: one hardly finds an Indian who does not know more than one language. Bridges need not be barriers. Indianness should, and would emerge strongly from such bridges. It would be a layered indianness, rendered unique through the bridges built across the wealth of linguistic cultures. And who, better than UR Ananthamurthy, could represent this richness: a major cultural figure of India in general, he was, yet, so rooted in his own culture. He was equally at ease in Delhi and in Benguluru. For those of us brought up in such a cultural mosaic, he remains an enduring figure. A symbol of an unfolding India.