-M S Prabhakara
U R Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) was the quintessential public intellectual, combative on matters of public interest and unafraid to run counter to popular opinion and prejudices. He won the admiration of many and the hatred of regressive forces and one suspects the latter would have pleased him. His most lasting legacy was in focusing public attention on the perils of political Hindutva.
Udupi Rajagopalacharya Ananthamurthy (1932-2014), URA for short, died in the fullness of his years on 22 August, bearing with fortitude and quiet stoicism the severe pain and discomfort of several chronic illnesses during the last few years of his life. He also remained intellectually alive and active till almost the very end.
Born in a village near Tirthahalli in Shimoga district on 21 December 1932, URA had his initial education in a village school nearby, and later in Tirthahalli and Mysore. He got his BA (Honours) degree (1955 and 1956) and MA degree (1957) in English language and literature from Maharaja’s College, Mysore. Later, while working as a college teacher, he secured a PhD from Birmingham University (1966) where he studied under a Commonwealth grant. He followed the usual career trajectory of many English teachers of his generation in the old Mysore state starting as a lecturer in English in an undergraduate college in (if I am not mistaken) Hasana and in due course, after working in one or two other colleges, returned to his alma mater, Maharaja’s College, as an English teacher. Later, he joined the postgraduate department of English, which for long had been located along with other postgraduate humanities faculties in Maharaja’s College, to Manasagangotri, the centre for all postgraduate teaching and research of Mysore University.
This is only my surmise, but probably URA had from a very early age set his heart on becoming a writer, a published author, an aspiration and ambition nursed by many young persons of that generation belonging to a certain class and caste and exposed to reading and literature. This goal became more firmly set as he became an English teacher, a profession and a calling that many other English teachers/Kannada writers of earlier generations had followed. Modern Kannada has a thriving and lively tradition of creative writing, though there was (and is) little money in being a full-time writer. For many writers of that generation, barring perhaps Shivarama Karantha, though he too ran a printing press to earn some money (and print his books), writing was more a “secondary vocation”, if one is permitted that unusual expression, vocation being closer to an almost mystical calling requiring from a person who receives such a call, total and undivided commitment, not something that could be combined with a full-time or part-time job. Many of these young would-be writers merely nursed dreams of writing and getting published. The more productive and successful ones were often (though not always) teachers of literature, English or Kannada, hoping to combine writing with teaching, though in that process the semi-creative grind and routine of teaching, especially teaching literature, exhausted and finally destroyed their creative energies and they ended up being poor teachers and worse writers. The exceptions were the fortunate few who one can count on one’s fingers.
Like so many other young persons of his generation, and indeed of every earlier and subsequent generation, URA had literary ambitions and, as he has recorded, began to write even while at school. It was however only after he became a full-time student of English literature that these impulses took a clearer shape and direction. Unlike some students of English literature who want to write in English, URA chose to write in Kannada, though I remember to have read or heard somewhere that he too tried to write stories in English. In the event, he became one of the most popular and successful Kannada writers of this generation, in addition to becoming one of the most controversial polemicists and public intellectuals of the state.
Indeed, URA combined many careers and callings in his long life: a student and a teacher, a distinguished academic retiring as professor of English at Mysore University who served as the vice chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, head of many cultural institutions like the Sahitya Akademi, the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, the National Book Trust, recipient of several national and state honours and awards: Padmabhushan, president of the Sahitya Akademi, fellowship of the Sahitya Akademi, Jnanapeetha award, the Karnataka Rajyotsava award, Basaveshwara Prashasti. He was a visiting professor at many Indian and foreign universities, travelling and lecturing widely inside the country and abroad.
URA was a succesful and popular creative writer who never stopped writing, his main calling, though much of what he published in his later years comprised transcriptions by his admirers of what he spoke in meetings – a book release function, Kannada translations of his polemical intervention published in an English newspaper as part of his attempt to reach a larger readership. His writings covered many genres: short story, novel, poems, literary and social criticism. He was a regular columnist, maintained a blog and edited a journal.
Combative Public Intellectual
Above all, he became the quintessential public intellectual, indefatigable and combative in his interventions on what he thought were matters of public interest, unafraid, indeed eager and ready, to run counter to popular opinion and prejudices, indifferent to the hostility he provoked in certain quarters, indifferent even to the inconsistencies in his own opinions for nothing was static in public discourse, always ready to fight the battle for what he thought was the good cause, unafraid to be alone, believing in the dictum: Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.
Hated by the Regressive
When he died, he was accorded a state funeral, recognition of his achievement in several spheres of intellectual activity. The funeral rituals, interestingly, were performed in full accordance with the prescribed traditional practices of the Madhwa brahmans, the community into which URA was born. Following his own preference expressed to his son, the body was cremated in a funeral pyre instead of being taken to an electric crematorium. Fifteen Madhwa brahmans conducted the ceremonies. Some of the minutiae of these rites broadcast live by the 24×7 TV channels were extravagantly macabre, almost gothic, though in his public persona URA had repudiated all symbols of brahmanism of every kind and denomination.
Being a state funeral, the ceremonies were attended by the top political leadership of the state across the other divides, with the chief minister, a great admirer of URA, present with several of his cabinet colleagues. Reading these reports in the newspapers the following morning (I do not have a TV set), one could not but see the ironies of the funeral, a version of the moral and ethical questions raised by URA in his first and in many ways his most well-known novel, Samskara, that deals with the “problem” of how the body of a “lapsed” brahmana who defied and broke every code of brahmanical practices should be disposed, and since he had no family or heirs, who should do this job. This situation became the focal point to question and challenge traditional brahmana and brahmanical values and practices; and the novel was the beginning of URA’s reputation/notoriety as anti-brahmana and indeed anti-Hindu. The funeral rites – followed as part of his own final samskara, apparently observed to the letter under his specific instructions – are unlikely to put paid to this undeserved and unearned reputation/notoriety.
Notwithstanding these inconsistencies which he sometimes made a virtue of, URA received abundantly of the love and admiration of his readers, his students and, rather hard to secure, the admiration and affection of even many of his peers. Writers and intellectuals, it is needless to add, are usually not very generous towards their peers. He also received, and I would like to believe that this would have pleased him, though by then he was beyond praise or blame, the renewed animosity and hatred of the regressive forces and individuals in Karnataka who burst crackers and danced in joy when news came that URA had died.
As in his life, in his death and its aftermath, URA was not free from controversies. His creative work, especially novels beginning with Samskara, was controversial, provocative. It is true, issues of caste prejudice and untouchability have been dealt with great sensitivity and passion by other Kannada writers before him; but he brought an element of contemporaneity, direct engagement and confrontation to them in some of his novels.
Beyond his literary attainments and honours, for me, one of the most enduring of URA’s legacies is his bringing to the foreground in public discourse the perils posed by the dominant and presently triumphalist ideology of political Hindutva. For long, the general political consensus in the state was that because of the unique and peculiar caste/class mix, political Hindutva will always remain merely a fringe force. The political and social forces released during and after the Emergency of 1975-77 and the formation of the Janata Party government in which leading lights of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) became leading members of the union government holding office and power in Delhi and several states put paid to this comforting illusion. The Hindutva forces, never mind under what name they masquerade in parliamentary politics, have over the years built and consolidated a vastly expanded and diversified social base, and are entrenched, as at the national level, as either the natural party of government or the natural party of opposition.
URA, despite all his inconstancies and political vacillations, recognised the nub of the political and social crisis in Karnataka, the consolidation of the Hindutva forces. One is not sure how well he succeeded in driving home the dangers beyond those who were already opponents of the Hindutva ideology. And yet, one is grateful for the role he has played in highlighting the perils of such divisive ideologies.