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A WRITER AMONG HIS PEOPLE
- A true public intellectual

Last week, the novelist, essayist, and polemicist, U.R. Ananthamurthy turned 80. His Bangalore home is named “Suragi”, after a flower that retains its fragrance even after it has aged and dried up. Some might find the name self-regarding; but then Ananthamurthy is a man with much to be immodest about. His novels, Samskara and Bharathipura, redefined the terrain of modern Indian literature. His newspaper articles in Kannada have a wide readership. As a legendary teacher of English in Sagar and Mysore, he mentored several generations of writers and scholars.

I was privileged to attend Ananthamurthy’s 80th birthday party — at his house, the aforementioned “Suragi” — as perhaps the lone English-language writer among the critics, teachers, poets, novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, photographers and singers of the Kannada country, who had gathered there in celebration and in tribute. A man of charm and generosity, Ananthamurthy has an enormous range of friends, and more than a few enemies — for his intellect and pen, tender and loving one moment, can turn sharp and acidic when confronted with aesthetic or (especially) political views that he does not agree with.

I first met U. R. Ananthamurthy at a conference in Delhi in 1989, held to mark the centenary of the birth of Jawaharlal Nehru. A mutual friend, the critic, T.G. Vaidyanathan, had asked me to go up and introduce myself. At that stage, I had not published a single book, while Ananthamurthy was already a towering figure in the world of letters. Given the asymmetry in our stature, I was hesitant, but in those days I followed TGV’s word (and wish) implicitly. “Vaidya,” said Ananthamurthy, when I told him of the person who connected us, and then, again, “Vaidya”, pressing my hand more firmly in his, the voice and the gesture making it clear that any friend of ‘TGV’ would be his friend, too.

That early encounter alerted me to the man’s spontaneity and warmth, but also to his writerly way with names. A man who was TGV to his followers and rivals alike was ‘Vaidya’ to him. Everyone calls me Ram, but to Ananthamurthy alone I have always been ‘Guha’. It must have been this desire to dissent from the horde, apart from a proper concern with placing place names in their local context, that made Ananthamurthy lead the (since successful) movement to have Bangalore renamed Bengaluru.

Years later, when I reminded Ananthamurthy of where and how I met him, he said that in his youth he intensely disliked Nehru. He had been a shishya of the firebrand socialist, Ram Manohar Lohia, who saw India’s first prime minister as an upper-caste, anglicized, neo-colonialist, unfit to represent Indian culture or the Indian people. Lohia died in 1967; 20 years later, following the Ayodhya movement and the riots that came in its wake, his disciple realized that in one crucial respect — the fostering of religious harmony — Nehru was in fact a more reliable disciple of the Mahatma than the other leaders of the freedom movement. I met Ananthamurthy, therefore, at a time of transition. In 1969 or 1979 he may not have attended a conference in memory of Nehru, but by 1989 he saw some reason to do so.

This willingness to modify his beliefs and prejudices in view of fresh evidence was characteristic of the man. From that first, affectionate handshake — done Indian style, with us standing side by side, my palm in his, rather than hands extended out, stiffly and formally in the Western manner — I sensed that Ananthamurthy was different from the intellectual gurus I had known in Calcutta and Delhi. In spite of his awards and distinctions — the Jnanpith, the Padma Bhushan, the presidentship of the Sahitya Akademi — he never talked down to you; he listened as much as he spoke; and he welcomed argument and dissent, especially from those younger than himself.

In 1994, I moved to Bangalore. Here, I met and befriended the brilliant critic, D.R. Nagaraj, who told me a story about his mentor. After some 10 years of intense learning from Ananthamurthy, Nagaraj was told: “I have taught you all I know. Now I must send you to Delhi to learn from Ashis Nandy.” So Ananthamurthy arranged for his disciple to be awarded a fellowship at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, where he spent some creative and most fulfilling years.

I had myself come to Bangalore from Delhi; and knew Ashis Nandy. While I admired his writings, it struck me that he was incapable of telling one of his students: “I have taught you all I know. Now I must send you to Bangalore to learn from Ananthamurthy.” To be fair, Nandy was not exceptional — others among our academic dadas have exactly the same proprietorial attitude towards their students and the same sense of infallibility as regards their ideas.

In 1998, when Nagaraj died, still in his forties, Ananthamurthy was inconsolable. “He was both my guru and my shishya,” he said. It was to younger writers such as Nagaraj, Devanur Mahadeva, and Siddalangaiah that Ananthamurthy owed his interest in Dalit literature and activism.

Since our first meeting in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, I have met the owner of “Suragi” on about 20 occasions, mostly in Bangalore, but also in Manipal, Moscow, and the hamlet of Heggodu in north-western Karnataka, where his friend, the late K.V. Subbanna, started an annual culture workshop now run by Subbanna’s son, Akshara, at which Ananthamurthy is the reigning presence and presiding (if self-acknowledgedly fallible) deity. From most conversations with him I have taken away an insight or two about politics and social life in India. It was from Ananthamurthy, for example, that I learnt that the Indian writer is luckier than his Western counterpart, for he lives simultaneously in the 12th and 21st centuries, and in every century in between. It was also Ananthamurthy who told me that we must never cede the lovely colour saffron to the bigots on the right.

About 10 years ago, Ananthamurthy left Bangalore to take up a visiting professorship in Manipal. But he kept returning often. I joked to my wife that I always knew when the famous writer was on his way back from the coast to the capital. The newspapers would report his progress, day by day — a book released in Manipal, a talk delivered in Bantwal, a meeting of environmental activists addressed in Sakleshpur, a literary festival inaugurated in Hassan. That, probably, was the last stop, since while Ananthamurthy would have given wonderfully appropriate speeches on all the occasions itemized above, one could not really see the old socialist being welcomed at the Kunigal Stud Farm.

I knew, from appearing with my friend at functions in Bangalore, that the camera follows him everywhere — with a rush of people seeking to get close to Ananthamurthy, for his will always be the centre of the frame. I was thus teasing him (in absentia), but my tease also conveyed admiration, and even envy. For no man now alive in India better deserves the term ‘public intellectual’ than Ananthamurthy. And maybe only one woman — the similarly ageless and indomitable Mahasweta Devi. Certainly no English writer in India has anywhere, like the social standing of Ananthamurthy, the deep, lifelong connection with his readers and his public. When one of my tribe dies, his passing may (just possibly) be noticed in the bar of the India International Centre. When Ananthamurthy meets his Maker, his writings and his legacy will be discussed and debated in every district of Karnataka.