I first met U.R. Ananthamurthy in 2001, at a literary festival in a small town in south-western France, Villeneuve-sur-Lot. It was a festival with an Indian focus, so there were several Indian writers gathered there: Nirmal Verma, Allan Sealy, Amitav Ghosh, Ambai and many others.
At the inaugural event, the organizers designated Amitav Ghosh as their chief guest and asked him to say a few words. Embarrassed at being singled out in this way, Amitav disclaimed any pre-eminence in the presence of writers as distinguished as Ananthamurthy and Verma. Pleased by Amitav’s sense of propriety, Ananthamurthy made a gesture of his own: when it was his turn to speak, he said, smiling, that Amitav had, as a well-bred Indian, simply deferred to seniority.
Ananthamurthy had a gift for warmth and he loved talking; in combination these traits allowed him to transition from being a stranger to being the benevolent uncle you never knew you had. Inside five minutes of meeting him, he had established my Karnataka connection (my father, like Ananthamurthy, had once taught college students English literature in Mysore) and from that moment on, I was both a compatriot and a fellow writer, even if I had made the mistake of choosing to write in English.
Villeneuve was the perfect circumstance in which to get to know Ananthamurthy. The festival’s organizers believed in long, well-sluiced lunches and so did he. From gossip to political commentary, from brilliantly improvised insights into language to more practiced profundities about caste, he was a grandmaster of the spoken word without being a bore. A bore just likes the sound of his own voice; Ananthamurthy lived for conversation and he listened as intently as he spoke.
The contrast with Nirmal Verma, the other grey eminence in Villeneuve, was remarkable. Ananthamurthy was sociable to the point of garrulity; Verma was quieter, more self-contained. But he was sociable too, in a very particular way. He had to have coffee at a set time in the afternoon, so he would get the hotel staff to set out a place for him where he would sit contentedly sipping coffee, happy to be by himself and just as happy to have company.
If conversations with Ananthamurthy were like addas, chats with Nirmal Verma were like café conversations. Merely by sitting at a table, he seemed to conjure up the central European coffee houses in which he had spent his writerly youth. Talking to both of them was an education in what it meant to be cosmopolitan. Whether you agreed with them or not, they had earned their urbanity by engaging with the world, not merely by exuding English.
Sometimes it was hard to agree. Nirmal Verma once wrote a long, reflective essay on Hinduism in which he seemed to argue that Hindu civilization hadn’t had a proper interlocutor since the disappearance of Buddhism from India. Both Islam and Western modernity, apparently, had alienated Hindus from their histories. This caused a great fluttering in the dovecotes of the politically correct. Had Nirmal Verma turned Right? In a country where everything is politically charged, every choice a writer makes threatens to define him.
So when Ananthamurthy threw his considerable weight behind the cause of Kannada in Karnataka, I thought of my father’s family in Bangalore, proud Kannada speakers all, but historically immigrants from the Tamil country. I couldn’t help noticing that Vatal Nagaraj whose lumpen followers had threatened Tamils settled in Bangalore with expulsion, claimed the same cause. I wondered whether Ananthamurthy ought to have accepted Nagaraj’s political support when he ran for the Rajya Sabha in 2006. And just as people of my ilk speculated about Nirmal Verma’s political leanings after he wrote that essay, I wondered if Ananthamurthy’s passionate commitment to his mother tongue had shaded into a kind of chauvinism.
I still find Verma’s essay and Ananthamurthy’s brief connection with Nagaraj troubling, but I’ve learnt not to pigeonhole writers by the stands they take at particular moments in their careers. This is not to argue that we shouldn’t criticise the positions that writers take; we should. Writers are public men and women, and their readers should hold them to account. But in the end it is the oeuvre that matters, not the individual text or political commitment. To pronounce anathemas upon writers, to insinuate that they aren’t writing in good faith, is to diminish all writing because the freedom of writers to push arguments to their limits, to challenge the common sense of liberalism or conservatism, to transgress, is what makes writing valuable.
I find it hard to get my tongue around Bengaluru but I know that in time, I will. I prefer Bangalore but I can see, in my less jaundiced moments, that it is an absurd colonial anglicization. I’m sympathetic to the argument that we ought to retain familiar, customary usage, because every change we make erodes the world we inherited, but if you were to ask me to revert to Cawnpore (which is how my father spelt Kanpur), I know I’d baulk, so in the end, I can see the point of Bengaluru.
But my reservations about Ananthamurthy as a crusader for Kannada, were trivial compared to the sense of solidarity I felt with his principal political commitment in the last decade of his life. From the time of the killings in Gujarat in 2002, Ananthamurthy dedicated himself as a public intellectual to systematic, unrelenting opposition to Narendra Modi and the majoritarian bigotry that he felt Modi had come to epitomize. His political life till that tipping point had been broadly spent in opposition to the Congress; as a Lohiaite socialist he had supported and campaigned for a succession of non-Marxist socialist parties and politicians on the principle of the lesser evil: nothing could be worse for the country than continuous Congress rule. In Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party he found a political tendency that he loathed even more than the predatory corruption of the Congress.
For this I was grateful. Mike Marqusee has written that anti-Zionism in a Jew draws the charge of self-hatred. In just this way does an anti-Hindutva position provoke the charge of self-loathing. It was no small thing, therefore, to have Ananthamurthy on your side. It is hard to dismiss the republic’s greatest fictional chronicler of Brahminical orthodoxy as a deracinated malcontent; it’s even harder when he is the country’s most eloquent champion of bhasha, or vernacular, literature.
Ananthamurthy famously declared in 2013 that he wouldn’t live in an India ruled by Narendra Modi. After the BJP, led by Modi, won an absolute majority in the 2014 general elections, the NaMo Brigade, wittily sent him a ticket to Karachi. Modi’s victory would, for Ananthamurthy, have been an enormous defeat, but as an old school Lohiaite, he was used to political routs: the cause was the thing. In the last battle he joined, he knew he was on the right side; he fought the good fight to the end.
On the news of his death, the prime minister was magnanimous. “Shri U.R. Ananthamurthy’s demise,” he said, “is a loss to Kannada literature.” Sceptical critics described this as a back-handed compliment: the prime minister, they claimed, was suggesting that the winner of the Jnanpith Award and the author of Samskara, arguably republican India’s greatest novel, was no more than a provincial writer. One went so far as to say that this was exactly analogous to Jinnah’s response to Gandhi’s death when he wrote that Gandhi “…was one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community...”
There’s no satisfying some people. The truth is that the prime minister with great sensibility had correctly concluded that being described as a loss to Kannada literature was the greatest compliment that he could pay this champion of bhasha writing. For this cosmopolitan from Karnataka, Kannada was home and the world was its province.
So U.R. Ananthamurthy would have enjoyed Mr Modi’s tribute. And as a man who spent his life in a love-hate relationship with the brahmanical world in which he had been raised, he would have been delighted by Mike Marqusee’s thesis on the therapeutic powers of self-loathing: “Let me say a brief word for self-loathing. Anyone who entirely lacks this trait is not to be trusted. And it is generally acknowledged as an ethical principle that correction of the self comes before chastisement of others. For the privileged self, a form of self-rejection — not personal, but political — may be necessary to reach out to others, to know oneself and become fully human.”
U.R. Ananthamurthy knew what it was to be fully human.