When the Kannada novelist, U.R. Ananthamurthy, turned eighty in December 2012, I wrote in these columns that "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".
Ananthamurthy died a little less than two years later. I was then in Bangalore, where I was witness to the extraordinary affection he commanded among the Kannadigas. His body lay in state outside the city's Town Hall, draped in the national flag. Thousands of mourners had lined up to pay their tribute, the line curving on and around J.C. Road towards Cubbon Park. Students, teachers, actors, home-makers, and people representing other walks of life (and struggle) were in the queue. Many had come from Shimoga, Davangere, Mysore, and Dakshina Kannada districts, which would, in the weeks to come, hold their own commemorations of this courageous, colourful and (sometimes wilfully) controversial writer and intellectual.
Ananthamurthy's death was met by the offering of tributes; floral, written and spoken. But, since a writer is known in part by his enemies, his passing also sparked several 'celebratory' meetings, held by Hindutva groups whose violence and bigotry he had long and vocally opposed. In his last months on earth Ananthamurthy had completed a short book entitled in Kannada, comparing the ideas of V.D. Savarkar and M.K. Gandhi. Now, two years after his death, this has appeared in English, translated by Keerti Ramachandra and Vivek Shanbhag. Hindutva or Hind Swaraj is a short, sparkling, albeit sometimes meandering, tract, rich in epigrammatic wisdom, through which Ananthamurthy addresses his friends, admirers, sceptics and critics from beyond the pyre.
Hindutva or Hind Swaraj must be read in light of the last controversy Ananthamurthy engaged in while he was alive, which had to do with the emergence of Narendra Modi as a pan-Indian leader. In November 2013, when Modi was criss-crossing the country in the course of his prime ministerial campaign, Ananthamurthy told a television channel, "I won't live in a country ruled by Narendra Modi. When I was young, I used to criticise Prime Minister Nehru. But, his supporters never attacked us. They always respected our views. Modi supporters are now behaving like Fascists... I don't want to see a man like Modi in the chair, where once a man like Nehru sat and ruled. I am too old and unwell. If Modi becomes the PM, it will be a big shock to me. I won't live."
These remarks sparked outrage among Narendra Modi's numerous and vocal supporters. Some offered to send Ananthamurthy a free ticket to Pakistan (or any other country of his choice); others burned effigies of the man; still others issued death threats, these serious enough for the Bangalore police to post a round-the-clock guard outside the writer's house.
After the Bharatiya Janata Party won the general elections the following May, and Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister, Ananthamurthy qualified his controversial statement. It was, he said, made when he was emotionally over-wrought. "It was too much to say because I can't go anywhere except India," a newspaper reported him as saying. But he yet had reservations about what Narendra Modi stood for. Modi wanted "a strong nation", while he himself wished for "a supple nation". This distinction is carried forward in Hindutva or Hind Swaraj. The book, while ostensibly focused on two texts by Savarkar and Gandhi, is in fact a meditation on the grand themes of nationhood, democracy and development, as practised or enacted in India's past, present and future. Here, Ananthamurthy writes witheringly about the self-love of our political leaders. "People like Modi," he remarks, "live in a gumbaz, a dome that echoes what they say to themselves over and over again. This in itself is not new for India; the Congress leaders did that too." The prime minister, in 7, Race Course Road; the Congress president, in 10, Janpath; the chief ministers of states in their own enclosed spaces - whether at home or in carefully orchestrated election rallies, these leaders get to hear only praise and sycophancy, never criticism.
As for the patriots central to his little book, Ananthamurthy points out that while Savarkar's writings and speeches were an exhortation to action, Gandhi's were an invitation to a dialogue. "Savarkar addressed his readers," he writes, "in a tone of heightened emotion. Gandhi spoke to them in an intimate manner." Unlike Savarkar's confident, blustering, tone, "Gandhi's passes through the sieve of introspection."
As a young man, Ananthamurthy knew and admired Ram Manohar Lohia. But for Lohia's ideological descendants he had little time. He was keenly aware of the perils of identity politics. As he puts it here, "to base anything on faith and ethnicity leads to the disappearance of all moral dilemmas in man". Ananthamurthy was an old-fashioned rather than newfangled socialist, for whom individual dignity and community solidarity took precedence over caste or religious identities. He worried about the increasing salience of parties and ideologues who sought to make faith and ethnicity central to politics and governance in India. Hindutva or Hind Swaraj also foregrounds the horrific environmental costs of unbridled "development" and consumerism. "The evil of our times," remarks Ananthamurthy, "are mines, dams, power plants and hundreds of smart cities. Shadeless roads, widened by cutting down trees; rivers diverted to fill the flush tanks of five-star hotels; hillocks, the abode of tribal gods, laid bare due to mining; marketplaces without sparrows and trees without birds."
Later, when speaking of the decline and corruption of left-wing parties in India, Ananthamurthy says, "Perhaps it is only the Earth that will speak the leftist language now, battered and infuriated as she is by Modi's developmental agenda. Perhaps she will unleash her fury through the weapons of storms, thunder, lightning, rain, floods and earthquakes." And still later, in the very last passage of the book, he observes: "In Modi's enthusiasm for development, the atmosphere is further filled with factory smoke. Tribals who live close to nature have nowhere to go. In the hubris of extreme progress, man, suffering revulsion from excessive consumption, may see the need for change. If not, the Earth will speak."
These are powerful and moving words, but I must enter a caveat. Before Narendra Modi became prime minister, successive Congress governments (and prime ministers) had also displayed a callous disregard for environmental sustainability and for the rights of tribal communities. Personifying the problem is a case of literary license perhaps, but in truth the issue goes well beyond a particular individual (or, indeed, political party).
To this writer, the career of Ananthamurthy bears comparison with that of the great scholar of Indonesia and of comparative nationalism, Benedict Anderson. Anderson, who died in December 2015, was a social scientist and historian with a deep interest in literature, whereas Ananthamurthy was a literary man with a keen interest in politics and history. Both were independent-minded leftists, both were (despite their distinction and eminence) utterly without pomposity, as willing to learn from younger writers as to educate or instruct them.
The country Ananthamurthy called his own was the one where he lived and died, whereas the country Anderson most closely identified with was the country he studied and wrote about, Indonesia. Significantly, though, both were critical (as well as self-critical) nationalists. For all his love for Indonesia and Indonesians, Anderson understood and consistently emphasized the distinction between nationalism and jingoism. "No one," he once remarked, "can be a true nationalist who is incapable of feeling ashamed if her [or his] state or government commits crimes, including those against [their] fellow citizens." This is uncannily echoed in a sentence in Hindutva or Hind Swaraj, where Ananthamurthy asks, "Can knowing that good and evil are inseparable and exist together, make us aware of the malevolence that might be hiding in our love of the nation?"
Reading Savarkar's book, Hindutva, Ananathamurthy discovered that the "entire book is a eulogy to ancient India". When "one is so immersed in the act of praising something," he remarks, "one loses oneself in it. In such a state, everything of the past appears glorious." In his writings, Savarkar sought to construct a "flawless [Hindu] past", a "glorious, mythical unique world to be emulated exactly".
But as Ananthamurthy observes, "the truth is exactly different". The Buddha, living in ancient India, saw around him much suffering, individual as well as social. In Vyasa's epic, the Mahabharat, "you find all the ills that plague modern society in it: desire, deception, lust, blasphemy, cruelty, jealousy towards animals".
Ananthamurthy loved and identified with the Republic of India, but he did not shirk from describing its less attractive features - the oppression of women and of Dalits, the exploitation and dispossession of tribals, the corruption of the political system, the megalomania of its leaders, the amorality and greed of the rich. His patriotism was tinged, and occasionally more than tinged, with a (justifiable and honourable) sense of shame. It is this sense of shame that draws Ananthamurthy closer to patriots like Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Jayaprakash Narayan; this makes him sceptical of the claims and theories of hyper-patriots such as Savarkar, Golwalkar and Narendra Modi.