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GOOD AND BAD KANNADIGAS - R.K. Narayan and xenophobia

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By Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 6.10.12

Eighty years ago, during the countrywide non-co-operation movement, Mahatma Gandhi asked Indians to boycott British-run schools and colleges and British-made goods, and to refrain from working with the rulers. As part of his campaign of patriotic renewal, Gandhi also launched a broadside against the language of the conqueror. Thus in a speech in Orissa in April 1921, he described English education as an “unmitigated evil”. Gandhi even claimed that Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Rammohan Roy would have “been far greater men had they not the contagion of English learning”.

In Gandhi’s opinion, these two remarkable Indians “were so many pigmies who had no hold upon the people compared with Chaitanya, Sanker [Adi Sankara], Kabir, and Nanak”. Gandhi insisted that “what Sanker alone was able to do, the whole army of English-knowing men can’t do. I can multiply instances? Was Guru Govind a product of English education? Is there a single English-knowing Indian who is a match for Nanak, the founder of a sect second to none in point of valour and sacrifice? … If the race has even to be revived it is to be revived not by English education.”

“Rammohan Roy would have been a greater reformer,” argued the Mahatma, “and Lokmanya Tilak would have been a greater scholar, if they had not to start with the handicap of having to think in English and transmit their thoughts chiefly in English.”

I was reminded of Gandhi’s polemical words when reading about a protest by some well-known Kannada writers against the proposal to make R.K. Narayan’s home in Mysore a memorial to his life and work. Fifteen writers — among them the lexicographer G. Venkatasubbaiah, the poet G.S. Shivarudrappa, the novelist S. L. Bhyrappa, and the critic L. S. Sheshagiri Rao — argued that since Narayan was born in Chennai and spent his early years there, and since even while he lived in Mysore he wrote in English, he was not really a Kannadiga, and thus the government of Karnataka need not spend money honouring his memory. Narayan, complained these writers, “never introduced any Kannada work to the outside world through an English translation.” Narayan’s betrayal apparently ran further; he was guilty, it was said, of selling the scripts of his novels to an American university rather than gifting them gratis to a university in Karnataka.

Back in 1921, Gandhi’s criticisms of Indians who wrote in English were rebutted by the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore admired Gandhi; he had helped raise money for his struggle in South Africa, housed his sons and associates in Santiniketan, and given wide currency to the title by which Gandhi became known, ‘Mahatma’. But this narrow, nativist side to Gandhi was something he could not abide. “I strongly protest,” wrote Tagore, “against Mahatma Gandhi’s trying to cut down such great personalities of Modern India as Rammohan Roy in his blind zeal for crying down our modern education.” Tagore thought Gandhi’s words and arguments showed that he was “growing enamoured of his own doctrines — a dangerous form of egotism, that even great people suffer from at times.”

The Mahatma believed Rammohan Roy was limited by writing and speaking in English. On the other hand, Tagore insisted that it was through his engagement with other languages that Rammohan developed “the comprehensiveness of mind to be able to realize the fundamental unity of spirit in the Hindu, Muhammadan and Christian cultures.” Rammohan Roy could be “perfectly natural in his acceptance of the West,” remarked Tagore, “not only because his education had been perfectly Eastern,— he had the full inheritance of the Indian wisdom. He was never a school boy of the West, and therefore he had the dignity to be the friend of the West.”

Gandhi was put in his place by Tagore, and the angry chauvinists of Karnataka have been put in place by two men who are the best-known, and perhaps also the most greatly admired, Kannada writers now living. The playwright, Girish Karnad, asked to comment on the statement signed by Bhyrappa, Sheshagiri Rao, et al, pointed out that “Narayan lived in Mysore, wrote about Malgudi, a place he created [out of towns and locations in Karnataka].” Therefore, to say that he was not a Kannadiga was “absurd”. Karnad’s words were weighty enough; and here they were endorsed by his great contemporary U.R. Anantha Murthy. “Anyone who lives here and writes on the state is a citizen of Kannada,” remarked Anantha Murthy. He thought it “very mean on the part of those who have said Narayan is not a Kannadiga.”

Reading reports of their statements in the press, I rang up Karnad and Anantha Murty to congratulate them. Karnad told me he worried that a Thackeray-type nativist movement was gathering force in Karnataka. Anantha Murty, also speaking in anguish, recalled how he had written about Narayan and his brother, R.K. Laxman, in Kannada and discussed his essays with their subjects. As a long-time resident of Mysore himself, he remembered that Narayan dressed and looked like a local; his dhoti, bush-shirt, cap, jhola and slow, unhurried walk marked him out as a “typical Mysore man”.

When Gandhi was chastised by Tagore, he had the good grace to respond, and recant. He was not, or would not, be a chauvinist or xenophobe. His defence was then summed up in these words: “I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet. I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

These lines of Gandhi are often quoted as an example of his broad-mindedness and cultural pluralism. In truth, they had to be wrested out of him by Tagore. That fact is now mostly forgotten. For these words by Gandhi are commonly reproduced without the crucial opening caveat: “I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet.”

R.K. Narayan did not write in Kannada, but his works sensitively portray the people, culture and landscapes of the state of Karnataka. His 1938 book, Mysore, remains a classic of travel-writing; still valuable for anyone who seeks to know about, or visit, the shrines, towns, and water-falls of the southern part of the state. The Malgudi of his novels was almost certainly based on the town of Nanjangud, on the banks of the river Kabini, some 15 miles from Mysore. The name, Malgudi, was made up from the names of two venerable Bangalore localities, Malleswaram and Basavangudi. The restaurant-owners, printers, shopkeepers, teachers, housewives and students who people Narayan’s stories are as authentic Kannadigas as one can get. Which is why the television serial, Malgudi Days, was such a hit in Kannada and among Kannadigas. And it continues to be watched, 30 years after it was first made, available in DVDs that can be downloaded from the internet.

I hope the Kannada writers who claimed Narayan was, so to say, a ‘foreigner’, have the good grace to withdraw their protest after this necessary intervention by Karnad and Anantha Murty. To admit that one was wrong, or mistaken, is in the best traditions of writing and scholarship. Besides, there is the example of Gandhi; if he could rethink his impulsive xenophobia, so can the rest of us.