Saturday, August 23, 2014

Lion vs. porcupines

...Ananthamurthy said he would not want to live in an India where the prime minister is Narendra Modi...."I would get phone calls asking me, 'when are you leaving'?...I would like to visit Pakistan! I have friends there who love India"....“Modi wants India to be a lion but as a Gandhian I can tell you that Gandhiji wanted India to be a porcupine”.....
As a metaphor it feels appropriate for now....a proud porcupine is any day better than a cowardly lion. Growing up in tiger-land, we know that even big cats are wary of the prickly little creatures. But why stop there? As India grows in strength and sheds its physical (and mental) shackles, she should aim to be an elephant- social, gentle (if you do not harm them), intelligent, and loving, welcoming of orphans (refugees) and quite capable of defending against vicious beasts.

Speaking of elephants and orphans, here is news (fairly typical) from the animal kingdom last week.
A six-months-old male baby elephant which had got separated from its mother and was partially drowned in a river got its new mother in a captive female elephant at Rajaji National Park (RNP). The female elephant too accepted the calf by cuddling it.

According to Nitishmani Tripathi, division forest officer of Lansdowne forest division, the calf was found struggling to float in the Rawasan river at 5pm on Tuesday. The calf was rescued and was taken to a forest camp.

DVS Khati chief wildlife warden told TOI, "The elephants are social by nature. In an elephant herd, when a calf is separated or its mother dies then other female elephants accept and nurse the calf. In common parlance, it is known as 'auntie syndrome' where other female elephants become mother or aunts of the motherless calf. " 

Now the lion of Gujarat has a (well deserved) reputation of crushing challengers without even bothering to shake his mane. However there are still a few porcupines who have no fear, who keep shooting thorns at the king (just like them Hamas rockets??). One example is the classical dance exponent Mallika Sarabhai, daughter of Mrinalini and Vikram Sarabhai (the father of  the Indian space program).  

Another one is the celebrated Kannada author Udupi Rajagopal-Acharya (UR) Anantha-Murthy (21 December 1932 - 22 August 2014). Please note below the excellent profiles by Sudheendra Kulkarni and Ramchandra Guha as well as a very special AIR Mysore interview with URA himself.

The reflections are mostly about Mysore - where bananas and giant pumpkins are abundant and people are generous, where oceans of knowledge are to be explored in the Maharaja's college, and the bitter-sweet memories of marrying a Christian girl - as it was half a century ago.
It is true that over time Indian politics has become more democratic (the Leader is a Shudra while the main opposition party is led in the Parliament by a Dalit - Mallikarjuna Kharge from Karanataka). Unfortunately it has also become more shrill and people seem to be losing their sense of propriety. Prof. Ananthamurthy is a national icon, and when he passed away it is reasonable to wish for a dignified send-off. But that was not to be. Even as the Prime Minister was quick to send his condolences, Hindutva-vadis were bursting crackers and celebrating. This is not a good thing and Sudheendra Kulkarni is right to condemn it.

Of course URA was a petty man at times, especially in the way he used to bad-mouth Santeshivara Lingannaiah (SL) Bhyrappa, the all-time popular Kannada novelist who writes from the right field. But that is just professional (and ideological) jealousy. Again in such match-ups it is the skill (and fore-sight) that counts- SLB in his recent, rousing novel Avarana has a shifty character who resembles URA!!! With time people will (may) forget the masters but not their creations. It will be a pity if future generations recognize URA only from a book composed by his rival in arts.
Ananthamurthy, Girish Karnad, Gopalakrishna Adiga are all recognized as luminaries in the Marxist-Socialist universe that drove the glorious Navya (new) movement in Kannada literature. Now they are all fading away or gone, just when the left as a whole is dying in India and the right is on the ascendant. Again it is a pity that literature has become so politicized (primarily driven by the need for getting grants in India and acceptance in the West). 

If some one wishes to enjoy an authentic Indian view (and viewpoint), our advise is to avoid the Indians-in-English "lions" and try instead the "vernacular porcupines" (best if read in the original, however excellent translations are now available). Samskara by UV Ananthamurthy (and Parva by SL Bhyarappa) are too good to be ignored by Indians who would like to know more about their history and culture, and to comprehend what needs to be preserved, and what needs to be thrown away. 

UR Ananthamurthy, the great Jnanpith laureate Kannada writer who passed away in Bangalore on August 22 at the age of 82, will long be remembered for his controversial remarks on Narendra Modi (before he became the prime minister) in the run-up to the last parliamentary elections. "I'll leave India if Narendra Modi ever became India's PM," he had said, a statement that he later withdrew.

Nevertheless, there is far more to Ananthamurthy as a writer than the controversy over a non-literary matter that he invited upon himself. A person from literature should be judged, and remembered, primarily on the basis of his or her creative writing. 

Literature is a product of solitude. It is also read and experienced in solitude. Best fiction illuminates human condition immensely more than either journalism or political discourse. If this is true, then there is no doubt that all those who have read Ananthamurthy's novels or short stories, both in original Kannada and in translation, will forever cherish him - and his characters such as Praneshacharya in his most acclaimed novel Samskara (1965) - in their hearts.

I read Samskara when I was studying in the seventh or eighth standard, in my little home town Athani in Karnataka. I have re-read it several times thereafter. It left a haunting effect on me.

Praneshacharya, its protagonist, is a pious and scholarly priest living in a Brahmin village where moral corruption and hypocrisy abound beneath the veneer of religiosity. A peculiar set of circumstances, unleashed by the outbreak of plague in the village and culminating in him getting attracted to a noble-hearted prostitute, push him into a vortex of moral dilemmas. He finds himself compelled to question Brahmin orthodoxy's many verities about untouchability, sex and bookish knowledge.

Samskara is not an overtly political novel. However, its story of how Praneshacharya confronts his own socially inherited convictions about the meaning and purpose of life contributed in some way to the awakening of the rebel in me early in my own life. That rebellious attitude shaped my response to the Emergency Rule (1975-77) imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. 

I was a student at IIT Bombay those days and got involved in Left-wing anti-Emergency activities both on and off campus. When Snehalata Reddy, a committed Bangalore-based socialist and a close associate of Ananthamurthy died during the Emergency, a victim of torture in prison, I wrote a letter (in Kannada) to Ananthamurthy expressing my anguish over the death of democracy in India and the need to strengthen our collective voice against it. Ananthamurthy, whose own allegiance lay with non-Marxist socialism espoused by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Rammanohar Lohia, wrote back to me with words of encouragement and solidarity.

Incidentally, Snehalata Reddy was the heroine who played the role of Chandri, the prostitute, in the cinematic rendition of Samskara. Girish Karnad acted as Praneshacharya in this gem of a black-and-white movie, produced in 1970 by Snehalata's husband and fellow-socialist Pattabhi Rama Reddy. It became a trailblazer in Kannada cinema and went on to win many national and international awards. Ananthamurthy's short story Ghatashraddha was made into another widely acclaimed film by Girish Kasaravalli in 1977.

Ananthamurthy's other novels Bharathipura, Avasthe and Divya did not reach the story-telling excellence of Samskara. I often felt that his literary creation was hampered by his activism. Yet, as an activist and a public intellectual, he was always very original and incisive in his thinking and in the way he responded to the world around him. 

He stuck his neck out for the causes he believed in, as is evident from his close association with the environmental movement, his deep sympathy for the empowerment of Dalits, and his spirited struggle for the protection of mother tongues in India. He felt, rightly, that the great literary creations in Bharatiya languages were overshadowed by several mediocre, but commercially successful and globally more recognised works of Indian writers in English. He was a patron of progressive theatre, especially Neenasam, a legendary cultural institution in rural Karnataka founded by his friend KV Subbanna.

Ananthamurthy was a strong critic of the RSS and the BJP throughout his life. Promotion of Hindu-Muslim amity was a cause very dear to him. Yet, he was a great admirer of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the admiration was mutual. When the former Prime Minister went to Bangladesh on a pathbreaking visit in 1999, he had taken Ananthamurthy (and also the late Ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh) as a member of his delegation. I met him for the first time on that trip and we spent a lot of time on the flight and in Dhaka conversing in Kannada.

Ananthamurthy was non-traditionalist and yet he had almost a reverential admiration for the good aspects of India's cultural and spiritual heritage. I remember one essay in which he posed an important question, which I am paraphrasing here:  

"Why is it that even the best of political, governance, educational and business institutions get weakened, corroded, eroded and extinct with the passage of time, whereas several religion-inspired institutions such as maths and seminaries remain alive and vibrant for centuries? Is it because the former have their foundation in the transient material world, in contrast to the eternal certainties that the latter believe in? Is this the reason why people's allegiance to the former is always fickle, and to the latter fixed?"


He was always full of laughter and lived life intensely even when sick. For the last 10 years he has been critical many times. Through it all he kept going. Till his last breath he was engaged—intellectually and politically — which is so admirable.

The biggest loss is that of a genuine public intellectual. I wrote a piece for his 80th birthday. I said at the end of it that when he dies, his death will be mourned in every district of Karnataka. When an English writer like me dies, maybe, India International Centre will have a memorial meeting. Full stop. He has such deep roots in society. I don't think any of the current writers have that kind of organic connection.

Writer as a public intellectual, as a moral conscience of society - that's a phenomenon that was once quite common in every linguistic group in India. URA is almost the last representative of it. As society gets more commercialized, as writing itself gets commercialized, this larger than life role of the writers gets reduced. He's the last of the kind.

Twenty years ago, 40 years ago, we had Shivaram Karanth here, PK Atre in Maharashtra, Nirmal Verma in the Hindi-speaking world, Mahashweta Devi in Bengal — novelists who took a stand on public issues; who were seen as conscience-like figures. This tradition goes back to the 19th century, to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, later to Tagore. After print arrived in India, novels, literary journals, newspapers began to appear and from then onwards writers occupied an important position in moulding public debate. They wrote essays and fiction on social reforms, women, caste, India's place in the world.

Today, as professions get more specialized that tradition's slowly eroding. As writers focus more on their craft, career, books, advances and contracts, the larger role is lost. I would say URA and Mahashweta Devi were the last of the those who were also prominent public figures.


Abdul Rasheed: Welcome to AIR and welcome back to Mysore. What memories do you carry of Mysore as you plan to return?

U.R. Anantha Murthy: When I come to Mysore, I feel like a student and a teacher, which is what I was in this City. That trait is very important to me. And as I come here to AIR, I have very fond memories of being first recognised and identified as a writer by Mysore Akashvani.

Rasheed: You came to Mysore in 1950-51 from Tirthahalli after taking part in a farmers’ struggle, after missing classes…

URA: And after failing in my exams.

Rasheed: Yes, after failing in your exams. Can you take us back more than half a century to the Mysore of the days when you arrived here?

URA: There was a book-shop here called Progressive Book Stall, run by D.R. Krishnamurthy or DRK as we knew him. As a socialist, I had a passing acquaintance of DRK and he took me first to the house of Bharat Raj Singh. Although I had fought on behalf of Kannada medium, I had wanted to do BA honours in English.

One of my earliest memories is of Bharath Raj Singh giving me a list of books that had Jane Austen and T.S. Eliot on them. I said I could him a different list, which had Gorky and Shelley and others on them.

The point I am trying to make is that I began growing in Mysore, and not just through teachers. When I went to K.V. Subbanna’s room I learnt. When I went to the Coffee House I learnt. To tell you the truth to tell, we rarely went to college. We spent a lot of time in harate.

There was a canteen called Iyer’s Canteen where we had an account. That was the era of one-by-two in Mysore. Whatever we had, whether it was dosa or coffee, we had them in fractions of one-by-two. And we would do this several times a day. In the mid-50s, when the formation of Karnataka was underway, a joke began doing the rounds that in Mysore there was a demand for two Karnatakas because we even wanted Karnataka one-by-two!

Rasheed: When you look at modern writing in Kannada, especially after the Navodaya movement, there is a certain shyness, a kind of digbhrame, that a young writer from a smaller town or village brings when he steps into a bigger city. As someone who came from a small village yourself, when did you gain the courage, when did you find your feet in Mysore?

URA: Actually, there was never any adhairya in Mysore. In the Mysore of those days, there was never the kind of wealth that you see, say, now in Bangalore. If there were one or two cars on the roads, we knew whose cars they were. If there were a couple of motorcycles, we knew whose they were.

If there was anything overwhelming, it was the knowledge and culture of the place.

When we were at Maharaja’s College, every morning the word would go around, ‘Kuvempu barthidarante!’ (Kuvempu is coming), and sure enough he would come on a jataka gaadi. He would get down, not look at anybody, not look this side or that, and then get into the college. We would wait to see that.

Then word would go around, ‘DLN barthidarante!’ (D.L. Narasimhaiah is coming), and sure enough DLN would come in a peta with an umbrella, holding it like a stick, never ever aware that it had a hold!

Then there was the founder of Mysore Akashvani, M.V. Gopalaswamy. As I was coming into this interview, I found a picture of his in the director’s office looking nice and regal in a zari peta and coat. But that’s not the image I have from college where he wore a jubba-pyjama.

There was great simplicity in the Mysore of those days but there was an even greater ocean of knowledge in Maharaja’s College. There were great speakers. If a good poet was to conduct a reading, the Junior BA Hall would be overflowing to the aisles.

Rasheed: At Sarvajanika Hostel, you stayed with Subbanna, Kadidal Shamanna, G.H. Nayak

URA: No. Subbanna stayed at Maharaja’s College hostel. Those who had a little more money could afford to stay there. But yes, G.H. Nayak and I stayed at Sarvajanika Hostel. For a few days, initially, I stayed at the Suttur hostel because my father couldn’t afford to send me much.

But even so, we would manage to get good food, free food at the Sarvajanika Hostel in Chamundipuram. It was run by a Gandhian called Subbanna, who would go to the countryside each morning and bring giant pumpkins and wonderful bananas every day for us boys.

I used to walk to College each day, and I remember jumping up in the air and plucking twigs and leaves off the avenue trees when I got a good idea or a nice thought passed through my mind!

What I remember from those days is how much we would talk. G.H. Nayak and I would talk endlessly in our hostel room. Then we would come to Subbanna’s room in the Maharaja College hostel and talk some more. A magazine called Varsity Times had been started by Raghavan and we would contribute there…

Rasheed: You have been all that any young Kannadiga would aspire to be. What did you want to be when you were growing up.

URA: If I am a writer, it is because of the memories of my youth. It’s like a trust from which I can keep drawing endlessly. I was born in Melige but grew up in Kerekoppa. Ours was the only home in the whole forest, and whoever came home would tell stories of tigers. I come from a time when currency notes were still not around and the bearys (muslim merchants) passing by would sell us paddy and my mother would give them betelnuts in barter.

My father was a shanbhoga who traveled around. A teacher came home to teach because I couldn’t go to school, and even when I did so, it was to a Kannada school. From where I came, even Tirthahalli, which was but a small village, seemed like a big town. Tirthathalli was my world.

There was somebody called Charles “Doctor”. I would take his medications to different people, one of whom was a man called Srinivas Joshi who, even in those days, had shortened it to ‘Sinha’. He used to listen to the BBC on a dynamo he had cranked up. He used to speak with an exaggerated accent he had picked up by listening to the radio. In effect, when I was growing up, I could read a Bernard Shaw play, hear about the Bhagwad Gita at school, and discuss dvaita/advaita philosophies at the mutt. I became a writer because so many worlds commingled in little Tirthahalli.

I told Malcolm Bradbury when we met in Europe that occidental history is like a straight line; oriental history is a curving one where centuries coexist. It was in Tirthahalli I realised that, understood that. I met all kinds of people in a small place. It is said Somerset Maugham traveled the world with a notebook to learn the essence of life and Kafka sat in a room for the same objective. Yet Kafka came out with a better world-view. Growing up in Tirthahalli was like that.

Rasheed: You were talking about your school shirt…

URA: Yes. I was a Brahmin boy who had been reared on strict notions of madi and all that. My grandfather was very insistent on some of these rituals. The shirt I wore to school was kept far and away from the madi clothes and I would hang it on a nail on the wall.

It was at school, while wearing this shirt, that I would come in touch with people of all castes—Muslims, Dalits, Gowdas, everybody. I became a writer not by wearing madi clothes but by wearing my school shirt. I was telling this to M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the Malayalam writer, and he agreed. I became a writer by going to school, a common school.

Today, unfortunately, our kids go to one kind of school and the children of poor people go to another kind of school. The shared knowledge, the shared wisdom that was available to all of us is no longer available to modern children. Our children are inhabiting different Indias. I feel very much about this.

Rasheed: Kuvempu wanted to be an English writer. You too wrote in English. Yet, you veered back to Kannada. Just what is it about Kannada that drew you back?

URA: Kuvempu wrote very well in English. Bendre too could write in English. In my middle-school, I had started a magazine called Taringini which had pieces in Kannda, English and Sanskrit!

If we stayed with Kannada it’s because we grew within it. We heard it night and day, at home, school, market, everywhere we went. Those who know many languages accept the supremacy of one of them and write in it. Those who know only one language—the niraksharavadigalu—they are the one who have saved Kannada. I don’t mean to say we need more niraksharavadigalu, I mean that it is they who have kept alive our art, dance, folk.

I went to Europe. The result was I had the influences of Kannada, folk and the West. It is not possible to be so rich in English. If I had started writing in English, I would have lost my childhood. Writing in English takes you further away from your past, your relatives, your friends, from your roots. That’s why you find such a strong streak of socialism in Kuvempu, Bendre, Masti, Karanth. It’s because they wrote in Kannada.

Rasheed: Tell us some more on your meetings with Tejaswi.

URA: I happened to marry a Christian girl (Esther). It was difficult to get a house on rent. It was Tejaswi who found us accommodation in Vontikoppal. It was a small house but a very beautiful house, which is where my son (Sharat) was born.

Early in the morning, Tejaswi would come home and we talk on this, that and the other. Then we would cycle off to Coffee House, he on his cycle and me on mine, with my pregnant wife on the carrier behind. And there would talk some more.

Then we would break off to go to Devaraja Market and buy vegetables. Ah, the market, it was so beautiful, the fruits stalls, the flower stalls, the sandige-happala stalls… There was only one shop which had Nanjangud rasabaale, and the owner was such a stern man that if we haggled over the price, he would refuse to sell us the bananas! Mysore, back then, was a very special city.


Link (1): the-modi-controversy-did-this-great-writer-a-disservice-by-sudheendra-kulkarni

Link (2): A-moral-voice-has-fallen-silent

Link (3):



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