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The story of U

The story of U
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The maestro of Kannada literature, whose Samskara has been read and reread by millions of university students, and the Jnanpith and Padma Bhushan awardee, in this last months had been talked about more for his antagonisms to Narendra Modi than for any of his stupendous creative achievements.

His death marks, needless to say, the end of an era in Indian writing, separating the politically evolved, critically nuanced literary outpourings to more market-driven, identity-crazy malexperiments with untruths that characterise most of what is passed as contemporary fiction, particularly in English.

Ananthamurthy typified the last of the Mohicans – with one foot in academics and the other in literary and theatrical adventures. Born in 1932, he became involved, in fact almost fathered the 1950s’ Navya movement in Kannada literature, which experimented with short, startling stories of the post-Independence, post-Gandhian condition.

Bathed with astonishing reflections on what ailed and what held together the convulsive matrix of 1950s south India, trying out modernist narrative techniques and adapting them to the Indian context, questioning the Aristotelian basis of plot and chronology, the Navya movement paralleled other such literary declarations of independence in languages such as Bengali (Kallol), Marathi, Tamil, Telegu, among others.

Ananthamurthy, and his ilk, such V K Gokak, Gopalkrishna Adiga, Girish Karnad, P Lankesh, et al, brought in the staginess of English and American literary modernism and fired up vernacular fiction, drama and poetry like never before.

Karnad’s Tughlaq (1964) and Ananthamurthy’s Samskara (1965) remain the biggest and brightest stars of this temporal slice of literary firmament, even though both were followed up with other stellar creations.

With their fellow writers and friends, they mapped a changing universe of fading dogmas, slipping hold of customs and the turf battles to fill up the voids opening up in the belly of syncretic but splintered religious traditions. Ananthamurthy’s short stories, novels (including Bharathipura – a recent English translation of which was nominated for DSC prize) illuminated the cosmos of human lives integrally bound to rituals and rites and the daily tragedies they ensue.

He was the chronicler of a disappearing way of life, at times giving away a Gandhian simplicity and sincerity of purpose. The Brahmanic sensibility, with all its tugs and pulls, its wretched mores and unnerving doubts, its social neurosis and fear of decadence, that was sketched by Ananthamurthy, indeed has very few parallels in Indian literature, perhaps matched only by Sunil Gangopadhyay’s
Purbo Poschim.

For example in Samskara, the principled and celibate Brahmin priest Praneshacharya is contrasted not only with the renegade, beef-eating, oversexed Naranappa but also with the rigid villagers who are blinded by rotting moral codes. Because Naranappa had cohabited with the prostitute Chandri, after his death his body lies untouched, unattended, as no one wants to pollute himself.

Ananthamurthy, through Praneshacharya’s spiritual bildungsroman, which goes en route a sexual encounter with Chandri, delineates how enlightenment isn’t outside the daily grind, and empathy, an overarching love for life and the world of nature, the animals, plants and the bodies, is far more sacred that petrifying codes of handed down, unquestioned rituals of ‘moral majorities.’

Samskara was made into a film in 1970 starring none other than Girish Karnad essaying the role of Praneshacharya.

Ananthamurthy, evidently last of the argumentative Indians, whose ideological opposition to Hindutva and its proponents made him swear he would leave the country if Modi is elected the prime minister, was the polar opposite of tailored public intellectuals, who refuse to take sides and compromise their careers as mis/interpreters of modern maladies, as diagnosticians of diseases and curators of crises.

Instead of sweetening the bitter pills of religious intolerance and religious appeasement, Ananthamurthy had always espoused a strong critique of all fanaticism, whatever their specificities.
Even in his doctoral thesis for the degree he earned at the prestigious University of Birmingham in England, which was on 1930s European politics and fiction, he could not stay out of politics within pre-Independence literature. Focal points of his writing have been the filial clashes – between fathers and sons, mentors and protégés, particularly in the backdrop of growing Hindu fanaticism in India.

His choice of linguistic medium remained Kannada, despite the lure of lucre along with global recognition promised with writing in English instead of a regional language. Heading the Sahitya Akademi for several years, he tried his best to instill robustness in the vernacular literary movements, recognising and acknowledging the wealth of creations that needed wider readership.

Even in his unquiet death that sparked off ‘celebrations’ amongst some of political detractors, he lives to tell the tale.   
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