A life less ordinary: Musings on Indian society and politics

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April 5, 2020 2:00 AM

Ananthamurthy was also fascinated by Ram Manohar Lohia’s creative interpretation of Indian myths and politics.

In Ananthamurthy’s final years, academic-translator Chandan Gowda recorded a long conversation with him over many sessions on a wide range of issues.In Ananthamurthy’s final years, academic-translator Chandan Gowda recorded a long conversation with him over many sessions on a wide range of issues.

UR Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) was one of independent India’s most significant thinkers, who could discern the many dilemmas modern India faced and for which a solution was not easily available. Caste system, for instance, needs to be eradicated, but he believed that its resolution could not be through modernisation, as that diluted the plurality of Indian society. With a PhD from Birmingham in English literature, he chose Kannada for his creative writing. The confluence of the two literary cultures enriched him and informed his writings.

One of his famous formulations was the division of the sources of knowledge into ‘front yard’ and ‘backyard’. The front yard is the place where debates and discussions on learned issues take place, whereas the backyard is the storehouse of secrets, mysteries, gossips and everything that is swept under the carpet.

Since the reservoir of Indian languages flows in the backyard, the novel, he gave a wonderful insight, emerges from this precise zone.

In Ananthamurthy’s final years, academic-translator Chandan Gowda recorded a long conversation with him over many sessions on a wide range of issues. The rich and insightful conversation has now been published in a book, A Life In The World. It is divided into 10 chapters, beginning with his childhood, Mysore and Birmingham years, his close friends to Indian politics. The book offers fine insights to understand his introspective mind and is also a key to understanding contemporary India.

His childhood was spent listening to discussions on Sanskrit texts and philosophy. At a very young age he had learnt texts ranging from the Purush Sukta to Edmund Burke’s great speech over the impeachment of Warren Hastings. As a boy, he admired Subhas Chandra Bose, even cut his finger with a blade, signed his name in blood and sent him a letter.

The children of his neighbourhood played games where they took on the roles of Churchill and Hitler. “We always wanted Churchill to be defeated. We didn’t know that Hitler was a terrible man,” he recalls during the conversation. It’s a very curious detail. Historians should tell the significance of this perception about Hitler among educated Kannada children of the mid-1940s.

Ananthamurthy was also fascinated by Ram Manohar Lohia’s creative interpretation of Indian myths and politics. He particularly underlined an essay in which Lohia wrote that maryada purushottam Ram is a constitutional god, always bound by the constitution; Krishna is not obliged to follow any constitutional norm as he was a sheer aesthetic; whereas Shiva is a dimensionless god.

Indian culture allows such multiple interpretations because it has essentially remained a great pagan civilisation. “It absorbed Islam and produced great anubhava poetry in our languages. It absorbed Christianity so much that it created a Gandhi who died like Christ,” Ananthamurthy notes. But then he quickly adds that if “paganism is our strength”, it is “also our confusion”. In the absence of one god or one holy book, Indians always live in a constant introspection about the nature of their civilisation.

Ananthamurthy was deeply into contemporary politics, even contested an election; and yet he managed to retain a fierce political impartiality. He so accurately recognises the ailment of the Indian political system when he notes that while the Left kills for the future, the Right kills for the past.

The book is so rich in details that one cannot thank Chandan Gowda enough, who gently nudged and pushed the old man to bare his heart and soul. Though it’s the interviewee who does all the talking, Gowda remains firmly present in the text as an invisible narrator, the guiding hand who lets the conversation flow smoothly into multiple directions.

Right from his childhood Ananthamurthy had found three diverse and formidable anchors—knowledge sources of Kannada, Indian and Western culture. It was this rich background that prompted the realisation that “if I had not read Kuvempu’s novels, how could I see the meaning of the quotidian, the everyday life in Joyce’s Ulysses?”
The book has deep insights and anecdotes about his friends ranging from philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi, CLR James, BV Karanth and Madhu Limaye.

Obviously then the man could not be easily classified or lent easy adjectives. He defied his family to marry outside his religion but later in his life walked up the Sabrimalai hill as a devout swami with his driver, considering the latter to be his guru.

In the twilight of his life he turned melancholic over the turn Indian politics had taken. As he became a vocal critic of the BJP, Ashis Nandy wrote, he came to face “hired trolls willing to buy him a ticket to permanent exile to India”. Living in such a hostile environment, did he feel increasingly lonely in his last years? We can only guess so, but the question itself is a sad reflection on contemporary India.

Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer and journalist

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