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The Ambivalent Indian

UR Ananthamurthy’s contrarian wisdom

By ANJUM HASAN | 1 August 2016

IN NOVEMBER 2006, Bangalore was officially renamed Bengaluru following a movement spearheaded by the writer UR Ananthamurthy. He had argued for this as part of a wider project of “Kannadization,” by which, he wrote shortly afterwards,“I mean the ability to belong to the world at large even as one is rooted in one’s Kannadaness.” URA, as Ananthamurthy is locally and affectionately known, was shaking his fist at the new-millennium, tech-driven, glass-and-chrome Bangalore, whose shocking prosperity seemed to have inured it to local culture. How much the new name dented this indifference remains an open question. URA admitted it was “a symbolic step,” even while hoping it would lead to a collective change of heart. He was also involved in a long-running and potentially more far-reaching campaign to enhance the presence of Kannada in Karnataka’s school system—a change that has proved much harder to effect than replacing a city’s name. In every instance of public life in the state that hung on the question of where the local should stand in relation to the English-spewing juggernaut of globalisation, URA’s opinion was sought and widely broadcast.

URA’s stature as one of the grandest writers of our era derives from Samskara and Bharathipura, the radically outspoken novels he wrote at the beginning of his career, in the 1960s and 1970s. If those novels about inward-looking critics of inherited tradition had forever altered the landscape of Kannada literature, they also seemed to invest their author with the responsibility of asking what we should do when faced with the vulnerability of those very traditions. URA the writer was long familiar to readers in Karnataka, but he was more prominent in the national media as a loquacious public figure, who held positions such as the presidency of the Sahitya Akademi and chairmanship of the Film and Television Institute of India.

Living in Bangalore since the late 1990s, I first came to know URA as just this—a commentator on most leading issues of the day, a newspaper voice. He never became part of the political establishment, yet his tone could seem, to the new migrant, very similar, in its rhetoric and generalisations, with that of the state. It is only by setting his publicly aired views alongside those in his fiction and essays, as I started to do much later, that I discovered how complex and contrarian his project was. He wanted “Bangalore” to be pronounced the Kannada way even as his writings remind us that this is not an exclusively Kannada city. It is, and has been throughout its modern history, linguistically hybrid: the elite speak one language, maybe two, but a working-class person might know all the four major southern languages, along with some Urdu, Hindi and English. Theatres here screen films in Kannada, English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and more, though the showing of non-Kannada films has been contested in recent times.

While URA hoped to get Bangalore’s citizens to reimagine the city, it was, I would discover, somewhat irrelevant in his fiction—unlike the richly evoked villages and small towns of his childhood, or even England, where he spent some years as a student. The characters that do live in Bangalore tend to pine for different homes. Other characters shrink from the idea of moving there, the modern city showing up the terrible superficiality of the urbane Indian. Jagannatha, the hero of Bharathipura, imagines himself a radical, throwing parties, living somewhere in the Cantonment with similar rootless people, with an Indianness linked to Ravi Shankar’s sitar, the sculptures of Konark, and folk songs, wearing Lucknow kurtas at parties…and women in silk saris with sleeveless blouses and shaved armpits, sisters-in-law of IAS officers or those waiting to get married to military officers, and the usual small talk, “Won’t you have something? Why? Are you dieting?”

URA’s criticism of English-language writers for their monolingualism seemed to emerge from genuine dismay, but could also border on caricature. The poet and critic Vijay Nambisan describes, in his book Language as an Ethic, listening to URA declare, as president of the Sahitya Akademi, that English-language writers adopt the tongue “in order to make money; that the culture to which they owe allegiance is that of Europe; and that their writing in English—the same language World Bank memos are written in—is proof that they favour a consumerist market economy.” But URA could also be a compelling speaker in the language of the World Bank; he had a strikingly gentle, smiling manner, and was in person a thinker clearly more agile and sophisticated than the one quoted weekly in the papers. Time and again, he returned in his public talks to the question of how our individual experiences might square up with the possibly dangerous allure of concepts such as the nation and the state, and to how India remained a deeply divided society. I am not a cosmopolitan, he would also say, reminding his audience, and seemingly himself, of his roots in a traditional, rural Brahmin community from the west coast of Karnataka. Yet this repeated return to the question of roots did, inevitably, make him something of a cosmopolitan.

While a nativist edge crept into URA’s public positions over time, he categorically distanced himself from the right-wing brand of nationalism, stating to the media on the eve of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the last general election that he was reluctant to live in Narendra Modi’s India, and that the prime minister-to-be was a “bully” who would likely create an atmosphere of fear. That URA was not just adding to the clamour of opinion either for or against Modi, but expressing a deep anxiety over the BJP’s ascendency, is clear from the last book he wrote before his death in August 2014—the long essay Hindutva Athava Hind Swaraj, which recently appeared in English as Hindutva Or Hind Swaraj. The sociologist Shiv Viswanathan, in his foreword to the English edition, calls the text a manifesto. But it is less a statement of beliefs or a call to action than an introspective, and philosophical, account of the nature and possible sources of Modi’s hubris—and, further, of elements of it that could, unwittingly, be present in all of us. To try and understand the Indian right’s evil—he uses the word unhesitatingly—URA draws on literature ranging from the Old Testament to the poetry of WH Auden, with references along the way to the Indian epics and the medieval and modern Kannada poetry that shaped him.

In exploring the proximity of evil to good, and making an appeal to inner voice and ordinary experience, the essay becomes more about ethics than politics. It is only in literature, URA suggests—in the tormented conscience of Dostoevskyís Raskolnikov, for instance—that we might discover how the hunger for power can be tempered with humaneness. And a highly persuasive literary text—in that it is intimate, appearing to speak to just one listener—isMohandas Gandhi’s 1909 anti-imperialist treatise Hind Swaraj. It offers us a chance to confront and take personal responsibility for the downsides of modern civilisation, and not just imperialism.

Against this, URA sets up Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s 1923 book Essentials of Hindutva, a rousing polemic in defence of a Hindu India. Savarkar’s Hindutva is founded on a reverence for the Sanskrit language and a belief in India as a holy land (perhaps because the foundational epics of Hinduism, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, are set here). But Hindutva is more a cultural and racial concept than a religious one—Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains are welcome in Savarkar’s India, but Muslims are not. This was the text that inspired Nathuram Godse to kill Gandhi—“the sacrificial offering made at the yajna of nation building.” And the depravity of that act was given, via Savarkar, the respectable garb of nationalism. “Evil is not evil,” URA points out ironically, “in the context of love for one’s nation.”

He does not himself intend to be polemical, acknowledging that the Gandhian era is over, and that, for the moment at least, Savarkar has won. This is more than just a political victory. It is a triumph over the Gandhian ethics of non-violence, a success of the sterile “Age of Development,” in which the natural world has been destroyed, local traditions and trades wiped out, lands snatched from communities that subsisted on them, and everything undertaken with an eye to profit by the “heartless hunters” of the corporate world. The perniciousness of the nationalism that Savarkar celebrated lies in its abstractions. Imagining a glorious past and a present cleansed of the messiness of Indian heterogeneity, we start to also yield the responsibility for our own lives to a state that can bolster this fiction and nurture our greed. The Gandhian critique of the big state is thus also URA’s, who says,“there is never a time when it is not necessary to oppose the state.” But can we do without the state altogether? How much power is optimal to stem the human instinct to anarchy? He offers us a choice of answers—from Buddhist parables to the views of Joseph Conrad.

“URA’s essay is a shaman’s warning to an India moving to self-destruct,” Viswanathan writes in the foreword. That description is equally well suited to Hind Swaraj. URA’s tract is, alongside, a necessary lament—even if a somewhat distraught and disjointed one. When several writers returned their national awards last year in protest, among other things, against the killings of the intellectuals Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi, some, in dismissing that gesture of solidarity, implied that the writers’ voice counts for little. Hindutva Or Hind Swaraj shows us that we, in fact, urgently need such a voice through which to mourn what has passed and examine what has replaced it, one that is personal and furious, concerned and thoughtful. The literary sensibility entails not just being well read, but also making space for the tangled individual conscience instead of giving way to the hymn of the nation.

THE APPLICATION OF A LITERARY SENSIBILITY to politics and a political sensibility to literature was the hallmark of URA’s style. Take his attitude to state power. The writer who argued in his last work for the necessity of opposing the state also set great store by political action as a means to effect far more powerful changes than any possible just through writing.

URA was closely associated with socialist movements in Karnataka, and later in his career also made an unsuccessful bid for a Rajya Sabha seat. “The reality for a novelist in India … is so complex as to disallow the comforts of either statusquoist acceptance or of revolutionary ruthlessness,” he wrote in an essay. URA did not so much occupy a middle ground as challenge the orthodoxies of each of these positions, and see in the resultant flux the only possible source of creativity for a thinking Indian. Even as he attempted to enter politics, he was writing fiction that asked to what extent politics is a suitable arena for ideology and action, and whether it can offer an ethical basis for being in the world rather than just a career option. Revolutionary ruthlessness may not work in practice, but its way of clarifying and sharpening the individual personality is one of the great themes of URA’s fiction.

The figure of the revolutionary—often a charismatic communist who is all for violent means to bring about a classless society—appears in several of URA’s short stories and novels, to engage, irritate and impress the protagonists and ultimately vanish in pursuit of his cause. In the short story ‘The Sky and the Cat,’ the anarchist Govindan Nayar visits the deathbed of an old friend, a village lawyer. Nayar spends his days organising the poor and his nights sleeping on the verandahs of strangers’ homes; he has gone to prison for beating a minister with a shoe and threatening him with an acid bomb. His street-corner talk repels Krishnamurthy, the dying man’s son, who is an economics professor in Delhi.

But Krishnamurthy also sees in the vagrant communist a clarity of vision and a faith in action that he himself lacks. Is Nayar a “ludicrous eccentric,” or does his elevated vision show up the pettiness of Krishnamurthyís persistent scramble for money? In ‘The Story of a Decade,’ a young Naxalite from Kerala, on the run from the police, challenges the bourgeois values of his college professor while taking shelter in the latterís home, subjecting his hostís domestic situation to a Marxist analysis. “Sir, I feel youíre under the impression that you can keep your wife happy by accumulating wealth. But your wife is not happy. Only when you are part of revolutionary activities can you be happy in the true sense.”

The revolutionary gets to have his say at greater length in the novel Avasthe. Annaji, a peasant organiser from Telangana, wanted by the police in two states and hiding out under an assumed name in a third, instructs Krishnappa, a young politician-in-the-making, on the difference between middle-class aspirations for prosperity, and the “dynamic greed” of the labouring classes, who need encouragement to rise up and change relationships in the realm of production. Avasthe is the story of Krishnappa’s sentimental education—the relationships with a series of unconventional men and women which shape him, a Shudra cowherd of the Gowda community, into a leading politician. While the novel presents something of the everyday calculations and compromises involved in politics, at its core is Krishnappa’s intensely personal search for the truth about his character and his motives.

Politics offers one route to both a better self and a better world, but the path of mysticism is equally attractive to Krishanappa—and, apparently, to URA.

As confident as the revolutionaries in URA’s fiction are the mystics. Both types of renegades are free from the hurly-burly: family, sexual attachments, worries over money, professional obligations. They have that unconstrained, direct access to experience which his educated, successful, clever but tortured protagonists can spend their lives missing. Often these visionaries are imagined as village idiots with the singular gift of self-acceptance. One of URA’s best-known stories, ‘Stallion for the Sun,’ presents a down-and-out simpleton, Venkata, who has such an acquiescent nature and capacity for joy that it makes his visiting friend, the narrator, wonder whether such a person ought to be celebrated or reviled. “I began to feel that without destroying the likes of this Venkata there would be no progress, no electricity, no river dams, no penicillin, no pride, no honour, no joy of sex, no winning a woman, no climax, no flying, no joy of life, no memory, no ecstasy, no bliss,” he thinks. But the story ends with Venkata appearing, at least for a moment, to have won the narrator over with his enchanting naiveté.

In the story ‘Akkayya,’ Srinivasa, a professor of English in the United States, realises that the title character—the elder sister who brought him up, a woman too scared to board a bus and who spent her time conversing with cows—would be considered an imbecile from the perspective of “Western capitalist efficiency.” Sitting in his plush Philadelphia home, Srinivasa ponders how this sister played no active part in his adult, cosmopolitan life, and yet influenced it deeply. He tells his visiting friend,

all the theories I conceptualized in the course of my successful career are either in order to move away from this world of Akkayya, or because I thought I had already moved away from it. That is how I first became a progressive Marxist, then a liberal, then a modernist, and now a post-modernist.

The narrator considers Srinivasa’s “theoretical sadness”—a wonderful phrase for the angst suffered by many of URA’s constantly cogitating characters. Dinakar, in the novel Bhava, suffers from a theoretical sadness too. He is a well-known television personality, exhausted by the shallowness of his life, taking a break to go on a pilgrimage. In contrast to him is the elderly widow Sitamma, whom he had known as a child, and who was, for a time, a foster mother to him. She is an Akkayya-like character, who lives completely in the moment, absorbed in household chores and rituals, and able to be utterly compassionate while preserving caste taboos. It is this feat—being immersed while staying detached—that, according to Hindu philosophy, gets you off the merry-go-round of birth and death from which the novel takes its name.

“Self-realization should come to you, suddenly,” says Keshav, yet another alienated, URA-like character, to his English friend Stewart in the story ‘Clip Joint.’ “It’ s then that life takes a new turn and renews itself. If not, we keep circling forever in a predetermined groove in pursuit of an elusive self-realization.” Dinakar, in Bhava, feels the same way, describing himself as someone“desiring desirelessness, and realizing it canít be got by desiring it.”

Yet in the novel Bharathipura, the motivation runs in the opposite direction. This is the most psychologically weighty of URA’s works on the question of action versus acceptance. Jagan, a young radical and village landowner recently returned from England,is certain that Bharathipura will be shaken out of its festering stupor only if he rouses the townís lower-caste people, the excrement-cleaning Holeyaru, into self-respect. Yet, at every turn, he parses, with feverish insistence, his own motives and compulsions. He is tormented with the idea that he is a “subtle fraud,” but seems to be the only person in the town who notices its oppressive hierarchies and blind faith. As Jagan’s personal project to lead the Holeyaru into the town’s temple gets going, it inevitably becomes a public one, and the repercussions are out of his hands.

URA’s fiction holds at its heart not so much politics or mysticism as a delicate existential anguish—which is, however, never solipsistic, always tangled up with a particular position in the world. The social universe evoked is often that of farming communities in the Malnad region, where he grew up. He seems to know it all—absurdly intricate caste habits, the minutiae of financial transactions required for survival, the hollowed-out lives of widows, the men in flight from tradition. The single-minded mystics and revolutionaries, charming as they are, donít form the mainstay of his stories. The ambivalent ones do—those suffering from “the sickness of being over-introspective.”

For URA, who was born in pre-Independence India and went on to pursue a PhD at the University of Birmingham in the company of influential left-leaning writers such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and EP Thompson, the ambivalences have always been personal. He is the Indian intellectual who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, one for whom the national movement was a youthful dream that, in those early decades of independence, no longer exercised its former hold. Bharathipura is full of similarly disenchanted figures—once passionate supporters of a free India, now, in middle age, if not apathetic, at least quietly middle-class.

Beyond recording this loss of political belief, Bharathipura asks a deeper question: how does an ordinary person affirm his individuality when gripped by the facelessness of politics? A minor character called Desai, who appears only over a few pages, says that on hearing the news of India’s independence he felt,

an awareness that this would have happened even if I had not fought in the freedom struggle of 1942 … The awareness that Independence would have come to us anyway made me feel as if a deep trench had opened up in my life; as if I had been living in an illusion. History rolls on even if we’re not there.

The impulse of the novel is Gandhian—namely, the dire need to give personal meaning to political action. Only with such an investment, it is suggested, might disillusionment of the kind Desai experiences be avoided. At the same time, the dreamt-of action that animates the novel is not Gandhian, for Jagan opposes religion rather than seeking to reform it.

So while URA’s public utterances sometimes made him come across as a dour, anti-English figure, that stance (all polemic is by nature exaggeration, he once said) is not without its symbolic aspects. He could adopt the sweeping idiom of politics in support of his native language and traditions, while subjecting these traditions to scrutiny in his writing. This may seem like a contradiction, but it is, beyond that, performative. He was enacting the difficulties inherent in being an Indian writer.

EXPLICATING THE IDEA OF KARNATAKA was a major part of URA’s project—the state was, for him, not just a political formation but also a cultural anchor. One way in which he upheld its value was by rejecting the idea of the sub-national. “If Karnataka is not also a centre of a nation, then there is no nation,” he said in an interview.“The nation is multi-centred. Therefore, Tamil Nadu is a reality, Maharashtra is a reality. India is a federal country. When I say that Karnataka exists, I mean that a federal state exists.” URA also reached further back than the era of the modern nation for metaphors used by older Kannada writers to make sense of their place in the world. One of these, which he often returned to, is the twinning of marga and desi. The most enduring elements of Kannada culture, from the work of the tenth-century poet Pampa to the modern verse of Gopalakrishna Adiga, blend these two complementary strands. URA wrote,

Marga is the high-way. It is the pan-Indian ìgreatî tradition, formal, established and honoured everywhere. It is Shastra.

Desi is indigenous, local, ìlittleî tradition. It varies from place to place, even from village to village, and from one caste to another. These two are in opposition as well as in a mutually creative relationship.

The tradition thereby becomes catholic; what it absorbs from elsewhere it combines with local experience. By contrast, too firm a belief in nationalism, too secure a cultural pride—and this is present in Kannada culture as well—leads to celebratory, uncritical writing. While this may seem glaringly obvious to us today, it is not necessarily something that a writer of URA’s generation could take for granted, coming of age as he did in an era when iconic figures such as DR Bendre and Kuvempu were, through their writing, bringing a sense of historical inevitability to the demand for an independent Karnataka. Patriotism is not the most fertile ground for a critical literature. The uncomfortable truths of experience, which may well fly in the face of love of country or culture, are a more potent source. Yet,

For our culture as a whole the contradictions in life are unimportant; only the transcendent is of value … We say “yes” to existence much too easily, and, therefore, on our writers who do not have a strong sense of the personal nature of experience, our culture can have a dangerous influence.

This is superbly nuanced. URA was perhaps one of the most self-aware writers this country has ever produced, ever alert to, possibly even overly conscious of, the heterogeneous sources of his creativity. Why, then, did he sometimes go the other way, speaking in the voice not of a critic but a campaigner? Why was he infatuated with political power?

A clue might be found in the writings of that arch theoretician of Indian political culture, and friend of URA’s, Ashis Nandy. In his book Time Warps, Nandy identifies three ways in which we tend to imagine the state: as protector, as liberator or moderniser, and as arbiter. If, going by the second image, we accept the state’s role in refitting or upgrading culture,

it becomes justifiable then to retain, somehow or the other, some access to state power, even if that means ideological or moral compromises Ö many radicals who are willing to adorn the smallest offices of power under regimes they themselves attack as reactionary, justify themselves through this widely shared image of state and culture Ö they believe they follow what was once a grand and romantic strategy for altering the civilisational face of India.

It is worth remembering, though, that being actively political was not always seen as a compromise. URA was channelling a pre-Independence tradition of intellectual participation in politics, and some from the generation of Kannada writers preceding him—such as Shivaram Karanth and Gopalakrishna Adiga—had made forays into politics too.

URA’s fascination with power was not purely theoretical—he certainly wanted to influence the real world—but he was also taken with power’s psychological effects. Avasthe, for instance, is a sympathetic study of a politician’s mind. Among the characters who fascinate Krishnappa is Nagaraj, yet another revolutionary who only believes in total solutions and who thinks of parliamentary politics as an imperfect means to a glorious, Maoist end. Nagaraj has no interest in his own emotions: he “lived as a loner … sticking fast to his ideals, limiting his personality by intensely focussing it towards a single goal.” Individual dilemmas do not matter to him, whereas Krishnappa, equally idealistic in some ways, is obsessed with questions of his own honesty. What, he wonders, has he done for the good of the people, and what has he undertaken out of self-interest?

Similarly, in the novella Bara, published during the Emergency, Satisha, a principled IAS officer working in a drought-affected district, finds his authority, and his intention to use it to save a starving population, trumped by the manipulations of others in power. Like Krishnappa, Satisha hopes to bring about change while heeding his conscience. Yet both characters also obsess over whether this concern for inner consistency is not mere self-indulgence. As the scholar Chandan Gowda asks in the afterword to his English translation of Bara, “what is ‘inward’? Conscience? Inner voice? Moral intuition? … Pre-existing moral diagnoses and prescriptions do not offer a promise: a search for a new ethics has become necessary.”

A new ethics is also called for to answer the question that the conflicted radicals Nandy describes have long been split over: to what extent should the country and its people modernise, and what is to be the stateís role in this project? “We are all modernisers with an uneasy conscience,” URA wrote. What prevents his views from dissolving into an empty relativism is a leaning towards the dialectic rather than the eclectic. He moves, in his fiction, towards moments of realisation, even if not resolution. In his essays, which often extend and question the slants of his novels and stories, there is a constant search for a sustainable moral position. Writing, for him, is the expression of a world view, rather than only an uncovering of sensibility. “My dream of combining Marxism with mysticism in actual praxis will never come true,” he said, about halfway through his career.“In a literary work, perhaps, but not real life.”

That thought captures URA’ s concern about literature as an effective way of engaging with the world—or, more specifically, with the idea of India. While at some moments he was exhausted with his self-questioning, wanting to retreat back into his work, almost immediately he worried about writing degenerating into“trivial aestheticism” and its pursuit leading one to lose the common touch. Yet he knew that artists can become smooth-talking public figures, and that it is only by hiding in art, as the Soviet writer and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did, that they retain their integrity. He spoke of his choice to write in Kannada as a political one, but was also aware that, in India, the outsider-ness necessary to produce a modern literature, in whichever language, itself implied some loss. And even though some might imagine that in reading him, a Kannada writer, they are reading a representative insider—and URA’s politics contributed to this insider image—doing so obscures the vastly complex sense of both belonging and not belonging, the modernist tentativeness, that he actually felt in relation to the Kannada tradition.

In one of his short stories, ‘Peacock,’ a middle-aged man is haunted by the feeling that he once used to experience things with a now-vanished immediacy, but he is not sure whether this earlier innocence is real or imagined. This, of course, was URA’ s own conundrum: he returned repeatedly to childhood, not just for private memories but also to probe a state of being which is now eroded, not least because the world in which it was set, the Western Ghats-bound Malnad of his early years, had with time lost its magical feeling of seclusion. The turn to childhood suggests a yearning for continuity, but URA tended to be metaphorical, rather than literal, in his approach to this theme. He did not hold up an unbroken chain of influence, but rather asked how a Kannada writer today might reach out, say, to Basava, the twelfth-century poet-reformer, and find in his spoken verse a contemporary resonance.

But again, this is not a selective dipping into tradition. What ties URA to Basava is his wonder at the fact that the poet’s words are perfectly lucid to him 800 years down the line, in a way that, for instance, those of the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, from the fourteenth century, would not be to a contemporary speaker of English. And thus it is that language becomes tradition. In the case of Kannada, oral elements sustain it—many Kannada speakers, through the ages and till the present day, have been, in the conventional sense, illiterate. And here URA leaves us with yet another paradox: the compulsively intellectual writer upholding the value of speaking rather than writing—and even, following the example of another twelfth-century poet, Allama Prabhu, sometimes choosing to remain altogether silent because “ultimately language can pollute thought.”

IF THE GANDHIAN MOMENT HAS PASSED, and if the Gandhian method of internal criticism animated URA’s writings, how are we to read him today? His fiction completes an arc—from the most explicit account of Brahminical hair-splitting in a tiny village in Samskara, to short stories such as ‘Hunt Bangle Chameleon’ and ‘Green Resort,’ in which those very rural locations are laid waste by unsparing capitalists for their natural wealth and tourist potential. By his own admission, URA was a critic of religion in his earlier works and of modernisation in his later ones. In either case, this did not entail a wholesale rejection of the past or the present. Rather, his question was: what of one’s inheritance is usable when judged by the demands of the present?

The great challenge before his characters is not to shrug off religious tradition, but to make it speak to their individual experiences. In Samskara, the upright Brahmin priest Praneshacharya, while preoccupied with a moral dilemma over the proper death rites for a wayward villager, happens to sleep with the dead man’s mistress. He recognises the nature of experience for the first time, seeing it as “risk, assault. A thing not done before, a joining in the dark of the jungle.” He tries to recast this newly-awakened understanding of sensual experience in the language he knows—which is that of dharma. Jagan, in Bharathipura, wants for himself and others to break free of the town’s dead past, even as he cannot be cynical about his childhood memories of participating in its religious rituals. Dismiss tradition completely and you are in the no manís land of the industrialised, corporate world; swallow it whole and you become obsolete.

Gandhian as this attitude is, URA deviated from Gandhi in asking questions about tradition and modernity as a writer rather than as a reformer. The renewed Praneshacharya feels, for the first time, a frenzied wonder at the beauty of the familiar landscape. “The smell of grass-roots smeared with wet earth held him in its power like an addiction. Like a hen pecking at and raking the ground, he pulled at everything that came to his hand and smelled it. Just sitting coolly under a tree had become a fulfilment, a value. To be, just to be.” Gandhi, for all his partiality to village life, was no poet of the natural world. URA was, while his fiction set in the city is less joyous, more scathing.

So the instinctive goes along with the critical faculty. The village can be beautiful, but the rural is not therefore an organic repository of beauty. And it is through literature that this distinction is honed. Samskara may have earned URA the status of a pioneering critic of Brahminism, but there was already writing accessible to him in the village of his childhood that was seeding his modern awareness—Gandhi’s Harijan and the works of Bertrand Russell and Edmund Burke, but also Chomana Dudi, a 1930s novel by the agnostic and rationalist Kannada writer Shivaram Karanth, about a lower-caste man trying and failing to hold on to a plot of land.

URA’s relationship to Hinduism is probing, open-ended, unmotivated, and therefore, again, literary. It is in this spirit, he recalls in his autobiographical essays, that as a child he secretly urinated on stones considered holy—much like Jagan, in Bharathipura, puts away his sacred thread on one occasion to see how the world feels without it. Unlike the Indian progressive writers led by Premchand, who in their founding manifesto from the mid 1930s deplored the “total lack of rationality” in Indian literature and its “devotional obsession,” URA was not antagonistic to religion. Neither was he programmatically aligned with the strong progressive tradition in Karnataka, led by Dalit writers such as Siddalingaiah and Devanur Mahadeva and rationalists such as H Narasimhaiah, much as he supported its work. URA quoted with respect Marx’s belief that the beginning of thinking is the beginning of the criticism of religion. Yet he was drawn to the mystical, even as he could be sardonic in his fiction about those who mine religion exclusively for its aesthetic value, those kurta-clad visionaries so compelling to the West who create art based on India’s purportedly deep spiritual traditions.

The essay ‘Why Not Worship in the Nude? Reflections of the Novelist in his Times,’ captures some of these ambivalences. This was written in the mid 1980s, in response to civil-society unease at news that a community in Karnataka’s Shimoga district had an annual ritual of worshipping a local goddess without their clothes on. URA is neither fully convinced by the anthropologist’s objective curiosity about the tradition, nor by the activist’s outrage that such a practice can be allowed to go on. He is taken with the inner experience of the devotees, and what it might feel like to see the naked body as neither an aesthetic nor an erotic object. But he knows, too, that this state of wonder is hard to sustain—given that these bodies are subject to the stares of the media, the state, and the modern world in general.

Being grounded in Hinduism without being an out-and-out votary of it is, of course, something enabled by the tradition itself. The wily astrologer Nagaraja Jois, in Bharathipura, casts the Hindu almanac based on Western rather than Indian astronomy, upholds transcendent Advaita philosophy instead of idol worship, and “even knew how to contend that God did not exist.” But this is all part of the daily grind of Hinduism, for none of it stands in the way of Jois wanting his son to take over the duties of the chief priest at the town’s Manjunatha temple.

URA’s heroes often turn away from religiosity in favour of a search for what religion might yield in terms of metaphorical value, as an aid to life. Samskara, his first novel, raised the question of how far ritual could really go. By the time he published Bhava, in the 1990s, URA was plotting something of a return for his world-weary characters who had moved very far from the tradition-bound world of Samskara and into the apparently hollow lifestyles of metropolitan India. His unembarrassed approach to religion, his engagement with it in his inward way, his interest in the moral framework of Hinduism, all put URA at an angle to the largely secular tradition of modern Indian literature.

Fictional narrative also provided space for probing another strand of life, not unrelated to spiritual seeking—that is, sensual experience. There is married life and monogamy, and, at one remove from this, lust. The emotion, and the word, recurs in his fiction. Lustful characters, usually men, abound. They are often horrified or exhausted by their desires, but still do not want to be constrained by family life. Women often stand in the background, either frustrating the men with their limited imaginations, or offering to salve their wounds—a number of golden-hearted mistresses, prostitutes and old flames appear in these narratives. The more sympathetic female characters are usually those encountered outside marriage.

Holding all of this together is talk. URA’s style tends to be dialogic, and there are often seamless shifts between his protagonistsí conversations with themselves and with other people. The paradox of this extensive back-and-forth is that, despite it, characters are often left feeling that they can never completely grasp another person’s consciousness. This is a high-modernist sort of conclusion, and no doubt the basis of an influential aesthetic mode, but not everyone has accepted it as the ideal one in which to write fiction in Kannada. Talking about his new novel Shivana Dangura, the writer Chandrashekhar Kambar recently made a remark that seemed to be aimed at URA’s project. “I reject the model of self-search that we derived from European modernism,” Kambar said.“Such individualism only destroys. We must build, and defeat the loneliness of the self.”

“I FIND MYSELF CONCEPTUALIZING a lot more than what is good for me as a creative writer,” URA once wrote. But in doing so he became his own most committed interpreter—and hedged, partially, against the limitations of an assessment such as this one. If I, as a reader of English, am in danger of missing the Kannada context of his work, he supplies much of that context himself. Reading his fiction, one is introduced to the concerns of a modern Indian writer rather than those of a contemporary oneóthe distinction is the English poet and essayist Stephen Spender’s, and also URA’s. His attention is not focussed exclusively, with journalistic urgency, on the present, but also on the question of how to express poetically the relationship between this increasingly urbanised present, the still-living past, and the writer’s apprehension of both. From URA’s non-fiction, one might discover how his contemporaries and predecessors in Kannada—and also in English, Sanskrit and other Indian languages—relate to each other in his consciousness, rather than merely as upholders of tradition.

Even so, the fogginess that accompanies the reading of much Indian literature in English translation—the awkward renderings, the lack of editorial care, one’s awareness of seeing only the tip of the iceberg—is present in this case too. Barring some essays that originally appeared in English, all of URA’s fiction and non-fiction was written in Kannada. The best of the translations of his work remains the extraordinarily fluid 1976 rendition of Samskara by the poet and scholar AK Ramanujan. Some of his other novels have attracted very competent translators too, such as Susheela Punitha and Judith Kroll. The latter’s lively version of Bhava, done in collaboration with the author, is a wonderful example of how URA’s work might be made accessible. It retains a distinctively colloquial ring, and avoids the explanatory zeal that can infantilise translations of Indian fiction. His non-fiction, however, has not fared as well. While Hindutva or Hind Swaraj comes in an excellent translation by Keerti Ramachandra and Vivek Shanbag, the bulk of URA’s essays still await committed translators and publishers. Only a handful of them, from more than a dozen collections in Kannada, are currently available in English.

URA’s mixed feelings about translation affected the journey of his work into English. In the introduction to Hunt Bangle Chameleon, a translated volume of his short stories, he writes, “I feel I can be authentic only if I donít intend to be translated.” Such a sentiment contributes to one of the abiding myths about Indian literature: that it is untranslatable, and its glories essentially inaccessible to all but native speakers. This is not to discount the specific linguistic challenges involved in every translation, but to question the mystical aura often attributed to the original. It is this aura that leads to claims such as the one made by the translator Narayan Hegde in his introduction to Stallion of the Sun and Other Stories, another of URA’s translated collections: “Truly organic writers of a language refuse to yield at least some part of themselves in translation; that part is hidden away in the interiors of a language to which only sensitive native readers have access.” This could be an acknowledgement of the subtle complexities of URA’s fiction, but it could also be the translator letting himself off the hook for his shortcomings.

As a winner of the Jnanpith and Padma Bhushan awards, URA was an “important” writer—that is, one publicly enshrined rather than nationally read. Given the range of his preoccupations and the richness of his fiction, URA was more than just important—he was necessary. Even though a complete appreciation of his work requires an understanding of how he related to and broke with the Kannada tradition, his readership ought not to be circumscribed by language, not least because he was also a substantial writer and speaker in English, and, by talking about his work, constantly translated himself. URA reminds us that there once were writers, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra, who became part of the common culture. We no longer relate to our writers in the same trans-regional way, even if URA himself had the makings of such a figure.

Perhaps it is the creative revival of a language, rather than a politically enforced one, that we ought to aim for. Instead, the view from Bangalore is that the metropolitan middle class is moving away from Kannada (and, inevitably, its literature), towards the more functional English. The legacy of the language wars is a mixed one. The most defensible of URA’s proposed public policies to do with Kannada—that it become a mandatory medium of primary education—was rejected by a Supreme Court order in 2014, which upheld a similar rejection some years earlier by the Karnataka High Court. The Karnataka government responded last year with a bill that makes learning the language compulsory for all school children—something URA would have wholeheartedly welcomed. Meanwhile, the gentler, more cerebral Kannada-language activism of the past is now in danger of being usurped by the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, a right-wing group with a thuggish approach to inculcating respect for native culture. As the journalist Sugata Srinivasraju writes in his thoughtful book about being bilingual, Pickles from Home, “In Karnataka, no activist group has attained the ‘stature’ of the Shiv Sena or the MNS in Maharashtra, but they aspire to get there soon. … we may be in need of a separate movement to rescue all that is local and regional from these people. We may have to rescue Kannada and Kannadigas from ‘its own’ activists.”

It is not only URA’s concern for the Kannada language that has started to take new and alienating forms. The very combination of things that he represented—and which made him, to quote WH Auden, not just a person but “a whole climate of opinion”—is gone. A strictly traditional Brahmin upbringing, inflected with the anti-colonial movement, the first modern writing in Kannada, and an exposure to new ideas through English; the study and teaching of English literature as a way to access the great ideas of the past; an intense but qualified kinship with local traditions; a high regard for European modernism; an interest in questions that applied to the Indian psyche rather than a narrow regionalism—very little of all this will be replayed in the life of a Kannada writer of the generation coming up today. Political passion is now more likely to fuel the creativity of those from marginalised groups rather than the Brahmin middle class. Someone as steeped in English literature as URA was—and as Adiga, Ramanujan and P Lankesh were—is, today, unlikely to possess their highly developed bilingualism. And English literature itself no longer has the same relevance to Indian writers. The United States, rather than England, is more likely to attract the young intellectual.

That the main source for URA’s writing was his own biography shows that he was aware of its generational uniqueness. Reading him is revelatory of a twentieth-century Indian zeitgeist that is now—and not least because of the horrors he captured in his final book—fading out.

IN NOVEMBER 2006, Bangalore was officially renamed Bengaluru following a movement spearheaded by the writer UR Ananthamurthy. He had argued for this as part of a wider project of “Kannadization,” by which, he wrote shortly afterwards,“I mean the ability to belong to the world at large even as one is rooted in one’s Kannadaness.” URA, as Ananthamurthy is locally and affectionately known, was shaking his fist at the new-millennium, tech-driven, glass-and-chrome Bangalore, whose shocking prosperity seemed to have inured it to local culture. How much the new name dented this indifference remains an open question. URA admitted it was “a symbolic step,” even while hoping it would lead to a collective change of heart. He was also involved in a long-running and potentially more far-reaching campaign to enhance the presence of Kannada in Karnataka’s school system—a change that has proved much harder to effect than replacing a city’s name. In every instance of public life in the state that hung on the question of where the local should stand in relation to the English-spewing juggernaut of globalisation, URA’s opinion was sought and widely broadcast.

URA’s stature as one of the grandest writers of our era derives from Samskara and Bharathipura, the radically outspoken novels he wrote at the beginning of his career, in the 1960s and 1970s. If those novels about inward-looking critics of inherited tradition had forever altered the landscape of Kannada literature, they also seemed to invest their author with the responsibility of asking what we should do when faced with the vulnerability of those very traditions. URA the writer was long familiar to readers in Karnataka, but he was more prominent in the national media as a loquacious public figure, who held positions such as the presidency of the Sahitya Akademi and chairmanship of the Film and Television Institute of India.

Living in Bangalore since the late 1990s, I first came to know URA as just this—a commentator on most leading issues of the day, a newspaper voice. He never became part of the political establishment, yet his tone could seem, to the new migrant, very similar, in its rhetoric and generalisations, with that of the state. It is only by setting his publicly aired views alongside those in his fiction and essays, as I started to do much later, that I discovered how complex and contrarian his project was. He wanted “Bangalore” to be pronounced the Kannada way even as his writings remind us that this is not an exclusively Kannada city. It is, and has been throughout its modern history, linguistically hybrid: the elite speak one language, maybe two, but a working-class person might know all the four major southern languages, along with some Urdu, Hindi and English. Theatres here screen films in Kannada, English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and more, though the showing of non-Kannada films has been contested in recent times.

While URA hoped to get Bangalore’s citizens to reimagine the city, it was, I would discover, somewhat irrelevant in his fiction—unlike the richly evoked villages and small towns of his childhood, or even England, where he spent some years as a student. The characters that do live in Bangalore tend to pine for different homes. Other characters shrink from the idea of moving there, the modern city showing up the terrible superficiality of the urbane Indian. Jagannatha, the hero of Bharathipura, imagines himself a radical, throwing parties, living somewhere in the Cantonment with similar rootless people, with an Indianness linked to Ravi Shankar’s sitar, the sculptures of Konark, and folk songs, wearing Lucknow kurtas at parties…and women in silk saris with sleeveless blouses and shaved armpits, sisters-in-law of IAS officers or those waiting to get married to military officers, and the usual small talk, “Won’t you have something? Why? Are you dieting?”

URA’s criticism of English-language writers for their monolingualism seemed to emerge from genuine dismay, but could also border on caricature. The poet and critic Vijay Nambisan describes, in his book Language as an Ethic, listening to URA declare, as president of the Sahitya Akademi, that English-language writers adopt the tongue “in order to make money; that the culture to which they owe allegiance is that of Europe; and that their writing in English—the same language World Bank memos are written in—is proof that they favour a consumerist market economy.” But URA could also be a compelling speaker in the language of the World Bank; he had a strikingly gentle, smiling manner, and was in person a thinker clearly more agile and sophisticated than the one quoted weekly in the papers. Time and again, he returned in his public talks to the question of how our individual experiences might square up with the possibly dangerous allure of concepts such as the nation and the state, and to how India remained a deeply divided society. I am not a cosmopolitan, he would also say, reminding his audience, and seemingly himself, of his roots in a traditional, rural Brahmin community from the west coast of Karnataka. Yet this repeated return to the question of roots did, inevitably, make him something of a cosmopolitan.

While a nativist edge crept into URA’s public positions over time, he categorically distanced himself from the right-wing brand of nationalism, stating to the media on the eve of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the last general election that he was reluctant to live in Narendra Modi’s India, and that the prime minister-to-be was a “bully” who would likely create an atmosphere of fear. That URA was not just adding to the clamour of opinion either for or against Modi, but expressing a deep anxiety over the BJP’s ascendency, is clear from the last book he wrote before his death in August 2014—the long essay Hindutva Athava Hind Swaraj, which recently appeared in English as Hindutva Or Hind Swaraj. The sociologist Shiv Viswanathan, in his foreword to the English edition, calls the text a manifesto. But it is less a statement of beliefs or a call to action than an introspective, and philosophical, account of the nature and possible sources of Modi’s hubris—and, further, of elements of it that could, unwittingly, be present in all of us. To try and understand the Indian right’s evil—he uses the word unhesitatingly—URA draws on literature ranging from the Old Testament to the poetry of WH Auden, with references along the way to the Indian epics and the medieval and modern Kannada poetry that shaped him.

In exploring the proximity of evil to good, and making an appeal to inner voice and ordinary experience, the essay becomes more about ethics than politics. It is only in literature, URA suggests—in the tormented conscience of Dostoevskyís Raskolnikov, for instance—that we might discover how the hunger for power can be tempered with humaneness. And a highly persuasive literary text—in that it is intimate, appearing to speak to just one listener—isMohandas Gandhi’s 1909 anti-imperialist treatise Hind Swaraj. It offers us a chance to confront and take personal responsibility for the downsides of modern civilisation, and not just imperialism.

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Anjum Hasan is the Books Editor at The Caravan. She is the author of the novels The Cosmopolitans (2015) Neti, Neti (2009) and Lunatic in my Head (2007) as well as the short fiction collection Difficult Pleasures (2012) and book of poems Street on the Hill (2006). Her reviews, short fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in various publications in India and abroad. 

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READER'S COMMENTS

2 thoughts on “The Ambivalent Indian”

Though not a keen reader of English translations of Indian vernacular writing, I nevertheless read Samskara a few years ago thanks to URA’s stature as a scholar and, more importantly, dissident. I could see why the book must have been a landmark when it was published, but after all these years, especially for someone who grew up in a protected, urban environment, it did not have the visceral power that so many people claimed. This essay has now led me to question the dated translation and the highly stylized but caricaturish characterizations. It was an angry book, and probably much needed, but as a work of literature, I felt it was not very evolved.

We read English translations of Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Czech and German literature, not to mention Latin and Greek epics, and while the world’s created by Dostoevsky, Garcia Marquez, Saramago, Proust, Kundera and Kafka seem like our own, why is it that Indian translations are so often appalling? Is it because of that quality you mention which makes the nuances untranslatable or just bad translation and editorial? All Indians share a certain culture, a very subtle commonality that probably evolved from having shared a geography for as long we have and because of which reading the translated work of someone writing in a sibling language should easily find resonance; Though more often that not it does not.

Anjum, with your literary background and access to that world are well placed to provide a diagnosis. Can you please share your thoughts?

I happened to read the English translation of Samskara recently and I was left unimpressed. May be the message the book is trying to convey is dated. Instead of being a genuine work of literature , it seems like a polemic against poor Brahmins who need pity more than the barely concealed vitriol that the author pours on them. The book reads like the work of a missionary and as I got close to the end I was anticipating that the the protagonist will probably convert to Christianity and be saved by Jesus. This overrated author has allowed his hatred of Hindus to mar any merit this work might have had. Any writer who has no sympathy for his characters is not worth his salt.

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