One of the many stories, based on a Sanskrit tale, that the late U R Ananthamurthy [21 December 1932 - 22 August 2014] used to tell often is of a cow named Punyakoti which would go out to graze in the forest in the country called Karnataka. One evening, as the other cows made their way home, Punyakoti meandered into a particularly grassy area that was, however, the territory of a tiger. As Arbutha was about to pounce upon the cow, Punyakoti pleaded with Arbutha that she might be allowed to go feed her calf before returning to become his dinner. If the tiger was hungry, so was her calf; and the tiger ought to be sufficiently well-informed in dharma to know that a promise thus given would not be broken. The tiger relents: Punyakoti reaches home, feeds her little one, bids her farewell, and then presents herself before Arbutha. Astounded by Punyakoti’s fidelity to truth and her capacity for sacrifice, Arbutha has a sudden change of heart and begins to undertake penance—or so states the Sanskrit original. Recounting this popular story some years ago in an essay entitled ‘Growing up in Karnataka’, Ananthamurthy had this to say: ‘It is the dharma of the tiger to be a flesh eater. By a change of heart he cannot become a vegetarian. He has no choice but to die.’ Contrary to the Sanskrit storyteller, the Kannada poet has Arbutha leap to his death: ‘The Kannada poet is more convincing. By a change of heart, the tiger can only die. It is as absolute as that.’
Encapsulated in Ananthamurthy’s pithy commentary on ‘The Song of the Cow’ are many of the principal themes which shaped the literary oeuvre and worldview of an immensely gifted writer and critic whose death a week ago has robbed Kannada of its greatest voice, India of an extraordinary decent man and supple writer, and the world, which sadly knew too little of him, of a storyteller and intellectual whose fecundity of thought and robust play with ideas shames many of those who style themselves cosmopolitans. Much has been written on the manner in which Ananthamurthy, not unlike other sensitive writers and thinkers in India (and elsewhere in the global South), negotiated the tension between the global and the local, tradition and modernity; but, as is palpable from more than a merely cursory reading of his criticism and fiction, Ananthamurthy also remained engaged throughout his life with the tension between Sanskrit and the bhashas, the marga and the desi, and what he called ‘the frontyard’ and ‘the backyard’. Ananthamurthy completed a doctorate in English literature, taught English at a number of institutions, and was completely at home in the masterworks of Western literature; and, yet, he was profoundly rooted in Sanskritic and especially Kannada literary traditions. In reading Ananthamurthy, one is brought to an overwhelming, indeed humbling, awareness of his deep immersion in a thousand year-old tradition stretching from Pampa, Mahadeviyakka, and Allama Prabhu through the Vijayanagar-era poet and composer Purandaradasa to his contemporaries Shivarama Karanth, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Bendre, Kuvempu, Adiga, and others. In this, as in other respects, Ananthamurthy also inhabited a world where the simultaneity ‘of the ancient, the primitive, the medieval and the modern’ was ever present, not only in social structures but ‘often in a single consciousness’. It is doubtful that anyone among the most celebrated of our writers who have made a name for themselves as notable exponents of the English novel or what might be termed global non-fiction have anything even remotely close to the knowledge that Ananthamurthy had of Indian bhashas. In his essay, ‘Towards the Concept of a New Nationhood’, Ananthamurthy gave it as one of his ‘pet theories’ that ‘in India, the more literate one is, the fewer languages one knows.’ In ‘the small town where I come from,’ Ananthamurthy was to write, ‘one who may not be so literate speaks Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, some Hindi, and some English. It is these people who have kept India together, not merely those who may know only one language.’
Few Indian novels have been discussed as much as Ananthamurthy’s Samskara. Fewer still, especially in India, are the number of creative people who have been entrusted with the care of institutions and intellectual enterprises and not left them diminished. Ananthamurthy was not only a celebrated writer, but someone who stood at the helm of important institutions—Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, and the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune—and strengthened them. As President of the Sahitya Akademi, he strove to ensure that all the languages under the academy’s jurisdiction received parity; moreover, he ensured the autonomy of the institution by prevailing upon the academy to reject the Haksar Committee’s recommendation that the academy’s president be appointed by the government on the advice of a search committee. Those familiar with the Indian literary, artistic, and intellectual scene that extends well beyond the metropoles and even “provincial” capitals are more likely to remember Ananthamurthy as the principal mentor of that unique experiment which for decades has been taking place in Heggodu, Shimoga District. Here, in the midst of areca nut plantations, the cultural organization Ninasam attracts students, workers, and villagers for a week-long annual course to discuss literature, movies, music, philosophy, and science. Ananthamurthy unfailingly graced this gathering every year, nurturing the young and facilitating spirited conversations that lasted long into the night.
Ananthamurthy might, thus, be remembered for many different things, but nevertheless it is the categories through which he worked that mark his contribution to Indian literature and thought as distinct and enduring. It would be a grave mistake to view him merely as staking a middle ground: taking a leaf out of Gandhi, Ananthamurthy was quite certain that Western civilization was not good not just for India but even for the West. Consider, for example, his literary, emotional, and intellectual investment in the idea of the sacred, though this is something that his Hindutva critics, who fancy themselves custodians of the Hindu tradition, can barely understand. He has told the story of a painter who was traveling through villages in north India studying folk art; on one of these sojourns, he encountered a peasant from whom he learnt something bewildering: ‘Any piece of stone on which he put kumkum became God for the peasant.’ Ananthamurthy understood well that nearly every place in India is sacred: here Sita bathed, there Rama rested his weary body, and over there the gods dropped nectar. But he takes the idea of the sacred much further: place, bhasha, childhood—all these notions, so centrally a part of the worldview of Ananthamurthy, revolved around the idea of the sacred and the untranslatable. Sacred, too, is the dharma of the writer, laid bare by Ananthamurthy in his Jnanpith Award acceptance speech: ‘There is something wrong with us writers if we do not lose a few of our admirers with every new book that we write. Otherwise, it may mean we are imitating ourselves . . . We should never lose the capacity to say those things in which we believe when we are absolutely alone.’
First published in the Indian Express, 30 August 2014 (print and online).