A little less than six months ago, on August 30th, M M Kalburgi, described in Indian media reports as an “eminent” writer of Kannada literature, was assassinated by two unidentified young men who had the audacity to shoot him at point-blank range in his own home in the Dharwad district of Karnataka. Given the colossal ineptitude of the police forces in India, it is no surprise that his assassins have thus far not been tracked down, though the police have put a man described as Rudra Patil on the “most wanted” list for this crime; one can never be certain that those who are apprehended, if at all that happens, will be the real culprits.
But let us leave aside the sordid story of Indian police-keeping for the present or the thought that India is one country where the death penalty should never be exercised, even in the “rarest of rare cases”, considering the real possibility that the wrong person will be sent to the gallows. The assassination of Kalburgi has rightfully been denounced by all sane-minded Indians as another sign of our deeply troubled times. The nation has been under extreme stress, the news at every turn is not merely disheartening but chilling, and hoodlums and their political patrons rule the streets. Kalburgi was apparently a very distinguished writer, educator, and literary critic: he served as the Vice-Chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi, and was conferred the Sahitya Akademi award in 2006 for Marga 4, a collection of his research articles. It is as a scholar of vachana literature that he seems to earned the greatest distinction, and several scholars and commentators have speculated that his interpretation of the vachanas, and in particular his critical reading of the 12th century poet-philosopher, Basava, may have offended various members of the dominant Lingayat community for whom Basava remains a supreme figure. If there is any truth in these claims, it is all the more deplorable that in India we have been reduced to settling intellectual differences through the barrel of the gun.
Kalburgi’s assassination has been viewed all across India as a sign of the growing intolerance in Indian society and the assault on reason. Let us describe the genuinely felt expressions of shock at the cowardly murder of Kalburgi as a settled view, even if there is a tiny coterie of people who have condoned the killings and seek to impose their views through various tactics of intimidation and terrorism. But this should not excuse us from turning to very different and critically important questions—just so long as we are clear that airing these questions should not even remotely be construed as exculpating the assassins. Above all, before we pose any further questions about Kalburgi’s murder, let us acknowledge that the mere brute fact of the assassination is a cold and grim truth that casts a dark shadow on India.
Nevertheless, there is this overwhelming question: Who is Kalburgi and what do we know of him? And, as I shall dwell upon it later, what are the implications of the ritual incantation of names, even if the names in question are being invoked to condemn brutal acts and issue calls for justice? Let us recall that Kalburgi’s murder has often been mentioned alongside the equally cowardly and deplorable assassinations of the Marathi writers and scholars, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar. In Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, and elsewhere, similarly very little was known about Pansare and Dabholkar when their murders took place. Upon reading the news of Kalburgi’s assassination, and then watching it being constantly replayed on television, I set out to ask some friends and acquaintances in Delhi, where I had arrived the day before his murder, if they had ever heard of Kalburgi. The answer, in each and every case, was a resounding no.
Among those known to me are people who, even if they are not academics or litterateurs, are widely read and even have a passion for reading. They are conversant with writers and social commentators—and this list is purely random—such as Meghnad Desai, Paul Krugman, and Thomas Piketty, as well as novelists such as Orhan Pamuk, J M Coetzee, and Philip Roth. If asked about contemporary Indian writers, they can reel off the names of those who have acquired a reputation for themselves in Anglophone Indian literature—Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Neal Mukherjee, to name just a few. The English-speaking literary class in Delhi may read some Hindi fiction every now and then, though it is not very likely; in that case, some of the contemporary writers who might elicit a bit of attention would include Geetanjli Shree, the poet Mangalesh Dabral, and the late Nirmal Verma. However, when it comes to contemporary Indian literature in translation, the last person most of them are likely to have heard of is Rabindranath Tagore, who has been dead for a very long time.
Lest it should be inferred that I am putting this down to the ignorance of the educated middle-class in Delhi—and we know how much Delhi is abused as the city of philistines, as though Mumbai is just ablaze with writers and serious readers—I should state at once that I, similarly, had absolutely no knowledge of Kalburgi before I heard the news of his assassination. Of course, I may be an example of ignorance writ large and the case might be closed at once. But let me plead for a different reading. I am far from being a specialist in vachana literature, though an education in the 1980s at the University of Chicago, in part under the tutelage of A K Ramanujan, introduced me to the writings of Basava and Mahadeviyakka [also known as Akka Mahadevi, c. 1130-1160). I have since heard Ramanujan’s translations being critiqued by a few other scholars, but I am no judge of this matter; no one doubts, in any case, that Ramanujan was a brilliant scholar, translator, and literary critic, and that Speaking of Siva itself occupies a significant place in Indian literary history. But if one knows neither Kannada nor is a specialist in vachana literature, and knows little of Kannada literature beyond, say, the late Ananathamurthy’s Samskara (also translated by Ramanujan), how likely is it that one would know of Kalburgi?
There is, of course, the nearly (as it seems) insurmountable problem of translation. There are long-standing traditions of translations into French and German from English, or into French from German and vice-versa, or into English from various European languages, and the Japanese have been extraordinarily quick at translating significant literary and scholarly works, especially from European languages, into Japanese. In India, traditions of translation have yet to take root, and of course one recognizes the complexity of the Indian linguistic scene. Writers who have been conferred the Sahitya Akademi award are in fact more fortunate than those who have not been so honored, since the Akademi’s own mandate requires that writers whose works have won national recognition be made available in English and Indian languages. Very little of Kalburgi’s work is available in English: there is a play called Fall of Kalyana, released by an altogether obscure publisher in Delhi, and a collection of his translations of Basava published in Bangalore by the Basava Samiti, which is far from being a household name in most parts of India. Try finding these translations at a bookstore in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, or Ahmedabad, or even on Flipkart—provided, of course, that one had heard of Kalburgi. The vast majority of India’s writers who are working in Kannada, Gujarati, Tamil, Assamese, or any of the other Indian languages with enviable literary traditions remain unknown to the rest of their countrymen and women.
My set of reflections, however, does not intrinsically touch upon the subject of translation nor do I wish to venture into the question of whether such translations as are available are even adequate let alone of sparkling literary quality. One consideration is that educated middle-class Indians in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, and Bangalore are far more likely to know something of the West and especially the United States than they are to know of the literary, aesthetic, and intellectual traditions of the rest of their own country. For the Bengali bhadralok in the nineteenth century and moving into the twentieth century, one went from Calcutta to London—there was nothing beyond. There are other cities on the horizon now, and those who can afford it in India are flocking to American universities; in many respects, however, the frame remains the same even if elements within the frame have changed and are arranged differently. The colonization of the Indian mind has just entered another phase.
However, beyond all this, there is a yet more troubling question. The reaction to Kalburgi’s assassination suggests that the aftermath of such acts is now played out as a set piece. An assassination is just that, and so is the condemnation—and nearly everyone will argue, quite reasonably, that a condemnation of an abomination loses nothing by virtue of the fact that the condemnation is made both in ignorance and as a collective act of catharsis. But perhaps we should pause a little to reflect on the ethical implications of such incantatory acts of denunciation. Assuming, as also seems quite reasonable, that very few of those who joined in the denunciation of Kalburgi’s murder had even the faintest idea of who he was, other than what they had read in the papers or heard on television hours beforehand, is there at least a touch of inauthenticity in their actions? Some will argue that authenticity is of little consequence in the face of a public emergency, but it is possible to adopt the opposite positon and suggest that authenticity matters the most precisely when the stakes are so high. Surely, if there is a touch of inauthenticity or more, does that not compromise the action itself? And, more significantly, is it possible to infer that inauthenticity in acts of denunciation is perceived as such by the perpetrators of assault and assassination and that it viewed as a provocation to greater acts of infamy? Does the inauthentic diminish the prospects of a dialogue? Surely we do not believe that bringing the perpetrators to justice, and let us hope for such an outcome, will clear the poisonous air? It is not only the assassinations and lynchings that have rocked India, but even those responses that we deem to be enlightened and marks of progressive thinking, that open up deeply troubling questions about who we are as a people and the future of the nation.