Friday, September 5, 2014

He claimed free speech as the right to breathe

By Gowri Ramnarayan                                                             DNA, 29 AUGUST 2014

We met once in a while as interviewee and journalist, ran into each other at literary seminars, cultural events. Occasionally I consulted him. No, he was not a close friend. Not even the mentor that I longed for him to be, so invigorating were his words whenever, whatever he spoke. And yet, when UR Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) passed away last week, I fearelt a part of me die with him. Is it because he represented with brilliance and panache, those secular, liberal values now getting swiftly replaced by regressive ideologies? Because he claimed free speech as the right to breathe?

A pioneer of the Navya movement in Kannada literature, Padma Bhushan and Jnanpith awardee Ananthamurthy was acclaimed widely for his work, made available through translations in Indian and European languages. He was Vice-Chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, and head of the National Book Trust and the Sahitya Akademi. A scathing commentator on socio-political and literary issues, he was a spokesperson for the voiceless, the deprived and the damned. He was involved in wide-ranging protest movements from eco-conservation to the medium of instruction in schools.

However, his writings were not manifestos, but metaphoric expressions of multi-layered realities. Didn’t he say to his British tutor Malcolm Bradbury, “You have to go to a library to create classic or medieval times. (As an Indian living simultaneously in the past and present) I only have to look into myself. A straight line for you is a coil for me.” The physical and the metaphysical melded in Ananthamurthy’s vision. He remained a razor-sharp intellectual with a generous heart.

 “He was not afraid to be unpopular,” said friend GK Govinda Rao. Besides on-and-off spats with his fellows, Ananthamurthy invited hate-mails for declaring ‘I will leave India if Modi becomes Prime Minister’. When reminded that no ideological faction ever acknowledged unreserved kinship with him. Ananthamurthy’s amused reaction was, “Well, I must have done something right!”

I asked him, “Haven’t you been trying all your life to expiate the guilt of being Brahmin born?” He responded with one of his good-humoured, irony-tipped, mischief-spiced chuckles: “It is a love-hate relationship.”

Ananthamurthy’s masterpiece Samskara depicts a village Brahmin community, and the troubled journey of Praneshacharya, perfectly etched by a young Girish Karnad in the award-winning film. Here  “rebel” Brahmin Naranappa spurns his legitimate uppercaste wife who “smells of lentils”, preferring the prostitute Chandri, When I disclosed to the author that I was depressed because I suspected that I too was “tainted” by this vacuous aroma, Ananthamurthy riposted, “My dear, didn’t you guess? So am I!”

When I moderated a conversation between Ananthamurthy and BV Karanth, the writer breezed in. The thespian turned up in a glum mood. Their dialogue had to be heavily trimmed. “I will send the edited version to you before publishing”, I promised Ananthamurthy. “Look, I give you full permission to do whatever you like provided you don’t send it to me!” said he, adding impishly, “Karanth has become dull after he stopped drinking.” 

Once, referring to the upanishad image of two birds perched on branches high and low -- one a dispassionate onlooker, the other blindly engaged in action -- I asked, “Are the birds two wholly separate entities, or are they shifting states of being -- in the same person, but at different times?” He countered gently, “When we write we are simultaneously passionate and contemplative. Are we then both birds in one?” Why not? A writer’s job is to sweep cobwebs, sift contradictions, internalize the eternal, beware of the mirage, connect the finite with the infinite, and yes, discover paradoxical, even bitter truths. As Ananthamurthy strove to do, inexorably.

Gowri Ramnarayan

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