It was not just a popular perception that UR Ananthamurthy generated controversies only because he was a man of dualities and did not have strong ideological conviction. In fact, many ‘progressives’— including Left-oriented intellectuals — did argue that Ananthamurthy shifted grounds for he did not overcome his traditional Brahmanical roots and, much as he held liberal views in his intellectual narratives, returned to his decadent Sanskritic/Brahmanical past to find his real self deeply rooted in it. At the same time, the ‘conservatives’, those who never covered their Rightist leanings, constantly attacked him as “anti-Hindu, anti-Brahmanical” and declared he was an “opportunistic pseudo-secularist”.
Consequently, Ananthamurthy had to, until his very end, carry the burdens heaped on him by diverse groups that ‘read’ his texts — if they ever did with any degree of sensitivity — as they wanted to, without ever comprehending the very nuanced manner in which he was articulating his views on very complex issues that were filled with contradictions and several levels of dualities. Not many could bring themselves to understand the fundamental point that the dualities in his texts were actually the irresolvable conflicts that India, as a society and a culture, was struggling to overcome for centuries.
As a creative writer and a socio-cultural critic, Ananthamurthy was acutely conscious of the truth that only an “insider-outsider” position could come to terms with the great historical conflicts that manifested themselves in new and irreconcilable ways in the present. He called himself a “critical insider” to describe his personal relationship with his culture.
He was deeply aware that a singular position as regards any contentious socio-cultural and political crisis would get deeply implicated in its opposing point of view and would create a muddle one could never get out of. He articulated his ideas with the clear understanding that only multiple perspectives could engender truly liberal ideas and nurture a genuine democratic spirit in India.
Decades ago, Ananthamurthy wrote an essay entitled ‘English Brahmin and Kannada Shudra’. It was a piece of reflection on the nature of Indian society dominated by the middle class, where several layers of prejudice and hierarchy existed. In the essay, he was dealing with the privileges of the middle class and was actually commenting on the special position that English, as a colonial legacy, had attained in the Indian context, at the cost of Kannada (as far as Karnataka was concerned) and the other Indian languages. The systematic suppression of Indian languages, the ‘bhashas’ as he referred to them later on, was a political issue too, for English was indeed an attitude that dominated our consciousness in cultural terms and also determined the choices we made in political and economic realms. In other words, it was the phenomenon of westernisation (that was to develop into globalisation in the 1990s) that Ananthamurthy was interrogating then.
In an attempt to foreground the predicament of those millions of people who had no access to English education, or any kind of literacy for that matter, Ananthamurthy began to question the role of English in India. Such a questioning also involved dealing with the issue of caste, and it was in this specific context that he began to understand the reality of caste (and the diverse cultural traditions of all the ‘lower castes’) from a different perspective and argued that caste did have a creative, liberating dimension — in the sense that great expressions of freedom and autonomy came to the ‘lower’ castes through their plural linguistic/cultural traditions.
It is necessary to bear in mind the point that the theories of ‘Sanskritisation’ of MN Srinivas and the idea of ‘homo hierarchicus’ of Louis Dumont were interrogated by the creative vision of Ananthamurthy from a non-sociological perspective. His point was that it was wrong to believe that the ‘lower’ castes moved towards the Brahmanical order to gain their upward mobility. On the contrary, they had their own cultural resources that gave them their creative imagination and autonomous existence in cultural terms, in spite of being subjugated politically and economically. This was grossly misunderstood and misrepresented and Ananthamurthy was labelled “a conservative and a reactionary” who upheld caste hierarchy. (Decades later, DR Nagaraj, one of the finest thinkers Kannada produced in the 1980s and ’90s, developed these ideas in a rich manner that, yet again, was totally distorted by so-called ‘progressives’.)
Ananthamurthy came up with the idea of ‘the frontyard and the backyard’ to suggest the creative, subversive roles the Indian languages played in toppling the hierarchical order established by English. He extended this idea to include Sanskrit too and argued that Kannada and the other ‘bhashas’ established free negotiations with Sanskrit and English (that indeed became ‘master discourses’ at a certain level) and did not become inferior languages giving the people who used them an ‘inferiority complex’. Much before post-colonial theory conquered the Indian academia, he was providing insights into the cultural debates that India had opened up in its struggle against colonialism through its plural cultural traditions, with the rich, diverse oral traditions being quite central to them.
Ananthamurthy was not at all insensitive to the aspirations and desires of the ‘lower castes’ in a world system where standardising/homogenising economic principles were at work. The cultural autonomy of the ‘lower castes’ was inadequate to give the power of sustenance to millions of people who belonged to these castes in a stifling economic order that was increasing the divide between the rich and the poor. Thus, Ananthamurthy argued, there arose the intense “hunger for modernity” in them. Ananthamurthy recognised this “hunger for modernity” as also deeply related to the “hunger for equality” among those who had been marginalised for centuries in India. (Here Ananthamurthy was drawing from two of his major influences, Ambedkar and Lohia, it ought to be kept in mind.) Hence, it was unethical for those who belonged to the ‘upper classes/castes’ to dismiss the intense struggles for ‘modernity’ that the ‘lower castes’ had launched in India after Independence.
It is against this background that Ananthamurthy, inspired as he was by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Narayana Guru and Mahatma Gandhi, juxtaposed the third kind of hunger with the first two. He called it the “hunger for spirituality”. The “hunger for spirituality” could be fulfilled only by returning to the cultural and religious traditions of the past (the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Buddhist and Jaina traditions, the Bhakti movement, the Vachanakara movement [of the 11th and 12th centuries in Karnataka] and all the other religious cosmologies of the oral traditions). He was deeply sceptical of modernity and its hegemonising tendencies (where the notion of an efficient scientific/technocratic system in a single world order was upheld as absolutely necessary, leaving no space for those forms of life that were irrelevant to its scheme).
Ananthamurthy did uphold cultural traditions and religious cosmologies and severely critiqued modernity, globalisation and reductionist secularism in his works. By no means was this a full acceptance of the oppressive past. It was only a sensitive ambivalent position that looked into the evils of the modern world system without endorsing the cruel, dehumanising spaces of the traditional order. He was sweepingly dismissed as a ‘revivalist’ by self-styled rationalists, secularists and progressives who did not comprehend the sensitive way in which he had subjected the binaries of East/West and modernity/tradition to sharp scrutiny in his discourses. Such people also completely ignored the fact that Ananthamurthy consistently used Tagore and Gandhi to attack nationalism and the brutal nation State of our times in his defence of federalism and democracy.
At no point of time did he accept the idea of ‘Hindutva’, ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and a strong, centralised India where religious nationalism of the dominant class would regulate the lives of individuals and communities. (Incidentally, and most significantly, Ananthamurthy’s last work, Savarkar’s Hindu Rashtra and Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj — yet to be published — is a major statement on the directions India has been moving towards during the past three decades and their treacherous implications as far as the lives of tribals and other non-mainstream communities — the minorities in particular — are concerned.)
It is for this specific reason that he declared that he would not like to live in an India where Narendra Modi and the models he upheld dominated the lives of millions of Indians. He was pilloried and attacked in the most barbaric and savage manner by globalising right-wingers and the corporate elites — the major beneficiaries of the modern world economic order. (Those of us who were profoundly connected to him for four decades know how it left him in total distress and deep melancholy.)
Ananthamurthy’s novels Samskara, Bharatipura and Awasthe are extraordinary texts that capture all the tensions, dilemmas and struggles of sensitive individuals living in a society and part of a culture increasingly pulverised by a brutal nation State that, in a dehumanising, instrumentalist manner uses religion, caste, science and technology and corporate capitalism to serve the interests of only the rich and the powerful. As a writer and an activist, he did believe in the power of justice and equality and no simplistic account of his thought can ever take away this concern in him for civilisational values.
N Manu Chakravarthy is a film theorist and professor at NMKRV College, Bengaluru