BANGALORE: The media are agog with endless reports and debates after the well-known scholar M M Kalburgi said that celebrated writer U R Ananthamurthy, in his young days, had urinated on a sacred stone.
It all began with a gripe by Dr Kalburgi, former vice-chancellor of the Kannada University in Hampi, that Ananthamurthy did not deserve the prestigious Basavashree Award conferred on him recently by the state government.
Kalburgi said Siddaramaiah’s regime had done injustice to Basavanna, the 12th century poet and reformer, by choosing Ananthamurthy for the award instituted in his name.
But Kalburgi had got it all wrong. The award committee had been constituted by the previous BJP government headed by Jagadish Shettar, and not by Siddaramaiah. It clarified that Ananthamurthy had been chosen in keeping with the guidelines laid down by the government.
The controversy should have ended there, or continued in a dignified manner. But Kalburgi was apparently upset by the support Anantamurthy received from the literary community, and lost his sense of objectivity. Otherwise known for checking the veracity of a text from several sources, he chose to inflame passions by quoting a misquote attributed to Ananthamurthy.
A passing statement by Ananthamurthy, "Basavanna is a no nonsense philosopher," was misprinted in a booklet to read "Basavanna is a nonsense philosopher". Kalburgi used this as ‘evidence’ of Ananthamurthy’s disregard for Basavanna.
When Kalburgi was in the thick of this ludicrous public debate, he sparked another controversy. He quoted a line from Ananthamurthy’s essay Why Not Worship in the Nude? written 28 years ago. Attempting to speak out against superstition, he misquoted Ananthamurthy again.
Here is the transliteration of the original sentence in Kannada: ‘(In my childhood) Nannannoo meerida ajnaata shaktigalu illa endu nanage naanu dhruda padisi-kolluvudakkaagi namma halliya maragala kelagidda devvada kallugala mele naanu mootra visarjane maadiddide.’
Translation: (As a child), to prove to myself that there were no invisible powers above me, I urinated on the evil-spirit stones beneath the trees in my village."
But Kalburgi said at a public meeting thatAnanthamurthy had written that he had urinated on the idol of a god. With what flight of imagination had Kalburgi turned devvada kallu into devara kallu? According to Kittel's dictionary, devva means 'an evil spirit' or 'a demon'. Kalburgi continued to misquote Ananthamurthy on a news channel too.
Mischievous people itching to turn everything into a squabble jumped into the fray and hurled abuse at Kalburgi.
Kannada TV news channels let loose ultra conservatives against Kalburgi and Ananthamurthy. In a bid to defend himself, Kalburgi said he was a believer. He even went to the extent of saying, "I won’t make such statements when our Modi government is in power."
It is now clear that neither Kalburgi nor those who turned a debate into a street fight have read Anantamurthy’s essay or the sentence in question. They haven't understood the simple Kannada sentence even literally, forget about its context.
Some people even lodged a complaint against Kalburgi for ‘hurting their religious sentiments’ and the police promptly filed an FIR.
For all those who have not followed the events, the sequence of events looks absurd. But enough damage has been done. The quality of public debate has diminished the importance of the prestigious award.
No doubt, Kalburgi possesses excellent scholarship in ancient Kannada literature but lacks a modern critical orientation in interpreting texts. Even if Ananthamurthy had said ‘god’ instead of ‘devil’, Kalburgi should have known that the vachanakaras, whose work he has studied over a lifetime, have rejected the idea of stone gods. As a scholar, he should have defended the right of a child to test his own faith and rationalism.
It is sad that Kalburgi has played into the hands of the very groups that had harassed him when he presented his solid research. It is high time he appealed to the sanity of all those using his statements to meet their selfish ends.
The lesson from all this is that irresponsible remarks can boomerang, and leave no opportunity to make amends. The police and courts should also think twice before admitting such petty cases.
(The writer is a well-known Kannada short story writer and critic)