BANGALORE: U R Ananthamurthy, who died two weeks ago, used to infuriate the Bangalore middle class. Here's why.
1. He denounced Modi: In recent years, as Narendra Modi's star rose, Ananthamurthy continued to talk about the 2002 Gujarat riots. That didn't go down well with a class frustrated by the platitudes of the Congress, and hitching its dreams to the Modi bandwagon. Although aware of the rapacious miners and land grabbers in the BJP, this constituency was willing to forget 2002, convinced that Modi would make a difference. The BJP has won all three Lok Sabha seats in Bangalore.
2. He was rhetorical: Ananthamurthy said S L Bhyrappa, some of whose books reflect BJP's phobia of Muslims, was no novelist at all. Bhyrappa's supporters pounced on him, listing out the scores of best-selling books Bhyrappa had written. Bhyrappa sells in phenomenal numbers, often going into a reprint every day, while Ananthamurthy sells just a couple of thousands. Equally rhetorically, Ananthamurthy said he would leave India for good if Modi became prime minister. The moment Modi swept the elections, BJP supporters bought Ananthamurthy a plane ticket out of India. The media faithfully reported his statements, and not their tone and context, making him sound absurd to the 'aspirational' middle-class ear.
3. He changed his politics: Ananthamurthy, accused by Modi fans of being a Congress apologist, was a Lohiaite for a major part of his life. He had little respect for the Congress, and believed the country had to be rid of the Nehru dynasty and its cronies. During the Emergency, he met George Fernandes, then on the run from the police, and agreed to plant a bomb at the Vidhana Soudha with other anti-Indira Gandhi campaigners. (The plan fizzled out, though, as his autobiography tells us.)
Ananthamurthy personally knew the charismatic leaders who trounced the Congress and formed the first non-Congress government in Karnataka in 1983. In recent years, he has supported Deve Gowda of the JD(S) and Siddaramaiah of the Congress, both of whom were active in the anti-Congress movement of those days. For those who unaware of his politics, he looked like a mindless Congress supporter.
4. He championed Kannada: Ananthamurthy was instrumental in getting the government to change the name of Bangalore to Bengaluru. He also spoke out against the segregation inherent in expensive private schools, and the emotional impoverishment of English-medium education. Bangalore is perhaps India's most Westernised and Americanised city, and a good chunk of its affluent class, Kannadigas included, prefers to talk in English and Hindi, the languages of social mobility and business. Middle-class families yearn to send their children to the US, or at least to Infosys. For them, Ananthamurthy seemed backward in his espousal of Kannada and other Indian languages, which he insisted on calling the bhashas, and not vernaculars ('slave languages'). Ananthamurthy spoke English impeccably, got his PhD from England, taught at American universities, but wrote only in Kannada. His heroes were Kuvempu and Basheer, Gandhi and Lohia, not the IT czars and the Ambanis.
5. He spoke blasphemously: Many middle-class people imagined Ananthamurthy was anti-Hindu, completely unaware of a literary-activist class that ridiculed him for an exact opposite impression: that he supported obscurantist practices. In an essay called Why Not Worship in the Nude, he had supported the right of devotees in Belgaum district to practise an age-old tradition. His novel Samskara, in which German psychoanalyst Eric Fromm and Nobel laureate V S Naipaul found fascinating revelations about the Indian mind, paints the chasm between the religious scriptures and the dilemmas of living in the present. Many of his characters, such as Hade Venkata from the short story Suryana Kudure, are caught between tradition and the new world.
6. He was misquoted: In recent months, some Kannada TV channels had inflamed middle-class sentiment by digging out an old essay in which Ananthamurthy had talked about urinating on a stone idol. By his own admission, he had done that to confront his fear of the unknown. But his essay talks about devvada kallu or '(evil) spirit stone' and not devara kallu or 'god stone'. Ignoring this critical nuance, the talking heads on TV went into elaborate debates about his disregard for the sacred. He had introduced Basava and the Kannada saint-poets to generations of students in the US, including writers such as Suketu Mehta, but he was portrayed as disrespectful to Indian culture. He once said, "Basava is a no-nonsense philosopher" and was reported as saying "Basava is a nonsense philosopher". The mud that the right-wing threw at him stuck, with the middle class asking, "Why is he so publicity crazy?" Quiet Modi sympathisers within the media had accomplished their mission of discrediting Ananthamurthy. A middle class that looked up to him in the 1970s as a brilliant thinker bringing laurels to Kannada and Karnataka, was towards the end dismissing him in uncharitable terms.