U R Ananthamurthy, the celebrated Kannada writer, completed his last book just before he was admitted to hospital two weeks ago. Despite his frail health and advanced age, he remained a raging public intellectual and a passionate writer till the very end. He studied in a Sanskrit patashala and grew up in an orthodox Brahmin milieu. He obtained a PhD from England and taught English literature but wouldn’t write in that language. Inspired by Gandhi and Lohia, he believed the Indian writer should express himself in an Indian language and reach out in a democratic way. He was a crusader against populist writing, happy with a small readership for his evocative fiction. His formidable rival S L Bhyrappa, whom he denounced as a rightist, sells in fantastic numbers, but Ananthamurthy’s politics never veered towards the Sangh Parivar.
Although he wrote poetry, non-fiction and criticism, his novel Samskara perhaps remains his most famous work. It explores how caste dogma and religious scholarship play out in the face of the death of a Brahmin apostate. The book, made into a pioneering film, was not only a literary trailblazer, but it also inspired regional films to look beyond escapist excesses. It also intrigued some of the world’s most incisive minds. Erich Fromm, the German psychoanalyst, and Nobel laureate V S Naipaul found in it fascinating revelations about the Indian mind.
The Jnanpith awardee has examined and reexamined our biggest dilemmas since Independence. He asks many questions: Are Brahmin and Shudra irreconcilable categories? Is English-medium education impoverishing our emotional lives? How can we retain our self-respect in a post-colonial, globalised age? What is our city-slicker idea of development doing to the marginalised? His arguments have infuriated the “aspirational” middle class. Yet, literary buffs concede he had few peers in India as a teller of sensitive stories. With his passing, India has lost a literary colossus, provocateur and a supporter of many causes.