Tuesday, July 02, 2013

About an Anniversary, a New Column and an Interview with Dr U R Ananthamurthy

There is something about anniversaries that I have begun to find distasteful. No, not really distasteful, that is harsher a word than the sentiment I want it to convey. Perhaps tiresome is a better one. Yes, that sounds better. 

There is something about anniversaries and the conventional obligation to observe them in some way, either by celebrating or by trying to get by the day by vehemently being in denial about what they stand for, that I find rather tiresome. I mean here the ones beyond the regular birthdays and anniversaries of loves and heartbreaks, though they in no lesser terms present a pressure to, in some manner, acknowledge their passing every year. These anniversaries I speak of are more of the professional sorts, for me, days that have to do with my writing, my work. Like how old this blog is. Like when my first story got published. Like how long I have been a journalist.

That last one is seven years. Yesterday, I completed seven years of being a journalist. A friend asked if he ought to wish me many more years of it. I told him I wasn’t too sure. I still am not.

I very reluctantly love journalism. It is all the bad things I have complained about privately. Yet, it is that first love that you never really get over. It is an addiction of sorts, like all addictions you know it is bad for you, yet…. It is what makes you still groan for not being in a place of tragedy reporting. Like in Uttarakhand right now. However horrible a person that makes me to say this, I wish I was there. Tragedy does make excellent copy. Ask any journalist.

There. There I went feeling obliged to acknowledge another year of something. Maybe I will not do it from next year. I find it oddly beautiful though that the day I complete these many years in journalism is the day I get my first column in a national magazine published.

Without much further ado, here is announcing the beginning of a new column in Kindle magazine, published in Kolkata and available country-wide. The features they carry are alternative (a word open to much interpretation), their politics are of the kind I find myself leaning towards. They interview people like Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky, poetry and films and fantastic features the sorts I like reading and want to be writing.

My column is going to be called Filter Coffee, and will carry features, interviews, commentary, travelogues and much else, all of them written with a South Indian perspective. You cannot get more Southie now than a cup of Filter Coffee, huh? I get my own logo too!

The first one is an interview I did with the Kannada writer Dr U R Ananthamurthy. Read the column here and write/text/call me and tell me what you think. Your comments and suggestions for the subsequent columns will be much appreciated.

If you prefer reading it on this page, see below.

The Lightness of Being URA

For arguments sake, you could say that writers, artists, creators of all things are rebels; they react to something differently than others and build a work that pushes many boundaries, their own, their practice’s, the society’s. By that definition, Jnanapitha awardee Dr U R Ananthamurthy is definitely one, a rebel, for how, in his writing and in his politics he probes the idiosyncrasies and cultural conflicts that afflicted and continues to afflict his caste, his language and the times he lives in. He spearheaded the Navya (new) movement in Kannada literature, a marked rejection of the romantic, lyrical style of writing in favour of more realistic, concise expressions of experiences. Literary history would peg the timeline for this movement down from 1950 to about 1970.

In those twenty years and thereafter, Dr Udupi Rajagopalacharya Ananthamurthy wrote some much-recognized classics like Samskara, Ghatashraddha, Bharatipura and others which raised new waves in literature, even in cinema when they were later adapted to screen. His Samskara is prescribed text in many universities in the US and elsewhere. To the common man on Karnataka’s streets, Ananthamurthy is just as much well known for his politics, his open criticizing of right-wing parties and rightist writers.

The former English professor unapologetically flaunts his Kannada identity and talks at every forum his desire to take Kannada to the world. He did so again when he became the first Kannada writer to be nominated for the Man Booker International Prize this year. Ananthamurthy made the trip to London for the ceremony, despite severe ill health. Back home in Bangalore, he remains too poorly to receive visitors. But in an email conversation, he talked about the nomination, his writing and his identity.

To him, the nomination was unexpected, given that he can’t tell how friendly in translation his works feel in English. But an elated Ananthamurthy talked of how a great literary philosopher of the tenth century in his language wrote a workbook in Kannada where he defined the language as bound by two rivers of the land. “Creations in this language may mirror the world. We never thought we were ethnic writers. I felt proud that for a few critical readers in a foreign land I was not an ethnic writer but was one like their own writers raising universally valid questions of what it is to be human,” he said.

In a land where every language other than English is called the vernacular, he believes that there is still a national identity in vernacular language writing; he is not an Indian writer or a Kannada writer alone. “The vernacular writer is like Shakespeare who writes for his immediate audience but the writing has power that the writer may not be conscious of going beyond. The text is not a menu card for the tourist,” he insisted. As for why writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa are more “mainstream” compared to writers in Indian languages, he said that they and their stories were culturally closer to English than any Indian writing in an Indian language could ever be.

Ananthamurthy’s novels have primarily been about conflict. The orthodox ways clash with the changing times, the rational and the logical clash with the mysticism of caste politics and age-old religious norms and practices, a character from the village is left to deal with the speed and modernity of cities and bigger towns. In some ways, his probing, “never with the intention of resolving these”, follows the trajectory that Ananthamurthy’s own life, politics and believes have taken. Born into a family of small means in a village in Karnataka’s Shimoga district, he went on to study in Mysore, then England before taking up several prestigious positions in academia and elsewhere. He says his craft has evolved over the years, sometimes drastically, every time he was rethinking his ideologies but insists that he has never abandoned any of his confusions and conflicts. Writers like D H Lawrence, William Blake and Albert Camus who have been involved in the kind of questions that he has have been his literary influences. Then there was Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, twelfth century Kannada poets like Akka Mahadevi and Basavanna. His list also includes his own elder contemporaries Shivarama Karanth, Kuvempu, Gopalakrishna Adiga.

Observers of his writing wonder if there has been a softening of his stand in recent times; he was perhaps becoming less vocal in his criticisms of his community, his caste. Ananthamurthy maintains that he is still ambivalent when it comes to cultural questions. What isn’t ambivalent is his emphasis on the Kannada identity. He mooted the idea to Kannada-ize the names of towns in the state, from Bangalore to Bengaluru, from Shimoga to Shivamogga, from Gulbarga to Kalaburgi, among others. He holds on to his view that unless this is done to reestablish and strengthen the local, regional and linguistic identity, we, the people whose language and identity is Kannada, would disappear. What continues to bother him though is that Kannada-ness is not as strong as the Tamil ethos, that we don’t carry Kannada as an identity and as a language with us as much as say a Malayalee does with his language, his identity. But the octogenarian tells himself that Kannada has always been more inclusive than the others.

You could not write of the ethos of the region, the linguistics, the politics and the literature of Karnataka without acknowledging Ananthamurthy’s often controversial influence upon them. In an essay from three decades ago, he talked about everyone being reluctant modernisers, where the West was as much with us as the East. The schizophrenia in this conflict of identity remains, if not more so now in a globalized world. His probing into this conflict is ambivalent, as are his beliefs, when he says, “We may get fatigued by this. The sensitive in Europe get fatigued. The earth may get fatigued and get reduced to a global desert of markets.”


B Pradeep Nair said...

Hello Deepa... Long time...

I can imagine your feelings about journalism when you say, "... it is that first love that you never really get over. It is an addiction of sorts.." For, I came to this profession by choice.

I am glad you have got an opportunity to write in Kindle. Read the article on URA. You have captured the multiple dimensions of his persona.

Personally, my view is that we need language and not the other way round. Multiplicity of vibrant local languages is what India is all about. So, setting up of institutes to enable people to easily learn the local language of a particular state, is one thing that no administrator or politician seems to be bothered about. Such initiatives will work better to strengthen our local languages rather than some token measures.

When I see so much strife around issues like language, community, religion, caste, etc.. I wonder if we have got it all right or not.

By the way, I didn't find the link to your article in Kindle. You have given the link to Kindle though.

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Hi Pradeep, long time indeed! How are you?

You are right about language. But then, I feel these questions of identity, language, regionism need to be re-examined in the light of globalization. Where people of my generation and those before me were multi-lingual, I find several children these days knowing only English.

Thanks for pointing out, about that link. Had forgotten to put it up. See now.