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Voice of a generation

Even without any rigorous training in literary culture, we knew in our guts that URA was a great writer, a genuine artist whose works transcended the confusions of our youth Photos: V. Ramamurthy, M.A. Sriram,Sampath Kumar G.P.  

No explanation, however sophisticated, can even provide a cursory explanation for why U.R. Ananthamurthy was such a phenomenon. All his works, including his discursive writings have been explicated, discussed and debated. They have been assessed with the most scrupulous aesthetic standards and cultural frameworks and many of them have either been found to be wanting or have been criticised with a pungency they do not deserve.

But everybody agrees that his writings have an uncanny ability to touch a chord in every reader. Many of his major short stories were published nearly fifty years ago, and yet, readers keep discovering their own versions of modernity in them. For a whole generation coming of age in the 1960s and the 1970s, it was URA who invented modernity for them. In retrospect, it is clear that this modernity had very little to do with European modernity which was supposed to have influenced it heavily. Most readers like me ‘read’ Camus and Sartre as mediated by URA’s writings. For us, some who were first generation literates from villages bewildered by the city, some who were going through the trauma and pleasure of rejecting the traditionalist family and society, some who had just lost their late adolescence and were bewildered by the exciting discovery of sexuality, some who were scorched by a genuine rage against caste, feudalism and oppression – for all of us, Ananthamurthy’s short stories gave the experience of ‘modernity’ – a term we used confidently, but vaguely for the metamorphosis we were going through. The diaries of many of us were filled with agonising autobiographical references to the Keshava of Clip Joint, Jagannatha of Bharathipura, and Ranga of Prashne.

In many PG hostels, young men read URA’s short stories to one another and had night-long passionate debates over them. We were all rebels without a cause, with only our raw experience and the heartless insights of youth guiding us in a total denunciation of the traditional society. So we discovered in URA a writer who scrutinised for us the past with profundity, passion and philosophical depth. He was our own D.H. Lawrence who was ripping apart the discontents of a civilisation which had turned away from the ‘smell of the earth’, (a term coined by his mentor Gopalakrishna Adiga). In a rich metaphorical style, he was writing about the small local world of the Malnad (which resembled our worlds too), in which the most intense battles between the soul and the body, the spirit and the flesh were being fought; it was a recognisable world where rebels became our surrogates in their real and metaphysical rebellion against the ugly, quotidian, oppressive traditional life. Even without any rigorous training in literary culture, we knew in our guts that URA was a great writer, a genuine artist whose works transcended the confusions of our youth even when they seemed to resonate with our limited experience. URA was a modern, post colonial writer who did not indulge in nostalgia for the past. He was unforgiving in the clairvoyance with which he saw through the hypocrisy, the false spirituality and the bogus morality of the tradition, Oh yes, URA warned us that he was a ‘critical insider’, but we thought it was a misleading self-perception which many critics unthinkingly accepted. He was sceptical, undeceived and his overtures to the hidden strengths of tradition were a little too doctrinaire and self-conscious.

Then came Samskara, devastating in its unmasking of the Brahmanical world-view and agonising in the portrayal of Praneshacharya’s honest efforts to be condemned to be free; to accept the existential responsibility to make a choice for himself and for everyone.

Then came Samskara, devastating in its unmasking of the Brahmanical world-view and agonising in the portrayal of Praneshacharya’s honest efforts to be condemned to be free; to accept the existential responsibility to make a choice for himself and for everyone. Very few of URA’s readers came from orthodox Brahmin society and therefore, Brahminical meant to them their own traditional social worlds. URA’s writings, in fact, juxtaposed many worlds, setting up conflict and dialogue among them without hegemonising any one of them. They therefore had the power to let us grow with them. We discovered that URA’s best writings could never be reduced to simple ideological statements. He was also a charismatic public intellectual who quite often infuriated us with his ambivalences. Very soon he became the establishment for us when the turbulent people’s movements dwarfed the modernist movement and the polemics of rebel writers sowed the seeds of doubt even about those who had denounced tradition. In the heat and the dust, URA seemed to have continued his intense and complex quest which was at once personal and societal. A post-colonial writer who walked carefully on the razor’s edge, avoiding easy and predictable responses to tradition and modernity, URA as public intellectual constructed powerful critiques of the hegemony of the west, the unitary model of globalisation and also of right wing communalism.

In the last few years, thanks to a sensationalising media and a violently intolerant politics, URA had to live with controversies which were loud and empty. But his creative imagination continued to create metaphors which helped in enriching the debates in the Kannada civil society. The metaphors of backyard and the frontyard, the digestive fire of the Kannada tradition, the rabies and cancer of communalism and naxalism and many more gave a philosophical depth to debates which were vulnerable to superficial attitudes.

His later short stories attempt to address ‘the many thefts’ which the multinational corporate world practises on local, third-world societies. This was an important cognitive shift in URA’s writings. With the tremendous self reflexivity he was capable of, in these short stories, URA was trying to concretize his intuition that this new world order would be ruthlessly generous and devastatingly accommodative to local cultures, waiting most patiently to devour them or just make them irrelevant. His classic short story, Sooryana Kudure, moves with rich ambivalence between the egoistic, rational, aggressive will power and intellect of the likes of Ananthu and the mystical, open, compassionate but weak Hadevenkata; between the rational will of modernity and the accommodating pliant heart of tradition. URA takes this further to portray a new historical phase where these two are not even adversaries in the zero sum game of globalisation. He explores the many ways in which modernity, which for societies like ours was double-faced and yet emancipatory, would itself be incorporated by the processes of globalisation.

The long literary career of URA was exemplary for any third world writer. He chronicled with unparalleled honesty the histories of erstwhile colonial local societies passing through the phase of tradition versus modernity phase to enter into an all consuming global order.

URA as public intellectual constructed powerful critiques of the hegemony of the west, the unitary model of globalisation and also of right wing communalism.


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