When acclaimed Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy died on 22 August 2014, some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and another rightwing Hindutva group allegedly burst crackers in Mangalore and Chikmagalur to celebrate the occasion.
One of the most outspoken critics of the Hindu right, especially of Narendra Modi, Ananthamurthy was much reviled by the current dispensation during his lifetime. In spite of his failing health, he remained undiplomatically critical of the jingoism that was taking over the country since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power in 2014, while his detractors continued to retaliate with abuse and threat.
Two years since his death, two new books by Ananthamurthy, or URA as he was often called, have appeared in elegant English translations. Both of these are moving testimonies to his politics and polemical imagination, the early evidence of which are in novels such as Samskara (1965) and Bharathipura (1973).
The first is a political tract, Hindutva or Hind Swaraj?, translated from the Kannada by Vivek Shanbag and Keerti Ramachandra and published by HarperCollins India. Although Ananthamurthy did not live long enough to finish it fully, he articulated his deepest beliefs about the future of the nation in this short manifesto. His prescient and near-prophetic vision of an impending reign of censorship, repression and authoritarianism has come to haunt India many times over the past two years.
The second book that brings alive Ananthamurthy's legacy is a new translation of his 1976 novel, Bara, by the academic, Chandan Gowda, published by Oxford University Press this month. This short novel, closer to a long story, is recommended reading for those who abused URA for being 'anti-national' and asked the dying man to go live in Pakistan.
Bara, or drought, which was written during the Emergency, is set in a village in Karnataka struck by drought. Its title, as Gowda points out, alludes to philosophical and spiritual barrenness as well. It was adapted into a Kannada movie, bearing the same name, in 1982 by M.S. Sathyu. A cinematic version in Hindi called Sookha, also made by Sathyu, appeared the following year. In an interview with Gowda, reproduced at the end of the volume, URA mentions Shashi Kapoor paying him five thousand rupees to make a movie based on the book, which, for some reason, did not happen. ("I couldn't encash the cheque for quite some time. The bank wanted to show the cheque to everyone because it was signed by Shashi Kapoor.")
In 65-odd pages, Bara presents Ananthamurthy's scepticism with the politics practiced by both card-carrying socialists as well as communists. His discomfort was not so much with the philosophical tenets of either socialism or communism, but rather with the way these ideas were being coopted by political parties and practiced by their members.
An upright district commissioner, Satisha, is posted to a village, which has been hit by a drought, though he is unable to get his political masters to declare it officially 'drought-affected'. He is "like a nawab" to the people but can do little about the pilfering of grain or the misdeeds of an errant police officer.
He and his wife, Rekha, are both products of an elite English education in Delhi, honed by a left liberal ideology. (In the interview with Gowda, URA pointed out that Satisha had been forged at JNU.) In his "coarse, hand-woven bush shirt", he tries hard to come across as simple and unaffected. But in the depths of his heart, "Satisha was aware that the couple's virtue might seem greater than it was through the magnifying lens of the humble local people".
While modernity has stuck to Satisha's father "like a parasite", he is proud to see his son having "a stake in the process of a traditional society becoming modern". But idealism, as liberals are painfully aware of or learn at a personal cost, is easier preached than practiced.
Satisha gives up alcohol since moving to the drought-hit village but must read James Bond novels in his pastime to relax. He needs to have a bath in water enough to quench the thirst of an entire street, but he's so frustrated with not being able to get aid to the villagers that he wants to quit his day job.
This short novel, closer to a long story, is recommended reading for those who abused URA for being 'anti-national' and asked the dying man to go live in Pakistan.
Educated at Delhi's Miranda House college, Rekha is mildly boastful of her husband's sacrifices to her elite circle back home. But she is also thrilled when a junior colleague of Satisha's brings her a cake on her birthday, all the way from Bangalore to a village where people are dying of hunger and thirst. On that fateful afternoon, her husband is confronted with the entreaties of an entire neighbourhood where he had gone to meet a politician. Ananthamurthy invokes irony and pathos to describe the scene. Curious children get inside Satisha's motor car, parked before the politician's house, through its windows. Soon, they begin to urinate and defecate in panic as they discover they are trapped inside it.
The great ethical dilemma of Satisha's predicament, and a condition shared by many others, is captured evocatively by Bhimoji, the politician, when he asks him a piercing question: "Are you a bureaucrat? A revolutionary? You delude yourself that you can be both."
This dichotomy becomes most prominent towards the end when Satisha encounters a cow protector, who comes to him with a plea to save bovines that are dying of thirst. Their exchange has a resonance that is distinctly contemporary.
"Shouldn't we protect the famished people first?" Satisha asks him. "Tell me, what is the point of saving barren cows which only gobble up the feed? If all of them perished, we could develop a fine breed."
To which, the cow protector has a fitting riposte. "Can we be sure that those indifferent to the death of cattle will care about human deaths in the future? Aren't our poor people barren too, Sir? Are they educated? Are they strong? Can they give birth to healthy children? They can gobble up the entire stock of grain. Why don't you let them die, Sir?"
Bara is replete with such dialectical oppositions, ending in a violent climax in which, as Ananthamurthy said himself, "a satyagraha for rice turns into a communal riot". Like all of his work, it is alert to the layers of irony and prejudice that run through the best and the worst of human intentions and actions.
Bara, translated by Chandan Gowda, is published by Oxford University Press (112 pages, hardback, Rs 295).
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