K. Satchidanandan (KS): U.R. Ananthamurthy’s demise is a loss on many counts. As a modern writer, he raised several existential and ethical questions through his creative work. He was a unique thinker who tried to understand the relationship between tradition and modernity in India from different angles. He was also an activist who fought insular interpretations of religion, fought for the preservation of the environment and promoted mother-tongue culture; and a radical visionary / teacher who tried his best to transform institutions of education and culture in the country. Which of these dimensions of his personality do you find the most fascinating, significant, and lasting?
Chandan Gowda (CG): All the dimensions you identify are valuable. His versatile public persona is especially rare at a time when intellectuals and activists seem content to focus on a specific line of work. In retrospect, most of his writerly and, more generally, political concerns belong to a modern individual wanting to come to terms – in matters of aesthetics and normative thought – with a complex, elusive phenomenon called Indian civilisation. These efforts will have an enduring appeal to modern Indians who share a passion to feel grounded within their cultural milieu.
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KS: It may not be too wrong to say that it was A.K. Ramanujan’s translation of the novel Samskara that brought Ananthamurthy’s work to the attention of the larger Indian and international readership to begin with. Where do you place Samskara in the tradition of Kannada fiction? Was it the first major fictional work in the Navya movement? What was the specific nature of Navya in Kannada literature and what were the major elements in the Navya writer’s critique of the earlier Navodaya movement?
CG: Samskara is the first major novel in the Navya phase. The other major Navya writers in its early phase, K. Sadashiva, Lankesh, and Tejasvi, had only published important short stories by then. In the 1950s, the lyricism and the political idealism of the Navodaya writers seemed romantic and even naïve to the Navya writers who wrote in the difficult aftermath of India’s independence, and during the Cold War hostilities in the world. The quest of the Navya writers for newness took the shape of experimenting with form and offering attention to new moral and political questions. In contrast with their Navodaya predecessors, these stances usually involved a break with – and an indifference to – classical Kannada literature.
KS: How was Samskara perceived and received by the Kannada readers when it was first published? Did it, for example, upset the conservatives, especially the brahmins, as it dramatically brought out the inner contradictions of that community, say through the figures of Naranappa and Praneshacharya? Was it seen as an ‘existentialist’ work as many modern novels were seen in the 1960s in Indian languages? What is your take on the essential questions raised by the novel, of tradition and modernity, of the sacred and the profane, of instincts and taboos, of ritual and rebellion?
CG: URA wrote his first novel Samskara in 1965, while doing his doctoral research in English literature at the University of Birmingham. He had published a book of critically acclaimed short stories by then. Samskara, whose ruthless portrayal of the decadent aspects of brahmin society invited instant attention in Karnataka, remains his most widely discussed work. The secure self of Praneshacharya, an austere, self-denying scholar, and arbiter of orthodox morality, is destabilised with the death of an unorthodox fellow-brahmin. Did the rebellious deeds of the dead brahmin make him ineligible for traditional funeral rites? Finding an answer to this question lands Praneshacharya in radical self-doubt and takes him on the path of self-awakening through his encounters in the world outside the confined milieu of his brahmin agrahara.
Samskara affirms the necessity of a quest for truth outside existing moral frames, the value of individual skepticism in the face of community orthodoxy, the sensual pleasures of the body, among others. Lohia’s views on caste equality, D.H. Lawrence’s celebration of the instinctual life and distrust of the life-negating attitude of Christian morality, Jiddu Krishnamurti’s insistence that the quest for truth be freed from existing knowledge, French existentialist concerns: all of these appear to have mattered for this novel which broke from the Kannada literary ethos of the time.
The novel did upset conservative minds when it appeared. URA recalled Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, the writer, telling him that he had been unduly harsh on the brahmins. The film adaptation of Samskara in 1970 was briefly banned in anticipation of a hostile response by conservative brahmins.
KS: I have come across contradictory views on Ramanujan’s translation of Samskara: many believe it to be an ideal English version, but some think A.K. Ramanujan has failed in translating the culture that informs the text and the linguistic nuances specific to the Kannada language. How do you look at this famous translation? Do you think that Indian language translations can do greater justice to such works deeply located in regional culture? I myself have found the Malayalam version of the novel far better and more nuanced than the English version, may be partly because of the cultural and linguistic linkages between Kannada and Malayalam.
CG: A.K. Ramanujan’s translation of Samskara reduces the intensity of the original. His modernist preference for a minimalism in expressiveness is probably responsible here. And, I agree that he has not always exercised care in conveying the nuances in the original. To take a stark example: towards the end of the novel, Putta, who befriends Praneshacharya, goes inside the house of a ‘Poojari’ in search of alcohol. Ramanujan translates the word, ‘Poojari’, a local caste that brews liquor, as ‘Shaman!’ ‘Poojari’ can also mean a priest in Kannada, but ‘Shaman’ is simply a weird choice. Again, Ramanujan translates the title of the classical text, Kamasutra – which surely didn’t need to be translated – as The Love Manual. There are numerous instances like these. It might be a stretch, however, to say Ramanujan ‘has failed in translating the culture that informs the text.’
Semantic equivalents are more easily found across Indian languages than in non-Indian languages. As are rules of syntax. Lastly, and perhaps obviously, the narrative predicaments in Indian language fictional works are recognised and felt more readily across Indian languages than with the others. Factors like these place translators of fiction from one Indian language to another at a great advantage.
KS: What about Bharathipura? Some of us find it hard to relate to it as for a Malayali its present is his / her past and yet we empathise with it from a distance. Did its take on untouchability and the anti-brahmin stance anger the spokespersons of the status quo?
CG: Bharathipura didn’t evoke the same interest or curiosity as Samskara. While it had its admirers, many critics dismissed it as a novel of ideas and as ‘a dissertation novel.’ It is an important novel in URA’s oeuvre as it departs from Samskara’s critical view of traditional orthodoxy as a stultifying force in an individual quest for self-realisation. Bharathipura, on the other hand, was skeptical towards the modern imagination of caste equality and of the rational reform of superstition. The protagonist Jagannatha’s efforts at undermining the practices of untouchability and local beliefs in God, which are rooted in modern ideas of liberal equality and rationalism, are constantly frustrated. Indeed, he becomes contemptuous of the Dalits when they do not share his understanding of their problem. The novel’s suggestion that the grounds of a modern reformer’s critique ought to have been fashioned from sources internal to local tradition was to resurface in many of URA’s subsequent writings.
KS: Do you think in novels like Bhava and Divya, Ananthamurthy takes a step backward in his attitude to tradition?
CG: I don’t think so. In Bhava, for instance, tradition is less a source of oppressive morality and more a source for self-understanding. And, the issue of modernity is set aside altogether. But his last two short stories, ‘Unfathomable Relations’ (2009) and ‘Pacche Resort’ (2010), offer a bleak view of the world. In the former story, Indian art and Ayurveda are entangled with the global arms trade and surveillance networks. And, in the latter story, religious orthodoxy appears anemic in relation to the demonic power of business interests and their instrumental ethics.
In his non-fiction, in dozens of speeches and newspaper op-eds written during this period, URA’s democratic commitments are steady.
KS: What prompted you to translate Bara in the first place? What are its special charms and difficulties?
CG: I had only watched M.S. Sathyu’s film adaptation of Bara 1, when URA invited me to translate the story. He felt it hadn’t got adequate critical attention. On reading the story, I felt that Bara powerfully anticipated contemporary discussions of India’s political modernity. It conveyed that different modes of authority co-exist here, that political processes are hard to grasp through secular analyses, and that liberal and Marxist normative thought might ill serve the well-meaning modern activist in India.
As an allegory of modern Indian politics, Bara works with an epic intent. It has great moral seriousness and great drama. URA’s care towards details is also fascinating.
KS: How did you work through the dialectal, semantic, and semiotic specificities of the original text?
CG: Although set in North Karnataka, Bara does not bring in the very distinct Kannada found in that region. The translation, I felt, had to sound like the original. I would read aloud the translated sentences and check if they sounded like the original in their semantic proximity and syntactical effects. I had read out the translation to URA over an afternoon.
I have italicised the English phrases / sentences and Indian metaphysical concepts found in conversations for various reasons. The IAS officer, for example, often resorts to English words like ‘demoralized’ ‘manipulate’ and ‘exaggerate’, alerting us, thereby, to the frequent incidence of English in the speech of the educated classes. On the other hand, the local political fixer’s use of phrases / sentences like ‘the most innocent and incorruptible leader of this district,’ ‘famous leftist theoretician,’ ‘progressive bourgeois,’ and ‘Please don’t think Bhimoji is a frog in the well’ work as markers of social class. He uses them to show off his English and claim company with the high status IAS officer. Besides, we also realise how stock ideological phrases circulate in political discourses in the country. Lastly, the member of the cow protection group uses words like ‘dharma’ and ‘punya’, which were best left untranslated and retained in italics as they convey the metaphysical distinctness of a local worldview. If I had translated those concepts as ‘religion’ and ‘spiritual merit,’ respectively, that would have thinned out the distinctness of the local conceptual universes.
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KS: What is it that distinguishes Ananthamurthy’s short stories – like ‘Sooryana Kudure’ (Stallion of the Sun) or ‘Mouni’ (The Silent One) – from those of other Kannada modernists?
CG: A keen awareness of the dominance of systems of modern knowledge over non-modern ones marks ‘Sooryana Kudure’. A sense of pathos and melancholy also inform the encounter of the modern narrator with the priest’s astrological imagination in that story.
In ‘Mouni’, the areca nut grower chooses to protest silently when he suffers losses due to the erratic workings of the local areca trade. The vulnerabilities created by the modern market are an acute concern.
The inequalities of knowledge and the destruction of community autonomy in the modern world were URA’s moral and intellectual preoccupations for much of his life.
The other chief modernist Kannada writers, P. Lankesh and K.P. Purnachandra Tejasvi, do not share URA’s anxiety towards modernity’s destructive potential or his pathos for disappearing philosophical resources found in Indian traditions. Tejasvi, for instance, celebrates the creativity, intelligence, and practical wisdom of the non-lettered, ordinary people in modern society without anxiety towards the future.
KS: What do you think was the central occupation of his intellectual life? I have gone through his essays in Rujuvathu as also his Hindutva or Hind Swaraj with a lot of excitement. I have, like many other readers, might have plenty of disagreements with some of his positions, but he is always engaging, and invites the reader for an argument. How were his essays received in Kannada? He was undoubtedly a very significant Indian public intellectual of our time; but I feel uneasy when I look at the disturbing responses from the Kannada public and some of the writers to his liberal-progressive political stand. How do you look at his oeuvre as a whole and the regional and national response to it?
CG: Being a ‘critical insider’, who engages with a society’s cultural conversations (or, tradition), mattered greatly to him. Bhakti and Sufi poets and saints and more recent figures like Gandhi, for URA, were critical insiders. (Being a critical insider did not mean an avoidance of non-Indian thought.2)
Several volumes of URA’s cultural essays and speeches show that he thought in civilisational terms. The importance of bhasha literatures for our intellectual life, the meaning of being an Indian writer, the necessity of understanding Indian society outside Western epistemic frames, among others, preoccupied him. He was a passionate voice on these matters in the Indian intellectual community.
In the last decade of his life, URA responded to a range of major issues in his op-ed articles in Kannada newspapers, which have been collected in eight volumes. These essays reflect an exemplary commitment to come to grips with public issues in a grounded democratic spirit.
While the communal forces found his critical remarks on Modi a convenient point of mobilisation, and disliked his views on the relevance of affirmative action and on how Hindutva distorted Hindu religion, URA’s attempts to offer persuasive arguments on key issues – for example, the necessity of common schools, the importance of Indian languages for education, the tragic costs of ‘development’ – nourished the critical intellectual spirit in the Kannada public.