Often I feel angry with death and the Gods. They take away the best in a way that leaves me inconsolable. I feel helpless not just because of the pain of missing them but because my world shrinks, my map of friendship collapses into empty outlines. This happened when my friend the philosopher Ramu Gandhi died. I felt the same way when the great chemist C.V. Seshadri disappeared into the sea.
I felt completely broken when U.R. Ananthamurthy passed away on Friday evening. It was as if a cosmos had collapsed, a way of life had disappeared. It was not the achievements of the man as a writer and a public intellectual, but the man himself as an achievement that mattered.
U.R. died fighting till the end. He had won most of the awards one could dream of. But it was not a curriculum vitae, a career as a shopping list that captures him but the fact that his autobiography could also be the sociology of the intellectual at his best.
He was born in 1932 in the Kingdom of Mysore, lived in the forest and as a Brahmin boy lived out the logic of pollution at its most intricate level. He lived in a world where everything was sacred.
U.R. was custodian of all these memories, a trustee of the Brahmanic sensorium and its memories and also its most scathing critic. Memories could mean snuff, they could mean jackfruit stored at various stages of growth, a fruit whose smells would drive the buffaloes to craving. His description of his childhood house was classic anthropology and yet great literature as a Brahmanic world, which has almost faded away, came alive.
Ananthamurthy went to a village school, a traditional samskrita school. It was a world which was both cosmopolitan and local, a world which taught him that socialism begins not with the state but the common school. For him the real class divide, which was also a cultural divide, was the split of our society between the traditional school, which taught Kannada and created a million embryonic roots, and the expensive English school where a child lost his mother tongue.
English, he felt, for all his cosmopolitanism was basically alienating, an act of bad faith which the nation’s elite subscribed to. It was not the West as a linear world but village India where Galileo and Gandhi could have been contemporaries. It was out of this living world that two of his greatest works —Samskara and Bharatipura — emerged. He could not have thought of these worlds in English.
He claimed “a work of art chooses its medium and I think for an Indian, the Indian language is the medium.” Time and memory were crucial for the storyteller in him for an Indian lived in many times.
U.R. went onto Birmingham to finish his PhD on European Politics. He later became a Vice-Chancellor at Kottayam, chairperson of the Film and Television Institute, and head of the Sahitya Academy. But it was not these posts that made him; it was his continuous conversation with culture, politics and civil society. He was the master of friendship and his friends Ashis Nandy, Manu Chakravarti and Girish Kasaravalli will have more stories to tell. He was curious about people, enjoyed life, pausing over a quiet drink to tell me stories about Limaye, Lohia, Martin Green, or Kuvempu. It was a solidarity of the world of Bhashas.
People lashed out at him for his critique of Modi, his claim that he would not like to live in Modi-dominated India. Yet he was courageously right. A Giriraj Kishore might insist he join the train to Pakistan. The train journey would have been a different one where U.R. and Manto could have swapped stories, talked of ways of redeeming Partition.
U.R. was politically acute, a man who made mistakes but turned them into insights. He excited controversy but never destroyed the companionship he gave. I remember he felt strongly about renaming Bangalore as Bengaluru and yet could listen and respond patiently to Ashis Nandy’s critique of him.
Among the wonderful worlds he created is Heggodu where he and K.V. Subbana established a platform where theatre and Kannada comes alive.
Most intellectuals die as footnotes, a reference here and an obituary there. But U.R. will live on in the folklore in every house in Karnataka, in every college discussion, in every debate about the genius of language.
The very news of his passing will create cascades of storytelling where anecdotes, fables, stories will compete and combine to honour the greatest storyteller of them all.