Once upon a time, I almost came to blows with a friend during an argument over UR Ananthamurthy’s novel, Samskara. This phenomenon – coming to blows over a literary work – is not completely unnatural. In fact, after reading Ananthamurthy’s autobiography, Suragi, I realised he was peculiarly drawn to dramatic situations where writers came to blows.

In 1986, the Frankfurt Book Fair invited several Indian writers. The theme of the festival for that year: “India: Continuity in Change”. Ananthamurthy was jet-lagged and, frankly, quite bored during the evening reception, when he received a call from Dillip Chitre, the bilingual writer. Before I move to the climax, I have to quote Ananthamurthy’s description of the cocktail parties:

“The art of the cocktail party is to meet a large number of people in a short time, and say witty things in intoxication. One can hop from party to party like an aimless spirit...These parties call for no give and take even when one comes face to face with someone.”

Now, after he received Chitre’s call, the “aimless spirit” in Anathamurthy did find two writers squaring up against each other “face to face” while “drinking duty-free liquor from plastic cups.” The writers in question: Chitre and Nirmal Verma. Verma wrote in Hindi but lived in what was still Czechoslovakia. The Tamil writer Ashokmitran, we are told, was ringside, but he changed sides during the heated exchanges, and so it is difficult to explain whose corner he represented.

But Ananthamurthy himself was no objective spectator. After “whiskey had rid both my friends of inhibition”, Ananthamurthy questioned Chitre over writing a script for a government propaganda film. Disappointed with Chitre’s explanation, Verma continued the interrogation. The climax is quite disappointing: Chitre and Verma exchanged nothing but slaps. What is interesting, however, is Ananthamurthy’s description leading up to this encounter:

“Nirmal sat like a hen incubating Dilip’s secret guilt. What hatched out was a charging prince with long hair. Nirmal glared at him. Dilip opened his eyes even wider, tryinng to catch out the guilt and cruelty in Nirmal’s eyes. ‘Why are you staring at me like a bullfrog?’ Dilip screamed. Nirmal responded with a piteous look, waiting for violence, like the protagonist of his stories.”

What is interesting in Ananthamurthy’s narration of this piece of literary gossip is its literariness. Besides the immediate lines leading to the climax, which I have quoted above, Ananthamurthy too describes the two writers like protagonists: “If Dilip looked like a commander out on a conquest, Nirmal was an angel with broken wings, a Christian saint lost in contemplation and drink.” Elsewhere, he describes Chitre as a “mythical Trivikrama”.

Ananthamurthy’s description of this incident is not linear: at several points he gives anecdotes about the writers, makes literary connections in their work, and even admonishes them sometimes for their European sensibilities. In all of this, he is Anantamurthy the literary critic, Ananthamurthy the literary gossip, Ananthamurthy the public intellectual, and Ananthamurthy the friend. He is not just a friend of the writers but also of the reader. In the middle of an anecdote about Chitre and his mother, he tells us: “You should hear Dilip speaking of Gandhi.” Chitre was dead when he was writing the autobiography; Ananthamurthy is dead too. But because of the way he uses language, you can indeed “hear Dilip speaking of Gandhi”.

An informal voice...

This brings us to the translator SR Ramakrishna, who is a City Editor at Deccan Herald, Bengaluru. Ramakrishna, who has also translated the Kannada poet Siddhalingaiah’s autobiography (A Word with You, World) before, has charmingly maintained much of the humour and candour, which, I presume, is also present in the Kannada original. The Kannada original, too, has an interesting history. Anathamurthy was on dialysis when he began writing his autobiography. He couldn’t use the computer and couldn’t write more than a couple of pages in longhand at one go. Ja Na Tejashri, the Kannada poet and professor, transcribed what Ananthamurthy narrated to her. After seeing the initial transcriptions, Ramakrishna tells us in his “Translator’s Note”, Anantamurthy felt the style was too informal and wanted a more formal approach. It was Tejashri who “touched up her transcription, and rearranged the episodes in chronological order.”

Thus, much of what we read is the result of an active collaboration between Tejashri and Ananthamurthy. This also explains the non-linear narrative style of the book, formal in some parts and informal in others. It is not too unlikely that Ananthamurthy told Tejashri, “You should hear Dilip speaking of Gandhi”. But it also must have been a deliberate decision to retain such colloquial language in the process of transcribing and editing the text.

It is important to realise that this autobiography must be seen in the tradition of autobiograpies written in Kannada. Since I don’t read Kannada, I will not make an evaluation of Suragi in terms of its importance and possible reception in the Kannada literary sphere. I will also leave out some of the specific debates in the Kannada literary and political spheres that he refers to in the book. I am quite sure that quite a lot of literature arguing against and with this book already exists in the Kannada language.

In spite of this, I would like to think that Ananthamurthy would have wanted the book to be read by someone like me, someone who does not know Kannada. Ramakrishna says, “Ananthamurthy was keen to see this work published in English translation.” I do not mean to mention these points just as a defence of my position in writing this essay. In Ananthamurthy’s eagerness to see his book translated into English, we can see his larger vision.

His was a way of seeing things rooted in a particular place. Any inability to not see the rootedness is a failure of the person who sees the contradiction, not a problem with the place. In Bara, the protagonist Satisha, an IAS officer, constantly admonishes himself when he can’t understand some aspect of the village where he is the District Superintendent. If I have to imagine myself as the protagonist Satisha, and the novel as the thing I see, I will have to constantly challenge myself and question the limitation of my vision. But Ananthamurthy is also always sympathetic to Satisha in his novel.

In the same way, I hope he sympathises not just with my plight of not knowing the Kannada language, but also in my effort to read despite the lack of knowledge. The outsider – whether a literary, political view, or a person – is never a perennial outsider in Ananthamurthy’s world; she can always transform, sympathise and enter the threshold if she wants. The way he describes his wife, Esther, for instance, in the autobiography, shows how this journey from misunderstanding to empathy is possible.

...but a literary telling...

Although we mostly encounter the wiser, older Ananthamurthy in the autobiography, his younger self is a daring, angry young man. In the beginning of the book, he quotes extensively from a diary he used to keep in his younger days. There are some lovely moments here. Here he is the daring literary critic: “The introduction to the Faber Book of Modern Verse is pedestrian”; the confused young man writing of sex: “My soul does not accept as a life partner one who sexually arouses me”; excellent figures of speech that he will later use for his characters: “This moment, when I have seen myself, I am burning brilliantly like camphor”; the seething ambition to become a writer and encountering the things that stand in the way: “I can’t live without writing fiction. I can’t pass my exams without studying”; frank opinions about his young peers who would later become giants of Kannada literature like himself: “His [Adiga’s] poem Gondalapura (Confusion City) provides a needlessly angry, incomplete view, but is powerful.”

In these sections, we also see Ananthamurthy playing with the form of the autobiography itself. By quoting from the diary he had kept as a young man, and by interrupting this text with his older voice, he is choosing to complicate things. Which of the two is the authentic voice? Are the lines between the younger Ananthamurthy and the elder Ananthamurthy as sharp as he appears to want us to believe?

Questions such as these arise from the presumption that the autobiography is a confessional form and reveals something truthful about the person writing the autobiography. Udaya Kumar, writing of Indian autobiographies from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in his book Writing the First Person, says, “Self narration..is seldom confessional intimacy”…“especially those [forms of self-narration] written by men.” He goes on to add another point: “The distinctiveness of the individual life is not the focal point of most such texts. It is as if the author’s distinctive life were a pretext for revealing something more typical or larger.” Indeed, Ananthamurthy’s comments on political events in post-independent India in Suragi can be seen as moments where he tries to make a point or two about “revealing something more typical or larger”.

...and public positions

Ananthamurthy was one of the most important public intellectuals of his time in India. He played an active role in several public institutions, but I would like to refer to a specific moment when he was serving as the president of the Sahitya Akademi. Ananthamurthy spearheaded the publication of an anthology of Pakistani literature marking the fiftieth anniversary of India and Pakistan attaining independence. The anthology, in Urdu, included translations of pieces from the various languages spoken in Pakistan: Sindhi, Punjabi and other languages, besides Urdu of course.

The Akademi was in a quandary about how to pay the contributors – a typical, bureaucratic problem. The writers from Pakistan responded that all they wanted were copies of the anthology. “We don’t expect any money. Our country didn’t have the vision that Nehru did. We don’t have an independent academy.” Later, the Urdu writer Intizar Hussain told Ananthamurthy, “We have no other book in Urdu with writing from other Pakistani languages. The anthology you published is now a textbook in our colleges.” Ananthamurthy’s gesture of making the Sahitya Akademi acknowledge the independence of both India and Pakistan truly crossed borders. (An excerpt from the book about this event can be read here).

Ananthamurthy visited several places around the world and was quite aware of his public role as a writer to truthfully write what he witnessed. He is trenchant in his criticism of China and the Soviet Union, for instance, in Suragi, in spite of acknowledging Marx and Lenin as important formative thinkers earlier in the book. Once again, he was drawn towards “revealing something...larger”, to use Udaya Kumar’s words.

Writing of his 1980 visit to the Soviet Union, along with (no surprises here) Nirmal Verma and Dilip Chitre, he makes it clear that Bhisham Sahni had “not told us the truth”. His method of criticising a political system is also quite literary. He talks of a book he had wanted to write after what he witnessed in Russia: “Stalin, who wanted to create the magnificence of the Roman empire in Moscow, has built seven structures that pierce the sky. Under them you see long queues for bread. I had told my friends, ‘If I ever write about Russia, my book would be called Bread Queues Under Chandeliers.’” Ananthamurthy does not make clear what his exact political differences with Stalin are, but with this image he provides the kind of critique that only writers can make.

We learn that during that trip Dilip Chitre bought a Swiss watch for Nirmal Verma in Russia after the latter had lost his own during their tour. It was a peace-offering. The clash between the two (which subsequently included two slaps) can only lead to good results in Ananthamurthy’s world.

The clash between older and newer values is a major feature of Ananthamurthy’s novels. I began this piece talking of a fight with a friend over Samskara. I had mistaken the existential nature of the novel for a needlessly long dramatisation of regressive spiritualism. I began to think of it as an existential novel much later.

Ananthamurthy wrote the novel when he was writing his PhD thesis on DH Lawrence in Birmingham University, where he went after getting a Commonwealth Scholarship. In Suragi, he says he reveals that he found no English writer after Thomas Hardy and Lawrence worth his while. These statements, however, can be read better if we see them less as objective evaluations of a literary culture and more as clues to understanding his own ambitions as a writer.

In Samskara, just as in the England of Hardy and Lawrence’s novels, a clash between new and old ways of life took place after the advent of industrialisation, which brought in a new ethos. If we call this ethos modernity, Ananthamurthy’s obsession is not with modernity alone. His obsession is with the inevitable existential crisis that such a clash brings. My own relationship to Samskara has not been without clashes. I think both Ananthamurthy, and my friend with whom I had quarrelled, would be pleased to know this. I offer this essay as Chitre offered a watch to Verma.

Suragi, UR Ananthamurthy, translated from the Kannada by SR Ramakrishna, Oxford University Press.