UR Ananthamurthy, a litterateur par excellence and a down to earth practitioner of equality and social justice, is no more. He lived a full life, remaining and working as a fearless champion of the idea of India — a syncretic civilisation that must celebrate its rich plurality and diversity and continue to evolve to greater heights as the churning crucible of human civilisational advances. As one of his many obituaries points out, “without him India will be a quieter and a less interesting place”.
A Padma Bhushan, a Jnanpith awardee, a fellow of the Sahitya Akademi, he served in very important positions. His novels and short stories have been immortalised as films by some of the best-known directors. Much will continue to be written about all this. His loss, however, goes much beyond. He, unhesitatingly and proudly, declared his opposition “to the growing hegemonistic trends in all spheres of life including language and literature”.
I had the good fortune to meet him two days before he left us in the ICU of the Manipal Hospital in Bangalore. All wired up and with an oxygen mask, he was on his bed. Thinking that he was asleep, I just stood by his side. Suddenly he extended his hand, gripped mine firmly and started speaking about the need to negate the misconception that Hindutva and Hinduism are synonymous. Recollect that RSS activists had sent him a ticket to travel to Pakistan when he boldly declared that he will leave India if Narendra Modi was elected though he soon clarified that he would remain here to relentlessly fight the consequences. I told him that Veer Savarkar himself, coining the term ‘Hindutva’, clarified that it had nothing to do with the religious practice of Hinduism, saying that it is a political project realisable when they “Hinduise the military and militarise Hindudom”. UR gripped my hand more firmly and said that he would join these battles after leaving hospital. Alas…
He remained a socialist by conviction and practice. He relentlessly contributed to the evolution of the idea of India. A few years ago (March 2009), he delivered a memorial lecture in New Delhi on “Globalisation, English and ‘Other’ Languages”. He kept the audience spellbound, underlining the importance of what are called ‘vernacular’ languages and their role in the development of literature, arts and aesthetics. In the process, he made important contributions in extending the frontiers of the debate on ‘multiple identities’ to include language. Philosophically, the concept of identity has often been a bone of chauvinistic contention and the debate rages on. It is fashionable in Western discourse to suggest that there is a principle or dominant identity and that humans forever seek to discover this identity. Professor Amartya Sen had negated this with the poser “whether we do have choices over alternative identities or combination of identities, and perhaps more importantly, substantial freedom on what priority to give to various identities that we may simultaneously have”.
All of us in India live with multiple identities. We are born into families that embrace a certain religion, belong to a certain caste, inherit a mother tongue and have our own customs, traditions, culture, cuisines, etc. And all of us are fairly comfortable with these and with those of others, often leading to cross-identity associations, friendships and marital alliances. UR’s contribution lay in adding language to this long list. He showed that in much of recorded history and in today’s actuality, most, if not all, live comfortably with at least three languages — our mother tongue, the language communication on the streets and the language at work including creative expressions. Suddenly, chauvinistic language conflicts fall out of place when this reality is recognised. For instance, the universally accepted Trimurthy of Carnatic music — Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar — all composed their music in Telugu though having different mother tongues. Yet the music is known as Carnatic.
All over North India under the Mughals, people comfortably lived with their mother tongue, the street languages of Urdu, Hindustani, Punjabi and the official court language, Persian. Take the case of Firaq Gorakhpuri. Born as Raghupati Sahai, a high-caste Hindu with Awadhi as the mother tongue, a professor of English literature at Allahabad University, he became famous for the heights he scaled in Urdu poetry.
UR was a strident critic of all forms of hegemonism and his opposition to Hindutva arises from this conviction. He feels that any form of imposition of virtually anything is alien to the Indian civilisational ethos and, more importantly, to our practice. In the sphere of language, at a point of time, one can become powerful to become the ‘lingua franca’, like Latin or Sanskrit were once or English today. He says, “Power and quality — Shakti and Guna — need not always go together. The English of BBC or CNN may not produce an Auden or Eliot or Yeats but can produce a sensation and make us sleepless.” “Creativity,” he says, emerges from “the smell of sweat and soil, and there must be people dreaming in it and cursing in it for the language to embody human literary experience”.
A strong critic of the commercialisation of education, UR often bemoaned that parents spent lakhs of rupees sending children to private English medium schools, which, he says, “don’t create knowledge in the school room, knowledge is transferred to them. I am not anti-English but they should learn to create knowledge. In a mother tongue school knowledge is created in the school room and then the children can shift to English and other languages”. He finally says, “Now, we have destroyed hope, we have destroyed glory. And that is globalisation. We have to get back to the common school system” (like it exists in the US or Britain).
Is someone listening?
(Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP. The views expressed by the author are personal.)