Source : The New Indian Express
With its searing portrayal of Brahmin conservatism, U R Ananthamurthy’s first novel, Samskara earned its author, himself the grandson of a Brahmin priest, the label ‘anti-Brahmin’.
Reading Suragi, the Jnanpith and Padma Bhushan award-winner’s autobiography, translated from Kannada, is like embarking on a long journey with an erudite, engaging and chatty elderly gentleman as one’s travelling companion. The translator, S R Ramakrishna, notes that the autobiography was started when the author was 80 and ailing; much of it was narrated, recorded and transcribed (by Ja Na Tejashri). The style, therefore, is simple, forthright and anecdotal.
Beginning with the author’s childhood in a Brahmin agraharam in Malnad, it chronicles his student days, describing the activism in Shivamogga during the Kagodu peasant agitation and the influence of Lohia on a developing social consciousness. It talks about his multifaceted career as writer, teacher, administrator and public intellectual; travels to the United States, Europe, Russia, China, North Korea.
The numerous tussles and controversies that dogged his life; views on nationalist political parties and his dreams of ‘common schooling’ and an India defined by the diversity of its bhashas, also find a mention. Given the range and richness of the life lived, packaging it into words has a slight downside in that the pace is intermittent.
Partly due to the fact that the anecdotes come frequently with casual conversations—with celebrated authors like Saul Bellow, Malcolm Bradbury, Allen Ginsberg, A K Ramanujan, Mulkraj Anand, Nirmal Varma, Kamala Das, and with prominent politicians, too many to name—the point being made may, sometimes, seem fuzzy, especially to a younger generation of readers.
Underpinning the anecdotes, however, are many valuable insights into the writer’s journey and its motivations: How the life lived became art. About his discussions at Coffee House with Gopalkrishna Adiga, the Kannada poet who pioneered the Navya style, he says: ‘We had created a world of our own there, amid shared cups of coffee and cigarette smoke. We were busy ushering in modernism in literature when a jukebox, which we saw as a symbol of modernism, arrived at the Coffee House. Attracted by its loud music, young people thronged the café. Modernity had snatched away the comfortable cane chairs that encouraged discussions about modernism. We went to the parks, looking for spaces under the trees.’
Though a scholar and, later, a teacher of English Literature, Ananthamurthi wrote in his mother tongue. ‘Kannada has a continuity. This is the continuity of my childhood, my friends, and my relatives. I don’t find this continuity in English. If what I write were to be read out to an illiterate he would still understand it.’
Elsewhere, he says: ‘I write with the belief that the truths I want to hear in my solitude are also the truths others would like to hear…. Great literature is like a whisper…. A good story gets written when the writer doesn’t distinguish between emotional and reasoning intensity.’
How does one read the life of a literary colossus? Writing the story of one’s life requires balancing the mundane with introspection, it demands that one be unselfconscious and candid but also mindful. It entails creating opportunities, in one’s inward journey via personal memories, for an intimate engagement with the reader. All this Suragi achieves in good measure.