Sunday, September 28, 2014
Dr. U. R. Ananthamurthy: A Maze of Ambiguities
To say that Dr. U. R. Ananthamurthy was a multi-faceted personality is to state the obvious. He was a gifted writer of fiction (35 short stories; 6 novels) and poetry (5 collections), a serious socio-literary critic (10 collections of essays), a successful translator (5 works), and an Activist. He took many extreme positions, defended them passionately, and courted controversies. How do we approach and understand such a baffling and dynamic writer?
One possible framework is ‘the changing interpretive patterns of Modernity and Tradition’. This binary opposition subsumes all other binaries such as ‘Individual and System’ and ‘Nativism and Western Thought’ ). Most importantly, he passionately explored these patterns of negation and approbation through a series of oppositions and symbolic representations. If we view all of his writings together, we find in him an ideological shift in course of time; and, on the basis of such a shift, we can categorise his writings into ‘ pre- Bhava’ and ‘post- Bhava’ phases ( his novel Bhava was published in 1994). We can consider Samskara and Divya as the most representative works of these two phases.
Samskara, arguably the most successful novel of Ananthamurthy, equates ‘Tradition’ with obsolete set of beliefs and rituals prevalent in Hindu society, as mirrored in the Brahmin community. This community, represented by Praneshacharya, is ignorant of the Vedic lore, lusts for gold and sensual pleasures, and mechanically observes rites and rituals. The disease of plague which devastates the village symbolizes the decaying society and its life-thwarting values. Juxtaposed with Praneshacharya, there is Naranappa, a rationalist, an atheist and a hedonist. In the end, Naranappa dies and Praneshacharya renounces his Brahminic legacy, and goes out in search of a new way of life. The novel is open-ended, suggesting that both Praneshacharya and Naranappa are incomplete until they internalise each other, the Self absorbing its Shadow (in the Jungian sense).
Divya, at the other end, interprets Tradition as the sum total of all the intellectual achievements of ancient India and its life-affirming values such as love and compassion for all, and a yearning for mystical experience. Gauri represents such a Tradition. She can experience intense wonder and joy about creation and she can enter into a dialogue with the setting sun. Owing to such mystical sensibility, she knows no caste, no lineage, and nothing like ‘purity’ and ‘impurity.’ In contrast with such ‘liberated mind,’ there is Ghanashyama representing Modernity; he is an educated and Westernised Indian, who is arrogant and aggressive, championing total change and progress. In the end, Gauri and Ghanashyama marry, symbolising as it were the meeting of the spiritual East and the materialist West. However, whereas Samskara is open-ended and dialogic, Divya, essentialist in tone, is completely monologic in its view of Indian tradition and culture.
There are many other novels and stories which posit an ideological position in between these two extremes, the most brilliant being “The Stallion of the Sun.” This story juxtaposes, very sensuously, the two ends of the ‘Tradition-Modernity’ binary, represented by Hade Venkata and Ananthu. Venkata, a rustic, is lazy, irresponsible and doesn’t worry about money; as contrasted with him, Ananthu is highly educated, Westernised, and holds a high position in society. However, the story reveals, it is Venkata and not Ananthu who is capable of mystic experience; Venkata can sight and experience the stallion of the Sun, but Ananthu, a rationalist, can only envy him. The story manages this juxtaposition very objectively, privileging neither end.
Another recurring theme in the works of Ananthamurthy is ‘the Individual and the System.’ Ananthamurthy, a staunch individualist, hates any System which destroys the ‘essence’ of an individual; and he finds all modern Systems authoritative and suffocating. Jagannatha, a Westernised intellectual, is reduced to a laughing stock by the orthodox religious system in Bharatipura. “Bara” depicts Satish, an idealistic IAS officer, who is forced by the bureaucratic system to order firing on an unarmed mob. The most ambitious work in this category is Awasthe, which examines many political systems and dramatises the way an idealist politician, Krishnappa, is slowly sucked into the whirl of corruption by the present political system, based on elections and majority rule.
One of the most provocative essays, “ Why Not Worship in the Nude?” can be considered a post-colonial re-assessment of popular concepts like modernization and rationality. Written in the aftermath of Savadatti incident in 1986, it does not advocate nude worship but questions the intellectual arrogance which designates such practices as primitive. He bemoans that we, educated and rational, have lost that “feeling of religious awe.” In “ Tradition and Creativity,” he argues that “ whatever tradition we could have had has been lost to us through a certain amnesia because of our terrible attraction to the modern world system.”
“No, I can’t be an absolutist,” declared Ananthamurhty in his essay on ‘Nude Worship’. We may quarrel with many of his ideological positions; but it is this skepticism, I believe, which makes him highly relevant today, in a world ridden with ‘Certainties and Absolute Truths.’
****** C. N. Ramachandran