Asking someone to write a review of a book like Suragi is like standing them in front of Alibaba’s cave and telling them they can only take one cupped handful of jewels.
Many will remember UR Ananthamurthy as the person who got the name of Bangalore changed to Bengaluru, insisted that Kannada/the mother tongue be the medium of instruction in schools, and more significantly for saying he would find it difficult to live here if Modi became the Prime Minister. That was said in a deeply anguished state, he clarified, and a statement he retracted later. But only when I read his autobiography Suragi did I discover that there was so much more to him than just his strong and often controversy-generating statements.
UR Ananthamurthy was a reluctant memoirist. However after much persuasion and some gentle arm-twisting by his wife Esther, URA as he is affectionately referred to, decided to talk about his life to Ja Na Tejashri when he was eighty and not in the best of health. Tejashri painstakingly transcribed all the stories he told, collated the material and arranged it in a manner that would make it reader friendly. URA, she says, was very particular that she did not put her own colour on his narrative and insisted she remove the ‘rosy bits’ in order to make it objective and critical.
But she retained the story-teller’s manner which makes one feel, as one reads Suragi, that one is sitting at a grandfather’s knee and listening to stories of a time long ago. There is also a sense of progression for, as the listener grows older, figuratively speaking, the subject matter changes, the narrative style becomes less anecdotal more formal and complex. It traces broadly the author’s evolution as an award winning writer, a much-loved teacher with infinite patience, a philosopher whose philosophy was based on his vast and varied reading of the Old testament, Communist literature, European economists, British and American scholars and critics and, most importantly, all the major writers and poets in Kannada.
Divided into ten sections for convenience, Suragi begins with memories of his childhood, then moves to his as a student, to domestic life, teaching career, life during the Emergency, dilemmas of a creative writer, his highs and lows, the various positions of administrative authority he held and the controversies he was drawn into.
URA was a people person, living fully in the moment, wherever he was, completely involved in everything going on around him. This trait can be seen as early as when he was a lad of 13. He and the boys from his agrahara, the community of Brahmins, brought out a manuscript magazine, Tarangini, which carried articles in three languages, Kannada, Sanskrit and English, debates on monism and dualism, and subjects of topical interest.
Seeds of the Socialist ideology which was to become dear to him later, were sown around this time. URA explained the choice of the name Tarangini thus, “Taranga means wave. Our minds were pools in which even a flung pebble could set off waves.” Obviously throughout URA’s life all sorts of pebbles were cast into his mind setting off waves and ripples in all areas – philosophy, literature, politics, education, love, relationships, science and even mathematics. In short all areas of human activity.
While much has been written, discussed and debated about URA’s public persona, his influence on Indian literature – Vanamala Vishwanatha says, “After Tagore, if there was one cultural icon at the national level with a similar kind of reach, it was URA.”
If the child is the father of the man, then it is the experiences of his childhood that become truly fascinating. And for me those pages of the book are precious.
Dipping into one of his earliest memories, he talks about his fear that his mother would die. She was perhaps the most important person in his life as he grew up. Having little formal education herself, she was his first teacher. He heard Purandaradasa’s moving bhajans from her lips, and overheard the village women confide in her tales of their husbands’ infidelities! Perhaps that was what set him thinking later about marriage, love and relationships. When he studied DH Lawrence’s work, Lawrence’s statement that “the most dangerous aspect of a relationship is the desire of a man or a woman to have complete possession of the other. The desire for possession is inherent in love but even when one partner is in full possession, something remains beyond grasp” must have shaped his views. Would it have affected his own life and the characters he created in his works?
URA’s father Rajagopalachari was a man of many parts, peripatetic, versatile and self taught to a large extent. It is almost ironic that he insisted on the young URA learning by heart Edmund Burke’s speeches which, for want of guidance in the proper English diction, URA recited like he would the Sanskrit Purushasukta!
It was URA’s father who suggested to his young son, the evil practices of caste, untouchability and the treatment of widows must be shunned, that the orthodox, Brahminical way was not always the best and it was possible to question and abandon some long held superstitions.
These incidents, along with the stories he tells about the pomegranate tree demon, the character sketches of men and women he encountered, like Abakka, the belching child widow Lakshmidevamma, his teachers and role models make for fascinating reading. His description of Tirthahalli and the many other places he grew up are so vivid that they come alive for even those who have no clue what the Malnad region is like. He makes observations about the fashion of the day- having cropped hair, giving up the ear ornament, wearing a pith hat, a tie, and draping the dhoti in the Bengali manner. What URA achieved as a student, his success as a writer, acclaimed world over through awards and recognition, his appointment as Chairman/ President/ Vice Chancellor to various cultural and academic institutions like the Sahitya Akademi, The Film and Television Institute, National Book Trust, the founder Vice chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, and the Kerala Education Commission, among many others, are well known and documented.
I wish now I had read Suragi before I translated, with Vivek Shanbhag, URA’s last work, Hindutva or Hind Swaraj. It would have given me a deeper understanding of his anguish, his concern for the fate of his fellow Indians, his apprehensions about the curtailing of our rights as citizens of this great country, the gradual erosion of the plurality and diversity so inherent in our history.
Regarding the translation – all I can say is that Ananthamurthy was an elegant writer, Malcolm Bradbury, his tutor at Birmingham’s comment that he could not ‘write in English’ notwithstanding. I wonder what he would think of some awkward and clumsy phrasing. Perhaps stringent editing was called for especially in the early pages. To start off cringing every time one came across a typo does not augur well for a reader’s response to a book by however eminent a writer.
Suragi by UR Ananthamurthy, Transcribed and compiled by Ja Na Tejashri; translated from Kannada by SR Ramakrishna; Published by OUP; 392 Pages; ₹650