U R Ananthamurthy: The Activist Writer4 min read
Manipal: No sooner did he trudge down to the hotel lobby, rubbing his eyes, getting the last of the sleep out of it, than we were guilty of disturbing perhaps India’s ‘greatest living novelist’, Dr. U R Ananthamurthy, in his afternoon nap.
Conferred with India’s highest literary honour, the Jnanpith Award, in 1994, for his works in Kannada, he believes that ‘one only writes for oneself’. Despite that, his large body of work, ranging from unorthodox novels to sharp literary criticisms, showcases an idea of India of ‘the other.’ This is supplemented by his fights against ill-conceived development projects and the hegemony of English language. At 69, Dr. Ananthamurthy actively campaigned against iron ore mining in Kudremukh National Park in Karnataka, leading to closure of all mining activity in the area since 2002.
Having rubbed sleep out of his eyes, he spoke to TMJ at length with a warning that ‘you will be interested in me until you don’t understand me. The same is true of me. Perfect understanding means end here.’
You are the person behind the idea of changing ‘Bangalore’ to ‘Bengaluru’. Does changing names of cities even matter to the common man or is it just catering to the popular demand?
In a meeting with the Chief Minister, I had mischievously said that Bangalore should be Bengaluru. It started there. But I also have some profound thought behind it. During their reign, the British sometimes completely wiped out the identity of certain places by changing their names. For instance, people go to teach the Jenu Kuruba tribes. They have names like Kogga and Pagga. But these stupid teachers give them very respectable names like Ram and Laxman. When these children go back home, they don’t know who they are. Many of the names were changed by the British because they couldn’t pronounce them. Not that it matters but it was a mischievous idea on my part – let them try hard to pronounce our names as we try hard to pronounce theirs (laughs).
But the official documents have to be changed, making it an expensive fun.
Some work for fun. You have to employ people anyway (laughs). Yes, but what you say is right. There is another profound truth to this. As it is, there are two towns, Bengaluru and Bangalore. If you are English speaking and go to malls, you live in Bangalore whereas if you go to Ballepete locality and buy onions, then you are in Bengaluru. Similarly there is Bombay and Mumbai, Calcutta and Kolkata. One is as real as the other. Now what I am saying is, let’s try a change and let one (Bengaluru) become more real than the other (Bangalore). It sets people thinking.
If you go by that logic, Mangalore is called Mangaluru by the local people but many people believe that it is due to the Kannada hegemony over coastal languages like Konkani and Tulu. Considering they are in the costal belt, Mangalore should be called Kudla. Do you think there is a language politics here?
I will be very happy if they fight for it. I am against the hegemony of Kannada. There is hegemony but it is not very evident. Like, when English language went to America, it killed all the other languages. In hegemony you don’t destroy a thing, you hegemonise it. One is preferred over the other. There is another process, which is destruction. I prefer hegemony to destruction. Because hegemony can be reversed, destruction cannot be. Hegemony is inevitable in our society, but not inevitable when we achieve a certain egalitarian society. I am not defending it, just acknowledging it.
So you write in your native Kannada to oppose the hegemony of English? Or simply because to you English is essentially a foreign language and hence too constricting for lucid expression?
When Newton has a new theory, he writes in Latin – not in English. Milton, in order to propound a new theory, writes in Latin. Only Charles Darwin writes in English because he does not merely want to talk to the intellectuals, but also to the common people. And he can do so only in English. And then, Origin of Species is a theory which affected everyday life – to think that you and I did not come from Adam and Eve, but came from monkeys was a big joke to an ordinary man on the streets. So he writes it in English. If a writer wants to affect people, immediately, he writes in the language of the people. I don’t write in English. I write only in Kannada. By writing in English, I talk to people of only my class; whereas, if I write in my language, I choose to speak to all.
What about people who cannot read and write in Kannada?
They are gone from culture. They will end up being part of some big multi-national. All these great people like Narayan Murthy will take them as cyber coolies. And I am not writing for them at all. They will read popular American fiction.