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Bhanu Kale

Dr U. R. Ananthmurthy, one of the most respected names in Indian literature, is regarded as a pioneer of the “Navya” movement, the modern Kannada literature. Born on 21 December 1932 Ananthmurthy had his first book (a collection of short stories) published in 1955. So far he has written six short story collections, five novels, one play, four poetry volumes and ten essay collections. His novel “Samskara” achieved unprecedented fame and has been translated in almost all the Indian languages and also in many foreign languages. Ananthmurthy got his doctorate from Birmingham University where he went as a commonwealth scholar. Later he taught English in Mysore University. He became the Vice-Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala. In later years he has headed some reputed national institutions like National Book Trust, Sahitya Academy and Film and Television Institute of India. A recipient of prestigious “Jyanpeeth” award in 1994, Prof. Ananthmurthy was awarded “Padma Bhushan” in 1998. Ananthmurthy consciously decided to write in Kannada and not in English. It was he who suggested to the Karnataka government that it should change the colonial names of the ten major Karnataka cities and revert to their actual native form. This was accepted by the State Government during its golden jubilee celebration. That is how Bangalore became Bengaluru where Ananthmurthy lives with his wife Esther. Prof Ananthmurthy was in Goa to attend the centenary celebration of well-known Konkani poet late B. B. Borkar (in 2010) when he gave this exclusive interview to Change for Better

India is different from many European nation States which speak only one language which becomes their national language, a uniting force. In India we have so many languages and often there is tension between two groups speaking different languages. How can literature be useful in promoting harmony between different Indian languages?

The existence of different languages in India is not a threat to the spirit of harmony as is often imagined. It is only when the linguistic differences are exploited by the politicians for personal gains that tension gets built up. In Udupi, the place in Karnataka I hail from, people speak four languages -- Kannada, Tulu, Konkani and Urdu. We also have people of different religions – Vaishnavites, Jains, Muslims, Christians. They all live in harmony. And this has been the case for several centuries now. We Indians have happily lived with diversity for centuries now. Therefore, I feel learning different languages comes naturally to we Indians and we should not make too much of an issue of having multiple languages.

There is another aspect to it. You may write in one language but at home you may speak in a different language. My own mother tongue was Tulu, in which I spoke to my mother. I wrote my literature in Kannada but at the University I studied and taught English. I can also give other examples from our Kannada literature. For instance, Girish Karnad speaks at his home in Konkani, his mother tongue, but writes in Kannada. Similarly, late D. R. Bendre wrote in Kannada but at his home spoke in Marathi, his mother tongue.

Rabindranath Tagore makes an interesting study. Here is a leading Bengali writer who is equally respected in all parts of India. You will have a memorial to Rabindranath in Goa, in Bangalore, in Mumbai, in Delhi, in Ahmedabad – in almost any part of the country. That happened before independence. This phenomenon has not been repeated in the independent India. Prior to Tagore all our literary heroes were Sanskrit writers like Kalidas. Kalidas was then considered the last word in literature. Togore was the first writer from a modern Indian language to have acquired a similar status and he was the only one of that kind in India. Today we don’t have any writer with a pan-India image. In a way it is a sad commentary on the state of affairs.

If literature has to play a major role in furthering this spirit of harmony then the role of translations is very important. Unfortunately, the quality of translation of literary works in India is often not of a high quality. I had once suggested a possible remedy for this. Let our M. Phil. or Ph.D. students be given a long-term scholarships so that they can go to some far-off State in India, learn that language, stay there for four to five years and then translate some good books from that State into his own mother tongue. That way we shall have good quality translations. I had made this proposal to the University Grants Commission (who could give these scholarships) but so far nothing has been done in this regard. For some people this is obviously not a priority.

What do you feel should be the medium of instruction in schools?

I believe we must teach at least two languages in our schools – our mother tongue and English. I am not against English, we do need to learn it since it is today the global language. But I would give equal importance to teaching in our mother tongue as well.

We need English to keep in touch with the world and we need our mother tongue to keep in touch with our roots. Both are equally necessary. Late Ramanujan, a Kannada poet, used to say, “I am Kannada-speaking in the street, Tamil-speaking in the kitchen and English-speaking in sitting room.”

I have often talked of an analogy of a house with the frontal portion and the backyard. In the front there is a sitting area where guests are entertained, business gets transacted, intellectual discussions take place. And on the back there are ladies working in the kitchen, doing household work, telling stories to children. I believe both these parts are equally important and you cannot have one without the other. The front part helps us to keep pace with the modernity while the backyard helps us to maintain our traditions, our roots.

You are known for your strong social commitment. You have even contested elections. What do you, as a writer, feel about the current trends in development?

I live in Bangalore which is often regarded as a Silicon Valley of India. I do not have a very favourable view of the Information Technology industry and its impact on the city. It has given rise to the so-called gated communities where the residents have very little contact with the rest of the society. It has added to our inequalities.

Today there is a sad situation in a place like Bangalore – on the one hand you have children studying in Kannada in government schools at a very low fee and at the same time there are many who are studying in English medium in private schools most of which charge exorbitant fees. The difference in these two schooling systems is alarming and that means inequality is getting built into one’s childhood. Perhaps the same thing is happening in other cities as well.

I am against the kind of development that we are having today. Increasing your gross national product is not development. Our present kind of development is simply increasing inequality and is adding to the unhappiness. At the moment it is the illiterate and the so called undeveloped people who are protecting our culture. When they “develop” they lose their culture. It is almost as if you can have either culture or development – the two cannot coexist. That is why I feel we need a new word for development. I like the word “antyodaya” (“Unto the Last”) – well-being of the lowest of the low person. That is the kind of development I value.

As a writer I feel another thing. The great writers in India will no longer come from those belonging to the higher castes or higher echelons of the society. In fact I feel in a few years time we may have no writers left in these higher strata who write in their mother tongue and therefore write something of real substance.

The best literature in Europe came from Russia – which was then industrially backward. On the other hand, in the industrially developed societies of Britain and Germany you did not have the writers who could be compared with Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I believe even a small language like Konkani can produce a great writer. A great writer will not be born in a so called developed society. You may find him come out of a rural, agrarian, so-called undeveloped setting.

It is generally agreed that the media shapes our thinking. Unfortunately the media in this country is controlled by a small group of people who have a vested interest in a certain kind of development which disregards the marginalized, the down-trodden. In a situation like this smaller journals can play a significant role in giving voice to the voiceless, in maintaining the balance. But most such journals face an uphill task just to keep alive. How can smaller journals survive in these days of largely commerce-driven mass media?

It is difficult for small journals but not impossible. Let me give an example of my son-in-law who works for Hindustan Unilever, a well-known multinational in Bangalore but is deeply interested in literature and social issues. He publishes a Kannada quarterly called “Deshkaal” which is a subscriber-based quarterly. It is well- produced and the subscription rates are also high but there are no advertisements and still somehow he is able to break even. This shows that even today there are readers for a serious journal.

Little magazines should come together and approach Sahitya Academy, National Book Trust and other bodies like that to seek advertisements for the books that these bodies regularly keep publishing. Many of these books are of high literary standards and are priced quite low. Unfortunately, because of the poor marketing they don’t reach the reading public. If these books get good publicity it will make them better known and this way even the commercial viability of the little magazines can be ensured. Of course, there will have to be a good set of guidelines, rigorously applied, to ascertain which of these little magazines are regularly produced, maintain high standards and genuinely need support. But once such guidelines are established it can become a good and regular source of income to these small journals. There will be other means like this for financial support. In Karnataka the State government buys three to four hundred copies of most of the Kannada books that are published. It is a great help to the local publishers.

Today, the cream of our society, the brightest of the bright, wants to join a science college. Very few go for literature, history, sociology, philosophy. Considering the job market one can understand their choice. But all this would inevitably lead to a lopsided society focused only on the left side of the brain and losing out on imagination and creativity. How can we balance our emphasis on “science” by highlighting the importance of “humanities”?

I feel concerned about the neglect of humanities in India vis-à-vis science. In a way, this is happening in other countries as well but somehow it has become quite alarming in this country. In Bangalore, where I live, there are a large number of young persons who work for IT companies. But there is very little creative work that they do. Most of the time they are involved in the work which is of very mechanical nature. The nature of education they have had was in itself very lopsided. They learnt how to score well in examinations but did not learn how to write an essay, how to use their creative instincts. It is no wonder that they have not produced anything which is useful in solving the day-to-day problems of this country.

One way of attracting our youth to humanities could be to allow for greater interaction between the youth and the creative persons who have also done well in other walks of life. I know, for instance, the head of the Police in Bangalore who is a very good poet. He attends many of our literary functions, recites his poems and sometimes we don’t even reveal his identity. But if youngsters see many such examples then they may realize that there is some connection between being a creative person and being successful generally in life. If that happens then they may begin to value literature and humanities in general.

I am head of the State government committee for higher education in Kerala and I have recommended to that government that it introduces a five-year degree course in humanities to which the intelligent youngsters can be attracted. Let us see what happens.

What do you feel is the role of a writer in contemporary Indian society?

You cannot protect our culture without opposing the factors which are destroying our culture. For instance, I believe that the mining and tourism destroy culture. The way these two sectors have developed in this country is disgusting. Both ruthlessly exploit nature for commercial gains and both in their blind pursuit of higher and higher profit, destroy culture. In Karnataka today, mining is a real menace. Huge amounts of money are involved – enough money even to topple a government. They can buy the officials, bend the rules, escape with almost anything. No scrutiny of their activities is permitted. Such is their power. They want to drive away the Naxalites because the Naxalites are controlling the mountains which contain large deposits of bauxite in which the mining lobby is interested. Now I am not for the Naxalites, because I know that they too don’t really care to protect the nature and the mountains. They have their own power interests. But the fact is that the real interest of the mining lobby is not in protecting the environment but in extracting the Bauxite. In Karnataka they are even going ahead with legislation to alter the land ownership act so that they can have their way. Such is the power that they wield and that is happening because of the money involved in mining.

I do believe that the writers have an important role to play in today’s situation. First of all the writes should increase awareness about the real issues before a society – something that the commercially-driven media will not do. Secondly, the writers can ensure that our continuity with the past is maintained, we remain familiar with our culture, with our roots. Our cultural heritage is our link with the existence and should be preserved. Thirdly, I believe that the writers must fight for ideas and ensure that the ideas don’t die. Literature has the power to keep ideas alive. It is a very good forum to express and debate ideas and ensure their survival.

Bhanu Kale is the founder editor of Change for Better and the editor and publisher of a Marathi monthly magazine called ‘Antarnaad.' This exclusive interview with Ananthmurthy was published in magazine's print issue in April-June 2011