Every country and society may have differing narratives of the past and for its future – and they can alternate. While their committed adherents fight for ascendance, the issue gains most significance during the ‘tectonic shift’ when one particular narrative attempts to replace another – as seen in India in 2014. How do we judge between the competing narratives, and are we bound to accept whichever becomes dominant?
Kannada litterateur and academician U.R. Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) tried to deal with these and other related questions in this, which turned out to be his last book. A lifelong critic of Hindutva and right-wing politics, he also sought to warn of the possible effects of an ideology that he much distrusted when its return to national predominance seemed imminent.
Ananthamurthy, whose “emotional” announcement in 2013 that he would not like to live in a country ruled by Narendra Modi led to criticism and even threats from his supporters, starts with this issue only, contending that the requirement he “should accept someone who has ascended to power through a majority because it is a democratic norm is what I don’t agree with”, as “providing room for those not in the majority is fundamental to democracy”.
“Ignoring those who have denigrated me nationwide for my scepticism about Modi”, he seeks to present his views “in the form of sutras, a set of aphorisms”.
Drawing abundantly on examples from history (both Indian and world), religion (the Prophet Job particularly), literature (Rasolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” but also Joseph Conrad and Rabindranath Tagore), psychology (Jung), Ananthamurthy weighs on an array of issues from dangers of nationalism, despoiling of the environment, disappearance of the compassionate society, and development alternatives. No less provocative, his prognostications happen to bear an uncanny prescience, given some present day-events.
Consider, among many others, if “Can knowing that good and evil are inseparable and exist together, make us aware of the malevolence that might be hiding in our love of the nation”, or “Every time the leaders of the Modi government open their mouths, they utter the words ‘in the national interest’. That is to say, in the national interest’, one can do anything. Like God”, or “This ‘punyabhoomi’, this sacred land, needs Hinduism only as an address.”
The Congress is not spared with Ananthamurthy accusing the party of having “allowed (Hindu nationalist ideologue V.D.) Savarkar plus Modi to occupy the space vacated by (Mahatma) Gandhi” and that none of its leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel appreciated or shared Gandhi and Tagore’s distrust of nationalism, even at its most broadest.
But he is most trenchant when he attacks the modern development and business models, and its effects: “‘Development’ causes one to forget the past, it belongs to nobody, emaciates the earth, fills the canopy of the sky with smog through which the sun cannot peep, chokes and poisons the flowing rivers, and also boosts a state of excessive irresistible desire – inherent in all of us”.
Elaborating on some of his ‘sutras’ in subsequent chapters, Ananthamurthy then moves on to compare two seminal, but competing, texts – Savarkar’s “Hindutva” and Gandhi’s “Hind Swaraj” which have influenced the Indian narrative. For more good measure, he also cites Godse’s statement in court, before providing a reasoned opinion which of the two approaches is better suited for India. You may not agree with his conclusions but will appreciate his approach of considering and contrasting opposing views.
Mildly didactic but never dogmatic, this is not only a incisive look into the thought of Gandhi and Savarkar but some others too, especially Ram Manohar Lohia, whose openness to listen to other views to the extent of changing his own if convinced, is particularly illuminating. More than a posthumous prophecy (and Ananthamurthy was lucky to be spared seeing more than what he had feared), it is an abiding testament to the importance of free thought and dissent without which democracy is only a meaningless word.