U R Ananthamurthy’s Kerala days

Prof. U R Ananthamurthy. DH file photo.

A lot can be said about the Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy (1932-2014). You could begin by examining his literary accomplishments, which range from being a finalist for the Man Booker prize to winning the Jnanpith. You could talk about his passion for Indian languages and his idea of how we must be ‘critical insiders’ within your cultures. You could remember the various important roles he donned in his career, and the pit-stops he made around the world as a teacher and writer. Best of all, you could read his evocative prose.

Today, a day after his fourth death anniversary, DH remembers him with an extract from his autobiography, 'Suragi'.    

VC’s Seat and Authority

I recall an incident to indicate the drift of Kerala politics then.

The state has several good colleges run by the Christians. Two seats in each college are reserved for the vice-chancellor, for students recommended by the vice-chancellor. It occurred to me this was a dangerous privilege.

The vice-chancellor could sell the seats, or recommend candidates he knew, giving rise to a divide between those he favoured and those he didn’t. I wrote to all colleges, saying I wanted to give up the privilege.

I suggested they give away the seats to two students from the bottom of the eligibility list. The principals came to me and said it was a privilege I should retain as it facilitated a relationship between them and me. I was firm. As long as I served in Kottayam the seats went to two students from the bottom of the list. This is an example of how rules made for administrative convenience sometimes turn farcical.

A Muslim girl in Kozhikode was in the BA course. Her marriage broke up after her first year. She was depressed and stopped studying. Her father worked in the editorial section of Malayala Manorama. After going back to live with her parents she thought of resuming her studies. But a university rule said a student who had opted to write exams privately could not be readmitted to college.

CMS College is well-known in Kottayam. It offered English major, which the girl had chosen. The second-year course was not full up; one seat was vacant. The grants we gave were going waste to that extent. No other student had applied for the seat either. Admitting the girl would not have been unjust to anyone. Yet an administrative hurdle was coming in the way. The girl’s father worked in a pro-Congress paper, and the government was run by Leftists.

When word got around that I might help her, a union of Leftist non-teaching staff opposed the idea. Its leader said, ‘This is against the rules. If you go ahead, we will go on strike.’

I tried to reason it out with him but it was of no use. A Leftist student union came to me and repeated the threat. I tried to convince the union as well but failed

Our registrar Chacko was a sharp, dignified Leftist. He had earlier taught physics at CMS College. Even he said it was against the rules. I told him to write a note on why it was improper. I said I would scribble my opinion on it, and take full responsibility for my decision. He did as requested. I wrote on the note that the rule was of no relevance since a seat was vacant. I recommend her for a seat at CMS College, I scribbled on it. I was willing to take all risks for this girl aspiring to study. The strike threats grew louder. I said politely, and without anger, ‘Do as you please. I am not changing my stand.’ I was dear even to those opposing me.

They must have realized I was standing by the truth beyond a blind rule. No one acted against my recommendation. The girl won the first rank in BA and married again.

Madhu, Our Help

However poor, boys in Kerala wear clean clothes. They tie up their mundus at the right waist. Muslims tie it at the left. The Malayalis believe Kannadigas wear dhotis like the Muslims because we tie the garment at the left waist.

I needed someone to take care of my laundry and other chores. A boy came to my house. His story begins with a gold chain. He spoke about one gifted by his grandmother, and lamented it was no longer around his neck. A political associate of his father had taken it away, promising him a job. Madhu told me all this in broken English even before I had said a thing, and ended by saying the chain had been his only piece of wealth. I understood why he had told me the story.

Does anyone get a government job for free? He looked fit, and he didn’t have a beseeching tone. I told him I would give him the job on the condition that he got the chain back and gave it to his mother. He was surprised and suspicious. He joined as a temporary employee. He got used to our house quickly, and Esther became fond of him.

Before my very eyes he started speaking broken English and broken Kannada; Esther can similarly pick up any language. He observed my lifestyle with astonishment and pride.

I had given up the seats set aside as a privilege for the vice chancellor, but many parents still approached me, seeking recommendations. Once someone sneaked in from the back door,

and placed ten thousand rupees in front of Madhu, asking him to persuade me to get his child a seat. By then Madhu was so ardently on my side that he pulled out a stick and chased the visitor out. He came to me and said, ‘Sir, someone had come to give you money. I drove him out with a stick.’ I told him not to beat anyone, and just to refuse money. ‘It has become a custom here. That’s the reason they approach us,’ I said. He agreed.

Madhu was somewhat fashionable. When I met him years after I came away from Kerala, he had a head full of dark hair. Smiling, he said, ‘Sir, look, how my hair has grown.’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, it has!’

He pulled out his hair and said, ‘This is completely artificial, Sir.’ I asked how much he had paid for the wig. A thousand rupees is what he had spent on it.

I must talk about another incident. I had been to Delhi once. Esther was also away from our bungalow in Kottayam. When I returned my personal secretary and the registrar were waiting to tell me something. The complaint: ‘Madhu took a girl to your house. We drove her out and locked him up. Please do whatever needs to be done.’ I didn’t say a thing. I went home and asked Madhu what had happened.

‘There is a girl, Sir. We are in love. She came over one night and stayed here. When these people came by, she went away. They have already humiliated me. She shouldn’t be.’

He said he was ready to marry her. ‘You can punish me by firing me,’ he said. The officials were waiting for me to dismiss him. I gave Madhu a scolding and let him off. It was possible for me to do this naturally. He later married the girl, and they have lovely children now.

Madhu passed secondary school and then completed a graduate course. After I left Kerala he took leave for two years, and tried to make a film. He had run up huge debts. Unable to complete the film he returned to his job. To this day, wherever I am and whenever I am in a crisis, Madhu comes over and stands by me.

His mother had been more surprised than he was that I had given him a job without taking any money. Despite her poverty, she had sent me a bottle of scotch, taking help from relatives returning from the Middle East. I was furious.

‘How much does it cost?’ I said. ‘Nothing, Sir. My mother has sent it out of gratitude.’ ‘I don’t want anything like that,’ I said, and gave him the price of the bottle. ‘Tell your mother I will visit your house and have a meal.’He was delighted.

I went to their house, drank toddy, and enjoyed a feast. His mother’s joy knew no bounds. Recently, when I was in hospital, he came over and took care of me for ten days. To this day

he remains like a son, showering special affection on us.

Mathew and John

I had a driver called Mathew. He had fought in the Second World War, and retired from the army. He drove my Ambassador. He had faith in me. When I had to travel to Bengaluru I would pay the university and use the car as a taxi. This amazed him. ‘Not required, Sir,’ he would say.

I explained to him why it was not right to use the car otherwise. He remained a devoted driver all through my stint in Kerala. He got into the money lending business and is rich now.

I must also talk about John. He was a steno-typist to an English businessman in the Middle East. I gathered that the Englishman, strangely, didn’t know how to read and write. Yet he had become a millionaire.

In the Roman Empire, they say, the rich were illiterate while the slaves were literate. John had come to Kottayam for a year to take care of his ailing parents. He came to me and said he would work for me. He hadn’t even passed secondary school. Under the rules there was no way I could hire him as a steno-typist. I called the leaders of the Congress union and said, ‘This boy has potential, and I want to hire him. He will pass the secondary school exams in six months. If you think this is against the rules, I will personally pay him his salary.’

They let me hire him. He was an excellent steno-typist, so good that I once told a minister, ‘You won’t find another steno-typist in all of Kerala who is as good. He can listen to what you say in English, type it, and also correct it.’

This was true, and he was trustworthy. He could keep things confidential. I used to get him

to do confidential exam-related work. When my term ended, he said he wouldn’t work under any other vice-chancellor, and flew back to the Middle East.

Naughty Muslim Boy

Our biology department had a bright professor as the head. He was from an upper caste. A Muslim boy joined the department. He was naughty and used to tease the girls in the department, mostly Nairs and Christians. They complained to their parents and the

head of the department, who formed an inquiry committee.

The moment word got out that the boy would be punished, the girls came to me and said he was good even if he was naughty, and pleaded with me to forgive him. I called the head and asked him to let the boy off with a warning but he wouldn’t listen.

I contacted the registrar and stopped the inquiry. The boy wrote all exams and got good marks. He had to apply for a UGC fellowship. The head of the department was to sign it but he refused.

He insisted the boy be punished, and stuck to the position that he wouldn’t sign the papers even if the vice-chancellor directed him to do so. A Hindu–Muslim clash was brewing because the professor was adamant even when the girls and their parents were in favour of the boy.

When I am in a position of authority, I hardly ever lose my temper. But I was furious this time. I suspended the professor, and that was not a small thing. I also sent the boy’s application to the

UGC without the professor’s signature. The boy eventually got the fellowship. But I hadn’t followed procedure while suspending the professor.

He approached the High Court, which quashed his suspension. In that sense I had lost. But I am happy I was able to avert a communal clash in the city. At the professor’s house I used

to be treated to delicious Chinese food. He didn’t become bitter towards me after this incident; in fact, he remained as friendly as before. Even now when I visit Kottayam, he comes and greets me.

School of Letters

I set up the School of Letters. The idea was to bring together great Malayalam writers and English experts in one place. Students who wanted a degree in English had to study a course in Malayalam, and vice versa. We needed someone to head it.

I first asked Shankara Pillai, a Gandhian and famous playwright. He agreed,

out of affection for me. A few days after he joined the university, he died of a heart attack.

I needed a replacement. Ayyappa Panikkar was one who could speak with authority about Malayalam and English literatures. I requested him to join us. He recommended Narendra Prasad. ‘He is intelligent, and works in a government college. He has no PhD. You could ask him to sign up for one.’ I sent word, and Narendra Prasad applied.

I made him professor and head. No one doubted his competence but I faced the charge that I had appointed someone without a PhD. What I needed, more than a PhD, was an active, competent head. Several syndicate members were mad at him.

After some days they walked into my chamber. ‘Your beloved Narendra Prasad doesn’t come to work at all. You can go and check for yourself,’ one of them said. The reason for calling him ‘your beloved Narendra Prasad’ was that he would visit my house in the evening and discuss literature over beer. Everyone knew about it. I called up the department. He was not around.

For ten days, he had neither turned up for work nor applied for leave. I called our registrar and got him to issue a memo to Narendra Prasad.

That evening he came to my house as usual, and said, ‘Sir, I have received a memo.’ I told him I was the one responsible for it. ‘But why?’ he said. ‘You are not going to the department and teaching. We may be friends here. But I am vice-chancellor, and I have the responsibility of protecting the university’s interests.’

His eyes turned moist. He sought forgiveness, and corrected himself. He didn’t feel bad about me. I considered his absence leave without pay.

Narendra Prasad didn’t survive at the university after I moved on. He joined the movies and made a name as an actor. His biggest problem was his drinking. When I was chairman of the Sahitya Akademi, I got a call from him. He was calling me after many years.

The first thing he said was he had given up drinking. I was happy to hear that. Three months later he passed away.

Extracted from Suragi, U R Ananthamurthy’s autobiography, translated from Kannada by SR Ramakrishna, City Editor, Deccan Herald. With permission from Oxford University Press.

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