THE grand old man belonging to the South Indian literary world has passed away. This should be taken as sad news in Pakistan too, though I know that Mr U.R. Ananthamurthy’s name as a distinguished fiction writer is not very familiar in the literary circles here. He belonged to Bangalore and though an English professor was content to be known as a novelist writing in his own language Kannada. He also had the honour to act as chairman of Sahitya Academy of India. I remember to have first met him during those very years of his chairmanship.
I last met him in London at the ceremony of the International Man Booker Prize 2013. We both were among the 10 finalists; he was representing India, while I was from Pakistan. On this occasion he well played the role of grand old man of India. In his interview to The Hindu he said, “It is an honour but it is an honour I would want to share with the innumerable Indian language authors who are excellent”. He added that the tendency to use ‘vernacular’ as a pejorative word and deride Indian-language literature as below par was unfortunate. “Let us remember that Shakespeare wrote in English when the language was nothing but a vernacular”.
On this occasion in London I was feeling bored finding myself in the company of the other finalists, none of whom were known to me. Nor did anyone care to take notice of me. I had started feeling awkward when Asif Farrukhi came to me and said, “you know Ananthamurthy too is among the nominees. He is searching for you.”
What good news it was for me. And lo, he was there coming with open arms towards me. Responding with the same enthusiasm I proceeded towards him. How happy we were to meet here away from our own countries.
Later Asif informed me that our enthusiasm was being observed with much curiosity. But why, I asked to which he replied, “you two coming from countries hostile to each other yet meeting so boisterously. Was it not enough of a reason to be curious?”
The next day his observation was confirmed by the behaviour of Truda Spruyt, who was handling the Booker Prize ceremony. In the midst of the gathering at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, she hastily came to me along with a cameraman.
“Mr Husain, sorry,” she said, “we missed the moment of your meeting your Indian contemporary. We would very much like a repeat of that moment.”
I was flabbergasted. “Repeat of the moment? But the moment has elapsed.”
“No, no, we want it repeated for the sake of keeping it in our record.”
Mr Ananthamurthy was sitting nearby with his wife and daughter. I went straight to him and told him what Spruyt required from us. He laughed and instantly stood up with his arms open and we repeated that happy moment with the same enthusiasm. The cameraman readily clicked away.
It was now that I was left wondering if the aforementioned moment was really significant in some way. And that led me to realise that perhaps, over the years, I had developed slowly and silently a relationship with him akin to friendship. If so, I should be thankful to Truda Spruyt, whose enthusiasm helped me realise this relationship.
Then I started recalling conversations I had with him on different occasions. We hardly talked about literature. He carried with him a very different kind of worry. I remember him saying on one occasion: “How unfortunate, we have been living for so long with the Muslims, but we know so little about this community. As for their religion, we are hardly acquainted with it.”
Here I am reminded of an intellectuals’ meeting held in the mountainous suburbs of Kathmandu in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid incident. Here again I found myself a stranger among the delegates, who all appeared to be from South India and hence knew each other. And once again Ananthamurthy came to my rescue. Quite unexpectedly he arrived and upon seeing me, he as usual opened his arms for me. Now, I was no more a stranger and discovered new friendships.
I was so happy to find Asghar Ali Engineer too among the delegates. I readily introduced him to Ananthamurthy hoping that our Islamic scholar will be ever ready to listen patiently to the questions raised by Murthy and will provide him answers to his satisfaction. And I observed to my satisfaction that in every session and on every occasion Ananthamurthy had some pertinent question directed towards Asghar Ali Engineer, who felt duty-bound to provide an answer, which would leave him completely satisfied.
But Ananthamurthy had one more plan dear to him. He had planned to pay a visit to Pakistan along with a delegation of Indian writers. Alas, that wish of his remained unfulfilled.