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The politics of Aravind Adiga

Sandeep Balakrishna, Centre Right India
Decoding Aravind Adiga’s politics is the key to decode his literature. Or his pretensions to it. Aravind Adiga’s veiled attack in the Outlook magazine (March 11, 2013 issue) on the legendary Dr. S L Bhyrappa—a pan-Indian writer who incidentally happens to write in Kannada, in the memorable words of the Kannada literary critic, H.M. Nayak—exposes precisely this politics. It is the same politics that his Guru, U.R. Ananthamurthy has continued to practice with aplomb for nearly five decades.

The first question we need to ask is: should we take Aravind Adiga seriously? Yes and no. Yes because he represents the latest in the long list of Indian literary frauds that have been subsidized by Western awards and wealth to ensure that, thanks to such dishonest writing, Indians remain mentally chained to colonial ways of looking at their own country. Pitiably, the quality of such literary sepoys has declined at an alarming pace over the years. These years have also taken the sheen off the road that began with Salman Rushdie—whose felicity in the English language is extraordinary and who has a genuine knack for telling a story—and has paused at Aravind Adiga. What lies exposed is ugly and the fact that despite this, the Adigas of the world continue to thrive is reason enough to take his pretensions seriously if only to tell him that Indians are no longer impressed with people who tout a Booker as the qualification to pontificate on things they have little or no knowledge about. The no will be self-explanatory once we’re done decoding his both politics and his ignorance.

If we were honest to ourselves, it’d be evident that but for his Booker, no paper or magazine would give him space to make this ill-informed attack on a literary colossus like Dr. S L Bhyrappa. People would go, “Aravind Adiga, who?” It is for this reason too, that we need to give the devil its due.

Aravind Adiga’s attack on Bhyrappa rests ostensibly on three main premises—an unabashed flattery of his guru, U R Ananthamurthy, a less-than-honest critique of S L Bhyrappa’s works and the deceptive politics of Marxism in India.

When we examine the first premise, it is straightaway clear that the praise for Ananthamurthy’s books is unqualified (“verbal artistry of…Samskara” and so on) while the critique of S L Bhyrappa’s works is loaded with a litany of Leftist literary theory. Equally, Adiga mentions allegations against Bhyrappa’s books as if they’re settled facts while carefully concealing the fact that it was indeed U R Ananthamurthy who led the charge in casting these allegations. Adiga is also dishonest. Sample this:

From the publication of Vamsha Vruksha, which came out just before Samskara, Bhyrappa has been accused of being the anti-Ananthamurthy: a conservative whose goal is the defence of upper-caste Hindu society. This is a crude charge.

I agree it’s a crude charge but why doesn’t Adiga provide the complete context to why, how, and from where that charge emanated? To understand this, one needs to briefly trace the history of 20th Century history of Kannada literature. One of the earliest and defining epochs in Kannada literary history was the Navodaya (literally, “new dawn”) period which included stalwarts like Kuvempu, D.R.Bendre, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, Shivaram Karanth, Govinda Pai, B.M. Srikantaiah, and in a way, D.V. Gundappa. Most of these were well-rooted in both the literary and philosophical tradition of India and possessed equal erudition to the Western counterparts thereof. Navodaya was followed by the Navya (New) period, which was spearheaded by the poet Gopala Krishna Adiga and included notable writers like U R Ananthamurthy, Lankesh, Girish Karnad, V.K. Gokak, Yashwanth Chittal, A.K. Ramanujan, Ramachandra Sharma, and Shantinath Desai.

A key distinction between Navodaya and Navya was characterization. The proponents and champions of Navya characterized it as a movement as opposed to a new literary tradition. To wit, V.K. Gokak who coined the phrase Navya Sahitya (New Literature) didn’t quite envision the shape it would eventually assume.

Most writers of the Navya movement had returned to India after studying Humanities in universities abroad, mostly England. The reigning intellectual climate in those universities then as now was heavily Leftist. Conditioned by this, these writers embarked on a project to impose that climate in our academia. It also helped that the politics of that time was dominated by Marxism. And so they sought to find the same problems in India that they had found in the West during their student days. And when they were unable to find these problems, they invented them. Perhaps the most and the classic representative of this fraud is U R Ananthamurthy’s own Bharatipura, the name of a real town near Tirthahalli in Karnataka after which the novel is titled. The other representative novel is one which Aravind Adiga claims as “great” and is what catapulted Ananthamurthy to the fame he continues to enjoy. The novel entitled Samskara is one of the greatest literary frauds—if not for anything else—but because it sacrifices honesty at the altar of Marxist ideology. Here’s what Bhyrappa himself says in his Bhitti, about the novel:

The central character of Samskara is Praneshacharya, depicted as being the representative of Sanatana Dharma. He has studied Dharmashastras in Kashi. A man like this willingly marries an ailing girl, who he knows is incapable of bearing him children. He marries her out of his conviction that he will find spiritual enlightenment by spending his life in her service. However, Dharmashastras say that the purpose of marriage is to beget children and that no man must marry a girl who he knows is incapable of conceiving. If after marriage he finds out that she cannot conceive, he must marry another woman who can bear children, and must treat the first wife with respect and affection. Didn’t Praneshacharya know this fundamental tenet of Dharmashastra?

In reality, he is neither an Indian character nor does he represent Indian Dharmashastras. This character reflects the Christian tenets of attaining spiritual maturity through suffering. Didn’t the author know this basic difference?

Samskara imposes a misleading mix of existentialism and the Marxist conception of society upon a society and culture to which these concepts are alien and therefore inapplicable. This technique resonates well with the Marxist distortion of Indian history: how history was subordinated to ideology by distorting Hindu society, traditions, and philosophy.

Navya thus transformed Kannada literature—a high art form—into a cesspool of politics where only “approved” writings found the fortune of being published. Those who didn’t toe the line had their futures nipped in the bud. For someone who writes such lofty things about U R Ananthamurthy, it’s surprising why Aravind Adiga doesn’t mention Saakshi, a literary journal published by Akshara Prakashana, which was ghost-directed by Gopalakrishna Adiga and U R Ananthamurthy? The damage that the Adiga-Ananthamurthy duo inflicted in their heydays upon the Kannada literary world is incalculable. We can turn to S L Bhyrappa’s Bhitti again to get a small sample of this:

Saakshi was the mouthpiece of the Navyas… in universities and at seminars, students who pursued M.A…used to sport a copy of Saakshi in their hands…if not anything, the fact that they were seen as reading Saakshi enabled them to project themselves as intellectuals, a fact they quickly realized given the literary climate they lived in. They were also aware that they needed to praise Adiga or Ananthamurthy if they needed to get published in Saakshi. The journal’s dictatorial dictum was clear: Ananthamurthy in prose and Adiga in poetry, and the twain shan’t encroach on each other’s territory….thus did the Adiga-Ananthamurthy duo impose their literary authoritarianism on young and upcoming writers.

Thus an A K Ramanujan translates U R Ananthamurthy’s Samskara into English and wins accolades. U.R. Ananthamurthy praises Ramachandra Sharma’s work while Adiga, Ananthamurthy, and Lankesh are card carrying members of Ram Manohar Lohia’s brand of socialism. Adiga and Purnachandra Tejaswi (son of the renowned Kannada poet, Kuvempu) translate Lohia’s work into Kannada. Together, these and other, similar eminences completely politicize the Kannada literary scene and brainwash at least two entire generations of Kannada writers, and in the end, sacrifice literature at the altar of ideology. Even a casual glance at the state of Kannada literary studies in the universities of Karnataka will reveal this political imprint left behind by the Navya worthies.

What initially began as a rebellion against what the Navya folks termed “traditional,” “regressive,” and “superstitious” society ended up in literary gangsterism that not only destroyed careers but set up a fertile ground for careerist, political writers to enter either the Legislative Council or the Rajya Sabha or influential positions in the Government.

The only writer who prostituted himself to no ism, didn’t sell his soul to ideology but won millions of admirers was Dr. S L Bhyrappa. He wrote in Kannada sitting in faraway Gujarat and Delhi but his work became bestsellers as soon as they were published. That phenomenon began almost 50 years ago and it continues unabated. Which is what caused intolerable anguish to the Ananthamurthyesque arbiters of literature. Here was a contemporary writer who possessed a rich life experience, who was far more erudite, who followed no ideology, and who never played the game, yet earned the goodwill, affection and respect of millions of loyal readers. And here was another writer who held the literary establishment in his sway. Yet all that that enormous influence got U R Ananthamurthy was powerful positions—he was a Vice Chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi Kottayam University, Chairman of the National Book Trust, President of the Sahitya Akademi, twice Chairman of the FTII, etc—and a band of flatterers. It is Bhyrappa’s misfortune that he happens to be a contemporary of petty-politicking pygmies endowed with just a semblance of talent.

This then is the entire context of Aravind Adiga’s “crude charge.”

If this is the literary facet of Adiga’s attack on Bhyrappa, the political facet is the same old tried, tested and failed gambit of sticking the Hindutva tag.

who is Santeshivara Lingannaiah Bhyrappa? Winner of the Sahitya Akademi award, he’s the author of 21 widely read and sometimes very controversial Kannada novels. These achievements are overshadowed, however, by a single fact: S.L. Bhyrappa is pro-Hindutva. His unvarnished political opinions—he opposes religious conversion and cow slaughter, and thinks that Tipu Sultan is a religious fanatic rather than a national hero—embarrass even his own admirers. It would be convenient to celebrate only Ananthamurthy, who is staunchly secular, and forget that the odious Mr Bhyrappa exists at all.

Aravind Adiga has arrived a little too late. The generation that felt snubbed by and ashamed to admit that it took pride in Hinduism has either moved on or has been rendered ridiculous. Second, Adiga should provide evidence of why religious conversion is acceptable in a country like India, and why Tipu Sultan was not a religious fanatic instead of parroting phony and discredited theories from the school of secularism. We all know the kind of damage these “staunchly secular” people have inflicted on this country. From politicians to actors to alleged litterateurs, everybody has appeased the worst tendencies in an over-pampered minority to the dangerous extent that Owaisi exhibited on more than one occasion. And this is why we must not take Aravind Adiga seriously.

Just as Aravind Adiga has “examined” S L Bhyrappa’s novels to pepper his attack against the author, we need to focus briefly on the edifice upon which Adiga’s fame rests. In the words of the learned and the incisive Ravikiran Rao, the White Tiger “is utter crap and Aravind Adiga is an incompetent writer.” Ravikiran’s main critique of the novel is given in the footnote. The gist of his critique is similar to that of S L Bhyrappa’s critique of U R Ananthamurthy’s Samskara: that the novel is dishonest and the author is ignorant of the subject he writes about. Quite fitting I must add. Like Guru like disciple.

However, to be fair, Aravind Adiga thinks that Bhyrappa is “infuriatingly good.” But his appreciation of Bhyrappa stops at form, technique, and detail. If he ever condescends to inform us of things like plot and characterization, he does it in a fleeting manner. The most illustrative example of this is Adiga’s “critique” of one of Bhyrappa’s best novels, Aavarana on expected lines.

Aavarana (The Concealing), though technically his 20th novel, is a polemic—a list of all the sins that Muslims have allegedly wreaked on Hindus and their culture for generations…Ananthamurthy criticised the novel, and Bhyrappa entered into a rancorous public debate with him…Aavarana earned the aging Bhyrappa a cult following of young, rabidly right-wing readers…the result is that the term Aavarana now describes what has happened to S.L. Bhyrappa himself: swallowed by his weakest novel, passed over for the Jnanpith (the traditional crown for the bhasha writer), and in danger of having a fanbase composed entirely of bigots.

The problem with Adiga’s attack on Aavarana is not that it is Bhyrappa’s weakest novel but that it delivered a body blow to the likes of Adiga’s guru, U R Ananthamurthy. What is unpalatable to Aravind Adiga is not the “list of all the sins that Muslims have” wreaked on Hindus. The unpalatable fact is how the novel exposes the charlatans in powerful positions: in the Government HRD ministry’s History department, in literature, in drama and in film. Perhaps the most unpalatable fact in the novel is the character of Professor Sastry who bears an eminently close resemblance to Adiga’s guru, U R Ananthamurthy. Additionally, Aravind Adiga is lying when he says that S L Bhyrappa entered into a “rancorous debate” with Ananthamurthy over Aavarana. The truth is that Bhyrappa has never entered into any debate with anybody over the novel. He has neither defended nor advocated the novel. Like before, we don’t need to take Adiga seriously when he speaks of “rabid right wing Hindus” and “bigots.” As for the Jnanapith, most people in Karnataka know the story of exactly how Girish Karnad and U R Ananthamurthy were “conferred” the award. The politics of how they received the Jnanapith merits an entire piece in itself.

In the end, Adiga says that “Ananthamurthy and Bhyrappa are the opposite poles of the modern Kannada novel.” This is an unfair comparison on every count. There’s simply no way the two writers can be compared. Bhyrappa’s body of work is a fine art form. It is classical music and classical dance in written form. To understand Bhyrappa’s art, I can only point to a piece I had written a few years ago. Ananthamurthy is a political writer. Literature is only incidental in his novels. Much less can be said about Aravind Adiga’s alleged novel. Like Ananthamurthy’s, it is a political tract. What makes it worse is the fact that it is also incompetent. It can be summed up in a statement that Adiga made when he was interviewed after the White Tiger won the Booker:

So, where’s this Shining India everyone’s talking about? It was time someone broke the myth.

Logically, we can conclude that the White Tiger is really a polemic against the BJP masquerading as a work of fiction.

The other reason Adiga consistently gets Bhyrappa wrong is simpler: he just doesn’t have the equipment required to understand his work. Everything is either ideology or politics for Adiga. Aravind Adiga is as far removed from literature as an automobile mechanic is from angioplasty. Which is why he pompously titles his piece, “A Storyteller In Search Of An Ending.” Literature in its truest, highest sense informs us that there is really no ending for a story. Art should not imitate life in its entirety because death is the only ending in real life. Real life is punctuated with pauses. The best that any good work of literature can and should attempt to do is to put a comma at the end of the story. Had Aravind Adiga understood this elementary lesson, he would’ve been able to better appreciate Bhyrappa.

In the end, perhaps the only comparison one can make between S L Bhyrappa and U R Ananthamurthy is on the yardstick of popularity of appeal. The honest answer to the question, “who reads U R Ananthamurthy” will reveal an equally honest answer: nobody. That is nobody outside the rotten Humanities departments of our universities. And as we notice, Bhyrappa’s latest Kavalu topped the bestseller charts for about six months. Like his other books, it generated non-government, non-university-sponsored discussions and seminars.

At a function last year to honour S L Bhyrappa on receiving the Saraswati Samman, the author was seated in a palanquin and paraded in public as a mark of honour not once but twice: once in Bangalore and the second time in Santeshivara, his birthplace. This is in the Hindu tradition of placing Gods in a palanquin and parading them in the street for people to offer their worship. And this is the difference between U R Ananthamurthy and S L Bhyrappa, a difference which makes all the difference.

Ravikiran Rao’s main critique of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger 

[Adiga's] protagonist is named Balram Halwai…. When I read the name Balram Halwai, it made me uneasy for some reason… when the novel moves to discuss caste for the first time, it suddenly struck me: What is a person, obviously born into a lower caste, doing with a name like Halwai? If you know anything at all about caste, you will know that the notion of purity is most rigidly enforced in matters of food and drink. Where in India can a lower caste person also be a traditional seller of sweets?… It turns out that Balram Halwai is not a lower-caste person after all. After introducing the concept of caste, and the fact that Halwai means seller of sweets, Adiga finds himself having to explain how instead of selling sweets, Balram’s family is working as landless labourers. Balram’s family is supposedly in this state because his grandfather suffered losses in his business. But hey, when he started off Balram’s story, didn’t he make it sound like the family has been in poverty for generations?

Now, the thing about caste, as sociologists will never tire of pointing out, is that it is different from economic class. A Brahmin family that falls on hard times is still a Brahmin family. They will continue to get support from their friends and relatives who, needless to say, happen to be Brahmins. They will socialise with others of their caste, and their social, economic and cultural aspirations will come from people of their own caste. People’s fortunes may ebb and flow, but it is very unlikely that a family of traders turns into a family of landless labourers in the course of a generation. That is not how the caste system works, as Adiga would know if he knew the first thing about the caste system.

There is more. A couple of pages after Balram’s caste is introduced, Balram finds himself asking for a job from the son of the village Zamindar. The Zamindar is also present. The son asks Balram whether he belongs to a lower caste or an upper caste, and Balram has the opportunity to do some complex mental gymnastics to decide on what answer to give. Again, in which village of India will you find that a person’s caste is not immediately known to everyone concerned? Or if it is not known, won’t it be possible for the Zamindar to immediately determine the caste from the name?

This is the mess that Adiga makes of just one part of the novel. You will find such instances in every page of it. The novel is at its worst in the areas where the author is the most ignorant. When it enters into a milieu familiar to him, it rises to the level of mediocrity.
Sandeep Balakrishna is a contributor on Centre Right India, the alternative news and opinions outlet.
The politics of Aravind Adiga is republished with permission of Centre Right India.

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