Gandhi’s Triumph over the Fear of Death

An excerpt from ‘The Essential U. R. Ananthamurthy’

GN Bureau | June 7, 2023

#literature   #culture   #Mahatma Gandhi   #U. R. Ananthamurthy   #society  
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)

The Essential U. R. Ananthamurthy
Edited by N. Manu Chakravarthy and Chandan Gowda
Aleph Books, Rs 899, 312 pages

U. R. Ananthamurthy (1932–2014), writer, teacher, literary critic, and public intellectual, was born in Shivamogga district in Karnataka. In 1965, his debut novel, ‘Samskara’, took the literary world by storm with its unflinching portrayal of the rigid orthodoxy in Brahmin society. Since then, it has become a landmark novel of the modernist, or ‘Navya’, movement of the 1950s and 1960s in Kannada literature. In a career that spanned more than five decades, Ananthamurthy wrote five novels, several collections of short stories, poetry, and essays, a play, and an autobiography. He received the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary honour, in 1994, and was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013.

‘The Essential U. R. Ananthamurthy’ is a five-part compendium of select fictional and non-fictional works, poetry, and autobiographical writings from one of India’s most illustrious and outspoken writers. The section ‘Novels’ portrays characters in conflict with tradition, idealism, and modernity in a rapidly changing independent India through excerpts from powerful novels such as ‘Samskara’, ‘Bharathipura’, ‘Avasthe’, and ‘Bhava’. ‘Poetry’ presents five evocative poems on the themes of power and politics. ‘Short Stories’ highlights the chief themes that preoccupied Ananthamurthy—the constraints of the traditional order, the cultural dominance of the West, the sinister workings of power, and the creativity of political dissent.

‘Essays and Speeches’ captures the range and depth of Ananthamurthy’s democratic imagination through his writings on cultural identity and literature, community and creativity, linguistic and nationalist politics, and on figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Ram Manohar Lohia. And, the final section, ‘Memoirs’, gathers Ananthamurthy’s memories of family, friendships, work, and travel from the different phases of his life.

The Essential U. R. Ananthamurthy offers a rich glimpse into the mind of one of modern India’s most profound writers and thinkers and demonstrates why Ananthamurthy’s works will endure for generations to come.

Here is an excerpt from an essay from this new work:

Gandhi’s Triumph over the Fear of Death

I have been reading the graffiti on the walls of several buildings of the university I teach in. They are all in red and project the deep anguish of the youth who have written them. These young people write all over the walls, ‘We want change, not improvement’. These young people are dreamers. Still not stifled by the monotony of everyday life. It is possible that some of them are prepared for any kind of sacrifice due to their inexperience. It is also possible for quite a few of them to be narcisstic, and even vainly proud. But so long as there are idealists such as these, the relationship between society and individual will find the concern for social justice alive and intact in its scheme. Such people may not find in Gandhi a model to be admired. It is only the desire to make Gandhi relevant to these dreamers that I speak now.

It is true that improvement only means a shoddy patch work. To prevent our system from collapsing totally—similar to the one John Maynard Keynes visualized to save the capitalist system—such an improvement may be necessary and I very well understand the dissatisfaction it causes. Third World countries with all their problems cannot hope for lasting solutions in this. But when these young people ask for change, I cannot but help feeling that they are asking for a
social revolution. The revolutions in China and Russia have certainly brought about economic changes in those societies. It would be utterly inhuman to refuse changes in a society such as ours. All said and done, China may not have the kind of poverty and hunger that India has. Literacy is certainly greater there. It is for this reason that the change demanded by these youngsters is far more valuable than a shoddy piece of improvement, for it can shake up our society and introduce reinvigorating changes that can give comfort to many, even if it causes
agony to a few. The raging fire of change can even convert negative elements of jealousy, envy and revenge into something positive.

But I must say, with a lot of diffidence, that the change brought about by our youth would be soulless, for the vanguard of change will inevitably have to be heartless. The diffidence comes from the realization that the attempt to check progress would become mere indulgence,
if it does not participate in the process of change with conviction. To resist a positive change in the name of idealism can easily become political cunning. The lessons of history cannot be camouflaged even then. One must not hesitate to speak of an alternative to the capitalist and the communist systems, even if no one is interested in such ideas at present. I speak at such a complex juncture now.

Momentous changes took place in China and Russia. But why hasn’t the nature of man changed? China desires to go the way of the developed western countries. A revolution brought about a change. But the contentment of the present seems to be dragging China towards the industrialization and the capitalist models of the west. The preoccupation with the strategies of defence and war seems to have gained precedence over social justice. Ultimately, only the American affluence seems to possess the human mind. We are not an exception to this either. Even the revolutionary spirit does not seem to be capable of holding on to its austerity in the face of the comforts provided by an affluent life style.

It is precisely for this reason that those who admire Gandhi seek neither improvement nor change. They ask for transformation—that is, a thorough change of the human soul in a new civilization. Transformation is not necessarily related to the future. It can happen in the immediate present during moments of love, admiration of nature, caring for the universe in a mature manner—moments wherein desire is replaced by contentment in the human heart. Poets, lovers, mad mystics have all achieved this—even if for a fleeting moment—in human history.

There is a photograph of Gandhi that I like immensely. In it, his bald head is slightly inclined to the right, the eyes behind the spectacles are peacefully shut and the body is bare. Not an extra ounce of fat is on his body. It projects a kind of tranquillity that could be ours in a moment of concentrated satisfaction. Nothing could be more difficult than this.

Gandhi desired transformation—of the human soul, and of society. He made no distinctions between the ills of society and those of the human heart. He even located the evil of British imperialism in the heart of the Indian. If the British looked down upon us, so did we as Indians look down upon our own people as untouchables. Gandhi visualized the imperialist streak within the core of the human heart.

This streak dehumanizes both the master and the slave. The oppressed is capable of realizing his dignity the moment he rejects his low state. But the oppressor cannot do so easily. Gandhi had such pity for those obese with power. He attended on them as a doctor does on the patient. He treated viceroys in the same manner, and had made Lord Mountbatten drink goat’s milk.

Who can humiliate a man who has conquered the fear of death? Gandhi had prepared himself to accept this for the sake of truth. The combination of joy and courage that such an attitude produces in one leaves one beautiful—something that can be seen in Gandhi himself. It is said that only Chaplin apart from children could smile like that. For Gandhi, a struggle was not a stern faced affair. The Dandi March is a shining example of how a man who has conquered fear can be lively, cheerful and peaceful. Such a soul can fight the empire with supreme calm of mind. He could stitch footwear for General Smuts who jailed him, and show sympathy to the English Emperor who he said had enough clothing and more for both.

[The excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]




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