New Delhi: To the anglophone world, Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy, who succumbed to a prolonged kidney disease at the age of 81 on Friday, will be best known for his novel Samskara.

But Ananthamurthy, or URA as he is known in the literary community, was nothing less than an institution. “No man now alive in India better deserves the term ‘public intellectual’ than Ananthamurthy... Certainly, no English writer in India has anywhere like the social standing of Ananthamurthy, the deep, lifelong connection with his readers and his public," historian Ramachandra Guha said on Twitter after Ananthamurthy’s death.

Born in Shimoga district of Karnataka in 1932, Ananthamurthy was one of the primary representatives of the navya or the new movement in Kannada writing. He grew up a Gandhian socialist, read English literature at the University of Mysore, and earned his doctorate from the University of Birmingham in England. His dissertation was on fiction and the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. The subject would come to haunt him later in life, in a different context and in his home country.

While Samskara (first published in Kannada in 1966, later made into a film) sealed his reputation, Bharathipura (published in English in 2010) was also shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian literature in 2012. He was awarded with the Jnanpith Award in 1994 and the Padma Bhushan in 1998.

After returning to India from the UK, Ananthamurthy joined the English department of the University of Mysore in 1970. Generations of students remember him as an inspiring teacher. In an email interview with Mint Lounge a few years ago, he had named Yoganarasimhan, the headmaster of his high school, as an important intellectual influence. It was from him that Ananthamurthy read Shakespeare, the writings of Jawaharlal Nehru and of Indian freedom fighters.

Chandan Gowda, professor of sociology at the Azim Premji University in Bangalore, who knew Ananthamurthy personally, described him as “one of the foremost representatives of literary modernism in the Kannada language". He remarked on Ananthamurthy’s energy, in spite of his failing health in recent years, and prolific output that included scores of stories, essays and newspaper articles.

“He did not have a trace of pessimism," Gowda said, “Recently, he was working on a volume called Swaraj and Hindutva." It is a critique of the idea of the strong state, one that has been in circulation of late.

When it came to the interpretation of his work, however, Ananthamurthy preferred individual taste above any rules of reading. “Criticism will have to come back to the individual’s response," he told columnist Aakar Patel in an interview with Mint Lounge in April this year. “At one time, Urdu poetry was read, and we went ‘Wah!’—that is a much better response than criticism."

In the same interview, Ananthamurthy praised a city like Bangalore for its ability to absorb people from various parts of India who may not be Kannada speakers. But the India in which he had grown up transformed beyond his expectations.

In September 2013, in the wake of the rise of Narendra Modi as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Ananthamurthy said at an event in Bangalore that he did not wish to live in a country where Modi could become Prime Minister. Modi, who was then chief minister of Gujarat, has been widely criticized for the 2002 riots in the state under his rule. Ananthamurthy added his voice to this chorus, comparing him with his predecessors.

“We had people like (Jawaharlal) Nehru who could write a book in jail... There was some dignity for the Prime Minister’s post, but that dignity will go (if Modi becomes Prime Minister)," Ananthamurthy said.

After Modi was elected with a resounding mandate in the April-May general elections, Ananthamurthy was viciously attacked by his supporters. He went on to modify his earlier statement by saying he was “overcome by emotion, and I said I will not live in a country where Modi is Prime Minister. That was too much to say because I can’t go anywhere except India".

For the last few years, Ananthamurthy was suffering from a debilitating renal disease, but he refused to let it impede his lifestyle. He even had travelled to London for the Man Asian Booker Prize ceremony while taking weekly dialysis.

Modi, who tweeted his condolences to Ananthamurthy’s family, said his demise was “a loss to Kannada literature".

The Karnataka government on Friday announced a three-day state mourning and a holiday on Saturday for its offices and educational institutions as a mark of respect to Ananthamurthy.

The writer, though, had a more inclusive view of himself. “As a writer, I am just one among many writing in their mother tongues in India. I am here on their behalf," he had said on being nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

Ananthamurthy is survived by his wife, son and daughter.

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