The Kannada-language writer U.R. Ananthamurthy was born in 1932, in a village outside Thirthalli, a town in southwest India. His childhood, today, is scarcely imaginable. In a 1989 essay, Ananthamurthy described his village as a medieval colony cut off from scientific progress and governed by priests, a world where myth “had an unbroken continuity with reality.” It was also surrounded by tigers.
But that image of hermeticism is only partly true: Progress had by then reached the surrounding towns. The net result was a sort of time warp. In the morning, Ananthamurthy would hear the local priests debate whether the earth orbited the sun. In high school, he was lectured by a science teacher who “argued that the Bhagavadgita was after all fiction.” Walking home, he stopped to listen to the only man who owned a radio discuss Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw. “Within a single day,” he wrote, “I traversed several centuries. The linear time of the West co-existed in India—the ancient, the primitive, the medieval, and the modern—often in a single consciousness.”
Ananthamurthy’s hybrid existence led to an early self-reckoning. Looking at his society through enlightened eyes, he saw a local Brahminism that had grown decadent, hypocritical, and backward-looking—one that was now frankly unfeasible for the modern world.
Books eased his disillusionment, or rather eased him into it. Though remote from urban centers, the Thirthalli of Ananthamurthy’s childhood “was very literary.” And wrestling with questions of faith and rationalism, of roots and progress, he found guidance in socially engaged novelists like Shivarama Karanth and poets like Kuvempu and D.R. Bendre. These writers held heretical opinions—Karanth, for example, had written about “untouchables” and even married outside his caste—but were still respected by conservatives and priests. They comprised a sort of parallel social order, one that could criticize society from within. For Ananthamurthy, they offered a model “of belonging to a community with which I could quarrel as if it were a quarrel with myself.”
After completing high school, Ananthamurthy earned a BA and an MA in English literature at the University of Mysore. Then he moved to the University of Birmingham for further study. It was there, halfway across the world, that the idea for his first novel occurred to him. The spark of inspiration was Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The film’s medieval setting took Ananthamurthy back to his own village. He imagined its hero’s Christian spiritual crisis as a Brahmin’s loss of faith, which was really a stand-in for his own. Decades later, he would describe Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man, which was reissued by NYRB Classics this January, as an attempt to reconcile his “upbringing in a Brahmin family” with his education, “which set me on a journey away from my roots.”