Speaking well, and ill, of U.R. Ananthamurthy

By N. Jayaram,  

(After Margaret Thatcher’s death, there was a brief discussion among many people on social media about the acceptability or otherwise of speaking ill of the recently dead. My takeaway was that we simply need to tell it like it is. So here goes.)

First some – in fact, many – words in praise of Professor Ananthamurthy:

He was teaching in the English Department of Mysore University for a while in the mid-1970s. I’d already heard of his formidable reputation and wished I were his student rather than in the Economics MA class where I encountered far too much casteism. As a Bangalorean having graduated from St Joseph’s College, I was least interested in the caste backgrounds of those around me, but the question of caste lay thick on the ground in the Economics department. I quit in disgust after a couple of months, the last provocation being that one of the lecturers made us write an essay on Indira Gandhi’s so-called “20-point programme” (it was her “Emergency” era), and like Prof Ananthamurthy and others, I was opposed to authoritarianism. And I thank his Samskaara for having partly fuelled my abhorrence of caste.

U_R_Ananthamurthy

One of my cousins, some years later, was able to do what I could not. She was a student of his and once told me of how he had guided her choice of subjects to study and, needless to say, of his formidable scholarship.

Prof Ananthamurthy’s has been a strident voice against communalism/sectarianism. Together with Girish Karnad, he has been among Brahmin-born people in privileged positions to take staunchly secular stands – now increasingly derided as “pseudo-secular” or “sickular”.

He had no airs about him and did not stand on ceremony. He turned up uninvited at a function on 21 Aug 2013 to honour D. Devraj Urs, one of the more progressive chief ministers of Karnataka (for the benefit of any non-Indians who might be seeing this, the south-western state is now home to 64 million people), who did a lot towards bettering the lives of members of oppressed castes.
http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-karnataka/ananthamurthy-springs-a-surprise-at-function/article5043462.ece

That said, Prof Ananthamurthy misused his proximity to the powers that be, not to gain any personal favours, of course, but to flog a hobby horse and get the English spelling of Bangalore changed to the wholly illogical and unwarranted “Bengaluru”.
A centenarian lexicographer named G. Venkatasubbaiah has weighed in on the issue: http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Repository/ml.asp?Ref=VE9JQkcvMjAxMS8wMi8wNiNBcjAwMzAw&Mode=HTML&Locale=english-skin-custom

Moreover, had Prof Ananthamurthy set aside his self-importance and Kannada chauvinism for a while and focused on linguistics, he might have seen the error of his ways.

One of his arguments was that many nouns end with a ‘u’ sound in Kannada and that words from other languages get owned by adding that vowel at the end, as in ”bassu” for bus or “caaru” for car. However I doubt that Prof Ananthamurthy paid attention to the length of the first vowel accompanying “caaru”, also as in kaaLu (beans) or aaru (six) and more pertinently, ooru (city), as distinct from “uru” (rote-learning).

Almost all Indian languages have long and short vowels. And as in the ooru/uru example from Kannada above, they can change the meaning. Another example is madi (Brahminical purity) and maadi (a variant of mahadi for upstairs/rooftop). Moreover many consonants in Indian languages have been poorly transliterated into English to start with and it is rather late in the day to make changes. Queen is raani, with the ‘n’ pronounced as in name, the tongue held flat in North Indian languages. In Kannada and a few other languages it is raaNi, with the tip of the tongue turned up. Also maNNu (mud) and suLLu (a lie) are pronounced similarly. The L in Pramila is pronounced similarly in South Indian languages and Marathi (ळा).

Thus a more appropriate transliteration of ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು might have been to introduce an accent mark over L, capitalise it (BengaLooru) or in some other way distinguish it from a mere “lu”.

Prof Ananthamurthy neglected another aspect and that is, the way people actually pronounce it in quotidian conversations. No one really says BengaLooru all the time. The g and the r are sometimes swallowed and what is heard is “Ben(g)Loo(r)”. Moreover people add other vowels when conjugating. Ben(g)Looralli (in Bangalore), Ben(g)Loorigay (to Bangalore), Ben(g)Looraa/ Ben(g)Loorgaa? (is it Bangalore/are you headed to Bangalore?).

And what would Prof Ananthamurthy say to Tamilians as to how they should transliterate the name of the city? In Tamil there is but one consonant for p, b, ph and bh, as also for k, g, kh and gh, for instance. Thus ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು is written in Tamil as பெங்களூர், which may also be pronounced as PenkaLoor.

While he was at it, the good professor could have altered the spelling of his own name to suit the way it ought to be written in Kannada and pronounced: Ananathamooruthy.

Also, why did he neglect the spelling of the state: Karnataka. The second a is a long vowel: Kar-naa-ta-ka.

By insisting that his obsession with the spelling change become official policy, Prof Ananthamurthy caused massive amount of wastage in terms of new official texts to be printed and official nameplates repainted.

However, the private sector and the ordinary people have mostly ignored it.
ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು will always be ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು and Bangalore, Bangalore.

N. Jayaram, a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi, was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions. He blogs at http://walkerjay.wordpress.com/