U.R. Ananthamurthy’s nomination for this year’s Man Booker International prize may have delighted his admirers throughout India but it has stirred an old debate among a small but vocal section of Kannada readers: is Ananthamurthy really the best novelist in the language? For them, his fame is not the result of his great novels—Samskara, Bharatipura, Avasthe—but a left-wing conspiracy to elevate him over the novelist who is not only the best in Kannada, but perhaps in any Indian language: S.L. Bhyrappa.
And 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. The problem is that his writing can be so infuriatingly good.