URA: The man, the metaphor

URA: The man, the metaphor

Chandan Gowda’s book, based on his conversations with the literary giant, is awash with insights about the nation, politics and tradition

A Life in the World

U R Ananthamurthy was anything but a boring man. The Jnanpith Award winning Kannada litterateur was an enthusiastic participant in life. You could not miss him, as he vociferously made his views known on various issues, never mincing words. One Indian historian described him as a ‘controversialist’ in his eulogy. Whether you liked URA or hated him, you could not ignore him.

URA loved to talk, and there were memorable conversations over decades that he had with people across the spectrum; speeches and lectures that he gave at schools, colleges and institutions in India and abroad. And none of these were ever casual or in passing — they were almost always passionate and enthralling, and like I said before, whether you were an admirer or a detractor, you could not come away without his words ringing in your ears.

Chandan Gowda’s book, ‘A Life In the World,’ is a collection of his conversations with URA, between April 2012 and May 2013 that offer a taste of what may have driven URA to make such public and private utterances.

Chandan’s conversations give glimpses into the long voyage of the little boy who listened to women talking in the rear courtyard of his home in Durvasapura in Karnataka, while the men discussed Gandhi in the front yard; to the young man studying for his BA and MA at the University of Mysore; and then on to Birmingham for his doctorate — glimpses of the characters and events that may have led URA to become who he became.

A novel is gossip!

URA believed that his growing up in the agrahara at Durvasapura gave him all he needed to become a writer. He tells Chandan, “…I have a theory that our knowledge of the world comes through the front yard and through the backyard…there is always a well in the backyard, where women draw water. Women from other houses also come for water sometimes. They talk of so many things…of bodily pains, for instance. Women have many kinds of bodily pains, particularly when they are menstruating or when they are about to give birth to a child, which they don’t talk about with men and only among themselves. They also talk of the affairs of their husbands and about secrets in certain homes. As a child, I would listen to such talk. So, I have a theory that gossip is the source of a novel. A novel itself is gossip!”

URA says that in the front yard, he would hear his father read out from Gandhi’s newspaper ‘Harijan’, translating it into Kannada for his friends. “He…also talked to them about the Second World War and Hitler. Recitals of Kumaravyasa’s ‘Bharata’ and such texts also happened there…I said I became a novelist not because I haunted the front yard but the backyard. Otherwise, you would not know life at all. That’s why I said I got everything at Durvasapura…”

The book traverses the decades of URA’s life with ease, and makes for fascinating reading, ranging from his experience of what he describes as the British people’s sense of fairness during his years at Birmingham (some of the notes here are quite moving), to his involvement with the socialist political leader, Ram Manohar Lohia; of his friend, Karnataka’s Socialist firebrand pioneer Shantaveri Gopala Gowda (based on whose life he wrote the novel Avasthe), right up to the torrid, tumultuous political period in India just before his death in 2014.

Not a blind patriot

URA was an English scholar, teaching literature to students at the University of Mysore for close to 30 years. Yet he chose to write in Kannada. “…when you ask me why I wanted to come back to Karnataka to write, I would like to clarify that I did not come back as a blind patriot, but as one who was away, and who had something to tell in his own language to his own people. And this decision was not difficult. It happened even while I was in England. In the second year of my PhD, I wrote Samskara…if I was writing in English, it would not have occurred to me to write Samskara or a story like Mouni…”

The book is awash with insights into URA’s viewpoints on tradition, politics and politicians, playwrights and litterateurs that may have made this man tick. Chandan, an accomplished academician and writer himself, has marvellously kept that part of himself away from the conversations.

There is no bid here to display his scholarship, except for a few technical questions here and there to nudge the conversations along, and those terms or allusions are readily and conveniently illuminated with footnotes on the very page itself. He has unobtrusively ensured that URA addresses the reader. I came away feeling that I had a ringside view of one of those plays — where a series of conversations was the play itself. And it was a good feeling.