After Tagore and Premchand, if one can think of a literary figure who has had a national reach in India, it is UR Ananthamurthy (1932-2014). URA was no doubt the most influential Kannada writer of his times. But he was, equally, an inspiring teacher, creative administrator, critical thinker, and a public intellectual who responded to all the major issues of our times. All this, together, created his charismatic persona. While his writing travelled beyond Karnataka through their English translations, he himself travelled widely and spoke to people across the country and around the globe. He had a way of connecting with his audiences as he deployed language in a masterly fashion, ‘not merely for communication but for communion’ with his listeners, as he has explained in his essay on ‘Language’ in the book. He was a gifted orator who could hold his listeners in thrall even when he was addressing complex issues with tremendous moral gravity. He was a lively conversationalist who could animate any subject under the sun, transforming it with the touch of his magic wand. He was intent and warm, engaged and engaging in any company. In short, URA was a presence. And it is precisely this quality that A Life in the World has managed to capture.
It is curious that this new book of interviews with URA in English about his life and times should be published just a year after the English translation of Suragi, his comprehensive, densely-packed, 380-page long, Kannada autobiography (2012), also spoken to JN Tejashree, and translated by SR Ramakrishna (2018). While there is some inevitable overlap by way of recounting URA’s childhood and education in Mysore, this volume edited by Chandan Gowda, still brings through another facet of URA—as a public intellectual, speaking with alacrity in his own unique voice on specific themes and ideas that mattered most to him such as language, tradition, Kannada culture and society, and Indian political life.
A Life in the World is profound, yet not heavy; accessible, yet not populist. It is user-friendly with copious notes and an introduction which give the necessary context for placing the text in its cultural milieu. It is well-produced, with ten chapters spread over 180 pages. In this slim book of interviews, URA has spoken directly, simply, and spontaneously. While his autobiography is the story of his being, his life, told retrospectively, A Life in the World is the biography of a way of thinking, the story of a becoming, living in the liminal space of the Home and the World, which ‘reveals the grandeur of his mind’, as TM Krishna eloquently describes. Thus, it complements URA’s autobiography.
As the interviewer writes, URA ‘had made a home in the world of Kannada literature.’ It is from this home that he travelled to the larger world back and forth. URA has represented this trajectory between his Kannada home and the English world using the tropes of backyard-front yard, desi-marga, and India-the West, the past-present to juxtapose the two worlds in a unique dialectic to critique both entities. The conversations track URA’s transformation from being an academic intellectual to a public intellectual.