SAMVATSAR LECTURE Delivered in the Delhi Sahitya Akademi in the festival of letters on the 21st of feb 07
My writing has a humble but mysterious, and also a seemingly silly, beginning, as I see it now. The title of my talk should really be Seven Decades of My Relationship with Literature for I am running seventy five now and I was famous for a simple sentence I spoke when I must have been hardly five years old. Did I really speak it? My mother must have repeated it many times in her fondness for me. (She died some three years ago, aged about 86 years). I was her eldest child and I had done well and my mother delighted in reminding me how simple I was and yet how I could say something clever and sweet to the ears.
The obviously silly sentence makes no sense unless it is contextualized. There was a woman called Abbakka–literally, sister Abba–who came to our tile-roofed large house in the midst of a jungle. Each large house like ours, a kilometer apart at least, had the name of a village and it had a few thatched huts in the vicinity where the peasants who worked for the land-owners lived. One of them was Abbakka and I remember she had twins whom she carried in both her arms tucked in her arm-pits. They clung to her neck. Abbakka had jasmine flowers in her oiled and tightly-plaited hair and a large kumkum on her forehead and turmeric powder on her cheeks. I think I remember her kind and mischievously smiling face and the fragrance of the jasmine flowers in her hair and the tobacco she shared secretly with my mother.
She was familiar and yet mysterious to me. This ordinarily smiling friendly domestic help who gossiped endlessly with my mother about her well-to-do and not so well-to-do relatives, broken marriages and miscarriages, her waywardly yet fond husband, her twins who clung to her always and didn’t let her cook, was transformed on some nights, once a week. She would turn into a Devi whom the neighbors came to propitiate. She would then hold bunches of areca flowers, and wave them in the air with her eyes closed or staring into empty space and her freshly washed wet, dark hair gleamed over her shoulders in the light of burning torches respectfully held in front of her. Her forehead was covered in kumkum and the whole face in saffron. Her whole body swayed rhythmically and she made an ecstatic moan as she swayed. People fell at her feet as if she was not the everyday Abbakka. She was no longer a low caste woman but a Devi who advised you where to look for your lost cow, where to get medicine for your child, how to set right the young daughter-in-law who strayed away from the path of wifely duties. My grandfather, himself a priest who consulted the almanac and cowries shells and found the right star and date for auspicious occasions, would be a witness of this Abbakka with me on his shoulders. ‘Abbakka has power when the Devi possesses her which I don’t have,’ he would tell me.
After one such night Abbakka came home to work as usual for Mother in the morning. This is how my mother used to tell me the story of my gift with words. Abbakka stands there with her twins tucked in her armpits under a pomegranate tree in the back of our house and I, standing beside the well, cry out this sentence: Ábbakkanna gubbakka kachchikondu hoythu'. It appears Abbakka was so delighted with my gibberish that she went near a drain and emptied her full mouth of half-chewed tobacco–a real sacrifice–for, she wanted to hug and kiss me. What had I said after all? It was just a silly rhyme of Abbakka and Gubbakka. Gubbakka is an expression of fondness for the bird gubbi, a swallow–a small bird. Abbakka was large and gubbakka was small but I had ventured to imagine that the big Abbakka was carried off by gubbakka in her small beak which picked up seeds and worms. Had I tried to match a supernatural sight of our Abbakka becoming a Devi with another fantastic happening of a small bird carrying her away? I must have done this not as an idea but as a sheer delight in rhyming a word.
I remember this, thanks to the love and pride of my mother, and I wonder: don't I work even now to balance a sentence and get the right kind of rhythm in my prose and thereby admit into my writing, from an unknown source, meanings that I did not consciously or deliberately pursue? It is like a sudden gift when you get it in your language. Only in your language spoken by your people, can you do this. This is indeed a primitive kind of source, and, however intelligent and sophisticated you are in your meaning, if you lose this primitive magical gift you can’t be a poet. You can only be a theoretician. Our great poets– Bendre, Adiga and Kambar– have this gift of making a play of words, a leela of shabd, create great meanings. But as a writer I am aware it can’t be done deliberately and self-consciously.
We lived in a house surrounded by a jungle. It could be frightening on dark moonless starlit nights. There were corners of the house to which I would not venture, all by myself. We would some nights hear the roar of a tiger. The cows in our shed heard this earlier than us and their restlessness got communicated to us by the sound of bells tied round their necks. My grandfather and mother would make me repeat the names of Arjuna to protect me from my fright– Arjuna Phaalguno Paartha Kireeti Shwethavahanah. Next morning the servants who came to work repeated the same old stories of encounters with tigers which do not harm you if you do not intend harming them, and if you do not show fright when they look at you, The same with snakes which I sometimes found crawling between country made tiles on the roof.
What is my earliest memory– my own memory and not something given to me by those who loved me? My house was built a few yards away from the surrounding jungle and my grandfather almost every morning went with his sickle to cut new growth in front of the house so that the jungle did not encroach on the house. When it rained heavily for days together in the monsoon we searched for dry spaces in the house where the rain water did not trickle from the tiled roof. The whole house and all the servants and relatives who could spare time helped us a month before the monsoon set in to get dry firewood to be stored for the rainy season and all the food items like rice, dhal and sticky ‘joni’ jaggery, stocked in pots. Jackfruit from the forest in all its stages of maturity–raw to ripe and smelly fruit–served even as food cooked in various ways. The buffaloes craved for this with their noses dilated and up in the air, along with us, the forever hungry children. We sat before the big bathroom fire with hands stretched to get warm, as it rained heavily making everything else invisible except those sitting around the blazing fire. We told each other the same stories with variations, that the warmth of the fire and the shining eyes of the listener inspired in us, and roasted the seeds of the jackfruit which was kept in a heap beside us and ate them with great relish. Also, varieties of greens growing all around whose various names and medicinal properties the elders in the house knew were also cooked as side dishes. During summer, my mother dried various food items in the sun to preserve them for rainy days- friable pappads, chewable dried fruits. Summer made us crave for monsoon and the monsoon made us crave again for summer and harvest time when Byaari Muslim itinerant sellers and buyers came to exchange city valuables with the village produce. They wore colorful dress and caps and their footwear attracted me. I remember asking a friendly byaari for a pair to wear and I got my first ever chappals a year later as a present. The byaari had rightly guessed my size from an impression he had taken on an old newspaper a year earlier. And the byaaries brought crunchy sweets and kallu sakkare and presented them in paper-wrapping to us children and told us stories of towns where they lived. No newspaper wrapping was ever thrown away; the news in them were read over and over again and used as wrappers for old books in the house.
The early sun whose rays came through the forest and fell on our little clearance in front of the house was my friend and I basked in the patches of light on the verandah. My earliest memory is this: I pick out a leaf from a kalli plant, thick and green, and slowly bend it backward and press it. A gluey white liquid oozes in the bent-and-pressed middle portion of the leaf. You have to slowly, very slowly push the edges so that the liquid becomes a lens like surface. This is a delicate task, for it can always break. If you are lucky and it does not break, then you have to wait for luck—carry it where the thin translucent spread catches a few rays of the sun. It is a miracle of colors then on your palm. I remember how prayerfully I would do this with enormous patience and concentration and feel grand about myself. Isn't this the way one works with words too in the making of poems?
My mother would catch me doing this and call out to be careful, for the milky liquid from the leaf was bad for the eye and it could spurt into my eyes while I pressed it. And I could catch a cold in the morning mist.
My early education was not in a school for it was too far away and therefore in my fifth year my mother initiated me to writing, on the patch of sand spread on the floor, in the open veranda of the house with large carved pillars from jackfruit tree; with my forefinger she made me write on the sand my first alphabet, praying to Goddess Saraswati. My father and grandfather took care of my education. I remember one poem that my father read out to me, for there were tears in his eyes as he read it out to me. I have seen my mother cry, even the Devi Abbakka cry. I have never seen my father cry, except when he read this poem which we call “Govina haadu”–The Song of the Cow. The poem begins, revealing the whole globe first as if a camera in the sky catches a vast space, and then the poem moves from a long shot to a close-up. In the centre of the globe is Karnataka. In Karnataka lives a cowherd called Kalinga. He calls all the cow-mothers. What are their names? Ganga, Gowri, Tunga Bhadra—two of them are rivers, tells my father.
Our cow Punyakoti while grazing strays accidentally into the territory of a tiger. The tiger is hungry. It is the dharma of the tiger to eat whatever comes into its territory. Punyakoti has to yield herself to the hunger of the tiger but begs permission of the tiger to let her go back to the shed and feed its young calf, which is hungry too, and after fulfilling her motherly duty, she promises that she will come back to become food to the tiger. There is a moving passage as Punyakoti feeds her calf and advises her never to stray into a territory which is not rightfully her own and bids a tearful farewell requesting her other companion-cows not to butt her child if she comes in front and not to kick her if she goes behind them and thus mother her orphaned child.
The tiger waiting hungrily can not believe that Punyakoti is there before him offering her all, her hot flowing blood, her strong muscles, her soft flesh as food to be eaten. There is a sudden change of heart in the tiger. Our anonymous Kannada poet knows that the tiger's heart may change but not its nature. In a Sanskrit original, it seems, the tiger after undergoing a change of heart becomes a tapaswi. But our Kannada poet is a realist and therefore makes the tiger jump a precipice and kill himself.
It is one of the great poems extolling non-violence and truth- a cow triumphing over a hungry tiger. It is a surreal poem. A surreal Gandhian poem, I should say.
Ever since I got to know this poem Karnataka is in the centre of the globe for me. No language is ethnic or just regional only because it is bound with in a geographical space. The first known author of Kannada, Srivijaya who wrote Kavi Raja Marga a thousand years ago, defined Kannada as a language spoken from Kaveri to Godavari, and the people living in such a land as a janapada conceived in the language Kannada. (More precisely, in that Kannada, thus importing to the language a metaphysical and abstract dimension. My late friend K.V.Subbanna writes movingly about this in his classical work which the Akademi honored)
No writer in the past in my language thought that he was limited because he did not write in a cosmopolitan language like Samskruta. Our first maha kavi Pampa knew his Kalidasa and admiring him tried to do better. Our great Vachana poets of the 12th century were original thinkers and spiritual seekers and recreated the Upanishadic search on their own terms. Kuvempu, a writer of our times, invokes the epic poets of the world and says that Ramayana has created the Kuvempu-poet. I do not mean to say that everything in Kannada is worthy to be termed as world literature; such a claim is meaningless for any language. Srivijaya of Kavi Raja Marga has both the qualities of humility and self-confidence when he says Kannada is unique and at the same time partakes of the larger world.
When I look back on my early years of growing up in a larger village than the one in which I spent my childhood days, (during my middle and High School years)I realize now that I had all I needed to become the writer I am now. In the nineteen forties, the adult education committee used to bring out a journal called Pustaka Prapancha which came to our village library and I read it avidly. But an unforgettable event for me was reading Karanth’s Chomana Dudi and Kuvempu’s Kanooru Heggadathi.
I believe that you can love the past only when you learn to hate intensely a part of the past. I grew up in an agrahara, a row of Brahmana houses on the bank of the river Tunga in the Sahyadri mountain area of Malnad. I grew up in a tolerant orthodox Brahmana house, for, my father, a self-educated man, got Gandhi’s Harijan and read it to his friends. He was a lowkika Brahmin, unlike my grand-father who was a Vaidika Brahmin. More accurately my father was in between the lowkika and Vaidika state in his mental make-up and vacillated between the two. He had a tuft as well as a cropped head, and one of these two looked more prominent reflecting his orthodox other-worldly and/or worldly state. The changes I underwent under his loving and skeptical eyes ultimately made him a crop headed man. Still in one of his depressive moods he would elaborately go through the Vishnu-sahasranama with all the rituals of drawing, and consecrating saffron and red colored rangoli patterns on the floor.
The world in which I grew up assumed that the caste system and the hierarchies associated with it were rock-like and permanent and God- made. I happened to read Karanth’s novel and it changed me. Such changes are not just political; they have a spiritual dimension too. It changes your whole world. The impact was simple and profound. The untouchable, who came to clean our cowshed every morning ever so quietly and invisibly, suddenly became a person for me with an inner life. I thought, he too, like Choma has a deep inner self from which I am totally banished. It was my loss and certainly can’t be God-ordained. It was man-made. My father worked for a religious muth and the muth symbolized for me the authority that sustained oppression and darkness of the spirit. He would go to a law-court in the service of the muth and bring a decree against a poor tenant and feel for days uncomfortable over it.
Along with this new awareness, Kuvempu’s novel, the action of which takes place in the hilly lush-green area in which I lived, filled everything I saw with an aura. The bridge-like rock structure on the river Tunga, which I crossed as a school-boy when I went to my mother's place, was what the hero of Kuvempu’s novel too crossed. The thunder and lightning of the actual monsoon happened to me with the same awe its description in the novel had created for me as I sat and read the novel in some dry comfortable corner of my agrahara house all alone. Great imaginative literature is always an invitation to freedom and to day-dream. It frees you from the time and space that circumscribe you. The hero of Kuvempu’s novel, Hoovayya, too, sits upstairs in his jungle-surrounded Malnad house, far away from our civilization and reads Arnold and Wordsworth. Almost a surreal happening. The author thus opens out for us two different times and two different worlds–both existentially real and in tandem.
For me, my early experiences are important in making me what I am today. I will now describe a typical day in my life as a high school boy. I would get up early, bathe in the river Tunga and go to a traditional Samskruta school where a few of us in the agrahara got lessons in Samskruta vyakarana and some adhyaayaas of Kalidasa's Raghuvmsha. Then I would wear my shirt and walk barefooted to my high school in a small town. This would sometimes take more than an hour, for, as a group, we boys had our own adventures along the forest path. In the school we had teachers from far away places and, what is important, from other castes as well. My schoolmates were also a mix.
(Allow me to digress a little here. Pleading for common schools and equality in education I have been saying now that I became a writer not in my traditional angavastram which I wore into my Samskruta traditional school in the muth, but in the ‘impure’ shirt which I wore to school, thus coming in contact with the rest of the society. We have lost it now with the special private, expensive schools for the well-to-do and the neglected government schools for the poor. The mother tongue as medium of instruction at least up to the tenth standard, matters for the growth of a rooted mind all his/her life. Those who study in the English medium are cut off from the life of the poor, our own people, and their rich, vibrant, indigenous cultures. This is a crime, in my opinion, and most of us are guilty of it although we don’t approve of it intellectually. As a nation, we are used to living in, what Sartre calls, bad faith.)
My real school of life was different. It was the backyard of my house, with secret medicinal plants which only my grandfather knew (and I would be initiated into, he would say, after I grew up), and a never-drying well my mother and some other women of the village drew water from. And all the women had some gossip to share with my mother and my mother shared whatever delicacy she had prepared or left-over food with women of all castes. They talked of their bodily ailments which they could not talk to other men-folk and also secretive sexual relationships that the so called 'respected' people indulged in, even those who appeared to be strictly orthodox in the hilly agrahara. There was literally an under-world, below the Sahyadri Mountains in some permissible coastal islets, safely hidden in the backwaters. Had I not listened to these gossips I would not have grown up the story-teller I am, reflecting on the gap between appearance and reality in human affairs. It is liberating to know that those we think are powerful have clay-feet.
Some of my teachers were modern and even rationalist. It was fashionable for graduates to question our traditional notions. I remember a teacher telling us how a long argument like in the Bhagavad-Gita could not take place in a battlefield. This had distressed me as a boy steeped in our lore. I would carry different colored bottles to bring medicine for the sick in my agrahara. It was a task that we boys shared for the sake of the mothers in the whole village. I remember waiting for the bottles to be filled in colored liquids and a neatly dressed and shaven man lounging in the doctor’s shop talking to us of what he had read. He belonged to the family of an absentee landlord and he had read Bernard Shaw, Voltaire and Mill. He had even a radio which he ran with the help of a dynamo, for there was no electricity in our taluk. The story went around that this man who had changed his name and anglicized it from Srinivas into Sinha, could get BBC on his radio; he had also cultivated a sophisticated British accent.
After many years when I told him that I got a Commonwealth Scholarship to study in England, he didn’t ask me ‘when are you flying?’. He was correct and asked, ‘when are you emplaning?’ When I read Nirad Chowdhuri I remember him. The like of him is one of my important characters in the novel, Bharathipura.
After listening to Sinha open-mouthed, we would leisurely walk back home, eating groundnuts which we bought in a wayside shop with some annas of the ritual dakhsina we, Brahmana boys, had saved. Peeling and munching the roasted groundnuts, we would argue among ourselves what Sinha had propounded. On some evenings or holidays we would also listen to serious debates between an Arya Samajist who came from town and our traditional Samskruta pundit. I remember an argument as to whether the earth was flat or round and whether the earth went round the sun or vice versa. And how eclipses happened and why we should attach religious meanings to such natural events. I have said somewhere that I could have been a contemporary of Galileo!
And what Mahatma Gandhi said and did was always in the background of our discussions. Much of it was not about transfer of power from the British, but whether it is right to allow the untouchables into temples. Some elders in the village thought that Gandhi was the Kali purush who had appeared at the end of his reign and not the Kalki, the savior, as my father had argued. I still think that Gandhi is great, as I did in my High-school days too, because when he was thrown out from a first class compartment for being a colored man, he not only got angry about the treatment meted out to him, but realized how we too humiliate our own countrymen. This self-reflective critical sense that the Mahatma generated is what made our generation creative in many of our chosen fields. We were taught to think of India both as a country to be liberated from 'pharangi' rule and a society to be reformed and rejuvenated.
Once, the plague epidemic struck our taluk and schools were closed. Many relatives living in small towns came to our agrahara to live with us. Doctors came and inoculated all of us against the plague. But they did not go up the hill where the untouchables lived. They were both untouchable and invisible. When some of their men and women did not come to clean our cowsheds, we got to know that they had begun to die of plague and sometimes when all the people in a hut died they burnt down the thatch-roofed hut.
In those days I had begun to admire a young man who had come back from the army to our agrahara. He brought to us a new world altogether–a world without the taboos of our narrow and strict Brahminical life. He had got into the army rebelling against his orthodox family, and his parents were happy he was back and he was ritually purified with panchagavya and accepted into the fold. The young man started a football club for us who were not going to school and drilled us as in the army, and many of us who had begun to admire Subhash Chandra Bose admired this young man too. He had seen places which we had learnt to identify only in the Indian map that we studied in the Geography class. There was also a young woman from the Harijan colony who came to clean the sheds and I could not help thinking that she was one of the most attractive young women I knew. Of course this was at an age when such feelings are aroused beyond the confines of orthodox taboos. Did not the great and venerable sage Parashara fall instantly in love with the fish-smelling Matsyagandhi while crossing with her on the boat? The creator of Mahabharata became the ''sadyojatha'- the instant- born of this union. In most of the great Indian works and in Bhakthi poetry too, the erotic and the spiritual co-exist.
Our ex-army young man had a secret liaison with her. This also I had guessed. When people in her colony began to die I came to know that she suddenly disappeared. Everyone said she was afraid that she would also die and so she ran away.
Elders in the village, some of them well-informed in religious matters, and more cynically adept in conducting land litigations, used to argue that God was angry with the untouchables for following Gandhi and entering temples and therefore they were punished with the plague. I argued, at least with my school-going friends, that this was a stupid and immoral reasoning, for, those who died were not inoculated, because they were untouchable. When the girl ran away I wrote a story.
I had written this story for a manuscript magazine which we edited and circulated in the agrahara. I had called it Tharangini (The Wavy Lake). We used to carry articles in three languages: Kannada, Samskruta and the newly-learnt English. I wrote a highly metaphorical story on the girl running away.
I had to do this metaphorically for I did not want the elders to know what I knew. Metaphors serve as hiding places for writers in all ages–certainly for writers like Dostoevsky in the Tsarist Russia. I rewrote the story of the sleeping princess who was aroused by the touch of the prince. Ever since, ‘touch’ has become one of my themes.
I must now move away in time and then come back to the days of my youth. This was in the sixties and I was a doctoral student in Birmingham and my first guide was the famous novelist and critic, Malcolm Bradbury. He was my age and I admired his learning and his curiosity and openness. We together saw in the University film society Bergman’s Seventh Seal. The film shown had no subtitles. What you misunderstand or barely understand can be very stimulating and productive when you are also ready for such stimulation. I barely understood the film as a story of crisis- -a crisis of belief in medieval Europe which encountered its mysterious ‘other’ in the Crusades.
I remember telling Professor Bradbury after the film as we had a draught beer in the student union bar the following:
When a European has to recreate the mediaeval ages he does so through learning and research. But for me the mediaeval is immediate; it is present in my relatives and in some of my deep feelings along with the present. My marriage could have taken place according to the viewpoint of my medieval grandmother while the job I do may be in an office belonging to the modern world system. I live in several worlds at the same time. Centuries co-exist in our consciousness for our history has not moved in a straight line forward as in the case of Europe. Chaucer telling Canterbury Tales during a pilgrimage is as contemporary for us as Dickens writing in an industrializing London and Camus with his metaphysical questions.
I was thinking then of a typical day in my high school–meeting Sinha in a clinic and a teacher criticizing the Bhagavad-Gita and listening to an argument which was long ago settled by Galileo. Bradbury said that I must find a way of reflecting this in my creative writing.
This served as a good excuse for me for I could delay my next chapter of the thesis. Also, suddenly I remembered the story of the sleeping princess I had trickily retold in the manuscript magazine. In less than a week I wrote my novel Samskara.
I must say the novel got written by me. I was fatigued having to speak English all the time, and when I sat down to write all my Kannada, alive from my childhood and boyhood memories– mostly from the whispered secrets I had heard in the backyard of my house, as well as from the front yard where men sonorously recited morally ennobling Puranic stories– came back to me and the characters entered into my novel on their own. All the great older writers in my language communicated their strength to me in a silent manner. I must also add here that I belonged in all my earlier stories like “Ghatashradha,” to the Navya School of writing and our inspiration came from the great poetry of Gopala Krishna Adiga who had interiorized the one thousand-year-old Kannada tradition and opened out to the influence of modern European and English writers.
Before I became a ‘Navya’ writer in the early fifties I was a student of the Maharaja’s College, Mysore, where great teachers like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Hiriyanna had taught. Before I came to Mysore, after my High School, I had come under the influence of Jayaprakash Narayan and Lohia and became active as a socialist worker. These were great days in my life. My father too had moved to Shimoga and we had a printing press with a treadle machine. The now famous Kagodu Raitha Satyagraha was planned also on the upstairs of my house and I had got my parents involved in this. My mother overcame much of her orthodoxy cooking and serving food to the socialist leaders and workers who stayed with us. We had a charismatic leader who came from the peasant classes, Shanthaveri Gopala Gowda. He spoke metaphorically like a poet and the common masses and peasants understood him. He was truly a politician-cum-teacher and he used the past and present Kannada poetry and fiction in his speeches. He was one of the most influential of my readers until he died early in his life.
These were also days of intense debates among us centered on political philosophy. Shimoga town had a few committed communist trade unionists and intellectuals who were followers of M N Roy. Gopala Gowda knew Lohia and Ramanandan Mishra of Bihar. We argued that caste was a reality in India and we should organize the peasants first to end the Genidaari system. Kagodu struggle was a result of this and Lohia came and courted arrest in the village Kagodu near Sagar. Although I failed in my intermediate examination as a result of my being engrossed in the struggle, I learnt a lot and my capacity to connect literature and politics grew at this time. I wrote most of the pamphlets, and booklets on the peasant question under the guidance of Ramanandan Mishra. And these days I read much of Gorky and developed a fondness for Shelley. I read Premchand and Abbas and, in Kannada, the most popular progressive writers of those times ANAKRU and TARASU. I remember being critical, in those days, of JP inviting Aurobindo to enrich Indian socialism with his spiritual insights. We were on the side of Lohia and, like him, extremely critical of Stalinism and the communist refusal to join the ‘Quit India’ movement.
I was also, paradoxically, an ideological and yet critical admirer of socialist realism in those days. I had come under the affectionate and warm influence of Niranjana, a spokesman then of the communist line in literature. I have ignored much of my emotionally immature writing of those days and have not collected them in any of my published books.
It was only after I learnt to submit myself to all engrossing creative process within me, my own immaturity as a person and my 'opinionated' self began to matter much less. When I look back, I wonder sometimes how I could write what I did at a particular stage of my life, in my twenties, when I was rather foolishly romantic and idealistic. This is true not only of my creative work but more surprisingly of one piece of criticism I wrote on the new poetry of Adiga after I had finished my masters and became a temporary lecturer in a moffusil college.
From the moffusil Shimoga I had come to Mysore for my Honors and was privileged to be a student of the Late Professor C D Narasimhaiah, a young, attractive man, and a passionate Leavisite. He had just then come back from Cambridge where F R Leavis was his guru. Being a socialist, I was very critical of the Leavisite modernism and Eliot’s conservative royalist and classicist position. Niranjana had asked me to write a few articles on my opposition to modern poetry and my admiration for Shelley whose works, well, almost all of them, I had read in my honors days. I could not afford paying for my education and therefore much of the time I was in free hostels meant for the poor students. But I was happy in my own way, for, K V Subbanna was my friend and he initiated me to much of old Kannada literature. My other friend was Shankaranarayana Bhatta with whom I endlessly discussed land reform. He was a socialist and a landlord himself. My friends took care of all my needs and I literally lived a socialist life, where it did not matter who had money, for it was shared by all of us.
Gopala Krishna Adiga was then undergoing a change in his poetic style. No other writer in Karnataka was as critical of his own successful past as Adiga. He was a celebrated poet in the tradition of Bendre, Kuvempu and Putina, but he rejected his own creations in the earlier mode. I was critical of Adiga too, for, politically he was against not only the revolution in Russia and Stalinist maneuvers after being a communist sympathizer himself during his successful years as a writer, but had turned skeptical of all revolutions.
I remember the dramatic change I went through. Although ideologically I was opposed to Adiga and Eliot, one evening I sat down and read Adiga’s new poems and Eliot’s Preludes. I was deeply moved by them and I was confused. My literary instinct overcame all my opinions and I remember withdrawing the articles I wrote for Niranjana. I began to meet Adiga in the Mysore coffee house and shared my inner life with him. While we talked about Eliot and Yeats and Pound in the class room, in the coffee house I began to read Adiga’s poems as and when he wrote them. I remember how eagerly I waited for him when he put his hand in his coat pocket to bring out a sheet of paper closely and neatly written in his own hand, and he would shyly give it to me to read. He never interpreted his own poems and never argued if I did not particularly like them. One particular poem called Bhutha had appeared to me as ‘much ado about nothing’ and I had said so bluntly to him. He had just smiled and put it back in his pocket. But months later I remember, as I was bathing, some lines of the poem came back to me—for his lines are usually very memorable—and the meaning of the poem flashed on me. I immediately wrote him a letter telling him what I thought of the poem. I was a lecturer in Shimoga then and he asked me whether I would write a preface to his collection of such poems which he called Bhumigeetha, the song of the earth. The poems in this collection are classics now and I have grown with them. Adiga had strong views on political questions, and was deeply troubled by the direction that the nation had taken under Nehru’s leadership. He was on the whole in sympathy with the position that Rajaji had taken, and yet appreciative of Dr. Lohia’s writings. He even translated Lohia’s Wheel of History into Kannada. I remember the meetings we used to have in the Mysore coffee house with Dr Lohia.
But Adiga’s apparent conservatism did not bother me. For like Eliot and Yeats he was also searching for making language enact an idea as metaphor and image rather than state it. He thought that much of our outpourings in musical lyrical poetry were verbal diarrhea. He had rejected what he once practiced; poetry for him was no longer what it was for Wordsworh— ‘a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility.’ It was something to be forged in the smithy of one’s soul.
We formed into a loose group around Adiga. The important writers then—not to the public at large, but to a few of us—were Ramachandra Sharma, A.K.Ramanujan, Shantinatha Desai, Yashwant Chittal, Gangadhara Chittal, Shankar Mokashi Punekar, Keertinath Kurtukoti, Lankesh, Tejasvi, Sadashiva, TG Raghava and Rajalakshmi N Rao. We differed from each other on many issues, including aesthetic issues, but we shared a basic assumption that literary creation is a deeply self-reflexive search to be realized in language. (Mokashi and Kurtukoti differed from us, and Tejasvi was different too in his significant choices of theme and narration) The more popular literary world was rhetorical, celebratory and sentimental—that was what we believed. Personally I was different from all of them with my own memories and preoccupations but I learnt from all of them. Lankesh who was immediate in his literary style was the one writer who could write honestly of his own very personal growing-up embarrassments, and he was an unsparing critic of all masks–the masks that unwittingly his own companions in the Navya literary world, he thought, wore. This was a quiet movement opposed by those in power in the literary establishment (not all the names I mentioned above would agree that they were Navya)–and into this world of serious literary practitioners and experimenters came two more talents, Kambar and Girish Karnad—two writers distinctly different from each other. No other Kannada literary movement produced such distinct, individualistic voices in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Through Adiga I came to know the great M.Govindan of Malayalam literature, who lived in Chennai and from him a host of others who are my friends — the late O V Vijayan, a major Indian writer, the late G.Aravindan, the fantastic film maker, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan the Chekhov-like film maker and the late Ayyappa Panicker, a major poet of our times, and Kadamanatta Ramakrishnan, a poet of elemental passion. I talked to the socialist leader Gopala Gowda about Adiga and Gopala Gowda talked about Adiga to Kamalesh and Lohia, and Kamalesh got me to know the Late Nirmal Verma, again a major Indian fiction writer and thinker, and Ashok Vajpeyi, who made Bhopal our cultural capital. Lohia talked about my novel Samskara to the Telugu poet the late Pattabhi Rama Reddy and he made it into a film. Girish Karnad who had seen my novel in manuscript form showed it to the painter Vasudev and Australian Cameraman Tom Cowan and all these happenings became a movement. What really works for us, the Indian language writers, is this grapevine. I got to know the work of Namwar Singh through Kamlesh and Namwar Singh published my essays in Hindi. Another such network was formed during our opposition to Emergency.
Indian Literature in the Bhashas is ONE for me, for, have I not felt like calling Nirmal Varma in the middle of one night to tell him how I was deeply moved by one of his stories? Dilip Chitre and I do this to each other whenever we read something new and get excited. I share the political, cultural and literary concerns of Mahaswetha Devi, and Bhalachandra Nemade . My young friend and activist thinker and literary critic G N Devi has given their works a much needed theoretical framework. I can differ and argue with G N Devi for I share with him the warm memories of the late Shanthinath Desai, a fellow writer. Sitanshu Yashaschandra, a major voice in Gujerati came to my life with one of his ironic and brilliant poems while he was a young writer in a seminar that the late Prabhakar Padhye had arranged in Pune in the late 6os. Young writers had traveled in bus and train to attend this historic seminar. A few months ago I read one of the stories of Udaya Prakash introduced into Kannada by Prasanna (published in Desha Kaala) and I felt a deep sense of fulfillment that the Indian Bhashas are still creating strong and original voices. These are the kind of works that get written, perhaps rarely, in English (except by writers like Amitav Ghosh, Raja Rao, R.K Narayan and Shashi Deshpande, to name a few that I like) and is more likely to be written by someone who has a rural plus urban experience and deep roots in one’s desi tradition. And such a writer inhabits two worlds simultaneously–the modern western and the timeless, traditional Indian. Such a writer writes deeply, for, he/she does not write for export, and has no celebratory intention of the communalized traditionalist or the market-oriented stratagems of the global Indian writer.
A writer like me in Kannada can encounter the whole world in a niche created by my friend late K V Subbanna in Ninasam, in a small village in the Sahyadri mountain district. Friends like Ashish Nandy, Shiv Vishwanathan, and Shamik Bandopadhyaya come there and young people from all over Karnataka interested in theatre and literature gather there every year, and discuss with them. Language does not matter here, for English and Kannada do not have a hegemonic relationship any more in our gatherings.
Metaphors come to me as gifts when I am obsessed with a theme and do not know how to express it. These metaphors have their roots in my early rural experience but they branch into my adult, modern life. Let me go back and recount an incident. In the traditional Samskruta School of the muth in my agrahara I had a teacher who had taken the aparigraha vratha. He had one meal a day, and that too, a few mouthfuls only. He had two pieces of cloth, a mundu and an angavastram which he washed everyday and dried on the sands of the Tunga River. When it was dark he read his Samskruta books standing near an oil lamp in a niche of the wall until it burnt out and slept on the floor. He never looked at anything with any desire. When he taught me Kalidasa’s Shakuntala I used to wonder how he could translate for me all the erotic passages. Once a slightly deranged man came to him as he was teaching me and asked him for his angavastram with which he covered his torso. My teacher told him that it is not a new one and how he could gift it. The man said he needed it, new or old. My teacher gave it away and lived till the next Ugadi without an angavastram. A new angavastram was due to him on the Ugadi day.
I was growing very critical of religion in those days for its practice of untouchability but this young tejasvi was an enigma to me. I never knew what was going on in his own mind, but one day he picked a leaf of the aswatha tree and dropped it to receive a command from the above. This much he had told me the previous day– that he would do this. On which side did it drop, was a sign for him from the above. The dropped leaf said, ‘Go’. He smiled at me and blessed me and walked away to the Himalayas. He just disappeared thus.
Around the time I wrote Samskara, while I was a student in Birmingham, England, I also wrote a story called “Clip Joint”. My hero thinks of this saintly man of the monastery of my agrahara, as he wanders in the erotic zone of Soho in London.
I was very fortunate in England for Richard Hoggart was one of my teachers, and David Lodge was my guide. I was a part of the center for the study of contemporary culture where Stuart Hall of the New Left was one of the most articulate thinkers and Raymond Williams came often to talk to us. I grew in this rich culturally committed, socialist atmosphere and the early influence of Lohia on me made it possible for me to interact actively with the group in Birmingham in the early sixties.
After my return to India I found my novel Samskara, my stories Clip Joint set in England and my village, and Mouni set in the world of land litigations, also my essays on the importance of Kannada for creating new knowledge, and my opposition to the hegemony of English had begun to matter to the thinking and writing of some others like me who are some of the best writers of Kannada today.
But I had a problem. The writing of my novel samskara was almost a magical act for me and its success and reputation became a hindrance. I just could not write another novel for a long time; it was as if I was under the spell of my own work. After a few years I recovered from this– the influence of the group in the Center for the study of Contemporary Culture must have helped me reorienting myself — and I wrote my Bharathipura.
Many critics feel that the novel is too discursive, but I don't feel apologetic about it. I think that I discovered deeper roots in my tradition, by my opposition to it as a critical insider. The novel is not in the tradition of realistic novels. It has a realistic body, but it is also a parable. The novel takes place in a semi urban temple town and the hero of my novel who has returned after an education in England is the chief patron of this temple. He realizes that he is unreal and unauthentic as a person unless he demystifies the Lord Manjunatha of the temple. The whole economy of this poor temple-town depends on the money collected by the devotees. The aura of the God Manjunatha is built around the belief that no untouchable can enter the temple and if they do so the Lord will punish them. My hero begins to build a movement for the entry of the untouchables. The hero Jagannath had grown up under the aura of this temple and therefore his fight is against himself and not just against an institution. Let me quote a passage from the novel. The hero decides that he should first make the untouchables touch the sacred shaligram of his own traditional zamindari house:
"Words stuck in his throat. This stone is nothing, but I have set my heart on it and I am reaching it for you: touch it; touch the vulnerable point of my mind; this is the time of evening prayer; touch; the nandadeepa is burning still. Those standing behind me [his aunt and the priest] are pulling me back by the many bonds of obligation. What are you waiting for? What have I brought? Perhaps it is like this: this has become a saligram because I have offered it as stone. If you touch it, then it would be a stone for them. This my importunity becomes a saligram. Because I have given it, because you have touched it, and because they have all witnessed this event, let this stone change into a saligram, in this darkening nightfall. And let the saligram change into a stone."
But the pariahs recoil in horror.
"Jagannath tried to soothe them. He said in his everyday tone of a teacher 'This is mere stone. Touch it and you will see. If you don't, you will remain foolish forever.'
He did not know what had happened to them, but found the entire group recoiling suddenly. They winced under their wry faces, afraid to stand and afraid to run away. He had desired and languished for this auspicious moment – this moment of the pariahs touching the image of God. He spoke in a voice choking with great rage: ÔYes, touch it!'
He advanced towards them. They shrank back. Some monstrous cruelty overtook the man in him. The pariahs looked like disgusting creatures crawling upon their bellies.
He bit his under lip and said in a low, firm voice: ÔPilla, touch it! Yes, touch it!'
Pilla stood blinking. Jagannath felt spent and lost. Whatever he had been teaching them all these days had gone to waste. He rattled dreadfully: ÔTouch, touch, you TOUCH IT!'
It was like the sound of some infuriated animal and it came tearing through him. He was sheer violence itself; he was conscious of nothing else. The pariahs found him more menacing than Bhutaraya [the demon-spirit of the local god]. The air was rent with his screams. ÔTouch, touch, touch'. The strain was too much for the pariahs. Mechanically they came forward, just touched what Jagannath was holding out to them, and immediately withdrew.'
Exhausted by violence and distress Jagannath pitched aside the saligram. A heaving anguish had come to a grotesque end. Aunt could be human even when she treated the pariahs as untouchables. He had lost his humanity for a moment. The pariahs had been meaningless things to him. He hung his head. He did not know when the pariahs had gone. Darkness had fallen when he came to know that he was all by himself. Disgusted with his own person he began to walk about. He asked himself: when they touched it, we lost our humanity – they and me, didn't we? And we died. Where is the flaw of it all, in me or in society? There was no answer. After a long walk he came home, feeling dazed." (98-102)
After this novel I wrote my Avasthe which has a charismatic shudra leader of the peasants. This was written after the emergency. It is a political novel, but just not political. The novel gave me great satisfaction while I wrote it for I have slowly moved in historical time and space too. Much of this novel takes place in an urban area. This novel too problematises many of my concerns ranging from the demands of the erotic life, the political challenge of our times and the spiritual realm. I feel that I am being pompous while I talk about my own work this way. My next two novels, Bhava and Divya are harder for me to describe. I revisit the world that I have described in my earlier works and try to discover aspects of that world in a new light of empathetic understanding.
On the whole I think that my writings are also a critique of religious life–a critique, but neither a condemnation nor a celebration. My Bharathipura and Avasthe are different kinds of critiques of modernity and tradition, even while they have over political meanings. "|Only connect'" says E M Forster. I feel I am truly being creative when I go beyond my own opinions and am able to make unforeseen connections in the process of writing. This needs an alert kind of attention, which is another name for humility.
In my high school days I used to meet in my mother’s village a strange sadhu-like samsari who had traveled as a pilgrim all over India and knew Hindi and English but lived a simple life as the priest of a village temple. He also used to practice aparigraha in his own saintly householder manner. He used to walk me into the forest and as he got excited, used to sing bhajans like Ramakrishna Paramahamsa did. He made me read Vivekananda, Ramakrishna and Shivananda. He once gave me an English book of Shivananda. The hardbound copy had a newspaper cover. Out of my boyish curiosity I opened the cover and found ten rupees in it. I wondered why this man who never kept anything that he did not have any immediate use for, had kept this money. I pocketed it to test him and gave him back the book. He never asked me for that money. My theft and the secret of my theft, I used to think then, had saved from becoming a mystic. The ten rupees I stole and the secret of it made me free myself from him. Otherwise, how could I have written my story Ghatashraddha, a story of gratuitous violence against a pregnant, young widow and a sensitive boy?
Isn’t gratuitous violence a part of all great religious systems of the world? How could this unworldly ecstatic Bhaktha ignore such realities? Yet he haunted me. Some twenty years ago I saw him sitting calmly, making yajnopaveetha spinning cotton with a simple device called thakali in his tiled-house in the village and he smiled at me as if I was the same boy he knew. I thought I would tell him of the theft and return the money but I did not. This incident is there in my Bharathipura with its own nuance.
I have continued to live with my political and religious concerns, my abhorrence of communalized religion, my socialist concerns in a globalizing world and also with the awareness that what we hate as globalized capitalism also contains what we desire secretly. We often live in bad faith in relation to the modern western civilization. I have been able to find a metaphor for this ambiguity in our souls in a story called ‘Sooryana Kudure’ (The Horse for the Sun)
Let me tell you how I wrote this long story in the 1980s. I was reading the passage in Marx where he uses the term ‘village idiocy’. Without conflict and without change in the mode of production and relations of production, history does not move forward for Marx. His seemed a challenge against what I stand for as a creative writer and also as a person who believes in Gandhian decentralization.
I was sitting in my well-lit room with my young daughter beside me. She saw a grasshopper in the room perched on a chair. She asked me what it was. I told her that we call it ‘sooryana kudure’–the horse for the sun. Immediately I thought what a word for an insect–connecting the world of animals and the sun in the sky. Such a word in my language came from the world of peasants living the life of village idiocy. Suddenly I remembered many incidents in my boyhood, a student of astrology and a mystical worshipper of Devi who came to my father for instructions, the oil baths he gave to people he loved and his modern son who had waylaid the principal of a college and beaten him up. All these coalesced and became something else as I wrote the story. Such writing has labor as well as magic behind them. I always feel that I am writing well when I go beyond my opinions; then, incidents present themselves to me like gifts from an unknown source. This was my critique of modernization and globalization, and also, I hope, something more than that.
I have constantly moved back and forth in time and space, (as I do in this recounting too). As a child in the jungle-surrounded lonely house, I had the first experience of death. In the middle of one dark star-studded night came four people walking the forest path with burning torches and woke us up. Bewildered, my grandfather opened the large, heavy, creaking door and I still remember the way he uttered the word ‘Narayana’ after he heard what the torch-carriers said. And then everyone was silent. Invoking the Lord Narayana, my grandfather had responded to the news of the death of my maternal uncle. The next day was the Deepavali festival and we were all prepared for the celebration of the festival with oil bath early in the morning.
The grief was unbearable for my mother. Just a few months ago, her brother had got married according to the wishes of my formidable grandfather and the uncle had died in his wife’s house as he had gone there for his first Deepavali celebration after marriage. My mother began to blame my grandfather for this as he had got him married to an ill- starred girl. This was an irrationality both of them shared but as a child I suffered greatly, for I loved them both. I got all my mythological stories from my grandfather as he carried me on his shoulder while he went around gathering fuel or propitiating some village deity, as priest. The next Deepavali festival was solemn, because no one in the house had an early morning oil bath except me for I was still a child. I felt a strange grief and unease and after a hot bath I remember I ran out escaping my mother’s eye— because, I was not supposed to go out in the chilly early morning with my wet hair.
I am still baffled by the memory of what happened. I looked up the sky faintly lighted by the distant, rising sun beyond the horizon hidden by the jungle. Did I see a flying angel-like object? I felt ecstatic and called out to my grandfather and mother and pointed at the flying object. They laughed at me. You had too much hot water on your head, they said.
What was it that I saw? And did I really see something? I still feel embarrassed to talk about this factually. My story Karthika deals with this, as such subjective experiences may be dealt with. The story is also about my rupture from my hated and loved traditional world when I got married outside my caste and religion.
I must be grateful to my listeners today for their indulgence. This is a very personal account and such personal accounts matter only when there is a feeling of intimacy (aapta vaakya) between the speaker and the listener. Some years ago I would not have ventured to speak like this, for I believed then in Eliot’s theory of impersonality. The man who suffers and the man who creates are different. Therefore, the writer is present in his work only as a catalytic agent. I like Eliot’s humility and his suspicion of author-arrogance but I do not agree with him now. I feel now Blake was more profoundly right on this matter. Blake, and also Bendre in my language who uses the metaphor of a spider spinning out its own outer web from an inner substance understand the sea-change of the creative process. ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes/ of his bones are corals made’. A writer feels lucky and surprised when it happens. Then it would be possible for a writer to say with Blake ‘this is mine yet not mine’. Have I been able to communicate such a feeling to my audience?
I can certainly share my fears and anxieties. A language is preserved by people who can speak only that language, whereas what we call now written literature is developed by people who know more than one language. There has always been a hegemonic relation between languages reflecting other hegemonies of state power and money power. But, this is to be noted– Samskruta was no threat in the past; a thousand years ago, Srivijaya of Kavi Raja Marga in Kannada could believe that a geographically limited Kannada could have a distinct identity and also mirror the whole world. In a federal Indian Republic this was our hope too. We can be Indians without giving up our language and culture. But now the cosmopolite culture of the globalizing world is marginalizing Indian languages. Yes, they will not die, for there are still millions who live outside the cosmopolite civilization. But what is happening to these people who have given me my language and culture and a great tradition of poetry and story-telling? Their basic means of livelihood, agriculture, is slowly killed with peasants committing suicide and fertile areas are grabbed from them either violently or cunningly for creating special economic zones. The Indian languages are abandoned in the creation of knowledge, for they are not used as medium in good, expensive, private schools. There is a mushrooming of private schools of all sorts and even the poor, who want their children educated, sacrifice all their comfort to send their children to these English-medium schools. When writers like me fought against tradition and got attracted to the modern civilization, we did so innocently and even creatively. But will the Indian Bhashas survive as vehicles of creative thought and knowledge under the commanding presence of a globalized cosmopolite order? Do they have a future? Kannada literary history from its beginning had writers who were critical insiders and critiqued their traditional values. The saint poets of the 12th century and the Dasa poets later on empowered the Shudras and women. They never thought that they were an ethnic community to add color to the larger world. They were themselves a world. People like me have written in Kannada thinking that we are a world in ourselves, and belong to the larger world too, not assertively, but unselfconsciously.
As a writer, in recent years, I have tried to make the self-reflexive nature of my writing— always so for many years, and perhaps more so now as I am getting old— take on other problems, the nature of truth of literature itself. My stories like jaratkaru. Akkayya and Bete mattu Bale – to name a few are hard for me to describe. I would not have written them if I could have discursively talked about my preoccupations. I do theorize and talk a lot, a lot more than a writer should do, but when I fail to do so, if I am lucky I write such stories or poems.
Despite the onslaught of globalization, and the mindless pursuit of wealth and fame, and attraction of everything western and fashionable, we still have creative writers among the young. For instance, there is real new writing- even experimental writing- by the Dalit writers. Some of them who can see their situation in a Buddhist spiritual framework have brought a new dimension to Kannada writing. Their duhkha, their compassion and their anger—expressed simultaneously– is a great contribution to Kannada writing. Some women writers, for whom the nithya and shashwatha (the now and the eternal) are not abstract separate categories, but an immediately felt experience have extended our horizons of experience. Those who did not talk have begun to talk now.
Akka Mahadevi is not just a 12th century memory but a force active in the writing of many women poets. Basava of the 12th century again inspires Dalit writers along with Ambedkar and the Buddha. After the 12th century vachana poetry when people belonging to several castes expressed themselves in Kannada, our own times have several writers from different regions and castes of Karnataka. The ‘backyard’ of our civilization has emerged and become articulate in this ancient and yet modern language. And they talk in their own way- with personal urgency. Surprisingly, some professional young people who are in the modern world system for a living have brought the cosmopolitan world and its problems into intense probe in metaphorically rich texts. A few of these live in the West but their childhood in villages and youth in small towns and education in common schools have helped them to write some of our best short stories in recent years. I must say I encounter in them sometimes what I wanted to do and could not do as well as them. In a living literary tradition, the writers exist as an organic community, and even the differences in attitude, philosophy and style help to enrich a single picture. I feel the same way about the past writers and the young writers who are articulating what I have not.
I am grateful to a great organization like the Sahitya Akademi which helps nurture this feeling of the importance of all languages of India– the tribal languages included– in all the Bhasha writers of India.
(Note: A rough version of this was orally delivered, as Sundararajan Visiting Professor, in the Centre for Contemporary Studies of the Indian Institute of Science as a lecture, )