As the 2017 calendar ran out of dates and 2018 rolled in—as urban India prepared to “party into the new year”—a small village called Santheshivara in Hassan district of Karnataka prepared for a higher, more evolved, level of festivities.
The village prodigal, Dr Santheshivara Lingannaiah Bhyrappa or, simply, S.L. Bhyrappa—arguably India’s finest living writer—was coming to their midst, for a face-to-face samvaad with fans, friends, readers, and residents of pin code 573131.
It is the kind of interaction authors, who will assemble at various synthetic schmoozefests called “literary festivals”, can only keep dreaming of, while swirling their wine and champagne glasses.
In the magazine section of today’s Praja Vani, writer Raghunath C.H. recounts five stories that Dr Bhyrappa, 84, narrated. Chilling stories of hunger, poverty, deprivation, disease, death and survival—the “lived experience” that moulded the literary legend.
Loosely translated from the original Kannada.
THE MAIN THING IS THE MAIN THING:
WHY I STOPPED SPEAKING IN PUBLIC
There used to be a Gangadhareshwara Temple a few yards from our house.
The main idol of Gangadhareshwara is on the bund of the lake. This did not have a lock as no one steals a stone idol. But the display idol, the so-called utsava murthy, which was adorned with gold and silver and taken around seven villages for the annual car festival. It had a lock and key.
You tell me: which is more valuable, the original idol or the utsava murthy?
Anyway, near Santheshivara is Nuggehalli, where there is a Narasimhaswamy temple. It’s a temple of Iyengars. Its car festival used to be a big affair with well-off people in Bangalore and elsewhere contributing.
Seeing this, people in Santheshivara too decided to have a grand car festival for Gangadhareshwara, and expanded their fund-raising activities to beyond the seven villages.
There was a man called Mahadevaiah in the temple. He was a sanyasi. I have written about him in Grihabanga and Bitthi. He was a mendicant from Bellary in whose lap I sat and ate mudde.
Seeing all the frenetic activity for a grander car festival, he said cryptically: “The more the utsava murthy wanders, the main idol diminishes in size.”
I didn’t understand what he had implied. He said I was too young to understand. He said I might understand it in future. Or maybe I might not.
I went off to work in Gujarat and Delhi, and in 1971, I sought a transfer to Mysore. By then, I had written a few novels and earned a bit of a name. In Mysore, I was invited to speak at a few events.
I went to a couple of them. It felt nice to be recognised, to be praised. What I said got written about in the papers. That got me invited me to even more events.
In six months I had delivered enough speeches. I had accumulated lots of garlands, shawls, and Mysore petas. It felt good. Then one day, I realised that I used to get lots of time to read, write and contemplate in Delhi. But after coming to Mysore, I had neither read nor written anything.
That’s when I realised the import of Mahadevaiah’s comment: “If the utsava murthy wanders, the main idol diminishes in size.” My main idol was writing: creativity. The utsava devaru was speaking: publicity. That’s when I decided to not make any more speeches.
CHILD IS THE MOTHER OF MAN:
HOW I SURVIVED THE PLAGUE
Our village used to be visited upon by the plague now and then. Every couple of years, about 50-60 people died suddenly as a result, sometimes two or three in the same household. People used to pitch tents in the fields to stay away from it.
Even Mahadevaiah would leave the temple in the village and go to the Gangadeshwara temple on the bund.
My elder sister, who had been married but had not left for her in-laws’ home, was afflicted by the plague. So was my elder brother. So was I. Within a couple of hours, both my sister and brother perished. Their bodies were taken away to be interred.
My mother carried me to Mahadevaiah, who was singing bhajans on the steps of the temple. She placed me in his lap.
“Ayya-navare, they are burning the bodies of two of my children just now. I don’t know if my son will survive. My luck is not good. I am giving him to you. If you are lucky, let him grow up and become big. Even if he remains celibate and ends up a sanyasi like you, it is all right. But let him live.”
So saying she left. I don’t know what happened. I survived.
Maybe, the legend of Shankaracharya was in my mother’s mind. In his 8th year, he wanted to be sanyasi, but his mother desired a familial life.
One day while the young boy was swimming in the river, a crocodile attacks him. “If you permit to become a sanyasi, the crocodile will let me go. If you don’t, it will eat me up,” the young boy says to his mother, who is nearby. To see her son survive, the mother gives her assent to his becoming a sanyasi.
It may be a story, but it seems to have inspired my mother.
It was in the precincts of this very temple that I read a couple of books every holiday. When I felt hungry, I would drink water from the river and read again. The temple was the school of my learning.
FOOD IS THE NECTAR OF LOVE?:
HOW I SURVIVED ON AN EMPTY STOMACH
I was in the first year of high school in Channarayapatna. My stomach depended on the charity of others. I worked as a gatekeeper at a touring talkies for five rupees. My room rent was 12 annas (75 paise).
One morning, around six, there was furious knocking on my door. Somebody had come to convey the news that my younger brother Krishnamurthy had passed away.
I borrowed a bicycle at two annas an hour and cycled the 16 miles to our village.
Ours was a thatched hut with thick walls. My brother’s body was at the door. My grandmother sat still. My mother had passed away by then. My father and my uncle were not in the village; no one knew where they had gone.
Because of my grandmother’s acerbic tongue no one from the other castes had ventured near our house. Everyone assumed it was business as usual. Presently, a man called Karadi, the village water man, came by.
“However long you keep a body it will stay the same. Go and burn it,” he said.
I was 15 years old. My dead brother was 5. Carrying his body on my shoulder, with a pot in my hand, I walked to the cremation ground. Karadi had prepared the ground for the final rites. I did everything as told, had a bath in the well of Shive Gowda, and returned home.
It was noon. I was famished. There was nothing at home.
“Go to Sampu‘s house and get ragi hittu or jowar hittu,” my grandmother said. Sampu’s home was opposite ours. Devaraiah was the head of the house, a shanbag with a thick moustache.
I made my request. “I will go and get it,” he said and went in.
From inside the home, his wife grumbled: “You told him you will give it. Where will it come from?”
When I was born 15 years earlier, the lady had also delivered a baby around the same time. Because of problems in the post-natal period, she had wanted to kill her child, but my mother reduced the breast milk she gave me to feed their child for 7-8 months. This was the lady who now said ‘no’.
“What can I do,” said Devaraiah, a man who was otherwise known for his good nature. “It’s all right,” I said, and started to cycle back on an empty stomach.
THE POWER OF PRAYER:
HOW I LEARNT TO QUESTION
My mother left me in her elder brother’s home in Bagur.
Apparently I was very naughty at the time. I used to swim in overflowing lakes. I used to catch snakes. I used to climb trees and play mara-kothi. I used to go off unannounced wherever there was a play or fair.
So she entrusted me to her brother’s custody to straighten me out.
Uncle was in the police department but had himself been dismissed from service for theft. He began using police methods on me. One day, he took me to the lake. “Do you swim?” he asked. I swam half way and returned. Those who were around praised my swimming skills.
My uncle beckoned me. He said behind the lake was a Nagalingeshwara temple. He took me there, held me by my hair, and tortured me. From then, I became afraid of water. He instilled fear in me forever.
I came to Santheshivara during the holidays. While leaving my mother gave me chakkuli and kode-bale. The path back to Bagur was thickly forested with trees and shrubs. As I reached the Rangaswamy hillock, I had a thought.
Rangaswamy was reputed to be a very powerful god. I climbed the hillock and prayed fervently that by the time I reached home in Bagur, my uncle would be lying dead and there would burning firewood outside the house, signifying death.
I finished praying and started walking back with expectation. But as I reached home, there was no sign of fire. I went in to find my uncle smoking a beedi. He thumped me again, this time for reaching home late.
From that day on, the stature of Lord Rangaswamy diminished a bit in my eye.
A HISS IS MORE THAN A HISS:
WHAT A TEMPLE STINT TAUGHT ME
In Bagur, my uncle was also the village temple priest. After I settled down there, it was my responsibility to conduct the prayers.
My friends used to say that a huge serpent had made the temple its home, but the sight of carrying the bejewelled idol on my head on festivals had turned me into a hero in their eyes.
One evening I was going towards the fields to eat groundnuts when I thought of stepping into the temple to see how it looked at this hour of the day. I reached the temple. It was all dark inside.
I heard a lot of hissing noises.
I thought the serpent was breathing heavily.
Notwithstanding my fear, I marched inside and as I reached the sanctum sanctorum, I heard a voice: “It’s your boy.”
Even as I wondered about the serpent speaking like a human, a woman adjusted her pallu and ran out. My uncle tied up his dhoti and pulled me by my hair.
‘Is this Nagappa (snake god)? Is this Eshwara? How come my uncle was living happily doing all this in a temple and why was I struggling to make do?” I wondered.
These questions about life and death when I was young pushed me to my study of philosophy. It also brought depth and grip to my writing.