Jnanpith award-winning Kannada writer, English teacher, Kottayam University vice-chancellor, National Book Trust chief, chairman of the Film & Television Institute of India, one of 50 most important people in India according to the Illustrated Weekly of India, Rajya Sabha candidate. He has been them all.
Now, U.R. ANANTHA MURTHY is planning to come back to Mysore after having made Bangalore his home for the last 10 years. Last Sunday, May 7, he came to the studios of All India Radio in Yadavagiri to take part in the Sunday morning show ‘Coffee-Thindi’ and to face questions from the award-winning Kannada writer and AIR programme executive ABDUL RASHEED on the Mysore of his youth.
Abdul Rasheed: Welcome to AIR and welcome back to Mysore. What memories do you carry of Mysore as you plan to return?
U.R. Anantha Murthy: When I come to Mysore, I feel like a student and a teacher, which is what I was in this City. That trait is very important to me. And as I come here to AIR, I have very fond memories of being first recognised and identified as a writer by Mysore Akashvani.
Rasheed: You came to Mysore in 1950-51 from Tirthahalli after taking part in a farmers’ struggle, after missing classes…
URA: And after failing in my exams.
Rasheed: Yes, after failing in your exams. Can you take us back more than half a century to the Mysore of the days when you arrived here?
URA: There was a book-shop here called Progressive Book Stall, run by D.R. Krishnamurthy or DRK as we knew him. As a socialist, I had a passing acquaintance of DRK and he took me first to the house of Bharat Raj Singh. Although I had fought on behalf of Kannada medium, I had wanted to do BA honours in English.
One of my earliest memories is of Bharath Raj Singh giving me a list of books that had Jane Austen and T.S. Eliot on them. I said I could him a different list, which had Gorky and Shelley and others on them.
The point I am trying to make is that I began growing in Mysore, and not just through teachers. When I went to K.V. Subbanna’s room I learnt. When I went to the Coffee House I learnt. To tell you the truth to tell, we rarely went to college. We spent a lot of time in harate.
There was a canteen called Iyer’s Canteen where we had an account. That was the era of one-by-two in Mysore. Whatever we had, whether it was dosa or coffee, we had them in fractions of one-by-two. And we would do this several times a day. In the mid-50s, when the formation of Karnataka was underway, a joke began doing the rounds that in Mysore there was a demand for two Karnatakas because we even wanted Karnataka one-by-two!
Rasheed: When you look at modern writing in Kannada, especially after the Navodaya movement, there is a certain shyness, a kind of digbhrame, that a young writer from a smaller town or village brings when he steps into a bigger city. As someone who came from a small village yourself, when did you gain the courage, when did you find your feet in Mysore?
URA: Actually, there was never any adhairya in Mysore. In the Mysore of those days, there was never the kind of wealth that you see, say, now in Bangalore. If there were one or two cars on the roads, we knew whose cars they were. If there were a couple of motorcycles, we knew whose they were.
If there was anything overwhelming, it was the knowledge and culture of the place.
When we were at Maharaja’s College, every morning the word would go around, ‘Kuvempu barthidarante!’ (Kuvempu is coming), and sure enough he would come on a jataka gaadi. He would get down, not look at anybody, not look this side or that, and then get into the college. We would wait to see that.
Then word would go around, ‘DLN barthidarante!’ (D.L. Narasimhaiah is coming), and sure enough DLN would come in a peta with an umbrella, holding it like a stick, never ever aware that it had a hold!
Then there was the founder of Mysore Akashvani, M.V. Gopalaswamy. As I was coming into this interview, I found a picture of his in the director’s office looking nice and regal in a zari peta and coat. But that’s not the image I have from college where he wore a jubba-pyjama.
There was great simplicity in the Mysore of those days but there was an even greater ocean of knowledge in Maharaja’s College. There were great speakers. If a good poet was to conduct a reading, the Junior BA Hall would be overflowing to the aisles.
Rasheed: At Sarvajanika Hostel, you stayed with Subbanna, Kadidal Shamanna, G.H. Nayak…
URA: No. Subbanna stayed at Maharaja’s College hostel. Those who had a little more money could afford to stay there. But yes, G.H. Nayak and I stayed at Sarvajanika Hostel. For a few days, initially, I stayed at the Suttur hostel because my father couldn’t afford to send me much.
But even so, we would manage to get good food, free food at the Sarvajanika Hostel in Chamundipuram. It was run by a Gandhian called Subbanna, who would go to the countryside each morning and bring giant pumpkins and wonderful bananas every day for us boys.
I used to walk to College each day, and I remember jumping up in the air and plucking twigs and leaves off the avenue trees when I got a good idea or a nice thought passed through my mind!
What I remember from those days is how much we would talk. G.H. Nayak and I would talk endlessly in our hostel room. Then we would come to Subbanna’s room in the Maharaja College hostel and talk some more. A magazine called Varsity Times had been started by Raghavan and we would contribute there…
Rasheed: You have been all that any young Kannadiga would aspire to be. What did you want to be when you were growing up.
URA: If I am a writer, it is because of the memories of my youth. It’s like a trust from which I can keep drawing endlessly. I was born in Melige but grew up in Kerekoppa. Ours was the only home in the whole forest, and whoever came home would tell stories of tigers. I come from a time when currency notes were still not around and the bearys (muslim merchants) passing by would sell us paddy and my mother would give them betelnuts in barter.
My father was a shanbhoga who traveled around. A teacher came home to teach because I couldn’t go to school, and even when I did so, it was to a Kannada school. From where I came, even Tirthahalli, which was but a small village, seemed like a big town. Tirthathalli was my world.
There was somebody called Charles “Doctor”. I would take his medications to different people, one of whom was a man called Srinivas Joshi who, even in those days, had shortened it to ‘Sinha’. He used to listen to the BBC on a dynamo he had cranked up. He used to speak with an exaggerated accent he had picked up by listening to the radio. In effect, when I was growing up, I could read a Bernard Shaw play, hear about the Bhagwad Gita at school, and discuss dvaita/advaita philosophies at the mutt. I became a writer because so many worlds commingled in little Tirthahalli.
I told Malcolm Bradbury when we met in Europe that occidental history is like a straight line; oriental history is a curving one where centuries coexist. It was in Tirthahalli I realised that, understood that. I met all kinds of people in a small place. It is said Somerset Maugham travelled the world with a notebook to learn the essence of life and Kafka sat in a room for the same objective. Yet Kafka came out with a better world-view. Growing up in Tirthahalli was like that.
Rasheed: You were talking about your school shirt…
URA: Yes. I was a Brahmin boy who had been reared on strict notions of madi and all that. My grandfather was very insistent on some of these rituals. The shirt I wore to school was kept far and away from the madi clothes and I would hang it on a nail on the wall.
It was at school, while wearing this shirt, that I would come in touch with people of all castes—Muslims, Dalits, Gowdas, everybody. I became a writer not by wearing madi clothes but by wearing my school shirt. I was telling this to M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the Malayalam writer, and he agreed. I became a writer by going to school, a common school.
Today, unfortunately, our kids go to one kind of school and the children of poor people go to another kind of school. The shared knowledge, the shared wisdom that was available to all of us is no longer available to modern children. Our children are inhabiting different Indias. I feel very much about this.
Rasheed: Kuvempu wanted to be an English writer. You too wrote in English. Yet, you veered back to Kannada. Just what is it about Kannada that drew you back?
URA: Kuvempu wrote very well in English. Bendre too could write in English. In my middle-school, I had started a magazine called Taringini which had pieces in Kannda, English and Sanskrit!
If we stayed with Kannada it’s because we grew within it. We heard it night and day, at home, school, market, everywhere we went. Those who know many languages accept the supremacy of one of them and write in it. Those who know only one language—the niraksharavadigalu—they are the one who have saved Kannada. I don’t mean to say we need more niraksharavadigalu, I mean that it is they who have kept alive our art, dance, folk.
I went to Europe. The result was I had the influences of Kannada, folk and the West. It is not possible to be so rich in English. If I had started writing in English, I would have lost my childhood. Writing in English takes you further away from your past, your relatives, your friends, from your roots. That’s why you find such a strong streak of socialism in Kuvempu, Bendre, Masti, Karanth. It’s because they wrote in Kannada.
Rasheed: What were your experiences with Gopalakrishna Adiga in Mysore? Tell us some more about Coffee House.
URA: There used to be a Coffee House in the centre of the city. It was run by a man called Mandanna. It wasn’t a commercial enterprise in the sense that the owner did not run the place only for money. He allowed us to sit and talk for as long as wished. We used to rent a cycle or walk to the Coffee House. And almost always Adiga would buy the coffee for us.
It was sarcastically said that Adiga bought us coffee so that he would have an audience for his poetry! But we were his disciples, his new readers on whom he would test out his new works. I was his complete reader.
CDN (Prof C.D. Narasimhaiah) had just then come to Maharaja’s College from Cambridge and he was an expert on Eliot. What we read in college, we would hear simultaneously its even superior Kannada versions from Adiga over coffee.
We—those of us who used to meet at Coffee House, Sadashiva, G.H. Nayak, Dr Ratna, Vishwanath Mirle, Vedanta Hemmige—felt Adiga was even better than Eliot.
Rasheed: Hemmige is listening to you just now…
URA: When he got injured in Goa, I went to Hassan to receive Hemmige. He had me hooked on his divine puliyogre! We called him Vedanta Hemingway!
Actually, there was another Hemmige with us, back then. H.S. Biligiri. He was an amazing man, very serious but very funny, too, and a fine linguist. He used to hum a nice ditty built around his name:
H embuvudu huttida Hemmige
S embuvudu huttisida aatege
Biligiri embuvudu nanneya hesaru
Shiva-nige erodu mooru eye
Nannagirodu naaku eye!
Rasheed: What would happen after these Coffee House sessions?
URA: Adiga would always come with a small bag. He would buy fruits and vegetables, maybe a little sweet for the children. Then he would catch a bus and go home. We would wait for the bus along with him. After that we would walk or cycle back.
HSK (H.S. Krishnaswamy Iyengar) would be there some days; Sadashiva would always be there. Sadashiva had great organisational skills. Thanks to him, we took a room on rent where each month some prominent writer would come and read before us and answer questions. It was a vimarshakara vrunda, critics’ circle. Kuvempu came there. Adiga, too.
Adiga, in fact, used to like our criticism of Eliot. “Why should I read Eliot after Milton?” he would ask, “Olle oota aada mele, kaake hannu thinda haage. That’s how modern poetry is.”
It was Adiga who identified the talent of Krishna Alanahalli. In fact, Adiga wrote the introduction for my first book, although I was a nobody. All this happened because of the company we kept. Tejaswi (K.P. Poornachandra Tejaswi) and I would spend hours together.
Rasheed: Tell us some more on your meetings with Tejaswi.
URA: I happened to marry a Christian girl (Esther). It was difficult to get a house on rent. It was Tejaswi who found us accommodation in Vontikoppal. It was a small house but a very beautiful house, which is where my son (Sharat) was born.
Early in the morning, Tejaswi would come home and we talk on this, that and the other. Then we would cycle off to Coffee House, he on his cycle and me on mine, with my pregnant wife on the carrier behind. And there would talk some more.
Then we would break off to go to Devaraja Market and buy vegetables. Ah, the market, it was so beautiful, the fruits stalls, the flower stalls, the sandige-happala stalls… There was only one shop which had Nanjangud rasabaale, and the owner was such a stern man that if we haggled over the price, he would refuse to sell us the bananas! Mysore, back then, was a very special city.
Rasheed: Like most writers, you took to farming at some stage, maybe to regain some touch with your rustic roots…
URA: It was Krishna Alanahalli who planted the idea in my head. As it is, my wife was crazy about planting saplings in any open space she found. Krishna got me in buying 4-5 acres in front of his farm in Alanahalli. So, after college, we would take a bus or go on a scooter to the farm.
The farm experience was very revealing. The village folk are far more intelligent and worldly wise than we think. My wife would often tell the milkman “Yaake ivathu eshtu neeru?” even before the milk had been poured into a bowl. But the milkman would have factored in that question even before setting off to our home!
I had gone to a function recently organized by Dr B.S. Ajai Kumar in Begur on Women’s Day. Dr Ajai Kumar, who runs the Bharath Cancer Hospital, has set up a co-operative where villagers put in as little as Rs 10 a week, and can avail loans, sewing machines and such.
Anyway, in Begur, a girl got up and told the story of a very beautiful girl in their village who couldn’t be married off because prospective grooms would ask for Rs 1.5 lakh in dowy. Then a rich man had saw the girl and proposed. He went to her parents and said he would get married to her. He in fact offered to pay Rs 2.5 lakh to her family to get married. Friends and relatives of the girl were in favour of the marriage, after all she would get a car. But the man was already married. The girl spoke to a friend who told her about the cooperative, where she took a loan and bought a sewing machine. She began making Rs 50 a day and is now living honourably on her feet.
“That girl is me,” the girl announced grandly at the end of the story. I was flabbergasted. That is how much our villages have changed.
Rasheed: Finally, there is a criticism against you that do not write, that you are getting into too many needless controversies. What do you have to say?
URA: To tell you the truth, I have written little. Whatever I want to write, young people like you are writing. As we grow older, we keep saying the same things. But I consider standing for the Rajya Sabha elections a creative act, just as I think writing an article is a creative act. They all carry their own meanings.
Rasheed: Do you feel old age creeping in on you?
URA: Physical fatigue makes me feel age, but the company of young people ensures I do not think about it.
Rasheed: Thank you, very much.
URA: Thanks for having me over.