Posts Tagged ‘R.K. Narayan’

If the Mahatma could rethink his xenophobia…

8 October 2012

Ramachandra Guha in The Telegraph, Calcutta:

R.K. Narayan did not write in Kannada, but his works sensitively portray the people, culture and landscapes of the state of Karnataka. His 1938 book, Mysore, remains a classic of travel-writing; still valuable for anyone who seeks to know about, or visit, the shrines, towns, and water-falls of the southern part of the state.

The Malgudi of his novels was almost certainly based on the town of Nanjangud, on the banks of the river Kabini, some 15 miles from Mysore. The name, Malgudi, was made up from the names of two venerable Bangalore localities, Malleswaram and Basavangudi.

The restaurant-owners, printers, shopkeepers, teachers, housewives and students who people Narayan’s stories are as authentic Kannadigas as one can get. Which is why the television serial, Malgudi Days, was such a hit in Kannada and among Kannadigas. And it continues to be watched, 30 years after it was first made, available in DVDs that can be downloaded from the internet.

I hope the Kannada writers [who claimed Narayan was, so to say, a ‘foreigner’, have the good grace to withdraw their protest after this necessary intervention by Girish Karnad and U.R. Anantha Murthy. To admit that one was wrong, or mistaken, is in the best traditions of writing and scholarship. Besides, there is the example of Gandhi; if he could rethink his impulsive xenophobia, so can the rest of us.

Read the full column: Good Kannadigas and bad Kannadigas

Also read: Four reasons why R.K. Narayan deserves a memorial

What Kannada racists can learn from a Raja-rishi

How can Bhyrappa & Co be the same as Yedi & Co?

How can Bhyrappa & Co be same as Yedi & Co?

2 October 2012

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: Parochial thoughts. Narrow-minded pettiness. Divisive ideas that spell acrimonious discord. Ttaking cheap potshots at men and twisting core issues out of proportion. Displaying a reckless and irresponsible sense of disdain towards the sensitivities of society.

Raising issues of language and even caste….

These, as no one would dispute, have been observed for long as the in-built characteristics, perhaps the very genetic make-up of men and women, who identify themselves as politicians in this country, of course with the odd exceptions, who anyway show up on our political horizon, as regularly as a certain comet named after an English astronomer called Edmond Halley.

But for writers, for men of letters?

The commentators of society at large, those who, with their power of the pen and their intellect can dissect and disseminate thoughts?

They, who tell stories of man and have the talent to chronicle the ways of humankind?

They, who are supposedly adept and capable of sifting the chaff from the grain of life itself; those who have been endowed the powers and gift of serious, sensitive, responsible, fair, meaningful, and worthy intercourse on matters profound and intelligent?

They, who are the arbiters of all that should be invoked in society in order to make it a better entity for lesser men to inhabit; those ordinary members of the public who obviously do not have the talent and the powers of serious writers?

For a group of such writers to make a case for a fellow-writer, R.K. Narayan, to not have the posthumous privilege of a memorial in his name; in a City (and at a home) in which he lived and wrote for close to 50 years is something that simply confounds, confuses and numbs the minds of all right-thinking citizens of the great city of Mysore.

Narayan was a man who traversed its lanes and by lanes with fond affection; someone who made a fantastic connect with the very ethos of the city, its people, their ways, their eccentricities and foibles, their loveliness and innocence, their very being in a sense; and weaved some of the most rollickingly interesting, sensitive, comical, gentle, poignant and tender stories of his age and time about a certain unique culture, and immortalised in print, the very soul of a largely unknown city called Mysore which was widely presumed to be his literary muse, among the rest of India as also in the eyes of the west, save for those few westerners who had had the pleasure and honour of having been invited to the city and acquainted to it by its Maharaja as his guests, perhaps for Dasara or the Khedda in the jungles of Kakanakote.

That Narayan did not speak Kannada; that he chose to move to Madras during his later years; that he did not donate his manuscripts to the University of Mysore and chose to give them away for a price to a foreign university; that he was not a Kannadiga in the first place but a Tamilian.

So what’s new about such haranguing?

What is new is this, perhaps not so new but something that needs to be reiterated at this juncture.

That R.K.Narayan was a man who had the gift of the pen like no other Indian writer in English had some 75 years ago, that he was a man who had the confidence and the literary flamboyance to make an English publishing house in England of that era sit up and take notice and finally agree to publish his stories, for their sheer flow and flair, for their simplicity of prose and the absolute enthralling grip of the narration; about a people and their culture, that was I’m dead sure, to the publisher himself as alien, strange and unknown as the river Avon and the denizens who populated its banks was, to the dramatis personae of Narayan’s stories!

The decision to become a full time writer and endeavour to make a living off it, with a family to feed; at a time in history when Indians at large, barely comprehended the alien language, let alone write or speak it with any great expertise.

Narayan’s tensions, his worries, and the patience he exercised in waiting for replies from a place, England, so far from Mysore that it could well have been on another planet, every time he either sent excerpts of his writings or plainly corresponded with potential publishers.

At a time when the red-coloured post box was all that existed as a symbol of communication. And not the power of the telephone or the speed of the internet, for heaven’s sake.

At a time when most Indians were ridiculed for their lack of English proficiency, so much so, that most of them were thought to not even be able to write four meaningful lines by way of a leave letter to be presented to their bosses in office; for Narayan to be able to write not four but perhaps forty thousand or four hundred thousand lines in English that not only impressed but had the west in thrall is a decent enough reason to remember him.

To cut to the chase, let’s give Mr Narayan a memorial for sure.

And as soon as possible.

For in his memorial shall lie the story of one man’s inimitable brilliance and perseverance in making the impossible possible. To put it simply, that is.

It simply shouldn’t matter that he was not born 16 miles west of Holenarispura or some such place in Karnataka and that his father was called Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer.

Cartoon: courtesy Mahmud/ Praja Vani

Also read: Four reasons why R.K. Narayan deserves a memorial

What Kannada racists can learn from a Raja-rishi

What Kannada racists can learn from a Raja-Rishi

26 September 2012

The silhouette of Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, the 25th and last maharaja of Mysore—a raja-rishi” (statesman-saint) in the words of a certain somebodyon Wednesday, as a sad and silly storm over a memorial for the world’s most famous Indian writer in English, R.K. Narayan, gathers chauvinistic steam in their hometown.

Even a cursory glance at the Wikipedia page of the king, who also served as the governor of Madras, suggests that he helped Ramanathan Krishnan to play at Wimbledon; that he helped the Western world discover the music of the little-known Russian composer Nikolai Medtner; that he provided patronage to ‘Tiger’ Varadachar….

But then, the Wikipedia page is in English.

Photograph: Karnataka Photo News

Also read: Once upon a time at the Maharaja’s study circle

Once upon a time, a 50′x50′ site for 50 rupees

‘My father, His Highness, the Maharaja of Mysore’

4 reasons why R.K. Narayan deserves a memorial

25 September 2012

15, Vivekananda Road, Yadavagiri, Mysore 570020: the home R.K. Narayan built in 1952 and lived in for nearly half a century

K.C. BELLIAPPA writes: R.K. Narayan is in the news again thanks to the objections raised to a memorial for him by a host of Kannada writers. The fact that many of them are giants in the Kannada literary scene made me sit up and read their press release with utmost care.

Let me respond to their objections.

The first objection is that R.K.Narayan is not a Kannadiga. This is stating the obvious but we should remember that Narayan is first and foremost an English writer. He did not write in any other Indian language. They are unhappy that Narayan while he translated Kamban’s Ramayana into English did not introduce any Kannada literary work to the outside world like A.K. Ramanujan.

To draw a comparison between Narayan and Ramanujan is manifestly unfair.

While Ramanujan was an acclaimed translator who had inwardness with three languages — Tamil, Kannada and English — Narayan was not a translator in the real sense of the term but what he managed to do was to render a free translation of Kamban, generally regarded as a work of inspiration.

Narayan had neither the competence nor the talent to translate Kannada works into English. Hence, this is not a legitimate complaint.

***

The Kannada writers are unhappy that Narayan sold his manuscripts to an American University and did not donate it to any University in Karnataka. They regard this as injustice to Kannada readers who know English.

I honestly fail to understand their specious logic.

Let me now give the real reason behind this decision. During one of my visits to Narayan’s house in Yadavagiri with Prof C.D. Narasimhaiah, he held forth eloquently on his reason for giving the manuscripts of his novels to Boston University library.

He said:

“CD, if I had given my manuscripts to the government archives, they would have dumped it in some corner where it would have been lying gathering dust and I would have got an acknowledgement on a buff paper. In Boston, they are preserved in air conditioned lockers.”

Of course, he added that he was paid $5,000 for each manuscript. In a manner of speaking, Narayan was a professional writer and looked at his writings wholly from a commercial perspective. I am not too sure whether we can question this premise of his.

***

They further argue that Narayan did not know Kannada well enough except for four or five sentences which he spoke with a mixture of Tamil. I think his Kannada was much better than that and this accusation has to be seen in the context of their opposition to the memorial.

Finally, they are of the view that Narayan’s relatives are selling the house just as Narayan did his manuscripts solely for money. The major burden of their argument is that Narayan as a non-Kannadiga does not deserve a memorial in Mysore and the government of Karnataka should not spend any money over it.

To be honest, I read the press release repeatedly to make sure that they meant what they had said.

I cannot understand how writers, eminent ones at that, could take such a stance.

***

Literature at its basic level teaches us to transcend all differences, be it linguistic, religious, cultural or any other for that matter. If they were genuinely concerned about memorials for other famous Kannada writers, they ought to have raised this issue dispassionately without questioning the decision of the government of Karnataka to build a memorial for Narayan.

R.K. Narayan by virtue of his being a writer in English is a pan-Indian literary figure of international acclaim. He is an eminent Indian English novelist who along with Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao was responsible for putting Indian Writing in English on the map of world literature.

He is possibly the most widely translated Indian writer.

I suspect that he was also the bestselling author among Indian writers and should rank as one of the richest among them. Narayan will reign supreme in world literature as far as readability is concerned.

There is a larger question whether governments should spend money on building such memorials for writers. England, for instance, has preserved the house of every writer, for that matter of all artists irrespective of their being considered major or minor in importance.

For the lover of arts, it is bound to be a memorable visit wherein he feels the ambience and the spirit of the place.

Depending on one’s familiarity with the artist, memories will come rushing in and result in an aesthetically satisfying experience. As a matter of fact, this is the nearest that one can come to experiencing the real thing. Surely, there is no substitute for this.

I would like to add that all such houses of writers should be seen as slices of literary heritage and not as pieces of real estate.

Here, I am reminded of what a friend from the fourth estate told me. Apparently, the heirs of a well-known politician of Karnataka demanded a fancy price for the house of their ancestor. When the officer concerned demanded that they offer the house free to the government, they refused. It was clear that they were more interested in the money part of it rather than the desire to perpetuate the memory of their illustrious forefather.

To be fair to Narayan’s relatives, they offered the house for sale as there was no one to stay in it. Only when the demolition of the house began did this become a public issue. Star of Mysore Editor-in-Chief K.B. Ganapathy, an ardent admirer of Narayan’s writings, wrote about the necessity of converting the house into a memorial.

Officials and Ministers responded favourably to this demand and it was officially announced that the government will buy the house and make it into a museum. It is more than a year since this happened and hence it is regrettable that such renowned writers are making an issue of this so belatedly.

(Former vice-chancellor of the Rajiv Gandhi central university in Arunachal Pradesh, Prof K.C. Belliappa is former faculty of the department of English, University of Mysore. This piece originally appeared in Star of Mysore and is republished with kind courtesy)

When R.K. Narayan went to see a ‘blue’ film

16 April 2012

Khushwant Singh in the Hindustan Times:

“Once while attending a writers conference at Hawaii the only participant I knew was R.K. Narayan. He was a saintly sort of person, not great company for the likes of me. He was a strict vegetarian.

“In the evening he would buy a carton of dahi and go from cafe to cafe looking for plain boiled rice. He insisted I keep him company.

“One evening I tried to shake him off with the excuse that I wanted to see a blue film. ‘I come along with you,’ he announced. So we went to a locality where there were a few cinemas showing blue films.

“After an hour I got bored. So did he. We came out and resumed our search for dahi-chaawal and place where I could also get a meal of fried fish. I have not been able to find out why sexy films are called blue films. Why not red, yellow or green?’

Read the full column: Lost romance of candlelight glow

Sunny, Vishy, Immy, ITC and namma Meera

16 March 2012

NARENDRA K. writes: I was all of 18 years and Meera was 20.

Life had meandered on amidst the vicissitudes of destiny. “Anna” was no more and his absence both as a provider and bulwark of the family was being felt every single day.

“Amma” soldiered on. She put up an iron fisted fight in the unrelenting ring of every day existence; in the heat of abjectness; through the seething fire of an unmarked, untoward future and its uncertainty; amidst the misery of it all.

Meera had completed her MSc degree. Life and its various possibilities looked her in the eye. As a young girl she obviously didn’t quite grasp the various implications.

“Amma” was keen to see her married. But the process of a connubial union comes with a certain mandatory requirement- the money to solemnise the marriage! And that is exactly what was in short supply.

***

It was around this time, in 1978, that a sporting event of rare historical meaning was beginning to unfold in faraway Pakistan.

Beyond the Khyber Pass.

The resumption of cricketing ties between India and Pakistan after a few decades of political hostility. If cricket lovers had to be grateful for the sight of eleven flannelled Indians putting bat to ball on Pakistani soil after a long time, so should Meera be!

Before you wonder how on earth, in the sheer improbability of such a possibility, Meera, of all the people, could have played a role in either Sunil Gavaskar or Gundappa Viswanath padding up in Lahore to face the menacing Imran Khan and Sarfaraz Nawaz, there rests a tale!

The cricket series had been sponsored by the famous Indian Tobacco Company (ITC), known the world over for its many cigarette brands. In conjunction with Sportsweek, perhaps the most famous of sports magazines in the country then, under editor Khalid Ansari, they launched a cricket quiz named, ‘Howzatt Cricket Quiz’.

Participants had to collect ten cigarette packs of the ITC brand, answer a few basic questions on cricket, pen a catchy slogan relating to the then fledgling concept of instant cricket and mail them to the company along with the entry form.

I hurried to Sundaram provision store in Vontikoppal, where Amma would always buy the meagre household provisions. I was on a mission. Not to buy rice or dal or soap but to somehow collect the ten mandatory packs of cigarettes, mercifully in their empty state. I had decided to participate in the cricket quiz.

“Sir,” I began hesitatingly. “Could you please help me with ten cigarette packs?”

Before the shop keeper could begin to see red in the rather strange and potentially damaging desire of a young boy barely in his teens in the conservative Mysore of the 1970’s for an item that bespoke an unholy pleasure, and that too in multiple packs, I blurted to him that I needed them only in their empty form to fulfill the requirement to participate in a cricket quiz sponsored by ITC.

The shop keeper, who obviously knew Amma, laughed and said, “In that case, why ten, take twenty!”

And so it was that two sets of forms came to be filled. One in my name and one in Meera’s. All the questions were duly answered, two different slogans were thought of, the cigarette packs were put in place in a big envelope and the post was on its way!

As for the slogans, unfortunately, their recollections are lost in the mists of time, although I vaguely remember writing something of a line which said, ‘Instant cricket is the embodiment of……’, the word embodiment, obviously coming to mind from the many spiritual sessions that I had been part of at the Vidyashala!

This was in September 1978.

***

The cricket series ended, so did the career of the great Gundappa Vishwanath, and there was no sign of any result of the quiz. Not that I expected to win.

As the days went by with their usual uneventfulness in our lives, Dwarakanath of the famous Srinivasa Stores at K.R. Circle, a wholesaler of ITC products, where even the renowned novelist R.K. Narayan shopped for some of his essentials, came calling.

He had some news to give us.

And the news he gave us was the equivalent of a tortoise outrunning a cheetah; of a lame man winning the Olympic gold in the 100 metre dash!

Both Meera and I had won prizes in the cricket quiz!

In July 1979, when the official letter did arrive from the ITC group duly type written on its letter head, we rubbed our eyes in disbelief; in a state of extreme astounded incredulity; in the throes of amazed joyousness.

To read the news that Meera, who incidentally had simply lent her name to the quiz with me having done all the hard work of filling up the form, not to forget doing the round of the provision store in desperate search of those vital cigarette packs, had won the grand prize of ten thousand rupees!

Also, I had won two thousand!

There were two options offered by the company. Either we could accept the cash or in Meera’s case, an Enfield Bullet 350 Standard Motorcycle.

As for me, they offered the cash or a quartz watch in lieu of it.

The leafy streets of Mysore never ever saw the amusing sight of Meera zooming around on a Bullet motorbike nor did anyone see me check time on a gleaming quartz watch then.

Cash it was, thank you!

***

Post script: Quite unbelievably, it was the very same twelve-thousand rupees that went into the financial corpus of Meera’s marriage. That my sister promptly sent back that amount in dollar form after her departure to the United
States is a testimony to her sweetness!

As I sit back today and muse on the serendipitous happening that changed to a large extent the family’s lot, my mind travels back to the time when Swami Jagadatmanandaji, in his book, Badukali Kaliyari, written in 1979, even made a mention of the incident!

Making a reference to a student who had unwaveringly, patiently and intently focussed on the sports page of the newspaper from the back for long, while the swamiji himself, spreading the newspaper in front of him, read the preceding pages which contained other news of varied kinds, he went on to say that any act done with single mindedness and sincerity went a long way in helping achieve the goals of young minds!

Mercifully, in my case, it surely did help. The twelve thousand rupees that came into my family’s kitty was indeed, Manna from heaven!

As told to SUNAAD RAGHURAM

(This article appears in Prabuddha Chetana, a forthcoming souvenir on Kyatasandra Jagannath, an illustrious headmaster of the Ramakrishna Vidyashala and a legendary mathematics teacher. The book will be released on April 8 by the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of India, Justice M.N. Venkatachalliah)

A home that housed four generations of genius

9 October 2011

For a decade after his demise, R.K. Narayan‘s lovingly built residence in Mysore lay unloved and uncared-for. The sight of the crooked teeth of excavators rapaciously chomping at its edges suddenly woke up everybody–the media, the intelligentsia, the government—to what they were about to lose: a slice of Indian literary history.

Eventually, the government jumped in to declare Narayan’s home a heritage building, with the promise to restore it to its original shape. On his 105th birth anniversary, Narayan’s grand-nephew, the journalist turned corporate manager Chetan Krishnaswamy, recaptures life as it used to be at 15, Vivekananda Road, Yadavagiri, Mysore 570020.

***

By CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY

Many years ago in Madras, reclining on an easy chair and chewing on a piece of clove, R.K. Narayan quite uncharacteristically said: “Although I have built the Mysore house brick by brick, I carry no emotions, no nostalgia about it…. In life one has to move on, you can’t simply dwell in the past.”

I don’t quite remember the details now, but oddly, that muggy afternoon, I thought I detected a streak of nostalgia beneath the veneer of cold pragmatism and bravado.

In a 2006 Boston Review article, Jhumpa Lahiri, the American writer of Indian origin, found similarities between French writer Guy de Maupassant and Narayan’s literary styles: “Both explore the frustrations of the middle class, the precariousness of fate, the inevitable longings that so often lead to ruin. Both create portraits of everyday life and share a vision that is unyielding and unpitying.”

In hindsight, I wonder: were Narayan’s comments on his house an extension of this rather passive worldview that Jhumpa articulates so well?

***

A 1952 picture of R.K. Narayan at home with his nephews and niece. Seated on a chair is his mother Gnanambal, standing by the door is his daughter Hema and younger brother R.K. Srinivasan. Photograph by T.S. Satyan.

The true magnificence of RKN’s sprawling bungalow on 15, Vivekananda Road in Yadavagiri, Mysore, lies in the lively people who inhabited, or were associated, with it throughout its 60-plus years of existence.

In 1948, the scrubby land measuring 180 x 120 was bought from a local Shetty at the rate of around Rs 2 per square yard. Narayan’s older brother R.K. Pattabhi had a share in it, too.

By this time, Narayan had already established himself as a writer and was attracting global acclaim. He had written  four novels: Swami and Friends (1935), The Bachelor of Arts (1937), The Dark Room (1938) and The English Teacher (1945).

Two short story collections—Malgudi Days (1942) and An Astrologer’s Day and Other Stories (1947)—both published by his own publishing house Indian Thought Publications, were out by then.

Mysore’s famous chief engineer Shama Rao (who had built the famous Krishna Raja Sagar Hotel and after whom a string of  buildings are named in Mysore’s Vontikoppal, including the shopping complex on 3rd main road called Shama Rao building), who was retired by then, was given the contract to construct RKN’s house in 1949.

In keeping with his grand and selfless desire to have his extended family by his side, Narayan designed a large, roomy home that would accommodate his brothers, their wives and their children. By this time, the cartoonist R.K.Laxman, the other famous sibling, had already flown the coop and was building his reputation in distant Bombay.

The extended family which resided at door number 963, Lakshmipuram, comprised brothers R.K. Srinivasan and Pattabhi and their families apart from Narayan’s daughter Hemavathi (his wife Rajam had passed away suddenly in 1939).

Reigning over the household was Narayan’s mercurial mother Gynanambal—expert cook, chess champ and tennis player all rolled into one. The other two brothers Ramachandran and Balaram were away in other cities, so were the two sisters.

Constructing a house in Yadavagiri—the hilly area was named thus by the famous administrator M.A. Sreenivasan, since the Melukote temple was apparently visible from this location—then a remote corner of Mysore was replete with challenges. [The last pradhan of Mysore, Sreenivasan's daughter Devaki married the social economist, L.C. Jain. Their son Sreenivasan Jain is an NDTV editor.]

The terrain was strewn with steep slopes and sharp dips, with absolutely no access to water.

The contractor had worked out a system where a bullock cart periodically rattled on to the site with drums of water drawn from Kukkarahalli tank, a scenic spot which had fuelled  Narayan’s creative instincts and offered him the “world’s best sunsets”.

At the building site, there was a stone grinder or chakki—powered by sturdy bullocks which mixed the lime and mortar that went into the construction of the house. Narayan intermittently visited the site and used the services of another civil engineer friend A.K.S. Raghavan to monitor and supervise.

Finally in 1952, the construction work was completed. The griha pravesha was a “grand affair” and the family carries sunny memories of the day. For the kids – trudging up to the new house in Yadavagiri -through the undulating landscape – was an expedition in itself.

Among the guests was Soma, a blind mystic who lived atop Chamundi hills and who had taken a liking for the family. On one occasion, the gifted Soma through his clairvoyant powers had accurately traced Laxman’s wife Kamala’s missing diamond ring, that had been swept away with the garbage.

***

R.K. Narayan, behind the wickets, playing cricket with his nephews Thumbi (R.S. Krishnaswamy) and Nokki (R.S. Jayaram), and niece Shanta, at their Lakshmipuram residence. Photograph by T.S Satyan.

And then came the unforeseen crisis, probably quite amusing in hindsight.

None of Narayan’s brothers were keen to relocate to Yadavagiri from the centrally located Lakshmipuram. This, despite the comforts of  a large house. An affectionate Narayan would plead and sometimes even shed tears but both Pattabhi and Srinivasan were unrelenting.

Meanwhile, a confused Gynanambal toed the line of her eldest son Pattabhi.

In light of this new dilemma, Narayan settled into a peculiar routine: After his breakfast in 963, Lakshmipuram he would go for a long walk, and after lunch be driven in his silver-grey Morris Minor to Yadavagiri by driver Rangappa, who was paid a salary of Rs 50 per month.

In the unbroken silence of his house, Narayan wrote profusely only to stir now and then to mix coffee, and munch on his favorite “Golden Puff” biscuits. This was the phase in which he wrote two of his novels: The Financial Expert and Waiting for the Mahatma.

By about 5.30pm, after lighting the lamp in the ‘pooja room’, Narayan would be back home in Lakshmipuram for his routine evening walk with brother Srinivasan. The walks would invariably be around bustling marketplaces and streets like Rama Vilas Agrahara.

Late evenings would be spiced up by gossip sessions with his family, which I have referred to elsewhere on churumuri.

The writer kept up with this routine for quite some time.

Eventually, for about a year, 15, Vivekananda Road was rented out to Henry C. Hart, a visiting professor of political science from the University of  Wisconsin, on a monthly rent of Rs 200. Hart was in India on a Fulbright fellowship, with his wife in tow.

Their legacy was an elegant piece of furniture custom made for the house: wooden seating that skirted the entire semi-circular perimeter of the large living room. After many years of service, and in the wake of sustained onslaught from a riotous bunch of kids, that primarily included my cousins, the furniture slowly disintegrated.

Narayan engaged a watchman cum gardener, Annamalai, who later became the subject for one of his short stories. He was given a room in the basement, and he would  often rustle up a deliciously smelling vegetable sambar in a pot balanced over a crude hearth made up of two stones.

During Narayan’s first visit to the United States of America in 1957, to undertake the writing of  The Guide commissioned by Viking, a strong Godrej padlock was installed on the front door of 15, Vivekananda Road.

There were numerous anxious and embarrassing moments when Narayan would misplace the keys and would be found standing in the porch helplessly. In due course, the writer spent his nights in Yadavagiri alone. He would be driven to the house every evening by his driver Majeed in a Standard Herald that he had bought by then.

Around that time, 15, Vivekananda Road, had a surprise visitor one morning.

The flamboyant actor Dev Anand accompanied by Yash  Johar (Karan Johar’s father) had dashed to Mysore, after giving a day’s notice to Narayan. The actor was there to negotiate for the filming rights of The Guide.

Narayan’s starstruck nephews were directed to fetch a breakfast of idli-vada and dosas  from Seshagiri’s hotel (Hotel Ramya now).  After thoroughly enjoying the meal, Dev is said to have whipped out his cheque book and asked “how much?”.

RKN feebly said, “I don’t know.”

Dev left after presenting the author with an advance of  Rs 5,000.

***

Finally, with the daughters of the house married and gone and brother Srinivasan moving out of  Mysore in pursuit of government service, a hesitant Pattabhi gave in. Much to Narayan’s relief Pattabhi moved to Yadavagiri with his wife and mother. Also in tow were Narayan’s young nephews R.S. Krishnaswamy and R.S. Jayaram, both studying at the Mysore’s National Institute of Engineering (NIE).

In 1973, Narayan’s mother Gynanambal passed away.

Among the longest residents of the house was Narayan’s nephew Jayaram and his family who lived there between 1974 and 1983. The writer’s grandchildren Srinivasan (Chinni) and Bhuvaneshwari (Minnie) also stayed in the house for a few years while pursuing academics in  Mysore.

***

The large, two storied house of around 5000 sq ft had five bedrooms, with attached bathrooms.  There was a spacious semi-circular living room with an array of  windows that brought in the sunlight.

The dining hall, kitchen, an unusually huge store-room adjoining a ‘pooja room’  formed another portion of the expansive house.

A winding, narrow flight of stairs led to Narayan’s airy room on the top floor.

The room was minimalistic – almost spartan- in décor. Apart from a single cot, there was this heavy easy chair and a solid walnut table from Kashmir on which rested an assortment of books and papers.

In another corner Narayan displayed his interesting collection of miniature owls, which he had picked up during his travels. On a wooden bracket fixed to the wall rested the Filmfare award (which the writer had won for The Guide) and other memorabilia. That he never though too highly of this award was another thing.

The room had a modest ante chamber where Narayan tucked away his veena. He played it well. The veena exponent Doraiswamy Iyengar, who was a close friend, played the instrument frequently for Narayan.

Some of the greatest musicians who were friends of the family had privately recorded for Narayan.

A number of them including M.S. Subbulakshmi (whom he affectionately called Kunjamma), M.L.Vasanthakumari, Semmangudi Srinivas Iyer and D.K.Pattamal visited the Yadavagiri home and stayed on for days, with the RK family.

One of these friendships turned into a matrimonial alliance, when Pattamal’s son married Pattabhi’s only daughter Shanta in 1967.

Narayan’s cupboards held a large collection of audio tapes, mainly Carnatic music. Some of them were recorded by the singers (without accompaniments) exclusively for Narayan.  There were times when the writer himself recorded the private renditions on his state of the art spool tape recorders, Grundig or Uher.

On the wall of his room was a framed picture of his late wife Rajam. He would regularly place a string of jasmine flowers on the frame every day. The room opened up to a cosy balcony, which was Narayan’s favorite spot. He sat there, hours on end, writing, watching the flitting birds and squirrels on the frangipani  tree that majestically arched into the compound, scattering its canopy of green.

Sometimes he would meditate and recite a version of the Gayatri mantra sitting here. Narayan  had revealed to my aunt Rajani, Jayaram’s wife, that this particular mantra was a revelation that was relayed to him from another spiritual plane.

Narayan had also procured an exquisitely carved six-inch Gayatri statue for his table from the “School of Sculpture’’ opposite the Kama Kameshwara temple at Hale Agrahara in Mysore. This rested inside his cupboard.

The other room, which usually accommodated guests and other relatives who were on an extended stay, had an unusual revolving wooden shelf, which originally belonged to Narayan’s academic father R.V. Krishnaswamy Iyer. The shelf creaked and groaned under the weight of the thick hardbound classics, some of which were rare out of print editions.

The house had a garage which at one time held Narayan’s Mercedes Benz, a gift from a publisher which he subsequently disposed off. There were also two make shift ‘sheds’ that in the later years were used to park the other automobiles in the house.

Narayan’s obsession  with coffee has been well documented, and it was a fact that he was finicky about his blend. He went to great lengths to get the right proportions, sometimes lecturing the household women on the correct way of making coffee.

The writer had eight coffee makers and percolators, with which he would constantly experiment, before finally settling for his tumbler of traditional filter coffee.

In 1987, after Pattabhi’s death, Narayan travelled into Madras and the US, periodically coming into Mysore. From 1991 onwards he started living in Chennai owing to his ill health. For many years, the empty house was taken care of by Narayan’s driver Krishnamurthy.

‘Krishnamurthy, saar‘, as we called him, came to the house in the evening on his Luna and left early next morning. A beat constable would appear every night and sign on a roster, hurriedly survey the compound and sometimes chat with the security guard before sauntering away.

Sometime in early 2000, the house was leased out to the cousin of a very powerful Congress party politician. The influential tenant used it as an office cum residence, altering certain facets and progressively destroying the old world charm of the house.

At one point, he stopped paying the rent and refused to move out. The family seemed helpless…

One fine morning, suitably galvanized by Narayan’s son-in-law Chandrasekaran, who lives in Chennai, I strode into the house determined to take on the truant tenant.

I was accompanied by a few friends including Vinay Ramakrishna, an old friend and long-time resident of  Yadavagiri.

After making us wait for a long time, the kurta-clad man came down and spoke to us in the most unfriendly manner, clearly indicating that he would leave the house when he felt the need to do so.

I left the house quite disappointed and reported the conversation back to Chandrasekaran. In a few months’ time, good sense prevailed and the man left the house but in complete disarray.

***

Today 15, Vivekananda road  stands forlorn, almost ghostly, echoing the laughter, the quibbles and the genius of four generations of an uncommon family that it has nurtured.

Patiently,  uncomplainingly, it waits for that fresh gust of wind to breathe again.

Photographs: courtesy M.A. Sriram/ The Hindu (top), and T.S. Satyan via Frontline

Also read: ‘Where is Malgudi? Where we all wish we lived’

R.K. Narayan on Mysore

Ved Mehta on a day in the life of R.K. Narayan

T.S. NAGARAJAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

T.S. SATYAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

R.S. KRISHNASWAMY: A day in the life of R.K. Narayan

How R.K. Narayan passed the test to be an MP

CHURUMURI IMPACT: A train for R.K. Narayan

24 September 2011

churumuri.com is delighted to record the renaming (and flagging off) of the daily Mysore-Yeshwanthpur Express between Karnataka’s two premier cities as Malgudi Express, to perpetuate the memory of India’s first globally renowned English writer, the Mysorean R.K. Narayan.

We are delighted for two reasons.

One, we believe that even as small a gesture as getting a train named after Narayan’s creation, although rather late in coming, is an important signal in giving our literary, social and cultural titans their due.

And two, the railway ministry’s decision is largely if not solely the outcome of the suggestions of churumuri readers across the world, who responded magnificently to our campaign which began over five years ago.

In many ways, therefore, this is a victory of online activism of a kind not generally known or seen in India.

***

On this happy occasion, please allow us a moment of self-congratulation.

We would like to thank the then governor of Karnataka, T.N. Chaturvedi, who took the churumuri campaign to the railway ministry in the centenary year of Narayan’s birth; the Union minister for external affairs S.M. Krishna who revived the campaign in the 10th year of RKN’s death; and the railway minister Dinesh Trivedi who gave the green signal.

Additionally,we are thankful to the late Mysorean icon, T.S. Satyan, the historian Ramachandra Guha, and the writer Sunaad Raghuram who took the churumuri campaign to the governor of Karnataka. Several writers have kept the campaign alive over the years by writing pieces on Narayan. S.M. Krishna’s advisor Raghavendra Shastry, played a key role in reactivating the campaign this year.

Above all, we are thankful to our readers. Without you, this small salute for a giant Mysorean would not have been possible.

Coming up next: A stamp for R.K. Narayan.

***

MALGUDI EXPRESS TIMINGS

Train No. 17304: Leaves Yeshwanthpur daily at 11.35 am, reaches Mysore at 3 pm

Train No. 17303: Leaves Mysore daily at 12.10 pm, reaches Yeshwanthpur at 3.30pm

***

Photograph: courtesy Simon Winchester/ The Guardian

Read: All the stories in R.K. Narayan campaign

***

Also read: ‘Where is Malgudi? Where we all wish we lived’

R.K. Narayan on Mysore

Ved Mehta on a day in the life of R.K. Narayan

T.S. NAGARAJAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

T.S. SATYAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

R.S. KRISHNASWAMY: A day in the life of R.K. Narayan

CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY: As Mysorean as Mysore pak, Mysore mallige

S.M. Krishna revives Churumuri’s RKN campaign

23 August 2011

The minister for external affairs, Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna, may be creating news for all the wrong reasons in the year of the lord 2011. But he has struck the right PR note by reviving churumuri.com‘s acclaimed campaign for recognition for India’s original English writer, R.K. Narayan, in his hometown, Mysore.

When churumuri.com was launched in 2006, we made an all-out effort to get Narayan his due place in the landscape of Mysore, where he spent almost all his life and from where he gave the world, Malgudi.

A churumuri delegation comprising the photographer T.S. Satyan, the historian Ramachandra Guha, and the writer Sunaad Raghuram even made a representation to the then governor of Karnataka, T.N. Chaturvedi, armed with reader suggestions on how Narayan’s memory could be perpetuated.

After all the usual noises from the usual quarters, the campaign died a slow death.

Now, S. M. Krishna, a close friend of  RKN’s brother, R.K. Laxman, has given the campaign a fresh lease life in this, the 10th year of Narayan’s passing away. He has written to prime minister Manmohan Singh and railway minister Dinesh Trivedi to name a train between Mysore and Bangalore as Malgudi Express, and urged communications minister Kapil Sibal to release a stamp.

It might be too early to hail this attempt, but at least for trying, Krishna deserves some plaudits.

Also read: All the stories in R.K. Narayan campaign

T.S. SATYAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knews

T.S. NAGARAJAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

‘Where is Malgudi? Where we all wish we lived’

9 June 2011

On the 10th anniversary of his passing away, The Guardian, London, has a long piece on the legendary creator of the fictional town of Malgudi, R.K. Narayan, with churumuri‘s own Sunaad Raghuram quoted in it.

churumuri‘s 2006 campaign for keeping Narayan’s memory alive in Mysore, by renaming a Mysore-Madras train as Malgudi Express, connecting the two cities Narayan was connected with, also finds passing mention.

“There is at least one place in Mysore where you can put your finger on the elusive RKN – at his former home, up in the northern suburb of Yadavagiri. It was built to his own specifications in the late 1940s.

“The area, then rustic and isolated, is now a leafy street in a pleasantly breezy uphill location, but the house stands empty and rather forlorn, with a look of out-of-date modernity – two storeys, cream-coloured plaster, with a stoutly pillared verandah on the first floor.

“The idiosyncratic touch is a semi-circular extension at the south end of the house, like the apse of a church. On the upper floor of this, lit by eight windows with cross-staved metal grilles, he had his writing room.

“It had such a splendid view over the city – the Chamundi Hill temple, the turrets and domes of the palace, the trainline below the house – that he had to curtain the windows, “so that my eyes might fall on nothing more attractive than a grey drape, and thus I managed to write a thousand words a day”.

“A few hundred yards up the street stands the smart Hotel Paradise. The manager is Mr Jagadish, a courteous and slightly mournful man with a neat grey moustache. He knew Narayan in the 1980s, when he would sometimes dine at the hotel with his equally famous younger brother, the Times of India cartoonist, R.K. Laxman.

“I ask what he was like, but it is Laxman who stands out in his memory. Laxman was “very funny”, and had opinions about everything, but Narayan was “more serious”. He was a modest man, he didn’t “blow his trumpet”.

“Sometimes, says Mr Jagadish, he has guests who ask him: “Where is Malgudi?” He laughs and taps the side of his head. For a moment I think he is giving an answer to the question – that Malgudi was all inside one man’s head – but what he means, of course, is that the question is daft.

“Narayan was asked it many times, and ducked it in a variety of ways. One of his more enigmatic answers was this – “Malgudi is where we all belong, and where we wish we lived.”

Read the full tribute: Rereading R.K. Narayan

Illustration: courtesy James Fennelly/ Adelphi University, New York

R.K. Laxman/ The Tribune, Chandigarh

Also read: R.K. Narayan on Mysore

Ved Mehta on a day in the life of R.K. Narayan

T.S. NAGARAJAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

T.S. SATYAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

R.S. KRISHNASWAMY: A day in the life of R.K. Narayan

CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY: As Mysorean as Mysore pak, Mysore mallige

Questions for M/s Anil Kumble & Javagal Srinath

8 January 2011

ARVIND SWAMINATHAN writes from Bangalore:  R.K. Narayan‘s daughter didn’t become a writer; R.K. Laxman‘s son didn’t become a cartoonist. Shivarama Karanth‘s son didn’t become a writer or a yakshagana artiste. M.N. Srinivas‘s daughter didn’t become a sociologist. Chennaveera Kanavi‘s sons didn’t become poets.

Yet…

Yet, Sunil Gavaskar‘s son played for India. K. Srikkanth‘s son and V. Sivaramakrishnan‘s son play for Tamil Nadu. Shivlal Yadav‘s son plays for Hyderabad. Mohammed Azharuddin‘s son auditioned for Calcutta Knight Riders. And so on.

On the strength of the evidence on hand, it is safe to conclude that cricketing talent flows smoothly in the blood of Indian cricketers from generation to generation. All you have to do is to hope and pray that you are born to a cricketer as a male child, and you are set for life.

The most conclusive piece of evidence comes from Karnataka, where cricketers have “run the game” for a decade and more, because apparently cricket is best run by cricketers.

Here, magically and miraculously, Brijesh Patel’s son Udit Patel plays for the State. Roger Binny‘s son Stuart Binny plays for the State. B. Raghunath‘s son Mithun Beerala played for the State. Syed Kirmani‘s son Sadiq Kirmani is always knocking the doors.

How this medical miracle has been achieved by Karnataka’s cricketers who “run the game” is something genome scientists might like to probe. But this medical miracle has once again been revealed to the world after Karnataka’s defeat inside five sessions of a Ranji Trophy semi-final against Baroda.

So far, the new cricketers who “run the game”—KSCA president Anil Kumble and KSCA secretary Javagal Srinath—have directed all their negative energy following the defeat at the quality of the pitch prepared by the hosts at the Reliance Stadium.

Fair enough.

But surely, they have a question or two to answer themselves about the medical miracle that Karnataka cricket is being strangled by.

# Like, how does Udit Patel, who has 45 wickets from 19 first-class matches, figure in match after match? (In contrast, Tamil Nadu’s R. Ashwin has 134 wickets from 45 matches.)

# Like, how does a fat, unfit Stuart Binny, whose batting average is what is bowling average should be and vice-versa, get in ahead of all-rounders straining every sinew, notwithstanding a rare burst of heroics?

# And above all, there is the curious case of Sunil N. Raju, son of the cricketer-turned-KSCA pitch curator, Narayana Raju.

With a sum total of 92 runs and seven wickets from four first-class matches in two years, Sunil Raju magically made it to the Karnataka Ranji semi-final squad for the fifth game of his career last week.

He scored a grand total of two lovely runs and took two invaluable second-innings wickets when the hosts were chasing 43, and this after being called for chucking during his only over in the first innings.

Makarand Waingankar, the KSCA’s talent scout during the Brijesh Patel era, writes in today’s Hindu:

“Karnataka took the risk of playing an off-spinner who is on the list of BCCI for suspect action. When his team needed him the most after Baroda was five for 44, he was cautioned by the umpire in his first over. So he could bowl only one over in the crucial first innings.

The irony is that Javagal Srinath, who is in the BCCI committee to identify the bowlers with suspect action, is also the secretary of the KSCA.

“If the bowler in question was selected it was the biggest folly as they played one spinner short. And they made an off-spinner who had won them the game with bat and ball against U.P. sit out.”

No prizes for guessing whose cause Waingankar is batting for—Brijesh Patel’s son Udit.

Still as M/s Kumble and Srinath, both of them sons of non-cricketers, go about the task of cleaning the augean stables of Karnataka cricket, they have a couple of questions to answer.

Questions that their friends in the cricket media in Bangalore are unlikely and/or unwilling to ask.

# One, do they honestly believe that cricket is in the genes of Karnataka cricketers that their sons should be so blindly promoted?

# Two, how much longer will they tolerate this nonsense while they wax eloquent about giving talent and excellence their rightful due?

# Three, at this rate, do they really think cricketers know best about the game and its interests?

***

Photograph: From left, Roger Binny, Anil Kumble, Brijesh Patel and Javagal Srinath at a press conference shortly before the KSCA elections in early November 2010 (courtesy The Hindu)

***

Also read: Can Jumbo & Babu usher in change without namma Hari?

Secret of Anil Kumble‘s success is his un-Kannadiganess

Javagal Srinath: The most famous Mysorean in the world?

Does any other cricketer in India stand in a railway queue?

***

External reading: How Udit Patel edged out Mysore’s Dharmichand

Ram Guha: Why B. Akhil should have been picked over Stuart Binny

‘Your attention please: Flight IT 2404 is at MYQ’

1 October 2010

When Rajiv Gandhi‘s “feeder airline” Vayudoot took flight in the mid-1980s, the onus of inaugurating its services to (and from) Mysore fell on the fragile shoulders of its most famous name, R.K. Narayan.

The inaugural flight took off till it was noticed that the chief guest had been left behind. The plane came back to the old Mandakalli air strip to pick Narayan up.

Interesting story, of course, if true.

There were no such “mishaps”—real or made up—when a Kingfisher Airlines ATR -72 landed at the new, revamped airport (MYQ, in the air traffic controller’s lexicon) against the backdrop of Chamundi Hills to mark the commencement of commercial air operations to and from Mysore on Friday.

The plane was given a ceremonial aviation welcome—a “water salute” by fire tenders—before the decidedly less-literary VIPs of 2010—chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa, leader of the opposition Siddaramaiah, tourism minister Janardhana Reddy et al—alighted.

***

Kingfisher Airlines’ flight IT 2404 will depart every day from Bangalore at noon and arrive at Mysore at 12.45 pm. From Mysore, flight IT 2407 will depart at 2.20 pm and arrive at 3.10 pm in Bangalore.

The new direct flight will offer travellers from Mysore a one-stop connection to and from Goa, Hyderabad, Mangalore, Poona, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Trivandrum, Cochin and Bombay via Bangalore.

The honorary doctorate from South California University, “Dr” Vijay Mallya, said:

“I am delighted that we have commenced flights between Mysore and Bengaluru. The launch of this new route is an important milestone for Kingfisher Airlines and a very special moment for me personally given the place of pride that Mysore has in our glorious State. Our convenient flights will make it easier for people to travel to and from Mysore and connect with the vast network of Kingfisher Airlines via Bengaluru. Linking Mysore via air with Bengaluru and other key cities in India will provide an impetus to tourism, trade and commerce and make Mysore an even more attractive destination for the IT industry, tourists and others.”

Photograph: Karnataka Photo News

Also read: Is the Mysore airport jinxed before take off?

After all, an airport doesn’t open/close every day

‘Who told you I am a Tamilian? I am a Kannadiga’

18 August 2010

The hand of India’s most famous newspaper cartoonist, R.K. Laxman, lies still in a hospital in Bombay without a pen or pencil in its grip. Not even sure if (or when) it will regain the strength to pick up a pen or pencil to regale the millions who have woken up to the magic behind its mind for decades.

In this churumuri.com exclusive, Laxman’s grand-nephew, the journalist turned corporate manager Chetan Krishnaswamy, paints an intimate portrayal of Mysore-born, Kannada-speaking “Dudu”, with unpublished doodles and illustrations from the family album.

***

By CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY

After resolutely hanging on to the front page of The Times of India for close to 60 years now, it is perhaps difficult for the Common Man to remain in obscurity for too long.

Even as his creator lies in a hospital in Bombay recuperating from a series of paralytic strokes, the Common Man seems to have naively steered himself into the centre of a religious controversy.

A caricature of contemporary politics based on a biblical scene, with the Common Man occupying Jesus’s position, which appeared in ToI in July, hurt a section of the Christian community. Matters seem to have cooled off after the newspaper tendered an apology.

Many years ago R.K. Laxman had infuriated a group of Hindu fanatics when a cartoon showed  them setting fire to an automobile. The group had barged into his room and demanded to know how Lord Ram’s staunch followers could be projected as rabid arsonists.

Much to their annoyance, the quick-witted Laxman expressed his doubts on whether they had all really imbibed the Ramayana.  He went on to expound that the most ardent Ram bhakt was Lord Hanuman, who had gone about setting fire to Lanka with his blazing tail.

Rather confused, the group had trooped out awkwardly.

***

Suffice to say, Laxman has led an unconventional life. In 1960 he divorced his then dancer-wife Kamala and married his niece also named Kamala. Laxman did it on his terms and brooked no criticism.

The genius is prone to being eccentric and intimidating at times.

At a Bollywood party, a fawning crowd sought his views on actor Sanjay Dutt’s involvement  in the Bombay serial blasts of 1993. Laxman said that he did not think that the actor had played a major role in the terrorist act.

“However, the judge should pronounce the death sentence for the way he looks and the way he acts,” added Laxman brazenly.

There was a disconcerting hush that preceded this statement.

***

On most occasions when Laxman travelled into Bangalore or Mysore, I would be his privileged companion. I drove with him (and Kamala) to all his engagements and eagerly absorbed  his wry observations, sarcastic comments and comical anecdotes.

His world view was simple yet fascinating.

Laxman’s spontaneity and brilliance, was most visible when he held forth before an eager, awe-struck audience.

On one occasion, he recounted how he had mastered the art of slinking away from noisy parties that always began well past midnight. At an appropriate hour,  Laxman would sidle up to the host, mumble a vague incoherent excuse interspersed with words like “airport”, “appointment” , “meeting”  etc.

Invariably, the tipsy host would fall for the ploy and accompany him to the exit.  At home, Laxman would contentedly  slurp on his staple fare of curd rice and retire to bed.

Once in Mysore, after we finished attending a seminar, a leading business house was hosting dinner in Laxman’s honour that evening.

After a hot bath we headed to the venue, which was supposed to be at one of the offices of this flourishing  group. The minute we landed there, Laxman  noticed that people were already mid-way through their bisi bele baath and mosaranna.

The bigger crisis was that there was no whisky being served.

In a split second, Laxman grabbed the arm of his old friend, the legendary nuclear scientist Raja Ramanna (who hailed from Vontikoppal originally), coaxed him to abandon his plate and propelled him out.

All of us jumped into Raja Ramanna’s Mercedes and headed to Hotel King’s Kourt for Johnny Walker Black Label and dinner.

Of course, a magnanimous Raja Ramanna paid the bill.

Earlier that day at the seminar in Mysore’s intellectual retreat Dhvanyaloka,   Laxman was edgy while presenting his paper.

At one point, the academic doyen Dr C.D.Narasimhaiah interjected and commented: “You Tamilians have always been humorous….”

The Mysore-born Laxman bore into him from above his thick rimmed glasses and said: “Who told you I am a Tamilian, I am a Kannadiga….”

The loudest applause came from noted Kannada writer S.L.Bhyrappa, who was sitting by my side. I would like to believe that Laxman was quite genuine when he made that comment.

***

On another occasion, chief minister S.M.Krishna was felicitating the cartoonist at Bangalore’s Institution of Engineers. Soon after the event, there was a milling crowd that blocked me from getting to Laxman.

Even as the driver revved the State car with Laxman in it, there  was confusion all around, security was instructed to look for a certain Chetan Krishnaswamy.

Sensing an emergency, I rushed to the car and plugged my head in, he looked at me a trifle irritated  and enquired: “So where are we going?”

That evening, accompanied by my dear friend and former bureaucrat Pramod Kumar Rai, we sipped beer in his guest house.  The next morning the hospitable Chief Minister’s wife sent the Laxmans piping hot idlis for breakfast.

***

On a visit to a not-so-distant relative’s house in Bangalore, he irritatedly whispered into my ears: “Who is who here? The servants and the relatives all look the same.”

Thankfully nobody heard that.

Dudu , as Laxman is called in the family, was born on 24 October 1924, the youngest of six sons. His strict headmaster father Rasipuram Venkataraman Krishnaswamy Iyer was  imperious and remote, preoccupied with his work to bother much about his youngest son.

The mother Gnanambal, who was the Mysore Maharani’s favourite partner in tennis, bridge and chess, was the cheerful collaborator.

Not many know that in his working years Laxman unfailingly sent his mother a portion of his salary by post. When he came to Mysore on vacation, he would spend most of  his time sprawled on his mother’s cot.

The other great influence was his famous sibling R.K.Narayan, who, to young Laxman’s relief, underplayed the importance of academics, connected him to important artists in Mysore and allowed him to illustrate his short stories for The Hindu set in mythical Malgudi.

Interestingly, both the brothers had contrasting personalities.

While Narayan was a teetotaler, unassuming, patient and more gentle; Laxman was mercurial and quite a free-spirited rabble rouser. Narayan mentored his nephews and grand nephews; was always concerned about the extended family’s well being and future.

Laxman was affectionate but seemed more distant.

However, both brothers were non-ritualistic in their spiritual beliefs.  Laxman, though was a little more vocal in criticising established religion and sometimes refused to walk into crowded temples.

His favorite deity has always  been the playful elephant god Ganesha, which he drew with great dexterity and vigor. For his artist eye, the rotund form seemed to manifest itself everywhere: in a tree trunk, a weather beaten boulder, a drifting cloud, etc.

Laxman’s  other enduring  subject has been the common crow, whose quirks have held him spell-bound  since childhood. Curiously, Narayan’s obsession was the owl: he had accumulated a collection of statuettes  over a period of time.

As kids, my cousins and I would be intrigued by this strange collection every time we were able to sneak into Narayan’s  airy room in Mysore.

Is there an explanation for one family spawning two such outstanding creative figures?

N.Ram, the present chief editor of The Hindu, had attempted to respond to that question:

“It happens very rarely but it has happened elsewhere. They express individual genius, which has always defied explanation, but they are also products of a particular family and social milieu that has been congenial to creativity: liberal and modern in outlook, yet imbued with strong values and laidback integrity and respectful of independence and originality.

“The link between childhood and adult creativity is now well recognised in the social science, especially psychological, literature: that is, the importance to the creative mind of a childhood in which exploration and curiosity are encouraged, not restricted or stifled.

“Laxman, a decade-and-a-half younger than Narayan, is very different in make-up, temperament and experience. But he is a product of the same kind of upbringing and social milieu that have fostered creativity, although they cannot of course ‘explain’ it.

“Further, Laxman (who, in his autobiography, tells us that ‘I do not remember wanting to do anything else except draw’) has clearly benefited, from the beginning, from having Narayan around him: to mind him as a child, to encourage his independence and creativity, to have him illustrate his Malgudi stories and novels, to take pride, without ever making a fuss, in his gift and accomplishments. I have observed the two brothers together: so close, yet so different, and so independent from each other—creative contrasts from one distinctive, difficult to replicate, pool.”

***

Although Laxman never wore a wrist watch in his entire life, he had a fondness for tweaking watches and other mechanical contraptions. He was the quintessential man about the house repairing gadgets that had broken down and fixing other knick knacks.

A born engineer!

As kids he would regale us with magic tricks. Coins would disappear and appear, sometimes dropping out of our noses and ears. He always had a bundle of tricks up his sleeve, and was the most awaited guest in our houses.

In the later years, brother R.K.Srinivasan’s home  kept a brown hardbound book for Laxman to doodle everytime he came on a vacation. The book, a family heirloom, has a range of Laxman’s caricatures.

They are whacky, whimsical, political, absurd – perhaps  reflecting Laxman’s relaxed mood. A whole bunch of them are ball-point scribbles, but with the distinctive stamp of the artist.

***

In November last year, Laxman visited Bangalore and Mysore and patiently posed for pictures with the entire family. It was painful to see him wheel chair bound and cheerless. A paralytic stroke had rendered his left side completely useless.

I had lunch with the Laxmans in their hotel room in Mysore and took them for a quick drive around Laxman’s old haunts in the city. He rode with me in silence, periodically making uncharitable comments about the city.

He cursed the lack of street lights, the  bad roads and shoddy planning of what was once his most beloved city. This time,  I was careful not to make unnecessary small talk or embellish his views with my own banalities.

As darkness set in, he wanted to be dropped back to his hotel. Unlike in the past, it seemed evident that the genius  had not enjoyed the drive.  As his helpers heaved him out of the car and placed him on  his wheel chair, he thanked me quickly and cursed the flight of stairs that appeared before him.

***

Recently, actor Akshay Kumar visited him at the Breach Candy hospital in Mumbai to talk to him about his latest film that was based on the Common Man.

Wonder whether Laxman will ever regale an audience about this encounter with the same fervor and zest.

***

Author photograph: courtesy Facebook

View unpublished doodles/ illustrations: here and here

***

Also read: Has namma R.K. Laxman drawn his last cartoon?

Laxman & Narayan: How one family produced two geniuses

Look, who inspired R.K. Laxman‘s common man!

Making all of us smile can make one of us cry

Why Mysore is no longer R.K. Narayan’s Mysore

11 August 2010

PRITHVI DATTA CHANDRA SHOBHI writes: Jayadev Gurumallaiah, a childhood friend from Mysore, who dabbles in real estate among other business interests, told me the following story.

After drinking tea at a café, a mutual friend of ours paid with a hundred-rupee note. While waiting to collect the change at the counter, Jayadev asked our friend whether he had received a black money payment and further, if the note he had just used was part of that transaction.

The friend confirmed Jayadev’s hunch but was curious to know what had made him suspicious since the note was issued by the Reserve Bank of India.

Jayadev replied that the note had smelt of a gunny sack.

Money comes into Mysore, especially for real estate transactions, not only through legal, banking channels but also in gunny bags, and that has been a common practice. Real estate transactions, with the exception of new apartments purchased from builders, generally include both a legal white money payment through a bank instrument, and a black money component of cash.

This flow of money into Mysore has been a constant feature of the last decade, and has mostly involved the real estate and construction industry.

Consider this proposition. The flow of money into Mysore has been disproportionate to the city’s economic prospects and its growth hasn’t occurred organically. Today, Mysore has a population of a million people, but it has never been a major centre of commerce and manufacturing.

Since Bangalore, the nearest major economic centre, is bursting at its seams due to inadequate infrastructure and is seemingly incapable of absorbing more investment, the logic of speculative investment in Mysore seems to suggest this city as the best alternative urban destination.

However, in reality, Mysore has received only moderate investment in the new economy industries and negligible investment in manufacturing. With the exception of Infosys and Wipro, no software major has established a development centre there.

Further, most of the smaller Mysore based software companies are call centres and medical transcription companies. More significantly, since software revenue generated in Mysore is a twentieth of Bangalore’s earnings, it does appear that the investment in the city’s real estate is primarily speculative and based on perceived potential.

The participants in these real estate transactions are both Mysoreans and outsiders—individuals, professional developers, cooperative societies formed by different professional groups, and speculative investors. Given that there is no scarcity of land, Mysore’s expansion isn’t following the pattern of other metropolitan cities in India.

Instead of constructing large apartment complexes, professional developers and big investors prefer to purchase large plots of land in and around Mysore to form residential neighbourhoods and private individuals buy housing plots. Consequently, there has been a dramatic horizontal expansion of the city in the last decade.

This flow of money and the speculative investment in real estate has produced a new form of urbanism and a different ethos in Mysore. While it is difficult to flesh out the city’s new ethos just yet, it is unmistakably clear that R.K. Narayan’s Mysore doesn’t exist any more.

***

At the heart of this new urbanism is the formation of residential neighbourhoods by private developers. The Mysore Urban Development Authority (MUDA), the nodal agency responsible for city planning, has largely abandoned its traditional role of assessing the housing needs, acquiring land, and developing residential areas.

While it continues to produce the Local Planning Area (LPA) and Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) documents, which ostensibly offer the blueprint for city development and also develop residential neighbourhoods on occasion, in reality, MUDA has become an approver of projects developed by either private developers or, more often, cooperative societies formed by professional groups such as journalists, employees of various banks, universities and colleges, government departments and public sector companies.

These private entities have not only usurped MUDA’s role, but have succeeded in undermining MUDA regulations. Thus, there has been a systematic dismantling of Mysore’s urban planning institutional mechanism, developed in the early 20th century by the administrators of the old Mysore state, resulting in the privatization of city planning.

***

In 1904, the Mysore government established the City Improvement Trust Board (CITB), one of the earliest town planning bodies in India. The first such urban planning institution, the Bombay City Improvement Trust, had been established only six years earlier in 1898.

The CITB planned new extensions and created modern civic amenities such as new drainage and sewage systems; moreover, it also augmented the beauty of the city by planning wide boulevards, circles and parks. Mysore administrators also built several monumental public buildings in Indo-Saracenic style, which served as administrative buildings, schools and colleges, hospitals and libraries.

All this contributed to the rapid urbanization of Mysore in the first three decades of the 20th century and the making of a handsome, modern city. In his Modern Mysore: Impressions of a Visitor, Padmanabha Iyer, a journalist and author, who had travelled extensively in India, wrote after visiting Mysore:

‘Mysore is the most handsome city in all India that I have seen. Its parks, gardens, broad roads, circles, squares, beautiful avenues, etc., arrest the attention of the visitor and produce the first impression which is most lasting. The city one sees today is entirely the making of His Highness, the present Maharaja, who has been taking a personal interest in its improvement and modernisation.’ (Sridhara Print House, Trivandrum, 1936, p. 31)

Not surprisingly, Mysore’s population grew rapidly between 1900 and 1930, exceeding 100,000 by 1931.

While Mysore’s urban form was planned by the CITB, the specific nature of its urbanism drew more from its status as a royal centre. While Mysore has often claimed a glorious pre-modern past, until the beginning of the 20th century it had always simply been the place where the kings lived, and was just a small town around the palace. It had never been a centre of manufacturing and trade, or of cultural, intellectual or military activities.

Its history is linked inexorably to two other cities which performed those functions: until 1799, when the British conquered Mysore it was the neighbouring town of Srirangapattana, and subsequently, Bangalore, which was developed by the colonial administrators, both as the administrative capital of Mysore princely state and a cantonment city.

The early British reports of Mysore too describe it as a rather modest town.

Col. Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington and the brother of the then Viceroy, Richard Wellesley, couldn’t find a suitable hall for the coronation of the new Wodeyar king of Mysore, after the 4th Anglo-Mysore war in 1799-1800.

In fact, Lord Valentia reports that the city consisted of one street, which was a mile long.  (See for more details Mysore City by Constance Parsons, Oxford University Press, London, 1930, pp. 18-19).

***

Unlike Bangalore, which rapidly grew as a manufacturing and trading centre in addition to being the administrative capital of the state, Mysore’s growth came from the status it earned in the 20th century as a centre of culture, education and intellectual activity.

This was particularly true after the founding of the Mysore University in 1916.

Although some modern industries (silk and sandalwood oil factories) were established by the state, Mysore city saw very little industrialization. Mysore’s demographic profile too remained mostly stable since the majority of the settlers were Kannada speakers from southern Karnataka.

After independence, Mysore continued its impressive growth between 1951 and 1991, often at the rate of 40%.

This growth didn’t alter its ethos even though this period saw the influx of tens of thousands of non-Kannada speakers. Their arrival was linked to the establishment of several major national research institutions and laboratories such as the Central Food Technology Research Institute (CFTRI, founded in 1950), the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL, founded in 1961), All India Institute of Speech and Hearing (AIISH, founded in 1965), Regional Institute of Education (RIE, founded in 1963) and the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL, founded in 1969).

These institutions strengthened the nature of Mysore’s urbanism as a centre of education and research, culture and service economy. Additionally, Mysore came to be known as a pensioner’s paradise due to its salubrious climate, relaxed lifestyle and good civic amenities.

***

The CITB continued with its role as the planner of the city and developer of residential neighbourhoods. There were hardly any private initiatives since even the CITB developed neighbourhoods had remained under-utilized. In 1988, the CITB was renamed as the Mysore Urban Development Authority (MUDA) but its responsibilities continued to be the same.

In the past decade, however, the old model of city planning has been abandoned as the new expansion of the city is managed by private developers4 and not by MUDA, which has mostly become an approver of private initiatives.

How has this changed the nature of Mysore’s urbanism? I argue that even though the private developers and cooperative societies are required to abide by the MUDA guidelines while forming their layouts, there are two significant ways in which their projects differ from MUDA developed areas.

First, the cityscape itself changes since private developers often do not plan parks and wide streets; given the focus on maximizing profit, developers frequently even violate MUDA regulations. Second, the developers are also free to sell housing plots to any individual, to even a non-resident of Mysore, and more significantly in any number, thus fuelling a speculative boom.

In contrast, MUDA regulations exclude not only non-residents but also those who already own a house in Mysore from even applying for MUDA developed housing plots.

While such regulations are often violated, yet it is undeniable that they constitute some restraint on speculative buying. Moreover, MUDA regulations are based on a notion of equitable distribution of housing plots, whereas private initiatives of the past decade are more in the nature of speculative investments.

As a consequence, there has been close to a tenfold rise in prices since 2003-4, effectively keeping large sections of middle class Mysoreans from ever owning a house in the city. Thus, we have begun to notice a change in the ownership patterns as well, which will likely be more pronounced in the next decade.

Finally, there seems to be a steady decline in the institutional capacity to develop and maintain civic amenities and it is in this regard that 21st century Mysore appears to have most regressed. It is not clear whether this inability reflects a larger institutional malaise or is a consequence of the privatization of city planning.

Mysore is a recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) funds from the central government for creating urban infrastructure and providing basic services to the urban poor. Mysore’s civic bodies are also supposed to submit ‘detailed project reports (DPR)’ in order to receive funding. Yet, even a cursory glance at the proposed projects reveals the ad hoc nature of planning and the massive corruption during execution.

By and large, proposed projects have focused on building bus terminals, upgrading water supply and waste management systems, and rehabilitation of slums. While the city of Mysore is home to multiple universities, management and technical institutions, none of these institutions appear to take up civic problems as part of their research agenda and produce city planning proposals.

***

Such lacunae are not unique to Mysore alone, yet it is baffling to witness the complete absence of engagement on the part of research institutions with civic problems. Note that this state of affairs is accompanied by a systematic effort to privatize basic services, such as water supply.

Additionally, we should note two groups of Mysoreans who have benefited enormously from the wealth created during the real estate boom, given their impact on the ethos of the city and its public life.

First, the booming land prices have produced a plethora of new millionaires: peasants from villages on the outskirts of Mysore, whose land would have been acquired by the CITB or the MUDA in the past, have in the last ten years sold their land in the open market. Kannegowdana Koppalu, a village that is now part of Mysore city, alone has more than three hundred multimillionaires, according to my survey.

The second group of beneficiaries is the large real estate investors, a majority of whom are Mysoreans and happen to be active in Mysore politics; this is an instance of politicians realizing very early on the potential of real estate business as a money making venture and benefiting from the booming market.

These politicians also have additional land holdings in and around the city, and it is in their interest to persist with the privatization of neighbourhood formation. Both by virtue of their land ownership and their ability to affect public policy, this second group will have enormous influence in determining Mysore’s new urbanism.

What is the impact of this new urbanism on the form and ethos of the city?

The cityscape has begun to change as modern architecture takes hold, slowly changing the character of the royal city. While the palaces and public buildings from the early 20th century continue to define Mysore’s landscape, new shopping malls, resorts, multiplexes, apartment complexes and luxurious private houses have now become fairly common.

Mysoreans seem to be quite receptive to the changes brought about by the new money flow. While there does exist some nostalgia for the older and simpler times, the younger Mysoreans are active in real estate trading and construction industry.

So far, despite its rapid growth, Mysore retains its 20th century charm and continues to be a manageable city.

That is Mysore’s attraction for outsiders: for thousands of software engineers, students from all over the world, and increasingly, migrant workers from North Indian states, who come to the city in search of employment. Additionally, over 2.5 million tourists visit the city, among whom are an exotic category of visitors: the yoga students, who have become an ubiquitous part of the cityscape.

Thus, it is not only money which is flowing into Mysore, but new people as well.

What will partly determine the ethos of Mysore is their form of engagement with the city. As noted earlier, Mysore has seen the arrival of outsiders in significant numbers; what’s different about the present is the rampant materialism that seems endemic to both Mysoreans and outsiders.

More than anything else, the flow of money in the form of speculative investment is and will continue to be at the heart of how Mysore will change. Will that leave Mysore’s unhurried and relaxed lifestyle as well as notions of civility and hospitality unaffected?

That ethos of Mysore, of which R.K. Narayan was the finest chronicler, seems to be disappearing. Rampant materialism wasn’t the ethos of Narayan’s Mysore. It only represented the quaint professionalism of Malgudi businessmen.

Today’s Mysore may not offer much space for them.

***

Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi is on the faculty of San Francisco State University, specialising  in medieval South India (especially Kannada literature and cinema) and the cultural politics of contemporary South Asia. A fuller version of this piece appears in the August 2010 issue of Seminar.

***

Photograph: courtesy Michael Polizzi (top), and Karnataka Photo News

Posthumous Dalit empowerment of R.K. Narayan

13 July 2010

The Guardian, London, ran a story last April on a coffee shop in a hotel in Mysore staffed by Dalit girls.

“Dressed in a sunshine yellow and burgundy langa davane, the traditional costume of young south Indian girls, Gouri glides gracefully around the Green Hotel coffee shop.

“Poised and confident, she is one of 11 young women trained to run the Malgudi coffee shop at the Green Hotel, Mysore.

“The hotel is the brainchild of Dame Hilary Blume, founder of the Charities Advisory Trust in London. But Gouri’s mother could hardly have dreamed that her daughter would enter such a place….”

Admittedly, there is something to be said about this kind of empowerment especially when Dalits have traditionally been condemned to menial tasks like cleaning toilets; when their girls are routinely beaten up, stripped, paraded naked, even killed, for so much as daring to aspire.

Agreed it makes sense for a restaurant in Mysore to name itself after the mythical town that was born in the City, in a manner of speaking. Yet, there are a couple of questions to be asked after throwing political correctness to the wind.

# Like, has Green Hotel or Dame Hilary Blume taken the permission of the writer R.K. Narayan or his family for the use of his creation “Malgudi” for a commercial purpose albeit with a social cause?

# If they haven’t, would vegetarian Narayan, who rarely wore his social concerns on his half-sleeves, have allowed the exploitation of “Malgudi” even if it was to empower Dalit girls?

# And if neither Narayan nor his family have been kept in the loop about such a development, does a “Malgudi” coffee shop amount to a copyright violation, Dalit or no Dalit?

The author of the Guardian article Mari Marcel Thekekara wrote elsewhere in June 2009:

“The Malgudi coffee shop opened on February 2, 2009, with much fanfare. The press was extremely supportive of the idea and gave us wonderful reviews. The girls were nervous on opening day, but they charmed the guests nevertheless….

“Mysore is considered a conservative, one-horse town (by Bangaloreans and the fashionable elite), but the much-maligned media went to town praising the concept of dalit slumdwellers being given a break. And the girls were delighted to be on local television and on the front pages of the major dailies….”

On the one hand, you could argue that a Malgudi coffee shop in Mysore is better than a Malgudi that serves authentic Chettinad, North Indian and multi-cuisine in Singapore. Or in Madras.

And in a City that has  done little to preserve the name of its most famous writer, a Malgudi coffee shop is better than no Malgudi coffee shop, considering that at least a few foreigners will go home with memories enlivened by the experience of sipping south Indian filter coffee by the river Sarayu.

Still, on the other hand….

Read the full story: Taking destiny to task

Image: courtesy Bellur Ramakrishna

Also read: Anybody Dalit in the media and speaks English?

CHURUMURI POLL: Dalits being taken for a ride?

Disgusted. Afflicted. Literate. Intelligent. Talented

Different bundles of expectations on young backs

1 June 2010

While their counterparts enthusiastically proceeded to school on reopening day in Bellary, rag-pickers near Raichur began the week with a different kind of burden on their backs on Monday.

Photographs: Karnataka Photo News

Also read: How R.K. Narayan passed the test to be an MP

How R.K. Narayan passed the test to be an MP

9 May 2010

Looked down upon by civil society, treated by politicians as their lapdog, protected by the government like a holy cow, barely recognised by the State, but blessed with astonishing resources, intelligence operations in India are a combination of “tragedy, comedy, ugliness and perfidy”.

The Intelligence Bureau (IB)—the eyes and ears of the central government—is over 120 years old. Yet, it was not constituted under any act of Parliament; it has no charter of duties, no framework of policies, no set rules and regulations.

Still, it survives and thrives with barely any transparency or accountability. Any effort to reveal its workings invites a sledgehammer blow from the government of the day, using the usual fig leaves of secrecy, national security, confidentiality, etc.

In 2004, R.N. Kulkarni, an IB officer of 35 years’ standing, who also served in the Research and Analaysis Wing (R&AW), has put together a book on India’s “secret service”. Titled ‘Sin of National Conscience‘, it throws light on political spying and trickery that has become emblematic of IB core activities.

Excerpt:

***

Under the aegis of the Congress, until the advent of coalition governments in the latter part of the 1990s, India suffered from political feudalism.

A blurred line divided the activities of the IB and the Congress.

The IB acted enthusiastically as a long political arm of the Congress, to further the fortune of the party. It helped the Congress to screeen party candidates to fight elections for the lesiglative assembly, legislative council, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.

The Congress, during 1982, wanted to select a candidate to the Rajya Sabha for the category of nominated seats, to fill a vacancy.

Generally, the nominated candidate was expected to be an eminent person to represent a wider spectrum of society, free from the obligation of party affiliation, and free to speak on the floor of the House on the merit of the subject.

Nevertheless, the Congress was keen to select a candidate in such a manner that he felt obliged to the party and augmented its numerical strength in the Upper House.

He should also join hands with the party, if need be, in its political machinations.

The IB was given the task of finding out the suitability of one such candidate based in Mysore.

He was none other than R.K. Narayan, a wellknown story writer of great fame.

However, Narayan was perceived to be close to officials of the US embassay in India and was observed attending the parties hosted by Americans in Delhi. This made the Congress uncomfortable about his candidature.

The IB was roped in to sort out the problem for the Congress and it was directed to conduct a detailed secret enquiry about the candidate to draw his correct and comprehensive political profile.

The IB was directed to find answers for these questions:

a) In the event of his nomination, whether he would toe the official line of the Congress or not.

b) Whether he would abide by the directions of the high command of the Congress.

c) Whether USA would be able to influence his political conduct in the Rajya Sabha.

d) His intimate views on various important issues in political, economic, defence and foreign affairs.

e) Whether he would be amenable in a crunch situation to the party’s manipulations, etc, etc.

Even though R.K. Narayan was a great writer, he did not have matching articulation. As a result, the operative working on him found it difficult to draw his profile.

So a secret enquiry was further conducted among his friend and relatives to know his political face.

This facet of political spying was confronted with an ethical question as to whether the conduct of IB was justifiable. And whether IB should really further the cause of the Congress in the guise of national security.

Such unethical working of IB had become the order of the day and inflicted pain on the operatives and the national conscience.

What should be the ethical equation of IB in matters of such political spying?

Narayan was eventually nominated to the Rajya Sabha where his ardent plea to reduce the weight of school books reverberates to this day.

(Copies of the Sin of National Conscience (price Rs 398) can be obtained from Kritagnya Publication, 671, 13th main, 4th stage, T.K. Layout, Mysore 570023.)

Illustration: courtesy R.K. Laxman/ The Tribune, Chandigarh

Also read: R.K. Narayan on Mysore

Ved Mehta on a day in the life of R.K. Narayan

T.S. NAGARAJAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

T.S. SATYAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

‘I thought she would live forever': A love story

21 February 2010

At the urging of his grandson, the renowned photo-journalist and churumuri contributor and wellwisher T.S. Nagarajan has just put together a private book titled ‘A Pearl of Water on a Lotus Leaf and Other Memories‘ for his friends and family.

The piece de resistance in the beautifully produced, brilliantly written 198-page book is his 50-year love affair with his wife Meenakshi that ended two Decembers ago.

churumuri.com is both honoured and privileged to be given the permission to reproduce a 22-carat love story, all 4,624 words of it.

***

By T.S. NAGARAJAN

I do not know where to begin but I do know where it ended.

So many years together, so many memories. Losing her has changed my life.

Going back now to an empty house in Bangalore is difficult. There is no one to greet you. The house with its silence seems to grieve with you.

Somehow, this place doesn’t seem to fit me since Meenakshi died; but I really have to live here.

I love this place. It is my home.

Our house in Bangalore meant everything to both of us. We spent 20 of the full 50 years of our married life in this home. The house grew with us and acquired all its colours and glory. We developed a beautiful garden. Meenakshi was its brain. I was only the brawn.

Instead of a compound, we preferred a line of crotons as a green wall in front. Today, as I water them every evening, the plants remind me of the green fingers that nurtured them as they grew from little saplings to tall, robust and colourful sentinels. Meenakshi was a great gardener. She had magic in her hands. Whatever she touched flourished.

Life rolled on at an enjoyable pace for ten years. As all good things come to an end, we found it difficult to manage the garden. After much deliberation, we came to the painful decision to close the garden and pave the space around the house with grey granite.

I put in an ad in the paper announcing the sale of the garden. A few days later, an old gentleman arrived with a carrier van to buy the garden. After the deal, Meenakshi urged me to take some photographs of the garden and vanished from the scene.

She found it too difficult to witness the departure of her loved ones. The garden vanished in a jiffy.

As one grows older, passing through the realities of life, dreams die. But I still keep intact my memories of sharing an exciting life with someone special.

Meenakshi is dead.

How am I to tell you?

One does not fix appointments with fate.

There is a rigid lump in my throat. I am learning to hold on and come to terms with the reality that she is no more.  Old age demands dignity. I manage a stoic face with a deliberate smile. Cross-sections of my life with her spring involuntarily from my memory. I have enough of them to ruminate upon.

***

Madurai to Delhi was a huge change for Menakshi. A few weeks after our wedding in the temple-town, she travelled by air for the first time and landed in the capital to a noisy welcome from my friends.

They were stunned by her beauty.

She looked like one of those chiselled figurines in the Madurai temple, her skin shining like ebony in the midday sun and eyes those of angels. She appeared as though she had descended from heaven just to taunt the blue-blooded beauties of Delhi.

Delhi’s weather was an entirely new experience for her. In summer, she loved the cooling rain that followed the dust storms, and wondered why in Delhi no one carried umbrellas while walking in the summer sun. She loved the exhilarating aroma from the wet khus curtains.

Phatphatis”, Delhi’s famous motorcycle rickshaws, thrilled her. She had never seen a Sikh. She was puzzled most by the sight of a Sardarji drying his hair in the winter sun.  Khushwant Singh was the first Sikh she saw and spoke with. He was also the first to plant a soft kiss on her cheek.

In course of time, she fell in love with Delhi, its people and their manners and customs. It was in Delhi that our two daughters, Kalyani and Vasanti, grew up and were married.  We spent 30 long years in the Capital. They were indeed the sunshine years of our life.

***

Moving from Delhi to Bangalore was like going back home. A welcome change. We loved the city’s salubrious weather and the slow pace of life.

Riding on a Vespa scooter, we discovered Bangalore together.

Not knowing Kannada was a big handicap for Meenakshi.  But she learnt the language by persisting to speak, despite the initial imperfections. In a few years, she was able to speak well,  and relate easily with the women in the neighbourhood.

One day, I heard her speak in Kannada to a gathering of women in the temple behind our home. It was a meeting to form a women’s committee. She was elected its first secretary.

Our scootering adventures became less frequent after sometime. We then turned to walking. Most friends in the area got used to seeing us always together. If, for some reason, Meenakshi stayed back, I had to explain her absence to the friends I met on the way. To avoid this, I made it a point  to cancel my walks on the days she didn’t go.

One evening, barely a few minutes after we had left home for a walk, I found Meenakshi   lagging behind, unable to keep pace with me. This was unusual. I asked her what was the matter. She said that she was feeling exhausted and wanted to return home.

As we turned back, I found her collapsing on the road, a small by-lane in the area, and sweating profusely. I was shocked to see her lying on the road, unable to talk. I sensed something serious. A passer-by helped me lift her and take her home in an auto-rickshaw.

I managed to put her on the bed. Her pulse was terribly low. I gave her a glass of sugared water, thinking she might have had low blood sugar. She was diabetic.  It might also be a heart attack, I thought. I put in a tablet of Sorbitrate (nitroglycerine, very helpful in such situations) under her tongue.

I had saved a strip of this drug for an emergency. Soon after the first aid, I phoned my grandson Duglu and told him that his grandma was sinking and urged him to rush home with his parents.  They arrived quickly accompanied by a hospital ambulance.

She was given emergency treatment in the intensive care unit of the hospital. Her condition stabilised by late in the night. She was declared out of danger the next day. A coronary angioplasty  was done. The doctors found an advanced block in one of the arteries.  She was given a stent.  She remained in the hospital for a few days and returned home, bright and beautiful.

The entire family heaved a sigh of relief. After a few weeks of rest and recuperation, Meenakshi resumed her normal routine.  She got up well before sunrise, helped herself to a cup of coffee, got the breakfast ready (invariably an oatmeal), finished the  day’s cooking and sat down in the favourite rattan chair in her room with the prayer book in hand. This was her meditation time. I made it a point not to disturb her.

It was also the time when some women, who swept the road every morning, her best friends, would drop in for their daily bible-babble. She wouldn’t mind their intrusion. She would make coffee for them. (A whole group of them came home to see me and condole her death. This was her speciality. She would relate with everyone on equal terms.)

***

Within months after she arrived in Delhi after the wedding, we attended a reception to the President of Ghana at Hyderabad House. It was hosted by Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Meenakshi saw Jawaharlal Nehru escorting his guest into the hall and whispered to me that she wanted to meet Nehru.

I told her that I didn’t know the Prime Minister personally. Barely I had finished saying this, she rushed through the gathering towards where Nehru was talking with some people. The next moment, I saw her talking with the Prime Minister.

Cameras clicked.

The picture became a hit in the family back home in Madurai.

Another  interesting incident involving Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the famous Indian writer,  comes to my mind. We had met him a few times at Khushwant Singh’s place. When Khushwant Singh became editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, he wanted me to do some interesting pictures of Nirad Babu to illustrate a series of articles by him for the magazine.

Accompanied by Meenakshi, I went to the writer’s home. Nirad Babu had become a familiar figure walking the lanes and quadrangles of the Mori Gate area of old Delhi; a thin, short, spry man in dhoti and kurta. He would usually don Bengali clothes at home. His suits and the hats were reserved for his walks. He was proud of everything British.  He loved showing off his collection of a variety of items, especially those made in England, to his visitors.

As he talked with us, he opened the shoe rack and pulled out a pair of shining Oxford shoes and began explaining its special features. When he brought the shoes somewhat close to Meenakshi, urging her to see them, she boxed her nose and politely pushed the shoes back telling him “Nirad Babu, thus far and no further, please.”

Nirad didn’t mind her comment. He had a hearty laugh with us, and continued singing in praise of the English shoes. Fame or position of people just didn’t bother her. She was frank. She was candid. She was brave. She had nothing to conceal. She was true to herself.

***

I found a big change in her in the years after her heart attack. She became very spiritual and often talked about God. She joined a group of women, all her friends, and started attending prayer meetings every Saturday morning. She stopped going out for walks because of pain in the knees.

She spent minimum time in the kitchen and would retire to her room when once the morning chores were over. Her interest in TV serials waned.

In the evenings, when I was busy with my computer in my room, she preferred to lie down on the couch in the drawing room waiting for me to come and sit next to her.  This is the time we listened to classical music.  Half past eight was dinner time. Thereafter, we would retire for the day.

Meenakshi was deeply interested in music and loved listening to her favourite singers. She was close to the diva M.S. Subbulakshmi. They became good friends when we spent three days in MS’ home in Madras documenting her life in pictures.

MS made it a point to meet Meenakshi whenever she came to Delhi or Bangalore. They would discuss not music but cooking.

We generally stayed at home and talked a good deal on various subjects. We listened to each other with steadfast attention. Often we discussed serious subjects like life, death and even God. We also indulged in a bit of gossip about the goings-on in the neighbourhood.

We derived a vicarious delight in giving nicknames to people. For example, we named a vegetable seller, who came every morning announcing his wares at a high musical pitch, “Bhimsen”, after the music maestro Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Meenakshi felt that Bhimsen was indeed blessed with a great voice; if he had only taken to music, he would have been a celebrity.

The woman, who swept the road,  Lakshmi was called “R.L.”, Road Lakshmi. After she left, she was replaced by another Lakshmi. The new Lakshmi was called “N.R.L.”, New Road Lakshmi.

We found delight even in seemingly simple things in life. This is what perhaps made our life an enjoyable journey.

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MYSORE: NO. 4 ON ‘THE NEW YORK TIMES’ LIST

9 January 2010

The travel section of the world’s most respected English newspaper, The New York Times, lists 31 places to go to in 2010. And at No. 4—just after Sri Lanka, Patagonia wine country and Seoul—is Mysore.

The only other city from India on the NYT list is Bombay at No. 13.

Mary Billard writes:

“You’ve completed 200 hours of teacher training, mastered flying crow pose and even spent a week at yoga surf camp. What’s next? Yogis seeking transcontinental bliss head these days to Mysore, the City of Palaces, in southern India.

“The yogi pilgrimage was sparked by Ashtanga yoga, a rigorous sweat-producing, breath-synchronized regimen of poses popularized by the beloved Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who died at 94 in 2009. Jois’s grandson is now director of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. First month’s tuition is 27,530 rupees, or $600 at 46 rupees to the dollar. Classes generally require a one-month commitment.

“Too much time or money? Mysore’s yoga boom now has shalas catering to every need. Off the mat, the yoga tribe hobnobs at Anu’s Bamboo Hut or the Regaalis Hotel pool, studies Sanskrit, gets an ayurveda treatment or tours the maharaja’s palace.”

Photograph: An ice-candy seller in front of one of Mysore’s most famous landmarks, the St. Philomena‘s church (courtesy Dibyangshu Sarkar/ Agence France Presse via NYT)

Read the entire list: The 31 places to go in 2010

Link via Nikhil Moro

***

Also read: R.K. NARAYAN on Mysore City

M.V. KRISHNASWAMY: God is in his heaven

H. VENKATASUBBIAH: In old Mysore

MYSORE: The world’s most famous Mysoreans

At the pearly gates, in dhoti, vibhuti, pump shoes

Once upon a time in namma Mysore

BANGALORE: ‘A city whose soul has been clinically removed

C.N.R. RAO: If IT takes away Bangalore’s values, burn IT

PAUL THEROUX: Bangalore’s idiots who speak an idiolect at home

Hurgaalu & Black Dog on the way to Vaikuntapura

14 December 2009

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: On 13 December 2009, The Picture Editor upstairs decided to set the shutter speed of the life’s camera of a venerable man to a metaphorical 1/125.

On that day, the shutter curtain of one of the finest photo-journalists of his era opened and closed even before anyone could realize what had come about.

T.S. Satyan lay still, his eyes closed for ever.

He had become one with his Maker.

As the tongues of flame began to lick his pyre at the foot of the brooding omniscience of the Chamundi hills in his favourite city of Mysore, the sun was about to set in a haze of orange; the mynahs among the branches chirped faintly; a cow mooed in a tone of voice that heightened the feel of the sepulchral.

Satyan was on his way out to a “happier world”.

Soon, in six to eight hours, they said, the ashes of his mortal body would collect on the platform of aged stone, the very platform that was facilitating his passage to the world beyond.

As I stood close to the pyre, along with my friend Saggere Ramaswamy, staring in blank confusion at the ways of the Creator, the terms and conditions of whose policy make it incumbent on all those alive today to die some day at some pre-ordained hour, the chirpy, friendly, adorable, gentle and affectionate man called Satyan came back alive.

In my thoughts.

My mind began to travel to the time when the two of us had been such good friends, friends separated by a mere four decades plus a little more in age, but gloriously united in spirit, completely because the man in question had been endowed the power, among the rarest a man can hope to aspire, of making every single person he met, feel so completely at ease and disarmed.

Not for Satyan any form of aggrandisement in the heat of his stupendous achievements with the camera as also the pen.

Not for Satyan the importance to the self, the blowing of the bugles about some photograph well composed or some prose well conceived, although there were perhaps a few hundred or even a thousand such creations in both forms of his craft that he could have spoken about, bragging almost without end.

Not for Satyan the postulation of a hoary past where men of his type, men who could wield the camera and the pen with such complete unequivocal ease and chronicle an event or even a whole era with such stupendous impact, were as rare as hen’s teeth.

Not for Satyan even a suggestion of pompousness or supercilious patronizing when it came to life; life post-retirement, in the old, quiet suburb of Saraswathipuram, where the neighbourhood did not exactly boast of men and women who had been trail blazing world beaters of any kind in their time.

The sight of Satyan walking to the post office on 10th main road with a suggestion of a arthritic shuffle or to the Canara bank next to the park on the same road, simply amazingly did not give away the secret that he was a man, who in his time was one of the greatest of his tribe.

A man who presided over the very manner in which photojournalism in our country took shape in the 1940s, at a time when the camera as an instrument of the media and its infinite chronicling power, was as well known to the masses as shark fin soup to a traditional vegetarian.

Satyan was a remarkable man, which is like saying, the elephant is a very huge animal.

But for someone like me, who had the opportunity to be friends with him and share moments of such grace and gentility issuing forth almost endlessly from the man who could hold nothing but warmth in the cockles of his soul, to make a feeble attempt to explain his persona is a tad difficult.

For, Satyan epitomized such wonderful qualities, that anything I say could seem to veer towards the text book definitions of how an evolved man should be.

But that was the man. A man whose very face mirrored the mellow, nuanced emotions inside him, his large cheerful eyes conveying a sense of bonhomie and vivaciousness of spirit, never mind even if they were some 80 odd years old.

And spirits he had but in small measure. Of the alcoholic kind I mean! Scotches and preferably Black Dog, if you please. Pouring a small measure and suffusing it with copious soda enough to drown a man, he loved long conversations while his right hand gently picked either ground nuts or hurgaalu from the side-table next to him.

Speaking of the Mysore of his days, the Maharaja’s College, his friends of the likes of H.Y. Sharada Prasad and R.K. Narayan and the legendary writer’s love of “mosaranna with uppina kayi“, which he insisted on having every time he dropped by at Satyan’s, his interesting trysts with the royal family, reminiscing the time when he trod the back alleys of Shivarampete, the studio where he got his early prints done; Satyan loved to languorously travel back in time, like an accomplished collegian remembering his kindergarten days.

I particularly remember the trip the two of us did together for eight full days in my jeep in January 2007 when we travelled to some of the most fascinating places of such infinite charm and beauty in Malnad. Sringeri, Kasaravalli, Megharavalli and even Mathoor.

It was Satyan’s desire to shoot the fascinating interiors of century old Malnad homes, one of which was the devastatingly beautiful and richly carved 250-year-old ancestral home of the famed cine director Girish Kasaravalli. The manner in which Satyan composed his shots in that locale with the grand rose wood pillars of such humongous girth was an expression of complete passion for his craft.

The positioning of the camera, a Nikon of indeterminable vintage; the angle, the composition of the frame, the optimum use of the naturally available light, the checking and re-checking of the parameters, bending and peering through the lens time and again, in spite of his painfully arthritic knees, the gentle readjustments, the tiny shifting of the camera position before he was convinced that all was well for a perfect shot.

Just one click of the button and there would be a classic to hold in your hands.

I was mesmerized as I stood on the sidelines and watched the master at work. So far removed indeed from the regulation photographers who shoot with their SLR cameras of high sophistication, as if they were handling a self loading rifle in the face of an enemy onslaught.

Satyan was precise, to the point and clear as to what he wanted his camera to do for him.

On that trip, we drove leisurely around the countryside, endless hours of chatting and joking with Satyan even breaking into song at times.

At Sringeri, he asked me to take him to a century-old ‘agrahara’ (Brahmin enclave) called Vaikuntapura, where incidentally, the famous Kannada film, Vamshavruksha had been shot.

Satyan himself had shot a famous picture of his here. A photograph which features a wizened old woman with her shaven head covered, sitting on the parapet of the veranda of her ancient tiled house, and smiling amusedly into the camera with a baby close to her, and rain drops falling in a small slender cascade from the roof!

An old man recognized Satyan straightaway as we walked into the narrow alley of the agrahara. He remembered the famous photograph and remarked that the small baby in that picture was now a mother herself and living in Bangalore!

Satyan was pleased to be there and pointed to me the various houses he had spent time in on that assignment.

As we returned to Sringeri and entered the temple precincts, he wanted to know the whereabouts of ‘Moorne ManeRam Bhat, the chief priest of the temple in the 1970s, an imposing man he had framed with a Palmyra umbrella in hand and in conversation with another priest in front of the imposing arch of the famous temple.

Ram Bhat had since been deceased but the other priest in that well-known photograph, who was his understudy at that time, was still around to greet Satyan affectionately!

And then onto Manipal, where he suddenly decided to meet his old friend M.V. Kamath, the legendary journalist and editor. It was a sight to see the two old friends exchange pleasantries and settle down for coffee. Satyan even addressed impromptu, a gathering of journalism students at the media institute there at the behest of Kamath, who introduced Satyan as one of the living legends of Indian photo-journalism, nothing less!

Indeed, Satyan could write prose with such effortless lucidity and simplicity that the sentences flowed like a beautiful stream making its way through a carpet of flowers somewhere in the mountains, uncluttered and without a stutter. So much like his mind, simple and unostentatious. This was rare indeed.

For a photographer to have the twin gift of being able to wield a pen with such felicity. A photo-journalist nonpareil.

To me, Satyan even in death, is alive and clicking!

Photograph: T.S. Satyan at work during his 2007 sojourn with Sunaad Raghuram at a Catholic home near Manipal. (‘AstroMohan/ Karnataka Photo News)

How our buddhijeevis became one-tongue ponies

19 August 2009

In May this year, the Bangalore-based historian Ramachandra Guha delivered a lecture in Delhi on “The rise and fall of the bilingual intellectual”, lamenting the demise in modern India of  writers, thinkers and activists who were active in more than one language.

The occasion was the birth centenary of B.S. Kesavan, the Mysore-born scholar who spoke Kannada, Tamil, English and a smattering of Hindi and Bengali, and became the first Indian director of the National Library.

The latest issue of the Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) runs the full text of the lecture in Guha (who like Kesavan’s son Mukul Kesavan, but unlike their Kannada-speaking multilingual fathers, are largely bilingual), in which he talks of the multilinguality in bygone Mysore :

“In the inter-War period, no Indian town better expressed this multilinguality than the town where B.S. Kesavan spent some of his best years, Mysore. Among the town’s residents then were the Kannada poet K.V. Puttappa (Kuvempu), who wrote political essays in English; the English novelist R.K. Narayan, who was equally fluent in Tamil and Kannada; and the journalist H.Y. Sharada Prasad, who thought and wrote in Kannada, but whose command of English was later put to good effect in the very many speeches he ghosted for successive prime ministers of India.

“A somewhat younger resident was A.K. Ramanujan, who later recalled that, growing up in Mysore, he had necessarily to become equally familiar with the language of the street (Kannada), the language of the kitchen (Tamil, spoken by his mother), and the language of the study upstairs (occupied by his father, who liked to converse in English). Ramanujan was an accomplished poet in both Kannada and English, and achieved undying fame for his translations into English of Kannada and Tamil folklore and folk poetrywork that was enabled, in the first instance, by his growing up in the multilingual intellectual universe of Mysore.

“Mysore was here representative of other towns in colonial India. The intellectual culture of Dharwad, Cochin, Allahabad, etc, was likewise bilingual, with writers and professors operating both in English and in the language of the locality or province. There was a cultural continuum that ran between qasba and mahanagar, between the smaller urban centres and the great cities of the presidencies.”

Read the full lecture: The rise and fall of the bilingual intellectual

Also read: Mallya gharana will never replace Kirana gharana

What’s in a name? What’s in a set of initials?

D.K. Pattammal is dead. The Trinity is no more.

16 July 2009

churumuri records with regret the demise of D.K. Pattammal, the doyenne of Carnatic music, in Madras today, 16 July 2009. She was 90 years old.

Damal Krishnaswamy Pattammal overcame an orthodox upbringing, where she was not permitted to sing for friends or relatives, to become part of the Trinity of Carnatic classical music, together with M.S. Subbulakshmi and M.L. Vasantha Kumari.

Pattammal said in a 1999 interview that she was the first Brahmin to come on stage as a Carnatic singer, like Rukminidevi was for Bharatnatyam.

“I was 10 when my father’s friends approached him to let me sing for a gramophone record company. First, my father refused, fearing that the record will be played at all and sundry places. He did not want the works of great masters like Thyagaraja and Dikshitar and his daughter’s voice to he heard at such places. Then Dr. Srinivasan of Kancheepuram, who is my husband’s uncle (I was not married then), persuaded my father to let me sing. My school headmistress, Ammukutti-amma, also urged my father to let me accept the offer. After a lot of pressure from a number of his friends, my father finally agreed.”

Pattammal had a Mysore connection. Her son Laxman Kumar is married to Shanta, daughter of R.K. Pattabhi, brother of the novelist R.K. Narayan and cartoonist R.K. Laxman. Pattammal was a regular visitor to the family’s residence in Mysore, both in Lakshmipuram and Yadavagiri.

Link via Chetan Krishnaswamy

Read the Frontline interview

Also read: Can Carnatic music ever change the cheri pasangal?

Balamurali Krishna: ‘If it sounds good to your ear, it’s Carnatic music’

It takes all types to keep a City clean and green

19 June 2009

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At the beautiful Gangothri Glades cricket stadium in the city that produced English language wordsmiths of the calibre of R.K. Narayan and R.K. Laxman, Raja Rao and U.R. Anantha Murthy, H.Y. Sharada Prasad and T.S. Satyan, a small epitaph to the gigantic ocean of learning, Manasagangothri, behind it.

Also read: So that your childrens doesn’t learn English

Arly to rice makes menu helthy, velthy and vice

Where can you view such masterpiece sunsets?

2 June 2009

CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY writes: The Kukkarahalli Kere in Mysore stirs the soul.

Unfailingly, every evening, the calm waters lunge flirtatiously towards a flamboyant sun performing a visual jugalbandi enthralling the walkers around the bund.

Prof Shivaram Malavalli—an illustrious Mysorean and a venerable friend—has over the months captured the Kukkarahalli’s mystique through his mobile phone.

Last week, I ran into him during one of my rare visits to the lake.

Prof Shivaram, brother of Kumar Malavalli, maintains that every day is a new day at KK and its moods are varied.

To quote R.K. Narayan, another Kukkarahalli lover:

“Sometimes, I went back to the Kukkarahalli tank in the late afternoon, when the evening sun touched the rippling water-surface to produce uncanny lighting effects, and the western sky presented a gorgeous display of colours and cloud formations at sunset. Even today, I would assert, after having visited many parts of the world, that nowhere can you witness such masterpiece sunsets as in Mysore. I would sit on a bench on the tank and watch the sun’s performance, the gradual fading of the colours in the sky, and the emergence of the first single star at dusk.”

View Prof Shivaram’s Facebook album: Kukkarahalli Lake

Also read: Ugadi sunrise over Kukkarahalli Lake

Jois @ work: ‘Bad lady, why forgetting bakasana?’

18 May 2009

pattabhi jois, manju, sharat

K. Patttabhi Jois, the yoga legend who breathed his last in Mysore this afternoon, was above all a warm person at work and outside, never without a smile, and never reluctant to try out his English on his students.

Ratna Rao Shekar, editor of the doctors’ journal Housecalls, met him three years ago to capture the magic he could perform that trained medical doctors often couldn’t.

***

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RATNA RAO SHEKAR writes: When Mysore was still a small town, like the fictional Malgudi through the streets of which its famous creator R.K. Narayan once wandered, the focus was the main Amba Vilas Palace.

Even now, when there is so much traffic that walking the streets is difficult, the palace is still the focal point. During Dasara, the palace is lit up, former maharajas sit regally on erstwhile thrones and elephants go in a grand parade as hundreds watch in awe.

Last Dasara, however, we were oblivious to the celebrations as were the Malaysian girls we were with.

We had come to meet the guru of ashtanga yoga, K. Pattabhi Jois, teacher of such Hollywood celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna.

Since he charged $500 for a month’s classes, the girls had decided to learn from his grandson Sharath Rangaswamy, they confided to us over breakfast at the hotel.

They were already on a vegetarian diet, and when not engaged with yoga practice, headed off in autorickshaws to shop for silks at the local stores. Some of them had been coming here for years, and were full of advice on the best places to eat South Indian food and the shortest route to Jois’s yogashala.

The yogashala, or studio as westerners like to call it, is Jois’s home in Gokulam, which has become the new focus of Mysore.

Here, from 4 a.m., athletic looking men and women sweat it out in what Jois calls ashtanga—the ‘eight-limbed’ yoga—following Patanjali’s strictures that include asanas, breath control and meditation, and what is known as power yoga in New York.

Jois himself dislikes the term power yoga, referring to it as “misuse”.

No one knows why it is so called but I can only imagine the mental and physical powers of these men and women who even in the introductory class can do headstands and back flips, and bend their bodies into pretzel-like shapes at “Guruji’s” command, while he counts sotto voce, “trayodasha inhale; panchadasha exhale”.

When students are unable to stand on their hands instead of their feet, Sharath or his mother Saraswati, Jois’s only daughter, circulate around the room helping them.

At other times, Guruji, who patrols the room like a five-star general, booms to the acolyte who has still not perfected the sirshasana, “Bad man, why legs bending?” or “Bad lady, why forgetting bakasana”?

The form of yoga that Jois teaches has come to be known as ashtanga vinyasa yoga for its flowing postures linked by a breathing routine. The core of ashtanga practice comprises six progressively difficult series of linked postures, each requiring 90 minutes to three hours to complete.

A student is required to display reasonable proficiency in each one before moving on to the next series.

In a class, if the “bad” women or men, as Jois calls them, are unable to perform to a certain standard, they are consigned to the back of the classroom like naughty children where, somewhat crestfallen, they practice the asana on their own!

Classes are mostly held early in the morning, and there are about 20 students in the room, generating enough heat to set the house on fire, even if it is actually supposed to dissolve the tightness of the muscles so that they become flexible enough to undertake the difficult asanas.

There are no classes in Sanskrit or yoga theory and, once the sessions are over, the students are on their own. Sometimes the more serious gather at Jois’s feet in the afternoons, when he talks informally about this and that but mostly about ashtanga yoga.

One of Jois’s favourite remarks is that yoga is 99 per cent practice and one per cent theory.

In his classes, apart from a brief prayer to the guru and Patanjali, there are no theory classes.

According to him, when you have mastered the breath and the postures, enlightenment will come automatically. The wayward ‘monkey mind’ has to be brought under control by vigorous yoga asanas and pranayama.

Jois, who moves around the class in black Calvin Klein shorts (incidentally, designer Donna Karan is a student at Jois’s New York yoga studio), bare-chested bar the sacred thread, talking in his pidgin English, seems an unlikely guru for the bold and beautiful.

But he has fans all over the world, especially in America where his form of yoga has become a substitute for vigorous workouts at the gym. At the gym you just work out without any spiritual enlightenment.

Ashtanga has, besides its ability to detoxify and stimulate the body, the added attraction of dissolving the ego to reveal godhead. So much so that Madonna has her own ashtanga trainer who flies with her wherever she goes, and has a song entitled Ashtangi in which she chants prayers taught at Mysore apart from other ‘spiritual’ mumbo-jumbo.

***

When he was in Hassan, 11-year-old Jois witnessed a demonstration by guru Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and was star-struck.

Every morning, before school, he would go to Krishnamacharya to learn yoga. Jois had no background in yoga. He belonged to Koushika, a village in the vicinity of Hassan, where his father was an astrologer.

Later, without telling his family, he ran away to Mysore to study Sanskrit and there one day heard of a great yogi who was teaching at the palace yogashala. He discovered that it was none other than his own guru Krishnamacharya!

Jois learnt yoga from Krishnamacharya for a few more years, often participating in demonstrations that the guru held. During one of these, Jois was called upon to perform the kapotasana.

The eager young man bent enthusiastically backward from a kneeling position, arching tightly until he had an ankle grasped in each hand. Krishnamacharya then nonchalantly stepped on the flat, muscled stomach of his student to begin his lecture which went on for half an hour or so; Jois betrayed no trace of movement except for his deep and regular breathing!

On another occasion Krishnamacharya left Jois in the mayurasana for a good half-hour.

Jois was offered a lectureship to teach yoga at Sanskrit College in Mysore which he accepted to support his wife and family. He established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute which yoga students view with awe, akin to how Catholics think of the Vatican!

One of Jois’s sons, Manju, is now an ashtanga teacher in the US, while his daughter and her son assist in the classes in Mysore.

Family photograph: Ashtanga yoga guru K.Pattabhi Jois with son Manju (right) and grandson Sharath Rangaswamy,  (courtesy Yoga Bods)

Work photographs: courtesy SAIBAL DAS/ Outlook magazine


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