Posts Tagged ‘Malgudi’

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?

‘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 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corporate manager Chetan Krishnaswamy, paints an intimate portrayal of Mysore-born, Kannada-speaking “Dudu”, with unpublished doodles and illustrations from the family album.



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

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.





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

Swamy and all his friends meet again in Malgudi

18 March 2009

Seema Chisthi in The Indian Express:

“The non-Congress, non-BJP parties rallied in Dobbespet, and now the Congress president is scheduled to flag off their campaign from Davangere in north Karnataka next Monday. Karnataka has suddenly leapt out of the history books to recall its special (if only periodic and anecdotal) place in national politics and identity….

“As all fans of R.K. Narayan’s Swami and his stories set in Malgudi know, while Malgudi is meant to be an imaginary town, it nevertheless gives us a sense of quintessential small-town India, something that several readers rush to lay claim to.

“Politicians too, seem to be returning to Karnataka, to find and cling on to a Malgudi they can call their own.

“The Congress has its Chikamangalur (and now Davangere) dream of an adrenaline push; the Third Front hopes against hope that the Dobbespet hand-holding lasts for ever; and the BJP, well, it’s hoping its assembly dream run here could just, somehow, be replicated elsewhere.”

Read the full article: Vote for Swamy and Friends