The cover of Growing Up Karanth (Westland, 2021) has the photograph of the extraordinary literary genius Shivaram Karanth: a clear indication that he is the protagonist of this work by his three children—Malavika Kapur, Ullas Karanth and Kshama Rau—who are in their 70s now. However, here’s a disclaimer. Shivaram Karanth may well be the nucleus of the universe that unfolds in this book, but his wife Leela Karanth emerges as the hero of their lives. Exceptional that she is, the three children of Shivaram and Leela Karanth paint an intimate and moving portrayal of their mother. If the ‘Karanth world’ or the ‘Karanth concern’ gained such conviction and force in the public life of Karnataka, Leela Karanth’s contribution is immense. She had a shorter innings, the emotional impact of the ups and downs in family life had a devastating effect on her health, but none of it takes away the fact that she was memorable. Ba and Bapu were at once a collective, and yet individuals in their own right—as a reader I couldn’t help making this connection.
Shivaram—fondly called Tata (pronounced thatha), or grandfather, by his children—was one of Kannada’s greatest renaissance writers. He dropped out of college, joined the freedom struggle, and also remained at the forefront of Unification movement. Throughout his life, Karanth not only led several social and environmental movements, but also remained a deeply skeptical man who subjected to scrutiny his own beliefs as well as that of society’s. He was an atheist, a rationalist, believed in scientific temper and achieved major innovations in Yakshagana. And, of course, he created an extraordinary world of fiction.
Apart from the fact that he was a public intellectual who rarely minced his words, and as a writer in whom good citizenry coincided with being a good writer, little else in known about Karanth’s personal life. The biggest contribution of Growing Up Karanth is that it introduces us to a Karanth who was a doting father and loving grandfather who regaled children with stories, songs, dance and travel. Even when he was angry, he couldn’t beat his child “because she was wearing a pretty earring”, he bid final adieu to his grown up son Harsha with folded hands because “he taught me what it is to bond with fellow humans...” the book is full of warm memories.
The other important part of Karanth’s life is Leela and the children bring her alive from their memories poignantly. Standing by Karanth in all his social and cultural missions, Leela was an enlightened person. She was forthright, read Russell and Freud in her youth, sang, danced and acted in plays. She’d hold long conversations with writers, scientists and intellectuals who visited the Karanth household, and had a deep commitment to society and fellow human beings. She made herself available to everyone with an all-embracing kindness and generosity. The greatness of Leela was therefore her own, and that which added to the greatness of Shivaram Karanth. She never staked claim in Karanth’s share of sunshine though – she was quietly in the audience when Karanth was up on stage. In their home Balavana, Puttur, it was a continuous flow of people. A mentally troubled woman who came into Balavana was stinking. “Why haven’t you bathed?” Leela asked. She angrily retorted: “Who will bathe me, you?” Leela indeed gave her a bath, a fresh set of clothes and hot food. When Leela passed away, busloads of people came to pay their last respects.
The book is rich with people, stories and pursuits. It records friendships, laughter and sacrifices that existed for their own sake. Above all, it brings back to public domain people from Dakshina Kannada who have been forgotten in the course of history: Gulvadi Venkata Rao, Karnad Sadashiva Rao, Vombatkere Pandrang Rao, Kudmul Ranga Rao and many more who were leaders in social reform movements. All these individuals had a lasting influence in shaping the persona of Shivaram Karanth.
Malavika, Kshama and Ullas narrate the various stages of their life. Her father was also mother to her, says Kshama. “When I was sick with fever and cough, he would hug me to his chest and pat me through the night. I also recall there was a bitter medicine that I refused to take. So Tata would put me on his lap, hold my hands and legs tight and force me to drink it.” Karanth took along Malavika for his evening walk to Puttur. And “the best thing that happened during the day was a ritual we enacted just before bedtime. At about 8 in the evening, Tata would tell me a story. That story would go on for about an hour. He would give me a choice on the theme of the day’s story. I could, for example, say, ‘Today, I want a story in which there is ondu rajakumari, ondu rakshasa, ondu kaadu’ (a princess, an ogre and a jungle). Tata would then begin to spin the entire tale in the next instant. His creativity and spontaneity were incredible.”
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Karanth’s expression of affection for Ullas was different. He read stories from his huge library, encouraged his interest in natural history, and encouraged him to become a proficient birder. While on field trips with his father, “I would listen, wonderstruck, as Tata expounded with great erudition on everything that we saw along the way: the geology, landscapes, forests, wildlife, agriculture, archaeology…. And generally about Kannada land and its people … Even to this day, I find the breadth of Tata’s general knowledge in so many domains quite astounding.” In a way of summing up, Kshama writes: “Life was full of joys, and amusing, even though we were not very wealthy. As children, we were exposed to a wealth of experiences that were highly enriching. I can now look back, hark back, delve into that treasure trove of experiences, anytime I want.”
Reading the book is an uplifting experience. It records fine moments as well as lows. The flow of life in the Karanth household is narrated with poise and equanimity, with no strains of anger or disappointment.
But why this book now? The answer is found in the initial pages of the book: “As his children, collectively and singly, the three of us had proximate access to Shivaram Karanth for over six decades. We hope an honest account of his personal life covering this period would also be a useful contribution to the social history of Kannadigas and their land.” It could well be more than this. The journey of life takes you far away from your beginnings. In these independent voyages, ‘what we become’ gains precedence while much of who we are is pushed into silence. In the quiet evenings of life, memories return, making a fuller view of ‘how we became’ possible.
Deepa Ganesh, a Bengaluru-based journalist, is executive director, Centre for Visual and Performing Arts, RV University.