My Life and My Writing

 Essay by Chandrashekhara Kambara





Ghodgeri is our village. The Ghodgeri I came away from still exists. But the village I knew and grew up in does not. Boys of our village now come all the way to Bangalore. We notice lots of changes in their language and way of life.

Belgaum to me was just a story until I actually went there. We were terribly scared of the place. The British had a camp there. The army also camped at Gokak, 12 km from our village. The British ruled. We were terrified of them.

As we walked one day to our high school in Gokak, we came upon a cake of soap. We turned it over and over again gazed at it curiously. And we got so angry with it that we rubbed it with our hands till it was all gone. We were angry because it was something used by the British, the white-skinned ones. Some of my friends were thrilled by the fragrance and kept sniffing their hands. We were scared and resentful of the British.

 The British and their women were legends. We heard sensational stories of how they rolled up tobacco in currency notes and smoked them. Perhaps all these experiences made me a poet. I could say that I became a poet by reacting to such situations.

The reason for my writing Helatena Kela (Let me tell you) was that our village had become famous at that time. Even to this day, your villages may not have a school that is 100 years old. But we celebrated our school’s centenary 25 years ago.

Our village is on the banks of the Ghataprabha where it takes a northward bend. By June-July the river is in spate. That was the time for murders. People committed murders and threw the corpses into t

he river. The fish nibbled at them, and within a couple of hours, it was impossible to tell who the victim was. No one ever knew who murderer was either.
 
The floating corpses would pause at the bend. They would then drift on. As soon as we sighted a corpse, our village got very creative. Each of us would made up and tell stories. The stories I told would be told back to me. A couple hours on, we would be telling the same stories with lots of changes. We told stories in whispers. I knew nothing of the murders, yet I made up scores of stories. The entire village would be terrified. When workers of our village were murdered, and the British came over to investigate, we were petrified. Even amidst all this fear, the village was creative. I must be grateful for that.

 A boy in our village was in the first year of his BA course. He used to tell me a story. He claimed a British woman had once held his hand and asked him to marry her. He had told her, “Che, che, no, I can’t.” He felt proud about it. Our people believed he was indeed be a big man if he had turned down an English woman. It is in such a context that I saw Sangya Balya. This is a play I like very much. That’s because the British come in it. They come as a character, and they come as a thesis.

Bayalatas were very popular. Since we were very poor, we would go to other houses when they held these open-air shows. The shows made us feel lighter. Sangya Balya was a story we came across again and again. There was something unusual about it: the British had banned it. To put it up, you had to go to the Collector in Belgaum, and get his permission. If permission was denied, they put it up clandestinely.

 There weren’t many freedom fighters in our village, just three or four. My father, in fact, was the fourth. He hadn’t been to jail. The other three had. Even these protesters created many stories: of how they faced the British, how they fought them, and how they carried on the agitation. Thus all stories in our lives were born from resisting the British. 

 There was a fellow called Gudasya in our village. He was such a dramatist that he would transform any situation into a play. My father used to read the newspaper. It would be 15 days old. Newspapers came to our village very infrequently. My father had studied up to the seventh standard. He read the news a little loudly to show off that he was educated.

 The moment my father read out, “Jinnah meets Gandhi, asks for separate Pakistan, Karachi…” this Gudasya came up to me and said, “Ey! Kambara, have you heard the story?” The story was that Jinnah had visited Gandhi, who was sitting in his ashram. As soon as Gandhi saw Jinnah, he said, “Come in, Jinnah. Why are you standing outside?” Jinnah stepped in and said, “Gandhi Sahebre, even brothers have to part ways one day or the other. How much longer can the two of us live together? Give us our Pakistan and take your Hindustan.” To this Gandhi said, “Shame on you! Do you realise what you are saying, Jinnah? If we brothers live together we can be like a huli (tiger). Otherwise we will have to just live like an ili (rat)! How can you speak like that!”
 
 This is an example to show how creative the people of our village were. There was another man called Kulkarni Dattu. He was very fond of me. So fond of me that he brought home all the 300 books in our village panchayat library and forced me to read them. He then boasted to everyone that he had read them.

Kulkarni Dattu was a master of the Bhamini Shatpadi metre. He did not accept me as a poet till the end because I didn’t write in that metre. When I wrote Siri Sampige I had tears in my eyes. For that play, I wrote a couple of poems in his favourite six-line metre. If our Kulkarni had been alive, he would have called me a poet at least then.
 
 Kulkarni Dattu had a very old book called Viveka Chintamani. He wore a pair of glasses and read it aloud. He would read a line and stop, not caring whether the sentence had ended or not. He would grasp the meaning of that line and then go on. The book in his hand shook whenever he read out from it. I always imagined it trembled because it was Dattu who was reading it. He gave the lines such scandalous meanings.

 Once our village headman asked my father a question. “Ey, what’s that you keep saying Gandhi-Gandhi? Is he cleverer than our Kulkarni Dattu?” That was the extent to which Kulkarni Dattu had impressed him.

 Just to think of him makes me sad. He had written an autobiography called Dattunama. A Muslim king had written an autobiography called Akbarnama. So he had similarly called his autobiography Dattunama. You should hear his story. He was a Vaishnavite. Once, when Shiva and Parvati were chatting in Kailasa, the conversation veered to the bad deeds in our village. And so they sent this Dattu to reform the village. He had written this in Bhamini Shatpadi. He used to sing it well.
 
 In the company of people like him, and in my dread of Belgaum, I wrote Helatena Kela. Recalling everything over and over again, I became a poet in the people’s eyes. Or so I imagined.
 
Later in my life I went to Gokak. I met Krishnamurthy Puranik. I can never in my life forget his help. Then I met our Shivalingeshwara Swamiji. I went on to Belgaum. I got acquainted with Bhusanuramath. Even there I did not gain any confidence in my poetry. I had already written Helatena Kela and read it out to my friends. But they hadn’t praised me in the kind of words I had hoped for. And so I had not gained any faith in my poetic powers.
 
Once, when I was in Dharwad, I went to see G B Joshi, the well-known writer and publisher. He was grieving. Kurthakoti, who was with him, pulled out Helatena Kela from my handbag and told me to read it out. Without bothering to see whether he was cheerful or sad, I started singing it. I sang for about two hours. Joshi didn’t get up. Kurthakoti was encouraging me as though at a music concert. Joshi sat like a stone.

After that, Joshi invited me over to his house. There I came to know the news that one of his sons had died some days ago. That day, after a long period of silence, Joshi had spoken. My poem had had such a powerful effect. Kurthakoti praised me for about 15 minutes. But that didn’t make me all that happy because I was under the impression that Joshi was not critic. Then Kurthakoti said, “You’ve made Joshi speak, maraya,” and that made me truly happy.
 
I spent two years in the company of Kurthakoti, and I had accepted, in a way, his discipleship. I had also persuaded him accept my discipleship. I usually discuss whatever I write with him even before I start writing. Half the credit for what have written is Bhusanurmath’s. After his death, it is Kurtakoti’s.

Another unique thing about our village is that we don’t divide what we have to say into so much prose and so much poetry. We don’t feel this is politics, or that a second thing begins after politics, and that something else comes after that. We react with song, dance and rhythm all at once. That is why our responses were comprehensive, and not compartmentalised. If you say, “What’s this? He only writes poetry,” I can only say that that is what I know. I don’t know how to write anything but poetry. That is the temperament of our village. Even today, if you visit our village, you can hear people talking in song. You ask them questions in prose, but they answer in poetry. They have never seen prose and poetry as separate, and so they respond that way.
 
The world of our village is bigger and more comprehensive than you would think. There you find heaven and hell and the 12 other realms that our cosmology talks of, you find blind beliefs, truths, politics, adultery, murders, everything.
 
 I said our village was known for murders: there used to be news reports in Samyukta Karnataka about “brutal murders in Ghodgeri.” These filled our people with pride. When they went to other places to seek brides, they would say, “Our place is very famous. You know, it comes in the paper all the time.”

 After committing a murder, people wouldn’t just throw away the bodies into the stream. They needed the jangamas (Lingayat holy men) to perform the last rites. There was a man called Omkarappa. They usually took him along. Fearing that he might tell the police if he came to know the truth, they blindfolded him before taking him along. They removed the blindfold only at the scene of the murder. Omkarappa would place his foot on the corpse, mutter some mantras, and join its hands in a clap. He would again be blindfolded again returned home.
 
In course of time, Omkarappa blindfolded himself and came out the moment someone knocked on his door at night. He would be taken along, and the last rites duly performed. I couldn’t figure out how those scoundrels felt so pious. I suppose they were haunted by the fear that they would go to hell if, after committing a murder, they didn’t perform the rites.
 
 The people of our village were so astute in politics that they had boycotted two elections. “Your parties are betraying us. We won’t give you our votes,” they said. That is not something people without any political awareness would do. To that extent ours was an unusual village. Those of us who were born and grew up there learnt to respond comprehensively, and not to compartmentalise. All this has gone into the literature I have created, and makes it what it is.

Translated by S R Ramakrishna