This is an excerpt from “Growing up Karanth”, written by K Shivarama Karanth’s children, Malavika, Ullas and Kshama, as they aim to open up new facets of their “Aunt’s” life.
A friendship of Tata (K Shivarama Karanth) that I struggled to understand was with a wealthy landowner, Hasanagi Ganapathy Bhat (1903-70) of Manchikeri in northern Kanara. Bhat, who owned vast areca nut plantations, was a connoisseur of the arts, literature, and gastronomy. He and his many relatives lived in one of the traditional longhouses called Salu Mane in the hilly areas of northern Kanara. In this architectural arrangement, dozens of family houses are united laterally and under one roof, while sharing a continuous chavadi (veranda) that stretches 80 meters in length. Tata had explained to me that this architecture was designed to combat the Maratha bandits during their periodic raiding raids in Kanara.
In any case, behind the richly carved wooden pillars of the chavadi, the interiors of these houses were dark dungeons filled with wood smoke generated from the enormous meals cooked by the army of women who worked inside. The men gathered on the chavadi at the end of the day to listen to Tata read excerpts from her books or demonstrate her dramatic dances. Men would have debates over philosophy, art, and politics, which Tata dominated by her sheer lung power. Ganapathy Bhat, however, used to say bluntly to Tata, “I don’t agree that there is no god, even if a brilliant man like you says. They never discussed this point further.
For me, the particular attraction of visits to Hasanagi were the twenty-seven leopard skins (including two melanic black) and the two tiger skins spread out on the chairs upstairs. All had been chased away by Bhat and his relatives over the years. The last of these tiger hunts was in 1965, and Bhat presented the hide to Tata. It is still in my possession. The DNA extracted from this skin has recently contributed to the study of the evolution of the tiger in the Indian subcontinent.
Kuppuluchar Mari Bhat was another areca planter friend of Tata, closer to Puttur. A few years older than Tata, he was a wealthy planter, who, however, dressed miserably in a crumpled shirt and white mundu, from below which hung the tail of his colorful loincloth. But his shabby persona hid a curious mind.
Mari Bhat visited Balavana to spend hours talking to Tata about everything in the world. When Auntie slipped discreetly to her desk, Mari Bhat returned her attention to Amma. Despite his rusticity, Mari Bhat was well acquainted with international affairs. He had a particular fascination with World War II. I remember listening to it with great attention as Mari Bhat spoke at length and with great authority on the battlefield tactics of German Marshals Gerd Von Rundstedt and Erwin Rommel. Sometimes he would take a break, run out of the house, spit out a large plume of blood-red betel juice, and resume his talk on military history.
Another cultured man close to the Karanth family was Agrala Purandara Rai, a progressive farmer from the village of Punacha, who was also a writer, poet and journalist. Rai was a very tall and gaunt man, a striking personality with a deep and thriving voice. Tata enjoyed discussing literature and folk art with him and listening to Rai’s recital of his own poems. Rai’s son Viveka Rai, a few years older than me in school, became a well-known Kannada scholar, retiring as vice-chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi.
Belle Ramachandra Rao, a lawyer who also dabbled in English poetry, came occasionally for literary discussions. Although Rao never visited England, his poems were mainly about the beauty of daffodils and other charms of the English countryside.
Then there was the regular gang of Tata’s old friends. The word “gang” is perhaps too strong to describe these sweet souls in their fifties and sixties. Every evening Tata walked from Balavana to the city of Puttur. He held his court around a desk on the corner of a department store owned by his friend, Shridhar Bhat. They would meet, share cups of tea, discuss current affairs and disperse. Tata was driving home with the Times of India the night before from Mumbai, while I looked forward to reading her last page which featured Edgar Rice Burroughs’ comic Tarzan.
Excerpted with permission from ‘Growing Up Karanth’ by K. Ullas Karanth, Malavika Kapur and Kshama Rau, published by Westland Non fiction.