My life, my writing

My life, my writing

Chandrashekar Kambar narrates many of the colourful and crucial experiences that influenced not only his childhood and youth, but also his writing.

Image concept and design: SIDDHARTH MOHANTY

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 Bengaluru. We notice many changes in the way they speak and live.

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

One day, as we walked to our high school in Gokak, we stumbled on a cake of soap. We turned it over and over in our hands and gaped at it. When we realised it was something used by white-skinned Englishmen, we were enraged, and rubbed it till it was all gone. Some of my friends were enchanted by the fragrance, and kept sniffing their hands. We were scared and resentful of the British.

A season for murders

Our village is on the banks of the Ghataprabha where it takes a northward bend. In June-July, the river is in spate. That was the season for murders. The killers threw corpses into the river. The fish nibbled at the bodies, and within a couple of hours, it was impossible to tell who the victims were. No one ever came to know who the murderers were either.

The corpses would pause at the bend. They would then drift on. The moment we sighted a corpse, our village got very creative. Each of us made up and told our own stories. The stories I told would soon be told back to me. As the hours went by, we would be telling the same stories with new twists and turns. We whispered our stories. I knew nothing about the murders, yet I would make up stories. When workers of our village got murdered, and the British came over to investigate, we would be petrified. Amidst all this fear, our village was creative. I am grateful for that.

Sangya Balya was a play about love, friendship and betrayal that we came across again and again. There was something about it: the British had banned it. To put it up, people had to go to the Collector in Belagavi and get his permission. When permission was denied, our people 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. They created many stories, too: of how they faced the British, how they fought them, and how they furthered the cause. Thus, all stories in our lives were born from resisting the British.

Where creativity flowed

I had a friend called Gudasya. He could transform any situation into a play. My father used to read the newspaper, usually 15 days old. Newspapers came to our village infrequently. My father had studied up to the seventh standard. He read the news aloud to show off that he was educated.

The moment my father read out, ‘Jinnah meets Gandhi, seeks Pakistan, Karachi…’ this Gudasya came up to me and said, “Ey, Kambara, have you heard the story?” In his version, Jinnah visits Gandhi in his ashram. As soon as Gandhi sees Jinnah, he says, “Come in, Jinnah. Why are you standing outside?” Jinnah steps in and declares, “Gandhi sahebre, even close brothers have to part ways one day. How much longer can the two of us live together? Give us our Pakistan and keep your Hindustan.” To this Gandhi replies, “Shame on you! Do you realise what you are saying, Jinnah? If we live together we can be like hulis (tigers). If we don’t we have to just live like ilis (rats)!”

This is an example to show how creative our village was. There was a man called Kulkarni Dattu. He was so fond of me that he brought home all the 300 books in the 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 (six-line) poetic metre. He wouldn’t accept me as a poet because I had never written in that metre. When I wrote my play Siri Sampige, I was in tears. A couple of my verses were in his favourite six-line metre. If he were alive, he would have finally called me a poet.

Kulkarni Dattu had a very old book called Viveka Chintamani. He wore a pair of glasses and read it aloud. I imagined the book trembling in his hands as he read it: he gave the lines such scandalous meanings. Just to think of him makes me sad. He had written an autobiography called Dattunama. You should hear his story. 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 Belagavi, I wrote my first book of poems, Helatena Kela (Let me tell you). I read it out to my friends. But they didn’t praise me as much as I had expected them to. I had yet to acquire faith in my poetic powers.

A little later, when I was in Dharwad, I went to see G B Joshi, the well-known writer and publisher. He was grieving. Keerthinath Kurthakoti, the famous critic, who was with him, pulled out Helatena Kela from my handbag and asked me to read it out. I started singing my poems. I sang for about two hours. Kurthakoti encouraged me as though at a music concert. Joshi sat like a stone. After that, Joshi invited me over to his house. It was only then that I came to know that one of his sons had died. That day, after many days of silence, Joshi had spoken. 

Both prose and poetry

Another unique thing about our village was that we didn’t divide what we had to say into so much prose and so much poetry. We didn’t feel this was politics, and that something else.

We reacted with song, dance and rhythm all at once. That is why our responses were comprehensive, and not broken up. If you say of me, “What kind of writer is he? He only writes poetry,” I would say that is all 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, 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. You find there 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 reports in the newspaper Samyukta Karnataka about ‘Brutal murders in Ghodgeri.’ These reports 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’s in the newspaper all the time.”

After committing a murder, the killers wouldn’t just throw away the bodies into the stream. They needed the jangamas (Lingayat holy men) to perform the last rites. They usually took along a man called Omkarappa. Fearing he might tell the police, they blindfolded him before escorting him to the scene of murder. They removed the blindfold only after reaching the spot. Omkarappa would place his foot on the corpse, mutter some mantras, and join its hands in a clap. He would again be blindfolded and taken home.

In course of time, Omkarappa blindfolded himself the moment he heard a knock on his door at night. He would perform the last rites and return. I couldn’t understand how those rogues felt so religious. 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 had said. That is not something people without any political awareness would do. To that extent ours was an unusual village. All this has gone into the literature I have created, and makes it what it is.

(Transcript of a speech translated by S R Ramakrishna)