This is an excerpt from ‘Growing up Karanth’, penned by K Shivarama Karanth’s children Malavika, Ullas and Kshama as they aim to open up new facets of the life of their ‘Tata’.

Book cover of the biography of K Shivarama Karanth
news Book excerpt Sunday, October 10, 2021 - 13:57

A friendship of Tata’s (K Shivarama Karanth) that I found difficult to fathom was with a wealthy landlord, Hasanagi Ganapathy Bhat (1903-70) from Manchikeri in North Kanara. Bhat, who owned vast arecanut plantations, was a connoisseur of arts, literature and fine food. He and his many relatives lived in one of the traditional long houses called Salu Mane in the hilly regions of North Kanara. In that architectural arrangement, dozens of family homes are conjoined sideways and under a single roof, while sharing a continuous chavadi (veranda) that extends over 80 metres in length. Tata had explained to me that this architecture was devised to fight off Maratha brigands during their periodic looting forays into Kanara.

In any case, behind the ornately carved wooden pillars of the chavadi, the interiors of these homes were dark dungeons filled with wood smoke generated by the enormous meals cooked by the army of women slaving inside. The men gathered on the chavadi at the end of the day to listen to Tata read out excerpts from his books or demonstrate his dance-dramas. Men would have debates on philosophy, art and politics, which Tata dominated through sheer lung power. Ganapathy Bhat, however, used to bluntly tell Tata, ‘I do not agree that there is no god, even if a brilliant man like you says so.’ They never argued that point further.

To me, the special attraction of visits to Hasanagi were the twenty-seven leopard skins (including two melanistic black ones) and the two tigers-skins spread over the chairs in the upper storey. All had been hunted by Bhat and his relatives over the years. The last of these tiger hunts occurred in 1965, and Bhat had presented the skin to Tata. It is still in my possession. The DNA extracted from that skin has recently contributed to the study of tiger evolution in the Indian subcontinent.

Another areca planter friend of Tata’s, closer home in Puttur, was Kuppuluchar Mari Bhat. A few years older than Tata, he was a wealthy planter, who, however, dressed quite shabbily in a crumpled shirt and a white mundu, from the underneath of which the tail of his colourful loin cloth would hang out. But his shabby persona hid a curious mind.

Mari Bhat visited Balavana to spend hours talking to Tata about everything in the world. When Tata quietly crept away to his work desk, Mari Bhat would switch his attention to Amma. Despite his rusticity, Mari Bhat was well-read on international affairs. He had a particular fascination for the Second World War. I recall listening to him with rapt attention as Mari Bhat expounded at length and with great authority about the battlefield tactics of German field marshals Gerd Von Rundstedt and Erwin Rommel. He would occasionally take a break, dash out of the house, spit out a great plume of blood-red betel juice and return to his discourse on military history.

Another cultured man close to the Karanth family was Agrala Purandara Rai, a progressive farmer from Punacha village, who was also a writer, poet and journalist. Rai was a very tall gaunt man, a striking personality with a deep booming voice. Tata enjoyed discussing literature and folk arts with him and listening to Rai’s recital of his own poems. Rai’s son, Viveka Rai, a couple of years senior to me at school, became a well-known Kannada scholar, retiring as the vice chancellor of Kannada University at Hampi.

Belle Ramachandra Rao, a lawyer who also dabbled in English poetry, dropped in occasionally for literary discussions. Although Rao had never visited England, his poems were mostly about the beauty of daffodils and other such 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 gentle souls in their fifties and sixties. Every evening Tata would walk from Balavana to Puttur town. He held court around a desk at the corner of a large shop owned by his friend, Shridhar Bhat. They would meet, share cups of tea, discuss current affairs and disperse. Tata would walk home with the previous day’s The Times of India from Mumbai, while I waited eagerly to read its last page that featured the Tarzan comic strip by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Growing Up Karanth’ by K. Ullas Karanth, Malavika Kapur and Kshama Rau, published by Westland Non fiction.


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