It was in the mid 60’s. My father was invited to give a talk either in Puttur or Mangalore. The man who had invited him was none other than the polymath Shivaram Karanth. He was already familiar to me through his encyclopaedic works in Kannada. Though I had read little, I had devoured all the pictures in that book. I meekly put in an application to my father that I wanted to go with him. In retrospect, I am amazed that he agreed to take me along, after he sought the permission of Karanth. Those were the days before the telephone, so to say. The unendurable anticipation ended when Karanth said I was welcome and soon we were off.
The magic element started soon after we left Mysore by bus – I saw a mongoose cross the road in front of the speeding bus. I screamed in excitement and went red in the face when the whole bus turned to look at me.
Karanth had sent a car to the bus stand to pick us up. When we reached his house, I gaped open mouthed when I saw Karanth come out in kacche panche and banian. In my childish imagination, he was always dressed in a full kurta as in the photographs I had seen.
His house had two parts. An older Mangalore tiled part and a newer brick and concrete roofed structure standing a little apart from the older part. I was sleepy soon after dinner, in the older part of his two part house. We soon moved towards the newer part before which Karanth lit a cigarette and smoked, sitting on the steps leading to it. When we entered the building my mouth fell open. The walls were lined on all four sides with hundreds of issues of National Geographic magazine. There must have been a thousand other books there but all I could see was the golden yellow!
Soon, Karanth explained the sleeping arrangements: Lakshmana Rao and I will sleep in this hall. Anila will sleep in the next room on the tiger skin. In the night the tiger will wake up and kachch (kachchu in Kannada means to bite) him. Now this was a revelation! How can such a great man indulge in such jokes? Such thoughts were drowned in the fear of the impossible happening! I peeped into the next room and there was indeed a huge tiger skin on the floor with its mouth wide open and glassy eyes staring straight ahead, fortunately, away from me. He told my father how it came to be but I do not remember it since I was staring at a large framed oil colour canvas, perhaps 2m by 3m, resting against a wall. Years later, when I first saw a picture of a Gauguin, it reminded me of that painting. Was it Karanth’s himself? Or was it a Hebbar?
Thankfully, I did not have to sleep in that room alone and we slept on beds spread on the floor and quite close to my father.
The next morning, at breakfast he introduced us to his daughter who came to serve us, “she is my daughter, kShAmadevi….” (Thanks to the simple transliteration in English, the name could be pronounced with the first vowel short or long. When short, it means goddess of mercy or pardon and when long it means goddess of famine!) The item she had come to serve was a dark brown/black halwa with ghee oozing from it. He instructed me, “ತಿನ್ನಯ್ಯಾ ss ss s, it is genuine Indiyaaa rubber” in a theatrical style and voice.
He later asked me, “ಏನಯ್ಯಾ ನೀನೇನು ನೋಡ್ಬೇಕು? ಮಂಗಳೂರಿಗೆ ಹೋಗಿ ಅರಬ್ಬೀ ಸಮುದ್ರ ನೋಡ್ಬೇಕೋ? ಕಾರ್ಕಳಕ್ಕೆ ಹೋಗಿ ಗೊಮ್ಮಟನ್ನ ನೋಡ್ಬೇಕೋ? (My man, what do you want to see? Go to Mangalore and Arabian Sea or got to KarkaLa and Gommateswara) I chose Mangalore and the sea. And that is what we did. On the way there, he challenged me, “ನೀನು ಇಂಜಿನಿಯರ್ ಆಗಿ ಪುತ್ತೂರಿನಿಂದ ಮಂಗಳೂರಿಗೆ ಹೋಗೋ ರಸ್ತೇನ ನೆಟ್ಟಗೆ ಮಾಡಿದರೆ ನಿನಗೆ ನೊಬೆಲ್ ಪ್ರೈಜ್ ಕೊಡಿಸ್ತೀನಿ.” (If you study Engineering and straighten the road from Puttur to Mangalore, I will get you a Nobel Prize) Unfortunately, I never took up the challenge.
As with childhood memories, perhaps aided by some of these things recounted by father later, my memories stop there. I have some visual memories of the lay of the land near his house, his fair shiny hairless shoulder and upper arm peeping out of the banian, the remarkable twinkle in his eyes which would suddenly disappear when deep in thought and so on.
I write all this to show how childlike he was while dealing with me as a boy – a facet of a great man that hardly ever gets described.
Note: This was written on Karanth's 110th birthday - this year - 10th October.