Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Reading the Black Panther of Shivanipalli

The Stage

In the year 1967, my father built a house and we moved into it. This is in an area called Saraswathipuram in Mysore and it was called Saraswathipuram Extension then. Before this extension came to be, Saraswathipuram was limited to seven or so main roads, running North – South, and half a dozen cross roads or so, running East - West. The extension had extended "old" Saraswathipuram up to the fourteenth main which was the eastern border of the city of Mysore then. Our house was on the twelfth main road. When we moved in, there were still many plots on which no houses were yet built. We had two such sites to the right of our house and all the sites till the next cross road to the left were “empty”. Weeds grew profusely in them, especially after the monsoons. It was before the invasion of Parthenium aka congress grass. Cattle and donkeys often grazed on these sites.

The Context

Around the year 1969, my father brought home books by Kenneth Anderson, often informally referred to as Jim Corbett of the South, from the University Library. They were hardbound, published by Allen and Unwin, with their logo embossed on the hard cover. It was a pleasure to hold them in one’s hand, smell the glue and 'Calico', and read the incredibly interesting stories about man-eating leopards, tigers  and rogue elephants hunted by Anderson. While the stories of Corbett appeared exotic because of where most of the stories took place, Kumaon, Andersons stories were nearer home, in South India. There was a sense of proximity and familiarity though the exact locale was as alien to me, really, as Kumaon.

I devoured the stories eagerly and lived the events vicariously as they unfolded. The very names of the books and stories still bring those memories back. Nine Man Eaters and a Rogue, Marauder of Kempakarai, The Aristocrat of Amligola, The Assassin of Diguvametta, The Black Rogue of the Moyar Valley, The Lame Horror of Peddacheruvu, The Crossed-Tusker of  Gerhetti – names to savour!

Reading the Black Panther of Shivanipalli

While I was reading the volume containing the story of The black panther of Shivanipalli I fell ill with a fever of unknown origin.

When anyone had a fever in the family the routine was something like this. For the sake of simplicity, I will use the first person singular pronoun. I was expected to stay in bed. All food, drink and medicines were brought to my bed. My father took my temperature as soon as I woke up in the morning, never letting me read the thermometer myself. When I asked him what the temperature was, he would smile and say cryptically, “Telling you the temperature is contra-indicated”. (By that hangs one of his nostalgic stories that is contra-indicated here, right now) He would take my pulse rate. He would do the same in the evening after he came home from work. The afternoon temperature taking and pulse taking was my mother’s responsibility. When the doctor visited or I was taken to the doctor, all these details were reported to him. I knew a few families where, if one of the children had a fever, the whole household looked gloomy. No such thing here. Everybody’s life went on as usual. But everyone walked in now and then to see how I was doing.

Once the fever subsided and I spent a night without a fever, my life would be allowed to return to normal in a day or two.
My father is a disciplinarian but, a gentle one. I did not even think of defying these rules! One of the rules was that I was not supposed to read when I had a fever. That was the hardest part. They were days without TV. Thankfully. I tuned the radio to various stations and managed to listen to classical music practically throughout the day. “Classical” included Carnatic, Hindustani, Western and even Jazz. The last being two half-hour slots on The Voice of America called the Voice of America Jazz Hour presented by the inimitable, deep, leathery, bass, disembodied voice of Willis Conover.

Coming back to the Shivanipalli story, I was desperate to read the story of the black panther – fever or no fever. On the third day, if I remember right, my fever had come down a little. When my father had taken my temperature that evening, it was around 101 (deg F). It was about 7 in the evening and was already dark outside. The world was very quiet. Mysore was a quiet city and the roads were deserted by 7:30 in the evening. Everyone else was either studying or busy with their own things. I quietly turned on the bedside lamp I had fixed to the bars of the window next to my bed.

This was a lamp that could be fixed practically anywhere by its vice like clamp. We called it “Bapa’s Lamp”. Bapa was my maternal grandfather. My mother’s family belonged to a Marathi speaking community and hence, my mother and her siblings called him Bapa. This lamp once belonged to him. It was perhaps made in England or the US and had an Edison type /screw type holder. I had found an Edison type bulb in the market and could use Bapa’s lamp to read in bed.

I stole out of the mosquito net tiptoed to the bookshelf and fetched the book and started reading this most interesting story about the panther with hypermelanism. In an hour or so, I had reached the climactic part of the story. Anderson is trying to hunt a big black cat on a new moon day! He is wandering in the forest randomly, without a plan, but with the hope that he runs into his prey. He enters a clearing. He suddenly feels that someone or something is watching him. He stops, unlocks the safety latch of his double barrel gun, raises it to his shoulder into shooting position and slowly turns around - not sure who or what is watching him and from where.....

I suddenly jumped in my bed, cried out aloud, took a sharp breath in – all at the same time. The book fell to the floor with a loud thud. And I was shivering.

A donkey was grazing just outside our compound wall, very close to the window next to me. Perhaps an insect had entered its nostril and it had snorted loudly and long! The suppressed excitement and tension brought on by the narrative had been rudely shaken by the snorting of the donkey and had scared the living daylights out of me.

My mother walked into my room, turned the light on and saw my flushed face. She knew immediately that I was stealing a read. She picked the book up, lifted the mosquito net and touched my forehead. It was hot. She brought the thermometer and took my temperature and it was 103+! She scolded me, turned the lights off and went out to bring my dinner - perhaps some bread and milk and semolina porridge. Once dinner was done, she gave me my medicine, including some paracetamol to bring the temperature down, and ordered me to sleep. She took the book away to her room.

Agony!! I had to wait another thirty-six hours or so to read the last few pages of the story.

Do buy the two-volume paperback edition of the Kenneth Anderson Omnibus published by Rupa and read them. Money and time well spent, I can guarantee you.

Friday, January 01, 2016

An Interlude with Prof. A. N. Murthy Rao

I was visiting my parents. It was sometime in the late 1990s. My father appeared a little pensive. I asked him what the matter was. In his usual thoughtful way, he said, “Murthy Rao asked me if I can take him to the Maharaja’s college. He is feeling nostalgic about his days there and wants to walk the corridors and see the classrooms where he studied and later taught. I was looking for someone with a car whom I could ask.”

I was amused. The solution was sitting right in front of him and talking to him and he had not recognised it. I said, “I may have a solution to the problem.” He cheered up and said, “Who?” I said, “I happen to have a car and I think I am willing to take him there”.  He banged his forehead (actually acted as if he did) and looked sheepish and laughed with relief. “Look at me! It never occurred to me!”

It is another story that my car was a Premier Padmini of 1976 vintage, was in a pretty bad shape. I had paid more than it deserved and spent a mini fortune, at least by my financial status then, to make it roadworthy. You had to be a jugaad wizard to use that car but, I was not. In spite of that, I have fond memories of my first car.

Anyway, the date and time were fixed. On the appointed day, I went to my father’s place, picked him up and he directed me to Prof. A N Murthy Rao’s nephew’s place. My father then moved to the back seat so that the professor could sit more comfortably in the passenger seat. I drove very carefully because this great man looked fragile. He was in his late nineties. He was, by far, the most precious cargo this car had ever carried. I am always a careful driver trying to follow all the road rules and conventions. There was some incident that I do not remember that made my father tell the professor, “He is a very conscientious driver.” That filled me with pride, more so when the professor nodded his head in approval.

We reached the college without incident and I could relax. It was a pleasure to see this old frail gentle gentleman savour every moment with childlike enthusiasm. He walked up the steps unaided and beamed at the quadrangle. He walked the corridors. He commented on every aspect of the building. With effort bu without complaint, climbed the broad staircase to the first floor. “This is where Rollo’s (Sir J C Rollo) room was. This is the junior BA hall. This is where I gave my first lecture as a teacher…..” He shared his thoughts with us.  It was such a pleasure to see the college through his eyes.

At one point, my father said, with great pride and nostalgia, “Prof. B M Srikantiah taught us Macbeth”. The hair on the nape of my neck stood up. B M Sri is such a legend and to have had the good fortune of being taught Macbeth by him! B M Sri was simultaneously the professor of English and Kannada, he was called the silver tongued orator, he taught English through Kannada and Kannada through English and many such stories give you an idea of the legend that he was. The professor turned back and said, feigning great pity, “I pity you, Lakshmana Rao, I pity you!” Now, what was happening here!? In response to my father’s unvoiced question but his whole posture a question mark, the professor said, “Rollo(*) taught us Macbeth”.  


He talked about someone from the past who had done something really noble. Without thinking, I said something like, “where have all such people gone!?”  He took me to task immediately but very gently. “I am surprised that you say that. Such people have always been there, they are here now and will always be there.  We may not hear about them. To assume that they are an extinct species is not right. To look at the past with rose-tinted glasses is extremely dangerous”. I felt foolish but hung on the fact that he was surprised that I had said what I had. Tenuous, but I held on to it.

After he felt satisfied with the visit, we started back. My father started giving me directions again.  I told my father that since we had been there earlier that day, I knew the way. I am usually very good at remembering the way to places which I have visited. (I have to admit that it seems to be waning.)  My father said jocularly, “This is one area in which Anil is far superior to me.”

“Or the one you care to admit!” came the immediate reply. This man was in his late nineties. Had just completed something that must have been, at least mildly, strenuous. My father was in the back seat and the professor did not have the advantage of the visual assistance one derives from seeing people speak. Above the noise of the old car, he heard and his response was immediate, gently humorous and logical!

And in my support to boot!

Caveat: I am writing this in admiration of one of the finest people I have had the good fortune of knowing. I do not want to bask in reflected glory. I have no claims about knowing so great a man. It was purely accidental – that I am my father’s son!!

* I could not get a suitable link to J C Rollo. The picture below gives a hint of how great a teacher he was.