Appa will soon be 94, but has been on a steady descent to anecdotage for as long as I can remember! We are a family that prides itself on its sense of humor, and revel in inflicting Appa’s puns and limericks and funny stories on unsuspecting visitors who actually leave with a promise to visit again soon for more! I often wonder if it’s politeness and if our guests really pay attention? Perhaps they keep nodding and smiling and fool us into believing they’re listening?
We do that sometimes, too. I confess. Not pay attention to Appa as he rambles on, and sometimes gruffly tell him “I know that story already” only to regret it and desperately try to un-say it all. Most of the time though we have conversations. He talks, we listen. we ask ,he answers…. He’s been around a long time, and remembers more than I have learned and forgottten! Memories of our Amma, Grandfather Ramabrahma, Grandmother Venkamma, his being a boy in the decade when we received the gift of Malgudi, and actually living the life of Swami and Friends….
Our own childhood, was growing up in a home where Mark Twain and Wodehouse lived and Kailasam was never far away.. though I never read much Kailasam as a kid, it never mattered because Appa could quote/recite/sing Kailasam from memory, and make us laugh.
Listening to my Appa has become more important now, with Amma gone. For she was our Pensieve before J K Rowling gave us a word for it, and I knew all about our uncles, aunts and cousins , and friends and neighbours, because of listening to her.
So it was that during a random conversation with Appa a couple of years ago, I learnt of his “Kailasome” summer, 75 years ago!
“Tell me about Grandmother Venkamma,” I said, for she had died when Big Brother Subri was barely a year old, and we have never seen her. Amma had spoken fondly of her, and yes, her sense of humor, and there were a couple of photographs.
She was a good hostess, a great cook, and had blended comfortably into life in Dharward, and later Belgaum, wherever her husband Ramabrahma’s job as an education officer in the Bombay Presidency took him. She had started to wear her sari in the Maharashtrian style which was common in Belgaum , and introduced her friends to the Tamil way of celebrating Varalakshmi pooja.
Many grey eminences , writers and citizens of Bangalore often came to Belgaum on work, and Ramabrahma, Headmaster, Sardar’s High School hosted them in his home, or in one of the hostels on the campus So it was that the great,eccentric racounteur, the soul and spirit of Kannada theatre, and humor literature aka T P.Kailasam, came to stay for a few days. He was delighted to learn that Venkamma could laugh in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu, and some English, and he set about regaling his hostess with spontaneous one-liners, and tri-lingual puns. Appa (around ten at the time) and his elder brother Pandu, were not so keen on the Kailasam brand of humor, not that anyone asked, but Appa told me, Kailasam was not very popular in those parts because his humor was more Mysore than Bombay.
He was a thoughtful guest, and he gave the two boys a book each. Pandu got Robinhood And Appa received a copy of Aesop’s Fables- published by Ward. Lock Co. Ltd. It was inscribed with a message from Kailasam, and signed. Appa, who had just then begun studying English, was not too pleased that the book had no illustrations, and told Kailasam, with childlike candor. Kailasam sent out immediately for an illustrated version,
Sadly, Appa remembers, he had left by the time it arrived, and so his book ddidn’t have any inscription. He enjoyed reading the book, and loved it for the illustrations, and told me that his favorite story was about the traveler and the donkey’s shadow. The book was lost a few years later, and Appa forgot all about it.
TOLLU GATTI ONE-MAN PHOTO
Meanwhile, Kailasam undertook an unusual project at the legendary Katti Studio in Belgaum. He made himself up as each of the characters of his play Tollu Gatti, and got photographs taken of each of them. He then sat with the studio owner and explained to him the technique to put them all together and voila’ ! He had a single photograph of Kailasam as entire cast of Tollu Gatti!
The fate of that photograph is not known. Neither do we know why Kailasam undertook this project. But plainly, he enormously enjoyed dabbling in “trick” photography!
It was a few years later, when Appa was about 18, and studying at the DAV College, Solapur, that Kailasam trundled into his life again. One morningAppa was summoned from his classroom to the chamber of his English Professor Sadasiva Iyer. . He went, wondering what lay in store, and presented himself before Mr Iyer, who said, “ Ah Sheshagiri, Mr Kailasam has just arrived from Bombay, you are to take him home to your uncle. He is to be your guest for a few days.”
(Appa will be referred to as Sheshagiri, reading on)
Sheshagiri complied, quietly pleased at the prospect of a few evening filled with humor and that would break the tedium of polite conversations at the dinner table. Home was the residence of his paternal uncle, Dr. M Subramanyam, the Health Officer of Solapur City, while Sheshagiri attended college. With cousin Shankaran away studying in Poona, it was quite lonely for young Sheshagiri expect when Shankaran visited for holidays.
Uncle welcomed his guest with the stoicism of a long-suffering host. remarking to Sheshagiri that the man was not likely to leave very soon, and, would doubtless cause him many a headache, throwing the household quite out of gear. But he was practically family, and a genius who was going to alternate between bouts of prodigious output and agonising writer’s block, and one had to make allowances for his eccentricity. After all, when Old Gally came to nestle in the comforting arms of Blandings Castle, Lord Emsworth could hardly give him the heave-ho.
SHESHAGIRI IS SHORTS-CHANGED
For Sheshagiri, the “entertainment” began right away. Kailasam’s luggage had gone missing on the train from Bombay where he had attended some literary do, and he “borrowed “a pair of shorts from the clothesline at the back of the house. It happened to be Sheshagiri’s PT shorts, which was never returned to its owner.
Kailasam settled down quickly, writing, drinking, smoking at all hours, and being very , very indisciplined. Mealtimes, and any other time when the mood struck him, the master of wit regaled the host and his young nephew with his endless supply of spontaneous puns, one-liners, impromptu poetry, and even, on occasion, titbits from the play he was currently working on.
The 1940s Solapur , a dusty little town with many cotton textile mills, already famous for the Solapur bedsheets, was not known to be a place where the high-minded gathered and discussed literature and philosophy. An occasional cinema, and dramas on the theme of mythology were the most popular entertainment, for the large workforce employed at the mills. However, Kailasam often had visitors, the local grey eminences, so to speak, with whom he had long conversations and discussions, and he went out to meet people at the office of Prabhat Theatre, which had been provided to him by the manager.
Sheshagiri and his “chaddi dost” spent many evenings being a one-man-show for a one-man-audience. Sheshagiri learnt that Kailasam was assistant to a hata yoga master who had become very popular in England when he was a student there. This hata yogi used to give lectures, and perform “magic” at private events and for a while Kailasam played his assistant. The magic tricks included chomping glass and sipping acid.
It was Kailasam’s job to go around the audience showing them the glass and the acid.
Kailasam told Sheshagiti that a little girl in the audience once asked “why does he eat glass?”
“Because he wants to eat bread,” Kailasam had said, by way of saying it was the magician’s source of living.
An excellent football player, a fact he used as a bargaining chip to continue being a student in London, he was asked, “why don’t you go back to India?”
“Because I fear my father has reserved the fatted calf for me,” he said, meaning his father, T. Paramasiva Iyer, was waiting to deliver a kick on his backside, when he returned home, Gandhiji’s recently acquired love for soya bean inspired the Kailasam-speak that went “ Khaya bean, soya Gandhi”,
Sheshagiri wondered if it was true Kailasam could blow smoke rings, and sign his name in it. Kailasam had a hearty laugh, saying he had been trying to do that, but had never really succeeded. But the myth had persisted, and now it simply wouldn’t go away!
Kailasam, described by N. Sharda Iyer as a scientist , sportsman, wit, actor, playwright and bohemian in her book, “ Musings Indian Writing In English”, then put on his scientific hat and explained to Sheshagiri the science behind smoke rings. He demonstrated how it was done- with a mouthful of smoke, which was expelled with a flick of the tongue. A simple experiment that demonstrates the diffusion of gases, he told Sheshagiri, would explain how smoke rings were made.
A few weeks later, Mr Kailasam had a visitor.Mr M.S.Sardar, aka Barrister Sardar who was also part time judge in the Akkalkot Samsthana , who took him away , to be the guest of Akkalkot royalty. Akkalkot, now a municipality of Solapur, was ruled by the Bhonsle family, which had been installed as rulers by Chatrapati Shahuji in 1712. Going by history, Kailasam’s host was Vijayaraje Bhonsle, who ruled from 1936 to 1952.
He was gone about 10 ten days. When he returned, he brought with him a neatly typed and bound copy of his latest work, which, plainly, he had been putting the finishing touches to in the preceding weeks at Solapur.
Sheshagiri soon learnt that Kailasam’s latest work was the play, “The Brahmin’s Curse”, about the tragic prince Karna and his guru Parashurama, from the Mahabharata. A reading was arranged at Prabhat Theatre, and Sheshagiri was part of an audience of about 50 Solapurians, making him one of the first to hear the play read by the great man hinself. He never forgot the last lines of the poem “Karna”-
“Availed thee naught ‘gainst unjust death! Alas,
Be fooled babe ‘gainst fate’s bewild’ring odds!
Bejewell’d bauble of the jeering gods.
Seventy-five summers later, Sheshagiri, our Appa, recited these lines to me from memory. I took notes. Appa asked, “ do people know Kailasam these days? Who reads him? Who’d be interested in my Kailasam story?
Let’s find out on SweetKharaCoffee, I said.