Kailasam On Our Shelf

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.


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.


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.


Light & Delight In Belgaum

The Lamplighter 

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

In A Child’s Garden of Verses,  Robert Louis Stevenson  writes  of  Leerie the Lamplighter who  went around, lighting the gas lamps in the streets of Edinburgh. Stevenson was a sickly child  who spent a great deal of time indoors,   and ,  looking out of the window  waiting for the lamplighter to come by, must have been something he really looked forward to. In the poem, he wants to grow up to be a lamplighter, rather than a sailor,   a driver like his siblings, , or a banker like his father. 

A much-thumbed copy of the book remains an eternal favorite, but Leerie lumbered back into our lives from the distant past this week, much closer home!  For some time now, Father has been urging me to write about those days , the 1930s ,when  Belgaum had no electricity, and  there was Leerie to light up the streets of the town at sundown each evening, and what happened in  homes filled with children as they sat around  a warm lantern and wondered about the creatures lurking in the dark regions beyond the circle of light.

It struck me that, 75 years ago,  Father and his generation made a transition far more important than my own barely 25 years ago, when I witnessed the passage of the typewriter from the office room to the museum,  as computers replaced the now archaic contraption that 20-year-olds don’t even know about.  I’m quite certain there is no parent of  25-year-olds  who would care to explain white ink,  carbon paper, and  a gadget that had no delete button.  And kids no longer believe there were machines that didn’t run on electricity, or that there was no autocorrect or spellcheck. All we had was  a much ticked off teacher brandishing a foot-ruler that she threatened to lay on our knuckles!

Electricity.  It came to Belgaum in the 1930s. 1933, Father reckons.  Everyone welcomed it, and embraced the power it gave them. They could go to the cinema, and stay out even after sunset.  Standing around street corners,  they could linger longer at the vegetable vendor’s cart, driving a hard bargain. The scent of jasmine would  remind them to stop to buy a string for the lady at home.

But something was lost too.  No more did the municipal employee, aka Leerie the Lamplighter, stride down the road, wielding his stick, lighting  the street lamps that ran on coal gas. And no more would kids look out the window,  in the mornings, as he came to clean the lamps.  it would be pointless to fantasize about a career in lamplighting.

When we were in primary school, my fantasy was to be picked as the bell ringer  -who got to say “Excuse me , Miss, but it’s time to ring the bell for the next period.” I’d  set my watch 5 minutes faster in Hindi class, and  we’d any way lose enough time in the beginning of Ms Jayashree’s class, by choosing to  devoutly sing “Rise and shine and give God the glory glory…. .” for about 6 minutes.

As it happened,  Viji got picked for the job , and  Ms Jayashree had by then  caught on. She forbade us from singing that song, and  gave us just one minute to pray quietly, before start of the class- it wouldn’t do for word to reach the ear of the Headmistress, Sister Stanislaus, that she hadn’t allowed us to pray. Besides, when we actually made it to  high school,  no one really wanted to be bell-ringer,- the idea had palled,   and we had moved on to more sophisticated methods of  shrinking  Ms Jayashree’s class-  Mills & Boon hidden between the covers of the Hindi textbook, for one, and  getting a few girls to ask , once more, if the table was feminine or masculine.

There doesn’t seem to be much that you can google up about  lamplighters in India. However,  I think it’s safe to assume that it was pretty much similar to what England boasted at the time. And I did find this most interesting blog  by a passionate Victorianist–  lamplighterlives!  and   it’s quite plain that the job description of lamplighters in Belgaum was similar to that of the Londoners.

They lit the lamps each evening, by means of a wick on a long pole. And at dawn, they returned to put them out, using a small hook on the same pole. The earliest streetlights  were candles, and then the oils and  in the latter part of the 19th century,  of coal  changed lighting forever, in turn evicted by electricity.

Lights were lit each evening, generally by means of a wick on a long pole. At dawn, they would return to put them out using a small hook on the same pole. Early street lights were generally candles, oil, and similar consumable liquid or solid lighting sources with wicks.Lamplighters had other jobs as well.  They served as watchmen, as they went about the streets at night, which could have been regarded more as a sinecure , while they went about doing their day job!   They had to clean the lamps, do regular maintenance that included changing oil or gas mantles.

Hardly glamorous, but to a child looking out of a window, nothing could be more magical than the circle of golden light around a lonesome pole as the evening shadows lengthened, and no one more heroic than the man who made that magic happen.

Before electricity vanquished darkness, it’s black,  impenetrable presence hid a thousand fears, both real and imaginary.  The phalanx of imagined enemies, spirits of the “neitherworld”, bhoota, devva, mohinis, rakshasas lurked in its folds waiting in that realm, waiting for victims. They screeched , wailed, and laughed raucously, made things fall, and frightened unsuspecting people to death.  It was a time when no child needed to be told twice to  pray-No grandma had to repeat her at once peremptory and cajoling instruction to the grandchildren to get inside and pray to Hanuman, Garuda and Bhima to keep watch over them, and keep the scary dreams at bay!

Birds still do that. As the sun goes down, they  cease their wanderings and flitting about, and return to their nests. Every one is counted, and the treetops turn into a riotous orchestra of chirps and twitter. Only  now we don’t notice them much,  and if we do want any part of it, we’d have to go pretty far away from  our own nests in search of them .

At home,  today, we  take electricity for granted. Power failure doesn’t bother us. We breezed through the eighties with the reality a  of  television without a remote ( not that we needed one in the eighties,  when all we had was Doordarshan, and we watched everything from Krishidarshan and Samachar by Salma Sultan  with the rose behind her ear, and everything in-between and put the TV to bed at 9 , or was it 10 pm? )   Since the nineties, a thousand channels and a remote have enslaved  people who device many cunning ways to beat  power failure so the TV doesn’t stop playing.We have the new genie called uninterrupted power supply.

Electricity has shrunk the night,  and the monsters that scared and thrilled us  are exposed,  limp, lifeless, and not even comical. Imagination has abdicated to hypnosis of the idiot box. Breaking news has more TRP ratings than breaking dawn.

In Headmaster Ramabrahma’s Belgaum home 75 years ago,  the lengthening shadows beckoned the  boys playing outside home, and  the night fell on empty streets, barring a few stragglers who hurried home, and the lamplighter, whose “day” was only just beginning.

Inside,   it was time to light up the lamps. There were all kinds of lamps to choose from-  kerosene lamps, paraffin lamps. There were petromax lanterns and chimney lamp.  Duplex lamps had double wicks and chimneys that allowed the light to be dimmed or brightened with the turn of a screw. Not all rooms in the house were lit. The women finished up work in the kitchen as soon as they could in the daylight,  and  the family generally gathered in the living room, around a warm lamp.  Sometimes the servants lingered,  keeping a light in the study for the headmaster, who preferred to be among his books and papers, working and playing by the clock.

Even though he was Headmaster, Grandfather Ramambrahma had not come up with the idea of overburdening his students, including  his two sons, Pandu and Sheshagiri aka Father, with  too much homework. Evening hours, therefore, were a time for sitting around a comforting lamp,  and listening to stories. Grandmother Venkamma regaled the children – with stories of Kuppa-Kuppi ,   mythology,   some flavorful Tamil folktales, and  sometimes it was  their elder sisters, Kokila, Mangala and Sushila  who chased the monsters of the dark away for  Pandu, S and their baby sister , Vimala.  The servants brought their own brand of  stories, and games to the ring around the lamp. It was campfire night every night.

The oil lamps were  quite messy- don’t we remember a childhood punctuated by  these  regularly irregular power failure/powercuts, in the evenings when the puja lamp had been lit, and the mumbled prayers of Grandmother seemed to wander from room to room,  and children secretly thought their prayers had been answered,  giving them an excuse for not being at their books “despite their ardent desire to be studious”, and  the candles and oil lamps were brought out, coaxed and badgered to light up? The oil often splashed out of the reservoir where it was held, and the smell of  hot oil pervaded the house, dust and dirt clogged the little air holes around the wick, and this needed cleaning out every day. The glass chimney also needed washing after every use otherwise the dirt would deplete the effectiveness of the light.

In  more affluent homes,  back in the 1930s, expensive  lamps imported from Britain and Europe.  These homes, regal if not royal,  were sprawling residences of jagirdars, and  landlords , where grand chandeliers,  ornate lamps and crystalware using mostly candles and later paraffin and oil proclaimed the luxuries and wealth of their owners, not to mention their taste for the beautiful things.

It appears that the 19th century was a time of revival of styles in the history of lighting before the era of electricity. The French brought back roman lamps and turned them into chandeliers.  Post Industrial Revolution,  a burgeoning middle class demanded  greater choices, and drove the revival of older, more decorative styles .  Fashion trends were doing their cycles even in those times!

Rococo, Renaissance and Gothic design elements made a comeback,  and filled  French homes with lighting in those styles. Baccarat , which started making chandeliers in 1824, were the leaders in innovating new styles inspired by old  design traditions.  British chandelier companies, found, in India, a readymade market in the country colonized by them , and many of them opened branches in India to cater to the needs of rich Indians with taste, not to mention the British residents making their home here.

When gas lighting became more widely available in the late 19th century, gasoliers making use of this new form of illumination were often designed in Rococo styles. These gasoliers usually had candles available as backup just in case the gas didn’t work. Gas lights were also really bright, so glass shields became more common as a way to shield the glare. Gas-lit chandeliers do not appear to have been very popular in India, however.

Father mentioned  prism lamps , and I  can’t remember where I have seen them, probably on the desk of  some very scientific people I’ve  gone to meet in the study of dons at IISc,  looking important and necessary to whatever science they are doing!  I’m not sure  if  Grandfather had one on his desk, but here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the original purpose of  deck prisms–

For centuries, sailing ships used deck prisms to provide a safe source of natural sunlight to illuminate areas below decks. Before electricity, light below a vessel’s deck was provided by candles, oil and kerosene lamps – all dangerous aboard a wooden ship. The deck prism was a clever solution: laid flush into the deck, the glass prism refracted and dispersed natural light into the space below from a small deck opening without weakening the planks or becoming a fire hazard. In normal usage, the prism hangs below the ceiling and disperses the light sideways; the top is flat and installed flush with the deck, becoming part of the deck. A plain flat glass would just form a single bright spot below– not very useful general illumination– hence the prismatic shape. On colliers (coal ships), prisms were also used to keep check on the cargo hold; light from a fire would be collected by the prism and be made visible on the deck even in daylight.  

Though Father’s memories of the lamplighter have been  quite enlightening, I was amused to hear that they hadn’t  particularly  excited him in those days. Rather like my brief flirtation with the idea of being bell-ringer which job, too, I’ll be bound is extinct, with an electronic gong having replaced it! . What really moved  Father, it turns out, was the road-roller! That remarkable contraption used to metal the roads,  which luckily can still be sighted around the city,  pacing the road like a king lost in thought, tortured by thoughts of a coup against him.  Father and friends   made a jolly time of it, running behind the  road-roller,  of which there seems to be no  reference in  the Child’s Garden of Verses!

100 Years Of Cinema, 90 Years Of Memories Part I

May 3, 2013 I sat down with Appa today to talk cinema and  memories. At 90,  I reckoned,   he would know Indian cinema which turns 100 today, rather intimately   I have come away from that conversation a little dizzy, thinking  “I’ve just  been talking with a man who saw cinema take its first toddling steps, go from silent movies to talkies to color!”   Right now, he  is being a good sport trying to master the iPad that we got him,  happy as a child  at pulling up , all by himself ,MS Subbalakshmi on Youtube to regale him with “Akhilandeshwari Rakshamam”  .  I don’t get the impression that he welcomed cinema into his lilfe  with  same the wide-eyed wonder,  though.    ” Everyone just took to watching movies ,  because it was there”.   Very  George Mallory-usque.

I took notes as he talked, and made a rough draft of  this article. I then went to Wikipedia  to  check for dates and names, only to find, amazingly,  that his memory served him so right that I should really be checking up with him on Wikipedia!!

Appa  was around ten years old when  he began watching movies. He doesn’t remember the name of the first movie that he watched, but those were  the days of the travelling tent cinema that brought silent movies to the edge of town, until they were nudged out by the arrival of “talkies”. and more permanent cinema houses.

I once watched  that adorable  movie, Mayabazar,  in a tent which had come up , probably at  the spot where Kamakhya theatre stands (rather precariously,  considering it’s rundown state) on the Ring Road in Banashankari III Stage in Bangalore.  There were benches at the back,  for which you paid 50 p per head , or  carpets  nearer the screen for 25 p. It was hot, sweaty, and  there was much smoke from beedis ,  all of which was ignored while  Ghatotkacha’s  antics stole every little heart in the hall.

The tent cinemas of 1930s  had benches and carpets, too.  As the hall filled up, a brassband would  begin playing music. Once everyone settled in, the story teller, who said at the back under the projector, would begin narrating the story, to the accompaniment of  the harmonium and table. Madanakala  starring Master Vittal, was watched in a tent cinema. There were English films as well, like Tarzan. Silent films didn’t have complicated plots, and there were subtitles , which were supplemented by the story-teller’s narration.

I was chuffed to learn from my dad that there used to be ads shown too!  Slides, in b/w of course,  of a hotel in town,  or shops selling clothes and fabric, or some local business peddling their ware. No toothpaste or soap ads, Appa said, as  most of them came from England in those days!

And how were promos for films done in the era of silent movies?  A bullock  cart sporting posters of the film  went around town in the afternoons.   with a man beating a drum ,  tom-tomming the movie as it were, and  giving out hand-bills that revealed tantalising bits of the movie , and  suggesting, “see the rest on the silver screen”.  A far cry from these days of  “official media sponsors”,  promos, premiers,  ads, exciting offers ,  endless appeals from the stars, and  ratings  and  film critics .

Appa remembers his Father was not very happy about patronizing tent cinemas.   It was okay to go to the “real theatres” and Father in fact encouraged the children to  enjoy the movies.  The transition to talkies was quickly made. Appa marvels at how within ten years, the silent movie became history and talkies or “talking pictures ” that incorporated synchronized dialogue became the global phenomenon. Belgaum went from “tents and sheds” to talkies and cinema theaters . The  silent movie had been on its way out by the time Appa began watching films.  Once the silent movie Ben Hur came to town,  reissued with background music. It featured Ramon Navarro. The original had cost $3.9 million, making it the costliest silent move. The 1931 reissue added  sound effects and music by the original composers Willian Axt and David Mendoza.   Navarro was quickly  given an Indian name, and referred to as “Ramannavaru”!

I  have been wondering  how film actors and actresses were idolized in those days.  The lack of film magazines that shared gossip about actors and other denizens of the industry didn’t mean  people were disinterested in them.  Their little whimsies and foibles,  their private lives and romances or lack thereof,  catching a glimpse of the stars or meeting them were  desirable goals to aspire to The captivating Shanta Apte, a beauty who was also a great singer,  is arguably the first  femme fatale  of the Indian silver screen.  Everyone dreamt of seeing her in person,  and  she was obviously the queen of a million youthful fantasies. Appa  cousin in Poona,  arranged with  an electrician he knew, who happened to be doing a job at Ms APte’s house, to go along as his “assistant”, and  catch a glimpse of her.

I remember that in the seventies and eighties,  budding actresses who got their first break had to  take a stand on  two things- kissing scenes (even if  it was pretend kissing) and  wearing bikinis.  Sharmila Tagore’s swimsuit outing made much news  in the sixties, but it appears a certain Ms Meenakshi Shirodkar has , way back in 1938,  stunned and thrilled audiences singing “Yamuna Jali Khelu Khel”  wearing a swimsuit,  and sporting a two-plait  style that instantly became the rage among teenage girls in the film, Brahmachari .

Appa  said the film had dialogues by humorist and playwright P.K Atre, whose satire on  RSS ideology brought in huge audiences. But the swimsuit song sequence  ensured that the movie ran for  25 weeks in Bombay and 50 weeks in Pune. Critics had been critical of this bold sequence, but the audience, it appeared  kept coming back!

It was at this point I checked with Wikipedia, and found it was quite unnecessary.

There is a little anecdote  about Snehaprabha Pradhan, that Appa has told us many times. It is by way of being a family nugget,  and I believe it to be true. My aunt, Appa’s sister  Mangala and Ms Pradhan studied at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. I am not sure if they were classmates. Of course it was much before  she became famous as an actress.  Plainly, she cared very much about acting  even then.  And plainly she was ahead of her time as far as the college principal was concerned.  Moments after the curtains went up  at the College Day play, in which she was acting,  the Principal’s voice, the story goes,  rang out , in great panic. “Down the curtains! he thundered. The curtain came down, and backstage,  it was revealed–Ms Pradhan’s sleeveless blouse, it appeared was a bit too “forward” and  no Elphinstonian was to be allowed to get away with wearing revealing clothes!! I gather she changed into a more modest blouse, and the play was allowed to begin, and it must have been a most entertaining evening!  My aunt apparently caught up with Ms Pradhan many years later and  it turns out she was remembered.

Thus begins a journey into 100 years of cinema, as remembered by Appa.  More fascinating tales follow. Watch this space.  

Father Time

Mr M.Ramabrahma, Headmaster, Sardar High School, Belgaum, was an awe-inspiring figure. Not too generous with his smiles,  may be a little taciturn, even. An anglophile, he expressed his fondness for the “English life” very sartorially. Always sporting a fine suit, a neat tie,  a nd even a hat and walking stick if he thought the occasion demanded these accesories. Hardly surprising he was known as the best-dressed Headmaster for miles around.

A man of  habit and many foibles which he  considered necessary to  enforcing discipline and order at work and in the home,   he lived by the clock. The clock struck eight , and so breakfast must be had. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the coffee must be at his elbow  just as the  clock chimed the second time.

A  passionate tennis player, he was district champion, and  often volleyed with  colleagues and friends, and royalty even.  He played every morning,   a familiar figure in tennis gear making his way to courts just a little way away from home.  Folks probably set their clocks  by his tread  each morning !

The Headmaster was a man of few words,  not just a man of few smiles, and  speaking for/by the clock was his way of announcing his arrival and reason thereof.  The unflappable Mrs Venkamma Ramabrahma,  with a sense of humor minted in Tirupattur (the ten-village town)  of great antiquity in Vellore, Tamilnadu,  who managed her brood that ranged many age-groups adroitly enough to leave him thinking that it was all his doing,  often took recourse to droll little utterances  that ridiculed his devotion to punctuality.  But it was many, many years , when they retired to life in Bangalore,  before  his wife  thought to rib him by    asking, “who is hungry, you or the clock?”  Mr Ramabrahma ‘s  response, one imagines, was  a   Narasimha Rao-like-  inscrutable silence.

Back in Belgaum,  the Headmaster’s  days  ticked and tocked with great punctuality.  His children  (Vimala and Pramila followed S, who was preceded by Kokila, the first-born, Mangala, and Pandu )   were more deferential to Father, than to Time. Though he took little notice of them,  in his presence, Pandu and S   didn’t engage in Tom Sawyer tactics at the breakfast table.

Not that they were  incorrigible imps, or any kind of imps.  It was just that they were mindful of the  consequences of  incurring the  wrath of    Father who was also Headmaster.  The glint of his gimlet eye threatened  great possibilities, and  the boys  –  Pandu and S, thought  it best to leave  things well alone.

Which was not  hard to do, really.  The truth was  that as long as  they refrained/abstained from escapades that  tainted the fair name of the family, or  seemed to undermine the Headmaster’s authority,  he was happy to leave them to their own devices.

“It was a good life”, S says now. There were movies, train rides,  holidays in Bangalore, Poona and Bombay, and all the fun things that make childhood, well, fun.  They did witness the transition  to electricity, and piped water.  Father was not really as forbidding as he looked, and  there were times of  enlivening conversation, great wit, and cheerful laughter,  and  everything else, woven into the clockwork regularity that reigned in the establishment.  . As we’ll see , by and by.

There is this about him in the  1936 edition of    the Who’s Who:

Ramabrahma, Mahadev, B.A., L.T., (Mad.), Asst. Educational Inspector, Bombay Presidency, Poona comes of a distinguished Brahmin family of Mysore.  Born on 8th December 1884, he was educated at Maharaja’s College, Mysore, and Central College, Bangalore. After having his training at the Teachers’ College, Saidapet, Madras, he started life as a teacher in the Training College, Mysore, from June, 1912 to August, 1915, and entered Bombay Educational Department at Lecturer in Nature Study and School Gardening in Training College for men and women, Dharwar, where he served from September 1915 to October, 1923.  In August, 1921, he went to England for Scout Training in the Gill-well Park, having been deputed by the Bombay Provincial Boy Scouts’ Council, and he was Instructor in charge, Scout Master’s Training Camp at Lonavla from January, 1922 to March, 1923.  On return from the deputation, joined the Dharwar High School as Asst. Master (1923-27).  As Asst. Criminal Tribes Settlement Officer at Poona and Dharwar from November, 1927 to June, 1928 he did good work. He was Asst. District Scout Commissioner in Dharwar during 1926-29.  It was in February, 1929, that he was appointed as the Headmaster of the Sardar High School, Belgaum, and he held this post continuously till the middle of August, 1936.  During these seven years and a half he was the Asst. District Scout Commissioner of Belgaum District and was intimately connected with the Scouting activities of the Belgaum town and the District.  As Head Master and Superintendent of the Sardar High School Hostel, he was generally liked by the students.  He was an enthusiastic worker in the cause of Social and Educational Reform and was connected with all institutions at Belgaum in one way or another.  He was a member of the District Depressed Classes Committee, Belgaum.
     He was transferred to Poona in August 1936, when he was appointed as Asst. Educational Inspector, Bombay Presidency.  He officiated as the Educational Inspector, Central Division, from 16th November, 1936, to February, 1937, when Mr. W.B. Corieur (later corrected illegibly in pen),  D.P.I. of the Bombay Presidency, was away from India on leave.
Address-Asst.Educational Inspector, B.P., Poona.
About the Who’s Who:
An old British tradition, Who’s Who is an annual British publication of biographies of  “notable people”. Until 1897, it provided a list of the names of Members of Parliament, and all the Bishops.  But since then, it has listed  people alphabetically and provided fuller biographical details.Subjects include peers, MPs, judges very senior civil servants, and distinguished writers, actors, lawyers  scientists, researchers, and artists. Some (such as those holding a Professorial Chair at Oxford and Cambridge) are included automatically by virtue of their office; those in less hierarchical occupations are included at the discretion of the editors. As long as they were in India, it included several Indian names too.  According to The  Wall Street Journal,  an entry in Who’s Who “really puts the stamp of eminence on a modern British life”, and the Daily Mail has described it as “Britain’s most famous reference book”. I guess it was a bigger deal  about a 100 years ago, when there was no internet, Facebook or Twitter, or 24/7  news channels, and news ambled along at a leisurely pace,  and not at “break neck” speed!


Kapooscan Mari

What on earth is Kapooscan Mari?

A train of camels  arrived at a little village in the boondocks of  Dharwad four score years ago.  The villagers had never seen anything like it.  So if you were to ask them , “have you seen a dancing camel?”   they would reply,  “what’s a camel?”

The camels were probably being taken by their owners from Rajasthan on a journey that would end at  Bakrid,  on not exactly a joyful note for them. Or  you could pay for a ride on the hump of the what is arguably the ugliest animal.  Not that the villagers knew any of  that.  Curiosity getting the better of the younger denizens of the village, a group of them marched  up to the caravan and asked the camel owners,  “What kind of animal is that?

They spoke in Kannada, which the camel -owners did not know, and they replied, “Kya poochte ho?”  What do you ask?

After a few more futile attempts to translate or convey their meaning through a combination of dumb charades, and not-so-dumb charades,  and repeating  “kya poochte ho?”   ad nauseum,  it  began to sound like  “kapoosca”.

The village lads  concluded that this was a caravan of kapooscas and their young ones- kapooscan mari.  The word passed down the group and  soon everyone was marveling at the  kapooscan maris with their  humps,

The young one of a Kapoosca.

The Kapooscan Mari is a tale of  “Lost In Translation”  froim the life and times of S,  and  was  brought back to  school by  some of the boys who had abandoned the Sardar High School hostel for the summer holidays.  S  (Appa) only shared it with his family a few months back, in the days following  Amma’s death, and it has come be used  frequently- to break the monotony of a long silence even though two or more members of the family have been lounging around for over an hour without exchanging a word;  as and I-don’t-know when   a question is asked , and you don’t know the answer.  Or simply for the joy of calling a camel Kapooscan Mari .

And when you say, “but kapooscan mari, …….” .you are redefining the terms of endearment with the spouse or the niece .

I wonder if the village in the boondocks has  confronted the reality of  kapooscan mari . They’ve probably googal-ed it by now.   And learnt that the sandscape of Rajasthan is awash with camels, there are camel  fairs at Pushkar. At Bikaner camels dance, , run in races, and the Border Security Force has a camel band that performs at the Republic Day parade,. There are more camels in Rajasthan than in Saudi Arabia .  And apart from being ugly, they are considered  brainless and gullible  and pay for their stupidity with their lives in the Panchatantra.

However,  if you can get used to saying Holy Camel!  they are nearly as sacred as cows in  some Rajasthan communities. A devi with a camel-head is the family deity for some clans, and some goddesses even come riding camels to shower their blessings on deserving devotees.

At the Hanuman temple in Bangalore, where one ties a coconut, and  does 41X4 pradakshinas over 16 days to get your wish fulfilled, a little camel in black stone crouches humbly in front of the monkey-god.  The pujari tells me the camel is Hanuman’s mount.

Why does Hanuman need a mount?  And why  camel?  Questions that clearly call for throwing up your hands and exclaiming, “Kapooscan Mari!”

Diverting as these  droll references to the dromedary and  its place in  nature’s scheme of things  are,   camels do have a purpose . This completely domesticated  beast  can travel long distances ,  and  can access  resources in ways that no other animal can.  They never have to worry about dehydration  between watering holes, and can go an entire season without  needing to drink water.  Water is their fuel, and they  given great mileage !  As for food, they are the most “kindly adjusting” creatures. Vegetation, meat, bones, salt, sweet, bland, anything goes  with the kapooscan mari.   Docile and sweet under a caring hand,they can be stubborn and angry if ill treated.

This is the point, perhaps, that Hanuman seeks to make, in picking the camel for his mount. Next time a camel ambles into town,  I mean to welcome the kapooscan mari with all the  devotion that the invisible Hanuman astride it deserves!!

Meanwhile, if anyone of you ever end up in a village where the camel is referred to as kapooscan mari, do let me know . And, , feel free to add kapooscan mari to your own lexicon, with due acknowledgement of copyright !

Thoughts of Train

Only the first time on an airplane is a flight of fancy. The monotony and ennui of  long  up-in-the-air  journeys watching the clouds  at the end of which you discover  neither God,  Amma or M S Subbulakshmi is going to  perch on the  wing outside your window and  treat you to an epiphany  is all it takes to  turn a plane journey into a chore that needs getting done as quickly as possible.

A train journey, however, has been around for two hundred years, but its thrill quotient has endured  with such vigor that I am convinced the frisson of excitement that I remember from  those  half-a-day journey to Madras on the Brindavan Express  is the same that coursed down Appa’s  nine-year-old spine   eighty years ago,  when the family travelled often and long, passing  charming little stations and watching  little India display its quirks and colours, the  fields and villages that whizzed past between stations.

S remembers  vividly  the  large presence of trains  in every day Belgaum life,. They watched the train winding its way steamily down the countryside,  while playing in the fields near the Fort, and they often heard the  siren wailing  balefully , announcing an arrival or departure.  Railway stations were easily accessible then and they often went to watch the exciting goings-on at the locomotive shed – engine shunting- there was a turntable for the engines, and it was manually operated. Of course in the eyes of S and friends,  this was the most exciting job in the world.  They played at  shunting, pushing  at the engine and pretending they moved it.

They often made short trips on the passenger trains to Dharwad or Hubli,  and S and Pandu . Once an old man toting his toddler grandson on his shoulders loped up to their window asking “Does this train go to Haveri?”  S and Pandu,  being in a cheeky mood as little boys often are,  informed him helpful, ” oh the next coach goes” , and  had a good laugh. But S felt a twinge of remorse a few moments later when he saw the old man struggling to hop on as the train had  begun to move, and the platform form was left behind, and he just about made it.

The trains of those days, with steam engines and coaches that looked like they were taking Cinderella to the ball,  were 30-seaters . Sometimes they were 8-seaters, used by attendants of  British officers travelling on duty, or  the servants of  the rich Indians who would be travelling royally in First Class.  Occasionally even royalty travelled in these trains, and the Mysore Maharaja’s guards resplendent in their gear added  intrigue and fascination to  the journey.  The Tungabhadra flowed merrily as the train wound its way in the June-July summer.

S remembers the “best idli and dosa ” that could be had at Harihar station,  a stall run by  a  man from Kerala. Since  the local people could never tel the difference between his Malayalam and Tamil, they  enjoyed his  offerings  in what they  assumed was Tamil. S and Pandu and his friends, of course knew their Tamil,  and their idlis.
Most  summer holidays they made the long journey to Bangalore, but  they often went to  Bombay and Poona or Kolhapur- . Bombay meant staying in the house of Bombay Ramaswamy, known to the family , whose bungalow off B P Wadia Road was a well-known landmark and is now a block of apartments still named Bombay House, It overlooks theDewan  Madhava Rao Circle, and remains as picturesque as the whole of Bangalore used to be ion the 60s and 70s.

S had  a wish  in those days.  They often clambered up a high mound on the field near the Fort, and watched the trains go by. His wish was to be on this high perch and look down on the train, and watch himself  travelling grandly in the train as it wound its way towards  Poona . Now is that possible?   About as possible as  the epiphany of    God, Amma or M S Subbulakshmi waving us on our way from Cloud Nine.

A  fine train of thought indeed.   Or  a flight of fnacy?

Aunt ‘s Jaunts

It was Varalakshmi Puja last week.  Memories of Manjula decorating the mantapam -covering the banana stems with samanthis= yellow and majenta chrysanthemums, making colorful kolam,  Amma getting the kalasham and the silver mukham of Lakshmi- with its own little ruby studs and nose ring, and a long hook which would go into the silver chombu, and all the stuff that goes intothe kalasham,

Being too little to be useful to Manjula or Amma, all I did was wander about the house,  from kitchen to the room where the puja was arranged,  eyeing the coconut-jaggery poornam that would go into the sweet kozhakattai, and my favorite, the kharam kozhakattai, the   daals for aamavadai ready to be ground. The kitchen smelled of  cardamom, nutmeg,  and chillies and hing.  From the  puja room (makeshift, to accommodate all the ladies who would come the next evening for manjai-kumkum.) wafted  the scents of camphor, ,  agarbathi, jasmine .

I suspect Amma and Varalakshmi had a conspiracy going. How else does one explain  the fact that the kozhakattais were perfect, the aamavadais crisp and golden on the outside and soft inside, and were all ready for naivedhyam in the morning, the puja done and all ladies in the house, Amma, Manjula, Dr Athey sporting the yellow thread with a samanthi flower (like a Rakhi, I think) on the right wrist to signify participation in the puja, and  have the most sumptuous spread read for the family.

I think one of the highlights of the day for her, was the arrival of Vimala Athey.  Appa’s younger sister, gentle,  niece-loving Vimala Athey whose  unexpected visits home ( she was a government school teacher, and  frequently her arrival at unusual hours when teachers and students ought to be at school-  heralded “good news” for  kids – someone died warranting the declaration of a holiday to mourn the loss to the nation, or at least to the State of  Karnataka. ) I  was an Athey-loving niece as well,  although a very quiet one, listening to Amma and Athey exchange news and gossip,  wondering when Athey’s vanity bag would open, and  treats like a  polly mango sliced into  finger-sized pieces with chilli powder and salt rubbed into them , which she had started to eat , or a packet of  glucose biscuits, or at lease a pair of Parry’s  toffee, would  tumble out .

On Varalakshmi day,  it was ordained , Vimala Athey of the divine voice  would sing  Sri Varalakshmi Namasthubhyam. Here is  MS Maami also of the divine voice, rendering  the song. (I wish I could google up Vimala Athey just as easily on youtube, but may be my cousin Anu (Vimala Athey’s daughter could help with that?)  For the nonce, let MS=Vimala Athey.

Since I have had  a nasty attack of nostalgia, and have successfully  passed on the  bug to Appa,  he let me in on his childhood days , growing up with Vimala Athey, his little sister.  Don’t get me wrong, but little girls are the best thing that ever happened to families,  I know, having been one myself, and being told by Amma how much she had wanted to have me long before I had been thought of.  So it was with Vimala Athey. and the Sardar High School  Headmaster’s household was hugely enriched and entertained by  little Vimala and her ceaseless chatter and endearing  attempts to be grown-up.

Her friends comprised an army of  kids from the servants quarters, all about her own age,  which she maintained with endless supply of
“putani”, from the kitchen, and occasionally  pieces of jaggery. They were all her yes-men  who could disappear like gnomes when they felt the coming of a   “grown-up” attack,  which usually manifested itself in the form of  her mother (my grandmother, Venkamma)  mildly asking, “what happened to all the putani?”

Cornered, the p-o-w,  deployed the ultimate weapon in a child’s armory-   a long wail  intended as a signal to any of the older siblings to rush to her defense,  and a loud lament “Ellam en thalai melai!”  — yeah, heap the blame on my head.. matching words with  action by tapping herself on the head- a tad too hard, as it happened,  and crying louder for the self-inflicted pain.

An amused mother,  brothers laughing till they got stitches in their sides,  didn’t help at all, and  calm prevailed for a short spell,  and the gnomes trickled back in one by one, and  a new  round of putani-chomping began.

The Old Days of Belgaum

One  summer day in the early 1930s,  a game of hide ‘n seek  began to be played on the  silent, abandoned-for the-holidays campus of Sardar  High School in Belgaum, and a boy names Sheshagiri  (S, from now on)  got himself a  really secret place to hide, and waited to be found.

The hostel was vacant, and the Head Master M.Ramabrahma’s  brood ( S, and siblings) had the run of the grounds.  The Joshi, Datar and Kittur boys came over most afternoons . A bunch of boys, grounds and garden, and nooks and crannies behind buildings– all the ingredients for an excellent game of hide ‘n seek. S  lurked in his hideout, and listened to big brother Pandurang be “it” and find the others. He wondered how long he ought to give Pandu before turning himself in.

Lost in these thoughts, it was a while before S  realised that  no one seemed to be about. There were no calls for him to come out, nor did  he hear footsteps advancing stealthily and getting louder as  the predator approached. He  stuck his neck out  round the corner and found he was quite alone. The game had moved, or  it was up !!

He ambled homewards to find Pandu and the others  loping about on the verandah,  and completely unsurprised to  see him. “Hey why didn’t you come looking for me?” S asked.

“Oh, we  looked everywhere, and when there was no sign of you, we decided you must’ve come home for a drink of water, and forgot to come back into the game..” Pandu said with a big brother’s  insouciance, and S  decided the next time he needed a hiding place, he’d head home!

Down Appa’s Memory Lane

March 12, 2012

Appa turned 89 today . When I woke up , around 5.30 am,  I could hear him pottering about, and went to be the first to wish him Happy Birthday. “The first birthday without Amma,” he  noted, and both of us paused to let the poignant moment pass.  I wondered what it must feel  like to spend 56 birthdays (and 56 wedding anniversaries) with someone, and  wake up one day to find there will never be a 57th  of the same kind.

Amma died on January 24,  two weeks after she marked her 75th birthday. She had become quite forgetful, and barely remembered what presents she had received on her birthday. A pair of bangles ,  some money… having your valaikaappu at this age? I  asked, over the phone from faraway America,  and elicited a chuckle that proved to be the last.  A few days later I was on the plane to Bangalore.

In the weeks that followed,  we  often went into rewind mode.  Sometimes in our conversations, Amma was just away on a  long visit to Nellore.  Or in Amma Heaven, calling Ganesha Store  with her endless wish list of groceries so she could make everyone’s favorite dishes.  Her absence had become a Great Presence as the family grieved,  remembered and  then celebrated her.

I thought longingly of the divine chapatis that only Amma could make,  and Subri said now even a burned chapati made by her would be divine.   When an aval upma proved to be a disaster( because I didn’t let it soak long enough), Appa must have thought just as longingly of the ‘soft ”  aval upma that Amma always made, which translated, to me as “soggy”. Just now , what wouldn’t I do for a  helping of that soggy /soft “owl” upma, rustled up by Amma!

With mixed feelings we thumbed through the wedding album of “Mr and Mrs ’55”   and we were struck by how beautiful a bride Amma made, sans make-up , but  glamorous enough to give Nargis a complex. Appa, the same age as Dev Anand , incidentally, cut a dashing figure in the suit, in the picture (black  & white) taken by G.G.Welling.

“Tatha, when was the first time you met Pati?” Harini asked, and I  realised that the person who had answers to these questions, who always made  the ordinary stories    about all the uncles, aunts, cousins, once, twice-removed,  and totally removed courtesy-relations included  most fascinating,  and taught me to love them by knowing one little thing about each Chittappa, Mama, or  Tatha and Paati, had gone without answering that one!!

And we all looked at Tatha,  now the solitary source of  stories that ought to begin at  “Once Upon a Time”…………. and  go on “Happily Everafter!”

Appa at age 21, went to  Madras for the wedding of Cousin(s) Radha and Sitaram, and  there he first spotted his future wife, Thulasi, all of seven,  doing well, what seven-year-olds normally do at weddings.   Eleven years later, when Thulasi was 18, it was arranged that she should wed Sheshagiri . He went up to Nellore to “see” her,  accompanied by his cousin Baba,  and on his return,  his father ( Our Ramabrahma Tatha) pronounced, “you’ve got the best one of the seven sisters.”

I spent four months with Appa, and Bunty and we talked of many things, watch endless reruns of Ramayan, Shri Krishna and every mythological show that we could catch.  Appa is  89 years rich in history. of our family, of  our times.

He was 12 when Swami & Friends  was published, in 1935, and Malgudi arrived in our collective psyche.  Now  he is in his “anecdotage’. And we are hungry for stories of  his own Malgudi days.  Which makes for serendipity ( a word Appa loves to  insert into the conversation as often as he can, which is why the word is here)

He will be on rewind mode, to the times when there was neither TV nor remote, and pastimes were indulged in at a more leisurely pace, and kids could gaze upon camels and wonder at their purpose in nature’s scheme of things,  shout cheeky comments at departing British contingents, and live to tell the tale……witness the transition from petromax-lit  evenings to  electric nights…….

Appa is now the narrator and I, the scribe…………Heard that one before?