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THE POET AS PRANKSTER
- Even in India, an autobiography can be funny and generous

It was the late D.R. Nagaraj who first told me about Siddalingaiah’s autobiography. We were at Koshy’s Parade Café in Bangalore, nursing our respective drinks (rum in his case, coffee in mine), when I said that Indian autobiographies, even the best ones, tended to be too serious. One couldn’t remember a single joke or witticism in the memoirs by, among others, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Other Indian self-testimonies I had read — by scientists, civil servants, and social activists — were likewise lacking in humour.

Nagaraj answered that my generalization applied to books in English alone. In Kannada, at any rate, autobiographies were not always so solemn. He mentioned two memoirs in particular — by the playwright, P. Lankesh, and the poet, Siddalingaiah, both rich in humour, often at the writer’s own expense.

Lankesh’s book has, so far I know, never appeared in English. The first instalment of Siddalingaiah’s memoirs was published some years ago by the Sahitya Akademi. Now, Navayana has brought out a consolidated new edition of both instalments, skilfully translated by S.R. Ramakrishna. The title of the English version of the book is A Word with You, World, evoking a line in one of Siddalingaiah’s poems. It is (as D.R. Nagaraj told me all those years ago) a very moving and also a very funny book.

Siddalingaiah grew up in a Dalit colony on the outskirts of Magadi town. His childhood memories display a keen attentiveness to landscape: with trees, boulders, and animals in his native hamlet individually remembered. From early on, he sought the wide world outside the home. “There’s much to [be] said for sleeping outside,” he says, “on the street, in the fields, or on the terrace. We escape the heat. We feel gratified when the breeze caresses our bodies. We bask in the moonlight without any effort on full moon days. We feel delightfully ensnared in a net of moonbeams.”

As an adult, Siddalingaiah retains his love of long (and deep) naps, writing here that “if someone were to give me a choice in the morning between sleeping on and a lot of money, I would choose the first option”.

The book contains vivid recollections of men and women being possessed by village goddesses. In one story, the yajamaana or priest scolds the deity for coming to them so infrequently. The conversation, as remembered by the young boy years later, ran: “Yajamaana: Where were you all these days?

Deity: Is your village my only concern? I have to look after all three worlds.

Yajamaana: Do you know how hard life has become for us?

Deity: You say that as though I am happy about my life.”

The boy’s life was not free of violence. He witnessed savage fights between rival gangs, as well as attacks on Dalits by high castes. As he grew up and became a student political activist, he was subject to a fair amount of intimidation himself.

Siddalingaiah’s first ‘public’ performance occurred in primary school, when he mimicked the speech, gestures, and gait of the government school inspector, as “the teacher’s eyes filled with tears as he tried to control his laughter”. Meanwhile, his first political memory is of his father’s brother being elected to the Magadi municipal council, and coming back to the Dalit settlement on a horse.

Several sections of the book are set in and around a hostel for Dalit boys in Bangalore city, where Siddalingaiah lived for many years. The conditions were primitive. He shared his room with forty other students. Siddalingaiah was an indefatigable prankster, playing jokes on his hostel-mates, hiding their possessions, changing their plates, and so on.

The boy Siddalingaiah read widely, writing poetry on the side. His first mentor in public speaking was an uncle, who advised him to practise his craft by thinking of inanimate objects as members of an audience. One day, to their alarm and puzzlement, the boy’s parents saw him on the street loudly saying: “Respected Cauldron, Sir, respected Water Tank, sir.”

The practice paid off. In college, Siddalingaiah made a name as a debater who won many inter-college trophies. He remained a trickster; once, to impress his audience, he quoted some of his own lines of verse, attributing them to the great Kuvempu instead. (The ruse was detected by a learned member of the audience: the aforementioned D.R. Nagaraj, who became a valued friend.)

In college, Siddalingaiah threw himself into left-wing politics, under the influence of an exemplary mentor named Kalegowda, who — unlike some other socialists past and present — lived the simple life whose virtues he preached. The young poet attended, and spoke at, a series of meetings, processions, and demonstrations. These often ended in pitched battles with the police — or with a rival political faction. Bruises, torn shirts, and wounded egos became part and parcel of his political education.

Siddalingaiah was small and weak as a child, and short and inconspicuous as an adult. His lack of (physical) stature is a recurring theme. He writ-es of how it helped him as a child — allowing him to squeeze into a seat in a crowded bus, for example, or to make himself scarce after a prank. He writes self-deprecatingly of his indifference to dress, and his unkempt manner. The prominent politician B. Basavalingappa adopted him as a disciple, but was disappointed when his young protégé refused the gift of a new safari suit. “To this day, I am famous for my lack of grooming,” he writes: “I have never needed to put any effort in looking like a revolutionary — I am disorderly by my very nature.”

Because of how he looked, Siddalingaiah was often not recognized when he arrived at a function, since his hosts did not expect their chief guest to be such a little (and shabbily dressed) man. As a teacher in his own college, he was sometimes mistaken for a peon. At other times, and in other places, he was taken to be a bus conductor or vegetable vendor. Once, after he made a particularly fiery speech, and had sat down, pleased with himself, D.R. Nagaraj brought him back to earth by saying: “Poet, sir, you thundered away. As you spoke, the pillars of this hall were shaking. It is difficult for people to believe someone with a thin frame like yours can make such a speech. You should put on some weight.”

Siddalingaiah is a funny writer, and also an extremely generous one. A Word with You, World, contains warm portraits of writers and thinkers well known in Karnataka — the director, Prasanna, the philosopher, G. Ramakrishna, the editor, Shudra Srinivas, the short story writer, Devanur Mahadeva. Reading these pages, lit up by their affection and sense of friendship, one senses that in Karnataka, at any rate, there has been a great deal of intellectual cross-fertilization between writers of different caste and class backgrounds. Siddalingaiah himself displays a complete lack of chauvinism, as manifest in his admiration for non-Dalit writers such as Shivarama Karanth, and for non-Dalit social reformers such as R. Gopalaswamy Iyer and H. Narasimahiah.

Memoirs by Indian writers in English are too often marked by solemnity and self-regard. Reading this wonderful book, suffused with warmth and humanity, shows me that there may yet be other ways of writing about one’s childhood and intellectual formation. Over the years, while I have met Siddalingaiah at book functions and film screenings, we have never really had a conversation. I shall now suggest to him that we meet soon, at Koshy’s, where our first drink — rum or whisky in his case, coffee or buttermilk in mine — shall be to the memory of his fellow mischief-maker, D.R. Nagaraj.