I don't intend to review the recent book Words and Ideas, but want to use it instead as an excuse to speak about its author M.S. Prabhakara. This is not to suggest that the author is more important than the book, but to gently emphasise that the author, with his crazily gathered genius, is at least as interesting as the book. For the record, the book--published recently by Anwesha, a Guwahati publisher, which unfortunately may not be widely available in bookshops--is a collection of essays that were first published as a fortnightly column on alternate Sundays in the Sentinel between May and December 2005. As the title suggests, Prabhakara discusses books in his essays and most often uses them as a point of departure to record the many related ideas and experiences filling his mind.
Prabhakara is a familiar byline to the readers of The Hindu and also the
Economic and Political Weekly. Although a Kannadiga from the Telugu-speaking belt of
Kolar, he has spent his entire professional life outside Karnataka. He has been in the much neglected Northeastern state of Assam for close to three decades and for nearly a decade in South Africa, during its most tumultuous and transformatory years. By his own admission, his worldview is now part Assamese and part South African. At home, he is never without the
'gamcha,' the white Assamese towel embroidered with glistening red thread at the borders and, in the background, at least one of the music CDs playing in his Philips three-disc changer is invariably African.
But then somebody may ask what happens to Prabhakara's Kannada? Well, in the 60s and 70s, he wrote avant-garde fiction in Kannada under the nom de plume 'Kamarupi.' His classic novel, Kudremotte (literally meaning 'horse's egg' was made into a "horrible" film by G.V. Iyer) has recently been reprinted to celebrate the 50 years of Karnataka's formation. This should explain his importance in his home-state, where he is perceived with a degree of awe and envy. He is glowingly mentioned in autobiographies of great Kannada writers and also makes an appearance as a character in one English novel set in Dharwad. But Prabhakara's pen-name too betrays the Assamese connection. 'Kamarup' was the ancient name of Assam and was known as the land of sorcerers. Prabhakara would insist that he is a 'Kamarupiya,' a person from Lower Assam who is typically unsophisticated and blunt compared to those bred in Upper Assam. Guwahati, where he has a home, is also in today's Kamarup district. But beyond its significance as a place noun, 'Kamarup' would mean 'the shape of one's choice.' What a puzzling abstraction!
Prabhakara shares a trait with many modern Kannada writers like Gopalakrishna Adiga, V K Gokak, P Lankesh, A K Ramanujan and U R Ananthamurthy among others, in that he was academically trained in English but chose Kannada as a medium for his creative writing. He wrote a dissertation on George Orwell for a doctoral degree and was first an English professor at the Karnatak University in Dharwad and later at the Guwahati University. It was during the Emergency in '75 that he accidentally became a journalist. He came to Mumbai to escape arrest in Assam and joined the Economic and Political Weekly. His university quarter in Guwahati was suspected to be the centre of radical activities. Just the day after he left Assam, in December 1975, his friends were picked up for congregating at his place to 'plot against the state'. After a seven-year stint at EPW he returned to Guwahati in 1983 as the Hindu's special correspondent. With his literary and research backgrounds, he became a member of that rare breed of scholar-journalists in our country. Prabhakara's writings in the EPW and The Hindu lie scattered and uncollected, which is a pity for they deserve their true value and place in history.
It is very rare that a journalist allows a complete transformation of his identity and acquires a new self to sincerely report a society, its people and their struggles. Prabhakara's reportage from Assam and South Africa was undoubtedly in this mould. It is one thing to pick up an American accent on a posting to Washington and another thing to be completely seeped in the culture, traditions and everyday life of the people while reporting from forgotten lands. The latter demands extraordinary commitment and creativity. In pursuance of that pompous idea of 'objectivity', a journalist most often tries to remain an 'outsider' to what he is reporting, but in the case of Prabhakara's journalism the distances are bridged so as to not compromise truth and also fairly reflect the cosmology of thinking of those being represented.
One has to clearly make a difference between journalists getting involved in a cultural or social situation with a singular motive of scooping a story and those who get involved to experience the humanity of the people they are reporting. Those who are there for a scoop exit as quickly as they enter, but in the case of Prabhakara he not only writes to experience that humanity, but has also allowed that humanity to transform him. The transformation is so complete that now at 72 he feels he is less and less of a Kannadiga but more an Assamese or a South African. Usually it works the other way round. Wherever they go, people try to retain their identity or carry their linguistic and cultural baggage, but it requires enormous courage to allow it a substratum life.
In fact, in one of the essays in the book Words and Ideas, Prabhakara recalls a conversation he had with a social anthropologist from Uppsala University on "the correspondences and contrasts" in the functioning of a social anthropologist doing fieldwork and the work of a foreign correspondent: "Both of us, the scholar said, travel to places and live among people we are not very familiar with except to the extent of the preparatory reading we have done. Often we also learn the language of our new milieu, study the social and political structures, make friends and try to follow the daily lives of the people, the important and the ordinary. Even though I do not, as a professional journalist does, work for a deadline reporting on the events of the day analysing and interpreting their broader social and political developments, I too maintain a daily record of my travels, interviews and conversations in a field diary. What I want to know, the scholar said, is whether the journalist too faces the dilemma that I face constantly about the distance and identification I have to maintain in my involvement and engagement in the internalities of the universe I am studying, for my very discipline requires me to be both an observer and a participant of the world I am trying to understand and interpret. How do you view your work in these terms?"
Prabhakara does not record what he told the scholar, but goes on to discuss a book by American anthropologist Sarah Caldwell (Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kali), which presents a very "original account" of this phenomenon of an observer turning participant. The book, Prabhakara says, comprises three parallel and closely interlinked narratives. At one level, he says, it is a very model of a professionally competent dance narrative of 'mutiyettu.' "At another level, the book is a deeply personal narrative, a chronicle of a marriage and relationship collapsing... Finally, the narrative is also about how she establishes her own personal relationship with the goddess." Perhaps these lines of Prabhakara can be borrowed to refer to his own intensity of engagement with Assam and South Africa. He did a thorough professional job of reporting the places, he got personally involved with its people and over the years allowed those places to reshape his worldview.
But even before we speak of the transformation and reshaping with finality, let's focus on what I see as a new problem that confronts Prabhakara. This, interestingly, has come about after he decided to spend one half of the year in Guwahati and the other in Bangalore following his retirement from the Hindu. I wonder if what was in the substratum is slowly foregrounding itself. I am not sure if his staying in Bangalore is about recovering a bit of his roots, but he has certainly gotten back to writing in Kannada. It appears that he has started re-accomodating his Kannada identity. The other day he read out a poem that he had written after many decades in Kannada called 'Tuppa' (ghee), which described the ritual bathing of his grandfather in Kataripalya of Kolar where he grew up. He states in the poem that he dislikes ghee but as a child was completely fascinated by how his grandfather smeared it all over his body before an elaborate session with near-boiling water in the bathroom.
In order to facilitate his Kannada writing, he has learnt to use the Kannada word processing software and has now even started posting blogs in Kannada on
As recently as a month ago, keeping a web journal was an obnoxious idea to him, but he meets so many young people that he was quickly convinced of its harmless
nature--and benefits. Given the impersonality of e-mails, he had declared sometime back that he would stop sending out long e-mails, a la the handwritten letter, because people often offended him with one-line replies. But I am not sure if he has given up e-mailing entirely.
Even as this re-establishing of links with his native tongue is happening, Prabhakara has come up with the idea of spending a quarter of a year in his native Kolar. That would mean he would divide his time equally between Guwahati, Bangalore and Kolar -- four months to each place. If South Africa was somewhere in-between Guwahati and Kolar, Prabhakara would have happily skipped Bangalore for it. He has already spent more than a lakh of rupees to renovate his ancestral home in Kolar and wants to sleep on a thick rug (jamkana) that has been there since his father's years. "I carried this rug when I went to South Africa and it is absolutely fantastic," he told me. He has also dug up the unpublished manuscript of a little book on his early years titled The Education of an English Teacher. He said he had once thrown parts of it into a bonfire in the backyard of his Guwahati home, but may not be averse to reconstructing it now. The beauty of conversing with Prabhakara is that you never feel the weight of his experience, memory or nostalgia. He is giggly and mischievous, but never solemn.
Now that we are trying to speak of his Kannada identity, sample this little story with texts and sub-texts. It all began when I asked what the 'M' and 'S' in his name stood for: Motnahalli Surappa Prabhakara would be his full expanded name. Motnahalli is a little village 12 kms from Kolar and that is the place from where his ancestors hailed. Surappa was his father. Once in the 1960s, when he was referring to the 1951 census at the Guwahati University library, amidst all the data compiled he was surprised to see a mention of Motnahalli, which he had never visited. Against the name of the village the census detail said 'bechirag.' Prabhakara did not really know what that meant, so he looked it up in the Kittel's dictionary and found that it was an 'abandoned' place. A place where no fire was lit. He later connected this fact, discovered many miles away from home, with what he had heard as a little boy. The village had been apparently abandoned by all its residents after one of his relatives had murdered his pregnant wife. He had always felt that this was an exaggerated tale doing the rounds in his family circles, but now that the census backed it, he became curious. The next time he visited Kolar he cycled down to the village and found the story to be correct. Discovering the truth about his ancestral village while sitting in Guwahati makes all his identities look so intertwined.
The more your hear his stories, it becomes clear that he was never meant to belong to just the place he was born or brought up. This statement brings back to my mind an image from the evening when Prabhakara quite literally
put on the many caps and head scarfs he had collected during his travels over the years. Among the many that he
put on, there was the Palestinian
keffiyeh, made so famous by Yaseer Arafat; there was the red head band of the Burmese student movement; a Nepali cap, African caps and of course the cap of the African National Congress.
In the context of all that we have discussed till now, his fascination for collecting dictionaries only complements his personality; his switching between identities and the dilemma of being the 'insider' and the 'other' simultaneously. In Words and Ideas itself there is ample proof of this. In the slim volume, he discusses the 'Oxford Guide to Word Games,' 'A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food,' 'Thesuarus of Slang,' the thirteen volume 'Oxford English Dictionary'; Kittel's 'Kannada-English Dictionary'; 'A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles'; Fowler's 'A Dictionary of Modern English Usage'; 'A Shakespeare Glossary'; 'The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology'; 'Encyclopaedia of the Esoteric Man' and many others.
In one of the essays 'The World of Words' he writes:
"However, rather more interesting, telling us much about the society in which we live, are words that deliberately diminish and demean groups of people who are considered outside the pale of the values cherished by the dominant groups, in short, the 'Other.' The way dictionaries define such words and trace the histories of their usage is one of the primary indications of how a people have understood and come to terms with their past and present, and will shape their future."
On the lighter side in the same essay:
"Even otherwise, dictionaries are always interesting not merely to refer to, but also dip into, perhaps even read systematically. However, one would not recommend the practice of Conmal in Vladimir Nabakov's Pale Fire, a pedant and scholar who learnt English by simply memorising a dictionary and went on to translate Shakespeare and other writers into Zemblan, his language. However, during his one and only visit to London, he simply could not stand the city, for 'the weather was foggy and he could not understand the language' and returned to his country, 'Zembla, the Crystal Land!'"
Even as we try to understand the juggling of identities, make sense of the heap of stories and the enthusiasm for innumerable words and ideas, I would like to end by quoting the most moving passage on loneliness that I encountered in this book. It is in the essay 'The Mask behind the Mask, in which Eric Ambler's book The Mask of Dimitrios is discussed:
"For the reality of the human condition, including especially one's own, is simply too awful and terrifying to contemplate; hence the protective covers that one adopts throughout one's life. Shedding one's clothes is the easiest of tasks, done every hour of the day and night everywhere; shedding the moral defences that one has built up over a lifetime is much harder. Above all there is that half a square inch of space within one's heart that is never accessible to anyone, not even to one's closest companions, not to the lover, not to the husband or the wife. Therein lies security; therein too lies the loneliness of all human beings."
This paragraph has been particularly haunting me after Prabhakara told me recently that these days he sleeps with a thought each night and he'll not tell me what that thought is.