A tribute and an introduction (for those of us who may need it), to the late, great, evergreen K.P. Poornachandra Tejaswi by Deepa Bhasthi.
“I have seen people who talk about the rain.”
And so on and so on. About the rain. About the birds you can’t hear sing because it rains so hard. About the layer of soil that hurries away in an angry red torrent when it rains so hard. About looking for a flying lizard in thick forests and thinking about existentialism along the way. About a goofy old dog which nearly always falls over its long ears. About people who seem to inhabit his life and to colour the pages he writes, for the sole purpose of exasperating him. They are people on whom he practices his long list of Kannada cuss words; and then he writes about them and about everything – the rain, his dog, those birds and his people. They all sound hilarious. That is what K. P. Poornachandra Tejaswi makes them sound like.
Actually, it’s not just that. Well, in parts, that is what he wrote. One of the best beloved writers in the Kannada language – and one of the most accessible, for the simplicity and wry humour of his words– K. P. Poornachandra Tejaswi (also called PooChanTe) was far more un-lighthearted than what a casual look at his books might imply. The many, too many, layers of what I’ll always think of as this colourful personality is what I write in this introduction to him and his works.
This time is as good as any to introduce him to those outside the limits of the language he wrote in. For, it is seven years this April since his passing. For, in the blistering heat of this summer, his stories of torrential rain in the lush Western Ghats where he made his home, his karma-bhoomi, reminds us of the possibility of that rain arriving here too, hopefully soon, and that thought brings some relief. This is as good a time as any because when it doesn’t rain, or when it rains at the wrong time, it brings to mind what he warned people about all through his life: unless you respect the environment, there isn’t going to be much hope for us humanity.
PooChanTe was son of poet laureate Kuvempu, he who gave Karnataka its state song. But the son was in some ways more popular than the father; not better, but just a different genius and read by more people.
Environmentalist. Coffee planter. Farmer. Wildlife photographer (never film, because he hated working with other people). Ornithologist. Painter (his self-proclaimed first ‘profession’, though others insisted he was a writer). Translator of the likes of Kenneth Anderson into Kannada. Publisher. Activist. Angry man. Writer. Eccentric, very eccentric. September 8, 1938 – April 5, 2007. Many tags maketh the man.
Though all his life he rejected the attempt to define and box his work within a limiting genre, he is placed somewhere on the cusp, sometimes precariously, between the Navya and the Bandaya literary movements. Navya, ‘the new’, marked a rejection of the romantic and the lyrical and favoured realism, practicality and concise expressions of plots and experiences. Bandaya was a protest against social norms, against convention, against all that was previously accepted or tolerated. Tejaswi straddled the two comfortably. Abachoorina Post Office talks about what a one room post office does to the self-appointed post master and the village while Karvalo follows the writer and a motley group of friends into the forest to find a flying lizard. Novels like Jugari Cross and Chidambara Rahasya and several short stories draw from the village for which he abandoned the city and the people whom he came across. These are people we would all be familiar with– the procrastinator/superstitious Maada, the honey-man, the good-for-nothing, the neighbors, the dog named Kivi (meaning ‘ear’ in Kannada… it was a cocker spaniel, of course), friends we all meet in our lives and grow to live among.
If the father Kuvempu was publically perceived as a stern scholar and serious poet, the son was known as the naughty first born and, in later life, the reluctant genius. The former image was pleasantly dispelled by Tejaswi’s memoirs Annana Nenapu (‘the memory of the father’), which depicts Kuvempu, the family man, passing in and out of the pages along with friends like Kadidalu Shyamanna, he who, for a while, made music by tapping his teeth and the dog they all tried to convert into a pedigree by cutting off its tail – the young boys were told dogs of pedigree did not have tails, since they weren’t allowed to adopt one, the neighbour’s country breed dog was subjected to this attempt at ‘conversion’.
If this book, a personal favourite, endears Tejaswi to the reader, later works like Parisarada Kathe, or ‘the story of environment’, takes the route of subtlety to create awareness about environmental issues. In one of the very few interviews he granted in his lifetime, Tejaswi warned that the survival of humanity was in question, “if you start interpreting forests in terms of money…”.
I like to think of Tejaswi as something of an Arundhati Roy. Like her, he did not write things no one had ever talked about before. Like her, he wrote about critical issues in a language so beautiful, in words so simple, yet so profound, that it reached audiences who wouldn’t otherwise have read ‘environmentalism’ or been inspired enough to do something about it, even if only in their backyards. Like the great classical masters, he did not build a new language by bending words to his will. Instead Tejaswi sits across in your drawing room and chats with you, sometime in exasperation or in anger or in mock resignation, and tells you a story. He practiced what he did not overtly preach, that of his commitment to being aware of the environment, his connection to the land. But, when he told a story, he cleverly inserts a veiled lesson, a point to ponder after you are done laughing.
That is where the freshness of his works remains. In these times of being ‘organic’ = sexy, Tejaswi’s short stories, travelogues and novels couldn’t be more relevant. For those of us who left our farmhouses to live in cities, a dose of him every few years keeps old connections alive. That is what elevates Poornachandra Tejaswi to a great classical master as well.
This piece was inspired by a friend who has a separate shelf lined with Tejaswi’s books.