“I went to England to see daffodils celebrated by Wordsworth ‘tossing their heads in sprightly dance’. And I have a dream. I dream of a time when people who visit Karnataka want to smell the fragrant Mysore jasmines, eat the bananas of Nanjangud and read the great vachanas of Basaveshwara and Allama Prabhu. I dream of a time when those who admire the wanderings of Joyce’s hero Daedalus also open their eyes to the rich Dalit world that Kuvempu’s character Nayigutti leads us into.”— From "Ooru And The World", UR Ananthamurthy
In his stellar profile of the readers of queer author Vasudhendra, the writer and translator Srinath Perur speaks of how Kannada authors tend to be very approachable to their readers. In Vasudhendra’s case this meant that an assortment of people, ranging from a middle age Vedic astrologer in Bengaluru to a 27-year-old farmer in North Karnataka, reached out to him after his book Mohanaswamy was published, which Perur describes as “the first book of fiction in Kannada with well-realised gay characters.”
Vasudhendra’s work was quietly revolutionary, and his readers not only offered him critiques but opened up to him about their personal struggles. These were conversations Vasudhendra was ready to have, being equipped with his year-long training in basic counselling.
Working on this piece at a crowded military restaurant in Jayanagar, the sight of its walls adorned with framed photographs of writers and intellectuals like UR Ananthamurthy, Da Ra Bendre and Girish Karnad, instead of those of the founders or of deities, reinforced a fact I had known about this city – it takes its writers seriously.
For those who read Kannada literature in Bengaluru, the Kannada literary world espouses an immediacy, a certain rajas that the writer S Diwakar explores well in his essay “Oh, Come To Gandhibazar!”
“For someone like me, with a deep, abiding passion for literature, terribly frightened of writing, and with an overall touch-me-not attitude, it was in this Gandhibazar that I was able to interact with litterateurs...We would walk towards Sanman Café to have coffee. Here, we would be joined by our other friends. (Gopalakrishna) Adiga would light a cigarette, offer it to those who smoked among us and, as soon as the coffee arrived, he would set the day’s discussion in motion. Who’s written what, Indira Gandhi’s administration, an analysis of Eliot’s poetry, Brezhnev’s autocratic ways, the prevailing price of coconut, the static state of this country, where even a matchstick fails to ignite…Anything under the sun could become a subject of our discussion. We would talk, talk, and talk.”— Translated by Deepa Ganesh
As someone who can neither read nor write in Kannada, despite a few spirited attempts eventually consumed by the laxity of one who has been introduced to the language pretty late in life, I’ve always been an intrepid outsider gazing into what I’ve perceived as a deeply rich tradition. The canards that surrounded these literary figures, conveyed to me by those on the inside, all animated with their own “chronotope” – to unfairly drag Mikhail Bakthin into this essay – fascinated me and soon I found myself indiscriminately purchasing translations of works by any Kannada author.
This was a process greatly encouraged by beginning my journey with AK Ramanujan’s moving translations of the Vachanas of Basaveshwara (“I don’t know anything like time-beats and metre /nor the arithmetic of strings and drums; / I don’t know the count of iamb or dactyl/ My lord of the meeting rivers/ as nothing will hurt you/ I’ll sing as I love.”). At a talk I attended recently that featured writers Vivek Shanbhag and Zac O’ Yeah, the former – now an internationally acclaimed Kannada author – spoke of a schism between Bengaluru’s Kannada and Anglophone writers: “These two worlds never meet.”
This lament is echoed by Guruprasad D Narayana, the owner of Aakruti Books in Rajajinagar “For example, a writer like Anita Nair is not known as a Bengaluru writer amongst Kannada readers in Bengaluru even though she writes about Bengaluru. I think there must be an effort by both sides.” However, English-to-Kannada translations are bogged down by another hurdle. “Kannada books are priced very cheaply, we go by the page basically,” says Guruprasad, who has published 17 books in Kannada. “With English books, you find that they are not only priced higher but the publishers retain the translation rights too, which are expensive to acquire.”
A consensus emerges that translation is indeed the first step in bridging the gap between these two worlds. “I think some our greatest writers have remained within the Kannada circle as their work is not translated into other languages, especially English,” says Vasant Shetty the owner of Munnota Books in Basavanagudi “As a first step, drawing non-Kannadigas to Kannada should happen through translations of Kannada’s greatest literature to English and possibly other Indian languages. The onset of English medium education has also created a big chunk of Kannadigas who mostly read English and are oblivious to Kannada literature.”
Bengaluru is perhaps the only true multilingual metropolis in India, a city where linguistic diversity is not merely a postcard of cosmopolitanism and tolerance, but, rather, a customary feature of daily living. In the fascinating and subtle documentary, Shankar Nag Kelkond Bandaga (When Shankar Nag Comes Asking), an auto-rickshaw driver at the Shankar Nag Auto Stand in Basaveshwaranagar likens the city to “a vast ocean.”
Four years after the release of this documentary the city has only become even more vast, plunging head-on into what Pankaj Mishra described in 1995 as “going the way other Indian cities had gone before it, letting entropy do its slow inexorable thing, turn(ing) this once elegant cantonment town into another urban Indian nightmare.”
In an increasingly detached urban milieu, both bookstores seem to understand the value of having freewheeling spaces for darbar and discussion like Diwakar’s Gandhibazar of yore. “Munnota has so far hosted over 30 talks in the last 10 months alone. We live in a day and time where people to people interactions are becoming rarer due to social media. While fully recognising the positive impact of social media on the society, I still believe nothing can replace the beauty of people to people interactions!” says Vasant Shetty.
Aakruti books hosts informal talks by established Kannada authors and holds poetry discussions and recitals covering the Navodaya and Navya canon. Guruprasad is also attempting to bring out a long form literary journal with a friend. “Back then,” he says, “authors like DV Gundappa and Gopalakrishna Adiga had their own small magazines. Even Lankesh Patrike used to do important work for literature. I’m trying to start a quality journal that has stories in Kannada, stories translated into Kannada from regional languages, and interviews.”
My hour-long conversation with Guruprasad was illuminating, touching, on among other subjects, an obscure poet from Mysuru who has released a collection of poems titled Ramu Kavithegalu (The Poems Of Ramu), the relevance of Umberto Eco’s writing in modern-day India, and the dearth of Kannada translations of Latin American literature.
All this enlightened rambling left me feeling strange that our paths hadn’t crossed given our similar interests, “There is a biased view that Bangalorean reading culture is restricted to Church Street, nobody will talk about Nagasri Book House for example,” he grumbles, adding a polite but valid rebuke. “I had read your article about those shops last week, I needed a dictionary! Just yesterday, I read an essay by Sartre and didn’t have that much trouble.”
How then do those intrepid ones in the sea of outsiders who make this city their home annually dive into this literary tradition? “Acquiring reading and writing comprehension in a new language is a tough skill,” admits Shetty. “Anyone new to the Kannada world should first start by learning spoken Kannada. There are many initiatives by techies in this space (Munnota, Kannada Gottilla). Once they gain some proficiency in spoken Kannada, they can start attending literary talks that take all the time at various places like Ravindra Kalakshetra, Kannada Sahitya Parishat, Indian Institute of World Culture.” Guruprasad offers a more grounded approach. “Watch the movies, however bad they are.”
Both the Munnota and Aakruti bookshops are fledgling enterprises compared to the older Kannada bookstores in town, “If you ask me, I can’t really think of a reason why I started the bookstore even now seven years down the line.” says Guruprasad, an engineer by training. “I’ve always been interested in literature and I even wrote film reviews for Kannada Prabha for a few years. I just wanted to be involved in literature, I hope to write a book some day.”
Shetty started Munnota bookstores in 2016 with a couple of friends. By day he works for a tech company “It’s a niche bookstore with curated Kannada (90%) and English (10%) books on federalism, language reforms, language planning, the history of Kannada, Karnataka, entrepreneurship, and science and technology. There are several Kannada bookstores in Bengaluru but we wanted to get good, objective, well researched books on these areas under one roof.”
Guruprasad, on the other hand, started his bookshop with the aim of providing a more general literary catalogue for Kannada readers in North Bengaluru. “South Bengaluru is where all the bookstores are,” he says. “Over here in Rajajinagar, I might be the only general bookstore. But I think I overestimated how many readers there would be. Also, their spending capacity seems to be lower.”
“One thing I’ve observed here and in other bookshops,” Guruprasad continues, is that people don’t simply browse for books anymore. The internet and e-commerce has probably contributed to this. When they come to the bookstore they know exactly what they want. Just browsing and discovering a surprise amongst the bookshelves is a culture that’s died.”
Nagasri Book House is located in the Jayanagar BDA commercial complex and can be a little tricky to find if you don’t ask for directions. “They started work on this building in 2011,” says Venkatesh KV, pointing at a massive deserted mall-like structure that was built to give the Jayanagar Commercial Complex a swank new edge, “But before that you could see our shop clearly from the main road. It was completed in 2015, but neither the BBMP nor the BDA (city corporations in Bengaluru) have claimed ownership of it, so it’s just lying here. Look, you can see the weeds growing in the parking driveway.”
Nagasri Book House is a 41-year-old establishment that stocks English as well as Kannada titles. Its catalogue is impressive, clearly geared towards serious readers “What you see in these big bookshops and malls today are the same kind of books stacked one on top of another, says Venkatesh. “Who goes to malls to read anyway?” The location, Jayanagar, a predominantly Kannada-speaking part of the city, ensures a healthy shelf presence for Kannada writers. “Kuvempu, Shivarama Karanth, woman writers like Triveni, the crime writer TK Rama Rao who wrote thrillers like Agatha Christie did – their books are very popular in our shop,” says Venkatesh.