How is one to stay rooted in a language and culture while remaining available to a wide range of influences? I wouldn’t know, but the ability to pull it off is something I admire, and something that seems common among Kannada writers. This essay about a writer in whom the ability seems particularly well-developed—the poet, teacher and literary eminence V Seetharamiah—appeared this year in the Kannada newspaper Vijaya Karnataka. Setting aside the fact that it is about a person who actually lived, I am struck by how it almost reads like a Borges short story—what is imagined through literature becomes so real that the real perhaps never stood a chance. S Diwakar has written widely in Kannada: fiction, poetry, essays, literary criticism and translations of Ibsen, Marquez, Mann and Ivan Bunin. A book of his short stories was published in English last year, Hundreds of Streets to the Palace of Lights (trans. Susheela Punitha; OUP). SP
Dhoti white as a stork and tucked-up between the legs; closed-neck coat; plain, precision-folded Mysore turban; spectacles that reflected the depth of his feeling; an umbrella in hand; comfortable slippers on the feet—this was the person of five-and-a-half-feet-tall V See (V Seetharamiah, 1899–1983). A picture not distorted even when he was caricatured by RK Laxman.
V See was synonymous with taste, wholesomeness, grace. There exist countless stories about his attire, his scholarship, his oratory, his teaching Kannada in English, his procedure for preparing tea, his appreciation of beauty. His song about entrusting a bride to her husband’s family still brings tears to the eyes. He wore the finest quality 1793-count dhoti, for which he would go hunting from shop to shop. The writer and scholar TS Venkannayya, who was like a guru to him, was a very tall man. The door to V See’s room was not as tall, so Venkannayya would bend as he entered. V See agonised over the fact that such a great man had to enter his room with his head bowed. He had the door replaced with a taller one. When UR Ananthamurthy felt V See’s poems were insipid, his response was characteristic: insipidity was a taste too, he said.
Literature, economics, politics, music, art—the areas of his interest were many. His scholarship did not divide Indian from Western. As PV Joshi has said, “He read Marshall, Keynes, Russell, Bradley, Sartre, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Shaw, Pound, Eliot, Sylvia Plath with the same interest and thoroughness as he read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Bhasa and Kalidasa, Dr Kane’s Dharmashastra, Indian and Western poetics, aesthetics and prosody, the Reserve Bank’s annual statements, the Planning Commission’s reports and the Budget. He didn’t just read them, he had enough expertise to discuss them with authorities in those fields. In the world of music he listened with interest and could critique Western music from Bach and Beethoven to Mozart and Wagner, Hindustani music from the Dagar Brothers and Karim Khan to Mallikarjun Mansur. In painting and sculpture, he knew well the Greek and Italian, the contemporary European and, of course, he had a comprehensive knowledge of Indian art. If one proceeded to list in detail all his interests, those who never met him would refuse to believe that such a person existed.”
V See’s house was on the second main road in Chamarajpet, Bangalore. In front was a tiny yard with flowering plants and a stone bench. Once you crossed the yard and entered, his room was to the right. The walls had been taken over almost entirely by bookshelves. The room had a solitary chair in which he seldom sat.
Some fifty years ago, I used to visit him in that room occasionally. He’d be in a white dhoti and netted vest, sitting on a mat, reclined against a rolled-up mattress, reading the Times Literary Supplement or The Economist or The Cantos of Ezra Pound. He would beam and welcome me in. There was always coffee, sometimes snacks. For the next couple of hours it would feel like I was being taken on a tour in the world of knowledge.
One day an invitation arrived for V See to visit London. “Hasn’t Anthony Trollope said that London is unintelligible,” he said and laughed softly. He reached for a sheet of paper and began to move his index finger over it. “Look here, this is Lincoln’s Inn, here’s Essex Street. If you turn this way, Russell Square. Up here is Buckingham Palace,” he went on, conjuring up a map. Fleet Street. Savoy Hotel. Piccadilly Circus. Notting Hill Gate. Caxton Hall. Primrose Hill. Regent’s Park. Strand. Then he proceeded to sing paeans to writers who had lived in London: William Blake, James Boswell, Lewis Carroll, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, Edward Lear, John Ruskin, and others. He said London had seemed to Dickens a magic lantern, that it was the setting for many of his books, that the city’s inspiration had made a writer of him. In an area of London called Hampstead, there had lived at one time or the other Blake, John Keats, AA Milne, HG Wells, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, TS Eliot. Another historic location was The Spaniard’s Inn, built in 1585. He said it was a haunt of highway bandits, mentioned in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
V See, who described London like an Englishman born and raised there, had never set foot in the city. His knowledge of the city came from a deep study of English literature. Recently, as I read London Perceived by VS Pritchett, I recalled V See’s familiarity with London and marvelled at it. According to Pritchett, London “is the capital source of a language now dominant in the world. Great Britain invented this language; London printed it and made it presentable.” V See was hardly immune to that presentability. Surely, he must have wondered what the city he had encountered in literature was like in reality? He must have had the desire to visit it? But where would the money have come from? His student HY Sharada Prasad has written of him: “Sometimes, I feel it is Kannada’s fortune and his misfortune that he was born among us. In any other country he would have been the head of an important research institution; he would be celebrated in the papers as a polymath. Here, we made him strive for forty years, but did not even make him a principal. We left him to drown in financial worry after retirement.”
In the circumstances, it seems miraculous that an opportunity arose for V See to visit London. In 1975 he boarded a flight at the invitation of the director of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mathoor Krishnamurthy, and stepped off it at London’s Heathrow airport. It was a singular experience for him. Mathoor has recalled the episode: “As we drove from the airport in a taxi, he began to speak about Britain’s history. As we passed St Paul’s Cathedral, Parliament House, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Madame Tussauds, Harrods department store, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, he spoke for five or ten minutes about each of them. I was dumbstruck. I had been living in London for three years, but I didn’t know a hundredth of what he was saying.”
But so ill-fated was V See that he had a stroke the very next day, spent a fortnight in hospital and returned to Bangalore.
This essay was published in Oct-Dec 2016 issue of The Indian Quarterly.