‘I was very afraid again’

Amma’s mental illness began when I was only five, when she had her first clear depressive episode.

Published: 13th October 2021 06:47 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th October 2021 06:47 AM   |  A+A-

Karanth family in Balavana in the early 1950s

By Express News Service

BENGALURU: Amma’s mental illness began when I was only five, when she had her first clear depressive episode. Scarily, she had taken  me to the edge of  the  open well in Balavana  and  said, ‘Malu, we  both are going to jump into this well.’ Apparently, I had told her, ‘Bedaamma, nanage jeevanta  irabeku. Nanage saaylikke ishhta illa.’ (No, Amma, I want to  live. I don’t want to die.) She  told me later that I had saved  her life. After that strange episode, she was her usual extroverted self for several years.

Amma was affectionate and  sociable to a fault. So much so  that I used to get embarrassed  by her sociability. In a small  town like Puttur, she would  stop and talk to everyone we  met while walking down the main street.

When I was about thirteen,  Tata went on his eight-week  trip to Europe by steamship. One night, when Tata was away, Amma woke me up suddenly in  the middle of the night and  said, ‘I am being possessed by a  Devi (goddess) and you should  touch my  feet!’ This was her  second episode of that manic  mood I witnessed. I was very    afraid again.

When I was around seven  years old, one of our domestic  helps wanted to leave early because she wanted to buy some magic potion from a wandering  ‘mantrawadi’ vendor. I caustically made fun of her, laughing at her belief in mantras and potions. She was very hurt and  started to cry. Amma was very  upset with me when she saw  the maid crying. She slapped me hard and said, ‘This should put an end to your being rude  to poor, helpless people who  work for us.’ That was the only time she ever beat me and the lesson has stayed with me:   kindness to the helpless should be our prime concern.

At age ten, I decided to join high school. Tata agreed. However, he did not want me to attend the convent school run by Roman Catholic nuns. Although many middle-class parents opted for it, believing it provided better education in the English medium, Tata had  the reservation that these  schools tried to covertly  preach Christianity. Even  in  his  novel  Chomana Dudi, Tata is critical  of religious conversion of people in depressed Hindu social  classes under the inducement of money. However, he was an atheist and the practice of any religion did not matter much to him.

Tata sent me and my siblings to the Kannada medium government school, the Board High School in Puttur. Luckily for me, our school had an enormous library with a large collection of excellent books in   both Kannada and English. We  had several dedicated teachers  and the school had extensive  playgrounds and sports facilities. It was a great school, and  I did not regret the ‘no convent  school’ decision made by Tata.

I vividly remember the night Kshama was born in 1950. Tata was  preparing to leave town the next day taking his dance-drama troupe on a trip. His  team was busy packing up the  props and equipment. Suddenly, Amma started having labour  pains. Immediately they    cleared the room of all materials. They were all packed away quickly. Tata meanwhile got a  midwife to come to Balavana  to  assist in the delivery of the baby. Amma gave birth comfortably.

Early next morning Tata  packed his bags and went off  with his troupe. At that time  this did not seem like odd behaviour to me. The baby was  born at night and everybody  was up and about, busy taking care of Amma. Amma had never insisted, ‘You cannot do this.   I need you.’ I consider her a wife who gave complete freedom to her husband. I don’t  think many women can do  that.

(Excerpted with  permission from ‘Growing Up Karanth’ by K Ullas Karanth, Malavika Kapur and Kshama Rau, published by Westland Non Fiction)


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