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)