City Buzz

Very Very Ravi

By Ravi Belagere, Editor & Publisher, Hi Bengaluru

Do six fingers bring luck?

Like hundreds of their friends, I also had told them. It’s a normal reaction to any new born with six fingers. The young couple had a tough time when they were newlywed and as an elderly friend I had extended some support to them. More than monetary help, young couples come to me for moral support, advice and sometimes to seek my help in getting social support for their unconventional marriages. I feel a sort of social obligation towards such couples.

Sridhar and Latha met me in similar circumstances. I advised them to shift over to Bengaluru as they were living in a small town, hostile to an unconventional marriage. They even decided to hire a small house near my office and kept meeting me often. Sridhar was a freelance photographer and Latha proved smart enough to get a job soon. I extended my support till they were financially independent. Sridhar was a regular photographer at all the functions of my office, school and family. Latha was a humble, brilliant, affectionate girl who grew close to my family members. We invited her for a special dinner when she was pregnant, as it is customary in our home. We believe in the tradition of inviting a pregnant woman for dinner, cooking all that she likes. This is done in every house in the village so that the lady is well nourished. Latha enjoyed the food and she was visibly happy when my wife showered her with affection and presented her a bright new silk saree.

But Latha’s real problem was the post natal treatment, which is a big ordeal in Indian middle class families. She had lost her mother and was skeptical about her brother’s wife helping her out. Her difficulty started on the tenth day of the delivery. A cute baby girl was born with six fingers, the extra little finger protruding from the right hand. The child was healthy but there were the usual neonatal problems. She had gone to the same small town in the Western Ghats and the monsoon had set in. Her sister’s house was pretty small but the real problem was with the brother in law. He was rude and ill mannered. He was irritable and made a strange rule that the new born should not cry while he slept, which he did the whole day. On the sixteenth day, Latha called me worried and tensed. I asked her to come down to Bengaluru.

As Latha walked into our home with the sixteen day-old, six fingered child, my wife received them and held a small function. I played a happy grandfather. Soon I helped them to settle down in the small house and arranged a domestic help. We named the child Siri and held another small function. There were no major problems as Sridhar started doing well and Latha returned to her work. But all of a sudden Siri fell ill and Latha ran from clinic to clinic, changing the doctors. Finally one doctor asked us to shift the child immediately to Manipal Hospital, as the child had a major heart problem. Siri was born with six fingers, particularly with an extra little finger hanging. Until then, we did not know that it is a symptom of heart disease! We all called Siri a lucky child and thought the hanging finger can be severed by a minor surgery at later stage.

But things went really bad for the child and the young couple. As Siri struggled for breath, Manipal Hospital made Sridhar’s pocket bleed. He ended up selling everything that he had, paying a lakh odd rupees and still the child did not respond to the treatment. The most popular heart specialist Dr Devi Shetty was literally heartless to the cries of the couple. Nurses at the hospital were rude and Latha sat before the intensive care unit with no life left in her eyes. Doctors did not even bother to answer her queries and only the cashier met them every now and then with a new bill and a new demand. Sridhar mustered the last installment and paid for the operation, but Siri breathed her last.

“Please clear the Rs 80,000 fee for the post operative care that was provided and collect the body from the morgue…” said the same cashier, of course with a smile. It was then Sridhar lost his cool and shouted that he was my son and will expose the hospital. Suddenly everything changed. The chief medical officer came to him with a note of apology and offered to arrange a meeting with the ‘world famous’ Dr Devi Shetty. But what for? Sridhar just wanted Siri and nothing else. Latha was drained out of even tears. The medical officer spoke so much and in such a length that Sridhar could finally sense that the hospital was just buying time. But once again, what for?

We were shocked to know later that there was another operation done on Siri, now dead, only to take out the small instrument (a stent?) that was implanted earlier. That was ‘expensive’ and could be implanted into some other ailing child. Finally the hospital allowed Sridhar to take out Siri, after claiming ambulances charges of Rs 5000.

I was waiting in the burial ground at Banashankari. Latha was pale, absolutely blank in the eyes and just sat on a tomb hugging the child. I silently sat by her side and watched the man who was digging the grave. When the final act of burial started, I thought Latha will scream, breakdown and resist burying the child. I asked Sridhar to be with her. But the couple were so exhausted and silent that I started feeling uneasy. Their silence was unbearable. Sridhar placed the child into the grave. And there was no ritual. Children are not eligible for any ritual. Somebody threw some mud and asked the couple to do the same. Latha did it mechanically. Sridhar hesitated a while and a friend did the job for him. Within minutes, Siri was buried and what I still remember is the small, tiny, pale hand of Siri with six fingers that lay outstretched before the man covered it with soil. The child was lost, lost forever. We all started walking towards the gate of the graveyard and suddenly Latha turned back, asking:

“Ravi, will Siri be able to sleep alone here…? All night?” I just held her close and said, “They say, the dead child will be back, soon…”

“They say six fingers bring luck, don’t they?” Asked Latha, still looking at the place where Siri was buried.

I cried silently.

Those days of turbulence
Turbulent days. That’s what I call them, those days when everything was a struggle. I had to struggle for a meal, a swig of Khoday’s rum, two idlis, a bath, a place to sleep… And above all, struggle to make people acknowledge me. And I struggled for years. For a full 16 years! And then came a time when I would drink rum someone bought me at the Press Club, eat idlis from a wayside push cart, drink water from some tap, and stretch out at night on a cement platform at the grand Kempe Gowda bus stand. When the beat policemen came to poke me with their lathis and shoo me away, I would show them my identity card: journalist!

Do you remember there was a hammam (bathhouse) near the Majestic bus stand? I remember the old woman who would take two rupees, provide me with warm water in a plastic bucket, and keep an eye on my tattered clothes while I took my bath. She was skinny and dark, with pockmarks on her face, and teeth stained yellow with tobacco. Watching over things at the hammam was a part-time job for her. Her regular job was at night, as a pimp at the bus stand. She was probably an old prostitute, too old to be in action. But for two rupees, she watched over my stuff, and waited as I walked out of the bath room, clean, fresh, confident, and hungry for news!

That’s more or less how my mother sent me to school every morning.  Both were old and helpless, but helpful. And of course, they were good omens for me to start the day. My mother was widowed very young. I have never seen her with sindhoor on her forehead. They say seeing a widow early in the morning is not a good sign. But ‘luck’, which I never believed in, had broken and frustrated me for 16 years. Widows made no difference. The woman at the hamam wore no sindhoor either, but sent me out with a pale smile. Was that a wish? A prayer? I don’t know. This funny journey of journalism, which started from a cement bench at the bus stand and a bath at the dirty hammam, led me to great places: meadows, mountains, deserts, pastures, forests, war fields, palaces, bungalows of chief ministers and prime ministers, dens of gang lords, Maoist hide-outs, expensive restaurants, gay clubs, ashrams, and to the borders of distant countries. There was always someone standing silently with a humble, pale smile whenever I stepped out. My widowed mother or the old prostitute at the hamam…

I have spent hours and days brooding over the road I have taken.  I am basically a wanderer, interested in history of every kind.  But I had never imagined I would one day cross that great river called Amu Dariya, separating Russia and Afghanistan. This was the river navigated by Alexander before he invaded Afghanistan. I was excited.

Excited to be a witness to the fall of Kunduz, Kabul and other cities to the American army, and witness to the massacre of hundreds of Taliban soldiers on the dusty plains of Afghanistan. I was one among hundreds of journalists who flew in from various countries to report from the war fields of Afghanistan, and of course, the first Kannadiga and the only Bangalorean to be there!

Thirty-odd years in journalism have not left me cynical, although they have made me more sceptical. My friends call mine a story of rags to riches, but I see it differently. I have never seen the doors of fortune opening for me. I have always bet on my dark horse: hard work. I have never enjoyed a holiday in 16 years. I have never slept for more than five hours, and even that not before working for 18 hours. I have never had a role model, either as a boy or as a journalist. I believed my instincts, but was led more by my intelligence. ‘If you don’t read today, you are uneducated hereafter’ is the philosophy I believe in.

Breakfast with a chief minister, lunch with a movie star, tea with a don, and dinner with a diplomat… a journalist’s routine is envied by many. But I have enjoyed other things. Hot morning tea at a bunker in Kargil, tasteless beef cooked by the wife of a driver in Afghanistan, rice beer brewed at the house of a prostitute in Uganda, scotch with Khushwant Singh, rotis on the banks of river Bheema (notorious for its murderous politics), and tandoori dishes with the Pakistan poet Miraz in Islamabad.

No other profession can take one to places like this. I still smell the phosphorous fumes of the Bofors gun fired from the peaks of Kargil. The soft voice of Pakistan’s great writer Tehmina Durrani, who I interviewed, lingers in my ears.

The ‘gaali’ of Sardar Khushwanth Singh – “behnchod of Bangalore!” – still sounds like praise. The smile of an unknown auto driver, a call from a troubled housewife, the cry of a jailed child, the tears of an HIV-positive man, the suicide of a girl who failed in her love… these keep me grounded, and I never fail to pay attention to them.

After some years of success, and earning good money and buying a car, I couldn’t resist the temptation of visiting the old hammam. Yes, she was there, standing at the entrance. She had the same pale smile but appeared sick, and much older. The pockmarks were masked by her wrinkles. She couldn’t recognise me and was surprised when I gifted her a sari. She understood the sari was expensive and I was not there to take a bath. I don’t know why she had tears in her eyes when I bid her goodbye.

Did she see her son in me? I don’t know. My attempts in later years to trace her went in vain. But I always feel somone stands at the doorstep to wish me well whenever I set out on an adventure.

Whether it’s my mother, or the woman at the hammam, I love her.

A friend who will be missed
The final exit. My senior friend MP Prakash has passed away. Our three decade old friendship, great times shared together, small differences and a firm moral support mutually extended have been wiped out by death. I feel a vacuum. I know I will miss him; especially when I read something good and interesting.

Prakash was just an advocate, and I a part time lecturer when we first met in my home town Bellary in 1980. He was much older, well read and out spoken. We belonged to two different schools of thought. I was a hardcore Maoist, active in the Naxalite movement while MP Prakash was a sober socialist. His father was a nationalist and once a legislator. He had named his children after national leaders of pre-independence period. Eldest was Prathap Gouda, followed by Chittaranjan, Bapu and Prakash, in fond memory of Jayaprakash Narayan. Of all the brothers, Prakash was the only person interested in music, literature, the stage, cinema, folk art and of course, politics.

He completed his graduation in Bengaluru and took his Law degree from Bombay. Influenced by the political philosophy of Ram Manohar Lohia, Prakash associated himself with intellectuals like Prof Nanjundaswamy, UR Ananthamurthy, Lankesh, Poornachandra Tejaswi and Dr Settar: a generation which argued for social change. Politically speaking, Prakash always stood against the Congress and the Nehru-Indira family.

But those were days of difficult survival. He was not a successful advocate and at least I have never seen him wearing a black coat, arguing a case in the court of Law. He had a big family at Hadagalli in Bellary district and his brothers were more an encumbrance than anything else. One brother named after the great national leader Chittaranjan Das was a miserable alcoholic. There was not much of agriculture in the western part of Bellary district and Prakash was never successful as an agriculturist.

It was not very strange to meet such political leaders in those days for us. I met George Fernandes for the first time in MP Prakash’s house, sitting on a broken bench reading a newspaper. Anil Lad, one of the richest Rajya Sabha members now, who owns two helicopters and huge mining areas, was a young boy when his father Heroji Lad and I were drinking cheap rum in road side wine shops at Bellary. The elected legislator of Sandur constituency Mr Bhupathi used to come to my house on a rented cycle and shared cigarettes with me.

Prakash, though a teetotaler, was no different from us. He had no money to hire a room in a lodge at Bellary and would sit with me on the pavement of the main road all night. I had no money to buy my daily ration of rum. We were actively involved in the pro-Kannada ‘Gokak movement’ and were supervising the building of barricades for the function that was to start the next morning. Around three am, we received Kannada matinee idol Rajkumar in the outskirts of Bellary and the function was a huge hit the following day.

I and Prakash stood in a corner of the stage, watching the fan mania. There was a mammoth crowd of fifty thousand people in that bilingual town and people just wanted to listen to Rajkumar and nothing else. No one was interested in the pro-Kannada movement and all that they insisted was for Rajkumar to sing the ‘Yemme ninage saatiyilla…’ song.

“Ravi, do you see any future for this country with stupid, ignorant masses like this,” Prakash had whispered to me, and I could sense the despair of a socialist in his voice.

But suddenly something had happened. There was a major political change in the state. For the first time a non-Congress government came into existence with Ramakrishna Hegde as the chief minister, and Prakash was his blue eyed boy! My good friends, who were as financially broke as I was, became legislators. Bhupathi won with a majority of ten thousand votes. Heroji Lad was now a legislator and MP Prakash became a minister in the Hegde cabinet.

“Prakash, do you now see a bright future for the country,” I asked him in the state owned Inspection Bungalow, and he had a sheepish smile on his face. The very day on which he took oath as minister, there was a brutal incident in one of the police stations of Bellary where a Muslim girl was the victim of a gang rape. She was raped by policemen. The protests taken out by the people became suddenly violent and the police killed eleven innocents in the firing. Prakash rushed to Bellary, and in a bid to console the people, he got surrounded by a mob. The crowd was crazy, hysterical and violent. I literally lifted Prakash on my shoulder in to the compound of a nearby building with the help of a constable and Prakash was saved. “Do you see any bright future for the country?” I asked him casually, but he was in no mood to smile. The mob outside was literally murderous.

Later, Prakash got into politics full time, and grew rich and powerful. Still interested in literature, he read a lot and it was an experience to chat with him. I distanced myself from him the moment he came to power and always remembered to meet him and be with him when he was defeated in elections. Prakash was a very regular reader of my writings and would suggest new books to me. His son Ravi was rather a disappointment. He associated himself with the granite mafia of Bellary and embarrassed his father.

The more politically successful he got, the more helpless Prakash became. He was a Panchayat Raj minister, a minister for transport, culture, home and even became the deputy chief minister of the state once. But never being assertive, he was used as a pawn by Hegde, Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy, and never allowed to function independently. He was never a contender for the post but was pitched to compete against many contenders for the chief minister’s position. Finally, the same Deve Gowda ditched Prakash, and his long drawn association with the Jantha Parivar ended abruptly. He tried his best to unite the splintered groups of the Janatha family but ended up joining the Congress, the party he hated the most.

Prakash always spoke of retiring from active politics and was sick of his fellow politicians. He was a misfit in Congress and the money power of Reddy brothers literally made him obscure in Bellary. Before announcing official retirement from politics, he was diagnosed with cancer of the colon. I invited him to the hugely crowded function where City Buzz was released along with my two controversial books. Prakash looked  very weak, skinny and malnourished. But he could sit through the function and bid me goodbye in the end. I saw him sitting in the car waving his thin, wrinkled hand.

That was the last time I saw him. On Wednesday, I got up to receive the day’s first telephone call and my journalist friend, another Prakash, announced the news.

I know, I will miss MP Prakash forever.

An epidemic called narcissism
“That’s the second biggest problem” said my friend over the telephone. She had called me from Atlanta. She teaches Psychology in Atlanta and her husband is an architect. A regular reader of mine, she is a great critic too. She was surprised when she found me being active on Facebook. I have nothing less than two dozen computers in my office, one hundred and fifty systems in my school Prarthana, and apart from my collection of cell phones, an iPad and a Mac. But I claim and I am a computer illiterate. I somehow did not learn typing anything on the machine, though I can type really fast and well on a typewriter.

Like any frustrated parent, my mother had taken me to a typewriting institute when I failed in the school final, which is tenth standard. Those were the great days of my life, when I got fascinated with the world of letters. Typing was taught in small, dingy, poorly lit rooms on condemned Remington machines. Though I picked up speed, the owner of the institute returned twelve rupees that I had paid in two months as fee and asked me not to come to the institute anymore. I instantly understood the reason behind casting me out from the institute, as his beautiful young daughter stood behind the curtain smiling helplessly.

That was the end of my romance with the writing machine. When computers were introduced to the newsrooms, hundreds of workers lost their jobs. They were into type setting and we called them compositors. They used to work with lead and typesetting was a laborious job. Computers were installed in the newspaper offices and they were kept in air conditioned rooms, prohibiting us from entering wearing shoes. I never attempted to gain expertise in computers but I knew the technique of typing and page setting.

But when I started reading the latest non-fiction written by Poornachandra Tejaswi, whom I consider one of the few great writers of Kannada, I failed to enjoy his style. The ‘Tejaswi factor’ was missing in his writings and the humour was almost dead. “Your dependence on the computer is killing your creativity,” I told Tejaswi when I met him in his farm house in Mudigere. He was so obsessed with the machine that he got angry and shooed me away. He started even painting on his computer and held an exhibition of his paintings. His creativity literally dried up when he finished his Millennium Series.  Was it a natural phenomenon? A writer’s menopause? A natural response of an inquisitive writer who was thrilled by new inventions? I do not know. But the computer left me sacred. I resisted the idea of having an e-mail id and to this day I do not publish the mail-id in my magazine.

But with the coming of the Mac and the iPad, suddenly everything changed. I started spending a lot of time on Facebook and picked up friends and enemies in a short span, which of course is part of my nature. But what attracted me was the element of narcissism in the Facebook. My space, my photos, my friends, my love, my relationship, my children, my picnics, my dog, my life and my bullshit! It was and is the thing that survives purely on the narcissistic element that is present in every personality. Right from ‘my God’ to ‘my video’, everything is ego centered. “And Ravee, that’s the second biggest psychological problem in recent decades; the first being obesity…” explains my Atlanta friend.

It all started probably in the 1970s with the slogan of ‘self help.’ The decade was an offshoot of the 1960s dominated by cult movements like Hippies, Hare Krishnas and so on. There was a huge frustrated crowd addicted to drugs, free sex, and cannabis. Psychologists and therapists found the ‘self help’ drug doing miracles. The ideas of ‘love yourself and self esteem’ were welcomed and really needed. Psychological impairment, unavailability of the father and mother, lack of love, missing existence of healthy family environment and growing dependence on alcohol and drugs created the need for ‘self help.’

Alcoholic children were then called as ‘narcissistic children’ and doctors started treating them with ‘self help’ therapy. This was instantly welcomed by society and psychologists suggested that parents, even young mothers should help the child with regular slogans, wall plates, and writings on T-shirts saying only one thing: Love yourself.

This change was seen in every walk of life. The music, art, language, appearance, attitude and even inter-personal relationships underwent a change. The appearance of ordinary looking actors like Jaggesh, Shivarajkumar and Raghavendra Rajkumar as heroes replacing Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan and Kalyan Kumar is just the result of the ‘self help’ movement. The established conception of ‘hero material’ changed and a new trend set in. If a girl can love Jaggesh, if Ragavendra Rajkumar can fight ten goons, why not me? The new generation was excited. The most ugly and artificially improved bodies became a craze and a fashion. Meaningless poetry surfaced in every language and it meant ‘I love myself.’ The more self centered, careless and irresponsible you became, then more you were appreciated. Yogi alias Loose Mada is the fine turned version of narcissism that emerged three decades ago. Psychologists and doctors who prescribed the ‘self help’ drug were aghast with this unexpected development.

But narcissism took and is taking its toll. Boys and girls normally revolt against their parents at some age and it is a natural stage of growth. But narcissism has become an epidemic, and the way the youth want to ascertain themselves now, is dangerous. The ‘I love myself’ slogan has slowly turned into ‘I do not love others.’ ‘I hate everybody’ is the new brew that is being fermented to the extreme. This has not limited itself to Facebook addiction, hate mails and illusions of grandeur but many are becoming fanatic. Many terrorist groups have emerged and are thriving on the ‘I love myself’ ideology.

As generally felt, these people suffering from narcissism are not products of an inferiority complex. They are healthy, rich, and capable but fail to love anybody other than themselves. Statements like ‘I love religion,’ ‘I love my country’ and ‘I love my language’ sound good and healthy, but at the end of the day, only one slogan remains for the narcissist: ‘I cannot love others.’

We speak ill of great men like Bhimsen Joshi, UR Ananthamurthy or Girish Karnad not because we have read them or differ from them on ideological grounds. We hate them because we love only ourselves.

How sad!

One George is not like another
George! I always called him George, without suffixes or prefixes. His broad, pious smile and sharp eyes always responded in a humble, affectionate way. Though much elder to me, George never pretended to any superiority and never suffered from complexes. I saw him achieving unimaginable goals, attaining great heights, working as the second top man of the Government of India and still maintaining the same honestly, warmth and integrity in public life.

Yes, he is George Fernandes. I have read in newspapers and have heard my friends say that he is in the last stages of life, and suffering from terrible dementia. It is also true that he is caught in the storm of a property controversy at a time when he is incapable of identifying his own self. Many like me were surprised when George Fernandes’ estranged wife and his brothers quarrelled over the property rights and appeared in court. Did he possess anything called property? We never knew it.

George, a humble Christian boy ran away from Mangalore and lived on the pavements of Bombay, emerging as a great socialist leader who organised taxi drivers and contested elections, every time surprising his adversaries. He never had a cultivated political constituency of his own, but got elected from any place, anywhere in India. He married the daughter of a minister of the Nehru cabinet, but the marriage was short-lived. I saw him alone, hopping from one city to another on airplanes, or reading a fat book in his Delhi residence, usually alone. One Anil Hegde, a young man from South Canara, lived with George as some sort of assistant. But George washed his clothes, never allowed a friend or a servant to attend to his personal needs, and at least I never saw him with money in his pockets. He was a maverick, political and personal.

As a journalist, I have visited the most difficult places in the most disturbed days; Kargil during war, Gujarat after an earthquake, and Orissa during floods, but I have always found this man George Fernandes already working there for the masses. He was then next only to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As defence minister, he had asked his officers to dismantle the gate of his official residence in Delhi, and never allowed a policeman to guard the gateless compound. I have seen funny varieties of extremists of various states of India sitting in his drawing room discussing their war strategies with him. There were the Maoists, the ULFA, the Kashmiri militants and even the LTTE men. George always served them as a bridge to the government and played a negotiator. He was a great democrat, and respected by the government and the extremists alike. He drank whiskey occasionally and green tea regularly. Probably in his late years, Jaya Jaitley lived with him, but that was never a matter of either discussion or gossip.

I wanted to spend some time with him and write his biography, for which he had consented. But George fell ill soon after that and was finally rendered a vegetable by this thing called dementia. He fails to recognise anybody and does not know who he is. Now, George Fernandes, once the custodian of the Indian Army, is in the custody of his wife, once estranged.

Well, I know another George too, an equally great man, and he is TJS George; Padmabhushan TJS George.  He is one of the few upright newspaper editors still surviving in India. He is a legend in English journalism and writing.  Born in 1928 in Kerala, TJS George graduated from Madras and surfaced at the Free Press Journal in Bombay. It is interesting to know that Bal Thackeray sat next to him in the newsroom drawing cartoons, and George calls him ‘a goat turned tiger.’ Later TJS migrated to Bihar and started embarrassing the then chief minister KB Sahay through his sharp and scathing editorials. Though the then defence minister VK Krishna Menon stood by him against the wrath of the chief minister, George migrated to Hong Kong, from where he edited the popular Asiaweek magazine. This position gave him the opportunity to watch China, neighbor and dragon, very closely. He is one of the few experts on China working in the Indian media.

As I started preparing myself to write the biography of an actress, I wanted to read a couple of works on a similar subject and bought two books. One of them was on Meena Kumari, written by Vinod Mehta, another great journalist. Thhe other was on Nargis, by TJS George. Nargis was a great actress, the most successful lady on Indian screen, highly emotional and partly stupid. She had the audacity to barge into the chamber of the most ill-tempered of politicians, Morarji Desai, and to ask him to repeal the laws of bigamy, permitting her man Raj Kapoor to marry her! Morarji had chased her out of his office with contempt. Such an emotional person, Nargis fell prey to cancer later, and it was years after her exit that George started work on her biography.

It is amazing that George made personalities like Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt, the popular anti-hero KN Singh, senior most film journalist Sathe and a great friend Shammi (not Kapoor) speak on the life, events and character of Nargis. A biography cannot be written in a better way, I feel. His writing on the great Carnatic singer MS Subbalakshmi is another wonderful experiment.

I always hesitated to meet TJS George as I had heard of his stern demeanour and discipline. I avoided meeting him for years, and kept reading his columns with mounting appreciation and respect. But suddenly in a party we ended up sitting next to each other, and broke all the rules of discipline. I was later told that he never drinks an extra peg and seldom sits in a party after ten pm. It was an hour past midnight when George left the party hall of Atria Hotel, and I was the last to leave the venue.

It is strange that I know just five persons named George. One was a childhood friend, a thief in Bellary. The other is a soldier in the Indian Army. The third George was a nasty minister in the Congress government. The other two are George Fernandes and TJS George.

I am excited to see TJS honoured by the Indian government with the Padmabhushan award, and called to congratulate him. He ended the short conversation with a question: Ravee, when is the party?

The child soldier who became a novelist
“It’s a minor surgery, it will take five hours,” said my doctor. One night before I got admitted to a hospital, I drank to the brim and decided to quit the habit. Liquor lived with me for decades. The operation, as Ramesh said, ended in five hours but left me literally dry for ever. I kept the glass down.

After I recovered from anesthesia and got discharged from the hospital, suddenly I became restless. I could not sleep for seventy two hours. It was insomnia. I just hate to take sedatives. Doctors identified it as a withdrawal symptom. They said it will take a long time to recover from it. Instead of sedatives, I placed my hand on the most lovable and wonderful thing called the book. Believe me, I read nothing less than thirty thousand pages of non-fiction in these seven months.

One night I stumbled on a novel Traitor, as it was written by a child soldier of Sri Lankan origin. Shobha Sakthi was an unfamiliar name for me. The name of his novel in Tamil attracted me. Hmm… it was the nod of a reluctant listener. Before I could complete the first two pages, I was engrossed in it. In just one sitting of four hours I finished reading the novel and could not resist sending a text message to a friend of mine. Malavika, as she is known in the film industry is a brilliant reader. Malavika, her husband Avinash, the actor Prakash Rai and myself are a gang. Our marathon booze parties always ended early in the morning, of course, discussing books and just books. I call her Malar. I wrote to her asking to read the novel at the earliest and call me back. I sent the book and by twelve midnight, she replied: Ravi, I am disturbed. I am sobbing.

The novel Traitor has been translated well by Mrs Anushya Ramaswamy, a professor. I immediately wrote to the publishers, Penguin India seeking the rights for translating the novel into Kannada. I have steady business relations with Penguin and they directed me to contact the author Shobha Sakthi, as the rights were with him. For my lengthy letter of request which explained my credentials and claims, there came an immediate reply in just three sentences. ‘You translate, thank for the interest. No English.’

In no time, Mrs Anushya wrote to me. She was a sort of literary agent to him. As a ritual, I asked her to finalise the formalities of signing a contract, noting the amount that I was expected to pay as royalty to the author. I had mailed a copy of the letter to Shobha Sakthi. Now he replied in two sentences. ‘No money, literature should reach people.’ I was really surprised. Translation and publication are a part of my business. I have dealt with the most popular writers, publishers and literary agents of international standards. Even the richest writer, my mentor Khushwant Singh had taken his royalty money. It is more an honor satisfying the writer than the money. Even I have claimed my royalty for my writings. But this man was so reluctant. Is he rich?

Then I started enquiring about him. He is from one of the seven small islands of Sri Lanka, and was born a Christian, named Antony Thasan. By 1983 Antony had completed his high school and got attracted towards Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE supremo. Antony was trained by the Indian Army in arms and explosives in Tanjore district. He was an LTTE child soldier.
He fought with the Sinhalese with a cyanide capsule hung around his neck. Prabhakaran, he says, was a rustic young man without a single vice and a great battle strategist. He had lived underground from the age of seventeen.

He was a great organiser, bold warrior and terribly adventurous. The first man killed by Prabhakaran was the mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah. “But the killing slowly became a habit, a fancy. Duraiappah was a Tamil. The second man Prabhakaran killed was a Tamil, third man was also a Tamil and the killing continued. He became an autocrat, blood thirsty and ruthless to his own comrades,” says Shobhasakti.

Unlike sycophants like Kittu, Pottu Amman and others, Antony was sensitive, and a democrat by nature. He was basically a writer, a play writer.

Unfortunately, the same Indian army officers arrested him, jailed tortured and handed him over to the Sinhalese police for further inhuman treatment. More inhuman were the LTTE bosses. After the release, Antony was suspected by the LTTE and ruthlessly tortured. Finally Antony managed to escape from the island and reach Bangkok. The life of a refugee started and he landed up in Paris, the abode of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan refugees.

“I was twenty five years old, did not know any other language than Tamil and no motherland to claim. My vision changed in France when I started reading Marxist literature, after learning French. I chose the best profession which could give me enough money, food and lot of time to read. I had attempted a bit of poetry, but successfully wrote street plays in my LTTE days. At Paris I started writing short stories. Then I wrote my first novel, Gorilla. It is more autobiographical. The novel was a sensation in Tamil Nadu. My experiences were greatly reflected in Gorilla. It saw many translations and Random House publishers came out with the English version. I then wrote the novel Traitor. I knew that my readers will be sympathetic towards it,” Antony told me when I met him recently in Bengaluru.

It was his love for the Tamil actress Shobha, deceased wife of Balu Mahendra and passion for the poetry of Bharathi, a Tamil luminary that made him assume the pen name, Shobha Sakthi. He is fond of Tolstoy, French theatre, Communist literature and travel. He has written for Tamil movies and documentaries, lives with Leena Manimekhalai, a film director; and visits India whenever time and the pocket permits.

“But what’s your profession, which gives you money, food and time for writing”? I was inquisitive. “Ravi, I am a dishwasher in a Paris hotel. I get a salary, the hotel provides me food, I live with my sisters’ family and am now writing my third novel” he said.

My days with Manohar Malgonkar
The great novelist lived like a hermit inside the dense forests of Dandeli, but opened up warmly, like a long-lost father, when a fatigued Ravi Belagere stumbled into his bungalow one day

It’s a muse. I have many muses. Travel is a muse and it has taken me to the most wonderful places. But this journey was altogether different.

I fell ill in a dangerous way. My staff noticed it first.  The girl who gives me medicines started gaping at me. “Sir, you are stuck with this song for more than four days,” she said.

I often get stuck with a particular song.  I hum it, write down the lyrics, play it repeatedly on my computer, carry it to the car, and then take it back home. That’s how I have some 70,000 songs etched in my memory.

Friends call me iPod and I feel flattered. But this time it was different. The girl observed that I had started making up my own words. Then there were other changes in my behaviour. I had started smiling, giggling, and raising my eyebrows in a funny way. My moods were unsteady.  I had developed this nasty thing called self-pity, and at the same time I had started thinking up crazy, impossible projects.

I pretended I had a lot of paper work to be done for the projects and kept scribbling nonsense.  My eating habits had changed. Sleep was elusive.  Scarily, in eight days, I had trouble speaking. I stuttered even during small talk.  One morning, I came to know that I couldn’t write. Not even a paragraph. My family physician got my blood samples tested.  There was nothing abnormal with my sugar levels or my blood pressure.

He tried changing my medicines.  He advised me small work-outs.  When nothing helped, I got myself tested for HIV. The results came out normal, but I was becoming physically helpless. I needed assistance even to turn around in bed.

My children admitted me to hospital where I fought with the doctor. I threatened the security guards and drove away after assaulting one of them. Strangely enough, I drove into another hospital where all the tests were done again and I was declared ‘normal’. But the hospital kept me for two days, and discharged me after billing me Rs 50,000.

“You need a change,” my inner voice told me! I just drove towards Dharwad, my second home. I walked into the house of my dearest friend, the great psychiatrist Dr Anand Pandurangi. His wife is a mother to many of his patients.  The couple offered me a lavish lunch. Even before looking at the lab reports, Dr Pandurangi said, “ Ravi, you are overworked”.

One small pill he gave me did the miracle.  After a good nap, I spoke to my wife over the telephone.  I was talking sense. By ten in the night I reached a resort on the banks of river Kali, amidst the thick forests of Dandeli. I never knew that my life would take an unexpected turn.

My young friend Narasimha Chapakhanda told me about an old man living alone in his bungalow deep in the forests of Barbusa. He was an English writer, and he never allowed the locals into his bungalow. And he had a gun! Narasimha did not know anything about the literature of the old man but had strange stories to tell about him. He had been a big game hunter, a military officer, a contractor, and he had even tried his hand at politics. This was enough temptation for me and I managed to get an appointment over the telephone. I met him on a day people were celebrating Holi. He was the great Manohar Malgonkar.

He was 93 when I first met him. He uncharacteristically opened up and spoke to me for hours. Mahan Maratha was a super hit teleserial made by Sanjay Khan, and it was based on a Malgonkar novel. His library had many copies of his English novels translated into French, Spanish and Italian. His library was in fact a monument in itself. The house was a piece of art.  Rusting guns hung from a wall, and a huge tiger skin was spread on the floor of an entire room. Pictures of his beautiful wife Manorama were also on the wall. His daughter’s bedroom was full of books and ashtrays. The instrumental music had a soothing effect on me, and the pint of gin I shared with Malgonkar really rejuvenated me.

I returned to Bangalore with books autographed by him, and my wife was relieved to see me.  But what surprised me was that I started writing.  There was a new ‘me’ in my writing. Malagonkar’s two great works impressed me so much that I translated both at one go.  Then I started visiting him frequently. “Stay with me, Ravi. Don’t go to resorts and forest bungalows,” said Malgonkar on my second visit.  Everybody, including Narasimha and the three servants at the bungalow, was surprised to see the strange relationship developing between Malgonkar and me.  He had lost his wife and only daughter in a span of five years.  Both had died of breast cancer.  His son-in-law is Andre Kapoor, a relative of Anil Kapoor, and he owns a huge industry. He is in his seventies and in poor health.

Malgonkar had lived alone in the bungalow of Burbusa and hammered out all his works on a typewriter. He never wrote anything without his notes. He researched his books thoroughly. Both fiction and non-fiction. The British were his muse. He had served the British Indian Army and could not serve the new Indian masters after 1947.

His novel ‘Devil’s Wind’ started influencing my writing. I translated it quickly. ‘Dangeya Dinagalu’ in Kannada is a very well received novel.   I took copies of the Kannada version along with the reviews published in newspapers. It was his 95th birthday and I could detect the excitement in his eyes. A writer becomes a child at such moments. “You are making me popular at this age, when death is knocking on my doors, Ravi,” he said.

I had no idea of making him popular.  He was my mentor, a role model, a hero.  The craft of writing, however inborn, needs a teacher.  I emulated Malgonkar’s methods of making notes, referring to books and scriptures, and analysing and interpreting history.  When I met him after a gap of three months, I was disturbed.  He was chair-bound.  The evening was gloomy. He spoke very little at the dining table. The next morning was bright.  He was in a mood to talk about his wife, their relationship that lasted half a century, and his loyalty even after her death. Malgonkar had accepted life and loneliness. He had no complaints against society, or life.

“I have lived like a hermit in this forest all my life.  I have enjoyed every moment of it.  I have no regrets about anything. One should know the art of changing loneliness into solitude. A writer is always a loner” he said.
That day he signed a contract permitting me to translate all his works into Kannada.  That was something like an elderly father giving away all his wealth to his son.  I was the happiest man on earth.

I kept visiting Barbusa regularly and could see age weighing him down.  He could not even sit on his chair.  He needed help to wash himself.  But the old man was firm. No pills, no injections! His family doctor told me that his food pipe and stomach had shrunk because of old age. Malgonkar managed to live on baby food and chocolates. But he insisted on the drink. One small rum in the night.  He was very alert, and would ask about the sales of his two translated works.

He had been a perfect non-believer all his life.  But when he said that he spent his time just remembering the Sanskrit hymns he had learnt as a young Brahmin boy, I was surprised. “Are you scared of death?” I asked him and he said with a smile, “No!”

I wanted to organise a small get-together at his bungalow on his birthday and invite a few scholars known to him.  Dr Settar was one among them and I was his student during my post-graduate studies. I spent a night sitting by his side, like his servant boy used to, and took him to the bathroom, where I washed him and gave him a shave.  It was the last service of a son. A grateful son.

“Saab Guzar gaye,” (Master passed away) said the servant boy on the telephone just a few months before Malgonkar turned 97. I never went to Barbusa again.

The skinny girl who reported from the battlefield
“Where is my helmet?” the girl at the door shouted. We were all taken aback.
It was cool a morning at the headquarters of an army command unit at Srinagar. Some of us journalists were sitting in the office of Major Purushottaman, a Jabalpur-born Keralite, as he was the public relations officer for the army.

This tough, jovial South Indian officer, led the journalists from Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir to the peaks of Kargil, where the Indian Army was engaged in a battle with the Pakistani intruders.

“But why do you need a helmet, lady?” asked Major Purushottaman, looking at the door. She was in jeans and t-shirt, with bobbed hair and protruding eyes.  “We are going to the war field, no? Landmines!” she said.

The journalists laughed loudly, and embarrassed the girl. She had travelled from Delhi, checked into a hotel in Srinagar, and barged into the army headquarters. But why would anybody ask for a helmet when the battleground was 400 km, and at least a 15-hour drive, away?

After a couple of minutes she was sipping hot tea, chatting with the other journalists and laughing at her own stupidity. She represented a leading national fortnightly, and was pampered by the editor who was known to charm girls. He had written in his editorial that she had risked her life to report on the India-Pakistan war and had given in writing that the army authorities were not liable should anything happen to her.

This was absurd. Like any patient undergoing an operation is made to sign a form absolving the doctor of liability in case of unforeseen complications, we journalists had also signed a form for the army authorities. It was just a formality.

No reporter knew the exact location of the battlefield. We had a rosy picture of snow-clad mountains, but the whole valley was burning with heat. The peaks were dry, the weather hot, and none of us saw even a bowl full of snow during the 17 long days that we roamed the Himalayan range.

Major Puruhsottaman took the group from Srinagar to Kargil in a military truck. I was excited when we passed the historic Zozilla Pass, where General Thimayya had fought a valiant battle with the help of a small group of soldiers whom he fondly called “my boys.” The Pakistan army was humiliated by him on more than one occasion, and I was respected by the officers as I had come from the land of General Thimayya: Karnataka.

Kargil was a beautiful lakeside town with a vibrant life. The majority of the journalists were lodged in a hotel called Zozilla. I was fortunate to share the room with Raghu Rai, the world-famous photographer.

Madhu Trehan, wife of Dr Trehan, also stayed with us. Her husband is the most popular heart surgeon of India. Madhu is the founder-editor of India Today. But where was this girl, the one who had asked for a helmet? No helmets were provided. No helmet could have protected us when a shell came from across the border. Only the bunkers protected us when there was shelling, and we happily shared them with the soldiers. They were very ordinary men, with little or no knowledge of international politics, but were men of great conviction. They begged their officers to sanction more ammunition and were reluctant to carry the food packets to the peaks. “I can survive without food or water, but do not want to die for want of ammunition,” said a soldier.

In the bunkers, they fed us chappati and sabji and shared their cigarettes and rum. That was the best human interaction I ever had in my life. Death was at the doorstep and every soul was full of love, compassion and humanity.

I met many Muslim soldiers fighting against Pakistan’s Islamic army on the difficult peaks of Kargil. Major Purushottaman was the real guide.  He made me understand the nature of the guerilla war fought by Pakistan, and how it was totally different from a pitched, all-out battle on the plains. I got a first-hand view of a battleground.

It was on the second day that we noticed the absence of the girl who had come from Delhi. She was not staying at the Zozilla. She was not roaming around with the groups of journalists on the battlefield. But we were surprised to see her sitting at an ammunition depot in Drass, being entertained by a brigadier. I was aghast when I noticed the middle-aged brigadier making notes. He wanted to write a book on the Kargil war. He seldom moved out of the ammunition depot and the girl remained cooped up with him. A soldier in the bunker spat on the floor and said ‘behnchod’ with the utmost disrespect.
But we forgot the helmet girl as soon as we saw the charming anchor of a national television channel emerge from a helicopter. She was with her cameraman. Staying at the officer’s mess, she ate the best Kashmiri biriyani brought in by military helicopter from Srinagar. Always found in the company of sophisticated bigwigs of the army, she roamed around freely. The entire country and the media were surprised to see this skinny woman sitting next to men fighting the enemy with their guns on the battlefront. Her cameraman was busy getting the footage. The footage showed her seated next to a soldier, firing incessantly. We, a small group of scribes, struggled hard to shift a soldier injured by a splinter to the army hospital, and one among us volunteered to donate blood. The soldier said ‘thanks’ as he struggled for his last breath and tried to reach out for his gun to return to the battlefield. The skinny girl came running to the makeshift army hospital and shouted at her cameraman for failing to get footage of the dying soldier. She placed herself by the side of the bed and spoke into the camera for more than ten minutes and did not bother to mention even the name of the martyr.

But the ‘camera trick’ gained an upper hand. Television was new. A girl in the battlefield was a surprise. People marvelled at her boldness and adored her for years. Then came the nasty scam of the Niira Radia tapes.

I saw the same skinny woman, Barkha Dutt, standing in the studio explaining her involvement in the Niira Radia case, and the country was in no mood to listen. More than this all trivia, what haunts me to this day is the death of Major Purushottaman, a great friend and soldier. He was killed by Kashmiri terrorists in the same office where he had offered us tea with so much warmth.

Bhat lost his job for a bigot
Journalism. It’s a giant machine with its conveyor belt constantly moving on a thousand wheels that are not seen. Some wheel gets removed by an unseen hand but the machine keeps going.

Journalism is like that. Khushwant Singh, Pritish Nandy, Khadri Shamanna, K Shama Rao – just a few names who were unceremoniously removed from their newspaper cabins by their moneyed bosses. A journalist is remembered by his last byline. Readers do not remain nostalgic about journalists or their writings for long. That privilege is probably enjoyed only by the film stars. They do not enjoy anything like the Jnanpeeth award, though they keep writing all their lives. Finally, what remains is an unhappy saga in their autobiographies.

My friend and a two-decade-old intellectual companion Vishweshwar Bhat has walked out of the nest of Vijaya Karnataka, built by him. Whether the management asked him to leave or Bhat resigned, it makes absolutely no difference. In the strange world of newspapers, these terms do not sound different.

Vishwa, as I fondly call him, shared great moments of joy and sorrow with me in the past two decades. He was a bright, handsome student in Karnataka University when I first met him in 1988. He worked with me at Samyukta Karnataka in Hubli and Bengaluru before migrating to Kannada Prabha. He sculptured a set of sensitive students in Asian College of Journalism as he taught there for a couple of years. These young boys are popular reporters today, working in various newspapers and TV news channels of the country. He was influenced by the senior journalist and trend-setter poet YNK, whom we called YN Gay, which he was.

Bhat picked up the puns, the writing style and sensibilities of a journo from YNK. I vividly remember the evening and late night sessions we had with wonderful personalities like Shankar Nag, Ananth Nag and TJS George, to name a few. Malavika, Avinash, Viushweshwar Bhat, TN Sitharam and I were a gang. All of us are into different professions with varied interests and opinions, but the binding factor is always love and just love. A common thing that binds us is reading. Vishwa and I compete with each other, which is always cut-throat, when it comes to reading and writing. A man blessed with a terrific sense of humour, Vishwa charms everybody. Many young, popular and beautiful women are his admirers. I am jealous and he blushes whenever I say this.

But Vishweshwar Bhat’s hard work, success, professional skill, the rapport that the enjoyed with readers and staff, and finally his balanced personality has been spoiled by a fellow journalist, Pratap Simha, an ordinary chief sub-editor at Vijaya Karnataka. Simha is a novice in the industry, a fanatic Hindu, and a narcissist. Pratap Simha wrote a column called Beththale Jagathu (The Naked World) published every Saturday. He is rabid against Muslims, Christians, Leftists, Chinese, Pakistanis, nationalists who are not very vocal about it, and everybody else for that matter. He is against the moderates of the Sangh parivar. Pratap Simha’s ideal political leaders are Nathuram Godse and Narendra Modi, not even Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Unfortunately, the senseless rhetoric of Pratap Simha earned a sizeable number of sycophants in the state. More unfortunate is that his column is projected as the editorial policy of Vijaya Karnataka, now run by the Times Group, which is nothing but a commercial, no-nonsense publishing house. There were protests and demonstrations against the daily by Muslims. Pratap Simha made the crazy move of buying a revolver. He was followed by the chief reporter Tyagaraj buying one for himself, and Vishwa engaging a regular gunman. This was unknown in the history of mainstream journalism. Everyone started looking paranoid.

But that was only the beginning. Pratap Simha, who vehemently wrote against every single politician of the country and state, invited the wrath of the Reddy brothers when he published a stupid book on the ‘Mining Mafia of Bellary District’. Janardhana Reddy sued him for Rs 20 crore. This was followed by another suit when Sriramulu approached the court. He was accused of a murder by Pratap Simha, which was a baseless allegation. Finally, it was Vishwa who pacified the Reddys and Sriramulu at the cost of a page-length article in Vijaya Karnataka. The same Pratap Simha praised in the next issue the golden embroidery on the coat of Janardhana Reddy and the hairstyle of Sriramulu, who had tonsured his head in a fit of political rage.
This apart, Pratap Simha who condemned Barkha Dutt and called her ‘Burkha Dutt’ and claimed to be the fierce, fearless supporter of the ‘honest’ in his columns, started hobnobbing with politicians like Shobha Karandlaje, Suresh Kumar and finally Yediyurappa. He published pictures of Shobha sitting on a mule on her trip to Mansarovar after she was sacked from Yeddyurappa’s cabinet. He called her adventurous, bold and patriotic. He wanted to please the old man. He observed a grand silence over the series of scams of Yeddyurappa in the recent past. This did not go without a reward.

On Pratap Simha’s request, Yeddyurappa allotted him a ‘G’ category site of 2,400 sq ft in an expensive locality of Mysore at a throwaway price. But Simha got alert when the Times Group management started investigating the matter. He returned the sanctioned site to the Mysore Urban Development Authority and marked a copy of the letter to the management of Times Group. No one knew of his sinister design. By then he had made one Dr Arpita of Mudigere apply for a site and also got a certificate from the government about her physical disability. She had lost her right leg in a road accident.
Pratap Simha took her to Yeddyurappa, introduced her as his disabled doctor ‘sister’, and got the same site allotted in her name. He made Dr Arpita, daughter of a rich coffee planter, swear in the name of God that she had no other property anywhere in the state. She was given the same site worth Rs 50 lakh, with the same survey number, in the same rich locality of Mysore.
Before anybody could realise the designs of Pratap Simha, he was happily married to the same disabled ‘sister’ at Chikamagalur on 18 November, 2010. The Times Group officials comfortably laid their hands on the file and unfortunately questioned Vishwa on the issue.

Was my friend gullible? He is emotional, hell-bent on protecting a junior, and might have rubbed people the wrong way. A couple of issues added to his misery. Vishwa finally walked out of the newsroom of Vijaya Karnataka.
It is a fort lost by him. But, for whom? A corrupt bigot like Pratap Simha?

Death of a short story writer
‘Sir… I am… I am…”
I fumbled as I fished out a visiting card from my wallet. Fortunately, I found one. I feel very insecure with some people in some places. My inferiority makes me nervous, especially when I encounter IAS officers, girls caged in the ticketing booths at the International airports and English teachers of the elementary school. I have tried to overcome this all my life and failed.
To avoid the embarrassment of introducing myself, I carry my visiting card whenever I go abroad or to other states. I don’t need an identity card in Karnataka. Thanks to TV, which has added to my notoriety. I never need a credit card as I have agents selling my magazine in every town of the state. I don’t carry the driving license card as I do not have one and I have stopped driving long back. I sometimes drive people crazy and enjoy it too. I am literally ‘cardless.’

But I was standing before the top bureaucrat, an IAS officer from the Ministry of External Affairs, India. He read the name on the card and gave a warm, broad smile and said,
“You are a popular man Ravee…”
“Yes, for the wrong reasons…” I smiled sheepishly.
Well, the inferiority just vanishes and my usual confidence returns to me. It is enough to know that the other person knows a bit about me to raise my confidence level. We spent three days in Pakistan together and became great friends. This inferiority with officers, girls in the airport and English teachers is mostly because of my upbringing. Apart from the cousin’s insults, the medium of instruction added to misery. It trains the child to think in the mother tongue. It is true that the child learns anything well and fast when taught in the mother tongue but the impediment of English gives him or her an inferiority complex. Our schools never insisted on students speaking in English. I find hundreds of men and women getting nervous in the airports, especially middle class Asians.

It is strange but true, success is the immediate cure for this disorder. But success of what sort? In my case even that proved wrong. I was hardly twenty four when I was given a Sahitya Academy Award identifying my potential as a short story writer. I then lived in Bellary, an obscure town, and worked as a lecturer. After the award was announced in the news papers, I expected my friends to come home and greet me. Not a single soul turned up. I peddled my bicycle around town the whole day and no one congratulated me. My best short stories published in the most popular magazines went unnoticed in the town and none bothered to acknowledge me.

In a year’s time though, the unpleasant scandal at the ladies college had made me terribly notorious in the town, leading to my dismissal. There was no other college which would accommodate me and I did not know anything other than writing and teaching. My attempt to run a local news paper landed me in more trouble. Short stories neither made me popular in my town nor paid me. A small amount of Rs 40 was paid for the published story as royalty and I could hardly write one a month. I do not know how the wisdom prevailed on me. On April 9, 1988 I borrowed four hundred rupees from a friend, loaded my motorcycle on to a lorry and left Bellary forever.
I was not very hopeful of settling in Bengaluru also. The metropolis never bother to acknowledge my arrival. Who cared for a Kannada short story writer? Though a publishing house paid me royalty of Rs 40 for a published story, I could not encash it as I had no bank account. Chances of surviving as a writer were bleak. Life was at an all time low. But what came to my rescue was journalism. Though there were repeated failures, insults and rejections, I doggedly held on to my job in a small newspaper. My first salary of Rs 800 was paid on June 7,1988. I sat alone in a wine shop and drank to the brim. Walking alone to a dark corner of Rajajinagar Entrance I cried aloud, for a long time. The great metropolis was in deep slumber.

It took seven long years, walking alone and desperate on the pavements of journalism. I was into magazine editing and knew very little of news reporting. With terrible irreverence towards everything, I still managed to survive for seven years. This frustration was at its peak when I accidentally met Mr Siddique Alduri, a fellow journalist, in a gloomy evening at the Bangalore Press Club. Never knowing that he held the  magic lamp for me, I casually chatted with him. He is an honest Muslim, not a fanatic, who worked for an Urdu newspaper, the Daily Salar. He knew almost everybody in Shivajinagar. I asked him to introduce me to Koli Faiz, the don of the Muslim underworld and Siddique readily agreed. One sunny Friday afternoon, when the prayers were being said in the Shivajinagar mosque, I met Koli Fiaz, who looked like a huge cement block. He was strong, tough, ruthless. He had killed his rival, Saamp Nayeem in broad daylight, witnessed by thousands. Faiz was the uncrowned king of the Muslim butchers’ underworld.

Something very strange conspired at that moment. I was not a professional reporter, though I did report a few stories. And I definitely did not know the Bengaluru underworld. Of course, curious I was. And since I was not a reporter from the usual lot, I was able to view the whole thing in a new perspective. As far as the writing is concerned, I am a master stylist and can really write well. Interviewing the underworld dons, visiting them in their hideouts, giving their version of the events, giving vent to their feelings, exposing the corrupt police system, talking to the mothers and wives of the dons – was all new to the Kannada reader. There was a certain freshness to every one of those stories. I was then the editor of Karmaveera magazine and the underworld series made the magazine sell more than a lakh copies. This was in mid 90s. My management gave me a hike of Rs 300 generously.
What followed was sudden and surprising: I became a household name. Youth and women looked at me like a hero. My rounds in the underworld even inspired a feature film. I was respected by the underworld and the police alike. I realised, the journalist in me had finally made a mark. The euphoria lingered for long. It was followed by money, popularity, TV and cinema appearances, books, awards, trips abroad and everything appeared to have fallen in line.

But one fine day that man appeared before me. The man who craved for recognition as a short story writer. The man who was thrilled to receive the Rs 40 royalty. The writer of short stories mocked me. Where are the short stories, he kept asking. I had written hardly 21 of them until then. In these long years, I have made innumerable attempts to write just one more of them, but could never do it. I know now, it is impossible. I will never be able to write again. The short story is like a woman: it demands loyalty.
But what killed those beautiful, compact creations? My irreverence? Desires? Money? Popularity? This glitter of journalism?
I draw a blank. Sorry.

Same old story. Different year.
“She is screaming!” said an excited voice. It was 11 pm and my colleagues were finalising the pages for an edition going to print in an hour.  My informant was calling from a telephone booth in the compound of Mallige Nursing Home on Race Course Road. “She is sexy, sir… big, big eyes. She has drunk poison. She claims to be the wife of a minister. You know him… strong man, strong man.  She is shouting at the doctors. She is sexy, sir!” my informant whispered.

The name of the minister aroused my curiosity. He was indeed strong in the government then. He was young, handsome, rich, and ill-tempered. But he was a teetotaler with a small family. I had seen his wife, and the description of the woman admitted in the hospital hardly matched what I had seen. She had no big eyes, and she had never looked sexy.  I suspected something was amiss.

Mallige Nursing Home was a hospital like any other, but it was a hot spot for news. I had my informants there. It had witnessed police encounters. Gang wars were fought there, VIPs often sought admission, and many deaths in its wards were newsworthy.

The woman in emergency treatment was screaming at the doctors and the staff. She had been brought to the hospital in a critical condition after she had gulped down pesticide.

I asked my boys to hold the edition, and drove my Gypsy to Mallige, as a nervous reporter sat by my side. Those were days of adventure, and I risked being attacked, which made me carry my revolver always. The nursing home had very few patient attendants. The duty doctor confirmed the admission of a woman with big eyes. I found her sitting on a cot with saline tubes dangling from it. “You? Ravi Belagere…. Why are you here? I have nothing to tell you.  Get lost. I will call the police.  My husband is a minister.  Get lost, bastard,” she shrieked. Though not a legally wedded wife, she had lived in with the minister for a long time. She was a bank officer, and had provided moral support to him. I was convinced about the relationship, but my attempts to confirm that she had been his mistress for more than a decade didn’t succeed.  The minister, then the chief minister’s blue-eyed boy, had suddenly dumped her. Upset, she had attempted suicide.

When the news appeared on the front page of Hi Bangalore, the strong man was livid. He issued threats, sent a popular film actor-turned-politician to mediate, and finally approached the Press Council of India against my publication. I tried keeping track of the woman but she was not willing to co-operate. She slowly disappeared from the scene, silenced by the strong man. I had no documents to defend myself when the case came up before the Press Council. It is not easy to gather evidence in a secret affair. The minister was hell bent on finishing me.
But one fine day the woman walked into my office with her big eyes. I was stunned. She was ready to be a witness. Cheated, frustrated and left high and dry by the minister, she was now determined to humiliate him. She asked me for a favor in return. She wanted me to take her to the most popular politician of Karnataka, and plead for her protection. She also nurtured political ambitions.

But the leader, an old man who hated the strong man, did not promise her anything.  He asked her to seek police protection and dismissed the idea of giving her a political role. Though disappointed, she kept her word, and came all the way to the court.  She was appreciative I had helped her attempt to legalise her relationship with the minister. But she had no documents either. There was nothing to show her live-in relationship with the strong man. The very statement of the woman was enough, said my advocate, but I was sceptical.

But everything was strange, sudden and surprising in that case. The news from the hospital was a surprise, the woman coming up as a witness was a surprise, and a few minutes before the case was to come up before the council, the third and final surprise came.  The minister suddenly withdrew the case! He had smelt danger. I had no legal right to insist on the court hearing the case.  The case was unceremoniously closed.  I returned to my car, as the woman sat silent, with tears rolling down from her big eyes.
Many such events have taken place in 16 years.  VIP wives and film actresses have walked into my office. I have seen them annoyed, upset, and finally thanking me for exposing their men and helping them legalise their relationships. I have never disrespected a man-woman relationship, either legal or illegal, and never written anything negative about women, except when they are in public office. Sexual preferences never bother me as long as they are private and have no public or political implications.  I hate things like organized prostitution, commercial exploitation of women and relationships established for political, financial gains.

Radhika became a big story on the front page of my magazine when Kumaraswamy, the then CM got tagged with her. I exposed the tax raid on her house when she was found in possession of Rs 3.5 crore. Inferences were drawn. But I was not judgmental. Deve Gowda was angry and threatened me with case claiming huge sum.
Radhika was always in the news for the wrong reasons. But not her little child Shamika.  She is a year old now, and poses innocently before the camera. Both Radhika and Kumaraswamy have engineered the event. She spoke to a select few in the press about her marriage to Kumaraswamy, only to get legal sanction for her relationship.  Her claim that she is returning to the silver screen on public demand is bullshit. We know she is no Madhuri Dixit. There’s a lot of cash stashed away in the iron chest at her Dollars Colony home. Like the child, the money needs to be legalised. She plans to produce films. Kumaraswamy doesn’t want to react, nor does Deve Gowda.
Cute Shamika smiles innocently. I wish her a great future.

Nehru’s smile and 3,000 deaths
“Hi Ravi… it’s me, Dr Murali!” I heard a familiar voice on the phone, and got excited. I could not complete the story I had to file before midnight. I requested a friend to stand in for me, and left the newsroom in a hurry. It took me hardly three minutes to walk to the Press Club from the Indian Express-Kannada Prabha building on Queen’s Road, where I was working.
My job as a sub-editor was just stop-gap. I had resigned from a lucrative job at Jindal.  As you may know, losing a job or quitting was no big deal in journalism in those days. Of course, things have not changed much even 18 years on. My job was uninteresting, the environment was hostile, and I lived in a small room, more pathetic than the slum adjacent to it. But I walked with excitement to the club where I was to meet my dearest friend Murali. He was now Capt Murali, serving in the Indian Army.
He sat there alone on the lawn, with a rolled cigarette between his fingers. The same charm, the same attractive smile, and the same spark in his eyes.  Murali had been a student at the Bellary Medical College when I taught history at a girls’ college in the same town. He was more a student of history, architecture and literature than a medico. Younger to me by a couple of years, Murali had become very close to me and my wife.

After a couple of pints of rum, Murali proposed the idea of crossing the China border at Arunachal Pradesh, where his unit was stationed. A Sahitya Academy fellowship had fallen into my lap unexpectedly around that time, and I was to get a hefty Rs 5,000, a fortune for a poorly paid journalist. Without even bothering to apply for leave at Kannada Prabha, I boarded the train to Kolkata with Murali. We drank bottles of rum on the way, discussing books, books and just books. Murali was a great reader. From Tezpur, we crossed the border and entered Arunchal Pradesh, a land of great mystery.
Murali was working as a doctor in the road construction unit of the army at a place called Lumla in Tawang district.  He had suggested that I read a book before reaching Lumla, the historical battlefield where 3,000 Indian soldiers had perished for want of warm clothing, snow glasses, shoes, and bullets to fight the menacing, marching army of China.

Yes, that was where the historical 1962 war was fought and India was routed. Murali wanted to read Himalayan Blunder, a book written by Brigadier John P Dalvi who led a small unit of brave Indian soldiers who fought to the last man, and the last bullet. He was among the few survivors, captured and later released by China. But the book was suppressed by the government led by Nehru, and my search for it in bookshops and libraries in Bangalore had yielded no results.

I walked through the barren land, hectares of which lay dry, uncultivated and snow-clad. The oxygen level suddenly drops in Lumla, the last village on the border with China, causing terrible breathlessness. I could see the windmills of China, a few soldiers on the other side ready to exchange tea, opium, and cigarettes for Indian pornography in print. It was these friendly-looking Chinese soldiers who had massacred my Indian brothers mercilessly after catching them unawares. Our soldiers lacked nothing but guns. Prime Minister Nehru lived in the false hope of the ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’, slogan, and paid heavily with the lives of 3,000 Indian soldiers.  “He was a rascal,” fumed Murali, standing at the fenced border. “You should have read Himalayan Blunder.”

I returned with a heavy heart, and Bangalore looked uninteresting. Liquor made me more depressed and the only way out was books. By then I had read ‘The Godfather’ more than ten times, but wanted to read it again. I barged into Murthy’s Select Bookshop on Brigade Road and asked for a second hand copy of The Godfather. Murthy, an elderly man and himself a chronic reader, gave me a copy of the novel for Rs 50. I casually asked him about ‘Himalayan Blunder’. Murthy is a man of miracles. He fished out an old copy and sold it to me for just Rs 35. Though thrilled, I did not open the book till the first peg of rum was served at the Press Club. After a sip, when I opened the book, and the very first page moved me to tears. It was inscribed, “As a mark of respect and esteem to Mrs General Thimayya,” and was autographed by the author. I left the drink on the table and retired into my room, to come out only after 38 hours.

The rest is history. My translation of ‘Himalayan Blunder’ into Kannada was a milestone in my career as a journalist and writer. My book counter at Bhavana Prakashana has sold a good 50,000 copies, and no other book among my 59 other titles has crossed this number. The first edition of ‘Himalayan Blunder’ came out soon after the Kargil war, which left 17 soldiers of Karnataka dead. I presented a copy of the book to each of the war widows, along with Rs 1 lakh collected from my readers.  Did the widows know the last brave acts of their husbands on the battlefield? I do not know, but Brig Dalvi must have explained everything to them.
Capt Murali, who became a Major in the Army, stayed in touch for a long time. He was later posted to the deserts of Gujarat, bordering Pakistan, and was charred to death in his tent after it accidentally caught fire.  My search for books has repeatedly taken me to Select Book Shop. Murthy always pulls off miracles and never sends me back disappointed. I keep gazing at the bookshelves there. What am I searching for? Major Murali? Our soldiers who fought the China war? Faces of the widows of the Kargil war? Nehru’s smile leaves me depressed.

Vices make you human
Bad habits are bad. But they can be instrumental in making you creative and human. I have seen so-called sane and good people, without a single vice, being inhuman to their dear ones. Sanjay Gandhi was a teetotaller who would drink nothing but a glass of water when he went to a party. Yet he just bulldozed thousands of huts in the slums of Delhi. He was brutally undemocratic and at times inhuman even to his mother.

Chief minister Yeddyurappa asked his policemen to fire on agitating peasants a day after he took oath, in the name of the peasants of Karnataka, and caused the death of two agitators. He is a teetotaller and is considered religious. I personally knew two popular politicians of Karnataka who were gay — and of course that’s not a vice. They indulged in all sorts of vices, but were remarkably humble, humane and helpful not just to their friends and families but also to people at large. They died untimely deaths because of diseases caused by their vices.

My mentor and maha-guru Sardar Khushwant Singh religiously drinks three pegs of whisky every day at the age of 96. His sexual adventures are discussed in books and magazines, sometimes by himself. He is not a believer, but is generous, humane, and a truly secular intellectual.

I have seen many teetotallers idling away all their life and not earning their own What is a vice? A man who earns for his vices is much better than one who has no vices and is lazy. You are welcome to differ on this.

The ex-chief minister JH Patel was known for his weakness towards wine and women. But he was wise and extraordinarily human, and a true democrat. An evening spent with him would leave you intellectually happy. Very few in public life can give you such pleasure. Patel did not believe in God. He seldom visited a temple, and did not bother to acknowledge godmen in private or in public. He did not give away huge amounts of government money to religious institutions. Contrast this with another Socialist leader Ramakrishna Hegde , again a non-believer, who donated an entire hillock, earmarked for a park, to ISCKON.

I vividly remember an incident at a church in south Bangalore. It was headed by a priest who lived in a luxurious house and ate sumptuous food. Everyone called him Father. Once he asked a fellow priest from another church to take care of the house while he was on vacation. This priest heard a knock on the door at an odd hour, and found a stranger on the doorstep. He was a slum dweller and tried to flee when he found a new priest in the house. He was caught and handed over to the police by the priest. Later, when the sub-inspector interrogated the boy, the truth about the first Father was revealed.

Being rich, respected, and supported by the church, he had lured the hungry boy and sodomised him. The afternoon meal was served to the boy as a reward. He was so young that he did not even understand the abuse. The sub-inspector took pity on the boy and was about to set him free. But the then Police Commissioner, who had a reputation for honesty and daredevilry (which he never displayed in his long career) personally summoned the sub-inspector to the church and asked him to send the boy to jail under a theft case.

The honest Police Commissioner, a Protestant, thus rendered his service to the church. He is honest and God-fearing. He retired with all top honours, and two commercial Kannada films were made on him. He even became an MP. But will the boy jailed years ago forgive him? What do you mean by honesty and religiousness? I don’t consider the social success of a man when it comes to morals and morality.

Being keen on the psychology of public personalities, I have studied them, sometimes from a vantage point. I have seen merciless killers and underworld dons running for their lives, crying in police lock-ups, and lamenting in hospitals. An ex-chief minister personally told me that he regretted having slept with a woman in the ante-chamber of his office in Vidhana Soudha. Friends paid the bills of a very popular politician of Karnataka to get his body out of Manipal Hospital in Bangalore. He was rich, popular and powerful, but was broke at the fag end of his life. Bangalore witnessed the pompous wedding of his daughter a decade later, but none of his kin wanted to remember him.

I just dismiss godmen who claim to be celibate. Bramhacharya is wrongly considered a merit by orthodox Indians. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is one of the false gods worshiped for his Bramhacharya, even though he once said he was unmarried but not celibate.

Finally I have come to terms with myself about my vices. Any habit that weakens you physically and robs you of your time should be detested. Be it liquor, gambling, computers, religion, a political party, or even a spouse. I think mine understood this long ago!

Those days of turbulence
Turbulent days. That’s what I call them, those days when everything was a struggle. I had to struggle for a meal, a swig of Khoday’s rum, two idlis, a bath, a place to sleep… And above all, struggle to make people acknowledge me. And I struggled for years. For a full 16 years! And then came a time when I would drink rum someone bought me at the Press Club, eat idlis from a wayside push cart, drink water from some tap, and stretch out at night on a cement platform at the grand Kempe Gowda bus stand. When the beat policemen came to poke me with their lathis and shoo me away, I would show them my identity card: journalist!

Do you remember there was a hammam (bathhouse) near the Majestic bus stand? I remember the old woman who would take two rupees, provide me with warm water in a plastic bucket, and keep an eye on my tattered clothes while I took my bath. She was skinny and dark, with pockmarks on her face, and teeth stained yellow with tobacco. Watching over things at the hammam was a part-time job for her. Her regular job was at night, as a pimp at the bus stand. She was probably an old prostitute, too old to be in action. But for two rupees, she watched over my stuff, and waited as I walked out of the bath room, clean, fresh, confident, and hungry for news!

That’s more or less how my mother sent me to school every morning.  Both were old and helpless, but helpful. And of course, they were good omens for me to start the day. My mother was widowed very young. I have never seen her with sindhoor on her forehead. They say seeing a widow early in the morning is not a good sign. But ‘luck’, which I never believed in, had broken and frustrated me for 16 years. Widows made no difference. The woman at the hamam wore no sindhoor either, but sent me out with a pale smile. Was that a wish? A prayer? I don’t know. This funny journey of journalism, which started from a cement bench at the bus stand and a bath at the dirty hammam, led me to great places: meadows, mountains, deserts, pastures, forests, war fields, palaces, bungalows of chief ministers and prime ministers, dens of gang lords, Maoist hide-outs, expensive restaurants, gay clubs, ashrams, and to the borders of distant countries. There was always someone standing silently with a humble, pale smile whenever I stepped out. My widowed mother or the old prostitute at the hamam…

I have spent hours and days brooding over the road I have taken.  I am basically a wanderer, interested in history of every kind.  But I had never imagined I would one day cross that great river called Amu Dariya, separating Russia and Afghanistan. This was the river navigated by Alexander before he invaded Afghanistan. I was excited.

Excited to be a witness to the fall of Kunduz, Kabul and other cities to the American army, and witness to the massacre of hundreds of Taliban soldiers on the dusty plains of Afghanistan. I was one among hundreds of journalists who flew in from various countries to report from the war fields of Afghanistan, and of course, the first Kannadiga and the only Bangalorean to be there!

Thirty-odd years in journalism have not left me cynical, although they have made me more sceptical. My friends call mine a story of rags to riches, but I see it differently. I have never seen the doors of fortune opening for me. I have always bet on my dark horse: hard work. I have never enjoyed a holiday in 16 years. I have never slept for more than five hours, and even that not before working for 18 hours. I have never had a role model, either as a boy or as a journalist. I believed my instincts, but was led more by my intelligence. ‘If you don’t read today, you are uneducated hereafter’ is the philosophy I believe in.

Breakfast with a chief minister, lunch with a movie star, tea with a don, and dinner with a diplomat… a journalist’s routine is envied by many. But I have enjoyed other things. Hot morning tea at a bunker in Kargil, tasteless beef cooked by the wife of a driver in Afghanistan, rice beer brewed at the house of a prostitute in Uganda, scotch with Khushwant Singh, rotis on the banks of river Bheema (notorious for its murderous politics), and tandoori dishes with the Pakistan poet Miraz in Islamabad.

No other profession can take one to places like this. I still smell the phosphorous fumes of the Bofors gun fired from the peaks of Kargil. The soft voice of Pakistan’s great writer Tehmina Durrani, who I interviewed, lingers in my ears.

The ‘gaali’ of Sardar Khushwanth Singh – “behnchod of Bangalore!” – still sounds like praise. The smile of an unknown auto driver, a call from a troubled housewife, the cry of a jailed child, the tears of an HIV-positive man, the suicide of a girl who failed in her love… these keep me grounded, and I never fail to pay attention to them.

After some years of success, and earning good money and buying a car, I couldn’t resist the temptation of visiting the old hammam. Yes, she was there, standing at the entrance. She had the same pale smile but appeared sick, and much older. The pockmarks were masked by her wrinkles. She couldn’t recognise me and was surprised when I gifted her a sari. She understood the sari was expensive and I was not there to take a bath. I don’t know why she had tears in her eyes when I bid her goodbye.

Did she see her son in me? I don’t know. My attempts in later years to trace her went in vain. But I always feel somone stands at the doorstep to wish me well whenever I set out on an adventure.
Whether it’s my mother, or the woman at the hammam, I love her.

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  1. Sridhar & Latha’s story is really touching, especially the treatment meted out Manipal Hospital. Having served the medical community for a decade, I know, except an handful of them, they no longer practice ethics, it’s all about business and economics. In India, millions have lost their life’s savings and assets in their belief that ‘Doctor is God’. Its time to look back into our own heritage and find alternative, traditional treatments, which can be quite effective in most cases. When I had a slipped disc problem a decade back a reputed hospital gave a quote of Rs.50 thousand for operation and two months post recovery, but no guarantee. Some of the honest doctors confided that such operations are not always successful, and recommended me ‘magnetic therapy’ from a social worker who is practising sports medicine! I recovered in an hour of this process by 80% with just Rs.250/- and no medicine!

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