Sri K. Ramakotiswara Rau Garu

As I knew him

 

C. SUBBA RAO

 

[SRI K. RAMAKOTISWARA RAU, Founder-Editor of Triveni, was born on 2nd October, 1894 and passed away on 19th May, 1970. Here is a pen portrait by one of his ardent admirers and great devotees.

–EDITOR]

 

Even if it is a linguistic aberration, I can’t but choose to refer to him as Sri Ramakotiswara Rau Garu for the great respect I have for him and his memory. I am actually referring to the horrific suffix “garu” the Telugu word here. But I don’t think that this is a linguistic aberration, either. When you can say quite validly in English “Gandhiji”, why can’t you say “Ramakotiswara Rau Garu”? If a Hindi honorific suffix to a proper name in English is valid, can a Telugu one be wrong?

 

I was just twenty-one when I first met Sri Ramakotiswara Rau Garu in 1961. Then I was working in S. S. and N. College, Narasaraopet, where he spent the last years of his life. Inspired by Christopher Fry’s “The Lady is not for Burning” and especially by the verbal eloquence in it, I wrote a one-act play in English entitled “A Shocking Suicide.” With the immaturity, passion and love of high-sounding language common to the youth, I just invented a pretext of a theme only to write some very hard-hitting language. I was trying to be assured by some competent gentleman that I had written good English. A friend of mine, Mr. Salam, said that there was only one man at Narasaraopet who could give an opinion on the little piece, and that he was Sri Kolavennu Ramakotiswara Rau Garu, Editor, Triveni. And the next day I took the typed script and introduced myself to him, and requested him for his opinion on it. It was the evening time and he was relaxing in a cane chair in the verandah of his house, “Triveni Nilayam” on the Station Road. I can never forget the radiant face with which he had showed me a chair even before I introduced myself to him. He took the script as one would accept a gift. He complimented me on my love of English, and asked me very politely whether I would meet him the next day for his opinion. I was able to observe rather painfully that he had poor eyesight, which I came to know later on, was due to glaucoma from which he had been suffering for sometime. I readily agreed with thanks and took leave of the gentleman.

 

On my way back home I thought of him. He was by no means handsome, but very impressive and elegant in appearance with this fine features, very well-shaven for he would shave everyday as I came to know later, with well-scissored thick mustache not spreading to the sides of the mouth, but terminating down the sides of the nose. He was rather short than tall, and his big kindly eyes showed the largeness of his heart. He was immaculately dressed in white dhoti and laalchi. One would rightly get the impression that he was an honest gentleman. I was irresistibly drawn to him, and I surely felt honoured with my acquaintance with this savant.

 

The next evening, I went to “Triveni Nilayam” with a little trepidation, for, that day he would judge my one-act play. The evening was mellow, and encouragingly sympathetic was his face. His expression infused fresh confidence into me. I wished him good evening respectfully and took the chair offered. He went in and returned with my script and sat close to me in his cane chair. I found the script exhaustively marked and underlined, with every missing punctuation mark restored. He held the script so close to his eyes that it almost rested on the tip of his nose, and offered his comments, pointing to everything underlined. I was able to realize what an enormous strain it was for him to read anything, and felt guilty for having given him such a trouble. The thoroughness and the sincerity with which he had scrutinised the script filled my heart with respect, gratitude, pain and pleasure, all at the same time–pain because I caused him such a strain, pleasure because he cared my writing. He knew how to comment; he said that it was clear that I could write English well and he duly complimented me. But as a play, he said, it was not quite satisfactory, for there was no growth of characters. There should be a gradual evolution of a character through incident and situation. There were undoubtedly fewer incidents and situations in which my characters revealed themselves. I was immensely happy with his compliment, and sincerely agreed to his criticism. I gratefully thanked him, and apologized to him for the strain caused to him, all the more so when he had such a poor eyesight. He admitted that his eyesight was really bad, but assured me that it would be all pleasure for him to do his bit for the youngsters like me. I was deeply touched with the overflowing generosity he had for people.

 

That was how my contact with this truly great man commenced. He said that he had been feeling quite dull for quite sometime because of the eye trouble. He regretted that he could ill-afford to read or write. He asked me very politely and with his characteristic winsome smile whether I could go to him in the evenings and read out to him something or the other–philosophy, history, literature or religion. He said that I would thus alleviate the dullness that had crept over him. I felt it an honour and told him so.

 

Thus I started going to him in the evenings very regularly. He had a very fine collection of books. He would give me some book or the other, but it was invariably one in English. I knew that he was very well-versed in Telugu as well, but perhaps he always chose the English books for my benefit.

 

One evening I was reading out to him Indian History. It was a chapter on the Vijayanagar Empire under Krishnaraya. It was replete with passages, in which the historian grew lyrical about the general peace and prosperity of the people, a very highly advanced civilization, a very orderly and ably administered state under an enlightened monarchy, the flourishing of letters, art, architecture and sculpture, the great prestige the Empire commanded, and above all, the ethical conduct of the people in general. He suddenly interrupted me, and I saw a rare twinkle in his tired eyes–a twinkle which clearly showed his love of the country and pride in its glory. He spoke in soft and sweet cadences–for that was his manner and gift–about the prosperous and civilized life of the people of Vijayanagar, and drew my attention at once to the petty squabbles going on at that time in England between the Church and the State, and the bloody ways of Henry VIII, Krishnaraya’s contemporary. He spoke in faultless English, as usual, which had always charmed me. I was amazed as much at his power of memory even at such an advanced age as at his complete mastery of details and the depth of his analysis and comparative approach. Soon the tenor of the gleam in his eyes changed, and a sort of gloom came over his countenance. He recalled his participation in the freedom struggle, and how they had dreamt of an independent and prosperous India in which all the countrymen would have their due share of happiness, knowing no want and care. He spoke ruefully of the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor, and the lack of public spirit in general, and a steep decline in the ethical standards of our public men at large. But he said he was confident that things would straighten out once the people were educated. He was very optimistic by nature and apt to look at the brighter side of things.

 

Our intimacy had grown day by day. I used to visit him as often as I could. On holidays I called on him in the mornings also. If it was in the mornings, he used to receive me in the inner room adjoining the verandah. He often lay in bed listening to me read out some good book, almost all the time with his eyes closed. I was very much struck with his power of concentration. I never found him absent-minded or inattentive. Whenever I faltered for some reason or the other, he even used to correct me. Whenever I got a doubt in the passage, he used to enlighten me with an ease which always amazed me. Soon it dawned on me that he was by far a much greater scholar than I imagined. I often ventured to imagine what an intellectual life he must have led in his active years of life.

 

As days passed by, I had almost developed an adoration for him, for he was such a man as could be adored by any one. He was extremely gentle, tender at heart, very soft-spoken with infinite love for people. He had no enemies, personal or ideological. But even if there were any, he couldn’t stand a harsh word against them. He seemed to me a model gentleman with all the fine graces valued most in life: a brilliant intellect, a compassionate nature, a cheerful disposition, a fastidiousness in taste but without a trace of vanity, a loyal friendliness without a trace of superiority, a love of the beautiful, the noble and the righteous.

 

Was he without faults, I asked myself; but I could find none except one. Somebody translated Tagore’sGitanjali” into Telugu Sri Ramakotiswara Rau Garu was requested to write a foreword to it. He wrote the foreword rather playing up its merits. To be honest the translation seemed to me to be very poor stuff, utterly prosaic with not a single line that thrills the reader with that divine love, that devotional ecstasy, that eternal mystic quest of the poet for the One who had always haunted his being, that possessed restlessness and the sweet pain, and that richness of metaphor and melody. I asked Sri Ramakotiswara Rau Garu in a sort of very polite circumlocution how he could gloss over such serious defects in the translation, for I believed that a critic could and ought to attempt a critical appreciation of a piece of literature pointing out its merits and faults, in spite of his regard for the author. I had got an eloquent and genial smile from him before I got his reply. He asked me in turn whether there could be any writing without faults of some kind or the other, and whether it was possible to imagine anything wholly perfect in literature. Of course I understood that a critic needed sympathy, but even then I was not very much satisfied with his reply, and I thought that Sri Ramakotiswara Rau Garu was only too generous, that was, generous to a fault. In no circumstances could he hurt a person.

 

I don’t say that he liked poverty, but I can say that he didn’t care money except to run “Triveni.” This was what I could understand from his account of the struggles he had to pass through to run the journal. If he talked of his past, it was invariably connected with “Triveni.” “Triveni” was more than a journal to him. It was the finest expression of all those values which had pulsated his whole being. He once told me of his vision of “Triveni”, as a maiden of 17 or 18 with all the girlish charm and virtue. “Triveni” filled a void in his childless life. He was sorry that he was physically incapacitated to be actively associated with the journal, but he told me that he was glad and lucky that it was being run ably by Sri Bhavaraju Narasimha Rao. Once, while we were talking of “Triveni”, I asked why we shouldn’t bring out his editorials and articles in a book form under the title “A Profile in Editorials.” He smiled, and said that the title was very impressive.

 

His conduct was simply laudable and he scrupulously followed formalities. Then it was no wonder that he attended my marriage at Narasaraopet though it was most inconveniently timed for visitors: half way between midnight and dawn. He blessed us with his unfailing bengin smile, and with a feeling the depth and the austerity of which simply overwhelmed me.

 

I had had a chequered career, and I had been perambulating from one college to another for some time. So I could see him only in holidays now. He had become very lean and weak of body, and now he was almost confined to bed. If he moved about, he did so, tottering along painfully. There was no particular illness from which he suffered, but it was all the ill-effects of old age. He was only 74, and I often felt that he had grown older much faster than one normally would. His one complaint was that he had been feeling dull as he couldn’t read or write. He used to say, much to my painful discomfiture, that he had outlived his usefulness either to himself or to others. He was not at all afraid of death, but the crippling dullness was intolerable to him.

 

I had had a long cherished desire to have my boy initiated into learning by Sri Ramakotiswara Rau Garu. Well in advance, I moved the matter with him and requested him to do us this honour. He was visibly touched by my request, but felt diffident whether he could really do that. Unfortunately he was able to move about only with somebody’s assistance as by now he had almost lost his sight. Mr. Yagnyavalkya Sarma, my friend and intimately known to Sri Ramakotiswara Rau Garu, and I assured him that we would do everything preliminary to the Aksharabhyasam, and he kindly greed. An auspicious time had been fixed, and we came specially for this purpose from Jammikunta where I was working. The kid sat with his first slate and chalk on his lap, but Sri Ramakotiswara Rau Garu couldn’t see anything. It was pathetic that he, who wrote so beautifully and powerfully, couldn’t even move the chalk. Then I held his hand as he was holding my son’s and slowly drove chalk to write the first auspicious salutation to Lord Siva. It was at last over. The next day we were to start for Jammikunta. We went to him to take his leave. On my parting salutation he embraced me quite silently, without saying anything, but with a silence which was more eloquent and affectionate than any words could be, and held me for a few seconds. I felt as if he had been transmitting something noble to me in a sort of mystic way. It was like blessing, a gesture kindly and loving. It was perhaps acknowledging, with a fineness of soul, what little I might have done to alleviate his dullness, and my adoration for him. Or he might have also felt it our last meeting, a sort of premonition of death.

 

In January 1969, in the wake of the Telangana agitation, I had to leave Jammikunta. (In all fairness I should say my Telangana students were exceptionally good to me.) We came back to Narsaraopet. I was horrified to find him lie huddled up in bed, just a small bundle of bones with the skin hanging loose, emaciated by a prolonged physical incapacity and not by any illness. He spoke very little, and that he did with great difficulty, and, in an extremely dry and tired voice. But his mind had retained all its alertness, and proved too strong for the ravages of age. He was very unhappy at the regional dishormonies, and wondered painfully when men would realize that their highest fulfilment lay in mutual love and trust.

 

I was absolutely free as I had no work to do. I used to go to him in the mornings and in the evenings as well. Now he just used to listen to me, and he spoke very rarely. If I read out anything, he would listen without any comment, but he liked listening. One day I was reading out to him a chapter in “The Life Divine” by Sri Aurobindo. Having finished the chapter, I rose to go. He called me to his side and took the book from me and gave it back to me as his present. It was a symbol of his kind wishes for me, and I treasure it with grateful feelings.

 

It was summer. Probably May. One morning, quite early as usual, I was on my way to “Triveni Nilayam.” Somebody asked me whether I had known of it. “It, what?” I asked. I was stunned; the inevitable had happened. Sri Ramakotiswara Rau Garu died in the early hours of the morning. I rushed to his house.

 

He was no more. His body was covered up to the neck with a white sheet, and there were floral tributes at his feet. It was a heart-rending sight to see his old wife mourning bitterly over his dead body. I felt as if a light had vanished all of us engulfed in darkness. His admirers kept pouring in to pay their respect.

 

What next, some practical people asked. His adoptive son was doing engineering, perhaps at Kakinada. He was wired, but it couldn’t be known when he would actually arrive. The cremation couldn’t be delayed. His wife, a picture of grief, turned to me mourning, and I caught the cue in her mournful looks. I told her that I would feel honoured to be asked to start the obsequies. She mourned much more bitterly and said that I was like his son.

 

The coffin was made, and bearers found among whom one was Mr. Yagnyavalkya Sarma. I led the funeral procession carrying water in an earthen vessel in one hand, and funeral fire encased in a small pot in the other. It was half-past one in the afternoon. To the chanting of the sacred name of Sri Rama, the Divine Archer, his body was placed on the pyre. I ceremoniously walked round the pyre three times and let fall the earthen vessel containing water, and lit the pyre. I couldn’t see his body being consumed by flames. And now his adoptive son arrived and continued the obsequies.

 

The great humanist and aesthete and litterateur who had striven all through his life for the emergence of a cultured society in which all men and women, without exception, would feel and think and behave with all the sophistication and fineness and nobility natural to an enlightened humanist-aristocrat-intellectual, was no more. Leaving behind him a bundle of memories sweet and poignant, he departed, perhaps, to fathom the unknown after death. And we bent our steps homeward with a gloom settled in our eyes.

 

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