Venkamma, wife of the Mysooru Mallige poet K.S. Narasimhaswamy, passed away earlier this week. The Hindu had published this interview with her after the poet’s death in 2004. As part of a generation that defines "identity" in very different terms, you are fishing for an elusive strain of regret for not doing anything "one’s own". But it doesn’t surface.
You feel bit like a vulture when you go seeking a story to a house where there has been a death recently. But a long and hard life has taught Venkamma to handle everything – vultures and all — with equanimity. Life has also taught her that it’s no use mincing words. “Why are you troubling me?” she asks. “My husband has said all there is to say much better than I ever can.”
That’s how Venkamma defines herself — the wife of the great Mysooru Mallige poet K.S. Narasimhaswamy, who was respected and feted by the world.
“I never went to even high school. God gave him the power of the word and he wrote.” But as part of a generation that defines “identity” in very different terms, you are fishing for an elusive strain of regret for not doing anything “one’s own”. But it doesn’t surface.
“I sat beside him whenever he was felicitated. People respected me like they respected him. What more can I want?” Even her big dreams are linked to her poet-husband. “I don’t know if he wanted it or not, but I thought he would get Jnanpith.”
Her mind rolls back. “It’s not easy being a poet’s wife.” She was 13 and K.S.Na. was 21 whey they got married. “That was in 1936, May 8. I can’t remember much about the marriage, there were only petromax lights then,” she says. She was 15 when she had her first daughter. Seven more children followed in quick succession.
It was not easy, especially for someone not used to such a large family. She was herself the only daughter of a government official. She had one brother, who stood by her through thick and thin. K.S.Na. was a clerk and earned barely enough for subsistence.
But Venkamma would rather talk about how her husband managed to write under such adverse circumstances. “There was not even a table and a chair. He would sit anywhere, on a bed with a pillow for support, and write poems.” The family carried on. “Appa seems to be reading for an exam,” children whispered to the mother and laughed. Venkamma says: “He never made any demands. He liked what I cooked and ate without complaints. A bit of snuff and some betelnuts were all he asked. We never had fat bank balance. But we were happy. He was earning 250 rupees a month when we got our first daughter married!”
Despite this apparent distance from K.S.Na.’s creative process, Venkamma has an amazing memory for when K.S.Na. wrote which poem. They were in Tiptur (her own maternal home) and he earned a salary of Rs. 25 when he wrote most of Mysooru Mallige poems. Does she remember any experience they shared coming alive in a poem? The question makes her a little coy. “It’s not just my experience, but the experience of the world.”
K.S.Na. wrote a great deal and about many things. But people prefer to remember him as the poet of conjugal love. This makes one wonder what “love” means to his wife. Venkamma brushes aside the question. “ It’s always there between a husband and wife, isn’t it? He wrote about it and became a poet and I didn’t?”