Tribute: Yashwanth Chittal, with his chair facing the sea, wrote every single day of his life. The great Kannada writer for whom writing was the most passionate pursuit of life, was a warm and affectionate friend to many. From the faraway Mumbai, he always kept in touch with his friends in the Kannada land, even in old age and illness. He is no more - G.S. AMUR
My friendship with Yashwanth Chittal was seven decades old. Unfortunately, I have to now say ‘was’. In his death, the last bastion of friendship with people of my generation is over – Shantinath Desai, Keerthinath Kurtukoti, Shankar Mokashi Punekar, all of them have left me. Now even Yashwanth is gone. I feel very lonely.
I first perhaps met him in 1943-44. His brothers Damodar, Gangadhar, Mohan, and Venkatarao all of them were known to me. In those days, we all looked up to his brother Gangadhar; he was a hero to many of us. I still remember he topped the matriculation exam in the Bombay Presidency and his score was 609/700 – it was phenomenal! All the brothers were handsome, but Gangadhar was the handsomest. He was so good with his studies; when he spoke to me for the first time during his BA English (Hons) I was so thrilled. Our friendship grew gradually and the entire Chittal family, M.R. Nilekani, Gourish Kaikini and I, we all worked for M.N. Roy’s Radical Democratic Party. We used to have extensive discussions on politics.
Yashwanth, Shantinath and I were very close friends. Both of them moved to Bombay and I lost touch with them for a few years. When I re-established connection with them, Yashwanth’s Mooru Daarigalu had been published. I read the novel and wrote about it for the journal, Indian Writing Today. I translated his story Aata for the Illustrated Weekly. There was so much warmth and affection between us that Yashwanth told me “the translation is better than the original”. In the later years, he even asked me to write an introduction to his “Ayda Kathegalu”. Knowing how sensitive he was to criticism, I wrote a letter to him in which I asked him to spend a week with me in Aurangabad, where I lived in those years. He came, we discussed extensively all through the day and night. He was very happy with what I had written, but requested for one change which I was willing to make. Something very important happened during this visit. Balachandra Nemade, the great Marathi writer was my colleague and friend. One night, during Yashwanth’s stay, I had invited Balachandra for dinner. We began discussing Yashwanth’s writing and both of us bombarded him for obsessing over his past and his village. He occupied a very important post in his company and had exposure to the workings of the private sector and urban experience. “You have to write about this,” we insisted, knowing that his professional life was not smooth sailing and had been put through a lot. That was the birth of Shikari, one of the finest novels ever written in Kannada.
It is a matter of great satisfaction to me that I have written about all of Yashwanth’s works. The most striking aspect about his personality was his total preoccupation with literature and writing, always, all the time. In fact, I have not seen another writer like him. His writing meant the world to him, and he even built myths around it. I went to Bombay often, and never came away without meeting Yashwanth. Once, I distinctly recall that I had gone there for a seminar. Yashwanth insisted that I should have breakfast with him. After breakfast, I was in a hurry to leave for the seminar, “How can you go away without listening to what I’ve written?” he asked. That was how he was, always thinking about his writing. He has read all his manuscripts to me, and I’ve listened with happiness. I’ve known many writers, but none was like him. In fact, R.K. Narayan never talked about his writing, Raja Rao would discuss other philosophical questions, and Shantinath didn’t bring up his writing at all. But for Yashwanth, creativity was a matter of great concern, probably because he worked in a dehumanising atmosphere and valued his creative space immensely.
A writer who has been with you for seven decades suddenly becomes history. How must I read him now? Ever since I heard the news of Yashwanth’s death I feel I cannot talk about him publicly. The same thing happened to me when Shantinath passed away too. An intimate, dynamic, and living relationship suddenly becomes a thing of the past… I wish he had completed his last novel, Digambara. Both Gangadhar and Yashwanth were pre-occupied with death. The great writer Samuel Johnson had told his biographer James Boswell, “Why do you want to bother about death? It is over in a second.” But Yashwanth had different views. He had seen death from very close and felt its presence constantly. To come to terms with it for him was perhaps to meet it squarely and write about it. It resurfaced in his writings again and again, as a sense of mystery, the unknown. Many of his stories read like mystery tales, but they were not dealing with detection of crime, but it was about detection of the secret of life and death.
Yashwanth was widely read. Science, Philosophy, Freud, Jung… he read a lot. Whenever I discovered a writer, I would discuss it with him. I introduced Saul Bellow’s writings to him and Yashwanth enjoyed reading him as much as I did. He never wrote straight narratives, all his writings were an attempt to make a sense of life. His main concern was to understand life and human relationships. During the Bandaya movement, Yashwanth was hurt. Just like in the Navya movement many good writers and poets suffered, Bandaya days spoke glibly about social relevance. He wrote satirically about these slogan-like statements. “What is social commitment? I am not self-centred. The starting point has to be me, and through me I see the society and understand it,” he would argue.
According to me, Yashwanth was more a short story writer than a novelist. I personally think that Shikari is a near perfect novel, with no flaws at all. In every sense of the term – structurally, thematically, and its craftsmanship; Shikari remains one of the best novels in Kannada. It had a personal force and came from profoundly felt experiences. I believe that he is one writer who experienced the pain that he wrote about. I admire Yashwanth for that, which again is the mark of a good writer. Even though Mooru Daarigalu and Purushottama are good works, the former is too schematic, and the latter gives too much attention to a subject that is not so worthy. Mooru Daarigalu is more social than his other novels. It must have been a story that he heard from someone; it lacks involvement. Shikari was a modernist novel; from here he moved to Kendra Vruttanta and Purushottama, epic in nature. His short stories, many of them were outstanding, and came with his distinct touch. The kind of experimentation he did with language, style and narrative is unparalleled. His mother tongue was Konkani, but the way he used Kannada and worked with words was remarkable. He was a very conscious writer, never took his medium casually even for a moment. Yashwanth is the finest prose writer in Kannada; he worked like a master craftsman working on gold or ivory.
The past was a continuous presence in Yashwanth. He was his subject and he had to go back to the roots to understand the branches, leaves and flowers. He kept going back to people from the past for mystery and its unraveling. His later stories had a magical quality, as if they were taking place in a fantasy land – an imagined country and imagined phenomena. He was a unique writer. Whenever I think of Yashwanth, I recall what Girish Karnad said: “Don’t think that writers who have been conferred the Jnanpith are the greatest.” It befits Yashwanth.
My mind is full of memories – so many letters, so many meetings, and the time we spent together… it is unforgettable. If I want to speak of my happiest moment with Yashwanth it is this. Once, I went to Bombay and stayed with him. Gangadhar wasn’t keeping too well in those days and I expressed my desire to see him. After checking with Gangadhar, Yashwanth took me to his house. I cannot forget the generosity and good-natured hospitality of the Chittals. Gangadhar was ill, but stood at the door of the bathroom with a towel for me. I can’t forget it! There was so much affection between the brothers, it was not expressed, but something that one could feel. After dinner, we stayed over and the whole night Gangadhar read his poems and I talked about them. Yashwanth was lying on the bed listening to both of us. He didn’t speak a word. That day is etched in my memory – my hero Gangadhar, my dear friend Yashwanth and all three of us in a creative context. What can be better than this! As we returned the next morning, Yashwanth had quietly said: “I enjoyed it so much…”
I spoke to Yashwanth a couple of months ago over phone, asking him to write something for my new book on U.R. Ananthamurthy. He told me he couldn’t keep his eyes open. He had to use his fingers to separate his eyelids if he had to read or write. “Use something that I’ve written before,” he told me. I did so, and I later sent him a copy of the book. I knew he couldn’t see it... I have never felt so pained… this is my saddest memory with Yashwanth.
I feel very lonely… the people with whom I have shared the brightest moments of my life have all departed.
The writer is a critic and scholar who has many works to his credit both in Kannada and English