Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Days South - Episode No.4

The Cantonment branch at Bangalore and the Canning Street branch at Kolkata had one thing in common – both had employee strength of over 130. The headcount included the employees at our Corporate Cell and an extension counter at the Mayo Hall Court Complex. The Manager (Establishment) at the branch had a real job on hand to handle the affairs of such large number of employees. A senior gentleman called Mishra was in-charge. Mishraji was earlier an Assistant General Manager (AGM) at the erstwhile Lakshmi Commercial Bank (LCB), which got merged with our bank in the year 1985. Under the terms of merger, an AGM at the LCB had been downgraded to the scale of a Manager - Scale II in our bank!
I should mention here that working at the Corporate Cell was a question of prestige among the branch staff. Only the cream among the lot was being posted there. The handling of corporate advance accounts required certain expertise and people with the necessary aptitude and skill set were only selected for the purpose. Naturally the employees working at the main branch viewed them with some envy. I soon came to know that I had a major role in ensuring that the corporate Cell employees mingled with branch employees well and a team-spirit was maintained at the branch level.
I had to spend a considerable amount of time at the main branch also. My availability at the branch during the time of clearance of inward cheques was crucial. Many of the corporates used to issue cheques beyond their sanctioned limits. I had to authorize the passing of such cheques in consultation with SM/DM. Alternatively I had to instruct the supervisors to return such cheques. I also had to monitor the inland bills department and foreign exchange section that dealt with letters of credit, exports and imports. These sections were in the main branch and I had to deal with the officers concerned.
The Manager (non-corporate accounts) at that time was a gentleman called Kamath. Kamath was a very capable outspoken Manager and carried a tough-guy image. He frankly told me that he was interested in working as the Manager at the Corporate Cell. But he was denied that opportunity and he suspected the role of the officers working there behind this denial! Probably they were averse to his tough-guy image! However, he made it clear that he carried no grudge against me. He knew I had been posted there directly under the orders of the DGM. Kamath was transferred to another branch as Senior Manager after a short time. He keeps in touch and continues to maintain excellent relations with me till today.
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While it was true that the branch had a large number of irregular accounts, it also had quite a good number of healthy and prestigious accounts. The number one account at that time was of course that of The Printers (Mysore) Pvt Ltd – the publishers of the daily newspapers - Deccan Herald and Prajavani. The legendary founder of the group Mr. K N Guruswamy was very much there, even though the day-to-day management was carried on by the three sons of his adopted son (late) Mr. Nettakallappa. Guruswamy still kept a firm control on the financial affairs. He was the lone authorized signatory for the bank accounts. He would sign all the cheques sitting at his landmark house in Basavanagudi. He had stopped visiting the M G Road office at that time on account of old age.
The corporate account of the Printers Group was quite remunerative to the branch. The group used to maintain huge credit balances in the accounts even though it enjoyed large working capital limits. It was availing only term loans for purchase of printing machinery and used to be extremely prompt in paying the installments.
Another prestigious corporate account was that of Wipro Ltd (formerly known as Western India Vegetable Products Ltd). The company had its corporate office (InfoTech Division) at the same building where our main branch was situated. The company enjoyed huge working capital limits for their computer hardware business. It had a facility for assembling computers at Mysore. The limits were under a consortium arrangement with SBI as the leader. Our bank was the second major lender. Mr. Ashok Soota was the CEO at that time and one Mr. Krishnakumar was the Finance Manager. The company used to enjoy huge foreign letter of credit facilities for import of computer hardware.
Another prestigious corporate account at that time was that of BPL Ltd. BPL was the leader and the number one brand in colour television in those days. Our bank (branch) was the excusive bankers to the company. In fact, the corporate office of the company and the residential bungalow of TPG Nambiar, the well-known founder of the company, were situated in Church Street itself. Those were the heady days of success for the company that had been set up at Palakkad in Kerala in 1963 with the name - British Physical Laboratories.
TPG had returned to India after having worked in UK and US with a dream of making BPL a household name. He began with the manufacture of precision panel meters. He entered the television and communication equipment segment in the eighties and achieved his vision of making the brand a household name soon. But alas! The post liberalization period saw the company’s fortunes sliding down rapidly. But that is another story! Right then the company was almost arrogant and was trying to dictate certain terms to its bankers! It had conveniently forgotten that the bank had been a partner in its success and had stood by it in its days of struggle!
The company had appointed Mr. Amitab Bachhan (Big B) as its brand ambassador. Big B was at the peak of his career at that time. Ironically Big B also later entered business with his venture Amitab Bachhan Corporation Ltd (ABCL). Unfortunately it ended in a disaster in tune with his film career. In fact it was our bank, which financed his business venture and burnt its fingers. The bank brought an attachment against his house property. But BIG B rose like a phoenix with the launch of KBC by Star TV and has never looked back since then. He paid back our bank dues in full much to the relief of his fans.
But quite unfortunately BPL has not been able to get back to its days of glory. So much for the uncertainty of the business ventures! In fact the story of BPL could be an ideal case-study for the business school students. It is a mystery how the company lost its moorings when the boom in the electronic industry was at its peak. We have heard of many companies missing the bus (opportunity). But here was a leader who jumped out of the bus from the front-seat when the journey was in progress!
------- (To be continued)
A V Krishnamurthy

Friday, January 24, 2014

My Days South - Episode No.3

Our branch used to work with the official timings of 10 AM to 5 PM. Generally I used to be in the office well before 9.30 AM. Mr. Kulkarni used to arrive at the office well before 10 AM. That particular day he had just settled down at his work and I was discussing some files with him. Suddenly his telephone started ringing.  The call was from the Chairman & Managing Director (CMD)’s Office at our Head Office. I could make out that he was being asked to do something which was not to his liking. He put the phone down and started moving out while asking me to follow him. He appeared to be quite agitated in his mind. I followed him without posing any questions to him. I thought we were proceeding to our HO to meet the CMD.
But I was surprised to find that the DM was not getting into his car parked outside our office. Instead he walked towards the M G Road. We entered a building near our Circle Office and got into an office complex. It was the corporate office of a company called Telecom Corporation of India. I could remember now that the company was one of our corporate accounts and its file had been marked as ‘sensitive’ in the list given to me by the DM.
We met a person who was the Accounts Manager (AM) of the company. He was surprised to see us in the morning hours. Our DM asked him why Mr. Janardhan, the MD of the company, had gone to meet the CMD of our bank in the morning. He expressed his ignorance in the matter. Then the DM asked him whether the company was in need of any additional facility. It now dawned on the AM that the company had received some bulk orders from the Department of Electronics (DoT). He told us that the company was in need of adhoc facility to meet the bulk order and his MD must have visited the HO in the same connection!
We came back to the branch after telling him to submit a proposal with the necessary papers. He said he would do so immediately after the MD came back to the office. I came to know later that Janardhan was the son of an ex-Chief Minister of Karnataka. He was in the habit of going to the CMD directly for all his company’s needs! He would submit the proposals to the branch only after getting CMD’s nod! It did not matter to him whether the sanction fell within the purview of the DGM of the Circle!
Immediately on coming back, the DM contacted the CMD’s Office and informed the DGM in-charge there that Janardhan was there to seek some adhoc facility for the company to meet the orders from DoT. He then told me that I should be prepared for such visits in future. There were certain parties who would call on the CMD without even informing their requirements to the branch. The CMD Secretariat would contact the branch before these parties met the CMD. The idea was to brief the CMD in advance about the requirement of the party before the party went inside his cabin. For the branch this was an emergency as they had to rush out to the party’s place as it was difficult to get the details over phone in the early morning hours.
I came to know from Gupta, the officer who was handling the company’s file, that Janardhan was very close to the then Communications Minister at the Centre Mr. Arjun Singh. He was a kid when his father was the Governor of Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Arjun Singh was the then Chief Minister. The association went back to those days. Janardhan’s company was dependent on orders from DoT/MTNL which were directly under Arjun Singh’s Ministry. Those were the days when Sam Pitroda had started the telecom revolution in India. Janardhan had started his company to manufacture telecom equipments to take the advantage of the said revolution under the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
I had occasions to meet Janardhan personally later. He was a well qualified sophisticated gentleman with impeccable manners. The problem with him was – he would approach only the CMD for all his needs! He perhaps thought that all other officials were there just to carry out the CMD’s orders! There was one more reason of course. In the normal course the branch would insist on the company bringing in the necessary margin (promoter’s contribution) before the adhoc limits are released. The meeting with CMD would generally reduce this component to the barest minimum as I saw in this particular case.
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The next day the DM gave me a list of corporate files, which he wanted me to handle personally. Most of those were files that were being handled by the officer Gupta so far. I took out all the files and started going through them one after another. I could see that all the files were related to major irregular accounts. The sanctioned limits were quite large mostly falling under the CMD and the board’s powers. The irregularities pertained mainly to deviations from sanctions, frequent overdrawings in the accounts, frequent sanctioning of adhoc facilities, non-submission of annual renewal/financial papers, etc. I could also find that there was something lacking in the matter of follow up, reporting the irregularities to the sanctioning authorities and keeping the correspondence up-to-date and in a manner to indicate the current position of the account at a glance.
I had a discussion with the DM. He told me that he was not happy over the way the accounts were being handled. He told me clearly that the accounts were sensitive in nature and reporting of all the irregularities and obtention of sanctions and approvals for all the deviations were critical. He was afraid that he would be in trouble at a future date on account of mishandling of these files. Most of these parties were directly in touch with the CMD and this made his position very delicate. He told me that my previous DM B R Nayak had told him about my capacity to streamline the affairs. He expected me to undertake the job without any further delay.
I could make out that the situation here was quite in contrast with the position that prevailed in the Canning Street branch. The parties here were quite aggressive and had direct access to the CMD and other executives at the Head Office. It would be indeed a balancing act to perform. One had to follow the dictates of the higher authorities while simultaneously keeping his own position safe by handling the matters efficiently without annoying the authority! The things appeared to be quite challenging in the days to come. Yes! Indeed they were as I could find out later!
------- (To be continued)
A V Krishnamurthy

Saturday, January 18, 2014

My Days South - Episode No.2

The Cantonment branch of our bank in the prestigious M G Road had a great legacy. M G Road was known as South Parade in the pre-independence era and had been renamed as Mahatma Gandhi Road on 26th February 1948. Ours was one of the oldest branches of our bank and had been headed by some of the stalwart Managers in the past. At the time of my reporting, the branch was headed by a Divisional Manger (DM) assisted by a Senior Manager (SM) to look after the day-to-day operations. There were four second line Managers – Manager (Deposits), Manager (Establishment), Manager (Non-Corporate Credit) and Manager (Corporate Credit). The last post was vacant for over six months till I took charge.
Our bank had taken a decision to have an exclusive corporate cell at our branch and at our Town Hall (J C Road) branch to handle the credit portfolio of corporate accounts. The idea was to give special attention and service to the corporate accounts, which required close monitoring and fetched maximum revenues to the bank. It may be mentioned here that the two branches together handled the major chunk of corporate accounts of our bank in Bangalore at that time.
The Corporate Cell of our branch was located in Church Street - almost exactly behind our main branch. (Church Street is a short-distance road that runs parallel to M G Road and connects Brigade Road to St. Marks Road) It was an air-conditioned office unlike the main branch – a luxury and privilege in those days. While the routine banking business was carried out in the main branch, the Corporate Cell handled all the pre-sanction and post-sanction aspects of all company accounts including documentation. The Cell had been provided with two officers (Accountants), four clerks and a steno-cum-typist. The cabin of the Divisional Manager of the branch was also located in the Cell and in the process he was sealed from the day-to-day affairs of the branch even though he was supposed to be in charge of the entire branch.
Mr. Kulkarni was the DM and Mr. Kudva was the SM of the branch at the time of my reporting. Kulkarni was a very senior DM and was due for promotion as AGM. Kudva was also a senior SM and had taken charge a few months before my joining. He had earlier headed an advance section at our Circle Office and had developed mastery over credit-handling - especially in working capital assessment. Incidentally, our Bangalore Circle Office was also located adjacent to our main branch in M G Road at Spencer’s Towers.
The clerical team at the Corporate Cell was quite ‘secular’. Madhusudan, Shivashankar, Basil Lobo and Javed Ahmed were the four clerks. All of them were excellent in their areas of functioning. Unlike in Kolkata, where the clerks did not evince any interest in handling documentation and correspondence, here in Bangalore I found them handling everything. This made a huge difference to the officers as they could concentrate on other aspects of credit sanctioning and monitoring. Actually this kind of exposure helped the clerks prepare well for their future promotion as Accountants/Officers. Among the clerks, Basil Lobo was in exclusive charge of handling accounts marked for recovery including suit-filed accounts.  Lobo hailed from a place called Basrikatte near Horanadu (the famous pilgrim centre) in Chickmagalur district. He had developed a kind of mastery in handling difficult recovery accounts and I had never seen such a personality in my entire career. He became a right-hand man to me in due course. Let me come to it later.
The Corporate Cell had two senior officers well-versed in handling credit matters – Mr. Guptha and Mr. Murali. The credit files at the cell had been distributed equally between the two officers. The cell had an exclusive steno-cum-typist called Saraswathi. She was an excellent worker and kept the correspondence and filing meticulously up-to-date. However, her utility as a steno was sparingly utilized as the officers and clerks used to draft their correspondence in writing only. Only the DM used to dictate letters to her occasionally. Her availability as a steno made a major difference to my performance eventually.
Mr. Kulkarni, the DM, told me that he wanted to make some changes in the distribution of files between the two officers. He told me in confidence that the absence of a Manager for pretty long time at the Cell had made the two officers assume certain roles, which were not to his liking. He frankly told me that he was not well-versed in the nuances of credit matters and the two officers were taking advantage of the same. He expected me to take them under my control and brief him in all matters in simple terms. He did not want me to impress him with words like Tandon Committee/Chore Committee/ working capital margin/net working capital/debt service ratio, etc!
The DM also asked me to go through certain credit files, which needed handling on day-to-day basis. He also mentioned that the bank CMD himself was interested in those files as the promoters were close to him. I was cautioned that any mishandling of such files may land me and him in a serious situation.
I started going through the files and was amazed at the type of sanctions given to certain parties. Such sanctions were unheard of in the Mumbai and Kolkata Circles where I had been working earlier. I discussed the matter with the SM, who had all along worked in the Bangalore branches and Circle Office. He agreed with me that the things were quite different here. He also told me that even though the DGM had high opinion about me, the things were not so rosy here unlike Kolkata. Here the DGM himself was under pressure from the Head Office including the CMD’s office. It was for me to prove my abilities under such trying situations.
I could understand that the working atmosphere in the Bangalore set up was quite a different cup of tea as compared with the other Circles. Indeed the advantage of working in your home state and the capital city came as a mixed bag! The coming days only could prove whether the advantages overtook the disadvantages. In any case I thought I should be prepared for the worst.
I could settle down comfortably in the city with good quarters and admission of sons to a good school within a fortnight of arrival from Kolkata. One day the SM told me that my “honeymoon” period was over and I should now enter the real battleground! He was right indeed! The real-life action started from the very next day!
------- (To be continued)
A V Krishnamurthy

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Days-South - Episode No.1

The Prelude
One of the conditions put to me before my transfer to Bangalore Cantonment branch from Kolkata was that I should be prepared to handle certain highly irregular and extremely sensitive corporate credit accounts. The condition had been put to me by none other than the Deputy General Manager of the Circle - Mr. Annappa Pai. I had accepted the challenge in consultation with my mentor Mr. B R Nayak, who had a very high opinion about my capacity to face such a challenge.
The story I am going to unfold here over a few episodes will reveal that the conditions were much more challenging than what I (or my mentor B R Nayak) had imagined or foreseen at that time. The first and the foremost difference between the situation at Canning Street and Cantonment was the absence of the support from the higher ups to the actions of their juniors including me. The personalities I came across were a far cry from the Nayaks and Guinns of Caning Street Kolkata. It was a matter of passing on the buck than supporting the people working under you. The lessons learnt were going to be bitter and lasting forever. I have taken care to change the names of all such personalities including the names of the corporates.
It was not as if there were no redeeming features in the working conditions of the Corporate Credit Cell where I was privileged to work. I was provided with an independent air-conditioned office (a special privilege in those days) free from the crowded counters of the main branch.  I had also been given a team of accountants, clerks and a steno, all of whom were simply excellent in their areas of working. The eventual transfer of many of them - mostly on promotion - did not affect me adversely at all as the management took care to offer suitable replacements.
Let me begin the nearly 25-year old story with the above background:
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I was coming back to Bangalore after a lapse of nearly 18 years. I had lived in the city earlier as a student at the Indian Institute of Science (IISC) studying for the 1st semester of BE in the department of Metallurgy way back in 1969. I had to then depart from the city in conditions which were not very pleasant. In fact that was the point at which I have ended my autobiographical story called ‘The Story of a Malnad Boy’.
The Bangalore of 1987 was much different from what it was in the year 1969. The city had expanded geographically and even otherwise. At the personal level it was a totally different situation for me. I was a student with very few resources at my command in 1969. But here in 1987 I was a Manager at the bank with a family of my own. Things were far better financially and quite understandably status wise also. I was eligible to stay in bank quarters and it was only a question of time before I got the allotment as per the waiting list. I had to temporarily stay at my elder brother’s house in Malleshwaram. I could not go for school admission for my sons till I knew where exactly I would be provided the quarters.
To my surprise and pleasure, the bank allotted me a flat within a week of my arrival in the city at a brand new building called Dev Kiran Apartments in Richards Town. The bank had purchased four flats in the building. While two flats were earmarked for Managers at the Head Office, the remaining two were allocated to Managers of Bangalore Circle. I visited the flat with my family and found them quite good. The building was located in a peaceful area adjacent to the Holy Ghost Church. It was also at a comfortable distance from my branch in the M G Road.
But the allotment of the flat came with a rider. The bank had not taken possession of the flats from the builder due to some technical reasons, even though they were ready for occupation. I had to wait till the actual possession was taken. The matter was handled at the Head Office (HO) level and I was asked by the Circle office to follow up the matter directly with them. It became a matter of frustration for me as my frequent visits and telephone calls to HO did not yield any result.
The Estate Department at Head Office was under the ‘only lady’ Deputy General Manager of our bank at that time called Madam Kamala. She had visited our Canning Street Kolkata branch just before I was leaving the city. Our DM B R Nayak had introduced me to her and requested her to help me in case of necessity. She had assured the same to me.
One fine morning I met her at her chambers. She treated me extremely nicely and asked me whether I had settled down comfortably in the city. I told her about my troubles with her own department. She was shocked and was understandably quite furious. She summoned the concerned DM immediately. She asked him to explain the delay in taking possession of the flats.
The DM told her that the bank had some issues to be settled with the builder and that was the reason for not taking possession of the flats even though they were complete in all respects. She then asked him whether the bank would be benefitted by delaying taking possession of the flats for which it had made full payment. He fully agreed with her that the bank itself was at the receiving end by its delaying tactics!
She then asked him to send an officer immediately to take possession of the flats. She also ordered that I should receive the keys of the flat by afternoon and she should receive a confirmation to that effect thereafter! Believe it or not! The officer from HO personally handed over the keys to me at the branch by the afternoon and accompanied me all the way to the apartments!
------- (To be continued)
A V Krishnamurthy

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Chandamama-Childhood (Part-II)

One of the most interesting series of stories that appeared in Chandamama for quite a long time and which we enjoyed thoroughly was the Jataka Stories. These stories pertained to different previous births of Bodhisatva (Buddha). All the stories would begin with the sentence- ‘when Brahmadutta was ruling the Kingdom of Kashi, Bodhisatva took his birth as’- and go on with the new story. The picture on the first page would be the same showing Bodhisatva telling the stories to his disciples. The stories were not only interesting but carried lot of moral values which even children like us could appreciate.

Another series had all the Panchatantra stories told in a poetic form. The poems were very brilliantly crafted and accompanied by equally beautiful pictures. We could by-heart the poems just by reading them twice. Such was the simplicity of the language used!

Another interesting long series of stories was that of Vikram and Vethal (vampire). The picture of Vikram carrying Vethal on his shoulders, sketched so beautifully by Sankar, still remains fresh in my memory. Even the picture of Vethal slipping away and moving back to the tree at the end of each story keeps haunting in our memories. We were all very eager to read the last story where Vikram was supposed to fail in solving the riddle posed by Vethal at the end of the story. But alas! Just when we thought that we were approaching that stage, the editor made an announcement. He provided an opportunity to the readers to create their own stories basing on their imaginations and send them for publishing. The magazine must have been flooded with contributions. Eventually the Vikram Vethal became a never ending series of stories. In the process we never got the opportunity to read the final story in the Chandamama. Of course we quenched our curiosity by reading the same in some other publication.

Let me come to the general category of stories now. Before that I should also mention a series of independent stories written in the form of poems in the beginning of each issue. If I remember correctly, many of these were originally written in Telugu and translated to Kannada. There were a number of contributions from one ‘Navagirinanda’. We had by hearted the poems including the names of the authors. So much so that at the end of the poem we used to recite- Navagirinanda, Telugininda! Even that used to rhyme so well!

One of the most appealing stories written in a poetic form comes flashing in my memory:

One evening a father and his young son are going on a walk near a tank. The son finds a torn shirt on the banks of the tank. Obviously it belonged to a labourer who had left it behind while working nearby. He was expected to get back at the end of the day, take his bath and then wear the shirt again. The son tells his father that he would hide the shirt. He also wants to hide himself along with his father and watch the misery of the labourer on seeing his shirt missing.

The father tells him that one should not get pleasure in seeing the misery of others. On the other hand, he tells his son that he would place a one rupee coin in the pocket of the shirt and wait for his reactions. The son agrees and together they place a coin and hide themselves nearby waiting for the labourer to come back.

The labourer comes in the late evening and tries to wear the shirt after his bath. He suddenly finds the coin in the pocket. In those days a rupee coin was worth more than his one day wage. He understands that some philanthropist must have kept the money for him knowing that he was a poor man. He prays God loudly asking him to bless the person who had kept the coin for him without disclosing his identity! The father-son duo leaves the place with great satisfaction. Needless to say that the father had taught a great lesson to his young son.

Another story which impressed me very much went as follows:

Two friends Ramaiah and Bheemaiah (both middle-aged) have a plan to go on Kashi Yatra. They make all the preparations and leave their village one day carrying sufficient money and other requirements. In those days the Yatra would take several years to complete. In fact there was no guarantee that one would return safely.

After traveling for several days the two enter a village on their way. They find most of the village deserted. However, in one of the houses they find some people who were all sick. They come to know that the village was afflicted with a contagious disease and many people had died. Some of the villagers had also moved to far away places to avoid the disease and save themselves. On coming to know this, Ramaiah wants to leave the place immediately. But Bheemaiah says that he would rather stay there and try to save the people in the house by getting treatment for them.

Ramaiah refuses and wants to leave. Bheemaiah decides to stay back to help the family. He stays back and helps the surviving members of the family to recover slowly. He spends a portion of his money and brings medicines from the town for the disease stricken family members. The family members are much obliged and express their gratitude. Bheemaiah wants to leave now and join Ramaiah who had proceeded already.  But the family wants him to stay for some more time so that their health is back to normal and they can take care of themselves.

In the meanwhile Ramaiah, having proceeded further, reaches Kashi after several days, overcoming many difficulties on the way. He enters the Viswanath temple at Kashi and wants to see the deity from close. But in the big crowd he is pushed away and could not go anywhere near the deity. Next day he goes there again early in the morning; but is unable to go near the deity once again. But suddenly he finds Bheemaiah standing very close to the deity and offering his obeisance to the God. His repeated efforts to reach near the deity turn futile. He waits near the door to meet Bheemaiah and ask him as to how he could manage to reach so close. But Bheemaiah never comes out! The next day also there is repetition of the event with Ramaiah unable to reach the deity and Bheemaiah standing very close to the deity, but never found to be coming out!

Ramaiah returns to the village disappointed. He is also envious of Bheemaiah and wonders how he could manage that miracle. To his surprise he finds Bheemaiah at home. Bheemaiah tells Ramaiah that he could not visit Kashi as he spent all his money to help the disease stricken family. He had come back to the village after the family recovered in full. He is happy that he could help the family survive. When Ramaiah tells him that he saw him in the Kashi temple close to the deity, Bheemaiah merely smiles at him. Ramaiah is left wondering; but over a period of time he realizes the significance of helping the needy.

Being a children’s magazine, Chandamama always carried stories with a happy ending. But I remember to have read a story with a tragic end only once. This story left a lasting impression on me on account of its great theme. Let me recollect it here:

Somanna is a hard working honest young man. He has lost his parents and is living alone in his house. He is on the look out for a suitable bride for him.

There was a big banyan tree in his village. It was the abode for a huge number of birds and offered shade to the travelers in the scorching summer. It was also a meeting place for the villagers.

One evening Somanna was sitting alone below the tree. He suddenly finds a beautiful young woman in front of him. He speaks to her and is smitten by her. He is not sure whether she also reciprocated his feelings. They keep meeting for many days at the same venue. Ultimately Somanna gathers courage and conveys his feelings to her. She agrees to marry him subject to the condition that he would never ask her about her origin and background.

The marriage takes place and the couple enjoys the marriage-bliss quite for some time. A son is born in due course adding to the happiness of the family. One evening Somanna finds a group of people having some serious discussions standing near the banyan tree. He comes to know that the road nearby was being widened and it required the cutting down of the banyan tree. He feels very dejected as he is attached to the tree sentimentally. When he comes home he finds his wife in a very melancholy mood. Somanna tells her about the development; but he finds her already aware of it. He found her more sorrowful than himself.

Hardly within a few days the road-widening work starts and a team arrives to cut the big tree. Somanna sees the team start cutting the tree with their axes and rushes home to tell his wife. To his shock he sees her writhing in pain!  She now reveals to him that she was the soul of the banyan tree! Somanna understands the situation. He rushes back to the site and requests the team to stop cutting the tree. His request falls on deaf ears. Within a few minutes, to his horror, the tree is brought down. He rushes home to find his beloved wife dead and son weeping inconsolably.

The team tries to move the huge log of the tree to a cart to carry it away. They try to pull the log on to the cart with the help of ropes. But the log doesn’t move. Even their efforts to move it by an elephant fails. In the meanwhile Somanna reaches the spot with his young son. The child starts crying on seeing the log as if it sees the dead body of its mother. Finally it touches the log and calls its mother loudly. To the surprise of every one present there, the log moves!  The team is able to load it on the cart. The story ends at this point. It had a great effect on us at that impressionable age. The soul of the banyan tree appeared in our dreams for many a days!

I would like to end this article with a funny story which we enjoyed thoroughly. It went something like the following:

There was a young man who was very lazy by birth. He wants somebody to do everything for him. One day he comes to know that if he can manage to get a genie it would do anything for him on the spot. He prays God fervently and to his delight a genie appears before him suddenly. It asks for his orders. He orders excellent food for him which it brings within no time. Then he asks for a beautiful house. And lo! He finds himself in a beautiful bungalow in the split second.

The man is enjoying the beauty of the house when the genie asks for its next orders. It says that it doesn’t sit idle and wants continuous orders! The man appears to be in soup now. He gets an idea. He asks it to dig a well near his house. The genie is on the job immediately. The man thinks he can take rest now and goes to sleep. After sometime he is woken up by his neighbors. He finds that the genie had dug up a very big well. It was so big that the foundations of the houses nearby were about to collapse and the genie was still digging! He asks it to stop immediately and to start refilling the well.

As the genie was taking time to refill the well the man thinks fast about its next assignment. All of a sudden he finds a dog passing nearby. Seeing its bent tail he gets an idea! When the genie gets back to him, he asks it to straighten the tail of the dog! The genie catches the dog and holds its tail straight for sometime. It comes back to him telling that it had done its job. But when the man asks it to see it again, it finds that the tail was back to the original position! It tries again and again, but fails every time. The man asks it to keep trying and get back to him only when it is finally through. The genie is trying its luck even to this day!
A V Krishnamurthy

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Chandamama-Childhood (Part-I)

If you were to ask me which was the most joyous part of my childhood, I would straightaway say that it was the time I spent in reading an issue of Chandamama. I am also sure that most of the persons of my generation would give the same reply. Indeed Chandamama was a part and parcel of our life in those days. We would rather forego our food just to read an issue of this wonderful children’s magazine of yesteryears.

I do not exactly remember at what stage of my childhood this wonderful magazine entered my life. It was as if it was there always. Our family was not a subscriber to the magazine. But we always tried our best to lay our hands on the latest issue wherever it was possible. I distinctly remember an occasion when my brother and I visited the house of our mother’s maternal uncle in a place called Kelakodige. We were finding it difficult to spend our time there as the uncle had only one daughter who had been married away. There were no other children in the house and only uncle and aunty lived there. Looking at our misery uncle handed over to us two volumes of bound magazines. When both of us opened the bound books our joy knew no bounds. They contained the old issues of Chandamama bound in a serial order! Thereafter we never knew how our time went. We savored the stories just like two hungry pets.

We were not fully through all the issues in two days when our mother came to take us back to our home. We requested our mother to ask the uncle for permitting us to take the books home. We wanted to return them after reading all the issues. The uncle was a reserved person and even our mother could not talk to him freely. But knowing the fascination of children for Chandamama she did not want to disappoint her young sons. She asked the uncle gathering all her courage at a time. And lo! We heard him giving his permission subject to the condition that the books would be returned intact. Mother extended her guarantee on our behalf. We carried the two books as if we were carrying treasures home! We walked the three-mile distance as if we were floating in air!

Our next Chandamama-treasure discovery was at the house of the biggest land-lord of our village. This house was very prestigious for all of us as the house carried the name of our village; or rather this family was so famous that the village carried its name - Belavinakodige. I distinctly remember the first time when we found the ‘treasure’ in this house.
The family used to celebrate several important functions at their house when they would invite the entire village. The most important occasions used to be Navarathri, Anantha-Vratha and Rama Navami. The invitees would assemble by 10 AM at the house and would be served the ‘panakam’ on arrival. Thereafter there would be a gap of nearly 3 hours before they were called to attend the ‘mangalarathi’. The elders used to spend this time in playing cards, with only the number 28-game permitted without any bets. We children would spend our time in playing some games or in having a fight among us by forming two groups.

On one such occasion we found some of the elders, who were not interested in playing cards, moving to the upstairs (Upparige) of the house. Here I must tell you that in those days only the houses of the big land-lords used to have this Upparige. Our village had only four such houses. In the normal course we were not expected to enter there. As such the Uppariges of such houses were a sort of mysterious places for us. In fact many of us thought that the land-lords were keeping their treasure there.

When I and my brother found some of the people moving to upstairs, we followed them out of curiosity. And lo! We indeed found the treasure there! But only the treasure was not in the form of cash as we had imagined. It was in the form of Chandamama issues for a period of over four years including the latest ones! Our joy knew no bounds. The people sitting there were reading the issues silently. We joined this exclusive club and we never looked back. We made it a point thereafter to proceed to the upstairs immediately on reaching the prestigious house. Oh! What a thrill we had in going through all those issues one by one! We never knew how our time went. We used to be rudely disturbed when we were called to attend the Mangalarathi and the sumptuous lunch thereafter!

The Chandamama of those days was indeed a complete children magazine. We enjoyed every page of it starting from the front page Mahabharatha-related colourful sketch by the great artist M T V Acharya to the back page. Even the advertisements had their own attractions for us. Hats off to the duo of Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani for having made our childhood so enjoyable and memorable! Indeed one of our goals in life of those days was to go to Madras, visit the Chandamama office at Vadapalani and read all those issues which we had missed out.

Each issue of the magazine used to cover all those topics in which children had a fascination. The stories and poems would cover adventure, epics, comics, puranas, moral related and others including stories from Arabian and Greek mythologies. There would be a one main serial story generally of the adventure category. These stories would run for as many as 18 issues. The other serials would be in the range of two-nine episodes. In this category fell ‘adventures of Sindabad-the great sailor’, ‘Alibaba and forty thieves;, ‘Allauddin and his magic lamp’, ‘Bhuvana Sundari’ and ‘Roopadhara’s Travels’- the last two were actually the Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey of the legendary Homer carrying characters with Indian names, written to perfection by the Chandamama’s in-house writers.

The stories and poems would be accompanied by colourful sketches which contributed to the effect of the stories immensely. While MTV Acharya had a monopoly in sketching the characters in Mahabharatha, the main serial story would have great sketches from Chitra (we were told that the original name of the artist was Raghavan). However the best sketches were from Sankar who would generally cover all other stories. These pictures would be so beautiful that I have no hesitation to say that we simply fell in love with many of the beautiful girls sketched by Sankar!

Coming to the main serial stories, the first of such stories I read was by name ‘the story of triplets’ (avali makkalu in Kannada) followed by ‘the rare pillar (Apoorva Sthamba), ‘The comet’ (Dhoomakethu), ‘the God of crocodile’ (Makara Devathe), ‘the three wizards’ (Moovaru Manthrikaru) and ‘the bronze Fort (Kanchina Kote). All these were stories of adventure and maintained our curiosity till the last episode. Each episode would end at such a point in the story to keep us waiting on our feet till we read the next episode. We had to wait for another month keeping our fingers crossed.
- (To be continued)
A V Krishnamurthy

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Mother's Tales

My mother was the only daughter of her beloved parents.  Even though she never attended any regular school, my grandfather made it a point to teach her at home.  He ensured that she was well-versed in the epics Ramayana and Mahabharatha. Indeed she had become such an authority on the two great epics that each and every event in them was on her fingertips. Some of the events she used to quote often were such that you could never find them in any of the versions of the two epics!
Mandodari, the wife of Ravana, is actually a much underrated personality in Ramayana. In our childhood we used to often read a novel written in Kannada highlighting her poignant character and the tragedy of her life. The end of the story invariably brought tears to our eyes. If there is one thing that a mother can never withstand, it is the tears in the eyes of her children.  My mother was not an exception to the rule! She used to console us by telling us how Mandodari remained a Sumangali even after the death of Ravana. Needless to say we were relieved to a great extent on hearing the same. The story went like this:
Well before the conclusion of the Lanka War in the Ramayana, Mandodari comes to know that Ravana was destined to die at the hands of Shri Rama. However, she remains helpless. One particular night, she visits the war camp and calls on the Lord personally. Shri Rama was well aware of the devotion of Mandodari towards her beloved husband. He treats her with the honour she so much deserved.
Mandodari tells Rama that she had come to him to seek a boon. Without any hesitation Rama assures her that he will oblige. He asks her to spell out her request. Mandodari straight-a-way asks him to ensure that she remained a Sumangali for life! Shri Rama appeared to be in a dilemma. He knew Ravana was destined to be killed by him at the end of the war. However, there was no way he could break his promise to Mandodari!
Shri Rama tells Mandodari that she would remain a Sumangali so long as the head portion of Ravana’s body remained unburnt. Mandodari knew that the words coming from the mouth of the Lord himself were final. She leaves the place only partially satisfied. Indeed, after the death of Ravana his brother Vibheeshana could not ensure the burning of the skull of Ravana, after he performed all the last rites. He finds the head portion unburnt inspite of his best efforts. He leaves the same as it is - little knowing that it was the result of a boon granted by Shri Rama to his sister-in-law. Mandodari remained a Sumangali till she breathed her last.
While we were quite amused and happy with this story, the story did not end here as one would have expected! There was another twist to the story. This part of the story was quite unusual and perhaps no one would have ever heard. Let me record it now as the sole copyright holder (With due apologies to my other members of the family!) of my mother’s stories!
The mighty Hanuman (Anjaneya), the devoted associate of Shri Rama, had faced acute embarrassment at the hands of Ravana. Ravana had ordered the Rakshasas to set fire to the tail of Hanuman. While Hanuman had his revenge by using his burning tail as a weapon to set fire to Sri Lanka, he had not forgotten the insult made to him by Ravana.
Hanuman comes to know that the head portion of Ravana’s skull remained unburnt even after the last rites were completed. He develops a feeling that he has not seen the end of his enemy. He brings a large bundle of firewood from the forest and sets the head on fire once again. But Lo! The skull remains fire-resistant! But Hanuman was a person who would never give up. He keeps repeating the act daily by carrying one bundle of firewood all the way to the site in Sri Lanka – little knowing that it was the boon of Shri Rama to Mandodari that has kept the head unburnt!
According to legends Hanuman is one among the seven eternal, ageless, immortal souls (the others being Ashwatthama, Bali, Vyasa, Vibheeshana, Krupa and Parashurama). He carries on his never-ending ritual till today!
There was another story on Hanuman told by our mother. At the end of the Lanka War, Shri Rama wants to reward the entire monkey-team (Vanarasena) including Hanuman led by Sugreeva. While all other monkeys including Sugreeva received the awards, Hanuman reserves his entitlement. He stays back with Shri Rama even after the entire Vanarasena leaves for Kishkinda.
At an appropriate time Shri Rama asks Hanuman to tell him what exactly was in his mind. Hanuman asks him for a special privilege. He requests Rama to give him an exclusive audience for an hour every day in the morning. Hanuman tells him that he will sing the Rama Bhajan every day morning for one hour and Shri Rama should hear him exclusively and blackout everything else at that particular time. Shri Rama grants him this exclusive privilege. My mother used to tell us that there was absolutely no use in singing the Rama Bhajan in the morning as Shri Rama was simply unavailable! The trouble was - my mother was not sure about the exact time-slot of one hour in the morning!
As regards the epic Mahabharatha, I just remember one particular special feature of the legendary character of Ashwatthama, son of Dronacharya, the royal Guru, as told by our mother. According to her, Ashwatthama had one peculiarity – he was very particular about appropriate dressing for all special occasions. He used to take his own time to dress up.
Ashwatthama was on the side of Kauravas in the Mahabharatha War. On the first day of the war, he enters his camp room in the Kurukshetra to dress up for the war. Believe it or not! According to my mother, by the time Ashwatthama came out of the room fully dressed up, the Mahabharatha War had come to an end! My mother hated delays and used to quote this whenever we took our own time to dress up!
Our mother is not with us today. But the stories and proverbs often quoted by her keep her memories alive for us always. Quite possibly most of other mothers also did the same for their children. But to quote Dr.Shivaram Karanth – “my mother is my mother only and was quite special. Nobody else would take her place!”
A V Krishnamurthy

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Mysteries of Childhood

The period of childhood is indeed a period of never ending mysteries. It is that stage in child’s life when nobody understands its fears and the ecstasies. The child feels extremely happy on many occasions and also develops fears for certain events for which it finds no justifications. It feels that something is always lurking in darkness behind the window curtains in the night. The creaking sounds of the doors and windows in the night make it think that the devils are peeping from outside. It feels highly vulnerable and tries to find solace in the bosoms of its beloveds. It daydreams on many occasions and finds it difficult to isolate real incidents with the dream sequences. It passes through perils and bliss throughout the day and night. It smiles or laughs when feeling the happiness and weeps when it gets distressed. To be precise, it is living in a world of its own all the time.

Certain events that took place in my childhood are embedded in my memory; I was not able to understand them at that time. I had several questions popping up in my mind that remained unanswered.  I am unable to space them in a chronological order.

Being the fifth member among the children of my parents, I had very limited interactions with my mother in my childhood. She would be always busy with her household work. Naturally my two elder sisters were delegated with the responsibility of looking after me, which they fulfilled excellently. My eldest sister was a very mild person and had a very soothing effect on me. In contrast the second sister was a strict disciplinarian and a tough taskmaster. She mentored me. My immediate elder brother was two years senior to me. It appeared to me that he knew everything going around us very thoroughly. All of us were very much afraid of our eldest brother. He was in total command and control of all of us and we respected his authority. We also felt fully secured and safe under his strong personality.
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My earliest memory takes me to the nights when my sisters used to tell me the story of Kagakka and Gubbakka (crow-aunty and sparrow-aunty).I would refuse to sleep till this story was told to me. It did not matter to me that the same story was told every night! I was never awake to hear the end of the story! In fact the very purpose of the story was to ensure that I went to sleep early! My sisters never had the opportunity to tell me the full story! It appears strange but even now I remember only that part of the story which I was able to hear before I used to go to sleep.

Kagakka and Gubbakka were neighbors.  Gubbakka always knew Kagakka was her biggest enemy. Kagakka had built her house using cowdung. But Gubbakka’s house was made of wax. One particular night there was heavy rain. Kagakka’s house was washed away. But Gubbakka’s house remained intact. She slept in comfort with three of her eggs kept warm in a corner of the house. But she was rudely disturbed by Kagakka knocking at its doors. She allowed Kagakka to sleep in the corner of her house and went back to sleep.

In the middle of the night Gubbakka hears a sound and wakes up. Kagakka tells her that she had gone out to bring groundnuts to eat and she had just eaten one groundnut. Gubbakka goes back to sleep, but hears the same sound again. This time Kagakka tells her that she had eaten another groundnut. After sometime there is repetition of the event with Kagakka telling Gubbakka that she had eaten the last groundnut.

In the morning Kagakka was not to be seen. But Gubbakka finds to her horror that all her three eggs were missing…………..

I would say - in the folklore of our Malnad region - this story was the mother of all the stories in the beginning of our childhood. This was the number one story of the grandmother. Recently while interacting with my elder sisters I asked them how the story ended. Whether Gubbakka could take her revenge on Kagakka in the end? To my surprise they told me that neither they knew the end nor found it necessary to find out! It was left to the imagination of the child in its sleep! The story was a sure recipe for making the child to go to sleep even when it was half the way!

Another tricky story which I used to hear and which left me frustrated but made me sleep was a ‘questionable’ story! My sister would start some story in an interesting manner. I would be deeply immersed in the storyline. Suddenly somebody falls into a well in the story. Sister would stop the story here. There would be silence for some time. I would get curious. The real problem starts now:

Me: Then?

Sister: If you ask me then, whether the man can get out?

Me: Please continue Akka!

Sister: If you ask me to continue, whether the man can get out?

Me: No! But you tell me what happened next?

Sister: If you ask me what happened, whether the man can get out?

Any mode of requesting for continuing the story would lead to the same reply (question?) from my sister. I would go to sleep fully frustrated with this ‘questionable’ never ending story.

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One afternoon we had just finished our lunch. My father came home and told something to our mother in a hushed tone. She immediately took us to bathroom and poured water over our heads. I could not make out the reasons for this second bath of the day. I had to fallback on my brother. He told me that our maternal great grandmother had passed away. I had several questions in my mind. But most of it could not be answered by even my all-knowing brother. He had earlier told me that all of us had to die at our old age as per seniority. I had a simple question – how was it that my mother’s father and mother had died first and our great grandmother was dying only now. There was no satisfactory explanation!
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One morning Chowda, our cowherd, told us that a tiger had come to our village forest. He warned us about the possibility of its attack on our cows. That night we heard the roaring of the tiger from the hill top. There was a lot of tension in the next evening. We were anxiously waiting for all our cows to come back from grazing. They started arriving one by one. But our most beloved one, Tungabhadra, did not arrive at all. We were all scared and started weeping presuming that she had been eaten by the tiger. Father and eldest brother went out searching for the cow. We were anxiously waiting for them to come back. We prayed Krishna, the greatest of all cowherds (Gopala), fervently.  Our prayers were answered. Father and brother came back late night with Tungabhadra in tow! All of us heaved a sigh of relief! After a week Chowda told us that the tiger had moved to next village. Why does the tiger visit our village every year? I got no answer.
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I was playing with my younger sister in front of our house. Our eldest brother was leaving for the Koppa town with a consignment of pan leaves. He came near us embraced us and bid us goodbye. We both felt it unusual. He never behaved like that earlier. Brother did not return from the town at all. We came to know next day that he had ‘run away’! I saw my mother and sisters weeping. Why did my brother run away? There was no answer to my question.
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I could not get up that morning. Mother came to my bed and placed her palm on my forehead. I felt lot of comfort. She told everybody that I had fever. I was told not to take bath. I had to eat only rava-ganji.  The fever continued even after two days. The ‘military’ doctor came from Koppa. I was administered an injection. I came to know that I had typhoid fever. Mother used to keep her palm on my forehead every morning to check whether the fever had subsided. It took more than two weeks for me to recover. I could go out now to play. But I felt I would miss something. Mother would not take care of me anymore! Should I get another bout of fever to get back her palm on my forehead?
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One day the school teacher Srikanta Jois came to our house at the invitation of my father. Father asked him to match the horoscopes of my eldest sister with another horoscope. Jois got busy in matching the two. My father and mother watched anxiously. After some time Jois confirmed that the horoscopes were matching perfectly. Everybody was happy. Within a few days the marriage was held in a place called Agumbe. My sister moved to her husband’s place. I felt the absence of my sister and there was a sense of dejection. I looked at my other sister for comfort. Suddenly I realized that she also may get married and move away. Who would look after me then? Why all the sisters have to get married and move away? I didn’t get any answer.
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I was feeling very forlorn and desolate after my eldest sister left our place. I asked my second sister to tell me some story to light up my mood. She told me one of the most enjoyable stories I ever heard. It went on the following lines:

Ranganna was a farmer who used to grow sugarcane in his fields. One particular year there was a bumper sugarcane crop in his fields. As the harvesting season was approaching the family gets ready to harvest the crop. One morning Ranganna was shocked to find a portion of the crop eaten away by some animal. He gets agitated and decides to keep a watch during that night.

Ranganna goes to the field in the night and keeps watch from a tower raised for the purpose. In the dead of night he suddenly finds a glowing white elephant descend in the midst of the field from the sky. It starts eating the sugarcane immediately. Ranganna goes near the elephant and folds his hands requesting the elephant not to spoil the crop. The elephant is pleased and tells him that it was Airavatha - the mount (vehicle) of Devendra. It tells him that it relished his sugarcane crop and came all the way from heaven to eat. It asks him to accompany it on its way back by holding on to its tail.

Ranganna holds the tail and the Airavatha carries him to the heavens through the sky-route. Ranganna enjoys his visit to the heaven. He sees all the ashta-dikpalakas from Devendra to Ishanya (Shiva). Airavatha gets him a bagful of diamond and gold from the treasures of Kubera. It drops him back in his field.

In the morning Ranganna reaches his home with the bagful of gold and diamonds. He tells his wife the whole story and warns her not to reveal the ‘secret’ to anybody. His wife agrees; but could not hold on to it even for a day. She tells her immediate neighbor with the condition that she should hold on to the ‘secret’. But the ‘secret’ passes on to the entire village within no time.

Ranganna’s wife suddenly gets an idea. She asks her husband to take her to the field in that night. She tells him that he must take her also to the heaven. Her plan is to hold on to his legs after he holds on to the elephant’s tail! Ranganna reluctantly agrees as he does not want to disappoint his wife. But his wife once again tells her neighbor, who in turn wants to hold on to her legs! Again the news travels around and one lady from each house gets ready to travel to heaven!

In the dead of night Airavatha arrives from the heaven. When it is about to fly back after eating the sugarcane, Ranganna holds on to its tail. He is followed by his wife holding on to his legs. The others tag on by holding the legs of one another. The convoy is moving on in the sky on its way to the heavens. The women cannot keep quiet for long and start talking loudly. The lady at the bottom of the convoy gets a sudden doubt. She asks the next lady whether there would be sufficient gold and diamond in the Kubera’s treasure to be given to everybody. The message is passed up to Ranganna, who says there would be sufficient stock. The message is passed down to the bottom. But now the same lady wants to know the quantum of wealth in Kubera’s treasure! The question is once again passed up to Ranganna. Ranganna gets wild now. He tries to tell the others that the treasure was too big by making a shape with the use of both his hands. In the process he releases his grip on the elephant’s tail! The entire convoy falls down to the village tank. The heavenly journey ends up in a disaster! The Airavatha never turns up in the field again as it had already eaten the entire crop!
A V Krishnamurthy