Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, a writer who lived a life as rich as his literature

Today is the birth anniversary and the death anniversary of Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, one of the pre-eminent Kannada litterateurs of the 20th century. In this essay, Dr Sathyanarayana discusses Masti the man and delves into a rich life that served as the basis for a rich literature.

ByHS Sathyanarayana

Published Jun 06, 2023 | 2:10 PM Updated Jun 06, 2023 | 8:13 PM

A laughing Masti Ajja in his 90s

To remember Masti Venkatesha Iyengar is to remember a great man responsible for shaping Kannada’s culture. June 6 is the day Masti was born and also the day that he died. Born under the 1.30 AM star, it was under the same star that he died. 

A long life devoted to all forms of literature

Masti, with a scarf wrapped around his neck

Masti, with a scarf wrapped around his neck (Kamat’s Potpourri)

His long, full life of 95 years was characterised by its richness, variety, and wealth of experience, qualities he used to create short stories, poetry, plays, criticism, biographical sketches, editorials, translations, sonnets, and an autobiography. Through his creativity, he breathed strength into all these literary forms and gained a prominent place in the Kannada literary sphere. 

“A writer’s literature cannot become rich without his life becoming rich” was something Masti used to say from time to time. If we attempt to understand the heights Masti’s life reached through a couple of incidents, we will be able to do justice to him on this occasion. Equally, contemporary people would do well to become more closely acquainted with a personality like Masti.

The introspective and compassionate side of Masti

On one occasion, Masti’s place had a leaking tap that needed a new washer. Arranging for a plumber to come over, Masti sat down to recite (a portion of) the Ramayana, a daily ritual. That day, he was wearing a shawl with a ornamented border given to him by the Mysore Maharaja. 

To Masti, wearing the shawl was a way of wishing the Maharaja well. It was for this reason that Masti had put the shawl over himself when he was reciting the Ramayana. Having finished fixing the tap, the plumber took his payment from Pankajamma (Masti’s wife) and left. 

However, when Pankajamma came to Masti and told him the tap hadn’t been fixed properly, Masti went to take a look. He was incensed when he saw it was still leaking. Taking off the shawl, he waved it and hit the plumber with it. Though the softness of the shawl meant that the plumber was not hurt, Masti felt immediate remorse for having lashed out at the poor man. 

He began to cry loudly and, stroking the man gently and speaking words of comfort to him, took him inside, served him some food and then gave him some extra money and sent him on his way. This incident is an illustration of Masti’s compassion and concern for his fellow men and women.

Read also: Anupama Niranjana, the doctor-writer of Kannada literature

Masti’s literary ‘reponsibility’ and zest for life

Masti (right) with Kuvempu at an event held in memory of BM Srikanthaiah

Masti (right) with Kuvempu at an event held in memory of BM Srikanthaiah (Kamat’s Potpourri)

Another important part of Masti’s personality was his keenness to share his life’s experiences and his knowledge with those he encountered. After all, isn’t that the responsibility of a senior litterateur? 

Our own SR Ekkundi, one of Kannada’s noteworthy poets, once invited Masti to be the chief guest at the annual day of the high school he was working at in Bankikondla. Learning that there was a beach nearby the school, Masti expressed his desire to visit it.

Upon reaching there, Masti talked to all the fishermen, enquiring and learning about their lives. He was always interested in the lives of other people. He walked about the shore at a pace that put the younger ones in the group to shame.

Overcome with a sense of wonder as he looked out towards the ocean, his soul was stirred as if by a mystical experience. Addressing Ekkundi who was by his side, Masti said, “When one listens to the rhythmic sound of the sea, one feels that it too has a language of its own. How nice it would be to learn its language.”

The wit and wisdom of Masti

Masti in his old age wearing glasses

Masti in his old age wearing glasses (Kamat’s Potpourri)

When Masti won the Jnanapith award in 1983, the Karnataka government organised a celebration in Vidhan Soudha’s banquet hall. The chief minister at the time, Ramakrishna Hegde, led the proceedings. 

All those who congratulated Masti that day said the same thing: that he deserved to have won the Jnanapith earlier. When it came Masti’s turn to accept the award and speak, a mischievous smile played on his lips. 

“Everyone who’s spoken has said that I have received the prize later than I should have. Sure, let’s say that I won it belatedly. However, there is no injustice in this. Let’s say some sweetmeats have been made at home. Do they give them to the children first or to the older people? It is only right that the children are given it first. Only then should the elders be given it. The same method has been followed in the distribution of this top prize.” 

Masti’s timely wit brought a collective ‘Ho!’ from the crowd and a round of applause. The chief minister too laughed heartily.

Read more: Beechi, the Kannada humorist’s ‘serious’ side

Masti’s role as the public’s informal counsellor

Masti wearing a Mysore Peta during his days as a civil servant

Masti wearing a Mysore Peta during his days as a civil servant (Kamat’s Potpourri)

A lot of people used to visit Masti to tell him their troubles. In fact, Masti used to keep aside some time just for this in his already-full daily itinerary. 

Once, a man of about 65 came to Masti’s house. The man had only one son. He had been born after several years of marriage and, consequently, had been pampered as though he was god’s gift to the couple. The son had studied well, passed the IAS examination and risen to a good position.

The man, who had come to spend a couple of happy days in his son’s house, had overheard his daughter-in-law say, “Just one person to earn for the house, but four people to sit around and eat. This is our karma.” Angered, he had decided never to visit his son’s house again. This was the story he laid out in front of Masti.

Having listened to all this, Masti stayed silent for a minute and then asked the man. “You said he was your only child, yes?” “Yes, sir, our only child.” “His must have been a pampered upbringing, yes?” asked Masti. The old man said: “Just pampered? When I used to lie down, he’d stand on my chest and kick my chin with his feet and chuckle about it. How often I myself gave him his bath, put his clothes on for him, fed him. No sooner did I used to return from the office than I used to take him with me and go for a round, visiting the park, the temple, and other places.”

Hearing this, Masti asked, “All this must have given you great happiness and satisfaction, yes?” The old man admitted that it had. Hearing this, Masti immediately said: “In that case, the expense and the returns even out, don’t they? Sure, you took a lot of pains to bring up your son. Your son too gave you much happiness. All that should have come to you has already come.”

“Now, his wife is looking after him well. What else do you want? If you want to continue to spend time with him even now, that is just a bonus. So there’s no need to feel bad about missing out on that bonus.” The man found Masti’s explanation satisfactory. Breathing a sigh and with his mind lightened, he took leave of Masti.

Read more: Tarasu, the novelist of and from Chitradurga

Giving up English for the sake of ‘his Kannada people’

HS Sathyanarayana and Usha Kesari (Masti's granddaughter) at Masti's house in Bengaluru

HS Sathyanarayana and Usha Kesari (Masti’s granddaughter) at Masti’s house in Bengaluru (HS Sathyanarayana)

Though Masti used to write his short stories, essays, and poems in Kannada, in the early days, he used to give his speeches in English. Not only did he have the confidence that he was accomplished in English, it was also his desire to write in English. That is to say, he was as taken by English as he was by Kannada.

During that time, an incident in Kolar was responsible for inspiring Masti to write in Kannada alone. The incident was from Masti’s time in Kolar as a tax inspector. One evening, Masti had taken up residence in the visitors’ mantapa of the village of Mallasandra. The tax collector of the village, on account of having made some mistake during his collection, came and stood before Masti. 

“What man, did you not realise that you mustn’t do this?” asked Masti. “No, saar.” “Why’s that? There are these rules, right? Shouldn’t you familiarise yourself with them?” asked Masti. The man replied: “Your rules-geeles are all in English, saar. How’m I to understand them?” This conversation may have be been short and the incident may have been minor, but the man’s words at the time had a profound influence on Masti.

Masti thought to himself: “Isn’t it so? If I do my work in English because it’s government work, how are our people to understand? People like those in this village sweat themselves dry and break their backs to earn. They then give half their earning to the government so that it can pay us our salaries and look after us well. By name, we are ‘public servants’ meant to serve the people. But, in truth, we are selfish and arrogant rulers. Even the note we write saying we have fined someone we write in English. If that person is to understand the note, they have no choice but to go to a lawyer.” 

No sooner did Masti think about all of this than he resolved to write for and speak with the Kannada people in simple Kannada. To this day, Masti’s books, written in simple Kannada, are easily accessible to everybody. That Masti should have come to this decision on account of having talked to a farmer from the village beautifully illustrates the kind of person he was.

A proud Indian who served the British government but was never servile

Another incident dates to the time Masti was the District Commissioner of Chikmagaluru. The ‘Kadooru Club’ established by the British was a very prestigious institution. Indians were not allowed to be members of the club. However, the district commissioner alone could apply to be a member of the club. But Masti did not use this opportunity to become a member of the club. 

That’s when Masti, as district commissioner, got an invitation from the club itself asking him to be a member. Masti declined. When asked for a reason, Masti said: “You are inviting me to be a member of the club because I am the D.C! Would you have invited me if I wasn’t a D.C and was just an ordinary Indian? I do not want to be a member of a club that yours that doesn’t allow Indians to be members.” 

When the man who delivered the invitation said, “Every D.C who came before you was a member,” Masti replied, “That may be so. Perhaps they did not realise that they had been extended an invitation only on account of being a D.C rather than on account of being an Indian. But since it has come to my attention, I am declining the club’s membership.” 

Left with nothing to say, the man had to return. That Masti was able to say this while being D.C under the British rule shows his self-respect, resolution, his pride about being Indian, and his love for his country.

An attempt to sketch Masti’s personality has been made here using only a handful of instances from his life. Those who read Masti’s autobiography, ‘ಭಾವ (Bhaava)’, will come across a number of stories like these. Masti’s tender-mindedness and his constant concern for the welfare of other people are two important ideals before us. 

We read earlier that Masti often said, “Our writing cannot become rich without our life becoming rich.” Masti himself is an excellent example of this richness.

(This article is a translation by Madhav Ajjampur of an essay by Dr. HS Sathyanarayana. Dr. Sathyanarayana, a PhD in Kannada, has been a Kannada lecturer at the pre-university level for the last 28 years. For 2017-18, he received the state-level ‘best lecturer’ award presented by the Government of Karnataka. He is also the recepient of the Hiremallur Ishwaran Rajya Prashasti for his teaching achievements. Dr. Sathyanarayana has written and edited a number of books, including ‘Apoorva Odanaata’, ‘Makkaligaagi Masti’, and ‘Nudichitra’. His work, ‘Apoorva Odanata’ won the Meghamaitri Pustaka Bahumana and the Ha Ma Nayak Kannada Jagriti Pustaka Bahumana.)