Obituary: MS Prabhakara, nomadic, eccentric writer and journalist who wrote his own obit 11 years ago

Better known by his pen name ‘Kamaroopi’ in Kannada literary circles, he covered the Northeast and South Africa as a journalist. Read about his contribution to modern Kannada literary movement and also the obituary he wrote for himself.

ByMuralidhara Khajane

Published Dec 30, 2022 | 11:12 AMUpdated Jan 03, 2023 | 3:54 PM

Noted Kannada writer and journalist MS Prabhakara

His tendency to continuously put up barriers even while expecting others to surmount them affected his relationships with women, those whom he befriended as well as those who tried to befriend him; and they consequently, were both attracted and repelled by him. Only this explains the aridity and the tangled state of his emotional life, the loneliness …

Veteran journalist, academic, and author in English and Kannada MS Prabhakara passed away on Thursday, 29 December, due to age-related ailments at his residence in Kolar.

Prabhakara is better known by his pen name ‘Kamaroopi’ in Kannada literary circles. He was 87. (Kamaraoopa was the ancient name of Assam. As Prabhakara spent most part of his life in Guwahati, he made the region’s name his pen name.)

“Prabhakara was unmarried and his body has been donated to MS Ramaiah Hospital, following his last wish,” said writer-journalist NAM Ismail, a close associate of Prabhakara.

Prabhakara used to describe himself as an “eccentric”.

Some time ago, in a conversation with his friends, he said; “Basically one word that describes me effectively would be eccentric. This accurately reflects me.”

He had developed a kind of detachment from life.

“Once he told his friends that ‘two things are certain in everyone’s life: death and income tax. No one can evade these two. I still don’t know how I will welcome death when it taps on my door. It is better to die when we are strong and healthy and while in deep sleep. I envy my friends who died while they were sleeping’, smiled Prabhakara,” recalls Ismail, who used to often visit Kolar to meet Prabhakara.

Eleven years ago, when he was 76, Prabhakara, “an eccentric being”, wrote his own obituary piece as a kind of a joke and sent it across to some of his young friends through email.

Ismail, among those who received the mail, shared it with this writer. Here it is:

MS Prabhakara’s obituary for himself

The death occurred yesterday of MS Prabhakara (Prabhakara Surappa Motnahalli), teacher, and journalist, writer in Kannada and English at his residence in Kolara. He was 76, and single. His body was cremated without any religious rites, as had been desired by him in his Will.

Born in May 1936, Prabhakara grew up in Kolara, Karnataka, where he went to school. He secured an Honours degree (1956) and a Masters degree (1957) in English Language and Literature from Central College Bangalore. He taught for about four years in Bangalore and Dharwad before joining Gauhati University in February 1962.

He resigned from Gauhati University in December 1975 and joined Economic and Political Weekly as a member of its editorial staff. He returned to Guwahati in June 1983, this time as the Special Correspondent of The Hindu and later also of Frontline, Chennai covering developments in Assam and its neighbourhood. In June 1994, he went to Johannesburg as Special Correspondent of these publications in Southern Africa. He returned to Guwahati in April 2002 and retired a month later.

MS Prabhakara wrote an obituary for himself 11 years ago

MS Prabhakara wrote an obituary for himself 11 years ago (NAM Ismail)

As a teacher, Prabhakara was popular, especially with his students though not with his colleagues, rather than successful. Despite the professional recognition and modest career advancement he enjoyed, he viewed his career as a teacher a failure.

The switch to political journalism was natural given that the focus of much of his academic writing, including his doctoral thesis, was the interrelation between literature, society and politics, very broadly issues of political economy and social change.

Returning to Guwahati by the happiest of chances, he spent the remaining years of his working life with The Hindu and Frontline, making a home in Guwahati, Johannesburg, and Cape Town. He travelled extensively during these years in India’s northeast region and in the neighbouring countries in South Africa and Southern Africa as well in Central Africa, West Africa and East Africa. He wrote a lot in the course of his work, much of it of its nature topical and ephemeral, almost all of it deservedly forgotten.

Prabhakara was not any easy man to know or to be with, though superficially he appeared friendly and amiable. The defining element of his being was an all-consuming melancholy which he tried to conceal by cultivating an air of intellectual arrogance and aggressive flippancy, all laced by an air of superficially cynical sophistication.

He was a generous man, generous with his time, his knowledge, his money and even more so with his emotions and affections, in the latter case often oppressively so. However, because of the flaws in his personality and character, he found himself unable to respond in a natural and unaffected manner when such feelings and gestures were reciprocated.

This tendency to continuously put up barriers even while expecting others to surmount them affected his relationships with women, those whom he befriended as well as those who tried to befriend him; and they consequently, were both attracted and repelled by him. Only this explains the aridity and the tangled state of his emotional life, the loneliness and the ‘singularly un-blest state’ in which he met his death, that warped and unappealing facets of his inner personality.

Prabhakara achieved modest recognition as a minor writer in Kannada when he was young. Three of his books, a collection of short stories and two novels, were published by Manohara Granthamala, Dharwad, Karnataka under his pen name, Kamaroopi.

Three poems, his only attempts at verse, have also been published under the same pen name, one of them only in an English translation. He published a collection of light essays, Words and Ideas (Anwesha Guwahati in 2007) and a collection of his longer analytical essays, Looking Back into the Future; Identity and Insurgency in Northeast India (Routledge, Delhi, 2012). He also tried to resume writing in Kannada by starting a blog This like most such efforts, deservedly sank into oblivion. [645 words]

Navya movement in Kannada

Prabhakara’s literary excellence was unveiled to Kannada readers in 1969, when his short story collection Ondu Tola Punugu Mattu Itara Kategalu was published by Manohara Granthamala, Dharwad.

It was the initial days of Navya literary movement (modern literary movement) in Kannada being steered by Mogeri Gopalakrishna Adiga and UR Ananthamurthy, P Lankesh, Chandrashekara Kambara, Girish Karnad, Shankara Mokashi Punekar, and others.

At this juncture, two distinct voices were heard from distant Guwahati and Chicago. Those were the peculiar voices of MS Prabhakara and AK Ramanujan. But these were welcomed by the cultural spectrum of Karnataka.

Related: Worthy translation of UR Ananthamurthy’s words into visuals

Compared to AK Ramanujan, Prabhakara wrote little. Though his works of the 1970s were neither vibrant nor volatile, like other modern Kannada writings, they definitely had a noticeable silent, qualitative effect, and impact on a section of the new generation, which felt they were unique.

MS Prabhakara

MS Prabhakara (Supplied)

Prabhakara’s other prominent Kannada works are Kudure Motte (1974) and Anjikinyatakayya (1981).

His novel Kudure Motte was among the 36 works chosen for an award by the Karnataka Sahitya Academy in 1976. The novel was also among 100 books selected by the Department of Kannada and Culture, Government of Karnataka, for inclusion in the’ Suvarna Grantha Male’ — marking the 50th anniversary of the Unification of Karnataka.

Kudure Motte was made into a Kannada film by renowned filmmaker GV Iyer in 1977. But the film failed to make any impact on audiences who had read the novel.

Noted literary critic CN Ramachandra considers Kudure Motte a remarkable novel from the point of view of multiple narrators. Recently, Sanchaya Bengaluru brought out the collected edition of his Kannada writings.

Prasanna, an eminent theatre personality, classifies Prabhakara with the likes of AK Ramanujan, Raghavendra Khasanisa, and Kusumakara Devaragannuru, in contrast to UR Ananthamurthy, P Lankesh, and Shanthinatha Desai.

His Looking Back into the Future: Identity and Insurgency in Northeast India examines questions of identity, ethnicity, sovereignty, and insurgency in the region.

The various articles situate these in their larger social, economic, political, and above all, historical context, the last being especially important in their becoming a part of colonial India relatively late, well after colonial control was established in the rest of India.

‘More an Assamese or South African’

Prabhakara, in his last days, felt that he remained totally an outsider both for Kannadigas and Assamese. He felt that he was less and less of a Kannadiga, and more an Assamese or a South African. During his conversation with his few friends, he had repented for having left Guwahati and selling his flat. “I came to Karnataka to write in Kannada, but I could not do much”, he regretted.

On opting for journalism after deserting his teaching job, Prabhakara had no remorse.

He got bored of teaching for nearly 18 years and frustrated with the private tuition menace that was slowly getting prominence in those days.

But in one of the many casual conversations, he recalled a class he took one afternoon for students where he elaborated on the evolution of the novel, and the relation between novelist and the reader. Teaching discerning students gave him real satisfaction. “Those two hours were a mystical experience for me,” he said in a state of trance.

A wordsmith

Prabhakara had a fascination for collecting various dictionaries.

In one sense, he was a wordsmith. He used to weigh options before using a word. He would opt for a word after convincing others that it had the right connotation.

When asked about the various dictionaries he has, Prabhakara replied: “I have a childlike curiosity for language. While writing, I am more worried about the language used to narrate an incident rather than the subject. For me, language is still a mystery. Similarly, I am still interested in grammar.”

With the death of Prabhakara, the cultural sphere of Kannada has lost one of its best minds and it is difficult to fill the vacuum.

A generation of readers who loved and adored him will remember Prabhakara for calling a spade a spade. Though shy by nature, he was also frank and never hesitated to tell the truth. Never did he call himself a writer. He considered himself a “common man” like any other on the road.

There is a saying in Kannada: “Sharanara guna maranadalli nodu” (understand the quality of Sharana in his death). This fits well for MS Prabhakara, who lived like a “jangama” (nomad) throughout his life.

Also read: A great exponent of Karnataka’s Gamaka tradition 

(Muralidhara Khajane is a senior journalist, writer, and film critic. He is the author of ‘Random Reflections: A Kaleidoscopic Musings on Kannada Cinema’)