BY GIRIJA MADHAVAN
One day, clearing a cupboard, I found some black and white snapshots taken by my father, M.Venkatesh, on a Kodak box camera, probably from the early 1930s, which record some of his travels and moments with friends.
Venkatesh [1890-1984] was the third son of Alladi Mahadeva Sastry, a Theosophist, noted Sanskrit scholar and one of the first curators of the Oriental Library in Mysore. The family had relocated to Mysore State from Nellore when Venkatesh was small. A mechanical engineer, Venkatesh worked in the Mysore State Railways, retiring as General Manager in 1947. In 1919 he married Muthulakshmi, the daughter of the writer A.Madhaviah. Using the name “Mukta”, given to her by her father-in-law, she made her name in Mysore as a watercolour painter.
The Railways were an integral part of Venkatesh’s life. He went on regular inspections of the State Railways in a coach allotted to him. It had a sleeping berth, a toilet and a kitchen equipped by Mukta with a fragrant curry powder and choice coffee. This coach was attached to goods trains pulled by steam engines which ran on narrow-gauge tracks. The logo inscribed on the leather seats was “MSR”[Mysore State Railways]. When there was a derailment or mishap on the lines, a siren, similar to the air raid warning at wartime, would go off in the Railway Station Yard, alerting the rescue and repair personnel.
Though disciplined and scrupulous, he was no prig. He loved good food and clothes. He wore double-breasted suits with a felt-hat or sola topee on his head. He was irked when described as the “Second best dressed man In Mysore”; his friend, Mallaradhya being spoken of as “the best dressed man”. He was proud of his ‘Austin 10 Convertible’.
He was a keen golfer and played tennis. He was an early member of both the Sports Club of Mysore and the Rotary Club. He loved the Mysore Zoo, affectionately greeting the dwarf at the turnstile there who always wore a white suit, a tie and a red Fez cap with a black tassel. He treasured postcards of the felines there.
The State Government deputed him abroad twice for studying advanced engineering, first to England and later to Munich, Germany. He took Mukta with him to England. They travelled in a steam ship. Their British Indian passports had dark blue and gold covers with crisp pink pages.
Indian food was available at Veerasamy’s Restaurant in London. Though known for its Vindaloo curry, other dishes were also on offer. Venkatesh was a strict vegetarian, even avoiding vegetables that grew below ground level. In his childhood, tomatoes, called ‘love apples,’ were considered poisonous. So, he used to throw them at a wall to see them make a scarlet splatter. However, he hated the macaroni served in England so much that he switched to non-vegetarian food. Mukta remained a vegetarian all her life.
Before returning to India, they went to Paris and saw the Folies Bergeres and to Italy to visit Pompeii. In those days ladies were excluded from looking at some murals in the male bath-houses. Mukta was peeved. She let Venkatesh go only on condition that he recount to her what he saw! They met a Tamilian lady whom Mukta had known in Madras. Unlike Mukta, she was shocked by the Can-Can dancers of Paris and the “naughty” murals of Pompeii. She was photographed in Pompeii, wearing high heels, a low-belted overcoat over a silk sari.
Venkatesh went on to Munich in Germany for a year. For many years he kept his Baedeker’s Guide, some travel books and maps, and a few colourful cards issued by the infamous Krupps Company. All these are now lost. This was the dawn of the Nazi age in Bavaria, but his impressions of the Third Reich were not recorded. The only influence of Germany on my father was his admonition to naughty grandchildren; “Don’t behave like Storm Troopers!”
An affable man, he was a well-known figure in Yadavagiri, meeting old friends like R.K. Narayan who lived down the road. If R.K. Narayan was on a walk, they would exchange a few words or if Narayan was driving his brown Mercedes, a cheery wave or the doffing of a felt hat would suffice. When Venkatesh could no longer drive, he would go down to the bus stop at Akashavani and board a bus to the City. He would walk up Sayyaji Rao Road, stopping at R. Krishnaswamy, the stationers, Ananda Bhavan and finally Srinivasa Stores to sample raisins and cashew-nuts, forbidden to him as a diabetic, returning home by bus.
He died peacefully during his morning nap. In his long lifetime, he balanced his orthodox upbringing with changing values, blending honesty and ethical values with joie de vivre.
Courtesy: Star of Mysore