The grand old man of Kannada
You've been writing about environmental issues for a long time, but your writings are people-oriented. Is this due to your personal background?
My personal background is almost horrid. I have been a writer and novelist and written more than 80 dramas. I have tried almost every conceivable medium of self-expression. I wrote a three-volume children's encyclopaedia in 1934, an exhaustive popular science and technology encyclopaedia between 1958 and 1964 and finally an encyclopaedia on art, architecture and sculpture of the world, all in Kannada.
I was born in a small village called Kota, about two miles from here. I grew up in the lap of nature, in a region that is really beautiful. When the monsoon brings clouds to the sky and adds to the green of the earth, it becomes a veritable paradise. This inculcated in me a love for nature. I consider nature a temple. At one time, I went through a phase of piety and visited several pilgrim spots. But the peace I find in a river, in a hill and in the sky, I don't find in places of worship.
In 1921, when I was 19, I left my studies to join Gandhiji's non-cooperation movement. I travelled extensively around Kundapura, propagating khadi in almost every village in the taluka. Though the effort ended in failure, I learnt some valuable lessons, and I got to know my people.
In 1933, I conducted a socioeconomic survey of 33 villages in Puttur taluka. The stark poverty of the people was pitiable. I saw firsthand the ignorance, inertia and superstition that brought about this destitution. The outcome of this expedition was my novel, Chomana Dudi (Choma's Drum).
The Puttur experience also made me realise the importance of scientific knowledge for development. A booklet called Moscow has a Plan inspired my friend, Shiva Rao, and me to draw up a scheme of intensive publicity for six months in seven rural centres and we prepared popular lectures on 30 interesting subjects, such as poultry farming, dairying and pilgrimages. We chose seven schools, where the teachers took on the responsibility of lecturing, as the lecture centres. Initially, the villagers attended the lectures, but later when they stopped coming, we lectured to the children. Thus, from my very youth I have followed developments in science and technology and their impact on the daily lives of ordinary people.
What drove you to popular writing?
Within a few years of leaving college, I realised that despite all my desires, I had no experience to anchor me. I regarded myself a servant of the nation, but realised that my potential could be fulfilled only in my immediate environment. I decided to dedicate myself to the service of Kannada, my language. Devanna Pai of Kundapura, a friend, and I started a monthly magazine, Vasantha, in 1924, under my editorship. I realised then how easy it was to start a magazine, but how difficult it was to sustain it. The effort failed after two years, but the exposure to journalism made me read a lot and travel extensively. I decided I had to continue with popular writing.
What inspired you to compile encyclopaedias?
Well, it was a struggle, both intellectually and financially. But my effort was triggered by the intellectual thinness of Kannada. Just look at the abundance of books in English on any subject. There are limitless sources in English, which can help a literate person enhance his knowledge. Kannada offers few such opportunities even to adults. We have experts, but the totality of our knowledge is scant. And, this is because many authors allow their minds to become prejudiced and blunt their ability to absorb new ideas.
To avoid this, the zeal to learn must be implanted at an early age. But most children get no opportunity to read anything apart from their school texts. And they don't get much help from their teachers because the teachers themselves have no reference books.
Also, our school books don't attempt to arouse the interest and imagination of children. Forget science and its marvels, even fascinating subjects like history and geography are made so boring. All this motivated me to write an encyclopaedia and that was how Bala Prapancha was born. I have done what little I could do to make up for the deficiencies, and I don't know how successful I have been.
What about the Vijnana Prapancha?
My reading of science for Bala Prapancha became a regular habit over the years. In the UK and the US, there are so many books on popular science, which enable the ordinary person to learn the rudiments of science as well as the latest developments. But in India, we were still living in the Stone Age, when we were confronted with the Industrial Age. I decided I would do something to change the situation. So I wrote and published five volumes dealing exclusively with scientific subjects -- this was the Vijnana Prapancha. My aim was to make people interested in modern science and understand its vast and multidimensional progress.
Coming back to khadi, why do you say the movement failed?
I was a freedom fighter to the extent that I joined the non-cooperation movement of the 1920s. But the movement faded away when the leaders went to jail. Then, in 1931, there was the civil disobedience movement which also I joined, but it withered away. In 1942 came the Quit India movement. Meanwhile, I took to journalism and writing.
Looking back, I must say that the various movements for independence failed for many reasons. In the case of khadi, there was no continuous mass-based agitation.
I failed to realise Gandhi's economics. I propagated khadi, but abandoned it as hopeless when I lost out to cheaper Japanese brown cloth, which cost about one-third the price of khadi in 1925-26.
So Gandhian economics failed on the price front?
No, that's not it. All commodities have to face world competition and no industry can survive long on subsidies. Our people are poor. Gandhi was content to say spin your cloth and wear it. But which poor person wants khadi? Even today, khadi is heavily subsidised, but it is not popular among the poor. Mass production is cheaper. Can you cheaply mass-produce khadi?
In those days, I went to Bombay and visited a cloth mill. I was amazed to see one woman running 10 power looms, producing hundreds of yards of cloth in a day, when I produced so little khadi in a week. So our economic outlook has to be competitive. Gandhian community models failed because we live in the world, not in isolation.
What is your assessment of our present economic policies?
We may have become more competitive in a few sectors, but our overall attitude is dishonest. Competition requires long-term thinking, but we look for quick money. When we get an export order, we send them poor quality stuff, and that finishes the export market for good. In the present regime, too, many facilities might be given, but our workers and companies have to be much more sensible. There is so much dishonesty prevailing in all circles -- its become a national character.
How can this be changed?
Don't be under the illusion that you and I can do it. It has to be a mass movement, which needs people and their sacrifices. But who is willing to do it? We all want quick results.
Why are you so pessimistic?
Look, I'm telling you what I think is reality. And its not that its happening only today. I became disenchanted with the Congress in the 1930s, when I saw the misdeeds of many of those who had gone to jail in the name of truth and non-violence, and who later became big leaders in North and South Kanara districts. And, in 1952, when the first general elections were held, I was disgusted by the level to which politics in the country had sunk.
Is it because of your rural roots that you are an environmentalist?
I am deeply attached to my soil. Although I am handicapped due to my age, I try to remain active in environmental causes. Several years ago, I did a summary in Kannada of the Citizens' Report on the State Of India's Environment. I have campaigned extensively against the Kaiga nuclear plant and the willful destruction of forests. I supported the farmers of Sirsi in their fight against the Bedti project.
I firmly believe no one has the right to destroy the resources of others, whether of this generation or of future generations. I am not opposed to development, but I can't accept as development, the mindless destruction of resources that goes on today.
At your age, you could have retired blissfully. What drives you on?
I am interested in life and this sustains me. My definition of life goes beyond humankind. I don't subscribe to a humancentric worldview. We've inherited the earth and we have to keep it for the future.