The late Rayasam Bheemasena Rao, popularly known by the nom de plume of “BeeChi”, (he preferred to employ his pen name in the bilingual and thus it was ಬೀchi), was a famous Kannada humourist. He was referred to as the George Bernard Shaw of Karnataka. A blend of satirical humour and philosophical musings is the usual imprimatur of this writer and “Devarillada Gudi” (Temple Without God) is no exception. An unexpected invitation to visit Russia, when it was still the Soviet Union, as part of a delegation consisting of authors from across the world (with the exception of the United States) accords a rare opportunity for the 62 year old ಬೀchi not just to venture out of the country, but also experience the culture of a nation that is humongous in its breadth and reach. In “Devarillada Gudi”, the author reminisces his nineteen day sojourn of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic and is held in thrall by a country not just well renowned for its communist philosophy but also for being solidly atheist. A non-confirming individual himself, ಬೀchi, ponders along with his readers about various aspects that have an intersectionality with atheism in so far as culture, freedom and socialism are concerned.
But even before he can leave the shores of Mother India ಬೀchi is giving a harrowing taste of bureaucracy and red tapism when he visits Madras (now Chennai) for his passport. Mr. Muthuswamy and officer with a stentorian voice and a stolid demeanour almost puts paid to ಬೀchi’s hopes by being as intransigent as possible in processing his application. This after sitting on it for full eighteen day period. Only a visit to Delhi and to the right “connections” ensures that the author gets his passport in the nick of time! In the flight, ಬೀchi gets a ‘flavour’ of Russia, when a fellow passenger takes copious swigs of alcohol straight from the bottle without bothering about the need for or the presence of glasses. ಬೀchi is in absolute thrall of Soviet Russia right from the moment he sets foot in the country. Staring out the window of his hotel room in Moscow that over looks the river, he takes in the sights, sounds and smells of the nation. There are some passages in the book that are cringe worthy though. One of the first things that he asks his guide is for the location of prostitutes! Upon getting a response that such a practice is not found anywhere within the land, he sets off into a reflective bout that has at its core the concepts of fidelity and chastity.
Although a severe attack of duodenal ulcer resulted in the author abdicating his drinking habit that extended for three and a half decades, he still continued smoking and carried his favourite brand of “Ganesh Beedis” even to Soviet Russia. In an enclosed market area, he fishes out his smoke pack and is about to light a beedi when an Indian friend residing in Russia for a long time, gently dissuades him from putting flame to his beedi. When ಬೀchi protests stating that there are no signs prohibiting smoking, his friend informs him that not smoking in a public place is a civic attribute that requires neither enforcement not monitoring. The friend also takes him to a basement within the marketplace where there is a separate and expansive smoking lounge.
Surprisingly, ಬೀchi is extremely reticent and almost entirely silent on the actual writers’ conference itself. Other than devoting a complete chapter to Syed Sajjad Zaheer (whom the author affectionately refers to as Comrade Banne Bhai) an Urdu writer, Marxist ideologue and radical revolutionary who worked in both India and Pakistan. In the pre-independence era. Sajjad Zaheer comes down to attend the conference from London, but meets with an untimely death, felled by a massive heart attack. ಬೀchi also describes the Lal Bahadur Shastri memorial in Tashkent and the impeccable manner in which the memorial has been maintained in stark contrast to the sheer neglect that Shastriji’s own country has chosen to take towards preserving the legacy of one of its most loved, gentle and yet formidable of all former Prime Ministers.
The book however frays the reader’s nerves no end with ಬೀchi’s obsession towards atheism. He beats the trumpet of skepticism so much and at every drop of a hat, that the reader can be forgiven in accusing the author of being tone deaf. According to Hindu tradition, the medium of paper is associated with Saraswathi, the Goddess of Knowledge. Hence books and papers are accorded the greatest degree of not just respect, but reverence even. Hence when the former Governor of Karnataka Shantaveri Gopala Gowda created a ruckus in the State Assembly by tearing a speech and stomping on it to show his displeasure, the media took him to the cleaners for being downright disrespectful. ಬೀchi attempts to give an abominable twist to the whole episode. He wonders that since on aircrafts there is no facility for the use of hand faucets in the loo and the only available option is toilet paper, wouldn’t the act of relieving oneself itself be showing scant disregard to a worshipped piece of tangible item? If this argument sounds the least bit didactic, wait for the next one – what about the donkeys that merrily chew on paper?
These are the kind of passages that are bone jarring in what is otherwise an entertaining an engaging book. If only ಬೀchi had taken it a bit easy on the atheist quotient, “Devarillada Gudi” would have made for a fantastic read. And yes, by the way wasn’t the whole idea underlying the book a writer’s conference in Moscow?