My Avva Shantadevi Kanavi, a Writer of Substance

Leading Kannada short story writer's son remembers his mother on the first anniversary of his death

Shantadevi Kanavi was a leading short story writer in Kannada whose work has been translated into Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Odia, Punjabi and English. ‘Onagabaradu odala chilume’, edited by Shanta Imrapur and K R Siddhagangamma, is a collection of 56 critical essays and analyses of her short stories by noted literary critics. She was honoured for her lifetime literary contribution with the Karnataka Saahitya Akademi Award.


I do not know whether an indestructible, eternal atma exists. My search for this elusive entity has not gone beyond that of poet V.G. Bhat’s, which reached a dead end at page 153 of Kittel’s Dictionary.

My scientific training tells me that the mind, emotions, memory, intellect, self awareness are all functions of the brain and cease to exist when the body stops functioning or what is medically called death. However, a person’s memories, imprints and influences endure in others’ consciousness and life. So we can say a person “exists” in others’ consciousness. When the person is a writer, artist, scientist, philosopher etc then she continues to influence her audience and admirers for several years and even centuries and hence live much beyond her times.

My mother Shantadevi Kannavi’s rich literary work has been commented upon and has been read by thousands of people in Karnataka. Her kind, loving, empathetic and giving nature has been talked about by all those who came close to her; family, friends and even acquaintances.

So what should I write or recall in this remembrance?

I would like to distance myself from my emotional bonds with her as my loving avva (mother) and examine her world outlook as revealed in her thoughts and actions, which certainly played a role in shaping mine too.

Avva had some very strong convictions which she practiced all her life. However, she never tried to impose her convictions or her doubts on others.

She was not an atheist but all through her life she never went to a temple to worship any deity. She considered religion, faith and beliefs as private matters and not for public display. She practiced her own private meditation in the puja room when she felt the need.

She did not believe in astrology and never consulted an astrologer. Though not a science student her rationality kept her away from all the superstitions and rituals like Rahu kaala, Gruhana, good and bad omens, muhoort, Navagruha shanti, Shani’s bad effects  etc etc.

She had developed a questioning, rational, scientific temper.

She respected all those who had taken up service to the less privileged in any form or shape. She herself never went to any religious leader or Swamiji seeking moral or spiritual guidance or counsel.

The quality in any person she most abhorred even if they had other redeeming ones was false pride, arrogance and self promotion and seeking publicity. She greatly admired all those who stood upright against injustice, defended the rights of the poor and oppressed men and women and told truth to power.

Festivals were joyous occasions for family get together to enjoy good food and each other’s company and not necessarily for any specific rituals associated.

When my parents had a decisive say in the conduct of marriages in the family they sanctified the union of the couple in the presence of family members with my father reciting some vachanas of sharanas of the 12th century. But when they did not have a say, they left the conduct of the marriage to the wishes of the couple and happily blessed them. They did not wear their ideas and practices on their sleeves or impose it on others, including their own children or their spouses.

Avva liked the 12th century vachanakaras because many of their thoughts coincided with her beliefs and practices now in the 20th and 21st century. She started reading up on Buddhism recently.

Her beliefs and practices were not those of her mother or father either. Her father’s vast home library had tons of Victorian English literature along with modern Kannada literature and also a large section on philosophy and metaphysics. Shri Aurobindo, Jiddu Krishnamurthi , Vivekanand and others jostled with Vachanakaras and Lingayat literature. Her parents revered Shri Aurobindo and Mother of Pondicherry but that did not influence her much.

The point I am making is she was very much her own person. What she believed and practiced was arrived at by her own experience, reading, reflection and cogitation.

She was quite turned off by the sound and fury and public display of grief during a funeral. She observed it minutely in a village and based one of her famous stories “Antima samskara” on a village funeral. She also started investigating a realistic alternative to an elaborate funeral and she found it in the donation of one’s body to medical research in a Medical College. She was emboldened by three of her relatives actually donating their body thus. However, she did not insist on it when she was ill. Perhaps as a realist she might have realised that anyway she would not be around so what’s the point in insisting on it. After all, a funeral depends more on the beliefs of family members than the person who has passed away!

She did not study beyond matriculation. So, when she received a doctorate honoris causa in 2014 from the Karnataka State Women’s University at Vijayapura (Bijapur) for her lifetime contribution to Kannada literature, I used to pull her leg that she jumped straight from matriculation to D Litt!

She was a voracious reader from childhood till her very end. In fact, at her bedside in her last days was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, which she must have been reading for the nth time.

Her favourite writers were realists. Among the Europeans, she particularly loved Jane Austen, Bronte sisters Emily and Charlotte, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, O Henry, Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov. She was perhaps the most avid user of grandfather’s library.

She had read the pioneers of modern Kannada prose as well as her contemporaries: Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Anakru, Niranjan, Basavraj Kattimani, Tarasu, Kuvempu, Bhyrappa, Shankar Mokashi Punekar, Shantinath Desai, Tejasvi, Lankesh, Gauramma, Vani, Triveni, Anupama, Vaidehi and many others. In her later years you would always find her with a book in front of the TV in the living room.

She loved realists, because she was a realist in her core personality.

Some critics have commented that in her stories at times the female protagonist does not overtly rebel. But that is what she found around her in her early years and as a realist writer her stories reflected that. And as women became more independent, emancipated and assertive around her in the latter half of 20th century her stories reflected that too. She remained true to her realism all through and did not impose her wishes or aspirations or “ideology” on her characters.

As a mother she was remarkably liberal as well as frank and open. As we grew up she exerted absolutely no pressure on us on the career we chose or the life partner we chose; belief systems, political leanings and activism or any other life choices. At the same time, she was always available and willing if she found us tense or in need of help of any kind.

As I became a father and grandfather, I have often wondered whether I came up to her high standards of parenting.

She was quite firm in her convictions, though curious to know any evidence based alternative view. My father, the Kannada poet Chennaveera Kanavi, is circumspect by nature. On the rare occasion where he took a public political stand and participated in a protest, she totally stood by him. She saw his anguish before and during National Emergency of Indira Gandhi (1975-77); or the Gokak agitation (1981-82) for primacy of Kannada in Karnataka or the protests against the heinous murder of fellow writer and friend M M Kalburgi or communalism regarding citizenship etc. in 2019. She always stood by him like a rock.

She refused to go centre stage and let her work speak for itself.

How can one not be influenced by such a woman of substance as a mother and loving counsel? She continues to live in us all.

Shivanand Kanavi is an adjunct faculty member of NIAS, a former VP at TCS, and former executive editor of Business India magazine