By Indira Chowdhury
“I was born on a birthday that nobody will forget – April 1.st” He chuckled. “And at a time which nobody will forget,” he continued, laughter bubbling. “Char sou bis – you know the Indian Penal Code!” He was referring to Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code that specifically deals with cheating. Originally drafted by Thomas Babbington Macaulay in 1835, the IPC had come into force in 1862. Section 420 is especially familiar to Indians and is a synonym for a cheat in several Indian languages. The joke does not escape me, and I join in his merry laughter. This was my first interview with P.V. Krishnamoorthy, fondly called “PVK” by all those who knew him. My friend, Lata Mani, feminist historian and contemplative writer had introduced me to him. Perhaps because she knew well my deep fondness for stories about the past and knew too her “PVK” mama’s remarkable way of recounting them.
PVK began his career in broadcasting in All India Radio and served as Station Director in several cities. He went on to become the first Director General of Doordarshan. These two institutions – the first begun in British India and the second in independent India were interesting in themselves; interviewing someone who had first-hand experience of both was a rare privilege.
Our first meeting began predictably – I asked his full name and biographical details that could provide me with the context of his growing up years and his interesting career path. He began with self-deprecating humour: “My name is almost like a postal address – Padi Venkataraman Krishnamoorthy Shastri.” Padi – it turned out was the name of his “native” village, which although located just outside Madras (now Chennai) was quite inaccessible in the early twentieth century. But the area, he tells me, has since become a manufacturing hub with several companies establishing their factories there including TVS – one of largest motorcycle manufacturers in India. The village that lends its name to his family, however, is hardly the remembered village, as PVK’s father had migrated to Rangoon (now Yangon). The V in PVK’s name is for Venkataraman – his father and Krishnamoorthy is his own name. He goes on to elucidate: “Shastri, is the unfortunate caste we belong to. But my father dropped the caste name because it is totally irrelevant. So, I don’t call myself Shastri. I know nothing about the shastras in any case.”
PVK’s father, Venkataraman, was the eldest among his siblings. He worked at the Saidapet municipality in Madras. When his father died, he had to find ways of looking after his whole family. With help from his mother’s brother, who was in Burma, he found a job in the prison department in Rangoon and moved there with his family. “And so,” PVK continued, “A saintly man like my father served in the prison department all his life.”
It was not unusual for Indians to travel and work in Burma which belonged administratively to the Bengal Presidency in the British Indian Empire. The family lived in Thompson Street (possibly Thompson Road, renamed Botataung Pagoda Road after Burma became independent in 1948) on the upper story of the Burma Educational Trust Girl’s School. PVK’s father was of one of the trustees of The Burma Educational Trust, and the school, he tells me, was “essentially a theosophical school. Although it did not preach theosophy as such, it had the ideals of theosophy behind it – Annie Besant’s idea of education etc.” His father’s commitment to theosophy is one of the threads in the interview. Indeed, he wonders aloud if he was named Krishnamoorthy after the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti who visited Rangoon a year or two before PVK was born. Another possible, albeit mundane, reason he was given this name was that it rhymed with the name of his elder brother, Ramamoorthy.
Most oral history interviews swing between past and present. But that movement is not a linear back and forth between the two timeframes. Mediated through memory, that oscillation traces the process of making sense of the past in the present. As PVK speaks about his childhood in Burma he is keenly aware that those spaces no longer exist physically. He had visited the city of his childhood on a UN assignment and witnessed changes that had erased the landscape that was once so familiar to him. However, there is no nostalgia as he announces that Indians should never harbour a grudge on account of that past not being honoured. After all, he reflects, while the British exploited the Burmese, Indians too, generally took advantage of them. It is at this point he asked me if he could talk a little about his father.
Detours in oral history interviews are not surprising but this diversion has, as I discover, a deeper relationship to PVK’s own story. As a young man, his father would go to the Irrawady wharf in the evenings after work with his cousin. As he and his cousin whiled away their time singing, they would observe coolies – labourers from Andhra Pradesh, load rice bags into the holds of anchored ships. These illiterate labourers could not count the number of bags they had carried and would for the most part be paid whatever the supervisor said they had carried. Instead of confronting the supervisor, the two cousins decided to teach them to count in their own language – Telugu.
“And they taught them. My father spoke fluent Telugu. So musically he used to teach them – okati, rendu, mooru, naalugu, aidu [one, two three, four, five] – and they didn’t teach them more than twenty-five, because it was not necessary. [This was] what is called functional literacy today! These youngsters didn’t know it was functional literacy and yet they did functional literacy – [they did] not burden those fellows with useless information. And that exploitation stopped. Every time they used to go up [the plank, carrying a bag of rice] they would shout [counting aloud] – “One, two, three, four.” After some time, those boys [labourers] said, “We get letters from our family. We can’t read them”. And this is how the night school started.”
PVK describes the scene as if he was there. So I ask to clarify if his father’s involvement with the night school had happened before he was born. He replied with a laugh, “No! I was not even thought of!” Now when I listen again to the recording, I am struck by his use of the present tense to describe the scene before him – as if he had been an eyewitness to this incident. He had moved from the time and space we were in at that moment to a time and space far back in the past – from his granddaughter, Priya’s home in Bangalore to Rangoon at the turn of the century, at a time before his birth. His deviation from the interview to reflect on his father alerts us to the ways in which intergenerational memory surfaces and flows into the collective memory of another generation. For PVK this particular incident had an added significance that I soon found out.
The night school PVK’s father started in Rangoon expanded to include unskilled, low-ranking workers from government offices. PVK links this incident to something he did throughout his career in broadcasting in radio and television – using the concept of functional literacy to make learning accessible to a large mass of the underprivileged population in India. Personally too, he always taught the children of those who worked at his home as domestic help. But it was important for him to return to that moment of inspiration from the distant past in his very first interview with me. “Memory”, as Luisa Passerini had discovered in the course of her pioneering work in oral history, “can lead beyond events to the processes that go on around, underneath and within them. It is the contact with memory that has led historians – or some of us – to accept the idea that a history of subjectivity can exist and that we can explore the many ways of constructing it.”
When I listen to the recording of PVK’s first interview with me, I am struck by the fact that of all the things he did in his illustrious career as a broadcaster and a musician, it was radio for literacy and educational programmes in Indian television that he chose as glowing examples of his achievements. The history of All India Radio and Doordarshan had to wait for later sessions. This incident, which he recounted in his first interview held the key to understanding what he valued deeply. It was also important for another reason. It was PVK’s way of forging a powerful bond that linked him to the fading and nearly forgotten legacy of his father. As I listen again, I am reminded of a Haiku by Murakami Kijo (1865-1938):
First autumn morning:
the mirror I stare into
shows my father’s face.
PVK passed away on 16th October 2019 just six months short of his 99th birthday. What I and many others missed this year on 1st April was a birthday email from PVK which usually began: “It is customary to be greeted on one’s birthday. As, arguably, the senior-most I take the initiative to greet and bless you on my 98th birthday on Fools day April 1st.” Last year’s email still makes me smile.
I conducted three longish interviews with PVK – each one of them richly textured with many layers of the past. I have published an excerpt from his last interview in Varta – the newsletter of the Oral History Association of India. I shall revisit my interviews with PVK later in this blog. This post is for PVK’s 99th birthday – with gratitude and tenderness.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Lata Mani for introducing me to P.V. Krishnamoorthy eight years ago. I am also grateful to Chetan Subramanian, Priya Sundar and Indu Balachandran for being gracious hosts whenever I went to interview or meet with PVK. I thank Piyusha Chatterjee for patiently transcribing the interviews.
Indira Chowdhury is a writer, researcher, teacher and oral historian.She has a PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Her first book “The Frail Hero and Virile History: Gender and the Politics of Culture in Colonial Bengal” (OUP: 1998) was awarded the Tagore Prize in 2000. She translated Ashapurna Devi’s path-breaking novel, “The First Promise” (Orient Longman: 2003). Her latest book “Growing the Tree of Science: Homi Bhabha and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research” (OUP: 2016) was supported by a New India Fellowship. She has set up archives and oral history archives for several institutions in India, including the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, Economic and Political Weekly, Naandi Foundation, Sasha, Dr Reddy’s and Cipla. I work at the Centre for Public History, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. .
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April 2, 2020 at 1:09 pm
Lovely writing Indira! You’ve captured the spirit wonderfully.
I encountered PVK in my youth when I worked in the SITE programme of ISRO during 1975-76. He was unforgettable with his quick wit and twinkling eyes. Quite a contrast to the usual AIR-DD bosses, one could speak directly with him as if to a contemporary.