Running After the Light

Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy’s writing searches for a new moral order

30 September, 2023

WHY AREN’T OUR PEOPLE ready to accept the truth? Why do they turn reactionary?” Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy asks with discontent, as we sit nursing hot cups of tea in the book-laden study at his home. Located in a quiet residential community in Bengaluru, it is capacious and yet elegantly minimalist. A large framed photo of him sharing a stage with two stalwarts of Kannada poetry gazes at me from behind him. A bust of the Buddha smiles serenely from the top of a bookshelf, a sight that invariably greets you at every other corner of the house. Amid this untroubled atmosphere, Chinnaswamy lounged in baggy shorts with all the cool composure of a Zen monk. His brief moment of consternation cuts through in sharp contrast.

The conversation leading up to his remark had been about the transport sector trade union movement in Karnataka, and in particular, about a gathering of Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation workers in Bangalore, sometime in the early 1990s. The popular Dalit politician B Basavalingappa had been chased out of the venue in the middle of his speech, stones following his car as he drove away, because he had urged bus conductors to maintain integrity and not steal money by giving free tickets. Chinnaswamy had found the incident intriguing enough to include it in his autobiography, Nenapina Hakkiya Haralu Bittu—Letting Fly the Wings of Memory. “The conductor’s job is a harassed position,” he said, his tone turning softer. “Akin to a constable in the police hierarchy. It is a very difficult job—it involves interacting with so many people. He is forced to steal some money. I worked as a Division Controller, and hundreds of such cases would land up on my table. I would dispose of all of them, imposing fines with so much pain. This is the truth. Among politicians of those times, Basavalingappa stands apart. He was a gutsy man, and was very straightforward in the way he spoke. All he said was that one must not steal. But the crowd turned into a mob.”

This was my first meeting with Chinnaswamy. It was through the recommendation of a staunch communist, a trade union veteran, that I first heard of him. “He’s a serious writer,” I was told, “you must read his autobiography.” It was therefore with some vague expectation of radical seriousness that I found myself picking it up. What I discovered instead was a melancholic existentialism firmly rooted in Buddhist ethics and a gently playful prose style that is as inviting as it is accessible. The book, published in 2020, narrates the breadth of Chinnaswamy’s life, recollected intimately and candidly. The only reference to anything resembling trade union politics had been the Basavalingappa story.

This memoirist is a celebrated poet by day and a prolific magazine columnist by night. In his essays, some of which were recently compiled in Dalit Cosmos: Understanding Caste, Marginalisation and Dalit Literature in India, one finds a hungry and curious mind, eager to delve into long histories of ideas through deep research. His poems, which have long been part of syllabi in university, are where Chinnaswamy nestles away his vulnerabilities, questions his own convictions, and meditates on the helplessness of the human condition. His essays look to inform and clarify, while his poetry always seeks to unsettle the reader, presenting grave, intractable predicaments. Nature is a recurring motif across his poems, and stands as a sublime force that often mirrors the unrelenting nature of caste discrimination.

Srikar Raghavan is an independent researcher and writer from Mysore. He is presently working on a narrative history of social-cultural movements in contemporary Karnataka.