The posthumous English translation of celebrated playwright-actor-director Girish Karnad's memoir is as outspoken as the man himself
This Life At Play: A Memoir of Girish Karnad was released in Kannada in 2011. The English translation by Srinath Perur, to mark his 83th birth anniversary, releases this month. Pic/Getty Images
I lived in Madras from my twenty-fifth year to my thirty-second. I had a good salary, a car and a house, and my association with the Madras Players and my Oxbridge background saw to it that there were plenty of attractive young women around me.
Madras was under prohibition the seven years I was there. When I arrived, drinking was rare in the middle class, especially so in Brahmin families. By the time I left, it was quite common to find some ‘social drinking’ going on in the evenings. As drinking gained popularity, it became harder and harder to find alcohol. But I was working at OUP, and from time to time we had visitors from England and other countries who were eligible for a liquor permit. As soon as they arrived, we would whisk them off to the excise office, have them write out in the appropriate bureaucratese that there was danger to their health if they failed to consume alcohol, get a signature, take them to Spencer’s, and buy the quota of bottles allotted to them. It can be said that true independence from foreign rule arrived in the state only with the lifting of prohibition.
I met Saraswathy Ganapathy at a party, within a few months of coming to Madras. There was a deep attraction between us from the moment we met. It didn’t take me long to decide that if I was going to marry any of the women on my horizon it would have to be her. Like my own mother, Saraswathy’s mother Nurgesh Mugaseth, too, had rebelled against tradition, endured the painful consequences of doing so, and after a struggle, had managed to live life on her own terms. Nurgesh was Parsi, and while in medical college, she had fallen in love with a fellow student from Kodagu named Kodandera Ganapathy. Both families were opposed to the relationship, but the two got married anyway.
(Right) Saraswathy Ganapathy and Girish Karnad with their mothers at their wedding. Pics courtesy/This Life At Play, HarperCollins India (Fourth Estate)
In 1942, with the Second World War raging, Ganapathy found a job with the Indian Medical Service. He was posted to the North-West Frontier Province, where he fell ill and died. Nurgesh, who was pregnant at the time, returned to Madras and joined government service
as a doctor.
Since Nurgesh had married a Hindu, the Parsi clergy of Madras ordained that she had lost the right to offer prayers at the fire temple. Nurgesh confronted them, and argued that being Parsi was something she had inherited from her father. How then could she be banished from the religion of her birth simply because she had married a Hindu? She threatened to drag the priests to court, and they, fearful of the commotion this would cause, backed down and withdrew their objections.
Though she had defied Parsi orthodoxy, Nurgesh continued in some ways to be a fiercely traditional Parsi. Saraswathy would offer to drive her to the fire temple when their driver was not around. Nurgesh, having just taken a bath in preparation for worship, would be in a state of ritual purity. She would sternly warn Saraswathy to keep her distance lest she touch Nurgesh and defile her. In her will, Nurgesh had asked for prayers to be held for her soul in the fire temple, and listed the names of people to be taken during those prayers. Along with her parents, she had included the name of her husband and written, in parentheses, ‘No need to mention to the priests that he was Hindu.’
At Oxford University Press (OUP) Madras: Karnad with Charles Lewis, Ravi Dayal, and the future literary agent Martin Pick
Nurgesh’s Kodava in-laws had broken ties with her, and so Saraswathy was raised among Parsis. Still, she made sure that she did not entirely lose connection with her father’s side of the family. In medical college, she chose to stay in a hostel room with three girls from Kodagu so she could learn their ways. She studied Kodava culture, and grew close to her grandparents and cousins. Years later, when Saraswathy and I were finally married, the politician AK Subbaiah caught sight of me in a Mangalore hotel lobby and thundered: ‘Welcome to the son-in-law of Coorg!’ Saraswathy was overjoyed when I told her about it.
But that day was a long time away. Even after being together in Madras for six months, we were not prepared to think of marriage. Saraswathy intended to go to the United States to continue her medical career. That was where her future seemed to lie, and I was not ready to move there. Nor did I know with any certainty what I would do in India. In my indecision, there lay possibilities, a certain kind of freedom. I was not prepared to have them curtailed by the responsibility of a wife and children. She was there, I was here. We met occasionally, when we could, and for almost fifteen years, our relationship went on in this manner. I did not expect her to be faithful to me during this period. That would have been foolish, given the atmosphere of free sex that prevailed in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s.
But in India, things still worked traditionally, and it was generally expected that a physical relationship would lead to marriage. I did not want that sort of commitment, and so, for several years after coming to Madras, I did not allow myself any opportunity to have a physical relationship. This period was one of the darkest in my life. I found myself gloomy and withdrawn for weeks at a stretch because of my self-imposed celibacy. There were times when I wondered why I shouldn’t kill myself. I had always thought of myself as being—physically, mentally—an entirely normal person, so I was alarmed by the self-destructive state I had been driven to by sexual frustration. Eventually, it was my own play that released me from the agony.
When Satyadev Dubey began to stage performances of Yayati, I thought, ‘Why spend all that time and money going to Bombay,’ and remained in Madras. Then I got a telephone call from an unknown woman. She was from Madras, but had been in Bombay for some reason, and had happened to watch a show of Yayati. ‘It’s fantastic,’ she told me. ‘It would be an unforgivable crime to miss it.’ So, on the praise and persuasion of a stranger, I travelled to Bombay and watched the play. She was right. What a blunder it would have been to miss it, I thought to myself.
When I returned, I called her on the phone to thank her. She was a married woman from an affluent family. Her husband owned a business, and she too ran a small business of her own. She said, ‘In all of modern Indian literature, I haven’t seen female sexuality depicted as you have done with the characters of Sharmishtha and Chitralekha.’
We became friends, and within a year, lovers. The relationship saved me from the crushing despondency that had taken hold of me.
With this release, I felt inspired and invigorated.
Excerpted with permission from This Life At Play translated from the Kannada by Girish Karnad and Srinath Perur, HarperCollins India (Fourth Estate). The book will release on May 19