In this excerpt from the translation of Girish Karnad’s memoir Aadaadta Aayushya (2011), the playwright, actor and filmmaker tells the story of how his widowed mother Krishnabai Mankikar, known as “Kuttabai” to the family, met and eventually married Raghunath Karnad, with some help from her brother-in-law Mangesh Rao Sashittal.

Mangesh Rao was obsessed with ensuring that this entire brood was properly educated and cultured. A teacher would arrive early in the morning to provide tuition in Sanskrit. Then again, even as the children reached home from school in the evening, another teacher would present himself at the doorstep. Besides, Mangesh Rao himself was a keen and enthusiastic teacher who loved to spend his hours at home revising their lessons.

This hectic training schedule helped Kuttabai educate herself. She writes: “I sat down to study with the children. Since I loved studying, I reached the English class-four level within five or six months. Algebra, fractions, time-work-and-speed, etc. There was a subject called Sanskrit translation, which I mastered. And I decided to appear for matriculation from home. In those days, it was enough to be a matriculate to get admission to the medical college and I was desperate to become a doctor.”

But Mangesh Rao was transferred to Bailhongal, virtually a large village with no educational facilities whatsoever. Again, Kuttabai had to move with some of the youngsters to a temporary arrangement in Dharwad.

Kuttabai narrates: “My brother-in-law often needed to visit Belgaum for his work in the courts. On those visits, he would stay with a relative of ours, Dr [Raghunath] Karnad. While there, he saw the nurses working in the hospital and had the brainwave of sending me there to train as one. He asked the doctor whether I could be admitted to the nursing course. The doctor agreed. I protested that I wanted to study medicine and become a doctor. But my brother-in-law insisted. He argued that I could continue my studies while training to be a nurse and appear for the exams. He even said he would find someone to tutor me.

“He got me admitted to a year’s midwifery course and went away. In our entire family, he was the only person willing to help me, so I had no choice but to listen to him. I had neither money nor jewellery. Mother had given a bori necklace, a gold bandi, and todas for my wrists weighing four or five tolas. Except for the bori necklace, I have no idea where the rest of the jewellery disappeared. At the time of my wedding, my mother-in-law had given me her traditional putali necklace, which reached down to the stomach. But she took it back with her when she returned home. I paid no attention to all that at the time.

“When I joined the nursing course in Belgaum, the problem of accommodation came up. I used to get a scholarship of twenty rupees per month. The hospital had quarters only for the head nurse. The doctor said I could stay in his house. I had no alternative but to accept his offer. The doctor’s wife suffered from some disease and was chronically bedridden. No bathing. No getting up or moving about. Next to her was a stool on which food was served. They had a cook and a nurse to look after her.

“The doctor was handsome. Nearly six feet tall. Curly hair. Fair-complexioned. With a gait that would attract anyone. A figure that was neither fat nor thin. He wore a hat to the hospital, as a result of which people often mistook him for an Anglo-Indian. He was thirty-four or thirty-five then. The doctor asked me if I had considered “remarriage” and the thought started burrowing into my brain. I was all of twenty-two then.”

Thus began Kuttabai’s five years in the doctor’s house, the “five years” that lacerated me and my siblings during our teenage years. It is true they ultimately got married. But what was the nature of their relationship during these five years? Could it have been sexual? The very thought that our mother might have lived in sin with a married man – never mind that it was our father – was painful in the extreme.

When we were in our teens, if I even remotely suggested that they may have occasionally slept together, my sisters would fly into a rage or burst into tears. Kuttabai’s autobiography gave forthright answers to our obsessive worries and did much to calm our anxieties, although by then we had decided it was more mature to pretend that history did not matter.

What continues to intrigue and amaze me, however, is the reasoning by which Mangesh Rao casually dumped a beautiful young widow into the arms of a thirty-five-year-old married man and disappeared.

What norms of Hindu society back then could have provided this pillar of the community with a justification for this most unusual action? He could not have assumed that the situation would automatically lead to marriage, as indeed it didn’t. Could he have assumed that the sense of propriety and restraint expected of members of the Saraswat Brahmin society would keep these two young people on the straight and narrow path? Or did he just decide that he had a hopeless situation on his hands, that the widow had no future and he couldn’t go on wasting his time supporting her? Whatever the case, Mangesh Rao turned out to be the purana purusha – the ancient sage – of our family.

For five years, the doctor did nothing to follow up on his proposal. ‘Bigamy was not illegal in those days. There were several men in Maharashtra who had four or five wives. But the doctor was scared of public opinion,’ says Kuttabai, without explaining what his fears were. It is evident, however, that whatever held him back was not so much the thought of bigamy as the fear of precipitating a scandal by marrying a widow.

Girish Karnad (extreme right) with his mother and two of his siblings. Courtesy HarperCollins India.

She finished her nursing course in three years and began hunting for a job. The civil surgeon in Belgaum offered to have her sent to London if she would, in the meantime, stay in his house and look after his ill wife. She did not dare refuse directly, but said her family didn’t approve. She travelled alone to distant Bangalore to seek employment at a large hospital, but was rejected because her English was not up to the standards required by the Anglo-Indian staff there. This going out in search of a job only to return empty-handed to Belgaum, back to the shelter provided by the doctor, became the recurrent motif of her life.

“Our intimacy had grown. But I had begun to find the public sniping impossible to bear. Then in 1928, the doctor was transferred to the civil hospital in Dharwad. He told me that the position of a staff nurse was vacant there, and that I should apply for it. I thus joined the Dharwad civil hospital. Another year passed and he still showed no inclination to proceed any further. It was then that I decided to take the lead.

“I confronted him with the fact that I had suffered enough poisonous gossip for his sake and demanded to know if he was now going to let me down halfway down the road. I insisted that he should get himself transferred to another posting [presumably so remote that the scandal of widow remarriage would not catch up with them], where we could move after our marriage.”

The doctor’s reluctance was hardly to be wondered at. Saraswat Brahmin society is not known for encouraging its children to be adventurous, the emphasis in their upbringing being always on playing safe.

The doctor was born in a large, not very well-to-do family, and in his childhood, had been shunted from one cousin’s home to another. He shrank from the very idea of a risky move. All he had aspired to in his life was stability – not tranquillity, but simply distance from any possibility of disturbance. He had loved history as a subject, but had gone into medicine because there were special scholarships to encourage Indian students to enter that discipline. And even there, he had entered government service at the earliest opportunity because of the security of a regular salary.

He took up autopsy as his specialisation, since that brought in further emoluments, and was good enough at it to be awarded the title of “Rao Saheb” by the government. But while he admired and gave us glowing accounts of his more ‘brilliant’ colleagues who went abroad and made a name for themselves, it never occurred to him to exploit the new opportunities to better his own position.

The principle he drummed into us, his children, emphasised the necessity for caution at every step and the advantages of not being too ambitious. “Present pleasures,” he repeatedly cautioned us, in English, “need to be sacrificed for future comforts.” One should be like everyone else. One should live like everyone else. It was folly to attempt to stand out. The only adventure he risked in his entire life was to marry a widow. And even there, the credit went indubitably to her.

Ultimately, they travelled to Bombay separately, to a Mr Vaidya who used to perform weddings according to Vedic rituals. He had arranged for everything, including the mangalsutra. “There,” she writes with an almost audible sigh, “at long last, we got married with the fire as the witness. Only I know the mental torture I had endured during those five or six years.”

Within a page of recording this event, Krishnabai’s autobiography comes to an abrupt end. When questioned, she would laugh and say, “What more was there to say? You all arrived one after another. Samsar!”

This Life at Play: Memoirs

Excerpted with permission from This Life at Play: Memoirs, Girish Karnad, translated from the Kannada by Girish Karnad and Srinath Perur, HarperCollins India.