In her delightfully bibliophilic 2018 memoir Listen to Me, the novelist Shashi Deshpande describes her family’s dispersal from the small college town where she had grown up: “We little knew that it was also the end of something. We would never come back to Dharwad again. Nor did I know that for me Dharwad was not over, that, even if I left Dharwad, it would never leave me.”

Deshpande explains, “Through the years, suddenly and in the most unexpected places, I would come across someone who recognised me, a person who said s/he was from Dharwad too.” She recalls an encounter at a Bangalore bus-stop, another at the airport in Tehran, and some “girl who shouted at me across the road in Mysore, in the midst of the Dasara Festival celebration”.

There was Girish Karnad, “another Dharwad man, whom I met as a fellow writer in Bangalore” and in London, “a very elegant and beautiful woman” who proved to be [the author] “Aurora Figuerado [sic], now Maria Couto, an old friend from St. Joseph’s in Dharwad”. Later, in Lille, France, “during a literary festival, I was having lunch with other delegates when I heard a voice say, ‘My grandfather was a college teacher in a place called Dharwad.’ I don’t normally talk to people I don’t know, but I immediately asked the speaker who his grandfather was. ‘Armando Menezes,’ he said. Yes, my teacher.”

Reading those passages soon after Deshpande’s book was released, I remember separate shivers of recognition. Yes, it was me at the other end of that improbable exchange in France, but everything else she writes about also strikes home. This is because both my parents were born in Dharwad, and the Menezes family remains steeped in the mores, ideals and loyalties they derived from its atmosphere of the 1940s-’60s. Even after they scattered all over the world, Dharwad has always remained with them.

Thus, although my grandparents moved away in the 1970s, and my nuclear family never actually lived there, Dharwad’s impact lingers. One of the underlying tenets in the way I was raised was an understanding of the old college town as an India-flavoured Parnassus, where the country’s tryst with destiny was mined in an especially high-minded vein.

Decades of ascent

That mystique is one reason why I relished Girish Karnad’s This Life at Play: Memoirs, originally published in Kannada as Aadaadta Aayushya by Manohara Grantha Mala in 2013. Recently released in English translation by the author (he died almost exactly two years ago) and Srinath Perur, it is an exceptionally forthright account of the making of an individual powerhouse, while also providing an outstanding social and cultural history of his milieu.

This Life at Play is sectioned into 10 chapters that track the relatively familiar story of Karnad’s decades of ascent: infancy and school years, Karnatak College followed by the Rhodes scholarship to Magdalen College in Oxford, then playwriting, acting and film-making, and becoming the third director of the Film and Television Institute of India and marriage to Saraswathy Ganpathy (in 1976).

But as I read this fast-paced and thoroughly absorbing book, another way to understand it became apparent: inner circle and outer world, Dharwad and everywhere else. The cozy college town was Karnad’s cocoon, launching pad, and refuge, with some stir-crazy angst interspersed. Unlike my family, and Deshpande’s, and most of his 1950s peers, he stayed rooted. His publisher was there, he nurtured a literature festival there and maintained a home there right until 2015. When he died, this consummate cosmopolitan was inevitably hailed as “Dharwad’s cultural ambassador”.

Girish Karnad. Credit: Film and Television Institute of India

Befitting an expert storyteller, This Life at Play grips the reader’s attention from the first page. It begins with a thunderclap curtain-raiser: during lunch when the “air at home was thick with self-congratulation” about his manifold achievements, his mother casually revealed she had intended to abort him.

“I was stunned,” writes Karnad. “I was then thirty-five years old. Still, I grew faint at the possibility that the world could have gone on without me in it.” Then, with considerable aplomb, he proceeds to dedicate his book to the doctor whose chance tardiness preserved his existence.

There are many other interesting reveals: Karnad’s parents complicated-for-the-times backstory, the fact this eventual Jnanpith Award winner didn’t study literature in college but instead chose maths to score the maximum marks, an engrossing exegesis on class in the UK, and uncommonly frank statements of fact about his love life.

The concluding chapters of This Life at Play will interest anyone seeking to fill in the blanks of how Indian cinema and theatre evolved in the second half of the 20th century. However, it is the first section, with its intense focus on the author’s family and education, that is written with palpable depth of feeling. All the while reading, I appreciated the irony – given Karnad’s righteous public disdain for VS Naipaul – that these exquisitely evocative sections reminded me strongly of A House for Mr. Biswas.

‘Many shades of darkness’

Karnad’s early childhood unfolded in “the heart of the dense, wild jungles of the Western Ghats, with the wilderness even invading the town wherever it could force its way in”. This was the hamlet of Sirsi, where his father was the resident medical officer, and he experienced aspects of life which “we have lost forever” including learning “to taste the many shades of darkness”.

“I am not trying to romanticise an existence without electricity, for that would be naïve,” writes Karnad with great beauty and insight. “But I know that, with the ability to instantly turn on a flood of bright, shadeless light, we have lost a certain delicate and ambiguous relationship we had with light and dark. When there is no evidence of light within the darkness surrounding us, the irises pick out floating slivers of light within the darkness surrounding us and weave them into changeable amorphous forms. That quality of total darkness, that takes us to the brink of blindness, also has a close relationship with complete silence.”

When the outside world intervenes, it is most often in the form of Karnad’s Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin community, which he remembers as “not known for encouraging its children to be adventurous, the emphasis in their upbringing being always on playing safe”. Later, when his family’s consequential move to Dharwad came about, it was to the Saraswat Cooperative Society, “one of the first housing societies in India based entirely on caste” with 51 houses containing “about a hundred families of the Chitrapur Brahmin caste – Bhanaps, as they preferred to refer to themselves for some long-forgotten reason”.

Those lines resounded in my mind when I read them, because the name of “Saraswat Colony” has always been familiar. At some stage in my father’s family’s many shifts between official residences, they spent memorable years there in a rented house. But right until This Life at Play, I had never properly registered that the residential complex had been explicitly caste-based, nor did I understand its connection to India’s very first housing society, also established on strict caste lines in 1915: the Saraswat Co-operative Society of Bombay.

The Karnatak College in Dharwad. Credit: Personal Archive of Ada Menezes Ribeiro

“It must be admitted that during the half century that the colony was alive and every house buzzing with life, it became the home of a vibrant, idealistic people who were socially active and artistically gifted,” writes Karnad. “Many of the young men actively participated in adult education campaigns or camps to eradicate untouchability. The Prarthana Samaj and Brahmo Samaj had enthusiastic adherents here, practising and propagating strategies for the reform of Hinduism. Many had a leading role in the Indian National Congress and the independence movement, during which a few had even been to prison.”

Reading this gave me goose-bumps, because it is minutely identical to our family lore. Karnad writes that “Saraswat girls were brought up more or less on par with boys” and “the freedom with which young Saraswat women mixed with men made them…objects of desire in the eyes of the young men of other communities” and it is my aunts who come to mind.

Everything he says is precisely what we were brought up to believe, with the difference that my family never mentioned caste at all. It is only after poring through This Life at Play that better understanding dawned. I commenced reading differently, and turned back my searching gaze towards our own family memories.

The first thing I felt, of course, was deep embarrassment. How could it have taken me, an Indian man in my fifties, so unbelievably long to wake up to the elementary home truth that my family’s Dharwad nostalgia is irredeemably overhung with caste-based inclusions and exclusions? Two more twinned realisations came in a rush.

The first half of Karnad’s book is suffused with caste practices and caste anxieties, it is by far the dominant factor. But at the same time, how could I have ever thought anything different? It was another stark, shameful reminder that our culture and society is irredeemably addled to the core with what Ambedkar called, “an eagerness to separate”?

Ironclad realities

Those ironclad realities certainly held fast for Shashi Deshpande, who writes in Listen to Me that “my father’s caste was against him, for he had never counted himself as a Brahmin. In fact, when we applied for admission to college, he made us leave the caste column blank. (Though the clerk, to whom I submitted the form, very nonchalantly filled in my caste himself when I refused to do so. He knew who I was, he knew my caste! No chance of anonymity in a small town.”

And they applied equally unshakably to Goan Catholics, which is one of the main themes of Maria Aurora Couto’s achingly heartfelt 2013 Filomena’s Journeys: A Portrait of a Marriage, a Family & a Culture, full of vivid acuity about school, college and social life in Dharwad.

The author (née Figueiredo) attended Karnatak College with both Deshpande and Karnad (there’s a striking photo of her in This Life at Play), and long sections of her book dwell on the denouement of feudal Goa, just before the 1961 decapitation of the Estado da India. The spectre of caste shows up to stay in its first few pages, after the description of one Lusophone newspaper as “the voice of Brahmins” in constant battle with another, representing Chardo interests (the term refers to Kshatriyas after conversion).

Couto writes of Goa’s political situation as “Chardo pitted against Brahmin, and both pitted against the mestiço – those of mixed Goan and Portuguese ancestry – in a quest for power, with caste rivalries manipulated by the government (then, as now)”.

Tug of war at the Karnatak College in Dharwad, undated. Credit: Personal Archive of Ada Menezes Ribeiro

All these are incontestable facts of history, but I must admit that merely thinking them feels something like betrayal to the convictions that my Dharwad family – and every one of the upstanding, exemplary and constitutionally egalitarian authors I have mentioned – always steadfastly adhered to. My aunts and uncles scorn the very idea of caste. Shashi Deshpande is the least bigoted writer I know, an indomitable beacon for equal rights. And who can possibly dispute Maria Aurora Couto’s lovely description of Dharwad as “a society that was open and liberal. There was an effortless acceptance of difference.”

Here, it is vital to record the case of Karnad himself. As his daughter Radha and son Raghu (himself a brilliant author) write in their touching afterword to This Life at Play, “He sat with Dalit students to defend eating beef, and with queer folk to demand the decriminalisation of their lives. He spoke up for Taslima Nasreen, as well as MF Husain.”

They write: “At the base of his attitude was a simple lack of insecurity about his standing as an artist, a Kannada writer, an Indian or a Hindu. He knew that none of the men who denounced him could ever match his authority on national culture or heritage, or his record as their steward. He put that unassailable position to use in two ways: to push creative and imaginative boundaries; and to lend courage to others to defy hate and ignorance.”

Fine-grained particularities

Trying to reconcile all these facets of the same life, I called Raghu Karnad to ask whether my caste-inflected reading of This Life at Play was unfair. He sat with the question, then messaged back, “As people of their generation, and also as writers, as connoisseurs, or lovers of culture and folklore, I think it was hard to disavow caste-community – because that was the vessel that held all the elements of lived culture too. Your recipes, your songs, your idioms, apart from how and whom you worshipped – it was always a Lingayat way of cooking, a Saraswat way of sitting, ways of speaking, ways of scolding. It was a world of such fine-grained particularities, all invisible to me. But you get a sense of that in the early chapters of the memoir.”

Raghu is 15 years younger than I am, which makes him even further removed from our fathers’ Dharwad days. So I reached out to their direct contemporary Shashi Deshpande – she is now 82 years old – who has been one of my favourite writers right from the early 1970s, when I devoured her short stories one after another from my mother’s copies of Femina and Eve’s Weekly.

Deshpande and I had a lively conversation in which she pushed back at my post facto reading of Karnad. She said Dharwad households were imbued with communal identities, but that was not the sum of their lives: “In our family, my father had fought the battle which Girish fought, that of getting away from the stranglehold of the community. I think that was how it was. Gandhi’s teachings had made some people get out of this narrow tunnel, but most just accepted. My father [the noted Kannada litterateur Adya Rangacharya] had many writer friends, they had great conversations but when they went home I think they subsided into their family expectations.”

Shaping minds

Exactly like my aunts and uncles, Deshpande stressed that Dharwad’s educational institutions ensured “nobody was marked as different, whether it was Zubeida or Ivy or Lucy or Sarala (a Jain). How was this possible? I don’t know. Was it English education? Ours was a Mission school, but religion never entered the classrooms, except for the morning prayer. There was absolutely no discrimination.”

Added Deshpande: “On the whole I think it was a time of change. Independence and Gandhiji just behind us, Nehru and his vision of a modern India just before us. Yes, this mattered. Like it always is, the fact that there were schools and colleges that girls could go to, made it possible for more girls to get educated. That practical fact also needs to be taken into account. Therefore, that Dharwad was an educational centre, with students coming from Goa, Belgaum, Karwar, Bagalkot, Bijapur and so on [also] mattered. [It] shaped the place and shaped minds.”

Deshpande read an advance copy of This Life at Play, which she blurbed as “a candid and intimate account of a life rich in achievements and friendships, with fascinating glimpses in the making of a writer”.

When I asked about the omnipresence of Karnad’s caste affiliations, she responded, “Dharwad as I remember it had groups of people who lived without associating with others outside the group. The Saraswats, for example, lived in Saraswatpur [yet another name for the Saraswat Co-operative Society]. They were clannish – who wasn’t? – and as a community were looked up to as being above the rest. Looks? Talent? I don’t know, but there was the feeling. As for Girish’s stress on being a Saraswat, I guess that would be so in most households. Girish being a thinking and understanding man took note of it.”

The process of Brahmanisation

Thinking hard about Deshpande’s sensitive contextualisation, I recalled the complicated processes by which Saraswat identity – as Karnad acknowledges, his Chitrapurs are a sub-caste under the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin umbrella – was legislated into existence. As the Goa University historian Parag Parobo outlines in his superb 2015 India’s First Democratic Revolution: Dayanand Bandodkar and the Rise of Bahujan in Goa, these “corporate” caste labels didn’t exist at all until “the colonial state accelerated the process of brahmanisation”.

I emailed Parobo to ask him to elaborate, and he wrote back: “There is no historical evidence to show that the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin caste as we understand it today existed before the later decades of the nineteenth century. This construction was largely driven by two factors: the intensity of conflict with the Brahmins from other parts of the South, who contested GSBs’ Brahminical status on the grounds of their mode of life, and to improve their social and political status in the growing urban centres of Bombay and Madras.”

Parobo went into fascinating detail: “Chitrapur Saraswats were largely drawn from the Shenvis of Keloshim (Quelossim) and Cortalim, who had been settled in the south since the fourteenth century. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, further migration occurred and their families grew. While they were geographically isolated from Goa, they continued to pay allegiance to family deities and swamis. It seems that distance and gradual falling out with the swami of Kavlem forced them to choose their own swami based in Chitrapur. These new swamis adopted a policy of defining the boundaries of community and its rituals.”

According to Parobo, “Coming into Bombay in the mid-nineteenth century, the interaction of Chitrapur Saraswats with the earliest migrant Shenvis from Goa, who had settled two centuries prior, was of mutual suspicion. Subsequently, as the Saraswat identity was being constructed in the later decades of the nineteenth century, efforts were made to absorb differences within a broader GSB identity.”

Factoring all this into my reading of This Life at Play was helpful to reach broader understanding of the social, political and economic exigencies that underline the Dharwad memory collective.

Visitors to Karnatak College with Professor Armando Menezes. Credit: Personal Archive of Ada Menezes Ribeiro

It also made me curious as to what happened afterwards, and how this profoundly impactful place has continued to fare. To learn more, I contacted Srinath Perur, who is an outstanding writer in his own right, and – before Karnad’s book – did an amazing job in translating Vivek Shanbhag’s instant classic Ghachar Ghochar.

Back in 2017, Perur wrote one of the best literary essays I’ve ever read, about the writer Vasudhendra. It was especially good on small town Karnataka, so I asked him about Dharwad’s significance outside the circumscribed ambit of its 1940s-’60s heyday.

“I think of Dharwad as a cultural centre alongside Baroda or Mysore – they’re not large cities like Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta – but Dharwad is perhaps more remarkable for not having had direct royal patronage,” said Perur. “The idea seems to go deep in time with some of Kannada culture’s most influential literary figures – Kumaravyasa (13th c.) Sarvajna (16th c.), Shishunal Sharif (early 19th c.) – being from the region. This is in addition to the broader area of North Karnataka being where the Veerashaiva movement had its most profound impact.

Then, from the last decades of the 19th century, “Dharwad had a happening bilingual scene – translations from Marathi to Kannada or even from English to Kannada seem to have been common. Similarly, bilingual theatre thrived, and of course the Hindustani classical bug bit hard and with happy results. All these elements bounced around to create something greater than the sum of its parts.”

Perur mused, “I’m quite certain that Dharwad has dropped in stature as a centre for education (as have Baroda and Mysore). This is probably due to a pull from two ends: some students will go to college closer to home; some will go to bigger, better-funded places around the country and abroad. Even when Girish Karnad studied there, he knew his future lay elsewhere – Bombay if not England. He chose to settle in Dharwad for the Kannada culture component, which I think is still doing okay (as well as Kannada is doing anywhere else at least).”

“Dharwad is certainly diminished”, said Perur. But then he told me that when the great institution-builder GN Devy moved to settle there a few years ago, he was quoted saying something like, “Dharwad in decline is still better than other places.”

Buoyed by this unanticipated ray of hope, I immediately dialled Devy to find out more. Unfortunately, he was on the move and unavailable. But that conversation will surely happen, and this unending thread of enquiry will continue to be sustained. Shashi Deshpande put it with impeccable accuracy: you might quit the place in mind and body, but Dharwad never really leaves you.

Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.