One of the first things I look at in a book is the names of its chapters. It tells me something about how the book is framed; how it intends to travel with me. It is like looking at the time-table of a train and tracing the stations on a map with your fingertip. That’s the page I opened to first in This Life at Play: Memoirs by Girish Karnad, and found a list of places from Sirsi to Poona via Dharwad, Bombay, Oxford, Madras, Sringeri and Old Mysore – the chronological stations in his life’s rail journey.

But it seemed to have stopped midway in 1980, at the moment of his marriage to Saraswathi Ganapathy. A hurried read of a crisp “Epilogue” explained that indeed this was half the tale, and its title in Kannada was a phrase from DR Bendre’s poem Aadaadta Aayushya – “this lifetime at play”. With delight I relished the fact that the book lived up to every promise of that title till the very end.

The second aspect I find fascinating about a book is its dedication. It is like a clue, a little key that opens a small anteroom of the large house that the book is. It suddenly brings the writer right there holding that tiny door open to take a peak. Sometimes it also prepares you for the tone of the book, for the timbre of its voice. In this book there is an astonishing story about why it is dedicated to a certain Madhumalati Gune. I cannot give you spoilers – but suffice it is to say it truly set the mood for the adventurous ride that he takes us through from here on.

Much has been written already about this book. Actually less about the book per se, but, on the occasion oif its publication, more about the genius that Girish Karnad was. In theatre, in film, in literature, and in the larger society where his north star like obstinacy for justice and fairness made many a tyrant tremble enough to put his name on unholy lists. So I will not repeat the discussions on his brilliance across disciplines, nor the tremendous contributions he has made to each of those areas.

The gaping hole his passing has left in our artistic, cultural and moral lives make us miss him routinely. However, I want to ruminate here on the book itself, and discuss three of its aspects – places, people, and, play: the key ingredients of storytelling, be it literature, theatre or films.


Girish Karnad’s memoirs inhabit many places. Like the many places that inhabited him. As he recounts his life, one is acutely aware of his deep and reflective observations and insights from the changing landscapes of places. He lucidly maps them through its sights and sounds. As he travels from small towns to bigger cities to foreign lands, the interiors of neighbourhoods come alive – be it the campus of a hospital or a distinctly Brahmin locality or the ubiquitous English pub – with a sense of being present in the room with the reader “suspending disbelief”.

For Karnad, however, places are not just geographies but also the expansiveness of a childhood that is not zealously sheltered from either poverty or cruelty, as well as the compassion of a nurturing home that constantly included the misfits and orphans of society. Later in the book Karnad leaps into the various worlds of mathematics, languages, music, visual arts, and literature with curiosity, enthusiasm and a deep thirst for knowing and mastering, making his place in each one of them. The reader begins to understand the various strands that came together to create the many stories he made.

There are two instances that stand out for me while soaking in the “places” in this book. The first is where Karnad speaks of the tradition of his community of picking up as surnames the names of places they passed while migrating – without sentiment, fealty or nostalgia. This feeling of a lightness of touch when it comes to identifying with a place is bolstered later when he writes that he does not like “caressing memories”.

The second is where Karnad and his wife reject the names of mighty rivers and choose to name their daughter after the small Shalmala, whose source is next to his ancestral town of Saraswatpur. Like in the poem by Bendre that he mentions, the child became little Shalmali. This exemplifies the steadfast rootedness of his work to the “places” he inhabited, even when his relationships with these worlds may be complex and full of questions. One feels on reading his memoirs how easily he belonged to many worlds but never denied his own complicity in some of their brokenness.


There are three steady streams of people that pass through this book. The first are those with whom he had intimate relationships, like his Aayi and Bappa, his siblings – particularly his elder brother Bhalchandra – his friends for decades – Kitti, Kali, Rishad – and his romantic interests and partners, including the intriguing Seskia, and the one he married, Saraswathi. These are detailed close-ups and drawn with both candour and tenderness. One senses Karnad’s joys, regrets, and failures as well as the inevitable twists and turns in their journeys, together written with a gentle honesty that scrapes but does not scar.

The second set of people are the eminent public figures of the broader world of arts and culture, who are etched with eccentricities that are possible to know only from the kind of proximity Karnad had to them. Personalities like Bendre, AK Ramanujan, Satyadev Dubey, Naseeruddin Shah, BV Karanth, Vinod Doshi, Snehalata Reddy and many others, including, briefly, Raj Kapoor, appear and disappear through the book. The richness of their stories depends on the depth of their relationship with Karnad, but not a single one of them lacks the support of a sincere narrator. The reader is able to thread specific histories of literature, theatre and film of a particular period through these stories and anecdotes.

But my favourite is the third set – the gallery of characters who, like “extras” in a film, appear ever so fleetingly, but are discussed, thanked, cursed and remembered with great fondness by Karnad. Mrs Fernandes and her violin, Seshu the dance teacher, Pai Master, Ashok Kulkarni, Aurora, Professor Reddway, Edward in Oxford and a plethora of others enter and exit on cue, making this book a remarkable study of people. I turned each page excitedly to read about the next character that would tumble out of the compartment as Karnad’s train kept chugging along.


He says in this book that there are two things he grew up with which was missing from the contemporary world – absolute darkness and an abundance of stories. No wonder he was in love with theatre. And in this memoir when places and people come together what occurs is “play” – in its multiple meanings of drama, playfulness and spirited exchanges.

Whether it is the continuous everyday unfolding of life around him that he chronicles with a jaunty sense of humour, or the tensions of caste relations in this country and his observations on class in Oxford, Karnad witnesses, comments upon and participates in every play he encounters. He acutely details his introductions to unfamiliar faiths like Christianity, people’s forms like the Yakshagana, and his regrets of not learning Tamil well.

Each of these stories unravels with the highs and lows of good drama, Karnad being the protagonist sometimes, and only a character on the periphery on other occasions. What he also uses discerningly are silences, as all good storytellers do – pregnant pauses before announcing achievements, uncomfortable stillness around family secrets, attempted diversions while waiting anxiously for Saraswathi’s consent to marry him; and abrupt endings of difficult relationships.

Some of the most fascinating stories of this aspect of play, though, are in his many adventures as administrator, especially as Director of FTII, Pune. In this memoir the reader perceives that while the giant Girish Karnad was playing in the big leagues of literary and artistic arenas across the world, he also played with equal, if not more, enthusiasm and interest in local milieus, thus becoming the connecting bridge for many happenings in the cultural realm.

Post script

An “Afterword” acquires a new meaning in books which come to us after their writers have left us. In this one, Radha and Raghu, Karnad’s children, have shared with us their thoughts on the memoirs. I have often wondered how hard it must be to have a parent whom the larger world too claims as their intimate “atmiyo” (Bangla for “close to the atma/spirit”, meaning a relative).

There are demands made by various people on such figures’ time, mindspace, and resources; and the role of being worshipped by an attention-grabbing community of seekers must be in such competition to that of being a parent. I felt grateful for the generosity and honestly with which the two offspring share their feelings, much like they share their father with us.

In the writing I see how clearly they spot what many of us from far away often singled out to be amazed by – Karnad’s total lack of insecurity and firmness of position. My heart fills up reading about what seems like partnerships across generations that are mentioned in the “Afterword”, as though it is also a prelude to the distinct yet connected worlds his children will create.

We often forget the messenger, but in this book I am happy to see a Translator’s Note. I have often found such “writing about writing” important, especially when traversing boundaries across languages or disciplines. Srinath Perur shares his journey with the book that began when Karnad was alive, and ended much after his passing.

The challenges of translating non-fiction, dealing with differences between errors that can be objectively verified and those that are lapses of memory, and rebuilding parts of a book keeping in mind larger audiences who do not necessarily fully understand the context of a region, are just some of the complex and difficult aspects of this translated piece that Perur takes us through.

A book written makes you wonder about the one not written. As I read this half tale, I wonder how the other half would have been. I knew Karnad in that half of his life. I saw him as much in the foyers of Rangashankara and at literary festivals as I did at protests at the Townhall In Bengaluru, standing like a banyan tree with us in his shade. He was the definition of audacity that is integral to being a citizen – critical, scrappy, sharp. And that really enraged his detractors.

As much as I want to know about the films he made and plays he wrote later, I want to know more about why Karnad walked the streets with us, what he thought of the movements he supported and the powers he fought with his words and physical presence till the very end. My biggest criticism of this book is just that – it is only half that blazing life.

I rationalise to myself that he wrote about the first half of his life because this was in relative darkness compared to the half where we experienced him. Like a committed author he was shedding light where there was none. But I feel a deep sorrow that I will not hear from him the behind the scenes stories about that board that went around his neck with the words “Me too Urban Naxal”, or the lead up to making that thundering speech at Tata Lit Live in Mumbai about Naipaul’s misrepresentation of India, especially with regards to Muslims and Islam.

The anti-CAA protests in Bengaluru started six months after he left us. Yet, as we sat on protests, some of us saw him on occasion. I strongly feel that one chapter in that unwritten book about the second half of Girish Karnad’s life would have been titled “Bilal Bagh”.

This Life at Play: Memoirs

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