Girish Karnad's Memoirs: This Life At Play

Girish Karnad’s Memoirs: This Life At Play

Why do people read memoirs? More precisely, why do I read memoirs? That is the question I have asked myself often, and recently too when I read Girish Karnad’s ‘This Life At Play.’

My interest in the life stories grew suddenly while I was working on a small assignment. It is customary for all Rotary Clubs to publish a directory of its members which typically includes information about the member and his/ her family, their anniversary and birthdays etc. The President of my Club wanted me to write a short introduction of each member in addition to the personal details. I interviewed forty-five members and those interviews lasted an hour or so, sometimes more too. Typically, each one began with some hesitation but soon the interviewee was unstoppable speaking about his or her life.

Each life, I realized, is full of amazing little stories which leave an indelible mark on the mind. As they spoke, they reflected on their life and many persons could take a dispassionate view of their not-so-happy moments. Another interesting point was that those who were past their sixty wondered if life was preordained. (Even the eminent jurist Nani Palkhivala thinks about it in his book). I have always wondered why the old men get to this viewpoint, and believe me, many high achievers, in their evening of life, take a deterministic view of life.  

In a sense, artists like Girish Karnad differ from others because the reflection of their life is often clearly seen in their art. When you read memoirs of artists of repute like Girish Karnad, it becomes easy to understand such influence. In his well-known play ‘Yayati’, “the female characters are shown to be thinking beyond the bounds set by the dominant (misogynic) ideology” as one study puts it. He introduced a character ‘Chitralekha’ which is not found in the original story. She argues vehemently with Yayati and that part of the play is the climax. The inspiration to write plays with a social change message comes from his reading of Shaw. Arranged marriages of his brother and sister left a lasting impression on Karnad’s mind and those found expressions in his play ‘Wedding Album.’ Karnad links several such associations between episodes of his plays and his life experiences in his memoirs providing ample evidence that creative work is inspired by life.

Incidentally, Oscar Wilde held a contra-view and said, “life imitates art far more than art imitates life”. It is called ‘Anti-Mimesis’ view. I have not really looked at events and life stories from such a framework. I know a few persons who were deeply influenced by Ayn Rand’s classic The Fountainhead. The Guardian says, ‘Her novel The Fountainhead is one of the few works of fiction that Donald Trump likes and she has long been the darling of the US right.’ If minds were influenced, as claimed here, then lives must have mirrored it. Such investigation will be an interesting exercise.

Karnad studied Maths with the only intention to score high marks in order to get a scholarship. He then developed great interest in it, and realized that at a certain level Maths and Philosophy speak the same language. Similar words Fritjof Capra said about Physics and Philosophy in his book ‘The Tao of Physics.’ Intelligence they say lies in seeing commonality in disparate things.

Karnad comes across not just intelligent but a very conscientious and authentic person. (And in that sense, his memoirs differ so much from memoirs of screen personalities Dev Anand and V Shantaram which are essentially brand building exercises.) What makes Karnad’s memoirs interesting is that they are candid, describing the life and times of Saraswat community, the extraordinary people who interacted with him, his successes and some candid admissions. Written with them in the memoirs are quick reflections, making it a beautiful tapestry of narrative.   

Unfortunately, the memoirs ‘This Life At Play’ are just half of the story. Just Part one. It covers his life up to a certain point. Karnad obviously did not write part two. In that sense it is incomplete. It’s like eating a Black Forest cake. One good chunk is satisfying, though we crave for another.

Paul Hayward wrote (in The Guardian, while reviewing Andre Agassi’s memoirs ‘Open’ and advising readers ‘not to open’ it!), ‘If you write an authentic memoir, people call it boring. If you juice it up, people call it fake.’ There are exceptions and Girish Karnad’s memoirs are notable among them.

(‘This Life At Play’ was originally published in 2011 in Kannada, and English translation was published in May 2021. Published by HarperCollins. Kindle Ed Rs 192.)

Vivek S Patwardhan

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”