Girish Karnad and the power of modesty

I had a massive crush on Girish Karnad for decades. If that sounds schoolgirlish and superficial, it is fine. It is the truth. I am sure there are countless other men and women who felt the same way about Girish. When he played Smita Patil’s uncaring, unfaithful husband in Umbartha (1982), a marvellous Marathi film, I waited breathlessly for him to be back on screen, even though the film centred around the effortlessly brilliant Smita. Girish’s role was not as well-written, and he certainly did not walk away with the best reviews. But that hardly mattered to diehard fans like me. He often repeated his reason for working in films: screen roles paid his bills. He made enough money from movies to fund his plays, his real passion projects.

There is much to learn from people like Girish, who seemed immune to the labels thrust on him. From being called a modern-day Socrates to an “urban Naxal”, he took it all in his stride. As a literary genius, rooted in Kannada culture, the other Girish—suave, urbane, sipping a drink and enjoying great food at soirees—was equally at home in glitzy settings. Unshaken and far from apologetic when faced with controversies, like his takedown of V.S. Naipaul during a lit fest in Mumbai or his opinion (mangled by careless mediawalas) on Rabindranath Tagore’s plays, Karnad stuck to his guns. This remarkable honesty of opinion and the strength of his convictions set Girish apart from the herd of politically nervous, self-declared intellectuals.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

The last time I saw Girish was at a lit fest in Bengaluru a few months ago. He was wheelchair bound and half his size. He had tubes in his nose and an oxygen pack. He showed no trace of self-consciousness, as visitors gaped and whispered. It was obvious he was gravelly ill. As a lifelong fangirl, I rushed across to greet him. He looked up and smiled benignly. My heart skipped a beat as my eyes briefly met his. Those eyes! Like melting caramel! I went back to my table with a sinking feeling. I knew I may never see him again.

A year or two earlier, we had shared the stage at yet another literary event. I remember marvelling at his equilibrium and dignity when a brash, uncouth ‘writer’ hijacked the inaugural ceremony, ignoring the stalwarts onstage and brazenly plugged his new book to the young crowd. It was obvious those readers had little knowledge of the chief guest’s vast body of work. For them, Girish Karnad was possibly just another senior writer representing a bygone era. Despite the younger author’s crudeness, Girish did not flinch or show the slightest annoyance. He carried on with his enthralling keynote address, sprinkled with sharp political commentary and criticism of the government’s policies. I was disappointed by the indifferent applause at the end of his address. It was another poor reflection of this TikTok generation’s reading habits. The loss was entirely theirs.

Much has been written by Girish’s contemporaries, who had been lucky enough to know the man who wrote brilliantly, thought brilliantly and lived brilliantly. The man who made early choices that shaped his future in significant ways. The Rhodes scholar who loved Hindustani music and the powerful playwright who straddled many worlds simultaneously. A colossus who wanted to slip away minus the fuss. Girish had instructed his family to decline a state funeral and to avoid any pomp and show when the end came. This is called class and good breeding. Girish Karnad’s contribution to our understanding of ourselves will remain through his incredible thoughts and words. As for me, it is that voice and those eyes that I will always recall, each time one of his plays is staged.