THERE ARE MANY images of Girish Karnad that stay in the mind. One of the most memorable shows him seated with a placard around his neck that says ‘Me Too/ Urban Naxal’. He was at an event to mark the first death anniversary of Gauri Lankesh where he spoke in his usual impassioned way against the house arrests of activists across the country: “If speaking up means being a Naxal then I am an Urban Naxal. I am proud to be a part of the hit list.” In fact, he was Number 1 on the list while Gauri Lankesh was second. In the ultimate irony of our policing system, while the killers of Gauri Lankesh, Narendra Dhabolkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi are only now being identified, Girish Karnad was charged by the police for wearing the placard around his neck!
Girish was, without doubt, quite fearless and vigorously outspoken about things he believed in. Sometimes his opinions got him into needless controversy, as when for reasons unexplained, he launched an attack on Rabindranath Tagore, calling him a second-rate playwright who wrote plays that Karnad found ‘unbearable’. Howls of protest greeted this pronouncement, most of them from Bengal, many of them labelling Karnad a ‘publicity seeker’.
He certainly gave the Mumbai International Literary Festival a lot of publicity. 2012 was our third year, and we had decided to give the Lifetime Achievement Award to VS Naipaul, by then quite frail and mellow, and confined to a wheelchair (could that be a connection?). A day prior to the presentation, we had scheduled a talk by Girish on his journey in theatre. As a packed house sat expectantly to hear insights about the creative process, we got a different kind of drama: Karnad had launched a full-scale, no-holds- barred attack on Naipaul for his ‘bigotry towards Islam’. This was based on Karnad’s reading of Naipaul’s non- fiction books, and remarks Naipaul was supposed to have made when Babri Masjid was demolished.
If the news of Karnad’s broadside reached Naipaul, as it must have, he never reacted to it. (People close to him say he almost always ignored any criticism of his work or his views.) But it certainly reached the media, and both print and TV journalists landed up at NCPA for quotes and reactions. It’s the most publicity we ever received for the festival! After the initial shock of this guerilla attack, I understood what Girish was doing: he was a man of letters and of thought; as such it was incumbent on him to speak his mind on issues he considered important at every opportunity he got.
None of this detracted—or distracted him—from his main calling, which was the writing of plays, four of which are among the finest plays in Indian literature—Yayati, Tughlaq, Hayavadana and Naga Mandala. With his passing, the four great playwrights of our era are all gone—Girish Karnad, writing in Kannada, Badal Sarkar (Bengali), Vijay Tendulkar (Marathi) and Mohan Rakesh (Hindi). However, through their plays, theatre will live on.
THERE’S SUCH A thing as competitive suffering. So a Mumbaikar will say, ‘Our relative humidity is 95 per cent, and the heat is unbearable,’ while a Delhiite will say, ‘That’s nothing! We have 48 degrees!’ Both will be right, and all of us have to endure the unbearable, each in our own way. So when the other evening lightning lit up the sky, and the first rumblings of thunder were heard, we looked at the sky with thoughts teetering on hope. Soon it drizzled, and Mumbai wasn’t so bad after all.
The morning papers confirmed it wasn’t bad; it was worse. The first rains—and they were no more than showers—had already brought with them waterlogging, flight cancellations and suburban train delays. In Thane, hundreds of homes were flooded. Why? The municipal corporation had completed the work of cleaning nullahs, but they hadn’t got around to removing the silt left on the sides. The rain waters came and took the silt along for a joyride into people’s houses. What about the railways? They suffered ‘technical failures owing to faults in the overhead wires’, said spokesmen for both Central and Western Railways. India can send rockets to Mars, destroy satellites in mid-flight, but faced with a little bit of water, we are clueless.
Sadly, some tidings were even worse. Two children, 11 and 10, residents of Vimladevi Chawl in Poisar were electrocuted, two men in an autorickshaw were killed when a truck skidded into them and five stray dogs were electrocuted when they stepped on an iron manhole lid near an electrical power box. Traffic accidents we think of as everyday occurrences, but electrocutions? The boys were playing on a staircase over which an electric wire hung loose. Apparently the wire had been there for three years but no one had bothered about it.
Life in India is cheap, especially when the lives snatched away are of the poor. There will be no enquiries, no recriminations, no one will be held responsible. For the rest of us, life will go on, with frequent glances at the sky above and the potholes below.