How a Brahmin woman broke into the twentieth century

01 June 2014

MY MOTHER’S NAME WAS KRISHNABAI. Krishnabai Mankikar. But she was “Kuttabai” to the elders in the family and became “Kuttakka” to those younger than her. In 1984, when she was eighty-two, my sister-in-law, Sunanda, persuaded her to write her autobiography. She wrote several drafts, abandoned them after a few paragraphs as though her courage had failed her, but started afresh, apparently compelled to record what she had been through. The longest extant version is about thirty pages long, written in Konkani, jotted down in an old diary of my father’s, in spaces left blank after he had scribbled down his daily accounts. Until we read that narrative, my siblings and I had struggled to come to terms with the many anxieties and nightmares that disturbed our childhood nights. Her autobiography helped to resolve these fears by bringing them out into the open and dealing with them forthrightly.

Kuttabai was born in Hubli in 1902, but moved to Poona while still a child with her father, who worked for the Madras & Southern Maratha Railway. It was a time when Poona was in a social and artistic ferment. The Marathi language was confronting the challenges of modernity with a literature that explored new areas of social experience, and an energetic journalism that demanded that Maharashtrian society prepare itself for independence. Then there was the Marathi theatre, at its peak commercially, with actors like Balagandharva and Keshavarao Bhosale, but also being hailed by the elite as representing the essence of Marathi culture. Kuttabai was a voracious reader and these years in Poona were some of the happiest in her life. What excited her most were the opportunities for education that the city held out. Maharashtra had a vigorous movement for women’s education, led by Christian missionaries, social reformers and the government, and opportunities were opening up which were unthinkable a generation ago. “A Sarlabai Nayak had even got an MA,” she remembered seventy-five years later.

But when she was nine, and in the third standard of her Marathi-language school, her father was suddenly transferred to Gadag, a small town in the Kannada-speaking area of Bombay Presidency, and Kuttabai faced the first of the many disappointments that were to confront her during the next few years. The language of instruction in Gadag was Kannada, which she had to start learning from scratch, and its literature had not yet started emerging from its medieval moorings. In fact, those enamoured with the Marathi milieu openly sneered at Kannada culture as demonstrably backward. The society was conservative and there were no facilities for educating girls.

I went to my headmistress and wept. “I don’t want to go to Gadag,” I said, “I want to learn a lot and become a BA. There is apparently nothing there except Kannada.” ... The headmistress and her sister, who taught in Huzurpaga [a well-known school for girls in Poona], came together to our house and pleaded with my father. “Krishni is hungry for education. You leave her behind: she can stay in the Huzurpaga hostel. You don’t have to spend anything on her education. The government will bear all the expenses for her board and lodging.” But my parents would not agree.

The fear was that if left behind on her own Kuttabai would be converted to Christianity. So she had to move to Gadag and join a Kannada school in which she was the only girl in her class. Nearly half a century later, as she spoke to me of this event, tears suddenly welled up in her eyes.

When she came of age, Kuttabai was still unmarried. And the family, after desperate attempts at concealing this shameful fact from relatives and neighbours and pretending from month to month that everything was “just normal,” ultimately found a boy for her from the Gokarn family.

She was married. A son was born to her: Bhalchandra. And within a couple of years her husband died of anaemia and malaria. Her parents-in-law did not bother to visit her. “Except for the jewellery my father gave me, I did not possess a penny. There was a life insurance policy, but that too lapsed, as no one had bothered to pay the instalments.” Thus Krishnabai came back to Gadag with her infant son to live with her parents, without a future to look forward to.

All this was—and continues to be—the common fate of widows from the more deprived sections of the middle-class in India. Fortunately, by the 1920s, the Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin community had abandoned the custom of shaving their widows’ scalps, so Kuttabai’s long hair, which when loosened tumbled down to her knees, was spared the barber’s scissors.

Even in this desperate situation Kuttabai was determined to educate herself, to achieve something of significance in her life and, if possible, to become a doctor. Gadag was in the backwoods of Bombay Presidency, but Poona and Bombay were nearby, no more than a day’s journey away by train. But no one in her family had either the inclination or the time to accompany her to either of these cities and get her admitted into an educational institute.

The one person who came forward to help at this time was Sashittal Mangeshrao, her elder sister Shanta’s husband, who was a Mamaletdar—a revenue official in the government. First in Haveri and then in Dharwad, his house was like a huge orphanage, in which, apart from his own seven offspring, he and his wife had collected together and provided shelter for several orphaned children, often only distantly related to them.

Mangeshrao was obsessed with getting this entire brood properly educated and refined. A teacher would arrive early in the morning to provide tuition in Sanskrit. Then again, as the children were returning home from school in the evening, another teacher would present himself at the doorstep. Besides, Mangeshrao himself was a keen and enthusiastic teacher, who loved to spend his hours at home revising their lessons. This hectic training schedule helped Kuttabai educate herself.

I sat down to study with the children. Since I loved studying, I reached the English Class Four level within five or six months. Algebra, fractions, time-work-and-speed etc. There was a subject called Sanskrit Translation, which I mastered. And I decided to appear for matriculation from home. In those days, it was enough to be a matriculate to get admission into the medical college and I was desperate to become a doctor.

But Mangeshrao was transferred to Bailhongal, essentially a large village which had no educational facilities whatsoever. Again, Kuttabai had to move with some of the youngsters to a temporary arrangement in Dharwad.

Kuttabai narrates:

My brother-in-law often needed to visit Belgaum for his work in the courts. On those visits he would stay with a relative of ours, Dr [Raghunath] Karnad. While there, he saw the nurses working in the hospital and had the brainwave of sending me there to train myself as one. He asked the Doctor whether I could be admitted to the Nursing Course. The Doctor agreed. I protested that I wanted to study medicine and become a doctor. But Brother-in-law insisted. He argued that I could continue my studies and appear for the exams, while training to be a nurse. He even said he would arrange a teacher to tutor me.

He got me admitted to a year-long midwifery course and went away. In our entire family, he was the only person willing to help me, so I had no choice but to listen to him. I had neither money nor jewellery. Mother had given a bori necklace, and gold baandi and todas, weighing about four to five tolas, for my wrists. Except for the bori necklace, I have no idea where the rest of the jewellery disappeared. At the time of my wedding, my mother-in-law had given me her traditional putalee necklace, which reached down to the stomach. But she took it back with her when she returned home. I paid no attention to all that at that time.

Kuttabai needed to find a place to live.

When I joined the nursing course in Belgaum, the problem of accommodation came up. I used to get a scholarship of twenty rupees per month. The hospital only had quarters for the head nurse.

Doctor Karnad said I could stay in his house. I had no alternative but to accept the Doctor’s offer. The Doctor’s wife suffered from I don’t know what disease. She was chronically bedridden. No bathing. No getting up or moving about. Next to her was a stool on which food was served. They had a nurse to look after her and there was a cook.

The Doctor was handsome to look at. Nearly six feet tall. Curly hair. Fair-complexioned. With a gait that would attract anyone. A figure that was neither fat nor thin. He wore a hat to the hospital, as a result of which people often mistook him for an Anglo-Indian. He was about thirty-four or thirty-five then.

It was at that time that Doctor asked me if I had any idea of “remarriage” and the thought started burrowing into my brain.

I was all of twenty-two then.

THUS BEGAN KUTTABAI’S FIVE YEARS in the Doctor’s house, the “five years” that lacerated me and my siblings during our teenage years.

It is true they ultimately got married. But what was the nature of their relationship during these five years? Could it have been sexual? The very thought that our mother might have lived in sin with a married man—never mind that this man was our father—was painful in the extreme. When we were in our teens, if I even remotely suggested that they may have occasionally slept together, my sisters would fly into a rage or burst into tears. Kuttabai’s autobiography gave forthright answers to our obsessive worries and did much to calm our anxieties, although by then we had decided that it was more mature to pretend that history did not matter.

What continues to intrigue and amaze me, however, is the reasoning which persuaded Mangeshrao to so casually dump a beautiful young widow into the arms of a thirty-five-year-old married man and disappear. What norms guiding life in the Hindu society of those days could have provided this pillar of society with a justification for this most unusual action? He could not have assumed that the situation would automatically end up in marriage. Did he hope that the sense of propriety and restraint expected of members of the Saraswat Brahmin society would keep these two young people on the straight and narrow path, or did he just decide that he had a hopeless situation on his hands, that the widow had no future and he couldn’t go on wasting his time supporting her?

Whatever the case, Mangeshrao proved the purana purusha—the ancient sage—of our family.

For five years, the Doctor did nothing to follow up his proposal. “Bigamy was not illegal in those days. There were several men in Maharashtra who had four or five wives. But the Doctor was scared of public opinion,” Kuttabai writes. It is evident, however, that what held him back was not so much the thought of bigamy as the fear of precipitating a scandal by marrying a widow.

She finished her nursing degree in three years and began hunting for a job. The Civil Surgeon in Belgaum offered to have her sent to London if she would in the meantime come and stay in his house and look after his ill wife. She did not dare refuse directly but said her family didn’t approve. She travelled alone to a large hospital in distant Bangalore in search of employment, but was rejected because her English was not up to the standard required by the Anglo-Indian staff there. This going out in search of a job, only to return empty-handed to Belgaum, back to the shelter provided by the Doctor, became the recurrent motif of her life.

Our intimacy had grown. But I had begun to find the public sniping impossible to bear. Then, in 1928, the Doctor was transferred to the Civil Hospital in Dharwad. He told me that the position of a Staff Nurse was vacant there and that I should apply for it. I thus joined the Dharwad Civil Hospital. Another year passed and still he showed no inclination to proceed any further. It was then that I decided to take the lead.

I confronted him with the fact that I had suffered enough poisonous gossip for his sake and demanded to know if he was now going to abandon me halfway down the road. I insisted that he should get himself transferred to another posting [presumably so remote that the scandal of widow remarriage would not catch up with them], where we could move after our marriage.

The Doctor’s reluctance was hardly to be wondered at. Saraswat Brahmin society is not known for encouraging its children to be adventurous, the emphasis in their upbringing being always on playing it safe. The Doctor was born into a large, not very well-to-do family, and in his childhood had been shunted from one cousin’s home to another. He shrank from the very idea of a risky move.

All he had aspired to in his life was stability—not tranquility but simply distance from any possibility of disturbance. He had loved history as a subject, but had gone into medicine because there were special scholarships to encourage Indian students to enter that discipline. And even then, he had entered government service at the earliest opportunity because of the security of a regular salary. He specialised in autopsy, since that brought in further emoluments, and was good enough at it to be awarded the title of “Rao Saheb” by the government. But while he admired and gave us glowing accounts of his more “brilliant” colleagues who went abroad and made names for themselves, it never occurred to him to exploit new opportunities to better his own position. The principle he drummed into us, his children, emphasised the necessity of caution at every step and the advantages of not being too ambitious. “Present pleasures,” he repeatedly cautioned us, in English, “need to be sacrificed for future comforts.” One should be like everyone else. One should live like everyone else. It was folly to attempt to stand out. The only adventure he risked in his entire life was to marry a widow. And even in that the credit goes indubitably to her.

Ultimately, they travelled to Bombay separately, to a Mr Vaidya who used to perform weddings according to Vedic rituals. He had arranged for everything, including the mangalasutra—the marriage necklace. “There,” she writes with an almost audible sigh, “at long last, we got married with the fire as witness. Only I know the mental torture I had endured during those five or six years.”

Within a page of recording this event, Krishnabai’s autobiography comes to an abrupt end. When questioned, she would laugh and say, “What more was there to say? You all arrived one after another. Samsar!”

Later on, Aayi, my mother, would often say that except for those difficult years, she had had a remarkably happy life. For most of her life, she was surrounded by her children, grandchildren, dependents and servants, the latter very much like members of the family. She led a zestful life, travelling around the world, making friends, writing Konkani programmes for All India Radio, Dharwad. She egged her children on to spurn her husband’s philosophy of playing it safe, and never quite forgave her daughters for becoming housewives when every opportunity to strike out was offered to them on a platter. She was past ninety when she sat on the pavement in the hot sun holding a placard as part of a public demonstration in support of the Narmada Andolan.

When I was the director of the Film and Television Institute in Poona, and used the office jeep to move around the city, she declared that as the mother of the institute’s director she didn’t like being seen in a jeep, and insisted on only using the limousine presented to the Film Institute by UNICEF. And I was always aware she probably felt she would have made a better director.

But the fact is that she never stopped ruing how she as herself, rather than as my father’s wife or as our mother, had nothing she could claim as her own achievement. She was not an unhappy person, but she remained discontented.

One of the several drafts of her autobiography starts:

Sometimes one gets tired of this lonely life. I have reached this age now but have been of no particular use to anyone. Standing here on the brink of my seventy-ninth year and looking back, I see nothing but the mistakes I have made.

I have been unsuccessful since my childhood [in everything]. Nothing that I desired has been achieved.

And elsewhere:

Often when anger or immense sadness overwhelms my mind, I feel I should write down my thoughts. I could not fulfil any of my life’s desires. I wanted to study a lot and become a BA or an MA, to learn to sing and to play the harmonium, to read a lot and so on. Except for the occupation of reading, nothing was achieved.

When I was discussing my play Naga-Mandala with the sociologist Veena Das, I summed up the denouement with the traditional words: “And then Rani gets back her husband and her child and lives happily ever after.” Veena shot back: “No, no, she drowns her individuality in her domesticity and becomes a nothing.”

I suspect Krishnabai would have agreed.

A GOOD EIGHTY YEARS after these events, my daughter Shalmali also lived with her boyfriend for five years before marrying him. By then this had become part of the accepted lifestyle among educated young women to live with their boyfriends before deciding whether to get married. When these modern women surrounded my mother to gush, “You were so courageous! We are so proud of you! You are our heroine!” Aayi accepted the adulation with unconcealed delight.

But from the moment they got married, the Doctor and Krishnabai launched upon the enterprise of wiping out the smallest sign, the remotest memory, of her history prior to their marriage. I need not mention that “Krishnabai Gokarn” became “Krishnabai Karnad,” since she would have had to experience that transformation even if she had been “Krishnabai Mankikar.” Our laws themselves take the initiative in wiping out the premarital life of a young woman.

After their marriage, the Doctor got himself transferred from Dharwad to the remote town of Bagalkot where they could be sure that the past was firmly kept out and they could start life afresh. Krishnabai Gokarn’s nursing certificates remained unframed and were rolled up and locked into dusty old trunks. The notebooks and books which carried her name lost their front pages or vanished entirely.

Thus these two, who had shown the courage to challenge Hindu orthodoxy and shake contemporary society to its core, acted as though it was they who were the guilty party, and attempted to slink away into the distance to escape the eyes of the public.

In this great plan to wipe out the past, the Doctor’s first wife naturally vanishes without a trace. Neither I nor any of my siblings ever heard our parents mention her.

But in grateful acknowledgment of the fact that it was the social revolution initiated by the Arya Samaj that had made it possible for my parents to get married at all—Mr Vaidya, who had organised their wedding, was a follower of the Arya Samaj—a photograph of Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the movement, mounted on a black velvet background and intricately embroidered by Krishnabai with gold silk thread and seashells, was installed in our prayer room. It hung there mutely through our childhood, with no explanation of what it was doing there.

Within three years of their marriage, the children started arriving—Vasant first, then Prema, myself and Leena. By the time I was five or six, my brother Bhalchandra too had given up the surname “Gokarn” to adopt “Karnad.” Since officially one had to have a patronymic, “Bhalchandra Atmaram Gokarn” transformed himself into “Bhalchandra Raghunath Karnad,” as a result of which we grew up believing him to be our natural brother.

In 1943, when I was just past four, Bappa, my father, who was serving at that time in the Sassoon Hospital in Poona, retired. But World War II was at its height, young doctors were in demand at the front, and he was offered an extension of service by the government. Unsurprisingly, despite fierce opposition from Aayi who wanted him to use the immense goodwill he had garnered in Poona to start a private practice, he accepted the extension of half-a-dozen years and moved to Sirsi, a remote jungle outpost situated in the heart of the Western Ghats, which had no electricity, was infested with malaria and generally known as a Punishment Post.

But the history that my parents had hoped to safely bury continued to pursue us children even in those wilds, whispering, winking, swirling around us in various guises. Since our parents never took us into their confidence about their past, our childhoods were made miserable by the nightmare that some mysterious, unbearable happening, something that needed to be concealed from us as well as from the prying eyes of our neighbours, was at the bottom of their relationship.

One day, as I passed a group of women sitting gossiping in a courtyard, one of them asked me, “Why is your father so much older than your mother?” and those around her suppressed their smirks with such obvious glee that the question sprouted all kinds of imaginary horns and fangs.

Prema was informed by a girl of her own age, employed to look after my younger sister, that Bhalchandra was not her natural brother, but a stepbrother. She apparently cried for days in a corner, hiding her face.

A boy in my class gravely informed me, “My grandmother knows all the facts and she told me herself. When your mother was getting married the first time, the mangalasutra in her hand turned into a live snake. When she dropped it to the floor, it bit the bridegroom and disappeared. He died instantly.” For nights thereafter I planned the various tortures I would inflict on him, chopping him into little pieces limb by limb. But who was there to turn to?

In 1948, Bappa finally retired from active practice. In 1952, we moved to Dharwad, where we came to live in the Saraswat Colony, a residential area occupied exclusively by Saraswat Brahmin families, where everybody knew everybody’s family history. I asked a boy slightly older than me about mine. He gave me the facts in five minutes straight and I heaved a sigh of relief. I was then fourteen!

If, instead of making such an effort to blind us to our history, our parents had told us the plain truth, we children would have had less tortured childhoods.

IN THIS STORMY EPIC of my mother’s married life, one person who was tossed about relentlessly, but somehow managed to survive, was my eldest brother, Bhalchandra.

He was a good-looking man. My wife, Saraswathy—then my fiancé—remembers that when he was due to meet her in New York, she asked him how she might recognise him, and he had replied, “I look like Girish—only more handsome.” He was intelligent, had a brilliant academic career, and was artistically gifted—he painted and could play the sitar. He was hungry for affection and eager to return it in equal measure. He was immensely energetic and you only had to suggest an activity before he was on his feet ready to embark upon it. When he visited us in Sirsi, this officer of the Indian Railway Service was up and ready every morning to draw water from the well in our backyard and fill the huge metal pots in our bathroom. We awaited his arrival on these holidays with great anticipation and treated it as a kind of celebration. Leena, my younger sister, never tired of declaring that he was her model for an ideal husband.

He was also sensitive. I remember reading a letter he had written to Aayi when he first saw her in Dharwad after her marriage. “On that day, for the first time, I saw you with kumkum on your forehead. You were wearing flowers in your hair and there was a mangalasutra round your neck. Your face glowed with happiness. Do you know how beautiful you looked that day …” and so on.

He had a most relaxed relationship with Bappa. They would sit and chat, or even lounge around together in silence for hours without any strain. But his relations with Aayi remained fraught.

One day, sometime in the 1970s, when Bhalchandra was about fifty-five, I found a letter he had written to Aayi lying open on the table. By then she had stopped being secretive or even careful about these letters. The letter said, “You have never considered me your son.” I asked her why he should say that, and the explanation she gave provided a clue to the anguish lodged at the heart of his adult life.

When Bappa and Aayi were in Bagalkot immediately after their wedding, Bhalchandra came to visit them during his school vacation. One of the nurses asked Aayi who the boy was. Aayi was lost for words. How was she to fit a boy of eleven into a marriage that everyone had been persuaded to believe was only a few months old?

“My nephew,” she said.

Bhalchandra was there, listening.

“It happened forty years ago. He is over fifty now. And yet he won’t forget it. What can I say?” she smiled wanly.

When I think of Bhalchandra’s life, I am amazed at his ability to sustain his ebullience through the tribulations he had to face. He lost his father in his infancy and was brought up by a mother who was no helpless widow, inclined to sit in a corner counting beads, blaming her stars for her misfortunes. She was ambitious and restless, eager to reshape her life, quick to flare up, and given to intemperate responses.

While she was in Belgaum, he lived in the house of the venerable Mangeshrao Sashittal in Dharwad, along with some fifteen other children, and it is not difficult to imagine the reports he must have received about his mother, the snide remarks and malicious gossip he would have had to tolerate.

But, fortunately for him, around this time, Rao Bahadur Deorao Koppikar, a respected resident of the Saraswat Colony, brought Tarabai, a virtually illiterate girl from the Gokarn family, to Dharwad as his third wife. She was Bhalchandra’s paternal aunt. Deorao took pains to educate her, even sending her to the medical college in Poona. He also sent for her two younger brothers and settled them in a wing of his and Tarabai’s house. One of them joined the Forest Service, the other set up shop as a tailor. As a result of this relationship with the Gokarn family, Deorao got involved with Bhalchandra as well, and paid for his education at the College of Engineering in Poona. This development provided Bhalchandra with a greater proximity to his father’s family.

Sometime in the early 1940s, Bappa called Bhalchandra aside and said, “I am growing old and have now become a father of these four children in my advanced years. You are their elder brother and, should anything happen to me, you have to accept the responsibility of looking after them.” More importantly, he suggested that Bhalchandra could give up the surname Gokarn, take on Karnad as his family name and become a part of the family. According to the history we were nurtured on, Bhalchandra acceded to the suggestion without demur and officially became “Bhalchandra Karnad.”

He had by then received a brilliant degree from the engineering college. Yet he spurned Aayi’s repeated pleas to start a private civil engineering practice of his own and entered the Indian Railway Service, accepting Bappa’s principle that it was better to be safe rather than sorry. He married Suman, the beautiful daughter of Narayanarao Koppikar, a prominent lawyer in Dharwad, and went to serve in the North Eastern Railways.

So the family life of the Karnads seemed to have attained the quietude, if not the tranquility, that Bappa had always argued was the prime goal of life.

But when Bhalchandra’s children grew up and started visiting Dharwad on their vacations, they spent most of their days, as is the norm in Indian families, with their mother’s parents, Lalita and Narayanrao Koppikar, and were closer emotionally to them than to Aayi and Bappa. And questions began to be raised in low voices. Why had Bhalchandra changed his surname? Had he agreed to it voluntarily or was he in some way compelled by Bappa to do so? This was not a matter of any consequence for us Karnads since we had been brought up to believe that Bhalchandra was our natural brother, and there had never been even the slightest hint in Bhalchandra’s behaviour with us that he was conflicted about this issue. But the question continued to be indirectly asked with increasing frequency and began to cause irritation.

The almost traditionally ordained tension which defined the relationship between Aayi and Bhalchandra’s mother-in-law, Lalita, was exacerbated by these queries. Aayi was convinced her grandchildren had been fed lurid accounts of Bhalchandra’s deprived childhood by the spiteful Lalita. And she had no doubt that the two Gokarn brothers—uncles of Bhalchandra and her erstwhile brothers-in-law, ensconced in the Deorao household—were up to their own shenanigans. (Bappa was supremely indifferent to these goings-on.)

That Aayi was right to be wary of the mischievous capabilities of the Gokarn brothers was decisively confirmed many years later in a rather unexpected manner. Sometime in the 1990s, Nileema, Bhalchandra’s daughter, decided she needed her birth certificate, but since she was abroad I applied for a copy of it on her behalf. The copy I received stunned me, for it mentioned Bhalchandra Atmaram Gokarn, rather than Bhalchandra Raghunath Karnad, as the father of the child. It took some investigation before one could unravel the facts. When Suman, Bhalchandra’s wife, came to her parents in Dharwad to deliver her child, she was attended to, naturally, by Tarabai, Bhalchandra’s aunt, who was the doctor in the family. One of the two Gokarn brothers had gone to register the birth with the municipal corporation and had presumably decided Bhalchandra’s ditching his family name was unacceptable to him. He had simply ignored the Karnad part of the tale and recorded the birth as an event in the Gokarn family. And for four decades, his mischief lay hidden in the municipal files, cocking a snook at the Karnads.

Kuttabai as a young bride, in 1919. She was widowed soon after.
Courtesy Girish Karnad

This was aggravating but not a cause for any major upset. Bhalchandra applied to get the certificate corrected and we assumed that that was the end of the matter. His children were by now spread around the world as Karnads, and had brought forth a new generation to whom the change of family name two generations ago would be an insignificant event in a largely forgotten past. But Indian families have an unbelievable capacity for keeping problems and grievances bubbling in their bosoms.

In 1978, Bappa expired at my house in Dharwad at the age of ninety. Both Bhalchandra and Vasant rushed down from Bombay to be with us.

Bappa was an atheist and couldn’t stand Vedic Brahmins. “You are not to let those rascals into the house in my name when I die,” he had admonished me. “And I am not going to return in the form of a crow to accept any oblations.” Accordingly, his funeral took place without any religious rites. Bhalchandra lit the funeral pyre.

But Aayi felt that while what happened on the cremation grounds was none of her concern, the ritual cleansing of the house, polluted by death, had to be performed as ordained in the texts. This meant that rites like the fire sacrifice (homa) and offerings to the spirits of the ancestors (pitrudaana) were necessary.

This in turn raised the question of who was to offer the oblation (tarpan). Traditionally, that right is vested either in the youngest son of the deceased or in the eldest. I was the youngest, but an unbeliever. Besides, I was not going to participate in Bappa’s name in rituals which he had explicitly forbidden. So I refused. It thus devolved on Vasant to perform the rites. But I said to him, “Look, we have grown up believing that Bhalchandra was Bappa’s eldest son. He too has altered his own name, discarded his own father’s name and used Bappa’s for his patronymic. We should therefore acknowledge him as the eldest son and request him to perform the rites.”

Vasant agreed instantly.

The decision met with opposition from the priest who had come to conduct the homa, and some of our distinguished neighbours. “A tarpan is offered to only one’s progenitor,” they insisted, “and Bhalchandra was not Bappa’s natural son. He does not have the status to offer oblations to Bappa’s soul.”

I had little time for all that mumbo-jumbo and refused to yield.

Aayi took me aside and asked in a worried voice, “But isn’t this wrong? We hadn’t even adopted him as a son.”

“That’s your fault,” I argued. “You should have adopted him ritually instead of merely changing his name.”

She remained silent.

Bhalchandra agreed to my suggestion. The ritual was completed as per the texts and was followed by the feast celebrating the final release of the departed soul from human bondage.

Next day, I was supervising the clearing up of the hall in which the sacrificial altar had been built, when at a little distance from it, in the direction in which Bhalchandra had offered oblations, concealed by a cupboard, I saw an unfamiliar object. I went and picked it up.

It was a group photo. Four gentlemen dressed up in suits and ties in the fashion of the 1940s were posing stiffly in chairs arranged in a row. I recognised two of them. They were the younger brothers of Bhalchandra’s father.

I was flabbergasted. There was no possibility of Bhalchandra’s father being in the photograph since he was by then long dead. It was, however, quite evident that the photograph was meant to represent the Gokarn family.

Someone had obviously borrowed it from the Gokarn house and brought it into our house. But who? And who had arranged to have it placed in the direction in which Bhalchandra was to offer his oblations? I found it inconceivable that Bhalchandra could be so perfidious.

At that moment, Aayi entered the hall, saw me staring at the photograph, took it from my hand without batting an eyelid and, murmuring something inaudible, disappeared into the interior of the house.

I have never seen the photograph in our house again.

Excerpted from Girish Karnad’s autobiography, Adadta Aayushya (The Play of Life), Manohara Grantha Mala, 2011. Translated from Kannada by the writer.

Girish Karnad is an eminent writer, actor and director, and a recipient of the Jnanpith Award.

Keywords: tradition Kannada Brahmin women’s rights memory Girish Karnad family history widow remarriage Arya Samaj
COMMENT