Internationally acclaimed playwright Girish Karnad's autobiography Adaadata Ayushya stands tall in the Kannada literary world. The writer tells Deepa Ganesh that autobiographies are of little worth if they do not seek to speak the truth

“Nenapugalannu nevarisuvudu” is a beautiful, lyrical phrase meaning “caressing memories”; the dreaminess of this utterance can douse the past in a romantic haze. But for Girish Karnad this poetic phrase is used as a disclaimer in his recently-released autobiography “Adaadata Ayushya.” One of the most definitive works of Kannada literature, “Adaadata Ayushya” is not merely a chronicle of events; rather it is a facing up to one's self. This unusual piece of literature sparkles with the bluntness of truth.

“If Dr. Madhumalathi Gune had turned up at the hospital the day when my mother went for an abortion, I wouldn't have existed” Karnad writes in the very first pages, offering the book to the memory of the doctor. The moment of shock and how it quietly altered one's notion of life, in a way, sets the tone for how the “self” is unravelled in the rest of the narrative.

“I did not want it to be a tome of self-glorification,” said Karnad, the eminent playwright, actor and among the most extraordinary screenplay writers. Rarely do Indian autobiographies glow in the truth of imperfections. “True. But if you cannot state things as they happened, there is no point in writing an autobiography,” reasons Karnad. It was never meant to be a work of “settling scores” or pouring out “angst.” The greater thing for Karnad was to talk about all those relationships that mattered to him – those that shaped his emotions and intellect. “In the process, if I left out all the women who had a very big role to play in my life, it would have been very unfair. I had quite a few good women friends, who played a very important role in my life and left a lasting impact on me. I decided to write about them and my wife Saraswati did not have a problem with it.”

So while it is largely a record of the people he met and the influence they had on him — from Sirsi and Dharwad to Oxford, Madras and Mumbai — it was also a recounting of the experience of having lived through a marvellous era. “I was ten years old when India attained freedom. In the 50s it was Satyajit Ray, followed by the parallel cinema movement. When New India was emerging in the 60s I returned from a very momentous period in Oxford. I was lucky to return when I had no clue what the future had for me. But doors kept opening, one after the other. The Academies came into existence and the National School of Drama was established, television came in the 80s.... there were many firsts and I was at the forefront of that experience. I wanted to capture the excitement of that era,” explains Karnad, who says that the second part of his autobiography will be a sociological account, which forms the backdrop of the first part.

Did he ever feel the fictional mode was a more convenient narrative to deal with the idiosyncrasies of life? Is it a better mode of self interrogation, like A.K. Ramanujan does in “Mattobbana Atmacharitre”? “I couldn't have done that,” says Karnad. “He was an extremely dear friend but he had all kinds of hang-ups and literally had no memory of his life before 18. Ramanujan never quite faced anything directly. He went to all kinds of psychiatric schools and when he knew he was reaching a solution, he would withdraw. The one thing that I learnt from him was to face my childhood fears,” explains Karnad, as he recalls his mother Krishnabai, a woman of enormous conviction, “she was a big influence on me”. He says how she never indulged in any gossip but had the rare courage to discuss everything loudly, even those that were considered taboo in her times. “When I think back I realise why I was her favourite. I wanted to do many things and was willing to take risks. She was adventurous in spirit and loved to see it in me.”

Much of Karnad's emotional world is shaped by his family and relatives, and the Konkani language. But his intellectual world, in his early years, was largely shaped by the West and the English language. “Indian identity was a big thing in those days. I am grateful to the West for helping me come out of that hangover. But at the same time I also realised with greater intensity the worth of all things back home. For instance, people like Keerthinath Kurthukoti, G.B. Joshi and Bendre. They formed such a large part of my consciousness and I think I surrendered to Keerthi and Ramanujan.” He remembers how Ramanujan always warned him of competing with his own immediate circle. “Pitch your ambitions much higher, don't be limited by your Dharwad world,” he used to say.

Karnad's autobiography is rich in detail and emotion. It says things that public personalities would rather conceal and manages to bring on its canvas an entire gamut of things between home and the world. The Saraswat community, women and their hardships (the beginnings of which can be seen in his Foreword to Vasanthi Padukone's “Nanna Maga Gurudatta” 1977), his deep attachment to his parents and siblings and unswerving commitment to his friendships. Most importantly, it stands to question the manner in which we construct people.

“Adaadata Ayushya” shines with honesty, and by the end of the book your admiration for the writer has grown in leaps.