Girish Karnad left us at 8.30 IST on a June morning last year. It was almost afternoon in Bangkok, the city which played a gracious host to a single woman on a solo trip. It was supposed to be The Birthday Trip. I was a day younger than the big 30, and how better to celebrate it than in a foreign land, away from work, away from people, away from worries, right? Wrong. Because no matter where you are, worries have this unique way of finding you right when you least expect them. So it was.
I had my long bubble bath, up on the Sky Suite of a fancy five-star in Bangkok and was just about getting dressed to leave for Hua Hin, the place where I would ring in my 30th. I had been saving up for months for this trip and it was finally happening. The hotel WiFi announced I had a WhatsApp message. I glanced at the phone to see a colleague from a different team had sent a photo. Well, that's what the landing screen of your phone says. I rounded off the last stroke of the eyeliner in front of the mirror, looked out of the French Window at the Chao Phraya one last time and lifted my phone. There it was. A screenshot that blew a hole through my meticulously planned birthday trip.
"Tiger Zinda Hai actor Girish Karnad dies at 81" screamed the headline in that font I have grown to love over the years. Underneath the headline, the strapline read, "Girish Karnad, who was last seen in Tiger Zinda Hai, died of multiple organ failure in Bengaluru." Before I could form a sentence and send it on our WhatsApp group, it had hit the roof. A few rough messages later, it was time for the explanations. I first thought it was one of the younger kids who did not know Girish Karnad beyond that Salman Khan movie. But then, turned out it was a senior person. In fact, the person who was in charge of affairs at the Entertainment desk when I was away.
I sat down. The taxi had reached the hotel lobby. For a while, I ignored the calls on the room landline. Then went on Twitter. It was World War III.
Journalist after journalist tweeted how our 'younger generation' needed to be better informed; how it was true that 'Online Editors are a horrible lot' and what not. An ex-colleague also wrote how 'what else could be expected from the best entertainment journalists in the world'. It hurt. But the problem with seeing yourself being battered on Twitter is that it is a rabbit hole you cannot climb out of. You see one tweet, then you seek out more. You keep seeing the mentions, the tags, the hashtags, the screenshots, the maligning, the tarnishing of years of work because of one mistake by someone who did not even know what was wrong with the headline. "But I thought it was his last movie, and the younger generation will be able to better relate," was her feeble defence a few days later, when I got back to the office. She had a point. She was making it accessible to millions of Generation Z readers reading this on Facebook. For her, she was doing justice to that audience, not realising the gross injustice to the stalwart of art, defacing his memory on a solemn day.
So when we had successfully reduced Girish Karnad to 'Tiger Zinda Hai actor', an identity even Salman Khan would probably not associate with the Mighty Karnad, I got up from the expensive-mattressed king-size bed in Riverside Bangkok and took a deep breath. The part of my brain that was asking me to let go and cry, had to be silenced. Karnad had left. My life was still going on, even though the shame, the sheer embarrassment was killing me. It did not help that I was going to be on the road, unconnected, for the next three-four hours. On vacations, I consciously don't take an international SIM card. It helps with resetting my head, which is anyway the purpose of these seldom-found vacations.
It was 11 am, Bangkok time. The landline rang once more. I gathered myself up and picked up the call. Told the reception that I would be downstairs in five minutes. The next three minutes I spent doing the last cursory check around the room. Drawers, wardrobe, cabinet, under the bed. Then asked the team to be careful. From those many thousands of miles, that is anyway all you can do.
As I dragged the suitcase out of the room and got into the lift, the words 'Tiger Zinda Hai actor' kept flashing in front of my eyes to the point of blinding them. The tears did well up. Did we really reduce Karnad to 'Tiger Zinda Hai actor'? How could we?
When the car pulled out of the driveway and hit the highway, it finally struck me. Girish Karnad was way beyond that headline by, in the words of Naseeruddin Shah, "an intellectual pygmy". The Karnad our generation never knew.