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Kolkata’s fading theatre and a boy who played with fire

Saikat Majumdar, novelist and professor of literature, talks to Aditya Mani Jha about his latest book The Firebird, the story of Ori, a troubled young boy growing up in the Kolkata of the ’80s and ’90s.

ADITYA MANI JHA  22nd Aug 2015

Saikat Majumdar.

Q.The physical proximity of the Minerva theatre to Sonagachi, a well-known red-light district, is a source of chagrin and secrecy in the novel. Insinuations about Garima Basu seem to include this angle, every single time. Did you, as a child growing up in Kolkata, experience much of this "psychogeography" (to borrow a Will Self phrase): emotions, opinions and experiences that seem to be extremely location-specific?

A. Oh, yes, absolutely. Every neighbourhood in Kolkata is defined by its own psychic microclimate. In fact, the English word "neighbourhood" felt a bit inadequate to me as it seemed predominantly spatial; which is why I have used the Bangla word "para" ("a mesh of lanes of voices that chattered endlessly with one another."). And each para is different. The difference between, say, north and south Kolkata is frequently observed upon and is a bit of a cliché. Most of my childhood and early youth was spent in north Calcutta but I went to schools and colleges in central and south Calcutta. I certainly remember the north-south binary of values: the north as traditional, backward, non-modern, communal, conservative — narrow lanes and narrow minds entwining each other; the south as spacious, liberal, hip and modern, functional, individualistic and socially isolating. The perceptions change a bit when you're older: the north suddenly also feels rich in history and heritage in addition to being old and conservative. The south continues to embody modernity and individualism and urban convenience. There are still women from the north who will not wear western outfits in their own neighborhoods but would do so elsewhere, not only in Delhi or California, but also while going shopping at Fabindia near Gariahat in south Calcutta.

Q. Ori is a child who is introverted and deals with an unconventional domestic situation at home. Do you think, perhaps, that his pyromania suggests a greater fascination with theatre than he cares to admit? (Fire is one of the more theatrical modes of destruction after all.)

A. Ori is clearly obsessed with the stage, and by extension, with performance. He is fascinated by the stage initially, and his mother's roles there. The people around him manage to corrupt this fascination; but they cannot extinguish it. Theatre retains spectacular power throughout the novel and especially for Ori, just that this power now comes across as destructive rather than affirmative. Realistically speaking, however, what you call his pyromania is also circumstantial and historical. Theatre stages and halls have a long history of catching fire all over the world, and certainly in Calcutta. The very infrastructure of theatre, with its arrangements with lights, electricity and a horde of people locked in a closed setting; all of this makes it vulnerable to accidents, even if we set aside arson. Ori seems to plunge into this history part-accidentally and part-willingly. A reader has pointed out that he has a role to play in every single disaster that happens in the novel. When I look back to the earlier chapters, his role in these disasters feels partial and half-hearted, but as the novel proceeds, he plays an increasingly active role. Instead of being a protagonist, he becomes an antagonist of theatre, and this role is also clearly theatrical in its own way. But none of this is to forget that he is also a young boy, and chance and history and impulse all shape his destructive agency, especially as we move towards the end. He is more of a psychological criminal who learns to engineer mental havoc smoothly. But he is happy to lend a helping hand to acts of physical destruction arranged by others.

Q. Rupa's hatred for her sister-in-law Garima (she thinks Garima is a neglectful mother) is quite instructive, given that Rupa is a working woman herself. Could you tell me a bit more about this "good job/bad job" conundrum of middle-class Kolkata in the '80s, especially in the case of women?

A. The American critic Marjorie Garber once argued the term "public" changed party colours radically depending on whether we're talking about a "public man" (honorable, important) or a "public woman" (the unmentionable). Small wonder that paid employment in the public sphere outside home has historically been such an uphill battle for women. To perform on an open stage for the entertainment of people takes this public role on a whole other scale; smaller wonder that when Girish Ghosh sought actresses to perform in his plays in 19th-century Calcutta, the only women he could find were the high-class prostitutes from Sonagachi. Rupa's role as an efficient bank employee simply brings to a full circle her role as a responsible mother and daughter-in-law, since as a widow she is also the chief provider to her unit of the family. Her nine-to-five, regular, pragmatic job has received the stamp of approval from family and society. But a profession of public performance in roles that entertain people? Unlikely. It's not just her actual moments in "false" or "immoral" roles but the lives carved around those moments: dressing up and leaving in the evenings for rehearsals and performances, home and family left behind, walking out beautiful and fragrant into the dusk, evoking that unspeakable.

Q. Trinankur has a terminally ill son who he truly cares for. And yet, his meddling with other people's families (in his capacity as a Party representative) knows no bounds. Would you say a sense of emasculation — he is powerless in the face of his son's illness — guides political beasts like him?

A. I didn't quite think about it this way, but you're right, there is certainly something going on between Trinankur's traumatised family life and his attempt to play the family elder to the entire neighborhood. Lines between public and private life are dangerously blurred in this novel, as indeed they were continually effaced by Communist absolutism in West Bengal. Sumana Roy has summed up this disturbing history in her review: "It is 1980s Bengal and the Communist Party, after gaining control of the polling booth in 1977, is steadfastly moving into more private zones — the neighbourhood, the sweet and snacks shops, the house and, eventually, the family." Private moralities begin to migrate outward, and the state, at least its visible face, arms and legs, clamp down on the hapless citizen like a tyrannical mother-in-law. But this is still morally a very complicated affair — Trinankur, in the novel, is a genuinely kind man. He just lives under the brown man's burden to cleanse and protect his para.

Q. Dusk, the play-within-the-novel is about a former prostitute who struggles to leave her past behind. She is now the wife of a former patron. According to you, is the wife/whore dichotomy still a major psychical force in middle-class Kolkata?

A. Not so much the wife/whore dichotomy as the actress/whore identity. But Ahin, the author of this play, lives in bygone times. His historical memory belongs to the time of his forefathers, when the line between the actress and the prostitute was vague. Stage actresses were essentially available to wealthy patrons as personal concubines. Ahin spends his days and nights obsessively looking for the right actress for the role of a prostitute, who in turn tells lies and performs — just like an actress — within the story of the play. A significant theme of the novel, the confusion between art and life, takes an extreme pathological form in Ahin. It seems to me that his obsession for flesh and blood figures to people his play is inseparable from his sexual need to touch, molest and destroy them, be it a small child or a young girl. What is scary is that there is a genuine art-instinct here that is inseparable from the hurtful or dangerous. If theatre has a destructive power, it is at its darkest in Ahin, and it is this realisation of the destructive power of theatre that pushes the novel to its final act of death. Historical memory can be dangerous if anachronistic. Within the time-frame of the novel, the actress-prostitute confusion is an anachronism on the literal level but still retains much of its figurative odour.

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