Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How to Build a Play?

By Rana Nayar

Before we talk of ‘how’ to build a play, let us briefly talk of ‘what’ a play is and ‘how’ it is made. Let me start off by saying that the art of ‘making’ or ‘building’ a play is different from the art of writing a poem or a novel. Put simply, a play is not just a collocation of words on a printed page (text) but is made or created within the precincts of a ‘theatre’ (which is what Peter Brooks calls The Empty Space). (All great playwrights have been apprentices who created their plays, not in the privacy of their rooms but in the lively and vibrant ambience of theatre. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Mahesh Dattani). It is this ‘performative’ (text as performance or text in performance) aspect of drama that makes it very different from other genres.
I’m not saying that a poem or a novel can’t be dramatized or performed, it could well be; but a play is not a play unless it is performed. It is in this sense that we often say that a play is twice-born. A play has two lives, first as a text and then as a performance. And if it is a good play, it will multiply these two lives into several hundred or thousand. (Imagine how many productions Sophocles’ King Oedipus, Antigone or Shakespeare’s Hamlet or King Lear must have had. Simply countless. To my mind, this is what building a play is all about; it is creating it in a way that it has several lives. More re-runs it has, more chances of it acquiring an enduring, eternal life.
Let’s look at the etymology of the term DRAMA. It is traced back to the Greek word ‘drame’ which means to act or to do. Drama is connected with action. Aristotle also defines it as a form of imitation...imitation of an action. Important thing is that in drama thought has no meaning if it doesn’t manifest itself as an action. Often, in drama action and thought go together. For example, let’s think of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. In that play Macbeth wants to kill Duncan. He harbours a murderous thought. Is that enough? No, it isn’t. In that case, the play will not move forward and if it doesn’t, nothing will happen. And if nothing happens, there will be no play (Everyone is not as ingenuous as Beckett that they should be able to create a play out of nothing). For instance, if Hamlet (in the play of the same name) just keeps thinking of avenging his father’s murder, he won’t be able to act. He can’t act because he thinks too much. Thinking has paralyzed his capacity to act. And that is his problem, too.
Now in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot “nothing happens twice” as one critic puts it. The characters simply wait and in this process of waiting, so much happens that one is often left completely stunned. In modern drama, action happens inside the mind or as J. L. Stylan says: ‘All drama is in the mind.” Theatre, as I said earlier is “an empty space” and by that logic, human mind is also a tabula rasa. Just as we can create unimaginable possibilities in theatre, so we can write innumerable images, experiences and impressions on this clean slate called mind. Be it physical or mental, a play is action of one kind or the other. A play is the art of doing, making, building and creating or simply, an act of doing something meaningful. Yes, the word meaningful is important for me here.
Now for any action to be possible, you have to be in a group or what we call an ensemble. (An ensemble is a term from music which means that all the musicians in a concert play different instruments and yet manage to build up towards a totality called ‘harmony’. In an ensemble, an individual musician contributes effectively to the overall impact of the music). Now imagine that you are sitting in a room by yourself. What are the options you have? You could either look out of the window or at the walls. Or you could pick up a book from the shelf and start browsing it or you may tire of everything and go off to sleep. A single person in a room doesn’t offer any dramatic potential. Unless, he starts doing loud thinking or starts soliloquizing. But again, there are limits beyond which it can’t be done. Now imagine that you are alone in the room and your friend walks in, saying: “WHAT’S UP?” The moment, you say, “Yaar, I was just lazing around”, it is the beginning of conversation. But does that mean that this conversation will always develop into a dialogue? It may be so, but it is not necessarily so.
The real question is: how is an ordinary conversation different from a dialogue? Often conversations are unstructured, but dialogues are always structured. The moment you begin, you know the direction in which it has to proceed. Or else it would just meander freely and not move in any direction. So dialogue is a “meaningful conversation,” a structured conversation. Now, how does a dramatist create these “meaningful verbal structures?” (You may call dialogue this, for convenience). Think of the opening scenes of Shakespeare and you’ll know what I’m talking about. All right, let me remind you of Ibsen’s play Ghosts. It begins with two relatively minor characters, Engstrand and Regina. Engstrand walks into the room where Regina is. He has come in from the garden where he was working, is soaked to the skin, and says: “It’s the Lord’s rain, I tell you.” Regina says: “It’s the devil’s rain, I say.” Now this might be simply treated as a comment on weather and dismissed off. But if we read closely, we discover that it is not about weather but about the theme or ‘structure of ideas’ that Ibsen wants to develop in the play. Engstrand who gives the impression of being a pious, God-fearing man turns out to be a ‘rogue’ and even a ‘devil’ Regina is referring to. (In a play, things often don’t turn out the way we expect them to. There is a great deal of difference between the ‘surface’ and ‘latent meaning’, between the ‘illusion’ and ‘reality.’) So, this is what is called a structured dialogue. Dialogue is structured because it defines and creates the character, reveals his/her intentions or motives behind the words; configures a situation and also ensures that the possibility of onward movement of action is constantly fulfilled, at least, until such times as the play doesn’t reach a climax and/or resolution. If drama is action, then let us remember, dialogue is spoken action.
Now if action has to move forward and has to have an onward momentum, what should a dramatist do? Well, the least he could do is to ensure that the action must not move forward along the lines that we, the readers or spectators, either suspect it will or expect it to. If it were to so happen, the basic purpose of creating a drama would be defeated. Drama is nothing if it is not suspense. Drama is nothing if its action is predictable. Unpredictability is what makes drama what it is, and implausibility is what ruins drama completely. Add to this the fact that when we go to watch a play, often our interest is not in what the story is, but how it is dramatized. It’s ‘how’ more that ‘what’ that defines the essence of drama. So, a good dramatist always captures the attention of his reader/spectator right from the word go. Starting his action in the middle (or what is called ‘Medias Res’) of things, a dramatist first creates a crisis-situation and then goes about resolving it.  
Playwright is more like a carpenter or a shipbuilder who first dis-assembles a story in his workshop and then re-assembles it. It’s like putting different parts of a ship together or putting bricks or blocks to create a structure of a house or a building. Have you ever thought: Why we use the term playwright for a person who writes plays? You’ll say, well, it is obvious, because he writes plays. But my dear, the spellings are very different. It’s PLAYWRIGHT, just the way we say, SHIPWRIGHT. A shipwright is a person who builds a ship and a playwright is a person who builds a play. We call a dramatist a playwright only because the term has all the meanings of a builder, an artisan, a craftsman, a mechanic rolled into it. No wonder, Aristotle called playwright a craftsman, someone who shapes plays out of someone else’s story, just the way a carpenter shapes raw wood into different pieces of furniture. 
Now this is important. A playwright is not an inventor of stories; he is only a user of stories. A playwright always works with the material others have produced. He only reproduces it. It could be a folk-tale, a legend, a myth, a slice of history, a real-life incident, a newspaper report or just about any scrap of information. A playwright possesses the necessary ability to transmute this material into something potentially dramatic, exciting and unpredictable. This raises a fundamental question: Is playwright’s craft in any way inferior to that of poets and novelists? No, certainly not. In the ultimate analysis, it requires imagination to build anything, be it a novel, a poem or a play. If you wish to be a playwright, you must start off with a ‘story-telling session’. Unless we master the art of story-telling, we can’t become good playwrights. Now you might say that this is contrary to what I said a little while ago. No it isn’t. I did say that a playwright works with the ‘stories’ others have created but this doesn’t mean a playwright has no sense of how a story works. In fact, he has a better sense of how a story works as compared to a story-teller, because he re-tells stories. So, it is a good idea to start telling stories about yourself, about people around whom you may or may not know. One could pick up a story the group is familiar with, narrate it to them once and ask the group to re-tell it in a piecemeal manner, each member of the group adding a dialogue or a character as s/he leads it forward.
There can be hundred and one ways of telling the same story and the group must discover at least a few out of those hundred odd. This is important if the group has to understand the difference between a story and a plot. E. M. Forster explains this distinction very well. Forster says, ‘King dies and the Queen also dies’ is a story, but ‘King dies and the Queen dies of grief’ is a plot. In a plot, incidents have to be connected logically and causally. Let us remember that a plot is a reconstruction of a story. It is in the process of telling and re-telling that a group will learn to explore different ways of starting a play or an effective beginning, as they say. We know how the legend of Oedipus works. And we also know that the play King Oedipus doesn’t begin in the same way as the legend does. (You may explain the difference at this point).
Now what does it mean to change a story into a plot? It only means that ‘time-space’ arrangement of the story has to be re-adjusted. In other words, plotting a story is all about re-mapping the two coordinates of human experience dominating any specific human situation, including a drama, i.e., time and space. We know that all human experience happens within the frame of time and space and also makes sense within this frame. Let me say, what is true of human experience is equally true of drama. Now, what does it mean to create this time-space frame? You are sitting in this hall, and today is March 5, 2011. This defines your location in time-space continuum. All plays have to have a location, a setting, an atmosphere and must belong to a definite period of time as well. Shakespeare was very fond of locating the action of his plays in late medieval or early Renaissance Italy. This helped him look at his own society from a distance. By locating the action in time-space, a playwright imparts a sense of reality as well as structure to his plays.      
As the group starts dramatizing the story, it has to bear in mind that the first step towards dramatization is: creating dialogues and also creating characters who speak these dialogues. Now you would say, it is simple enough, but it isn’t as simple as it sounds. I have already spoken to you about the ‘dialogue’ and how it is different from an ‘ordinary conversation’. Now let me make a few observations about the character. In a way, a character in drama is just another person, like you and me. A character is the product of one of the several possibilities that are inherent in you and me. You are not King Lear or King Oedipus, but given a different set of circumstances, you may become either. So, a character always has a ‘being’ and more significantly, s/he is always in a state of ‘becoming’; character is a series of possibilities out of which some may be explored and others left unexplored by a playwright. His selection of incidents and situations from his life depends largely upon the way and the direction in which he wants the character to develop.
And let us remember that a character always develops within the framework of a particular drama, which is also to say, that s/he could develop differently in a different context. People have experimented with this idea. Someone has written a play on Lady Macbeth, who only plays a supportive role in the play Macbeth and someone on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Tom Stoppard), who are only minor characters in Hamlet. Let me list a few things that a playwright remembers while creating a character. These are: consistency, credibility, plausibility and internal coherence. All this might sound too textual, so let me now talk of how to create a character on the stage. We all understand that role-playing is an important aspect of socialization. Not only do we have to understand the limits, demands, requirements and obligations of our role, but also perform them in a fairly consistent manner. If we don’t do it, we invite the charge of being undependable or acting in a manner inconsistent with our character.
So role-playing is central to character making. Just as re-telling story is important to discover how to make a plot, so role-playing is important to know how to make a character.  Just ask a group of students to act and behave like someone else, perhaps their teacher. As it progresses, one can add other elements to it, such as gestures, facial expressions, style of walking or talking and even costumes. What actually starts as a game becomes a more serious exercise towards ‘creating a character’. You have a story you are prepared to re-tell, you have written a series of structured dialogues, and your role-playing is becoming more than a game; well, you don’t have to build the play anymore. You have arrived at a crucial moment when it is ready to be staged.
I have shared some of these observations with you in the hope that each one of you has a budding actor, a playwright or a director inside you. You always had the potential, now you have the roadmap as well. Just go ahead and realize your latent potential. And once you do so, the play will start rolling off your workshop.  
Do I see the clouds of smoke rising somewhere out there? Is someone’s imagination on fire? Is something cooking? And, is it a play, by any chance?



Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A boy who turned his back on the world

I’m like a boy 
Who with back on the world
Sits ponderously,
Facing the ocean
His eyes lost in the mist of mountains
His gaze moving from earth to heaven
Skies lowering themselves to his size
Spreading like a canopy over his shrinking world
The ocean waters flowing silently
No turbulence anywhere in sight
No agitation of the mind
No restlessness of the heart 
No flutter of the soul, either
Time is perhaps grinding to a halt
Waters are melting into the mountains
From whence they come
Who knows, whence they go.
On looking up
He finds it all turn into a blur,
The waters
The mist
The mountains
And his gaze.  
Perched on the assurance of a hard stone 
He ponders on and on,
And moves from one to the other
Returning to himself
Or his stony structure
Framing his existence,
Echoing a name
That may ultimately drown in the mist
Or float on the cloud-borne skies
Or leave foot-tracks in an unknown, dark forest
That runs through the mountains,
Somewhere far out, and deep.  

Friday, April 22, 2011

breathingspaces: Ik Samvad: Qatre Aur Samuundar Ka

breathingspaces: Ik Samvad: Qatre Aur Samuundar Ka

Ik Samvad: Qatre Aur Samuundar Ka

(i) Samundar ne kaha qatre se
Tu hi bata, teri aukaat kya hai
Mere samane teri bisaat kya hai ?
Mujhme doob jane ke ilawa
Tera aur paschataap kya hai ?  

Qatra kahe samundar se
Mein jaanta hoon, apni haqiqat
Mere hone ka nahi hai koi matlab
Tere adbhut, apaar felav ke samane   
Mein jaanta hoon, meri nahi koi bisaat   

(ii) Samundar ne kaha qatre se
Agar tu apni aukat jaanta hai
Aur apni jaat bhi pehchanta hai
To kyon nahi mujh tak aa jaata
Aur mujh mein hi samaa jaata 

Qatra kahe samundar se
Tujh mein samaane se darta hoon
Apni aukat ho na ho,  
Tujh mein samaa kar
Khud ko khone se darta hoon

(iii) Samundar ne kaha qatre se
Khud ko khona teri tadbir nahi
Khud ko khona teri taqdir hai
Tera hona ya na hona to bus ik haadsa hai
Na hai fitrat yeh teri, na koi majboori hai 

Qatra kahe samundar se
Log kahte hein, tuh itna vishal hai
Kyon machata toon phir dhamal hai
Mujh se hi tun kyon mukhatib hai
Teri yeh kya majboori hai ? 

(iv) Samundar ne kaha qatre se
Mein to tere liye hi kahta hoon
Qatra ban ban is duniya meiin bhata hoon
Tujhmein ansh dekhoon koi apna sa
Lage aise, koi dhoomil sapna sa

Qatra kahe samundar se
Agar baat hai bus itni si
To kyon toon saaf nahi kahata 
Mujh mein to itni taakat hi nahi
Kyon mujh mein hi aa nahi bahta

(v) Samundar ne kaha qatre se
Tera mun abhi to khali hai
Tera tun bhi abhi to khali hai
Mein is khalipan ka kya karoon
Mein is khalipan mein nahi bahta

Qatra kahe samundar se 
Gar toon mujhe itna kahta hai
Gar toon mujhe itna chata  hai
Mera khalipan toon hi bhar de  
Mere tun or mun ko naya wajood de de

(vi) Samundar ne kaha qatre se 
Yeh khalipan yoonhi nahi bharta
Isko bharne ki koshish tumhari hai
Mein to bus bahta rahta hoon
Jo bhi chahe, mujh mein samaata hai

Qatra kahe samundar se
Tujhse mil kar kya karoonga mein
Jiwan apna doobhar karoonga mein
Tujhme mil kar kho jaoonga mein
Hamesha ke liye so jaaoonga mein

(vii) Samundar ne kaha qatre se
Mujh mein samana teri fitrat hai  
Tera khona hi teri haqiqat hai
Mujh mein doobkar hi to
Toon apne aap ko payega

Qatra kahe samundar se 
Apne aap ko pana tha gar mujhe
To kyon yeh khel racchaya tha
Yeh khone aur pane kaa
Kyon tunhe dhong racchaya tha  

(viii) Samundar ne kaha qatre se
Mein bhi to kaam karte karte
Kabhi kabhi thak jaata hoon
Aur gar samajh na aaye aur koi
To bus yehi khel raccchata hoon

Qarta kahe samundar se
Tere liye mera hona ya naa hona
Bus khel hai mun lagane kaa ?
Yeh khona au paana koi haqiqat nahi
Bus sapna hai aane au jaane kaa ? 

(ix) Samundar ne kaha qatre se
Yeh baat hai to chorh de yeh sapna tu  
Tere liye mein nahi bahta
Tera mera milan koi sacchai nahi
Bikhri hui ik kahani hai  

Qatra kahe samundar se
Is bikhri kahani ko jor de tu
Mere bikhre swaroop ko jor de tu
Tere bin yeh kahani adhoori hai
Tere bin har manzil adhoori hai

(x) Samundar ne kaha qatre se
Mujhse juda bhi tera koi wajood nahi
Mujhse behtar tera koi rakkib nahi
Mujhse bicchar kar tu hi bata
Tu kahan au kidhar jaayega   

Qatra kahe samundar se
Mera hona ya na hona
Bus teri mehrbani hai
Meri apni koi kahani nahi
Bus teri bicchri hui ravani hai

(xi) Samundar ne kaha qatre se
Utar ke dekh gharai mein meri tu
Yahan har ik boond moti banti hai
Boond ka moti bananan hi to
Samundar ka kartab kahlata hai

Qatra kahe samundar se
Boond boond moti kahalaye
Har ik boond ki yeh kismet nahi
Kucch ko baihna boond boond hota hai
Kucch ko saihna hota bara samundar hai

(xii) Samundar ne kaha qatre se
Mera seena chotta nahi hai, suun le   
Yoon hi vishal hridaya nahi kahata hoon
Chir ke dekh tu bhi ek bar isko
Tera chhipa hua roop dikhlaata hoon  

Iske baad, kahte hain
Qatra chup ho gaya
Yaa phir woh
Kahin kho gaya
Kon jaanta hai, shayyad
Woh samundar ho gaya

Ab kabhi kabhi, waqat ki lehron par
Badale huye mausam ke rango par
Ya phir hawa ki urhti hui soch par
Kahte hain, yeh bhi sunayi deta hai…. 

Ik qatra hoon 
samundar ho jaoonga
naa gila hai koi qatra hone ka 
naa samundar se milne ki koi arzoo 
samay ke dwar pe baitha
bas lehrein gina karta hoon......

Iske saath saath, kabhi kabhi
Ik aur awaaz bhi sunayi deti hai,
Koi nahi jaanta, yeh kiski hai,
Qatre ki, ya samundar ki.  

Is qatre ki himakat to dekho 
Yeh bhi dum bharta hai hone ka 
Sapna bunta hai to samundar hone ka 
Hona ya na hona to ik alag baat hai 
Ehsas hai yeh apne ko khone ka 
Ya phir paa kar pooran hone ka
Hona na hona to ik ehsas hai 
Ankh ka dhoka hai ya phir 
Hawa ki silwaton par 
Badale huye rango ka asar hai

By Rana Nayar 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Random Thoughts

When do institutions begin to die?
Institutions live so long as individuals working in them work for them, not for themselves.
Institutions live so long as individuals follow the principle of collective wisdom and collective responsibility.
Institutions live so long as individuals 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Punjabi literature & Ray-Ban Glasses

During a literary meet I once attended, someone popped up this rather uneasy question in an equally unexpected manner: What is it that ails the Punjabi literature? All kinds of plausible and implausible answers were put forth, ranging from the lack of government support to the apathy of readers. If someone spoke passionately about the need to promote our literary culture through a network of libraries, others felt it necessary to promote, albeit aggressively, Punjabi language in states other than Punjab.
Almost everyone agreed that the problem lay with the external, motivating factors. Not even a single speaker thought it worthwhile to look inwards and suggest how far our personal and cultural attitudes were responsible for whatever was found wanting.  
Though the literary discussion ended inconclusively, as most of these discussions often do, I came back wondering if it wasn’t necessary for us to do some introspection and see how and in what different ways we were responsible for whatever had presumably gone wrong.
This is what prompted me to look through the haze of forgotten memories, and as I did so, a series of incidents came leaping back. Somehow I felt, that the answers lay hidden somewhere in these personal anecdotes. Once I had a chance encounter with a bright-looking young man from the department of Punjabi, who presented me with a strange request. He was looking for a portrait of Shakespeare and wanted my help in procuring one. I asked him, ‘Whatever do you want Shakespeare’s portrait for?’ He said, ‘Sir, I believe he was the greatest dramatist we have ever had. I admire him a great deal. I want to get his picture framed and put it up in my room.’ Now this had me completely flummoxed. After years of teaching Shakespeare, I felt I had finally come across a genuine Shakespeare lover. I said, ‘This is interesting. So you must have read most of his plays?’ Without so much as a blink, he shot back, ‘No Sir, I haven’t read any. But I have heard a great deal about him.’
Despite my familiarity with this oft-orchestrated Indian habit of icon-making and idolization, I somehow felt rather uneasy about the excessiveness of this Punjabi response. I wondered if this was the way we Punjabis often formed our impression(s) about authors, our own or those of the other languages and cultures? Merely on the basis of what we hear rather than what we read or discover?
What disturbed me the most was that despite being a student of Punjabi literature he wasn’t interested much in idolizing one of his own, but someone as remote and distant as Shakespeare, someone he hadn’t read, only heard of.
This would have continued to mystify me, had I not met one of my colleagues, a few days later. After meeting him I began to understand that idolization of a young fellow was not an aberration or an exception, but rather a product of a peculiar mind-set, an outcome of a certain way in which we continue to perceive ourselves in relation to the Europeans in general and the British in particular, their literature, history and culture. In course of an absolutely innocuous conversation, this colleague of mine, who incidentally teaches Punjabi, nearly had me zapped when he said, ‘Oh! Your situation is different. After all, you teach English literature (emphasis not mine).’  
More than the mixture of awe and envy in his words, it was this ideological mask of self-inferiorization that unnerved me a great deal. It took me quite some time to recover from the shock and gather my wits. Finally when I had, I said, ‘Why do you say that? You should be proud that you teach your own language/literature. I feel like a condemned soul who is forever enslaved to teach someone else’s.’ No doubt, the conversation ended on this note, but the words of my colleague had continued to haunt me for a long time.
Though he had dedicated several ‘precious’ decades of his life to the teaching of Punjabi literature, ‘my friend’ hadn’t really developed genuine pride in what he did. Somewhere he still nursed a secret envy for his counterparts who taught English literature. Was it not a symptom or an expression of self-inferiorization? Was it not the outcome of an ideology that often compelled us to indulge in inferiorization of our own language(s) and culture(s) at the cost of valorizing someone else’s?
Once while attending a parent-teacher meeting, I was shocked when the teacher complained to one of the parents of a six-year-old, saying, ‘I always tell him to speak English, at least, in my class, but he doesn’t listen. He has this ‘bad habit’ of using Punjabi expressions in between. You must check him.’ Do you recall having been subjected to this or having witnessed such a scene ever? Of course, all this is real, not just a figment of some crooked imagination.
Now, had it been a matter of a few isolated individuals or their flights of fancy, one may not have really bothered much. But unfortunately, it has percolated so deep down to our institutional practices that it’s actually worrisome.
While attending a seminar on Punjabi literature, I was aghast to learn how widespread and endemic this tendency among the scholars and academics of Punjabi was to flaunt their knowledge of the critical theories, tools and procedures churned out by the Western Academy. With a genuine tinge of pride in his tone, one of the academics boasted, ‘In less than a year, every new book or theory that the West produces is made available to the Punjabi readers through translation.’
But when I asked him about the reverse trend, he wasn’t too sure. It appears that our imports from other languages/cultures in terms of the translated literature, literary conventions and critical theories far exceed our exports of own literature and literary traditions to others. (Elementary economics tells us that exports must exceed the imports, if the balance of payments is to remain favourable).
A well-known publisher of Punjabi literature once told me in strict confidence, ‘I’ve bought the rights to publish all the works of Paulo Coelho in Punjabi.’ This is admirable, but my point is different. While too many people are worrying about how the Punjabi reader is to be acquainted with the best there is in the world literature, not many seem to bother about how our best could also be made available outside the frontiers of our state.
Put simply, it’s a classic case of adverse balance of payments in purely cultural, if not economic, terms? Won’t it, then, create conditions where our own cultural depletion or impoverishment could become threateningly real?
The height of celebrating our writers is that we eulogize Shiv Batalvi as the Keats of Punjab, and Mohan Bhandari as the Chekhov of Punjabi short story.
By thus depriving our authors or their works of cultural specificities, we, willy-nilly, render them nameless or ‘identity-less.’ Of course, we continue to wear and flaunt our masks of conquest, which, whether we realize or not, are our masks of self-defeat, too.
Now finally, the clinching question. Will this mind-set, this state of affairs, this cultural self-hatred ever change?
Yes, it just might. Only if we are prepared to change three things. One, genuinely improve our reading habits. Two, develop natural pride in our language/literature and increase our export surplus. Three, stop looking at our language, literature, writers and literary traditions through the tinted Ray-Ban glasses minted elsewhere.

By Rana Nayar

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Song for an Un-known Daughter

You’re a child of my twilight years,
Never born to me,
Only visited in a dream
Or was it a vision?
I never heard you yelp in pain
Or groan in agony.
I never sang you lullabies
Or told you bed-time tales
I wasn’t around when your pencil was stolen   
Or your doll went kaput.
I never cuddled you like a doll
Or rocked you to a quiet slumber
I never drew margins in your notebooks
Or solved crazy puzzles for you 
I wasn’t around as a peacemaker
When your brother or sister fought you
Pulling and tugging at your pony-tails   
I wasn’t around when your teen troubles started
Or the pimples sprouted on your face
I didn’t see you through any of those days
Of your childhood and youth
When you missed your mother
Or defied your father
Only sometimes, you told me stories of exile
I could never understand
Though I saw the long haul of pain
And loneliness lurking in your eyes
I had no recipe for your silent questionings   
Only sometimes, when I reached out, hesitatingly  
My words fell short, and my actions failed
O daughter of mine!
You never let me pay the debt
A father often owes his child  
Instead you chose to awaken your good karma
To help you through trials of life   
Cast in gold, your soul now shines
In everything you say or do
The other day,  
When you came in a dream or a vision
Or whatever it was
Flashing messages of ‘moksha’ to me
I was wondering,
Who is the taught, and who the teacher?
Who, the giver and who, the receiver?
Now, I’m not too sure  
If you are only a child of my twilight years
Or my long lost mother, holding my little finger
Leading me back to the same track
From where I had once started out.   

Sunday, February 27, 2011

19th century realism

R.K. Narayan’s Fiction: Has the Moment of Re-Assessment Arrived?

If I have to think of R. K. Narayan, today, I would not refer to him as a writer who belongs to another age or another era. Though he was born in 1906, which, by the standards of our fast-moving generation, would make him look like a writer from another century, or even a dinosaur, if you like, but he certainly wasn’t one. The world his characters inhabit may look somewhat like the replica of a slow-moving, 19th century Indian town or a suburb; and the simple, tastes, habits and manners of its denizens may appear to our MacDonald generation as distasteful as the dhaba food, R.K. Narayan is, and shall continue to remain, should I say, for a long time, a contemporary writer par excellence. If an ability to laugh at human faults and foibles is a quality of contemporary fiction, R.K. Narayan is contemporary to the core. If comedy is a tool of subversion in contemporary fiction, R.K. Narayan employs it to the hilt. If the hallmark of contemporary fiction is to turn our world upside down, and give us an inverted view of our reality, without being maliciously satirical or explicitly moral, then R.K. Narayan is far more contemporary than most of the contemporary writers we often speak or talk about. My purpose in underlining R.K. Narayan’s contemporariness is merely to emphasize that though much work has been done on him already (some of which I shall also share with you as I go along), re-assessment of his work, like Althusser’s project of modernity, is still incomplete, and thus far from being over.              

Much before I start proposing the ways in which we may yet be able to read R.K. Narayan’s fiction, I would start off by looking at some of the popular ways in which his work has been received so far. Naipaul, who is congenitally dismissive of all things Indian, had, in his characteristic churlish manner, once pooh-poohed R K Narayan as an “intensely Hindu” writer. He believed that Narayan’s fiction was not only a direct product but also a clear endorsement of his Hindu-centric philosophy of life, something he couldn’t really escape, being a devout South Indian Brahmin. While offering such a sweeping generalization, Naipaul perhaps overlooked the fact that most of his own non-fiction, too, has come in for an equally belligerent attack, on the very same grounds. My point is simple: If Naipaul couldn’t shed the burden of his Hindu legacy despite the fact that his ancestors had migrated to the Caribbean Islands for over a century ago, how did he expect Narayan (who was born and brought under the shadow of Swadeshi and Swaraj, and grew up to believe in the Gandhian philosophy of non-violent struggle against the British), to escape his destiny. Anyway, I’m not trying to argue that Narayan be read as a Hindu writer (far from it!), but only suggesting that such labeling as Naipaul indulges in, often based as it is on grounds of religion, race, caste or gender, may lead us into a literary/aesthetic impasse and thus may become a ground for the rejection of a writer, but certainly not for a systematic study of his works aimed at developing critical understanding or evaluation, much less revaluation.

The process of critical evaluation of any writer is an extremely complex one. Often we turn to a writer for very personal reasons, but somewhere down the line, we begin to understand him in relation to his life, his works, his milieu, his immediate context and his relation to other writers, who have either preceded him or are likely to succeed him. All preliminary investigations into an author, if you allow me to say, do take on the form of a biographical-historical approach that aims at contextualizing an author within his space-time and moment. R K Narayan is no exception to this general rule. One of the earliest forays into Narayan’s fiction was made by Harish Raizada, an Indian scholar, who published his book R.K. Narayan: A Critical Study of His Works way back in 1969. Lakshmi Holmstrom, who had spent early part of her life in Madras (where Narayan was born), and was thus familiar with the milieu of Narayan’s works, later (when she chose to do her postgraduate degree from Oxford), worked on Narayan’s novels for her dissertation. This dissertation was published in a book form by the Writer’s Workshop in 1973, under the title The Novels of R. K. Narayan. To a large extent, Harish Raizada and Lakshmi Holmstrom could be said to have inaugurated the first phase of Narayan’s critical evaluation. Being largely exploratory in nature, their books deal with the distinctive features of Narayan’s fiction, recognize its significance and contextualize it within the wider frame of Indian English writing. 

William Walsh, who published his R. K. Narayan: A Critical Appreciation from the University of Chicago Press in 1982, was perhaps the first European to offer a systematic and sustained critique of Narayan from outside. Walsh, who has also been Narayan’s biographer, is of the view that his narrative art is both comedic and inclusive in its spirit, and is characterized by the transience and illusory nature of human action. Before Walsh came up with his assessment, Narayan had already won plaudits from some of the well-known writers of Britain and USA; though no book-length study had been undertaken on his work until then. Graham Greene (who first drew the attention of the Western world towards Narayan’s fiction) considered Narayan to be more similar to Chekhov than any other Indian writer. Anthony West of The New Yorker, too, had noted the special quality of his realism, when he compared it to that of another Russian writer, Gogol. To an extent R.K. Narayan’s gentle humor, irony and fidelity to detail are reminiscent of the 19th century Russian realists. Comparing him to Charles Dickens, the American writer John Updike has acclaimed him “as a writer of a vanishing breed-the writer as a citizen, one who identifies completely with his subjects and has immense faith in the significance of humanity.” In the recent times, Jhumpa Lahiri has placed Narayan’s short fiction alongside that of the great masters such as Guy De Maupassant, O. Henry and Frank O’Connor et al. What she likes about Narayan is his ability to compress the narrative without losing the story, and his portrayal of middle-class characters with “an unyielding and unpitying vision.” 

For a long time, Malgudi, the fictional South Indian town Narayan created, complete with its flora and fauna, its ecology and ambience, its sinuous alleyways and sloppy pathways, remained a subject of intellectual curiosity among his ardent readers and critics, alike. The idea of creating this town Malgudi, as Narayan had once mentioned to N. Ram and Susan Ram, came to him in form of a vision of a railway station, deriving its name from a freight train (maalgaadi). Often compared to Hardy’s Wessex or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Malgudi remains etched on our consciousness long after we have put down a typical Narayan novel. Not only does Malgudi have its own distinctive colors, flavors and rhythms, but its own mythology and history, too. Commenting on how Narayan has successfully transformed this into an incredibly believable place, Graham Greene once said: 

“Whom next shall I meet in Malgudi? That is the thought that comes to me when I close a novel of Mr. Narayan's. I do not wait for another novel. I wait to go out of my door into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure a stranger approaching, past the bank, the cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet me I know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human existence.”

One of the scholars of Narayan, Dr James M. Fennelly, has, in fact, carried this idea of “authenticity” of Malgudi a little too far by creating a map of Malgudi based on the fictional descriptions available in many of his novels and stories. Real or imagined or a mixture of both, Malgudi certainly doesn’t embody a static world caught in a time-warp, but a dynamic social and historical reality, always in throes of change and flux. Whether or not we see it “in metonymic terms” (John Thieme’s phrase), it is a microcosm of the macrocosm, which again makes Narayan into a constantly evolving, cosmopolitan Indian writer rather than a self-limiting, regional writer. Endorsing this position, Michael Pousse claims that “Malgudi is India and India is the world. . . .This universal appeal comes from the author’s humanism.” (R. K. Narayan: A Painter of Modern India, Lang, Peter Publishing, 1995). For close to two decades, Narayan criticism continued to operate within the traditional framework, varying from the biographical to the historical, from the psychological to the sociological; only occasionally veering off towards archetypal and/or cultural, In most of these studies, the critics focused either on Narayan’s characters, characterization, themes, motifs, symbols, narrative strategies, comic spirit and/or or artistic modes. As it is not possible for me to go into the specifics of each work here (apparently, for the want of time), please allow me to mention some of the major publications in this regard. No bibliographical listing on Narayan can possibly ignore the contribution of such eminent Indian critics as P. S. Sundaram (who wrote two books on Narayan i.e., R.K. Narayan, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1973, and R.K. Narayan as Novelist, New Delhi, B.R., 1988),  M. K. Naik (The Ironic Vision: A Study of the Fiction of R.K. Narayan, New Delhi, Sterling, 1983), U.P. Sinha (Patterns of Myth and Reality: A Study in R.K. Narayan's Novels, New Delhi, Sandarbh, 1988); Atma Ram (who edited Perspectives on R.K. Narayan, Ghaziabad: Vimal, 1981) and Bhagwat S. Goyal, (who also edited a collection of essays titled: R.K. Narayan: A Critical Spectrum, Meerut: Shalabh Book House, 1983). This, I must say, is, by no means, a complete or comprehensive list (as there are some very important exclusions here), but it certainly does give us a fair idea of the whole range of issues that the Indian academics have debated on Narayan’s fiction from early 1970s to late 1980s.

If I have to put it in perspective, then the re-assessment of Narayan’s fiction is not a very old phenomenon, and could be said to have started in early 1990s. Ironic though it may sound, the first few attempts towards this ‘reassessment’ were made, not by the Indian, but the Western critics, instead. Some nativists, treating this as an attempt toward colonizing/re-colonizing Narayan or re-territorializing him within the critical space of West-dominated, post-structuralist theory, may also try and resist it. Regardless of how we choose to look at it and whether or not we feel the need to resist it, what we cannot possibly ignore is an extremely significant collection of essays titled R.K. Narayan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 1993) edited by Geoffrey Kain. This particular collection of eighteen essays proved to be a trend-setter, as it opened up new frontiers and possibilities on Narayan’s fiction that we couldn’t have conceptualized in the earlier decades. Drawing upon the recent developments in literary theory, post-colonial, feminist and cultural studies, this particular collection expanded the parameters of Narayan criticism significantly, pointing out the complexity and subtlety of his art and also the direction his studies could possibly take in the future. Paul Brians is of the view that Narayan’s exclusive emphasis on the private lives of his characters to the total exclusion of the public (even the British) is a willful neglect of colonialism or even an act of liberation from it. (Modern South Asian Literature in English, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003). Here Paul Brians is apparently offering a deconstructive, postcolonial reading of Narayan’s fiction. Some contemporary critics like Homi Bhabha, Gita Rajan and Sadhana Puranik, have also read Narayan as an ambivalent, postcolonial writer, one who, caught between Western and Indian cultures, and like his protagonist Raman in The Painter of Signs, is positioned "between myth and modernity" (Bhabha, "Brahmin" 421). Such readings need to be re-visited and pursued further, if we have to re-interpret Narayan in the post-colonial context.

Reading Narayan's novel The Dark Room (1938) as both a national allegory in its indirect criticism of British rule and a religious ideological fiction, R M George (2003) notes that the author's Hindu nationalism "never solidifies into conscious intent and an exclusionary Brahmin nationalism is perceived only when one reads against the grain of the narrative ("Of Fictional Cities and “Diasporic” Aesthetics", Antipode (Blackwell Publishing) 35 (3): 559–579). George’s essay, too, opens up new theoretical possibilities for those of us who want to get into a re-assessment of Narayan’s fiction. In her essay "The Magic Idyll of Antiquated India": Patriarchal Nationalism in R. K. Narayan’s Fiction (Ariel, Vol. 31, No. 4, October 2000, 59-75), Harveen Mann has offered yet another “against the grain” reading of Narayan’s ostensibly apolitical narratives in an attempt to “re-open dominant critical views of the author to a new debate focused on the issue of nationalism and feminism.” This overtly political reading of Narayan’s fiction assumes great significance in view of the fact that all his life, the author not only resisted such readings but also argued stoutly against them. R K Narayan had a particular distaste for “polemics and tract-writing” (See his collection of essays titled A Writer’s Nightmare and A Story-Teller’s World,” 1989) and he always favoured “an aesthetic and universalist appreciation of his works.” In his essay, “The Problem of the Indian Writer he claims to be following in the line of “all imaginative writing in India” which “has had its origin in The Ramayana and The Mahabharata,” thus affirming his own commitment to reproducing in his works the India of cultural and also narrative tradition. Despite all his disclaimers and pronouncements to the contrary, I’m of this firm opinion that the process of Narayan’s reassessment shall remain incomplete and even inconclusive, if we don’t attempt what Said calls “contrapuntal” readings of his fiction. For only in these readings can we possibly discover a whole set of new meanings or construct a new “archaeology of knowledge” (to borrow the eloquent title of Foucault’s book) that has remained unknown to us until now.

To an extent, the books that have appeared on R K Narayan in the latter half of 1990s and in the first decade of 21st century have done a great deal to spark off a new debate and also generate a new wave of criticism. All these critical endeavors were aimed at rehabilitating Narayan at a time when the academic interest in his writing had almost begun to show a perceptible downward trend. In this context, I would like to mention a couple of books that have contributed very significantly towards revising our critical perceptions about Narayan and his work. N Ram and Susan Ram were the ones who took lead in this direction by publishing the first authorized biography of R.K. Narayan in 1996. S. S. Ramtake’s R.K. Narayan and his Social Perspective (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 1998), M. K. Bhatnagar’s New Insights into R K Narayan (New Delhi: Atlantic, 2002), Amar Nath Prasad’s Critical response to R.K. Narayan (New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2003), Ranga Rao’s R.K. Narayan. (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2004), and Chotte Lal Khatri’s, R K Narayan: Reflections and Re-evaluation. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons (2008) have appeared in the past one decade or so, re-defining the frontiers of our knowledge about Narayan and re-drawing the map of critical possibilities, too.  

While on this subject, I’d like to make a special mention of an essay entitled “Indian Fiction Today”, Anita Desai, an eminent Indian English writer, wrote way back in 1989. In this essay, Desai had pointed out the disjunction between the seamless, orthodox discourse of the realist novel in India and the contemporary national instabilities; between a “narrative of historical continuity” and “the politics of difference”. Her point is that “magic idyll of antiquated India” that Narayan invokes so assiduously in his fiction is not only passé but also torn to shreds by today's strife, riots and communal commotion. Elsewhere, in a direct commentary on Narayan's fiction, Desai rues his tendency to create “the essential . . . India” in his writings, pointing to his neglect of the very “fissures, explosions, shatterings” that she highlights, saying, “[I]n the 50 years that Narayan has been writing his tranquil fiction, his "rootedness" has become as unique in India as it is in the West, the traditional structure of rural existence that he celebrates having given way and collapsed irrevocably. . . . There are many of Narayan's readers who feel that his fiction does not reflect the chaos, the drift, the angst that characterizes a society in transition and that his "rootedness" is a relic of another, pastoral era now shaken and threatened beyond recovery.” (“R. K. Narayan” 3). What Desai is suggesting is that Narayan’s fiction fails to capture the throbbing, pulsating rhythms of everydayness of Indian life, much of which is not entirely free of virtually every conceivable form of violence that runs so close to our lives, otherwise.  In a way, she is obliquely pointing out that we need to study not only the manifest but also the latent, even the repressed contents of Indian life in Narayan’s fiction.

Whether or not we agree with Anita Desai’s extreme views, the fact remains that her opinion does constitute the ‘other’ end of the spectrum along which the re-assessment of Narayan’s fiction must be represented. There are many other possibilities that are simply waiting to be explored. For instance, no effort seems to have been made to attempt a Bakhtinian reading of Narayan (at least I haven’t come across such a reading so far), which carries his idea of the comic to its logical conclusion, by positing the entire question of East-West dialogue in wider cultural context, exploring its dialogics through the notions of polyphony, heteroglossia and carnivalesque. In the same manner, we need to explore if Narayan’s sense of comic could actually be inverted and seen from the postmodern perspective of “parody and pastiche” and whether the limits of his texts could be pushed to discover how and under what conditions his ‘texts’ become “inter-texts”, too. I’m hinting towards mediating Narayan from the standpoint of ‘intertexuality’. While proceeding along these lines, somewhere we may have to assume that the “author is now dead” (which he, incidentally, is), thus paving the way for the reader-oriented criticism in his case. This may also enable us to speculate about another related question: how far and in what different ways does Narayan’s fiction become explicitly a form of self-reflexive, metafiction. It can easily be argued that he is a story-teller par excellence, and as such has explored the subterranean archives of story-telling and its wayward, complex processes. Besides, if we look at his entire corpus, we get this impression that Narayan has developed a far more mature vision in his later works than he actually possessed in his earlier works. If such is the case, then there is some point in investigating the meta-fictional aspects of his writing. In a way, all great writers are meta-fictional in the sense that they constantly cast an inward glance at what they are doing; constantly reflect on their art and artifice, thus betraying a totally different dimension from the one that we may often see on the surface. Similarly, I haven’t yet seen either an Eco-critical or a New Historicist reading of Narayan’s fiction, both of which, to my mind, would prove to be quite rewarding. Narayan’s Malgudi is a true embodiment of how in our urban or semi-urban planning, we could effectively integrate and synthesize nature into culture, thus creating eco-friendly havens for ourselves that ensure both our survival and our continuation as a species.    

It is quite possible that right now as I’m sharing these ideas with you, emphasizing the need to explore hitherto unexplored terrains, someone is already thinking either of a Bakhtinian or a Post-modern approach, an Eco-critical or a New Historicist reading of Narayan, thus challenging the limits of my suggestions, deflating my complacency in the process. Well, that is what research is all about. It is a continuous process, which always seeks to re-define its contours and its critical maps, thus humbling the pride of the most rigorous of researchers among us. The moment of re-assessment I had spoken to you about with such aplomb in my title, I dare say, has been with us for close to two decades now and yet it is constantly being re-invented, thus giving us new insights into the works of this grand old man of Indian letters.

In this essay, I don’t claim to have either articulated this moment or positioned it historically, constantly aware as I’m of the fact that my implication in this critical spectrum is anything but marginal. I have neither written a book on Narayan nor done extensive research on him. I’m only an ardent admirer and a casual reader of his fiction. Here, my effort was to give you an overview of the directions that Narayan criticism has either taken in the past or could possibly take in the future. If I have succeeded in mapping out the jagged edges and rough contours of this critical enterprise in a somewhat comprehensible manner, I would take it, my job is done, even if it’s not all that well done.  

(Text of the Keynote Address delivered by Rana Nayar in a National Seminar on Re-visiting R K Narayan's Works held at JC DAV College, Dasuya, on February 27, 2011).