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The Revolving Stage

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Carrying a torch for Calcutta’s decadent old playhouses
The Firebird | Saikat Majumdar | Hachette India | Pages 233 | Rs 499
Already by the 1980s, Calcutta’s playhouses—large, gaudy houses of pleasure in the cloistered, thickly peopled neighbourhoods of the north—had lost their rakish, illicit luster. The buildings had shed plaster and paint like skin, the air inside a miasma of makeup, powder, dust and cigarette smoke. The audiences—in the beginning, mainly upper class men who treated actresses the way men elsewhere in Asia treated geishas, as cultured concubines, and then in its heyday a broad swathe of the city’s urban middle class—had dwindled to truckdrivers and other working class men looking for titillation, in the form of plump women dancing in their underwear. The Communist party, having led the left front to power in 1977, wrinkled its nose at this decadent theatre, its devotion to spectacle and entertainment. The high-minded new theatre was austere, avowedly political, didactic, diametrically opposed in spirit and aesthetic to commercial theatre.

It is in this dying urban culture that Saikat Majumdar sets his atmospheric second novel. An evocative mistranslation by Bengali adapters of Jean Anouilh’s The Lark (L’Alouette) gives the novel its exquisitely apposite title: The Firebird. Fire is everywhere in this novel: in its opening pages, five- year-old Ori, surrounded by theatre-goers, ‘their faces lit up by the reddish yellow of the fire pit’, watches his mother die. Later, in the green room, she has risen from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix, and while Ori’s ‘heart leaped with happiness’ he also feels a ‘pang of betrayal’, as if not wanting the spell of her performance to be broken, to be revealed as an elaborate lie.

His mother, Garima, is a theatre actress, ‘magic on stage’. It’s a magic that people in Garima’s neighbourhood (she has married into an old family of barristers) think of more as witchcraft. Sensitive Ori, blessed with his family’s golden skin and good looks, burns with shame at the things people imply about his mother, at the hissed exchanges between his grandmother and an aunt, at the loud, violent exchanges between his parents. His father, once a proud supporter of Garima’s career, can no longer bear the whispers at home or in the streets and, unable to prevent his wife from following her vocation, hides in a fug of alcohol and depression. Freed by his parents neglect, Ori is a diminutive explorer of adult worlds, hanging out with his feisty cousin Shruti and her college boyfriend, lurking in green rooms with half-dressed women, eavesdropping on conversations salted with sex and innuendo, being treated to Chinese dinners by neighbourhood toughs eager to glean information about his mother. Ori’s family is the battleground for the destruction of Calcutta’s commercial theatre—his mother is defiant in the face of her family’s disapproval and that of the community. It is Ori’s anger though and its pyromaniacal expression that will prove the more implacable opponent.

The push and pull Ori feels, simultaneously worshipful and resentful of his mother, and by extension the stage, is viscerally described. Take Ori’s first encounter with Ahin Mullick, an old theatre owner, in whose family mansion resides a fantastic circular stage that falls and rises as scenes and sets are changed: ‘ “Have you ever acted in a play?”... Swimming in a shapeless world, Ori felt his heart leap. He would love to act!...“Take off your shirt.” The man’s voice echoed in the tiny room.’ Majumdar is an expert at creating clammy dread, in which desire and disgust are indistinguishable. Mullick, like Garima and Ori, like others in this novel, cannot draw a clear line between life and the theatre. The result is brutality, emotional and physical. Garima, so charismatic when she acts, is oddly passive elsewhere. She appears entirely inured to the effect her acting has on her son, participating only distantly in his life. It is as if she is alive only onstage, a personification of the theatre and, consequently, on borrowed time. The Firebird, a kind of grand guignol, is so profound a homage to Calcutta’s commercial theatre it comes to resemble the lurid plays, invented or otherwise, that litter its pages. For a slim novel it is dense with longing, with grotesquerie, with love and hate and death. It is hard to breathe and as a reader you feel as the theatre’s actors and patrons must have done when an old playhouse erupted in an unexplained fire.

The Firebird—as Majumdar, who teaches English at Stanford University will know—is an ekphrastic exercise in which one art form is stimulated by and devotes itself to the description of another. Majumdar’s success is that in his novel Calcutta’s theatre emerges revivified, like the firebird, the phoenix, from the ashes of burnt down playhouses.

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