Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Saikat Majumdar’s second novel, The Firebird, is set in the 1980’s, in the world of commercial theatre in the city of Calcutta. These theatres staged plays in Bengali—both original, as well as Bengali-language adaptations of plays written in other languages. In the closing chapters of The Firebird, we see the lead female character of the novel, Garima Basu, a stage actor, playing the role of Teesta, the Calcutta stage version of Blanche DuBois, in a Bengali play called The Wishcar, “[I]nspired by A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams”. On “[The] giant billboard” displaying the name, cast and crew of the play, “the source of inspiration was near invisible”.
Outraging the sensibilities of the society, and battling accusations of obscenity as well as challenges posed by that ruthless medium of entertainment, the cinema – “The seenema posters were all over the place” – the commercial theatre in Calcutta underwent such a transformation that it did not remain theatre anymore. It became the “cabaret”—offering the society the same obscene kind of entertainment that it loved to both watch and shun, so much that there came a time – the 1980’s and the 1990’s – when commercial theatres were wiped clean from Calcutta.
What drew me to The Firebird?
As a child growing up in neighbouring Jharkhand – then Bihar – in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I remember seeing small advertisement boxes – measuring not more than 2”x2” – in the Anandabazar Patrika and The Statesman. They were serious papers, I felt, for they did not even have TV listings for the day and the list of films showing in cinema halls in Calcutta. I cannot say that confidently about Anandabazar Patrika, for I was yet to master reading Bengali, but I remember quite clearly that The Statesman did not carry TV and film listings at all. However, there were those 2”x2” advertisement boxes that appeared in a corner in page 2 of both these papers. In The Statesman, those boxes were placed in a column that said Theatre and showed two corpulent, turbaned men fencing against one another. In those boxes were names of plays that played at theatres in Calcutta at that time. Some of those plays, I remember, had suggestive names. I cannot really recall the names of the theatres, but I think I read the name Minerva at one place.
Those advertisements left me intrigued. I wondered what was shown in those plays. One day, when I saw an article in a newspaper published from Calcutta – The Statesman? The Telegraph? I am not being able to recall that clearly – about those theatres in Calcutta, I just kept on staring at that article, because accompanying that article was a photograph showing a buxom woman, face white with make-up, wearing a shiny bodice and a shiny skirt, in a dancing pose, her mouth open, as if singing a song or lip-syncing to a recorded song, lips dark with lipstick. Along with that woman was a man, in black pants and a black sleeveless shirt, dancing. I was, in fact, staring at that photograph. I do not remember what had been written in that article—it is only that photograph that I remember. That woman was, perhaps, one of those women who a self-appointed guardian of morality in The Firebird calls: “[W]hores jiggling their bellies on the stage while cabbies and truckers whistle from the audience.”
I had read blurbs about Saikat Majumdar’s The Firebird. I also read his essay on Calcutta’s commercial theatres published in LiveMint, the one he wrote while researching on The Firebird. Curiosity, coupled with the memory of that photograph of a woman jiggling her belly, drew me to this novel. What I had not been able to read in that newspaper some thirty years ago – for, perhaps, I was too young to understand what was written in that report – I expected to read in The Firebird.
Death and Betrayal
Death isn’t enjoyable, nor is betrayal. But such is the quality of death and betrayal in The Firebird, that I shall remember this novel for the portrayal of these two alone.
The novel starts with a scene of a death. Ori – short for Oritri – the small boy through whose eyes we see a family and the world of theatres both crumbling down – sees his mother, Garima, die right in the first line of the novel. Garima, like I have mentioned earlier, is an actor. In one of her plays, her character is shown to be dying. That scene shakes him up—and, along with Ori, I, too, felt something move inside me, realising it only after three paragraphs that Garima had not really died. “Dhur boka!” Ori’s father hugs and chides him, for he had begun crying—and such is the familiarity in this chide – “Dhur boka!” – so common are these words in the place where I live that I couldn’t help thinking that these words were spoken to me. Ori did not smile on realising that his mother was not really dead, but I did, feeling like a fool for thinking a staged death to be a real death.
I would have wanted another death to be a staged death. The location for this death was just right: just below the unique, revolving stage of a theatre called The Pantheon, where a large part of the novel’s action is set. And the person to die was Shruti, Ori’s older cousin – the daughter of his father’s elder brother – and a thoroughly lovable character. Shruti is, perhaps, the only character who can be called positive and vivacious in the otherwise sad and depressing world of The Firebird.
When we first meet Shruti, she is a student of Class 6—eleven-year-old, perhaps. She wishes to go to see the Bijoya Dashami procession with her friends. However, their grandmother – who Ori calls Mummum – asks her to take Ori along. We see Mummum disapproving of Shruti—perhaps, because Shruti is a girl, or maybe because Shruti is too independent for a girl of those times. We see Mummum’s disapproval and Shruti’s desire to be left free through Ori’s eyes: “Why did Mummum shout at Shruti all the time? She was Mummum’s grandchild too…a girl without her father. And why did Shruti always speak to Mummum in the mean, biting way?” Shruti takes Ori along to see the Bijoya Dashami procession. Little Ori wants “to go soo-soo.” Shruti, busy with her friends, does not pay attention, and Ori pees in his pants. Rupa, Shruti’s mother and Ori’s guardian in Garima’s absence, laughs, but Mummum is not pleased.
When we next see Shruti, she is grown up, a college-going girl. She is extremely protective of Garima and Ori, and she is, perhaps, the only person in their family who approves of Garima’s profession as an actor. When Abir, Shruti’s boyfriend, calls Garima a “business class” prostitute, Shruti snaps at him: “You bastard! You mention my aunt just one more time and I’ll rip your tongue out.” At the same time, Shruti is also angry that Ori went to Sonagachhi area to look for his mother: “She glared at Ori. ‘So that’s where you went wandering off after school on Thursday?’” When the news of an alleged affair and an accidental fire at the venue of one of Garima’s plays – both incidents concluding that Garima was an irresponsible mother – makes Garima live away from the family house of her in-laws, in a small flat with Ori, it is only Shruti who makes an empathetic visit to her. One of these discreet visits, finally, leads Shruti to her death.
One day, looking for Garima, Shruti goes to The Pantheon, where an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was being staged and in which Garima was playing the role of Titania. At The Pantheon, Shruti is misled by Ahin Mullick, owner of The Pantheon and the producer of plays starring Garima, into believing that he would take her to meet Garima. Ahin was also a failed playwright, struggling to find actors for his play that he had titled Dusk. The lead character of Dusk was Meera, a prostitute who had quit her profession and had married and settled down with her husband and son. Sick to the core, Ahin saw Meera in practically every woman he met. He sought to realise his sexual fantasies with those women. Some spurned him forthright; but Shruti, unaware of Ahin’s obsession, falls in her trap. Seeing his Meera in Shruti, Ahin undresses her and leaves her dead, right under the stage of The Pantheon, “[S]trangled with her own plaits”.
If Shruti’s death, and the manner in which she died, disgraced both before and after her death, made me sad, it also brought into focus the element of betrayal in The Firebird.
Ahin was known to Garima—he was her producer, after all. Yet, he doesn’t just harm her niece, he also had eyes on the young Ori. As a small boy, when Ori was looking for his mother in The Pantheon, Ahin Mullick almost abused him sexually on the pretext of casting him in his play. “Tremors shot through [Ori’s] body as [Ahin] caressed his chest. The palm paused. [Ahin] breathed slowly, and Ori felt soft fingers touch his left nipple.” Luckily, Garima arrives on time, and tells Ahin in a “firm” voice: “[Ori] has no time to act.”
Another act of betrayal was by the Party—a fine exploration of the effect of politics on people’s lives and their freedom – or the lack of it – to make a choice. The Party was, apparently, chosen to power to serve the people, not to keep a check on what kind of entertainment the people chose to have. “What would Marxism be without the theatre?”—one of Shruti’s friend’s wonders wistfully, soon after he had wondered “Who would have thought the Party goondas would want to sweep clean playhouses?” The musclemen “[F]rom the Party…[who] head the local citizen’s council” invite young Ori for a meal at a Chinese restaurant and spike his Coca-Cola with rum so that they could gather information from him about his mother’s affairs with other men. It was the Party’s way of showing that they cared for the families in their “para”, and “sometimes [they needed] to twist the knife a bit”. In the absence of the mother, the wives of the Party musclemen assert themselves as mothers to motherless children, interfering with everyone’s lives—that was how much the Party cared for its people!
Despite the several instances of betrayal in The Firebird, no betrayal is as strong as Ori betraying his mother, Garima—an act that set the mechanism of collapse in motion, that led to the fall of Garima’s family and acting career and, also, to her death, this time in real. Ori reveals to Mummum, “Ma and Samiran Uncle were in bed. And they were kissing.” Samiran was a co-actor, and Ori had seen him in bed with Garima in one of her plays, in a scene in which “they had ended their evening in bed”. However, he mentions his mother being in bed with some other man as a secret he had guarded within himself, as if it were a fact. This single revelation – a plain lie – puts the focus on Garima’s private life. The secret moves on from Mummum to the Party, and the Party would stop at nothing to show Garima her place and rid the city of the theatres that had, apparently, become dens of vice.
Oritro: Love him or hate him?
We see The Firebird through Ori’s eyes. Though the novel is in the third person, the narration, somehow, is Ori’s. He guides us through his house as he enters through the door for the sweeper at the rear. He guides us through a temple site in Hoogly where two young girls swindle tourists of their money. He guides us as he leaves school and boards a local train and a rickshaw to his mother’s flat. It is impossible to not feel for Ori. Here is a child whose family is falling apart, and who would want such a thing to happen to a child? Yet, as I read on, I couldn’t understand if I should love Ori or hate him. He had betrayed his mother on more than one occasion. He betrays his mother towards the end of the novel when, despite the warning that young children are not to be brought to plays, he brings the young son of the actress playing Stella in the adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire along with him to see the play. When the child sees his mother on stage, he begins screaming. Quite understandably, the entire play is spoilt.
What was Oritro’s motive in spoiling his mother’s acting career? What was his motive behind betraying Garima? What made Ori hate the theatre? The Firebird does not answer these questions. None. It also does not try to establish Oritro as a character who we should love or hate. It does not judge anyone, not even the Party. There are several strands The Firebird leaves untied, open. It is just a journey through the world of commercial theatre in Calcutta, and through a family that is tied to the theatre. In this journey lies the beauty of The Firebird.
The Firebird is a sad novel. But there is such beauty in its sadness, and such a satisfying read it is!