Monday, May 16, 2011

All about Manasi

It is the end of an era. Badal Sarkar has passed away. And mourn I must. Not because this is the end qua end, but because surely this is worth calling the end of something. If I were to be melancholic, I might claim that the vision of a certain kind of life-world is becoming sparse. But I am not. So then what kind of end are we contemplating?

Badal Sarkar or Sircar, for those of you to who the name is all too unfamiliar, was a dramatist, theatre director, and playwright who lived from the years 1925 to 2011. He passed away on 13th April, 2011. Look him up and you will find all the details of his illustrious life and thoughtful career. Here is a précis. Sarkar was born in Calcutta and studied civil engineering before obtaining a Masters in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University. He then chose to work as a town planner in India, London and Nigeria where he first began acting, directing and soon writing for theater.

[One wonders at the unfinished details of biography. What did he do with a degree in comparative literature? Who did he read? What did he do in college? And why did he begin working as a town planner? It is not outside the realm of imagination to think that ala Benjamin, the city both moved and bothered Sarkar. And yet, such little detail on a life so rich.]

In 1963, while in Nigeria, he wrote his landmark play, Ebong Indrajit (Evam Indrajit, And Indrajit).

There are more noteworthy things to say, of course. The founding of his “Third Theatre”, for example, that spoke of the lives of common people in the city and embraced social change while performing for free in large rooms, or halls, in the open, in fields, in parks and gardens. Or his adherence to text as both verbal and intensely physical. Or of his ambivalent, and deeply critical view of the Indian Left. (He was perhaps prescient; his 2004 play Winkle Twinkle satirized the 26-year old rule of the Communist government in West Bengal).

But I will stop at 1963. Because all said and done, mankind aside, my mourning for Sarkar is deeply personal. And it has to do with Evam Indrajit. In translation albeit. In 1999, many decades after Sarkar penned his tale of quest and melancholia, I rediscovered angst. Perhaps it was incidental. Perhaps it was meant to be. How is it possible to not be broken apart and stitched together everyday when one is twenty? The years are young, the future rather fragile if infinitely sparkling, and the mind most capricious. But Evam Indrajit was special. It seems like the first and last time I would ever be involved in a collective effort of such passionate renewal that the text somehow both mattered and did not in the same breath. We were in the midst of a masters program in communications in a little bubble called Bopal and for many of us, this was the first time away from home. Bopal became community, and Indrajit our collective rite of passage. The travails of Indrajit while qualitatively worlds apart were nevertheless familiar to all of us in our firmly middle-class concerns and our rather naïve, rather young, marginally skeptical aspirations to change the world. Or ourselves at the least.

Many years have passed. We don’t live in Bopal anymore. Governments have fallen, children have been born, and criminals brought to justice. There have been earthquakes.

We inhabit other countries, other worlds, other possibilities. We are not twenty anymore. And some of us carry around a lot more of Evam Indrajit than others. And yet, perhaps it would be momentarily lovely to collectively mourn the passing of a life so rich that his one text brought us visions of so many worlds. Worlds he might never see, texts we might never write. Quid pro quo.

I quoted Neruda then, and I quote him again:

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

This one time upon the earth,
let's not speak any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.


It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.

What I want shouldn't be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.

Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I'll go.

- Excerpt from Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon, Pablo Neruda (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

Let me now momentarily gather my thoughts, abandon romanticism and be a good academic. Following Foucault, I ask, what is an author? And following Foucault again, I ask if Sarkar’s text not only allows for analogies, but also divergences. Therefore, to put it better, even as I mourn Sarkar’s passing, the passing of the “author” as it were, I also ask how would his fiction operate free of its attachment to his genius and his time? We knew what he wrote and what he wrote moved us. He is gone now. So then, “What difference does it make who is speaking?” (Foucault 1977: 120)*

What did Manasi tell you today? Did Indrajit come visit?

[Foucault, Michel. 1977. "What is an Author?" The Author Function; translation Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. pp.124-127.

For more on Badal Sircar, see Sudhanva Deshpande’s piece here and eulogies here, and here; also see Shantanu Datta's 2004 piece here. Lastly, here is a piece on a documentary film that might be of interest.

*I must add that the text I read and cherished was Ebong Indrajit translated into English as Evam Indrajit by Girish Karnad. Thoughts on the possibilities and problematic of translation I will leave to some future moment of productivity.]