Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  When Kiran Nagarkar said the unsayable

A bedtime story is meant to calm and lull a child to sleep. Kiran Nagarkar’s deceptively titled play, Bedtime Story, does anything but that. It shakes the audience’s conscience with an uglier representation of the myths, stories, and fables in which it is taken for granted that a hero acts like a hero and a villain is the villain. It is that trance-like equilibrium that Bedtime Story, now published with the screenplay Black Tulip, shatters.

Nagarkar is known for his novels. He burst on the literary scene around 40 years ago with the path-breaking modernist Marathi novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis, published in English as Seven Sixes Are Forty-Three in 1995. It revealed a new voice that told the story of urban angst and the confused nature of modern life, in which the past, present and future were “not necessarily in that order", to borrow what film director Jean-Luc Godard said about “the beginning, the middle, and the end" in cinema. Godard challenged cinema’s norms, as Peter Brook did theatre’s; in Marathi, and later in English, Nagarkar would challenge literature’s norms, with form, and later, with substance, by shattering our certainties. Other novels followed—Ravan And Eddie, in 1994, and its sequel, The Extras, in 2012, which attacked communalism. Cuckold, in 1997, was a cerebral meditation on love and devotion, and God’s Little Soldier, in 2006, was deeply affected by global terrorism and responses.

‘Bedtime Story’ (97 pages), and ‘Black Tulip’ (screenplay, 196 pages): HarperCollins India, RS 650
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‘Bedtime Story’ (97 pages), and ‘Black Tulip’ (screenplay, 196 pages): HarperCollins India, RS 650

I first came across Bedtime Story in 1982. The Emergency was still fresh in our minds, and the collapse of the Janata administration in 1979 and the triumphant return of Indira Gandhi in 1980 had chilled the mood, crumbling the illusion that the Janata years had represented, of being the harbinger of a cultural renaissance. Nagarkar’s play was drawn from the Mahabharat, “the living epic in the subcontinent", as he describes it, because the epic became the “medium to drive home my point about the malaise from which most of us suffer: apathy." The play shows how the good guys—the Pandavas—are weak and subject to human follies, and the bad guys—the Kauravas—are no better. The choice is between dark and darker.

Nagarkar found it hard to get his powerful script staged. Dr Shreeram Lagoo attempted to perform it by inviting several experimental groups for a reading in 1978. The play meanwhile went to the Maharashtra state censor board. It came back with 78 cuts, which, Nagarkar writes, would have meant that “barely the jacket-covers were left" (one of the censors’ questions was unanswerable: “Why are you distorting the original myths?"). Leading theatre critics and academics tried interceding with the censors. Some cuts were restored, but by then Mumbai’s cultural custodians had made enough noise to scare away many of the potential actors or backers.

I saw the play in 1982—or heard it, that’s more like it—at a private reading at the home of Rekha Sabnis, the actor (her group Abhivyakti would later stage the play, directed by Achyut Deshingkar in 1995, and it would have a limited run of 25 shows). But that Sunday morning at Sabnis’ home, we were spellbound as she read the script, along with writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan, researcher Tulsi Vatsal, and Nagarkar himself. I was young then, fresh out of college, but I realized what it must have felt like in Eastern Europe, where samizdat performances of cutting-edge, political plays took place just that way. I wrote about it a week later in the now-defunct Sunday Observer.

It is important to note that Nagarkar’s play was opposed by Hindu fundamentalists nearly a decade before The Satanic Verses controversy. The banning of Salman Rushdie’s novel gives some Hindu fundamentalists the bizarre excuse of “competitive intolerance"—if Muslims can get a novel banned, why should Hindus be left behind? Bedtime Story shows that Hindu fundamentalist intolerance of alternative interpretations is an old one. To be sure, Bedtime Story was not the only play that the Shiv Sena and others opposed. Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder was banned in 1974 (the ban was later overturned by the Bombay high court), and later, the Sena fought hard to prevent another Tendulkar play, Ghashiram Kotwal, which satirized the Sena’s rise by drawing on the history of the Peshwas, from being staged in India or abroad.

But within the Marathi language itself, alternative interpretations of classics from within the Mahabharat, such as Irawati Karve’s Yuganta: The End Of An Epoch, or retelling of uncomfortable tales from the Puranas, such as Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar’s Yayati, have challenged the more orthodox interpretations of Hindu culture, where gods and men, and not demons and women, are always right.

It is important to note that Nagarkar’s play was opposed by hindu fundamentalists nearly a decade before ‘The Satanic Verses’ controversy

Closer to the bone are the scenes involving Draupadi, who rages at the injustice she suffers when the Pandavas obediently agree with their mother Kunti when she tells them to share whatever Arjun has brought home. It was a swayamvara, Draupadi reminds Arjun: “Tell your mother it isn’t a new kingdom or a chocolate cake that you’ve brought for her this time. Tell her it’s a living woman who talks and laughs and is mad with joy, and belongs to you alone, and cannot be shared amongst the five of you." But a pained Arjun won’t, and the other Pandavas demand their share because a mother’s word can’t be withdrawn. Draupadi reminds Arjun, “You won me in fair competition. Those four brothers of yours lost. If I stay here, I stay as your wife, not as the mistress of five brothers," and then admonishes Dharmaraj (Yudhisthira) who tries to philosophize it, by saying: “You can’t be serious. I’ve never heard anybody talk such sanctimonious drivel and believe it."

When Dharmaraj stakes everything, including Draupadi, and loses it all, at first he is surprised that it wasn’t only a game. Draupadi asks: “If a man can play around with his loved ones in a game, can you imagine what he’d do in real life?…And you, my gutless husbands? Where were you while your brother was distributing us around like largesse?" She taunts all of them as the Kauravas attempt to disrobe her: “And you watch like a gentleman while the Kauravas manhandle me. Who do I see here today? The wisest and oldest upholders of our civilization. There they sit, the lecherous voyeurs, watching one of their senile fantasies come true. But mark my words, if you don’t stop these blackguards now, the winds of war will sweep this land bare. Krishna, oh Lord Krishna, where are you?" And then Krishna arrives:

KRISHNA: Stop this demonic game. (Places himself between Draupadi and the audience.) No more of this perversion. I will not stand by and watch it.

DRAUPADI: Yet you watched long enough.

KRISHNA: I was waiting for your call.

DRAUPADI: What sort of God are you that needs calling?

The play sparkles with such rapid-fire dialogue. The conversation between Arjun and Krishna on the battlefield, too, is remarkable. Krishna urges Arjun to use the ultimate weapon—press the nuclear button. “Look, Arjun—the sun is rising," Krishna says, pointing at the orange, post-apocalyptic glow. And Arjun replies: “No, it is not. They are lighting the funeral pyres of the Kauravas."

What you are left with is the idea of the sheer futility of the annihilation, the injustice of it all, and the strong voice of the women in the play.

Women are important in the accompanying screenplay, Black Tulip, as well. It is the story of two women—one, Regina Fielding, a smart, exceptional police officer, the other, Rani, a yoga teacher who is also a skilled burglar. Their tangled lives cross paths, as Rani leaves her trademark symbol for the police to chase as she steals jewels from gullible traders, underworld dons, and the idle rich, while the police are trying to protect Mumbai from a mass terror attack. It is a complicated story, enlivened by humour and thrills, with parallel endings. That idea, of parallel endings, is not new—Ketan Mehta did it in his acclaimed debut film, Bhavni Bhavai (1980), and more recently, Perumal Murugan’s controversial Tamil novel Madhorubagan (One Part Woman), together with its two sequels, offers parallel endings. He has now withdrawn the novel, along with all his other work, because of fundamentalist opposition in his village in Namakkal district in Tamil Nadu, which shows the eternal appeal of the issues Bedtime Story raised, endures.

Watching Black Tulip on the big screen would be a treat. With its references to software technology, cricket, and Mumbai’s criminal gangs, it is a script with an attitude, and one less likely to arouse the ire of religious fundamentalists, but more likely to make scissor-happy censors salivate, because, by going to the heart of the corporate-police-politician-criminal nexus, once again, Nagarkar goes close to the bone.

For more than four decades Nagarkar has been challenging us, trying to shake us out of our stupor, so that we shed our apathy and reclaim freedom in our public and private lives. Despite the passage of time, his outrage has not diminished. At the Chandigarh Literature Festival in November, he passionately criticized Union human resource development minister Smriti Irani’s plans to reshape educational curricula, decrying India’s infantilization.

In his introduction, he warns of the twin dangers of censorship India now faces: “Legal censorship in India can often be gauche, club-footed and hyper-protective of anything and everything but the freedoms of speech and expression. Extra-legal censorship in the country, however, is fearless and effective. It successfully prevented Bedtime Story from being performed for seventeen years."

The play is finally in print. May it remain so; may it get staged; may it make many of us shake off apathy.

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

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