Book Review: Saikat Majumdar’s The Firebird
The fiery energy and theatre of death in an extraordinary novel set in Bengal of the 1980s
Death, we know from second-hand experience alone, comes without rehearsal. But not in Saikat Majumdar’s second novel, The Firebird. “Disaster came early in Ori’s life, at the age of five, the first time he saw his mother die.” The novel opens with this line, and I had to read it a couple of times to check whether I had missed something, something that had happened in the tiny moments between my opening the book and arriving on its first talking page. It was the phrase “the first time” that was messing with my head—how does one die a second or third time? That line holds in it so much—Majumdar’s craft as a storyteller, and the central metaphor of his novel.
Death, for most of us on this side, is a metaphor. It is scary, yes, it might even have the closet appeal of a thriller, but on stage it has no sex appeal whatsoever. Who goes to a theatre to watch dead bodies after all? It therefore requires an extremely courageous writer to align the death of theatre in contemporary Bengal with the metaphor of death and the consequent deaths of favourite actors, bleeding patrons and an admiring audience. At the heart of this passion play is a Bengali actor rejected emotionally by her family comprising her stony husband, a confused young son, a taunting and terribly efficient sister-in-law, a middle-of-the-road mother-in-law, and an admiring niece.
It is 1980s Bengal and the Communist Party, after gaining control of the polling booth in 1977, is steadfastly moving into more private zones—the neighbourhood, the sweet and snacks shops, the house and, eventually, the family. Majumdar, to rev up the terror sneaking into the bloodstream of cultural and private lives, calls it, simply, “The Party”. Theatre, long associated with its contagion of “loose morals”, is to be killed, and in a climactic set of events, that metaphor of killing is turned literal for those associated with the stage must also die. As I read about the 10-year-old boy Ori, surrounded by the confusion around deshi versus videshi culture in 1984 (Do I detect a playful invocation of the Orwellian there?), I could not help getting personal—that would be me, that could be me, Ori and I sharing the same biological age and a similar bewilderment about the “right” (=Left) culture. How can I forget the colourful debates in drawing rooms in Bengal following the comments made by Jatin Chakraborty, a senior minister in the CPI(M) led government, about the singer Usha Uthup’s singing being a violation against “culture”? Videshi, the foreign, here would not only be the adaptation of plays performed by professional theatre groups in the Calcutta of those times, portrayed so sincerely by the writer. The foreign, in Majumdar’s important critique, is also history: how this theatre might have been a resident of another time but is irrelevant and incorrect in these frighteningly politically taut times.
The world is seen through the eyes of Ori, and Majumdar’s modernist investment in the novel inevitably reminded me of two other Bengali boys: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Apu, couriered most memorably to the world by Satyajit Ray in Pather Panchali, and Sandeep, the boy, looking at the world through blinded windows in Amit Chaudhuri’s first novel, A Strange And Sublime Address. Instead of Apu’s rural Bengal and Sandeep’s born-old Calcutta, Ori watches over a more private universe. The first of these is the house where he lives, a house that cannot contain his mother’s artistic spirit and ambition, the second is the stage of the Pantheon where his mother, buttressed by light and make-up and dialogues and an audience of stranger admirers, becomes a different person on theatre nights. In Ray and Chaudhuri and Majumdar, the technique is the same—defamiliarization. But it is interesting to see the world in Bengal changing through the eyes of the three little boys, first Apu, then Sandeep and now Ori.
The most significant difference between the first two boys and Ori is the latter’s near obsession with death. His first—and tiny—performance on the stage, as a child, is connected to slaughter. And, as if that were a blueprint for what is to follow, Majumdar, with great subtlety, gives the entire body of philosophical writing and poetry about a mother’s death a gentle shove against the direction of time. Philosophers and writers have mourned the loss of their mother, Ori instigates it, participates in it, his role—a word I cannot use without being aware of its relation to the stage, the subject of this novel—demands that he should be both victim and perpetrator.
The words “raw” and “pain” occur numberless times in this 230-page novel, but its usage is not maudlin at all. Every page left me bruised, such is the sad business of Ori’s emotional world. There is darkness everywhere, inside the theatre, inside marriage-nursing bedrooms, Chinese restaurants in northern Calcutta, the evening streets of the city that suffered from the acrobatics of “load-shedding” in Jyoti Basu’s Bengal, of secret passages in theatres and the underside of flyovers, so much darkness that even when a dark character like the crazy theatre owner, and writer of the appropriately titled play, Dusk, Ahin Mullick tells Ori, “You will glow in the spotlight”, an eerie lamp is lit inside the book.
The novel begins with the mention of a death and ends with one, the first a performance, the last as real as death can ever get. In between, many more die—Ori’s uncle, his zesty cousin, the theatre owner Mullick, the fantasy-named Indralok Theatre, Joan of Arc on stage, and his mother outside it. And of course the theatre in Bengal. I would not have known about the fiery energy of death had I not read this extraordinary novel.
Sumana Roy is a writer and critic based in Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.