A Play, A Book, Two Nations

Kamal Lodaya

A professor of computer science at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, Kamal Lodaya was an editor of the children’s science magazine Jantar Mantar in the 1990’s. Kamal occasionally writes stories for English and Gujarati magazines.

Girish Karnad‘s Boiled Beans on Toast is about the city of Bengaluru (apocryphally the city’s name means the place of boiled beans). After 1998 when he won the Jnanpith award, Karnad’s plays have not had classical or historical settings. About this play he has said that it makes sense in the context of any Indian metropolis.

boil

The important thing about the play is not the plot but the many different characters introduced. In the English version I saw, directed by Lillette Dubey, nine actors play a couple of dozen characters. The first scene begins with two domestic servants in the house of the posh Padabidri family, then we meet Mrs Padabidri and her friend Kitty. The next character to appear is Prabhakar, an employee who works with Mr Padabidri (who is absent through the play). We also see Mr Padabidri’s mother and his son. Mrs Padabidri tells us her views about the growing city, the loss of trees, of silence, later on of love. A classical Carnatic song she sings for her son towards the end of the play (he is more tempted by fusion music) suggests loss of a culture. Prabhakar is a caricature of the aspirations of the middle class, providing a comedy track which brings the most laughs from the audience. For example he tells the two ladies how he got bored in his quiet village and yearned to be in a noisy city. Through the mercilessness of Kitty towards him and the recklessness of Mr Padabidri’s mother at the races, Karnad points at the excesses of the upper classes. Through the servants of the Padabidri household the play moves into the working class, migrants from Tamil Nadu as well as locals from Karnataka, their struggle and their avarice for a decent life in the exploding urban metropolis.

The play is crisply written (there is the “toast” in the title), rushing at a frenetic pace from scene to scene. Does Karnad share no empathy with the opportunities and the success stories that the IT sector provides, or the reputation that the scientists and engineers of the city possess? Nowhere does one find Electronic City or Whitefield or the information and service-based industry which has led to this city’s rapid rise, to the point where “Bangalored” has become a verb in the English language. The creator of one of the large industrial houses based in the city, Mr Azim Premji, figures only as a reputed name which can be used to dupe gullible people.

It is the subaltern world which is the heart of the play. I believe Bangalore is viewed as a metaphor for India, and I see reflected in the play the marginalization of its bhadralok politics. Perhaps this reflects Karnad’s disappointment at the rejection of the kind of literary and cinematic culture that he has done so much to promote, in favour of the brash populist demagoguery and kitsch that characterise, say, marketable Kannada cinema. In today’s India people who have viewed culture from a modernist Nehruvian viewpoint have to deal with people who do not share their ethics (recall Karnad’s 1964 play Tughlaq), who first quietly and then brazenly cheat, lie, steal, do whatever it takes to get further on the road to money. Karnad’s view of the latter is one of grudging admiration: amazed by the rapidly changing character of the servant Vimala, the younger Padabidri says, “What a heroine!”

* * *

Haruki Murakami‘s ‘Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage‘ is about the hero named in the title, who went through a traumatic period during his schooldays when his closest friends, symbolized by the colours blue, red, white and black in their names, abruptly broke off all ties with him. Now after many years he goes and meets them and finds out the story of what had happened then. As in other books by Murakami, the crux of the novel is the alienation of the hero (I find the “years of pilgrimage” in the title a little odd), and his desire to connect back to society now. Charles Finch in the Chicago Tribune has pointed out that Murakami’s forte is identifying the reader with an issue relevant to his or her own youth. I did not find much contact with the issues of today’s Japanese youth.

murakami-us

Murakami’s novels work at mutiple levels. The meaning of his hero’s name is “builder” and his job in the railways reinforces this aspect. It is a tag that Murakami identifies with personally. Tengo, a lead character in his previous three-part novel 1Q84, was employed taking a short story and building upon it to make a novel. A part of Murakami’s bestseller Norwegian Wood was prefigured in an earlier short story called Fireflies. The Guardian’s reviewer Mark Lawson has suggested that in the present novel Murakami wryly refers to the fact that he was nominated for the Nobel prize but did not get it. Are the “years of pilgrimage” a reference of this kind?

Murakami is too shrewd a writer to base a novel entirely upon his own predilections, he knows that is not the path to getting a million copies of the book sold in the first month. His last few novels have tried to play out, simultaneously with the plot of the main characters, some idea or event of current interest to the Japanese nation. Even in 1Q84 which was so personal as to be a 60th-birthday present to himself, Murakami brought in the ideology of cult groups like Aum Shinrikyo and the patriarchal nature of Japanese society, widening the appeal of that book.

If one takes the character of Tsukuru as a symbol for Japan, the present novel can be seen as an allegory of the permanent members of the United Nations security council keeping Japan out. The circumstances of the five friends and the work they do refers to the nations’ economies and international presence. There is even a comment on the five fingers of the hand and on people who have six fingers, to rectify the numerical mismatch between the UNSC members and Tsukuro’s friends.

* * *

The problem is that the wider view of Japan does not quite come off in this Murakami novel. Karnad’s play may rush through sketchily delineated characters but they are sharp enough to form his socio-economic analysis. One may or may not agree with him, but Karnad gives his own perspective of what is happening in his city, and using the urbanization ongoing in India, of India’s present. Murakami’s psychological analysis is powerful and sympathetic when it applies to Tsukuru and his friends. When lifted to a nationalistic argument it remains at the level of kitsch.

One thought on “A Play, A Book, Two Nations

  1. Pingback: Content And Contributors – November 2014 | aainanagar

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