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.


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.

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