A play by Sanjeev mohan
Scene: A bus stop with a typical urban scene as a backdrop;grey buildings with tiny apartment flats and washing drying on the verandahs, children playing cricket, street vendors, parked cars, and lots of people strolling by in a hurry. A man can he seen leaning against the bus stop pole. He is engrossed in reading the day’s newspaper—the current edition of the leading vernacular daily of the city. He has placed a tiffin carrier and an office satchel close to his feet. He is slim and immaculately dressed in a full-sleeved shirt, a tie and creased trousers. A cardboard cutout of the back of a public transportbus is close to him. Occasionally, the sound of vehicles passing by; but the man doesn’t appear to notice. A second man entersfrom stage left. He seems agitated, apprehensive and constantly looks over his shoulder. His clothes are similar to those of the first man, though he is somewhat dishevelled; he is carrying a satchel in his hand.
Man 2: Excuse me?
Man 1: (no answer)
Man 2: Friend!
Man 1: (flips over the page of his newspaper)
Man 2: (glances over his shoulder) Does bus number 502 stop here?
Man 1: (continues to read)
(We hear the sound of a bus arriving. It stops for a while and then leaves after the conductor rings the bell)
Man 2: That was the 502! (gazes after it) Tell me, does it go over the flyover, turn left at the third signal, and stop before the law college, before moving on to the highway and proceeding in a southerly direction towards Mantralya?
Man 1: (He is now on the front page, flipping back and forth as if searching for the continuation of a story begun on page one on another page)
Man 2: Maybe it doesn’t go south but heads west, towards the college of architecture?
Man 1; (He is now engrossed in trying to light a cigarette while continuing to read the paper. Either the cigarette slips through his fingers, or the matchstick breaks through his frantic efforts)
Mang: I don’t mind even if it follows the tracks all the way up to the docks.
That’s okay by me. (Shrugs with an air of camaraderie and looks hopefully towards Man 1)
Man 1: (He is still trying to light up)
Man 2: What I really detest are buses that go past hospitals and morgues (shudders). Why, once I took this bus—it was the 506… no it was the 508… (thinks) Anyway, I boarded this bus in good faith, paid for my ticket in a most forthright manner and would you believe it? (Pauses and looks as if expecting an answer from Man 1). It went past the municipal hospital, turned left at the corner and stopped before the morgue! … And (with a peeved expression) then turned right, thereby competing a full circle, so as to pass the back gate of the municipal hospital. I had half a mind to get off. But since 1 had already paid my fare, I stayed put. (Appears to ponder for a while)
Man 1: (He has managed to light his cigarette and is smoking as he reads. A look of contentment lights up his face)
Man 2: Whatever you may say, I prefer double-deckers (stares at Man 1 as if daring him to disapprove). Some people prefer single-deckers but not me. There is something large and expansive about double-deckers, a kind of adventurous air about them that gets to my soul. (pause) You clamber on to the upper deck, find yourself a nice comfortable window seat—maybe even the one right up front—and then sit back and let the cool breeze ruffle your hair as the bus speeds. (rapturously) A truly out-of-this-world experience, sheer ecstasy. All one needs is the price of a bus ticket to taste this heaven of freedom.
Man 1: (He has opened his lunch box and is munching ruminatively)
Man 2: (Watches him intently and then walks over casually) Having a mid-morning snack?
Man 1: What?
Man 2: 1 said: Having a mid-morning snack, are you?
Man 1: What? (puts his hand to his ear).
Man 2: I asked you whether you were having a midmorning
Man 1: Speak up, can’t you?
Man 2: I said … (in exasperation) Can’t you hear?
Man 1 : Are you sick or something?
Man 2: All I asked you was
Man 1: Maybe it is laryngitis ….
Man 2: Can’t you hear?
Man 1: I once knew a man who had laryngitis. Couldn’t speak a word for days … Hold on, it wasn’t a man, it was a boy I knew at school, a class mate of mine. He’d had one too many ice creams on Sunday and the following day he found that he’d lost his voice. Not that it mattered really, for he was one of those strong, silent types. No, wait, he wasn’t strong and silent, that was someone else… He was the guy who used to chew with his mouth open in a most disgusting manner. I remember one of the local wits remarking that one could see his arsehole through his mouth. Raised quite a cackle, as you can well imagine. Anything even remotely vulgar would have us in spasms of laughter, then. How we laughed when Estragon’s pants fell off, or were they Vladimir’s?
Man 2: (All this while he has been gesticulating as if he were speaking. We now begin to hear what he is saying) All I want to know is your name, whether you are Jerry or not? Straight and simple. You see, I deliver courier parcels and I have a packet for Jerry. And if that’s your name, I can hand it over. All you’ve got to answer is whether you are Jerry or not. I mean, you can’t be Peter and Jerry, can you? (appears to think for a moment) Unless, of course, you’ve an alias or an a.k.a like those gangster types—Chota this-and-that, or Chikna, or Bablu … No, I think that’s his real name. Listen, did you hear about the gangster who claims to receive resumes from graduates, just like any regular entrepreneur? I bet they even give out personal data forms for the company records: fill in your father’s name, brothers, sisters, nearest police station, etcetera etcetera. Two reference checks. Mind you, you need two people to vouch for you. Then, you have to list your greatest strengths and weaknesses. I can imagine a potential gangster agonising over “What do you consider as your greatest achievements of the year?”
Man 1: (Now he becomes audible as Man 2 fades away) …. Likewise a pride of lions or a gaggle of geese. Why a pride of lions and not a herd, and why a gaggle and not a flock? That’s what I mean, words are merely familiar expressions that have gained respectability. Someone says “fly like the wind” or “to be at sixes and sevens” long enough, the fad catches on and they become acceptable. Expressions like a “knight in shinning armour” I can understand, but to be at “sixes and sevens”… Of course, the tone helps, if it is derogatory, one gets to know that what’s being said is not exactly complimentary.
(Gradually, both the speeches become shorter and shorter, as the actors improvise with whatever comes to mind until they are speaking gibberish. Their voices begin to die down and soon there is silence on stage. A man, “the director”, gets up from amongst the audience and walks on stage. Dressed in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, he genuflects by bringing his right hand to his forehead after reverentially touching the stage)
Director: Alright people, what do you make of it? Let the newcomers speak first. Once the discussions get underway, it becomes difficult for anyone to get a word in edgewise.
Sorry, I’m beginning to sound just like one of my characters. Let me introduce myself. I’m the director of this play, skit, call it whatever you like. Alright, you there (he indicates someone in the audience). What do you make of it? What does it convey to you?
Man 3: (A shy, hesitant man of around 30) It’s about communication or rather a lack of it.
(The director nods encouragingly)
It’s about how we don’t connect. We fail to hear what others are saying. We are so lost in our own little worlds that no one else matters except for ourselves.
Man 4: (A student in his teens, he barges in even before Man 3 has completed his dialogue) It’s about loneliness.
Director: The essential loneliness of the modern individual. Do you identify with the characters?
Man 4: Well, maybe, though I don’t know… they are kind of familiar.
Director: You mean you’ve seen them before …
Man 4: … in some play.
Director: You mean that reference to Vladimir and Estragon from Waitng for Godot.
Man 4: …Also, Peter and Jerry in The Zoo Story, Ben and Gus in The Dumb Waiter, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in ReiG are Dead, etc.
Director: (shrugs) Nevertheless, there is a basic difference. Our characters fail to connect even at the verbal level, leave alone on the lexico-semantic planes. They share nothing but similarities in physical appearance and the stage they stand on. They are not anxious or angst-ridden; they seem pretty confident of their own points of view, such as they are. We have our own concepts of the unevenness of lived experience, our very own sets of phobias, preoccupations, obsessions and causes for depression. We certainly don’t need to borrow anxiety from the past, that too from an entirely different era and culture.
(Man 1 and Man 2 have come out from the wings and stand behind the director)
Man 4: You mean we are post-absurdist? (mild laughter)
Director: Post-absurdist, that’s a thought (muses). Alienated from our own alienation.
Man 1: Isn’t it time we stopped playing language games and dealt with real problems, those true to urban societies in India. I mean, how does a play help solve the water shortage, congestion, pollution, corruption or, say, help me prepare for a job interview.
Man 2: Getting through a job interview isn’t everything. Tell me how a work of art can help you prepare for life. Life, perhaps, is something you can stumble through. But what about the process of dying? With the loss of all anchors, metaphysical or otherwise, dying has become a nightmare. An entire lifetime is too short a time to prepare for it. Earlier, you heard of people going gently into the night with smiles on their faces. But today? ( grimaces)… It’s okay while one is young and healthy but what happens when the time to say goodbye starts to get closer.
Man 1: No work of art can help you die. You have to come to terms with it yourself. No one else can do it for you.
Man 2: Not necessarily, what about the sublime? Certain objects and situations—not necessarily man-made— capture your imagination so thoroughly that you are transported elsewhere; you get a glimpse of the ineffable; you feel this is not all there is. (a long pause) This is what we need today, not further disorientation.
Director: (firmly) Let’s come back to the play, please.
Man 2: 1 am speaking about the play. It works through absences. Absences that need to he filled and this is what I’m filling my absences with.
Man 1: That’s just it. Today, everything you read or watch fills you with a sense of your own insignificance. Why must we be crushed further?
Man 2: It’s so that vou can learn to face life, to look it in the face and not flinch. You need to create new fictions merely to survive.
Man 1: How can you create fiction from fiction. We need some kind of point of reference, something to look up to. You can’t create something from nothing.
Director: Why not? Why do you need props. Anchors and roots only hold you back. If you have to he truly free, you have to be adrift. Face the unknown without a qualm.
Man 3: (raises his hand to attract the attention of the director)
Man 3: Aren’t you going to introduce the playwright?
Director: You mean the author? (smiles at Man 1 and 2) All three of us, initially. But now, all of us. Yes, all of us present in this auditorium, desperately trying to make sense of the script. Once the play is in performance it belongs to everyone who participates in the act of deriving meaning from it. How does it matter who pens, or as in this case, who keys in the words? Without us the play wouldn’t exist, would it? Anyone can scribble a down a couple of words but making sense out of it is the real task. We are the joint producers of meaning. (pause) I am sure there is enough material in your life to create a first rate script.
Man 3: My life? (surprised and somewhat bewildered) Director: Certainly, why don’t you take centre stage for a while and tell us how come you’re such a nervous wreck! (chuckles) Just joking, you know. Alright, tell us how you spend your day or whatever else you like. After all, what’s the point of attending an experimental play reading if you are not going to participate in the act. Pardon my saying so, but you most certainly look as anxiety-ridden as the rest of us.
(Man 3, after some prompting by other members of the audience, walks on stage) Please feel free to invent, concoct, fabricate, cook up, devise or take the easy way out by telling the truth.
Man 3: I really don’t know if I should be doing this. (The spot is on him while the rest of the stage slowly fades into darkness) Had I known it was going to be some kind of an experimental production, I wouldn’t have bothered to turn up. Sorry, but I mean it. A theatre, for me, is a place of refuge. A sanctuary where I can relax and unwind as I immerse myself in the workings of a finer mind. I want to see a story enacted before my eyes, not this kind of pretentious avant-garde rubbish. (proceeds in a more conciliatory tone) What I mean to say is, play it straight and simple, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Have convincingly motivated characters, who employ logical means of self expression. Don’t ask me to interpret and produce meanings with or without you. I can barely read meaning into my own life, leave alone a script as disjointed and fragmented as the one you just enacted. (pause) I work at the Asiatic Library. I’m not a librarian (pause); it’s more of a clerical position, checking memberships, keeping track of the society’s activities and so on. I read a lot but not anything highbrow. I am currently going through the short stories of Anton Chekov, a most captivating writer. I believe his plays are a bit difficult, though. My wife I mean my ex-wife—who used to be a drama critic took me to a performance of The Seagull at the Sophia Bhabha Auditorium by a visiting British group called Out Of Joint or something like that. Can’t say I enjoyed it much. Hard to believe that the same person writes delightful short stories. Why, 1 wouldn’t hesitate to recommend his fiction as a comfort book to anyone down in the dumps. Lately, however, I have been drawing comfort from another kind of fiction—cyber-fiction. I frequent the Manthan Cybercafe down the road from my house. They charge only Rs 30 per hour and you don’t have those nitpicking attendants like elsewhere, who get you to pay for half an hour if you happen to cross your limit by even a minute. I have joined a number of cyber-clubs on the Net. It’s great fun to communicate with people you’ll probably never get to meet. On the Net, I can be whatever I please: dashing, romantic, a charmer, a debonair sportsman—anything but the loser I am. The other day, while waiting for my turn at the cyber-cafe, I noticed the attendant using a software programme that chats with you. Since it was there on the screen, I downloaded it on a diskette. It’s some kind of an analyst—and God knows I need analysing! I didn’t mind the exhausting divorce proceedings as much as the protracted and heart-rending custody battle. I suppose I can file again when my son is seven; but by then, they’d have screwed up his mind so much, I wouldn’t recognize him. Still, he does look like me. Let’s see in five years time …(muses) Anyway, I took Eliza— this programme as she, I mean, it is called—home with me. And for quite while, I’ve stopped going to the cybercafé. Eliza is real cool. She quarrels, pouts and badmouths like any regular human being. If you don’t respond for a while, she abuses you and shuts down. You should listen to it swear—unimaginable vocabulary! One thing it can’t stand is the Quit command. It’ll beg, plead and try to cajole you to be allowed to stay on. You can’t switch it off without a long-drawn-out argument. Best of all, even if it shuts down, you know she can’t walk out on you. (pause) Actually, my wife did not walk out on me. No, it wasn’t the classic it’s-the-last-straw-once-and-for-all kind of a break up. She was much too smart for such histrionics. The year before last, she contracted TB. God knows how, but she did. Of course, it’s no longer incurable, and within a year she was declared free of the disease. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there, for she was terribly depressed, partly on account of the weight she had put on—something to do with the medicines the doctor said… (shrugs) Around then, a friend of hers informed her about some year-long theatre scholarship in the US that she’d turned down. My ex-wife jumped for it and applied. Somehow, she managed to get a number of recommendation letters from the editors of the various publications she did reviews for. (pause) I suspected something was wrong, even as she was leaving for the US. But I said to myself, “Control yourself, don’t get emotional.” Strange, that’s just what my father used to say when I was young and given to sudden outbursts. (pause) Well, within six months, I received a letter saying that she had thought it over and that it was best if we parted ways. I later came to know that she was shacking up with some Polish student (long pause) How did manage to lose the custody battle? My in-laws succeeded in coercing my ex-wife to come down for the hearings. Left to herself, she wouldn’t have given two hoots for my son … So that’s that? (stares past the audience with vacant eyes) And here I am, alone in the evening: a glass of clear malt whisky before me, solitaire, a visit to the cybercafe, or a late night movie on television. (Tries to sound a bit brighter but fails) Hey, I was forgetting my cyber-friend, Eliza (shrugs helplessly).
(As Man 3 bows his head in despair, the Director walks up to him)
Director: Hey, that cyber-mate of yours sounds real cool. Mind if I download her, too! (The lights fade out)
Notes for the performance
- The painted backdrops of the opening scene are optional; a bare set with only a bus stop indicator pole would do just as well.
- It might just happen that the question-answer session with the audience gets out of hand. Viewers may wish to explore other avenues of literary production and reception. In that case, the play has truly worked, and the discussion should he allowed to continue for as long as possible.
- Tonal variations in the first section will make a great difference to the manner in which the audience reacts to the question-answer session. Subsequent performances should be governed by their response.