Coming to Bombay in the late 90’s, long before ‘maximum city’ was a leitmotif for the metropolis and much before Bombay became Mumbai, my minimal glimpse into its culture began around the National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA). That is how I happened to watch the play, If Wishes Were Horses (IWWH) at Tata Theatre one evening. Till today, the memory of the play resonates with me as a comic post-truth to the city’s obsession with space – physical or metaphorical – and the egalitarian nature of aspirations, so effortlessly captured by the writer, Anju Makhija.
As Anju’s collection of plays are being published, it’s a ‘lifetime achievement’ moment calling for a retrospect of her collective body of work in theatre as a distinct ‘voice’. It’s time for a macroscopic overview of her contribution to playwriting in English in the last two decades, and for a closer look at individual narratives in terms of literary merit and theatre-worthiness. The volume is called Mumbai Traps and its most striking feature is the omnipresence of the omniscient city; Mumbai materializes into different forms and shapes. At times, it’s the other way around and Mumbai becomes the all-powerful behrupiya in search of a playwright, demanding to be cast in myriad shades of characters and situations. Either way, the city is a palpable presence in all the work as a character, a trap, an elusive ambition or simply a backdrop contextualizing and influencing the narrative, but never inert or docile. The plays become the voice of the audience from the overcrowded sidewalks of the city, who see part of themselves in the drama, without the embarrassment of being judged. Anju has emerged as a playwright with an intimate ear to the city’s confidences; her eyes see beyond the façade; she can smell the stench of the riches and touch the lives of ‘Behind the Beautiful, Forever’ and yet continue to be an unflinching confidante of Mumbai.
This city has intrigued and inspired many writers who have assigned it several paradoxical adjectives: capacious, inclusive, eclectic, invincible and maddening. It’s a city that never sleeps, yet dreams, and also uncannily, fulfils them howsoever unreal they might be. It’s a city that tosses you into the tangy bhelpuri mix of Mumbai life yet ambivalently rescues you like the merry-go-round. Here, ‘all is well’ and even if it is not, the pudhe chala attitude abounds – no one has the time to stand, stare or even complain. It’s a city that resides in the cramped compartments of local trains, high rises and narrow alleys through which multitudes navigate daily – always in a hurry, colliding but seldom interacting with one another. Then, there is the underworld that mainly stays subterranean yet shows its fangs every now and then to remind people of its existence and power; the mesmerizing, glamorous world of Bollywood that vicariously colours the dreams of the common man, keeping him going. Also, there is Bombay Inc., comprising the uber rich, the residents of the financial capital of India. A city with such a rich texture and tone, such potential for drama and suspense is irresistible for any artist who is in search of quintessential characters or dramatic moments. All these tropes come alive in Anju’s creative oeuvre, providing a Mumbai collage that the city validates. She is most certainly a Mumbai playwright, it is almost her Malgudi.
Another salient feature of Anju’s writing is the portrayal of women protagonists. The female characters are not clichéd victims of social circumstances but go-getters and survivors.
These characters are drawn from ‘every woman’ living and breathing Mumbai air and are in turn impacted by it. They live by the dictum as indicated by the priest in IWWH: ‘Every time you throw the ball up, it falls down; if you intervene and catch it, you are responsible and must do something with the ball’. The protagonist of the play does just that. The deceased Pushpa Vaswani might have lived a suppressed life, but in death she makes a final act of defiance by bequeathing her flat to Chandrika, a flower vendor, rather than her materialistic family. The slap that the wife delivers to her surviving husband becomes the epiphanic last lesson for her daughter, Shalini, trapped in a bad marriage. As the drama proceeds, the affluent world of Pushpa Vaswani and the street life of Chandrika collide, each informing and enhancing the other. In Cold Gold, again we come across the unusual partnership of two street-smart women: Devika and her maid, Vidya – both bound by the mischievous spirit de corp. To compensate for their loneliness and emptiness in life, the duo indulge in a dangerous game of social by-pass. They earn the ‘cold gold’, without remorse because, in Mumbai as Devika says, ‘most mullah is stolen’. The other female protagonists, like Brinda in Meeting with Lord Yama and Serena in Now She Says She’s God, have their distinctive and almost clairvoyant ways, as does the aspiring actress in The Last Train. After creating and putting the women in challenging situations, the playwright does not espouse their cause simply because these characters do not allow her to battle for them – they develop their own grit. She creates both male and female characters with total impartiality – the fact that the women often outshine is purely by chance. She happens to be a woman writing for theatre, her art is not gender specific. To label her as a feminist would be to confine her canvas. The plays belong to the mainstream theatre belying categorization.
By the same logic, the themes in this collection deal with social issues specific to Mumbai, but this does not make Anju a social playwright concerned with reforms. Her plays are born out of the collective consciousness of strife and struggle of Mumbaikars – the playwright is concerned with the human experience and dilemma rooted in that social reality. If that virility encourages the audience to take another look at themselves and, if the experience grants them self-actualization, so be it. The stress of commuting in local trains, the space constraints of the island city, the desperation for fame, name and money in a metropolis fraught with commercial enterprise and marketing gimmicks, are all social issues plaguing Mumbai. They are part and parcel of life lived at high pressure – a Mumbaikar not only accepts them but often harnesses them to advantage. For the playwright, the temptation is to capture the moment of drama inherent in these human predicaments; it is an opportunity for artistic playfulness. At times, reality may be a little exaggerated, absurd or even surreal but like the narrative in The Last Train, it affords a subversive understanding of life, more poignant than what is apparent. The characters in the plays are chroniclers of the follies and foibles of Mumbai life and the playwright neither evaluates nor judges from a moral high ground. These characters occasionally become spokespersons raising overwhelming questions about the nature of our lives: in the play, Off the Hook, the chorus recites, ‘Collectively the species is great/individually, farcical fakes’. Elsewhere, the chorus says, ‘Ambition keeps man alive, not promise of eternal life’. What Edward Bond has said aptly applies to Anju’s preoccupation with discovering moments of theatre ‘with a confidence that comes from knowing that the play will have a social function.’
The charm of Anju’s writing lies in her astute understanding of the tools and devices of theatre arts. The plays are conceived with an eye and an ear for staging. They are the stuff drama is made of. Right from the choice of situation, structure, characterization, set design, music and dialogue, the dramatic action is purposefully employed. The narrative retains the interest of the audience, sometimes by virtue of dialogues, other times by sheer theatricality. In the play, Off the Hook, Anju’s craftsmanship is implicit in the use of the fishing net as a backdrop signifying a trap; the hand puppets for interior monologue; the chorus for straight talk; and the fluidity of scenes through music, verse and comic repartee. For these reasons, the drama would grandly stand on its legs when mounted on stage. Anju has also effortlessly revived verse in theatre (a difficult feat for a playwright today) in a manner that one enjoys the lyrical cadence of the dialogue, and the bilingual songs, without being conscious of it as a verse play. In The Last Train, the locale of a compartment and the public address system are effectively used to communicate the ‘inner and the outer’ states of the characters. The mystery of the missing, decapitated head symbolically demonstrates the absurdity of life. In fact, I remember reading about such an incident in the newspaper and found it dramatically merging the real and the surreal. In Meeting With Lord Yama, the verbal pyrotechnics of Brinda, in conversation with God, lifts the mood of an otherwise sombre discussion on life after death. In certain scenes, words fall with the swiftness of water from a shower – the dramatic action this generates is quite a feat. We find it again in IWWH where the playwright uses the garlanded photograph of Pushpa Vaswani as a prop to make an absent deceased character more present than the living. The art of making the invisible visible, articulating the unsaid, finding comic in the serious and profound in the mundane, is the hallmark of good writing for theatre.
Finally, what genre or canon does Anju’s work belong to? In the wake of ideological debate in academia, it is both futile and irrelevant to try to pigeon-hole the work as this or that. Here is a writer speaking directly to the audience, irrespective of what cannon it conforms to, and the audience understands it – that alone defines fine writing. This defies any need for classification or categorization. The magic is created by familiarity with theatre arts; the poetic sensibility, a translator’s transformative power and a knack for finding the funny bone. The outcome is a rich texture of reality that approximates our total experience through the text and performance. The narrative is sometimes real, sometimes surreal and the experience is always more profound than what the audience had known before. If Wishes Were Horses, The Last Train and Off the Hook are likely to be milestones in theatre.
I’m sure this volume will appeal to theatre lovers and general readers. I would like to conclude with a quote from IWWH, ‘An artist leaves something behind; so does the scientist, the politician, the film star, anyone and everyone.’ This volume skillfully traps the Mumbai life.
School of Liberal Arts,
Uma Narain has been a Fulbright fellow at New York University, USA where she worked on Vietnam war plays. Her second Fulbright stint was with the experimental theatre of Megan Terry at Omaha, Nebraska. She has been a professor of Literature and Drama; professor of General Management at the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai, where she employed literature and theatre arts for managerial skill development of MBA students. She is former Dean, School of Liberal Arts at NMIMS University, Mumbai – a school she founded in 2016.
Anju Makhija is a Sahitya Akademi award-winning poet,
playwright and translator. She has an M.A. in Communications
from Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. She is the
author of several books: Seeking the Beloved, a co-translation of
the 16th century Sufi poet, Shah Abdul Latif; Pickling Season,
View from the Web, Poems Grow With You; The Last Train and
Other Plays. She has also co-edited a 3-volume series of Indo-
English drama and anthologies related to partition, women and young readers.
Anju’s plays have been staged in India and abroad. Her awards
include: the Charles Wallace Trust Scholarship (‘97), the BBC
World Poetry Prize (‘02) and the Sahitya Akademi English
Translation Prize (‘11). She was on the English Advisory Board
of the Sahitya Akademi for 5 years and is the co-founder of
the Pondicherry/Auroville Poetry Festival. Currently, she lives