‘Zarina’s encounter with Mr Eastwood’, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin (detail)
‘Zarina’s encounter with Mr Eastwood’, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin (detail)
  Crossings at Benares Junction - 2
 

  first impressions
  Vol VI : issue 3

  Cover
  Jayant Sankrityayana
  Kaushik Basu
  Altaf Tyrewala
  Shilpa Paralkar
  Parismita Singh
  Only in Print
  New Writing Award
  Current Issue

 

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Kaushik Basu

Act I

Siddharth’s drawing room. Inexpensively but stylishly done up. Plenty of books. Some nice, well-chosen furniture, modern but not abstract art on the wall. The room has at least two doors — a main entrance and another leading to the interior of the house.

It is evening. Siddharth is reclining on a couch. A cassette player is on, playing, ‘Mai zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya’. The bell rings. Siddharth opens the door; Melba enters.

Melba: Congratulations! Such fantastic news.

Siddharth: Thank you. It does feel good. Where did you hear about it?

Melba: The Vice Chancellor announced it earlier this evening at the Director of Courses Meeting… But what’s all this whining music? You should have something grander to celebrate.

Siddharth: Whining music? Old Hindi film music is the best music on earth. (Quietly listens for a while, looking at Melba, as if urging her to appreciate) Mozart sounds pedantic in comparison.

Melba: Mozart, pedantic? Don’t say that in public. I’m sure the IPA will want to take back the prize if they hear you talk like such an ignoramus.

Siddharth turns off the music.

Melba: The prize must have come as a total surprise?

Siddharth: That’s a nice put-down.

Melba: (giggling) Come on, don’t be so cynical. I mean, it’s not the most natural thing to happen — being based in India, still only forty and getting the annual IPA prize.

Siddharth: Melba, you have come to congratulate me without checking on your facts. I am thirty-nine.

Melba: Oops, what a huge mistake, describing a 39-year-old man as forty. I’m sure you will justify the concern as part of your general fastidiousness for accuracy and perfection. (Changing her tone) This really gives me great pleasure. As a lecturer in philosophy, struggling away with so little success but with an ability to admire talent that rivals Salieri’s, I can only look at you with awe. As a matter of fact, I did that even before I got news of the prize this evening. And I look at myself with pity, and wonder if trying to be a philosopher was the right thing for me at all.

Siddharth: Don’t be so modest, Melba. You’re much more than a lecturer in philosophy. You’re an activist, which I am not. Each of your documentaries probably has much more effect on society than all my rigmarole papers on reason and cognition put together.

Melba: Isn’t it unfair that we are probably in the only profession where we can’t say what we do without sounding pompous? A person who teaches economics can say he is an economist, the professor of physics can say he is a physicist. But only we are doomed to say, ‘I teach philosophy, or even, I do research in philosophy’. But not ‘I am a philosopher’ without sounding false… Well, I suppose you can, I can’t.

Siddharth: You’re so self-deprecating. I wish I had half as many talents as you do.

Melba: You’re so kind. (She picks up a book and  browses through it. Then, without closing the book…) The trouble is, I find kindness in men sexy.

Pause.

Siddharth: (Smiles uneasily) Well, I find women who find kindness in men sexy charming.

Melba: That response took too long to sound authentic. It is the response of a nervous philosopher trying to get out of a tight spot by saying something clever.

Siddharth: Nonsense. Why should I be nervous?

Ruffles her hair and switches on a bright light.

Melba: Bright lights make for safer neighbourhoods.

Siddharth: You’re impossible… Why should I be nervous? I am, in fact, almost in love with you.

Melba: With no behavioural manifestation of that whatsoever. You are not in love with anyone, dear Siddharth. You are in search of that perfect woman, the 10, Bo Derek, just as you search for that perfect idea to craft into the perfect paper.

You should be proud. A good Hindu girl — arguably somewhat Westernised — telling you in advance that the answer will be yes. (Laughs. Not clear if she is saying this in jest or seriously) And mind you, I’m not hard up. There are lots of eligible bachelors who would offer their hand at the drop of a hat. Zafar, Arun and, admittedly with a little bit of work on my part, Aslam. So look at the sacrifice I’m willing to make, waiting for you.

Siddharth: You’re really in a modest mood today. I don’t think you would have to work at all to get poor old Aslam. Secondly, I would propose to you right away if I knew you would say yes. But I know you won’t, and I would not be able to bear that.

Melba: (Giggling) Okay, I defy you. Go ahead and try.

Siddharth: No, I refuse to fall into the trap of the humiliation you are planning for me. Incidentally, this talk of sacrifice is crap. It involves what an economist friend of mine from JNU calls ‘double counting’ — just that in this case it is worse — it involves triple counting. You are counting three bachelors who would be sacrificed in the event of our getting married. But look at it this way. If you married Zafar, you would have missed out on Aslam and Ashok — or was it Arun? In fact, no matter whom you chose to marry among the three, you would miss out on the other two. So if you are waiting for me, which I don’t believe for a moment, what you are sacrificing is not Zafar, Aslam and Arun, but only one of them. Presumably, you would pick the best of them. So what you are sacrificing is the best of Zafar, Aslam and Arun. This is what I believe economists describe as ‘opportunity cost’, though for the life of me I cannot see why you need a special name for something as obvious as that.

Melba: What’s all this economics, suddenly?

Siddharth: …Actually the sacrifice is even smaller, because with two thirds of your potential marriage partners, you would have the Janambhoomi Party goons disrupting the wedding ceremony. You would have to deduct the expected cost of that from the benefit.

The doorbell rings.

Melba: (Referring to the bell) And now you are saved from this nerve-wracking talk of having to go in for an unwanted marriage.

Siddharth walks up to the door and holds it open.

Siddharth: Ah, the eminent Professor Chaudhuri, and the charming Mrs Chaudhuri. (Looks past them) And the Vice-Chancellor himself.

VC: I note that no adjectives were used to describe me. (Laughs)

All of them shake hands, rub shoulders, etc., amidst remarks like “Great news! Congratulations!”

VC: When I hear such news, I am proud to be VC of New Delhi University. This World Philosophy Society award is one of the most important philosophy prizes in the world, and for it to come to someone in NDU… What could be better?

Siddharth: Let’s not get it out of proportion. There are many prizes in philosophy and this is just one of them. And even this is given each year to one philosopher. Since a philosopher of any worth appears no more than once every thirty or forty years, (pauses, tries to calculate the odds, gives up) a large percentage of recipients do not deserve the prize.

Melba: Couldn’t calculate the percentage? (Laughs)

Siddharth: (Looking at the VC and turning to Melba) By the way, do you know her? She is…

VC: Of course I do. I interviewed her when she joined NDU. I’ll tell you… Isn’t your name Peach?

Melba: It’s Melba, actually.

Siddharth: He’s got the essence of it.

Prof. Chaudhuri: (Putting his arm around Siddharth’s shoulders) Well done, my boy. It must be quite something to have got the prize of an organisation as famous as the World Philosophical… the Global Association…

Siddharth: International Philosophy Association.

Prof. Chaudhuri: Yes, that is what I meant — International Philosophy Association. It must be a time of contemplation for you. I remember when the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne conferred on me the prize for political studies on Mongolia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it plunged me into a kind of self-revaluation…

The doorbell rings. Siddharth opens the door. Mr Gupta is at the door with a huge garland. Puts the garland around Siddharth’s neck and embraces him, crushing the flowers.

Siddharth: Gupta, so good to see you. But you should not have wasted money on such a fat garland. And having done so, you must not crush the flowers by embracing me so hard.

Gupta: (Laughing and speaking to everybody) He is always joking with me…

Siddharth: Let me introduce you. This is my old friend, Mr Suresh Gupta.

Gupta: Dr Suresh Gupta. It is not so important but since I am taking nine years to do my Ph.D.…

Siddharth: I am sorry. Dr Suresh Gupta. He takes adult education classes in Rajiv Gandhi University, but deep down he is a philosopher. The world’s greatest philosophers were not professors of philosophy like me — they did other things. Spinoza lived off polishing and grinding lenses in Amsterdam and The Hague, Nietzsche was a professor of philology when he was not mad, Leibnitz was a civil servant and a librarian. Gupta is a true philosopher like those people; not a sham like us professors of philosophy.

(Turning to Gupta) And you probably don’t know these people. This is…

Gupta: You don’t have to tell me. Everybody is knowing Professor Srivastava, VC of New Delhi University. This is not as important as VC of Delhi University; but sir, I should say, you have almost equally challenging job.

By the way, we are both hailing from the same place, Benares. I have been telling Professor (referring to Siddharth) he must visit Benares once. It is India’s heritage city.

Siddharth: I am actually tempted to do a stopover in Benares this coming January, when I go to Calcutta. You know the new Delhi-Calcutta express stops at Benares…

Gupta: Coming January? You mean two months from now? I will be in Benares at that time. You must come to my home. It is just by the side of the station — hardly five minutes. I stay all alone, you will have no noise problem. Full room for the great philosopher. And food from the Happy Lodge Canteen, next to my house. Really, it will be a great honour for me.

Siddharth: You are really very kind. I feel tempted.

Gupta: And if by then some lady is foolish enough to marry me, you will have hot, home-cooked food.

Siddharth: You are taking your future wife’s cooking skills for granted. Gupta, realistically, I don’t think it will work out… not this time. Besides, I have already bought my ticket. Next time. (Beginning to turn towards the Chaudhuris) And this is…

Gupta: Calcutta? I forgot you are going to the World Philosophy Congress!

Siddharth: Yes, I have to give a lecture there.

Gupta: Yes, I know. You are giving a plenary lecture. I actually submitted a paper for the conference. But they rejected it, basically saying politely — not too politely — that my English is not good enough. I wrote to them that this is a conference in philosophy, not Spoken English, but they did not reply. I am told the conference will be a big mela, with speakers from all over the world.

Siddharth: Yes, I believe so. I should introduce you to the others. This is…

Gupta: Professor Chaudhuri, Chairman of Political Science Department. (Laughing) I am telling you I know everybody in Delhi. Chaudhuri I used to see at the ballroom dancing class for beginners at the YMCA. And last year you win the prize from the chhota British university — New Castle River.

Siddharth: The University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne is not chhota at all and, by some rankings, quite close to Oxford.

Gupta: But nothing compared to the International Philosophy Association with its headquarters at… at… Harvard.

Melba: No, Stanford.

Gupta: Chalo. That is not too bad.

Siddharth: And these two ladies are June Chaudhuri, wife of…

Gupta: (Doing namaste) I am knowing her.

Siddharth: And Melba Iyengar.

Gupta: Melba? Iyengar? Christian-Hindu mixture. Chalo, good for Indian unity. But the Janambhoomi Party people will be confused, not knowing whether to do namaste to you or to beat you.

VC: No, no, no, that is not right, Guptaji. The JBP does not beat up anybody.

Gupta: What are you telling? Only yesterday JBP cadres do danga at Dainik Khabar office, stopping newspaper from coming out, beating editor Shekhar…

VC: That was totally different. Shekhar’s editorial the day before yesterday was just slander. Without being able to produce a shred of evidence, he wrote that the JBP believes in violence.

Gupta: But with due respect, sir, that is no justification for using the strong-arm tactics.

VC: Well, if someone wrote an editorial full of lies about me, I would be tempted to use a little force and stop the editorial.

Siddharth: But when they used violence to stop the newspaper from coming out, the editorial ceased to be a lie. And so they had no reason for stopping the newspaper from coming out.

VC: You jolly well have the right to stop an editorial from seeing the light of day if it tells a lie.

Gupta: But sir, light of day is irrelevant here because this is evening newspaper.

Siddharth: (Ignoring Gupta) But in retrospect what the editorial said was not a lie. The JBP’s use of violence proved that they use violence. Even if Shekhar’s criticism was false, as soon as they used violence, it ceased to be false; so their violence occurred even when there was no false criticism of their party. So this proves not only that the JBP uses violence but that it does so even when there is no false criticism of the party.

Melba: Not quite a flawless philosophical argument, but all for a good cause.

Gupta: (Turning to Melba) I have seen you before. Did you go to India International Centre discussion on foreign policy one month ago?

Melba: Yes, I did.

Gupta: Now I remember. You were sitting next to Dr Zafar Khan. Very good man. Even more handsome than good.

Siddharth is trying to hold back a smile. Melba blushes. June listens in. The VC and Prof. Chaudhuri pay no attention.

Gupta: Then you are also knowing my friend Arun Kapoor, I think.

Siddharth: That leaves out only Aslam.

Gupta: What?

Melba: (To Siddharth) Shut up.

Gupta looks confused.

Gupta: (To Siddharth) Professor, there is one more good news. I am starting a new institute. It will be institute for social science and practical philosophy — fully multi-disciplinary but no faltu mathematics and abstract logic.

Siddharth: I like that. Never waste time being diplomatic.

Gupta: Diplomat? Diplomat? Oh, (without understanding) haha (quick forced laugh to brush aside the interruption)… So this institute… this institute… (has lost the thread of his thoughts)

Siddharth: I hope it will be fully multi-disciplinary?

Gupta: Certainly. Fully multi-disciplinary. Oh yes, I was saying that this institute will have economists, political scientists who know Indian reality. People like you, Professor Srivastava, Professor Chaudhuri. You cannot be an economist or a political scientist without knowing ground reality. Can you make shirt without cloth? Can you make soap without… without…

Siddharth: I can’t help you with this one.

Gupta: Without what soap is made of?

Siddharth: Even if the answer to the shirt question is ‘yes’, I suppose to the soap question it can only be ‘no’.

Gupta: (To the others) He is always talking difficult things. Like true philosopher. But with me he is just a friend. (Shakes Siddharth’s hand) But I want advice from you high-achievement people. How can I run a good institute?

Prof. Chaudhuri: I do not know if you can ever run a good institute, but — Mr Vice-Chancellor, I am sure you will second me on this — the secret of a good institute or department can be put in one word: involvement. You know what I had to do to bring our Political Science department to world class?

I was a young man then, and I dare say somewhat callow (laughs). The chairman was none other than the formidable Prof. C.B. Das. He was up to tricks, trying to drive a wedge between the theorists and the empiricists. I would have none of that; so I decided to confront the formidable man himself. So I went straight to C.B. Das.

Gupta: Excuse me, sir, who is B. Das?

Prof. Chaudhuri: I have no idea. I went to C.B. Das.

Gupta: Very funny. You don’t know B. Das but you go to see B. Das?

Prof. Chaudhuri: In principle, I see nothing funny in this. We do often go to see people whom we do not know. Indeed, without such adventures our circle of friends would remain forever stationary.

Be that as it may. In this case I went to see C.B. Das not only because I knew who he was but I knew what he was up to. I must say the man was quite magnanimous. He said, “Why don’t you organise a seminar to bring the two fractious groups together?”

Ever since that day, I have kept the great man’s challenge in mind and even now, as department chairman myself, I try to keep everybody involved. I have made a rule that every week, one faculty member has to initiate a discussion. He or she can choose any topic. I have no objections to that. But he — that is, he or she — has to be prepared to take questions from the floor.

Gupta: How many ladies are you having in your department?

Prof. Chaudhuri: Ah… none. All our faculty members are male, as a matter of fact.

Gupta: No, because you are saying ‘he or she’ I am thinking there are many ladies in your department.

Prof. Chaudhuri: Well, one says he or she because it is shameful to presume that all our references are to men. It is a political correctness with which I am in full agreement.

Gupta: I think this is very good idea. In my institute, I will also employ men as professors and refer to each professor as he or she. Sir, if you have other such fine ideas for my new institute please kindly let me know.

The VC gets up. The back of his dhoti (the part that is tucked in at the waist) has come off.

VC: I will take your leave now, especially given that you have the company of your good friend Gupta.

Gupta: Sir, your dhoti is open.

The VC coolly gathers the loose end and tucks it in at the waist.

VC: It is true that everything is not translatable from one language to another. And this frequent lapse on the part of the rear end of the dhoti is difficult to describe in English. Perhaps one can say, “Your dhoti has come loose.” That is not quite right, but it conveys the general sense. But to say, “Your dhoti is open,” is plain wrong. In addition, it causes undue alarm in the listener.

The VC exits.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4 p. 5 p. 6

 
Kaushik Basu is Professor of International Studies and Economics at Cornell University. He believes this play to be his first attempt at ‘serious’ writing. Well-meaning friends have told him that academic papers don’t count. The notes for this play remained stashed in a drawer for years until he was “an invited professor somewhere”. He declines to disclose where, for fear of not being invited ever again. This is his first published creative work (2005)