‘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 - 3
 

  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

Gupta: I think he is angry with me because my English is faulty.

Siddharth: Of course not. He is… Your English is just fine. And why do you need fancy English?

Gupta: No, English is important. I did not tell you earlier, just last month I again wrote to the organisers of the World Philosophy Congress that I am very keen to participate in the conference, so if someone whose paper is accepted is unable to attend, I can come to Calcutta at my own expense and read out his… (looks at Professor Chaudhuri) his or her paper. Prompt reply. Such a contingency is unlikely, but if it arises, they will need someone with good Spoken English. I think they were still angry about my previous letter. And now VC is angry with me.

Siddharth: Don’t be silly. He is angry with me because I won a prize. He just took a bit of that anger out on you. He is a political appointee and detests any criticism of government. Perhaps he just gets nervous about his job security. Did you know that he censored an article by me out of the university newsletter? He does not belong to any party himself, too unimaginative to have a proper line on anything. He is a professor of English and the only time he tried to write a novel, the title gave away his lack of originality.

Melba: What was the title?

Siddharth: Lady Chatterjee’s Brother. And mind you, it was not a funny story or a parody.

June: I did not know the VC tried to muzzle your voice. He seems such a soft-spoken, decent person.

Siddharth: Human beings are such complex characters, June. At one level he is decent. Tennessee Williams once wrote how each person weaves a web around himself, a web based on his own private history, that dooms him to be lonely and incomprehensible to others. He said it much more elegantly, but it was something to this effect. A soft-spoken, decent person, he seems. It also seems that he does not dance. But who knows? Perhaps when he is alone he puts a hat on his head and dances and gyrates wildly to music. It is frightening, how little we really know one another.

Prof. Chaudhuri: Well, well. It is time to go.

Melba: I must go, too.

Gupta: And Gupta also has to take leave of the great professor.

Siddharth: You can’t all abandon me at the same time. My life is lonely enough. Professor Chaudhuri, June, you live on campus, what’s your hurry?

Prof. Chaudhuri: I am expecting a phone call from Paris. There is a UNESCO project on transition and they have been phoning me repeatedly to recommend someone to be based in Paris for two months.

Siddharth: So, whom will you recommend?

Prof. Chaudhuri: Well, they insist it has to be someone mature, so I figured… I had a duty to offer myself. So they will phone me a little later to discuss the details.

June: Well, I can stay on a little while so that you don’t have to cope with the sudden exodus. (To Prof. Chaudhuri) Leave the front door open, I’ll be there very soon.

The others bid goodbye and leave. Siddharth sees them to the door. June makes herself comfortable on a couch.

Siddharth: Thank you for staying.

He walks up to the music shelf and puts on ‘Abhi na jaayo chhorkar. Yeh dil abhi bhara nahi’, listens for a few seconds, smiles at her.

Siddharth: If one has a decent Hindi film music collection, one can pretty much do without speaking.

Brief pause.

June: Instead of talking about Tennessee Williams, uplifting songs and loneliness, why don’t you fall in love and get yourself a nice wife?

Siddharth: I have fallen in love many times, but the only time I wanted to get married the person in question dumped me for a much older person.

June: She was nearly ten years older than you and did the right thing. But you must find someone now and build a home. Through all this mirth and laughter, I feel you carry with you a burden of pain. Siddharth laughs

Siddharth: You know what Aristotle said about marrying. He said he would recommend it to every man, because if he got a good wife, he would be happy and if he got a nagging wife, he would be a philosopher. Since I am already a philosopher and Aristotle cannot be wrong, whomever I marry must be a nag. Since I do not knowingly want to marry a nag, my only option is not to marry.

June: Well, whether you marry or not, I am so glad you got the prize. You are so passionately committed to philosophy, you deserve it. In fact when, about a month ago, someone mentioned that you might get the prize, I prayed that you would. See how God listens to me?

Siddharth: This is no hard evidence of God listening to you, because when I heard about the possibility, I prayed too.

June: What? An atheist who does not believe in prizes, praying to God to give him a prize?

Siddharth: I don’t not believe in prizes as much as I don’t not believe in God.

June: Whatever that means. Since when have you taken to praying?

Siddharth: Actually, I didn’t quite pray. I said, “God, if you exist and if it is true that I am in the running for this prize, go ahead, give it to me. I need it because it will upset my department chair. If I get it, I shall immediately go to a temple and pray.” So you see, it was a conditional prayer.

Actually, I did not want to make even such a vow. But you know, it was one of those familiar situations where you keep telling yourself, “Don’t make such a promise, don’t make such a promise,” but nevertheless the promise flits through your mind and you are stuck with it.

June: And have you, may I ask, been to the temple?

Siddharth: No, because God cannot now take away the prize. It has been announced. And even if He does, my chairman has already heard about it and suffered, so the ultimate objective has been fulfilled.

June: But God is all-powerful.

Siddharth: (Thinks for a while) So you mean he can turn back time, like Christopher Reeve did in Superman… But on the other hand, he is all-merciful. So I am sure he will not want to hurt me.

June: You seem to be presuming that his mercy does not extend to your department chair.

Siddharth: But if he wanted to show mercy to the department chair, he should not have given me the prize anyway, whether or not I prayed. Look, June, an all-merciful, all-powerful being and the world as it is constitute a logical impossibility. So don’t make me go on out into the dark night.

June stands up, preparing to leave.

June: Put on your sandals and just walk over to Plaza Gardens, if for no other reason than because promises are meant to be kept. And I have to go now, or I shall have to deal with an irate professor, especially if by now there has been a theft in my home. Remember, there is nothing wrong in fearing God.

June is at the door.

Siddharth: But Swami Vivekananda, a man of God himself, said, “There is no sin bigger than fear.”

Siddharth kisses her hand in an exaggerated Western style. June exits.

Siddharth: (Stands at the door vacillating) I am not a coward.

Turns on the cassette player from where he had stopped ‘Abhi na jayo chhorkar…’ He sits down on a sofa for a short while. He gets up abruptly, puts on his sandals and walks out the front door. Lights fade. Curtain.

Act II

The interior of the VC’s house. The drawing room. There is a biggish couch with a high back at stage rear and facing the audience. The sound of a key in the lock. Eventually, the door opens. The VC, in the same attire as in Act I, enters.

VC: Shobha… Shobha… Is anyone here?

Gives up on her. Goes up to the music system, switches it on and sits down. The tail end of a song plays. Then begins Manna De’s ‘Jhanana, jhanana tore baje payaliya’.

The VC gets up and begins to dance to it. Somewhat comically, but not without skill. Evidently, he is a closet dancer. His dancing gets increasingly vigorous as the song progresses. He gyrates, mimics descending a staircase, goes behind the couch (rather like Austin Powers or Mr Bean). He does not wear a hat, as Siddharth had said might happen. Music ends and he flops down on the couch. Lights off. Curtain.

Act III

Mr Sharma’s drawing room-cum-office. Quite gaudily done up. Evidence of money. On the wall, travel posters and girlie posters. Mr Sharma is sitting in a swivel chair; Lacchu is leaning on a chair and Madhu, Mr Sharma’s new secretary, in short skirt, sits self-consciously on a chair.

Sharma: (To Madhu) In this office, dearie, there are two rules. The work hours have to be long and the skirt short. You have fulfilled one of these requirements; I will have to see how you do on the other. Remember these two principles and you will do very well in this job. Ask Lacchu and he will tell you. Of course, I have exempted him from the short skirt requirement, but he has to work long hours. I am close to making my first million and want to make it within this year.

Lacchu: Boss’s last business make big loss.

Sharma: Oh, shut up. My last business did make a loss but through no fault of mine.

Madhu: What sort of business was it?

Sharma: There is only one kind of business in the world — the business of making money. (Laughs loudly) It was based on some stupid theory Kavita had read in some psychology book, that people cannot judge their own future fears. They always underestimate them. I immediately converted it into a good business plan.

Lacchu: Boss bought roller-coaster for joyride.

Sharma: I did not buy it. I leased it with a loan from a friend.

Lacchu: Friend now not talking to boss.

Sharma: The novelty of my idea was that there would be no charge for getting on the roller-coaster. Each rider would just have to show that he has at least Rs 200 in his pocket. Then, halfway through the ride, when they were very frightened, the roller-coaster would be stopped and people given the option to get off if they paid Rs 200. Otherwise, they would have to complete the full ride.

Lacchu: Boss has very good idea to cheat the people.

Sharma: Arre chup kar! There was no cheating involved. People were told all the rules in advance. It followed from the theory of some Ainslee fellow and some economists that most people would be sure that they would not get off halfway and so they would get to have the joyride free. So lots of people would want to take the ride. But then, when they actually start the ride, they would realise that they were more scared than they had anticipated; and they would be willing to pay Rs 200 just to get off.

Lacchu: Boss is birlliant.

Madhu: Then what happened?

Sharma: Kavita did not tell me that all these theories were about Americans. Indians are such kanjooses. They would rather fall from the roller-coaster and die than part with Rs 200. I lost a lot of money. Don’t remind me about that.

Lacchu: Another birlliant business boss did. He leased Mercedes car and keep it…

Sharma: I did not lease it. I bought it.

Lacchu: Same thing, boss. He keep car outside gate of five-star hotel. Any fateechar person coming to five-star hotel by bus or auto can get into Mercedes for Rs 50 and I drive him into the hotel.

Madhu: What a clever idea. I would pay Rs 50 to step out of a Mercedes anywhere. And to step out of a Mercedes in front of a five-star hotel I would pay Rs 100 any day. The nasty looks those gatekeepers give when you get out of an auto…

Lacchu: Ask boss what happened to business.

Sharma: The hotel gatekeepers soon got to know the car and this idiot Lacchu and would laugh at any passenger who got out of my car.

Lacchu: And in business once repootation is spoilt, business is no good.

Sharma: I made a huge profit all the same. The profit was from the car. It was actually a raddi Mercedes, with an Ambassador engine inside. I had bought it for nothing.

Lacchu: Boss sold it to his best friend at full price of Mercedes. Friend now not talking to boss anymore.

Sharma: History is history. Let us now concentrate on my new business.

Lacchu: Ganga Travel and Tours — G-A-T-T.

Sharma: Yes, that is my new tourism business. I had a much grander name earlier: World Travel Operators — W-T-O. But someone wrote to me from Geneva saying that I would get into trouble with some other organisation called WTO. I tell you, these Westerners treat the names of their organisations like their wives. Anyway, I did not want unnecessary trouble. That’s why I have named it GATT — Ganga Travel and Tours.

This is basically for up-market tourists from all over the world — Europe, America, Japan, Australia. Please excuse me for not including third world countries. If this one fails, dearie (puts his arm around Madhu), you and Lacchu will have some explaining to do. So please do your best to make this business a success. In fact, we are starting with a crisis. Next week, on January 6, the first group of tourists will arrive, and two days later they will leave for Benares by the Delhi-Calcutta Express. The trouble is, my guide has run away. So I am training Lacchu to take his place.

Madhu: But he does not seem to know anything. How can he be a guide?

Sharma: Don’t worry. He is very good at speaking so that no one can understand what he is saying. Lacchu, tell Madhu-madam about Biswanath temple in Benares.

[Here, like a couple of times later, Lacchu will have to speak gibberish and the gibberish that I write, here and later, does not have to be it. It is merely indicative. But one must avoid the pitfall of thinking that nonsense can be extemporised. Lacchu needs to practise the gibberish, keeping in mind that it must sound like English but not be intelligible, and every now and then he should return to the subject on which he is allegedly speaking, articulating the subject clearly.]

Lacchu: Biswanath temple. Ther Biswanath temple is very important temple in India. Ther Biswanath Temple ees to vary grilt, venthe istry cumthe ton temple. Ter grant ood colact id and distreebis the stag elnashon is langvand steed ice Biswanath Temple. Ven till king condrast hadnot hill berry shin tiklen. That vary is Biswanath Temple.

Sharma: What did you follow?

Madhu: Nothing.

Sharma: That’s exactly it. There is no question on which anybody can say that Lacchu has given a wrong answer. He can answer any question that an American or German or Australian may ask.

Lacchu: Or Japanese. Whenher roosen where contilda hooren end is goseep.

Sharma: Shut up, Lacchu, there are no foreigners here. My main problem is, I have no tour boss to go with Lacchu and the tourists. Lacchu can’t keep accounts and cannot speak to the hotel reception and do a variety of other jobs that have to be done during a tour. I myself cannot leave office and go since I have my other business to look after.

Madhu: I can go as tour manager.

Sharma: I want you here to look after my office… and me. With Lacchu gone you will have a lot to do. I have a brilliant idea. My wife can do it. She is very intelligent… the trouble is, when she hears the kind of tour Lacchu will give, she will not want to be party to it. Silly morals.

Madhu: You mean she will not listen to you?

Sharma: She jolly well will. Lacchu, Kavita-madam ko bula-ke la.

Lacchu exits and promptly returns, following Kavita. She comes in on her crutches, with her limp visible to the audience.

Sharma: Kavita, on January 8, you are going to Benares with my first tour group.

Kavita: Why don’t you keep me out of this? I am not very good with people.

Sharma: Treat this as your wifely duty. Anyway, you will have to do nothing but keep the money and the day-to-day accounts.

Kavita: What about my teaching?

Sharma: You are not teaching at Harvard. The slum children can do without their teacher for one week. When you come back you can give them a first-hand account of Benares (laughs flamboyantly). By the way, the professor of philosophy you used to talk about has won some prize. It was in the papers.

Kavita: I know. I read about it.

Sharma: But the prize money is a joke. It is what I make in two months.

Lacchu: That means, boss, professor’s prize is what I will earn in next twenty years. Madam, where I can learn philosophy?

Curtain.

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)