‘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 - 4
 

  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

 

Subscribe to The Little Magazine
Order the print edition of this issue
Browse our bookstore
Browse back issues

   Mail this page link
   Enter recipient's e-mail:
 
 


Kaushik Basu

Act IV

Bustling platform at New Delhi Railway station. Familiar sounds: “Chai garam, chai garam…badhia amrood…” In the background is the train, with two compartments visible — the right one (which I will call Compartment 1) is in full view and the left one (Compartment 2) is partly seen. Once the train starts, the platform scene will vanish and the two compartments is what the audience will see. Then on, the action will shift between the two compartments and the director may like to have some arrangement for shifting the two compartments slightly, so as to bring the compartment which is in focus at any time to centrestage.

Eventually, the following people will enter the train and occupy seats as follows: Compartment 1, right to left — Bentley, Jenny, Ghosh, Mrs Trehan, Mr Trehan, Siddharth. Compartment 2, right to left — Siddharth (after the TC asks him to move), Kavita. Gautam will be initially on the bunk in Compartment 1 but will move later to the bunk in Compartment 2.

People are jostling on the platform; coolies are getting in and out of the train. Lacchu comes into view with a huge placard which reads “G A T T”, and below it, in parentheses: “(formerly W T O)”. He looks around and then goes offstage from the left. Kavita enters, self-conscious about her crutches. Lacchu helps her to her seat. Mr Ghosh, Gautam and Jenny have also come onto the platform, entered the train and taken their seats. Gautam climbs onto the bunk.

Ghosh: Good evening.

Jenny: (Smiles) Good evening.

Ghosh: Am I right in presuming that your goodself is a tourist going to Benares?

Jenny: You guessed right.

Ghosh: You are very young. Are you travelling alone or with mother-father?

Jenny: (Giggles) I am not alone. We are a large group of Americans and Europeans, taking this wonderful tour organised by Ganga Travel and Tours.

Ghosh: You are, I should say, keenly interested in Indian history?

Jenny: I am. But even apart from history, India is such a wonderful country, full of lovely people. It gives one a sense of peace that one cannot find anywhere else, certainly not in New York… I suppose I have come to India to discover myself.

Ghosh: (Laughs appreciatively). Discover Mysore? You are interested in Tipu Sultan’s life? But then you have to go to South India. The best way is to go to Bangalore and take a bus.

Jenny: What I mean is, I want to find my soul. In America, you have your body, even your mind, but all too often we forget about our soul. They say you can always find your soul in Benares.

From stage left enter Mr and Mrs Trehan, coolies in tow. [There can also be some young relatives who have come to help them board the train and will leave before the train starts.] Mr Trehan is limping and Mrs Trehan seems to find this funny.

Trehan: Arre baba you may laugh as much as you want. The first thing I will search for on reaching Benares is sole. (Takes off his left shoe and examines the sole, or rather its absence.) They charge so much money for shoes these days and the sole comes off on the first day. Laugh, laugh. You have never walked with shoe with no sole.

They clamber into the train and are settling into their seats. The earlier conversation occurred at a distance where Jenny could not have heard him.

Jenny: (To Ghosh) In the West, people behave as if the soul does not matter.

The word ‘soul’ catches Trehan’s attention.

Trehan: They are fools, I tell you. Total nincompoops. Sole is the most important thing.

Jenny: (Nods sweetly) This is what I like about you Indians. You understand what is truly important in life.

Trehan: For smooth transportation through life, I tell you, there is nothing as important as a good sole.

Jenny: Exactly. I was telling this gentleman…

Ghosh: Ghosh. My name is Ghosh.

Jenny: I was telling Mr Gosh that I am going to Benares to find my soul.

Trehan: (Shakes hands with Jenny appreciatively) I will not go so far as to say I am going to Benares with the only purpose of finding a sole; but on reaching Benares the first thing I will do is certainly to buy a sole.

Jenny: (Laughs) You will buy a sole?

Trehan: Yes. Some mochi may give it to you free but I would not trust the quality. Too many people are doing the shoddy work in India.

Mrs Trehan: Kamaal kar diya. Ek to atman ke baare me baat kar rahi hai, ek joota ke! (Great! One is talking about the human soul and one about a shoe!)

Mr Robert Bentley comes rushing in.

Bentley: (To Jenny) Thank God I have found at least one of us. This is the most mismanaged tour I have been on. Where are the others?

Jenny: I don’t know, but sit down. We are in a compartment with the most lovely set of people. This is Gosh, Mr Treehang, and this is, I presume, Mrs Treehang…

Mrs Trehan ignores the introduction. The others shake hands. Gautam leans down from the upper bunk.

Gautam: (Loudly) And my name is Gautam.

Ghosh: Gautam is my neighbour’s son. I am his guardian for this journey to Calcutta.

Jenny & Bentley: Hi, Gautam.

They all settle in. Awkward silence for a while.

Bentley: Beautiful weather.

Trehan: Rather, I should say the finest weather.

Silence.

Bentley: Clear blue skies. One rarely gets such weather in Europe, and we have had this for three days without a break now.

Trehan: You are hundred per cent right.

Silence. Bentley feels awkward.

Bentley: Hardly any clouds, cool but not cold…

Trehan: May I ask you, sir, why you are taking too much interest in the weather? Are you working in the weather forecasting bureau?

Bentley: Oh, no, no. I work for an investment bank.

Ghosh: (Laughing) I also used to think like that before I went to England. Then I learnt that English people are taking very much interest in the weather.

Commotion. Siddharth enters from the right, rushes in. He is late. Lacchu also enters. Siddharth sits down, takes out some books and papers. Lacchu turns to Jenny and Bentley.

Lacchu: Here you are, Number 5 and Number 7.

(Looks at a sheet in his hand and ticks off) All GATT people are now in the train.

Bentley: (Irritated) You said all those taking the Varanasi tour with you would be together. Where are the others?

Lacchu: Sir, please to understand. Train is very full so travellers get separated.

Bentley: I don’t remember the condition that we would be together only if the train was not full.

Lacchu: In Benares, we will all be together. Let me now say ‘Welcome to the tour. Next seven days you will be guest of Ganga Travels and Tours. You will see the ancient cities of Benares and Allahabad.’

Jenny: Which is the older of the two?

Lacchu: Older? …Older?

Jenny: I wonder, between Varanasi and Allahabad, which is the older city?

Lacchu: Oh (as if he has at last understood the question). Valder city? Vich is valder city? Ther Allahabad ees thutty thaned the king is ther baltineder. Ven ther king madden city, Ganga river had the ventilenil. Benares and Allahabad is ther menthe reddin valder city, time ven world westhen laden. Ther Benares and Allahabad.

Jenny nods unsurely. Of the others, some feign understanding, some look puzzled.

Siddharth: What he means is that Benares is the older city.

Lacchu: Now please to make yourself comfortable. I will attend to other travellers and see you later.

The train starts with a jerk. People on the platform slide away. The stage goes dark.

The sound of the train at full speed can be heard, suggesting the passage of time — perhaps two hours.

The lights come up again and a crackling sound system announces in a marked Bengali accent: “Hum-e khed hai ki kooch majboori ke karan hamara Dilli-Kalkatta Express apne nischit samay se lag bhag tees minute der se chal raha hai. Is waqat hum Etawah station se guzar rahe hai… Ladies and gentleman, due to some un-abhoidable reason our Dilli-Calcutta Express is running 30 minute late. At this time we are passing Etawah station.”

Passengers in different states of repose. Ghosh takes out a black cloth eye-cover, examines it with affection, tries it on and takes it off.

Ghosh: I never go for any long journey without this.

Gautam: What is it, Uncle?

Ghosh: This was given to me by British Airways when I went to Toronto for a meeting. I find this eye-cover very useful, because God has made our eyelids too thin (laughs). So the English people, who are always trying to improve on what God has done, produced this. It is very good for relaxing or sleeping.

Gautam: Can I try it on, Uncle?

Ghosh: Wait. I will give you another one.

(Holds up the one in his hand and says) Calcutta-London.

(Takes another one out of his bag, holds it up and says) London-Toronto. I am very lucky British Airways does not fly non-stop from Calcutta to Toronto.

He gives the second one to Gautam. The lights fade, the sound of the train grows louder.

Lights come back on. Siddharth is reading. Jenny is looking out of the window. Bentley is staring blankly. Ghosh’s face is turned towards him, though Ghosh does not seem aware of that since he has his eye-cover on. Gautam is sitting up straight with his eye cover on. Mr and Mrs Trehan also have eye-covers on, clearly from Ghosh’s return journey collection.

Ghosh: (With his eyes still covered, reaches into his pocket and takes something out) If anybody is being disturbed by the sound of the train, you can use these earplugs.

Gautam: (Whips off his eye-cover, looks at the earplugs) Where did you get these, Uncle?

Ghosh: British Airways.

Lights fade. Sound of train becomes louder.

Lights come up. Animated conversation in Compartment 1.

Ghosh: Okay, now I will ask you an even harder question…

Lacchu runs in, goes straight to Siddharth.

Lacchu: Sir, is Benares older or Calcutta?

Siddharth: Benares.

Lacchu runs off.

Ghosh: My question is harder than that. Tell me the name of India’s national bard?

Gautam leans towards Jenny. Evidently, he is finding out what ‘bard’ means.

Gautam: I know the answer. Rabindranath Tagore.

Ghosh: Wrong!

Gautam: Wait, wait. Don’t tell me.

Mrs Trehan whispers something to Mr Trehan.

Ghosh: What is she saying?

Gautam: She said, Kaifi Azmi.

Ghosh: Wrong again. Just because he writes good poetry does not mean he can fly.

Mrs Trehan whispers again to Mr Trehan.

Trehan: Arre, you keep quiet.

Ghosh: No, no. You must not stop her. Nowadays ladies are doing very well in GK. What is Mrs Trehan’s second guess?

Trehan: She is telling Thiru… Thiru …

Mrs Trehan: (Loudly) Thiruvalluvar.

Ghosh: Wrong again.

Siddharth: I think I have the answer. Could it be the peacock, by any chance?

Ghosh: Brilliant, you have got it bang right. You must be a great philosopher.

Gautam: I don’t understand. How is it peacock?

Lacchu charges in. Goes straight to Siddharth.

Lacchu: Are we going east from Delhi, or west?

Mrs Trehan: Buddhu, does he think this is the train to Pakistan?

Lacchu: Madam, please don’t waste my time. Which way are we going?

Siddharth: East. You should allow Mrs Trehan or me to take over your job.

Lacchu races out, while Gautam leans towards Siddharth to find out how the answer could be the peacock. Lights fade. Sound of train becomes louder.

Lights come back.

Ghosh: (To Gautam) …Then one day a real wolf came and the boy started shouting, “Wolf, Wolf”. But this time no one came because they thought he was bluffing again and the wolf killed the boy. So you see, you must never bluff.

Gautam: Yes, I know. I heard that story many years ago.

Siddharth: Now let me tell you another story. There was a boy who was a fisherman. One day, when he was finishing his morning prayer, God appeared and told him that since he was so good, God would give him a gift. Four days later, he would find a cache of gold in the river. The gold would be his to keep, but on one condition. He would have to tell all the villagers that he had found the gold and only if no one went and took it, it would be his. Knowing how greedy people are, the boy realised that the chance of his actually being able to keep the gold was very small. But he was a very intelligent kid and soon he worked out a scheme. The next day, when he returned home from fishing, he started jumping and shouting that he had found gold in the river. All the villagers rushed to the river. But they found no gold and returned disappointed. The boy did the same thing the next day and once again, the villagers rushed out and were disappointed. Again, on the third day, the same thing was repeated. Then on the fourth day, when the boy really found the gold, he came back jumping and shouting that he had found gold. But the villagers had learned their lesson. They laughed at him and no one stirred. The boy went and collected the gold and got to keep it. So what is the lesson of the story?

Gautam: That bluffing is good.

Siddharth: That is what this story says. But coupled with the story that Ghosh Uncle just told you, the lesson is that there are no simple rules in life.

Mrs Trehan: Kahani sahi hai, par ladka to confuse ho jayega. (The story is all right, but now the boy will get confused.)

Mr Trehan, who was reading Jenny’s palm, turns to Bentley. Jenny starts chatting with Ghosh.

Trehan: Okay, now it is your turn. I will tell you your future. (Takes his hand and turns it palm up) But first, sir, you will have to tell me when is your happy birthday.

The train comes to a halt at a station. Familiar station sounds rend the air. People get in and out of the train. Trehan lets go of Bentley’s hand.

Bentley: Thank God for little mercies.

 A new entrant throws some garbage on the floor.

Ghosh: (Interrupting his conversation with Jenny) Please be civilised, don’t throw garbage here. Garbage must always be thrown out of the window.

Trehan and Gautam go out of the compartment. A beggar enters on crutches. Goes into Compartment 2, asking for money. Kavita gives him some. This may not be visible, since so little of Compartment 2 may be seen that Kavita may remain out of sight most of the time — of course that changes once the action shifts to her compartment. The beggar walks into Compartment 1.

Ghosh: Chalo, chalo yahan se. Kuch nahin hai hamara paas. (Go on, get away from here. We have nothing at all.)

Siddharth: Fortunately, I do have some small change.

Reaches into his pocket and gives the beggar a note. So does Jenny.

Bentley: God knows, I have seen more beggars on this trip than in all my previous years on earth. I don’t think we should encourage them by giving them money. (Turning to Siddharth) If I were you, I would not give them any money at all.

Siddharth: If you were me, you would give money, because I gave.

Bentley: You are wrong. I would not. You just saw me. I did not.

Siddharth: But that is because you are you. If you were me, you would do exactly what I did, which means that you would give.

Ghosh: One animal that I like a lot is the sambar. You know sambar?

Jenny: (Loudly, to Ghosh). Oh, Mr Ghosh, I feel exactly the same way. I love all animals, but the sambar is special. It is such a beautiful animal, with sad eyes. I think hunting all animals should be banned.

Trehan and Gautam, conversing, slowly make their way to the compartment, stopping often.

Trehan: All human beings are same. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, we are all brothers. You must love everybody.

Gautam says something.

Trehan: What? (He bends to listen better) Yes, even Bentley… I agree that is a little difficult. But you must. Actually Indian climate is little harsh. But he will get used to it and then he will be fine person.

You see, Gautam, in India we have so many kinds of people. I tell you that is what is so good about India. We must learn to appreciate different kinds of people, different culture. I am North Indian, but I like South Indian people very much. Mrs Trehan and I lived in Madras for one year. Since then, I am even liking South Indian food — idli, dosa, sambar… Actually I am liking sambar more than dal.

Ghosh: I also like spotted deer and bison.

Jenny: (As Trehan and Gautam enter the compartment) I do too, but the sambar is really special to me.

Trehan: Arre vah, I am saying as North Indian I like sambar, but this young lady is even more daring than me. She is from North America and she is having the courage to say she is also liking sambar.

Jenny: I sure do. With its brown-beige colour, it looks so lovely.

Trehan: The colour is nice, I agree. But, more importantly, I tell you, it is full of protein. I give full credit to South Indians for this great discovery.

Jenny: But I thought you find sambar in North India as well.

Trehan: Nowadays, you can find it everywhere. Even in Washington, my friends in the Indian embassy are telling me. Wherever there is Udipi restaurant, there is sambar.

Mrs Trehan: Kamaal kar diya! Ek to janwar ke bareme…(Great. One is talking about an animal…)

The ticket collector enters the compartment.

Tc: Ticket, ticket.

The passengers show their tickets and the TC ticks off names on his chart.

Bentley: Could you explain to me why this train is running two hours late?

TC: (Rudely, the way TCs speak) No. This train normally runs three hours late. I cannot tell you why it is travelling so fast today.

Bentley: That’s very funny. Surely someone knows why this train is running late.

TC: For a satisfactory answer to that you have to know Indian history and sociology, and maybe economics.

Ghosh: And why leave out zoology? Some poor animal may have come out on the track and slowed down the train. (Laughs. Mr Trehan and he shake hands over the joke) But I think Bentley is right. Many times the train was completely stopped with no reason. In fact, half an hour ago, it was so still, with everybody sleeping, I thought for one moment that the whole world has come to a complete halt.

The TC looks at the papers in his hand and turns to Siddharth.

TC: You are in the wrong seat. You should be in the next compartment (points to Compartment 2) in 8C. Please shift because there will be a passenger coming to this seat at the next station. (And to Gautam) And you also have your seat on the bunk in that compartment, but no one will come here, I think. But if someone comes, please move there to Uncle’s compartment.

TC exits.

Mrs Trehan: You know, Ghosh, if everything stopped, how can we be travelling again?

Trehan: (Laughing) Ghosh is not saying everything is permanently stopped. Ghosh’s theory is that the world had stopped, but has restarted.

Laughs and shakes hands with Ghosh.

Siddharth: I think Mrs Trehan’s unease about the possibility of the world restarting after a total halt is reasonable. If everything in the world really ever came to total halt, it is not clear that things could restart.

Ghosh: No, no, Professor Chatterjee, I think you are maligning the Indian train drivers unnecessarily. Just because they take a short break, it is unfair to say they will never get up again.

Trehan: Ghosh is hundred per cent right. I sleep at night, but I get up every morning.

Siddharth: That is because there are processes that stay in motion inside you all through the night. If everything came to a halt…

Mrs Trehan: Ram, Ram…

Siddharth: In that case, she would have reason to be concerned. But don’t worry. Fortunately, we are all hale and hearty. I feel very bad about leaving this compartment since we are having such nice conversations, but I have to go.

He starts collecting his belongings.

Jenny: Why don’t you forget Calcutta and join us for the Benares trip?

Siddharth: That’s very sweet of you. I wish I could, really… But I am not a free man, Jenny.

Trehan: Yes, that will be very nice. My nephew is having a large bungalow. You can stay with us.

Jenny: Be a sport. Be adventurous. Just change your plans. I have done it so many times, set out for one place and ended up somewhere else… Is it because of that lecture you have to give in Calcutta?

Siddharth: I’d merrily give that lecture a miss. But you know, I am carrying the paper of a famous British professor who could not come and has sent me his lecture. And I have agreed to read it out. He would be very upset if his lecture is not presented at the conference.

Trehan: Then tell us one more philosophy puzzle before you go. It is good for thought.

Ghosh: Yes, puzzle-solving is good way to pass time on train. In British Airways they were giving all little children a puzzle book. I tell you, these English people really know how to awaken young minds.

Siddharth: Well, okay. I’ll give you a partly physical puzzle. This is called the Indian Rope Trick and is meant to help foreigners get close to Indians. Does anyone have two pieces of string? About this long (he stretches his arms wide).

Ghosh: No problem. I have one string but you can cut it.

He rummages in his bag and pulls out some string.

Gautam: British Airways, Uncle?

Ghosh: No, Mrs Ghosh… Aunty.

Trehan: (Laughs, turning to Mrs Trehan) Ghosh is really funny. Now he is calling the little boy Aunty.

The string is cut into two with Mrs Trehan’s scissors.

Siddharth: Okay. Now, Mr Bentley, would you please step forward here.

Bentley: No, maybe someone else.

Trehan: No, no, this is your turn. I am sure this will not hurt you.

Jenny: Come on, Mr Bentley, be a sport.

Reluctantly, Bentley steps forward.

Siddharth: And I need another volunteer…

Ghosh is on his feet before Siddharth can finish.

Siddharth: You see, philosophical thought has to be supple. You need abstract reasoning, logic, mathematics. But it is more than that. It needs you to view things unusually, from angles that most people, even trained scientists, may not think of. This is what made Socrates who he was. This is what marked the originality of the Buddha. So, here is a little puzzle to test your philosophical acumen. And, in this case, also some of your physical flexibility.

He ties a knot around Bentley’s right wrist and then another around his left wrist. He pulls and tugs at the string to show that Bentley’s arms and the string now constitute an unbroken loop, somewhat like a huge rubber band or a hula-hoop.

Siddharth: Okay? Now, Ghosh, come here.

With the second length of string he ties a knot around Ghosh’s left wrist, passes the string through Bentley’s loop and ties a knot around Ghosh’s right wrist (see figure). This process should be adequately visible to the audience, since it offers some of the pleasures of a magic show.

Siddharth: I hope you are all convinced that these two persons are tied inseparably. There seems to be no way for them to separate from each other without opening up one of the knots. But that is what they must do — free themselves without opening a knot. You have three minutes.

Ghosh: Are we allowed to cut the strings?

Siddharth: Good question. No. Now don’t waste any time, get started.

Ghosh: I know, it’s easy. Bentley, just stay there.

He puts one foot into Bentley’s loop, contemplates the situation and puts the other foot in. They are almost in an embrace. But now Bentley has got involved. He mutters, “Wait, wait. I have to get over your shoulder.” During the next few minutes, there are acrobatics. The following conversation is interspersed with the action.

Bentley: I think it will work if I come down from one of the bunks through your string.

He climbs onto a bunk and tries to go head-first into Ghosh’s loop.

Mrs Trehan: But if climbing the bunk is necessary, then this puzzle can only be solved in Indian trains.

Trehan: True, very true. But perhaps the puzzle can be solved only in Indian trains.

Ghosh: But Socrates had never been in an Indian train.

Mrs Trehan is now involved, trying to manoeuvre Bentley’s hand and twist Ghosh’s arm, asking one of them to step back, the other forward, and so on.

Siddharth: I should clarify that this puzzle has nothing to do with Socrates, excepting that it requires a form of Socratic contemplation.

Mrs Trehan: Wait, Bentley. Both of you, just stand still.

They stand with their hands apart, like in the beginning, as shown in Figure 1. She looks at them for a few seconds, walks up, and in ten seconds or so has them free (see Figures 2-4 for how this is done). Bentley and Ghosh are now separated, standing with their arms stretched out, the knots intact. They are quite stunned.

Bentley: That is amazing. How did you do it?

Trehan: That is easy. In India there is one Goddess, we are calling her Chamundi. She has eight hands and three eyes and has great — rather, I should say, amazing — power for getting people out of tricky situation. My wife is praying every day to Chamundi. And Chamundi is listening to her whenever my wife is praying to her. Chamundi can solve every problem.

Ghosh: But that is cheating.

The TC passes down the corridor, and is clearly displeased to see Siddharth still there.

Siddharth: I had better not incur the wrath of the Indian Railways any more. I suggest you play the same game again, but disqualify Mrs Trehan or Goddess Chamundi from coming to anybody’s aid.

As he speaks, he has picked up his belongings and moves over to Compartment 2. Only Kavita is there. The compartments should be shifted right, so that Compartment 2 now occupies centrestage with only a fraction of Compartment 1 visible.

Siddharth: I am sorry to encroach on your nice, private domain, but I can’t help it. It is by order of the Indian Railways.

Kavita: I don’t own the property. Make yourself comfortable. It is so rare to find a compartment in an Indian train with so few people, isn’t it?

Silence while Siddharth settles in.

Siddharth: You are right. This room is like a Buddhist meditation room in comparison to that compartment. That was like a juvenile detention centre. It was fun, though.

Kavita: I was enjoying the conversation as well — what little I could hear.

Siddharth: What was the most interesting thing you heard?

Kavita: Well, I could not really hear that much. But I liked the bit about whether, if everything came to a halt, things could restart again. That is an interesting question.

Siddharth: And did you agree with me?

Kavita: I could not hear that much.

Siddharth: I felt — no. Things could not re-start.

Kavita: I guess that is right. Though I don’t quite know why I agree.

Siddharth: I have not thought it through well enough to know the answer myself. But see, if everything stops, the earth, you, the protons and atoms inside you and inside me…   everything. It does seem obvious, right? That things cannot re-start again?

One way to reason is that whatever happens at any time is caused by the state of the world just before that. Now, if the world is motionless for some time, no matter how brief, there is a time when the world is motionless and just before that the world was motionless. Hence, motionlessness causes motionlessness. Hence, once there is no motion, there cannot be any motion.

This has lots of interesting implications. It means that we can never invent a TV set that can switch itself on. If it does, it is because we have programmed that in and there are small actions occurring inside it all the time. (Pause) What I wonder is, are we reaching this conclusion purely by deduction, or is this just a fact of life — that motion cannot come out of motionlessness.

Kavita: The fact that you reach this conclusion without ever having experienced the stoppage of everything suggests, doesn’t it, that you come to this conclusion by deduction.

Siddharth stares at her in disbelief.

Siddharth: Are you a philosopher? I am sorry to inflict this trivia on you…

Kavita: No, but I was taught philosophy. In fact, by you — at NDU.

Siddharth: Really?

Kavita: You taught us epistemology.

Siddharth: You were one of the students in that crazily large epistemology class? Which batch?

Kavita: Ten years ago.

Siddharth: What is your name?

Kavita: Kavita Sharma. But I was Kavita…

Siddharth: Puri?

Kavita: Professor Chatterjee! I can’t believe it. You remember me?

Siddharth: If it wasn’t for the low-voltage lighting, I would have recognised you earlier.

Kavita: That is impressive.

Siddharth: It is not that impressive. I never forget pretty faces. Besides, I was charmed by you.

Smiles teasingly.

Kavita: (Blushes, though this may be invisible to the audience) You certainly gave no evidence of that.

Siddharth: I see you took your Gilbert Ryle very seriously. Emotions do not always have to be hung from balconies…

Kavita: But some little evidence, no?

Siddharth: I was the professor. How could I? (Longish pause) I remember you because when I lectured, you looked troubled… puzzled, the way a good philosophy student ought to be.

Kavita: Thank you so much for clarifying. No one should be under any misconception.

Siddharth laughs.

Siddharth: There can be two reasons for remembering someone.

Kavita: Yes, there can be, but I doubt if there were. But in our case, I can tell you, the majority of us — your students — were in love with you.

Siddharth: Now you tell me that! And that, too, with a ring on your finger and a bindi on your forehead. You should have told me then — I would have been a happier being. But wait… you’re not telling the truth. Half the class consisted of boys.

Kavita: Well, since all of us girls certainly were in love with you, if one boy was, that would make it a majority. And in such a big class, I am sure (giggles), there was at least one boy in love with you.

Siddharth: (Laughs) But you really should have told me that.

Kavita: About the boy who was in love with you? (Laughs) But you never told me you found me charming. I could have done with that confidence-booster.

Siddharth: You were my student. I did not want you to feel uncomfortable.

Kavita: How come you don’t mind making lone female train travellers feel uncomfortable?

Siddharth: My God, this is like a conversation with Sherlock Holmes. I just remembered you were quite an all-rounder. Didn’t you play basketball for the university and win some inter-university match?

Kavita: That was such a long time ago… By the way, Professor Chatterjee, congratulations! For the prize, I mean. You must be very happy.

Siddharth: Thank you. I was pleased, but not as much as most people think. You appreciated philosophy, so you would understand. One does not do philosophy to get anything out of it — to get recognition from people in no position to recognise. One does it because it involves reasoning — so beautiful, so arresting that you cannot get away from it. And also partly because it is such a wonderful way to get away from reality.

Kavita: Do you need to?

Trehan appears from the wings, wearing Ghosh’s eye-cover, trying to walk very straight down the train corridor. Gautam comes charging out behind him, closely followed by Ghosh.

Gautam: Out, out! I just saw you touch the left wall and then the right wall. The rule is, all the way till the end with one touch maximum.

Trehan: One touch on each wall? I am not out.

Ghosh: Gautam is right. You are out. The rule was one touch maximum, which wall does not matter.

Lights fade. The sound of the train becomes louder.

The lights come up. Kavita and Siddharth are comfortably seated and in mid-conversation.

Kavita: And gradually one gets used to it. So, Siddharth… Are you sure?

Siddharth: Yes, absolutely.

Kavita: Well it does sound nice… So, Siddharth, it has not been that bad… no longer, at least. The last year, with the involvement in the school, has in fact been quite nice, Siddharth.

Siddharth: Don’t overdo it, now…

Kavita: (Laughs) I will, Siddharth. Now that you have given me permission, it is my prerogative.

Siddharth laughs. Then, after a pause, thoughtfully…

Siddharth: I don’t know. Your tamely giving in to your parents and agreeing to marry someone, whose — pardon me for saying this — only interest in life seems to be to make money, does not fit in with what little I know of you.

Kavita: You are getting my parents wrong. They love me.

Siddharth: I know you will resist this. When you have decided on a particular course of life for yourself, you no longer want to admit to the unpalatable aspects of what you have accepted. But you know, Kavita, it does not all fall into place. It is as if there is a piece of missing information. Why did you accept the life you have for yourself? It does not fit in with your adventurous self. How could you accept being such a nonentity? Well, not being such a nonentity, at one level we all are nonentities, but accepting a life where you are treated as one.

Kavita: That is not so difficult. I am a very resilient woman. Do you know, tomorrow is Simone de Beauvoir’s birthday?

Siddharth: You are really a nerd. Imagine knowing Simone de Beauvoir’s birthday! Is it really her birthday, or you are just relying on the certainty of my ignorance?

Kavita: I know it only because it is also my birthday. In my weaker moments, I try to learn from her — to be strong like her. But it is difficult. On those dreadful days I was speaking of, I would tell myself what philosophers have repeatedly reminded us, of… of the insignificance of man in relation to the universe…

Siddharth: Bertrand Russell called it the ‘cosmic insignificance of man’. Carry on. Later, I’ll tell you why Russell got it all wrong.

Kavita: In fact, in my lowest moments, I made it a point to sit on the terrace late into the nights and look at the stars. With most of the city lights off, the sky was studded with stars, twinkling, literally twinkling, the way fairy tales tell you stars do. I would think of the enormous size of the stars, the great distances between the stars, of our galaxy, of the many other galaxies. I would feel infinitely small, insignificant, and for that very reason peaceful.

Siddharth: That is so interesting. I used to do the same thing to cope with adversity. But in my case, it did not work for too long.

Kavita: Why, what happened?

Siddharth: One evening, after contemplating upon the cosmic insignificance of man, as I stepped into my bedroom, I saw a trail of ants. They were tiny, almost minuscule. And I felt large, huge. And I thought of bacteria and molecules and atoms, all busy going about their daily chores, and I began to feel as large as a galaxy myself. After all, an atom does resemble a planetary system with a sun in the middle and planets going around it, like electrons. Now blow up that atomic planetary system sufficiently and perhaps you may be able to see civilisation on one of the electrons, just like there is civilisation on the earth and in that minuscule civilisation, there could be someone like me, who is in turn made up of atoms many times smaller than the atoms that make me.

And soon I realised that just as largeness is endless, so is smallness. You can enter into a labyrinthine endlessness inside a single atom. And then… and then I realised that Russell was wrong. In a cosmic sense, we are neither small nor large. Either claim is meaningless. Do I make sense?

Kavita: Not only do you make sense, but I should also thank you for having destroyed the one talisman I had.

Lights fade. The sound of the train becomes louder.

 

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)