at Benares Junction - 6
The light focus shifts from this compartment to Compartment 2, which has been virtually in darkness. Bentley has got up and is nudging Ghosh, who is fast asleep. Ghosh opens his eyes, screams, pulls the sheet over his head, turns the other way and tries to sleep. Bentley nudges him again, Ghosh peeps out, screams and again covers his head.
Trehan: (From his bunk) Ghosh, what has happened? Why you shouting?
[In this scene, there is no need to show the full breadth of Compartment 2. Only Ghosh’s bunk needs to be visible. Trehan could be out of eyesight. In that case, the sleepiness in his voice should make it clear that he is in bed.]
Ghosh: Nothing. I occasionally have nightmares in which I see the same man with a dark face. He comes and calls me. Today, I was little extra frightened because the face looked white.
Trehan: Ghosh, you are not seeing the dream. Mr Bentley is trying to call you.
Bentley: (Softly) Mr Ghosh, I am awfully sorry to trouble you, but can you please give me one of your British Airways eye-covers? I am not able to sleep, and I feel that would help.
Ghosh props himself up and starts rummaging in his bag and speaking simultaneously.
Ghosh: This will certainly help. It is better than Calmpose.
Trehan: I am thinking it may also be better than Valium.
Ghosh: I don’t need it. Here, please use this.
Bentley takes it.
Ghosh: Actually I would advise you to keep second one. Soon the sun will come out and I think if you are not used to the Indian sun, one cover may not be enough.
He thrusts a second one into his hand.
Trehan: I do not think British Airways is designing this for use in Indian Railway. British people are occasionally mean. What do you think, Ghosh?
Mrs Trehan: (Disembodied voice in the semi-darkness) Kindly sone ki koshish kijiye. (Kindly try to sleep.)
Complete silence for a few seconds. Lights fade out and the sound of the train becomes louder.
The train’s sound system crackles into life:
“Ladies and gentleman. Our Dilli-Calcutta express is about to reach Benares Station. In the night our driver drove the train very fast… above the safety speed limit set by the Japanese expert. We are therefore lucky to have arrived in Benares (pause) with only one hour delay. The train will stop here for forty-five minutes. Passengers getting down here kindly make sure to take your belongings… otherwise other people are taking them.”
Sitar music, typically All India Radio, comes on. There is pandemonium. People moving about, getting their luggage down. Mr Trehan and Mrs Trehan are getting off the train. We catch a glimpse of Lacchu helping Kavita. Siddharth is still in his seat. The passengers spill out onto the platform.
The focus shifts to the platform. At stage right, Lacchu comes in holding up the board that says ‘GATT, formerly WTO’. Foreign travellers, including Bentley and Jenny, mill around him. Some distance away is a pile of suitcases, amidst which Kavita is sitting, looking forlorn. Suddenly, causing a bit of a flutter, Gupta charges in with a garland, looking for Siddharth. As they see each other, Siddharth gets up and is promptly garlanded.
Siddharth: What a pleasant surprise, Gupta. What are you doing here?
Gupta: I came to see you only.
Siddharth: You came all the way to the station to see me?
Gupta: I stay only two minutes from the station.
Siddharth: I am really happy to see you, but you must not waste money buying garlands for me every few months.
Gupta: You are going to give such an important lecture. I think mala is fully deserving.
Siddharth: Gupta, do you think you can read a philosophy paper?
Gupta: Sure. It will be my pleasure to read what you write. But I cannot say I will be able to understand it.
Siddharth: The understanding is not important. I am actually not talking of my lecture but that of another philosopher. And I am not talking of your reading it for yourself but to the conference audience in Calcutta.
Gupta: But, Professor, I am not going to Calcutta conference.
Siddharth: I know that. But can you go to Calcutta? Can you take my place in the train? I will then get off here in Benares. I need to, very badly. I’ll tell you about it later. (Speaking very quickly) But tell me, can you board this train in the next half an hour or so, go to Calcutta and read out the paper I give you?
He rummages in his bag, pulls out a paper and gives it to Gupta.
Gupta: That will be a great honour. But won’t conference organisers object?
Siddharth: Of course not. This is my decision. I shall give them a letter about my not being well and appointing you to read the paper on my behalf.
Gupta: But my English is not so good.
Siddharth: Your English is just fine. It is high time that we learnt that content matters more than accent. Besides, English is not our native language anyway. Look, there is no more time. You come with me and I will give you a few important documents.
(They start towards the compartment where Siddharth’s luggage is) Then you run home as fast as you can. Pick up some clothes and come back, take my ticket and be off. Actually, if you are going, you may as well read two papers…
They go into the compartment, talking, and then Gupta is seen running offstage.
Lacchu: (Gesticulating at the tourists) Please be patient. Mini-van will be here soon to take us to hotel.
Bentley: (Quite friendly now) We don’t mind waiting. Why don’t you tell us a little history of Benares in the meantime, as you had promised?
Lacchu: What? What?
Bentley: You told us in Delhi that you would tell us a little history of each city before we got there. But you forgot to tell us about Benares.
Lacchu: What? What you telling?
Jenny: Lacchu, Mr Bentley is saying, you should tell us a little about the history of Benares, which you had begun to tell us in Delhi. Remember, when you had to go away suddenly because you remembered you had to meet your son’s schoolteacher? So tell us some of the history now, while we wait. Please.
Lacchu: Oh… history? Benares history? Benares is valdest citty. Very valdest citty. Wayne the tame cum the river Ganga the people catlest the centium dreem. Then teem the city keltum needem ees the Benares. Porter eshsquare ven the lesteeng isleting dam. Motherater is thel tenny ven the Benares history.
The foreigners nod unsurely.
Lacchu: Gem kalidusten gest come. Ven the mandrin kartejenna vel ten lethen is Agra, Jaipur, Patna… Agra… and the Benares history…
Siddharth furrows through the crowd with his suitcase, unwittingly carrying the garland in the other hand. Sets the suitcase down. Shoulders Lacchu aside.
Jenny: (Genuinely pleased) Professor Chatterjee, what a lovely surprise.
Siddharth whispers something to Jenny.
Siddharth: Benares is one of the oldest cities of India, in fact of the world. It was originally called Kashi. What is amazing about this city is that it has been continuously settled and a centre of commerce, trade and religion from as far back as the sixth century BC. The Buddha delivered his famous sermon just a few miles outside the city, at Sarnath. In the sixth century AD the famous Chinese scholar and traveller, Huan Tsang, came to this city. By some yardsticks, there was more interaction between India and China in those days than there is today, in this so-called age of globalisation. It was a remarkable relationship, based not on domination and commerce, but the interchange of culture and literature.
Ladies and gentleman, I wish I could be with you throughout this entire trip, but I cannot, as I just explained to Jenny. There are many reasons for that, and one of the most compelling is that I have already told you the sum total of what I know about Benares.
I think there is no getting away from the fact that you will not get your money’s worth on this trip. Mr Sharma, the owner of Ganga Travels and Tours, has taken you for a ride. But don’t feel too bad. People have been duped before. Whole civilisations have been destroyed by the greed and expansionism of some nations and people.
Moreover, while you may have lost a bit of your money to Mr Sharma, you may be comforted to know that Mr Sharma is about to lose his wife to me.
Kavita has walked up to him, touches Siddharth’s arm and clings to it. Siddharth does not notice Gupta, who is seen running onto the platform in a tie and oversized suit, shiny suitcase in tow.
Siddharth: Today, as you all no doubt know, is Simone de Beauvoir’s birthday. As such, this is an auspicious time for Kavita to reclaim her own life.
Gupta boards the train, waving goodbye, and shouts out…
Gupta: Professor, I highly recommend that you request her to wait one more day only to reclaim her life, because tomorrow is even more auspicious.
(Pauses, and then speaks louder, to counter the noise of the train starting up) It is Hrithik Roshan’s birthday!
Complete silence. All actors freeze, except Gupta, who glides out of the platform, still waving.
Music starts up: ‘Ankhon hi ankhon me ishara ho gaya.’ Kavita breaks into a dance (no limp visible), Bentley joins in, Siddharth, Jenny, Trehan, Mrs Trehan. Everybody on the stage begins to dance, freestyle, simply celebrating life. The others enter, dancing, from the two wings. The Vice-Chancellor comes in, dancing more vigorously, skilfully and acrobatically than anybody else. As the song fades out, the actors stand in a row, bowing and accepting ovations, if there be any.
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)