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21 March 2016

The Twister Ghost by Ashvi K.S

The Twister Ghost

a mystery story about the past, in the future

1

2024

It was searing hot. Temperatures climbing back to the mid-30s. It is hard to believe that just a few days back the floods were taking a heavy toll of people, places, cities, towns and little unknown villages. A swirl of dust gathers around my boots. I stay rooted, somehow not inclined to disturb the thin coat of dust forming on my polished tan boots. After a while, the swirl has decided that it has had enough and lets go of the shoes, but moving in a twisty little spiral, gathering force as it reels away. This is what the locals believe is a little twister ghost. 

A twister ghost is that little swirling balloon of dust gathered by a strong ground-level wind. Among the locals of my region it is believed that it is a ‘Mohini’ or a woman who died prematurely with incomplete desires or ambitions. They take the form of twister swirls in open fields or long tree-canopied roads either at noon or midnight. They do not reveal themselves as women.

I look at the watch, just after noon. Gently shaking the boots, without looking down, I follow the twister ghost. First with eyes, then, involuntarily, walking behind it. When I see where it has brought me, I see it has vanished.

A perpendicular broken half-wall stands - mud wall - ragged and jagged on its top. It seems lucky to have survived the deluge the weeks before. Or, it is unlucky to have survived, while what remained has gone. Did anyone live there? No. I should know. This used to be my little hut. My house that I remember. My home that I cherish fondly. It is spooky, how cannily the twister ghost has led me here. I was going to come here. But later.

At 24, one of the youngest I.A.S. officers of the state now, I grew up here, this small town that exists only in the map. That was until I was 13. I was then adopted, when my grandfather, my only relative, died. Leaving me an orphan. A 13 year-old girl, a little girl whose only earthly possessions were memories of her reasonably wealthy parents, who got washed away in the Tsunami of 2004, from a nearby town of Cuddalore. It is a district most prone to floods, storms, cyclones and in general all the changing fortunes of unpredictable weather pattern in Tamil Nadu. I was Four then, too young to realise the horrors of being orphaned. But I had my grandfather, miraculously with me. He later told me that when the waters washed away our everything, including my parents, he had tied himself to a pillar in the temple nearby, with me fastened to him by his head-toga. It is a small version of a dhoti commoners normally tie to the head in our parts of the country. We had survived. By the divine intervention of Goddess Kali - normally considered the destroyer!

2

2004...

At the age of Four-something, my grandfather and I moved to a little hamlet, wanting more to get away as far as possible from our sad memories. He had nothing to start his life and a little four year old granddaughter. If it were a grandson, it would have been different. An old man with a little girl to look after. I do not remember much of my childhood, except, I would see him carrying me with him for two years around. He was 50 something. Strong, but burdened by the weight of the sudden turn of events that had reduced our family from well-to-do to mere nothings, overnight. Thank you, Tsunami!

My clearest memory of my grandfather was him walking into a wealthy businessman’s house, coming back with the job of rolling tendu leaves: he got himself a cottage job of making beedis for the nearby factory. Of course, he found me a school in the nearby town. That was when I was Six. That was 2006.

We would walk 3 miles - he would carry me on his shoulders whenever he knew I was tired - then catch a bus, reach another 5 miles. He would drop me at a government school, which took care of my food and education. Initially, the schooling was more for my mid-day meals. Once he saw that I showed interest in school and when my teacher told how important it is that a girl-child must be educated, especially one such as me, he let me continue.

In about 3 years time, he managed to get himself a second-hand bicycle, a cycle whose noise would announce beforehand that he was coming. When I was 11, we managed to get a few goats to graze. And we managed to move to the town itself. This town. My evenings had a purpose since then. I would come home from school, change and take the goats to graze at the little hilly tract outside of the village.

I loved the sunset. I would let the herd graze around in the nearby bushes and grass and sit under a tree, trying to work my homework, if I had any. Around dusk, I would herd them and take them back home. This went on for about a year. That was the happiest part of my growing up. And then I turned 12. I had a beautiful birthday gift. One of the ‘nanny’ goat gave birth to a kid. I felt like Mary with her little lamb. I would carry it with me, while all the herd went grazing nearby. And I would sit with the little lamb... and watch how the wind played on the vegetation nearby, how the evening was still, the birds twittering and chirping before they settled for the dark, how a random bat got out of the tree before it was dark and flew around anxiously, how the dust swirls spiralled up into small twister spouts, went and vanished into the thick nearby bush. I didn’t think much of the twister then. Until one day... that was the day that was to leave an indelible mark on me. It has me puzzled to this day. I was 12.

3

2012

It was another usual day, nothing amiss. The same scenario of the setting sun played out. And it was time for me to gather the herd home. One particular billy goat had strayed slightly afar. I went after it. Call it by name. It was ten minutes before I could get him back to the fold. Then I started home, gathering my little bag of books, slinging the back across my shoulder, left to right. Humming and coaxing the herd. Then I heard it. A little desperate wail for help.

My little lamb. I had forgotten in all this hubbub. I turned, followed the faint cries of the lamb. My heart was in my mouth. I hurried. And then... I saw.

It was struggling to hold on to a thick clump of brush that was an outgrowth between to rocks at the edge of the hillock. How it managed to climb up there, I could not imagine. I was at the verge of tears, my eyes welling up, my little heart fluttering in panic. I tried to keep my voice calm and called out to the lamb, trying to calm it. I slowly skirted around to one side where there was a little way to get to the top. I slowly reached out. Inching my way to the top, I took hold of it. I almost slipped, but held on to it tight. A few scratches to my shin. I did not realise the other side of the hillock was a steep into a smaller mound of rock. Beyond that rock... a little pathway where mud had given in to landslide and then a deep chasm.

It was pure chance that we avoided a big calamity. By the time, I climbed the way down, it had grown dark. Bats were flying around with abandon, squealing their sonar notes. Once or twice I heard a few ravens settling down and then the crickets. I could not see. The moon was not up, the sky was grey. Stars could not be seen. I was getting afraid. I had never been this long away from my house. I had always got home before dark. The bag on my shoulder weighed suddenly, the lamb weighed, my heart was in my mouth, I was panting for breath, I had to stop.

Whatever came over me! I decided to collapse. I just sat down, unmindful of where I was. I WAS TERRIFIED. An owl hooted, a bat flew around, mosquitoes swarmed noisly around my nose and eyes. I gathered the lamb on to my lap. Using the edges of my back I wiped my perspiration. Then, I swatted the mosquitoes. In the process, I clapped to kill the mosquitoes. The noise my clap made in the stillness further scared me. My heart ran a 100 metres faster than Bolt could have. The clap resonated around the dark and silent hillside and disturbed further night creatures. I started crying. I was LOST!

Then trying to randomly call upon the names of gods I knew, I got up, hugging my lamb and my bag and started walking. My eyes had adjusted themselves to the dark. The thought of my grandfather coming back tiredly from work, not finding me and getting desperately shouting my name triggered waves of sniffles in me. I tried to hurry. My feet stumbled and I fell. As I fell, the only thing I was conscious was to fall by the side so that the lamb did not get hurt. Luckily I fell on the side my bag hung and I was not hurt. I lay down there for what seemed minutes. Then my ragged breathing slowed down. The night was eerily quiet, but by the I was used to it. I sat up. Just sat there trying to figure how to get back home. Then...

The rumble started in the distance. And a crack of lightning. In that one second I saw sudden storm cloud gathering in the distance. The crack of lightning highlighted a single leafless arching branch, with a bat hanging on it. In that one moment... did I imagine an owl in the hollow too? It must have been my imagination because there were not that many trees in that area. I got up.

I started walking. I walked for may be close to ten minutes. By now, I had forgotten the goats. The herd can take care of themselves. Or if the rain was going to be coming and bad as it looked, they knew to take shelters. In such conditions, only us humans are confused. Animals have better instincts. So I plodded on, the lamb no more a weight, but had merged into a part of me. Then one drop... and another... and then a few more. I hurried. The rain came, surprisingly, from behind. It started drenching my back. I tried to run. Then another flash of light. To my left... a gate! An old building. Unmindful, I pushed it open, crossed quickly the creeper-worn yard, quickly ran under the awning. A small parapet of about 4 feet wide by 3 feet height and 3 feet depth. I sat exhausted, letting my lamb next to me. I did not know the time. I did not care. I could not care. Hugging my lamb, I dozed off...


*

With a start, I woke up when a mosquito sang past my ear. I sat up startled. For the first time, I could smell how badly the lamb smelt. It’s tender heart was beating warmly, quickeningly. My startled sitting up had upset its pulse rate. I huddled into me. I blinked around. All was quiet, except for a distant frog croaking in sync with a noisy cricket. I looked around. Everything looked ghastly. The rain had stopped. In a corner, towards the far left corner of the awning, water was dripping off. As it fell it may a strange chop-chop noise in the puddle underneath, on the ground where water had stagnated. 

I did not know the time. I thought of my grandfather. Was he still awake, anxious for me? I got up, decided to brave the dark. Clutching my bag and lamb, I, a 12 year old girl, stepped out of the open gates of that run-down house. I could not stop to see what sort of a house, or a bungalow it was. It was dark and a thin glow of light was felt. Probably the skies had cleared and the moon had come up. Is it midnight? How long had I slept? Or was it close to morning? I tried to search for the location of the moon. I gave up, because the thought of night was creeping the fear back into me. I rushed on... entered the single long main street of my town and quickly, quietly moved in to the shadows that lead to my lane. Putting my finger to my lips, I silenced myself. In fact, I was pretending that the lamb was a human playmate and I was asking it to keep quiet. I went noiselessly through the kitchen door. It was more a small thatched leaf gate than a door. I entered the house, went to a corner, lay the lamb down and... eventually slept.

*
Next morning... “Ponni... Ponni... get up, child. Grandfather needs to go to work.”

I woke up, shaking the sockets of my eyes and rubbing my eyes with my balled-up knuckles. It was bright. The sun was streaming through the single window on the wall and through the odd gap in the roof. Sitting up, I saw grandfather sitting on his haunches next to me with concern. “You are not well? You have been sleeping so long. I have never seen you sleep so long!” 

I wondered. How long? Was he awake? Does he know? Diving my mind, he answered, “You came home around 7:30 p.m and did not even eat. Fell straight to bed.” Suddenly, noticing the lamb, “Oh, you snuggled up to her for warmth, is it? Little fellow!” Saying, he lifted the lamb, cradling it, laughing, he slipped out.

“Wait... wait! Thaatha! I came home around 7:30 last night? Wasn’t it raining heavily? How?”

“All that I do not know! It was raining and there was quite a wind and lightning. You came home, holding your bag on your head. Straight you went to sleep. I tried to wake you, talk to you, you did not. You were off to sleep immediately. I did not disturb. And now... I made little sambar. There is rice from last night. There is a boiled egg. Clean up and eat. Don’t go anywhere, I will be back around 2 p.m today. Saturday!” He left, leaving me dazed.

Too many questions to be answered. I slowly got up, went out. The sun was up reasonably high. Must be around 9:30 a.m. I had come home, according to grandfather around 7:30 last night. I had slept 14 hours!!! That surely cannot be. Being young at heart and age, I let go, thinking thaatha must have been mistaken about time. Then I soon got over it. But the incident remained in me somewhere. Either grandfather’s sense of time was mixed up... or... I tried to dismiss it. An year passed.

Things changed. One day grandfather took me, I was 13 and half, to Cuddalore. For me it was not again. I had not remembered anything of my early past. He took me to a house where there were lot of other children. Many my age. I was to learn that it was a charity house. Grandfather told me that now I need to focus on my studies. Enough of travelling and learning from the elementary school in my town. That he would come every weekend to see me. And take me home for the weekend and bring me back Monday mornings in time for school. 

At first, it was difficult. More than the thought of leaving the town and coming there, it was the thought of leaving him. My eyes welled up. I clung to him. He caressed the top of my head, kissed the top of my head, consoled me. “After all, it’s only 5 days a week! Before you turn around, I shall be back to take you back home.” 

“But...but... can’t you also come to this town?” 

“No... who will feed me here. Who will give me work here! I am just a few miles away.” And then he visited me for six months. And then, I was just informed he had passed away. I did not eat, sleep... for days. My thaatha, the only real person I had ever had, known, who cared for me, my lamb, my herd, my house, my town. Nothing remained. Years rolled by. 

4

2024

I felt a wind swirl under my feet. It swept a bit of dust on my boot. And crept up my trouser, to my calf. I shook my feet. Coming to senses, I looked around what remained of my house. The only house I knew. “Meh... meh... meh...” The distant familiar cry! I looked around, walked out... followed the direction of the cry. At the edge of the town, about 700 metres from the outskirts, a small hillock. Teetering in the crevice of the rock... a little lamb! Deja Vu? Can’t be.

An IAS officer. Prided by the state authorities as the youngest woman officer from the State, educated, rational, am I to be beset with doubts? That was long ago. It was a rainy night. It can’t be. I skirted round the rock to find a convenient place to reach to the lamb. It first shrank from my touch. I could feel its heart beating hurriedly, in fear. I let my hand rest on it. It became less anxious. I held it with my single hand, gently peeling away the clump of brush from between its forelegs. Retrieving it, I cradled it and started walking.

Then I felt the familiar swirl of little wind dust. At first I thought I was imagining. Then I was sure. I looked down. I started moving away. This time I could not brush it away. Fascinated, on a whim, I started following it. At one point, I let the lamb slip from my grip and started following the little twister dust. It lead... to a gated house with an awning. I stepped in.

At the sound of footsteps, a toad jumped away, a biggish garden lizard scurried and I stopped short of stepping on it. Totally run down, bizarre and creepy, the walls had creepers all over. Hesitantly I stopped. Turned to go back. Then a long staccato of coughing came from inside the house. Adjusting my top, I tried not to sound unnerved. “Hello... who’s in there?” As I neared the steps, I noticed a four by three by three little parapet. I smelt tobacco. Beedi smoke. More cough. I stepped in easily. For a house so run down, there were no cobwebs on the doorstep.

My eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the relative darkness inside. I peered around. In a corner, half laying down, propped on his elbow... an old, old man. His face was hidden inside thickets of beard and bushy eyebrows. Had I been younger, I would have been scared. Sitting up amidst a wave of cough, he snuffed the left over of his beedi on the upper soles of his feet and threw it away. “Come child. You finally came?”

“Uh... what old man? I finally came? Was I expected? Who are you?” 

“Not that way... I meant you were hesitating outside. Good you finally came in...”

“I do not understand. Whose house is it? It looks ruined and very old. Why are you here?”

He laughed a very guttural lengthy laugh that resounded on the walls of the house, disturbing couple of little nesting birds. Their rustle in turn made few loose strands of a creeper swing and finally fall with a soft thud that set off a series of rats peacefully munching the leftovers of some strange insect furtively look up. It unnerved me. The man laughed... softly this time. I stepped back couple of paces and something tripped me. As I bent down to pick it, the old man got up, so energetically for his frail frame. As I bent to pick up, I noticed him through between my legs, my back to him. And then looked away, to see what tripped my leg. It was an old photo frame. The glass had been broken thrice across the frame of the photo. I carefully picked it, cautious not to nick my fingers or hand. Keeping it away from me, I shook the shards so that they fell away from me, among the fallen creeper, with soft clink. The photo was dusty and pock-marked with moth holes. I could not see the face on the photo properly. I must ask the old man. I turned.

I had not heard any receding footsteps. I would have heard the crunch of his feet on the dried down leaves that lay scattered along with some odds and bits of pigeon feathers. I did not. I looked around. I took a few steps towards the door outside. He was nowhere to be seen. I tried focussing on the face in the photo. There were only random and faint glints of evening light seeping through the holes on the ceiling above. Holding it to what little light there was, I saw: it was the face of a smiling 11 year old girl. She... she... she... looked like ME! Scalded, I dropped the frame off my hands.

I froze. My thoughts fled to that night in the storm. I had stayed on the small parapet here!

I could not stand anymore. The world started reeling around me. I had to get out. I... the little lamb... I stumbled out, feeling slightly nauseous. I looked in the compound, no sign of the man. I fled outside the gate. It was dark. I looked around. No lamb. I hastened out...

Epilogue

The moon was rising.

A little shiny swirl of dust was forming, slowly gathering into a twister, not more than 1 foot high. It rose, above the ground, hovered at around two feet high, gathered speed, moved a few feet forward... following the hastening footsteps. 

It. Stopped. Resolved. Into The Face. Of A. Smiling 11 Year Old...

The moon had risen... a bat swam across the face of the moon, hung dead centre for a second or two. Then it left, followed by a chasing streak of cloud.

A drop fell. Then two. Then a few.

In the distance, a receding pair of boots.

The End

Afterword

It was in the year 2010. My family and I were on a holiday trip to Yercaud. While driving down the highway, I don’t remember which part of Tamilnadu, en route, we observed the twister swirl that I have used as a device in my story. It was no more than on foot high and about 10 inches in diameter. We saw it approaching from the open, fallow, agricultural fields on our right, some 300 metres to our approach. On both sides of the road tall trees canopied our road. To the left were also open, fallow agricultural fields. It came to the edge of the field and crossed the road, entered the left side fields and was gone in the distance. It took merely a minute or less. Our driver, a very superstitious person, stopped in the distance, 300 metres before, suddenly, stopped the car, prayed to his god as he saw this swirl go across. After it left, he offered further prayers and continued our journey. When my father inquired, sit in the front passenger seat,the driver explained the local belief about the twister, which in local language, he called as “surul pei” (a twister ghost). Hence my usage.

My grateful thanks to him for this information, wherever he is today. I do not remember his name. One other person I would like to thank is my father, Dr. S. Krishna Kumar, for helping me with proof-reading, formatting and final print outs of this story. The rest is FUN. Read on. I hope you have the same fun I had in writing the story.

- Ashvi, K.S. (December 2015)

04 March 2016

Tragic Frustration and Comic Fulfilment in Romulus the Great

Tragic Frustration and Comic Fulfilment:
History and Subversion in Dürrenmatt’s ROMULUS THE GREAT

Dürrenmatt subtitles the play ‘a historic comedy without historic basis.’ Although the plot revolves around Romulus, the eponymous protagonist, the play has nothing to do with either the historical Romulus, the founder of Rome or the titular Romulus. Dürrenmatt’s Romulus is the last Roman emperor, whose Rome is preparing to be confronted by the threat of the invading Teutons. Romulus, in reality, is a means behind the playwright’s polemic towards the evolution of a certain theory of dramatic form he was working towards, and the demystification of the concept of history as a construct of mankind’s past.

The work deals with the fall of the Roman empire and the dissolution of the Roman civilisation. The Teutons are invading the empire. The whole of Rome is thirsting for action. Starting at the top of the hierarchy with the Roman patricians, down to the cook, everyone is planning their defence, sharpening their swords and knives to fight for their country. Romulus does not. He is busy farming chickens. On top of his priority is not the defence of his state, but chicken-fancying. Is he a clown or one who deliberately plots the downfall of a kingdom? To him, it is more than the fall of a kingdom. To him, Rome has become a symbol of oppression. Why?

Answering to an accusation by his wife, Julia, that as an emperor, “(he) jeopardises the state” since he “doubts the necessity of the state [sic]” (FP 94), and that he has failed in his duties “as the father of the nation,” he replies: “I don’t doubt the necessity of the state. I merely doubt the necessity of our state. Our state has become a world empire, an institution officially engaged in murder, plunder, suppression, and oppressive taxation at the expense of other people... (FP 94). Having recognised the dispensable nature of the state that lives at the expense of humaneness, he decides to become its judge.

According to Romulus, it is a question of individual freedom or collective bondage. As he says later to his daughter, Rea, “To remain loyal to a human being is greater and much more difficult than to remain loyal to a state” (FP 97). He has spoiled all efforts to save not just the nation, but has decided too, to sink the world culture called the Roman civilisation. Is he a traitor or a courageous human being? This question relates to the topic in consideration directly, for, the playwright raises basic questions: on humanity, the nature of heroism, of patriotism, free-will against the state and the rebelling individual against oppressive establishments. The play subverts the process of history by providing a case study of the unfolding of history. Juxtaposed alongside is the process of time.

Romulus the Great is plotted in four Acts. The First Act opens on the morning of the 15th of March, 476 A.D. - the Ides of March. The Second Act takes place on the same afternoon. The Third Act happens in the night and the Fourth & Final Act the succeeding morning. The action begins with a messenger arriving with reports to the king from the front. The Second Act shows the contrasting approach of the king and the citizens: while Romulus shrugs away any possibility to rescue the empire, the patriots try to organise forces to defend, and to assassinate Romulus. They see their emperor as their first hurdle and enemy, even more than the invading Germans. The Third Act is the scene of farewells on Romulus’ personal front and the assassination bid on the political plane. The Final Act shows the dissolution of the Roman empire, as desired by Romulus, but in a manner not expected by him. Although the end is what Romulus had sought, it does not come in a way he had planned. The place, throughout the span of action is the Emperor’s villa, his palace rooms and the courtyard gardens, all within a single compound. The play is structured to represent the Aristotelian unities of Time, Place and Action. While sticking to the classical construct of Aristotelian tragedy structurally, the play aspires to challenge the classic construct of History. This is where the Dürrenmattian subversion gets into action. In a surprise travesty of conquest of the empire, the play unveils its tragi-comic nature. What seems to be heading towards a tragedy ends up in a no-blood, no-gore ending, befitting a comedy.

The playwright’s intention is obvious: this is a parody of the classical tragedy. There is a king, the clash of interests or conflict, the choric messenger, tragic confrontation, perepeteia and anagnorisis and the fatal flaw; the play, in the course of the Third Act, even teeters on the edge of becoming a genuine tragedy. Romulus’ address of the patriots at the point of assassination reaches heroic heights worthy of a tragic hero at the verge of his fall due to his fatal flaw. Romulus indeed almost achieves his purpose. This is where the tragedy in the play lose itself out. At the verge of being assassinated, he is saved. The patriots are defeated and killed. The Germans prevail. Rome is vanquished, although not through the manner in which Romulus had planned. In spite of its peaceful end, the work goes through vicissitudes of moods ranging from farcical moments of witty one-liners and caustic black-humour, to grotesque and macabre episodes of assassination bids and tragic deaths.

Romulus the Great hovers between a well-made tragicomedy and the tragic form of the twentieth century, the absurd. It exemplifies ‘the coalescing of the genre boundaries in the works of art of the twentieth century, where comedy often mixes with high tragedy and the satire giving way to melodrama,’ as George Brandt explains (cf. Conclusion in Howarth ed.)

In the course of becoming a hybrid form of theatre, Romulus the Great justifies its existence, and vindicates Dürrenmatt’s dramaturgy: the paradoxical nature of things and the impossibility of pure tragedy or pure comedy in the twentieth century. In order to arrive at this point, Dürrenmatt juxtaposes the concepts of delusion and reality, history and time, and used the subversive tool of ritualising an act. This works at different levels in the work. 

First, Dürrenmatt provides a very serious exposition that parallels the opening of classical tragedies. The Captain of the Cavalry enters to deliver the news that the empire’s last line of defence has perished before the barbaric might of the Teutons. The messenger figure, as observed, is a typical choric figure in Attic tragedies. Thus, through this artifice, he creates expectation among the reader/audience. However, in this play, he is not even granted permission to meet the Emperor straightaway. The chamberlains to the Emperor, parodically named Sulphurides and Phosphoridos, insist that usual protocols of meeting an Emperor must be observed before the Messenger even gains a hearing. The bureaucratic process of the governmental machinery is being parodied here, in a bid to reduce the serious tone set at the outset. Dürrenmatt is a Swiss-German and knows very well the Germans’ proverbial love for protocols, paper work and bureaucracy. The reader/audience observes to their surprise that if they were building a routine picture of the playwright’s intent, they have been deluded.

When the Emperor himself enters, all the pomp that surround him are represented. Again, impressions are created, expectation are raised, the paegentry revolving an Emperor’s classical entry are played out. However, instead of concerning himself with the affairs of the state, the Emperor proceeds to enquire about his hens and chickens: those that laid eggs and those that did not. The playwright hints his key intention: to demystify the concept of history; how does he go about it? The hens of the empire are named after the Caesars of the past. Further, Romulus himself is portrayed as a person concerned more about selling the ancient and antique cultural artifacts of the Roman Empire so that he could pay off his cook and his chamberlains, to whom salaries were due. He also orders the destruction of the state archives which contain valuable information on the art of running the government. One can, at this point, in retrospect, see this as a presage of the fall of East German state and the last act of the state machinery: to destroy state archives. However, Dürrenmatt is, of course, alluding to the last act of the Nazi machinery: to destroy documents relating to the Nazi machinery. If the reader/audience assumes that Romulus is an insane person who cannot save his drowning empire, again they are deluded. The attempt here is to give the finishing touches to this deliberate act of dissolving a world empire, a historic civilisation. This act of Romulus prompts the Roman patriots to hatch a plot to assassinate him.

In the Third Act, the climactic Act of the play, there is a grotesque enactment of the assassination, in an apparent parody of the historic assassination of Julius Caesar; all the patriots of Rome, beginning with Emilian, the Emperor’s prospective son-in-law, to the cook are assembled. They grotesquely come tumbling and creeping out of all possible nooks, crannies and corners of Romulus’ bedroom. The question him, upbraid him and force him with arguments into confessing his guilt of having betrayed the empire. Romulus cleverly turns the tables on them with his arguments and makes them feel guilty. Those who came to attack him in the night end up being the one’s who are attacked. As he says: “You thought you were coming to a man who could not defend himself, while I now spring upon you with the claws of truth and grip you with the teeth of justice... You are not accusing me, but I’m accusing you”(FP 105). Suddenly, the listless fool, the chicken-fancying clown of an Emperor transforms into a protagonist worthy of the audience’s sympathy. However, this is too easily becoming a tragedy and Romulus is close to becoming a tragic hero; but Dürrenmatt’s purpose is different. He succeeds in his ruse. If Romulus were to get killed, he would indeed become a tragic hero. History would repeat itself. This is too banal for Dürrenmatt’s credo. According to him,

The world today, as it appears to us, could hardly be encompassed in the form of the historical drama as Schiller wrote it, for the reason alone that we no longer have any tragic heroes, but only vast tragedies staged by world butchers and produced by slaughtering machines. Hitler and Stalin cannot be made into Wallensteins. Their power was so enormous that they themselves were nomore than incidental, corporeal and easily replaceable expressions of this power... Any small-time crook, petty government official or policeman better represents our world than a senator or president... (FP 31)

Given the above assumption, Romulus, representing the ordinary individual who utilised his opportunity to ascend to the Roman throne, is devoid of tragic greatness. Also, he is a criminal in the eyes of his fellow-Romans for the simple reason that he betrayed his country. To quote Salman Rushdie’s The Courtier here would not be out of context: “The attack of a tactician can be troublesome to meet - that of a strategist even more so. Whereas the tactician’s threats may be unmistakeable, the strategist confuses the issue by keeping things in abeyance. He threatens to threaten” (Rushdie 194). Seen in this light, Romulus’ method behind his mad behaviour becomes clear; he is as dangerous as Hitler or Stalin. Romulus breaks through the confines of the play to become a metaphor. He represents the twentieth century mass-murdering megalomaniacs. In the process of putting an end to an oppressive institution, he is willing not only to surrender and sacrifice himself to the Teutons, but also his subjects and the entire civilisation. He does not deserve a tragic ending of grand proportions. The play then must become a farce, if the playwright must avoid providing Romulus a grand tragic ending. Consequently, Romulus does not achieve his martyrdom. At the moment of the daggers falling on him, someone freakishly shouts, “The Teutons are here” and the assassins take flight to save themselves. Later, we are informed that the boat that they took flight in capsized and they died. Their heroism too is hence rendered a mockery.

Romulus survives. Nevertheless, further humiliation is in store for him, who has calmly accepted his death. He meets the invading Teutons the following morning. He finds to his disappointment that he is not going to be killed. The Teuton chief, Odoaker, too is a chicken-farmer, whose real intention behind the expedition of Rome is to surrender himself and his Teutonic army to he whom Odoaker considers the only human: Romulus. There is only one thing left. The two chiefs decide to act “as if final accounts are being settled on earth” since, even if they decide to end the oppression, Odoaker’s successor would start it. The end of the play shows Romulus being sent into retirement, having dissolved his empire and handed over the reign to Odoaker. The latter, too, would one day be supplanted by his nephew Theodoric, who would become Theodoric the Great in the annals of history. Though Romulus and Odoaker achieve their comic fulfilment, they experience too, a tragic sense of frustration. Their lives have become absurd, their efforts a grotesque parody of good intentions. Romulus had waited to surrender to Odoaker and the latter had come marching to surrender into the former. History is being striped of its meaning. This, however, has taken a long span of time, represented by the arrival of the Teutons, “who have been...coming for the past 500 years,” as one of the characters in the play puts it. 

By creating a fictional and parallel history, by using historic personae to construct an imagined history, Dürrenmatt attempts to subvert history. He shows that “history is meaningless repetition... For Dürrenmatt, the flow of historic time is synonymous with human misery. History is suffering” (Joseph Federico in Moshe Lazar ed. 19,20). If this must be validated, the historical time and accuracy must be taken out of the context, by giving it a sense of timelessness. Dürrenmatt does this by placing a historical context within the temporary boundaries of the stage. As Federico quotes Eugen Fink, “(a) play is ‘an eminent manifestation of human freedom. And ‘in the autonomy of the play action there appears a possibility of human timelessness in time” (Federico in Moshe Lazar ed. 20-21).

A play is ahistorical. “Through play, one can escape, at least temporarily, the compulsion and implacability of historical time” (Federico 21). To conclude,
Romulus the Great is a play where the theme of justice is treated as a paradox in which betrayal becomes the only virtue, where victims turn out to be their hangmen, and where potential tragedy is turned into a farce by mock-heroic parody... (Innes 110)
The play, through its as if play at the end, deprives all efforts at serious attempts by making the act of heroism a redundant ritual. 

List of Abbreviations:
  • FP - Four Plays

References:
  1. Dürrenmatt, Friedrich. Romulus the Great (trans. Gerhard Nellhaus) in Four  Plays. London: Jonathan Cape, 1964.
  2. _______________________. Problems of the Theater (trans. Gerhard Nellhaus) in  Four Plays. London: Jonathan Cape, 1964.
  3. Federico, Joseph A.  “Time, Play and the Terror of History in Dramatic Works by  Dürrenmatt” in Play Dürrenmatt ed. Moshe Lazar. Malibu, CA: Undena  Publications, 1983.
  4. Howarth, W.D. (Aut. & ed.) Comic Drama: The European Heritage. London:  Methuen, 1978.
  5. Innes, Christopher D. Modern German Drama. Cambridge: CUP, 1979.
  6. Rushdie, Salman. “The Courtier” from East, West. London: Jonathan Cape, 1994.
  7. Steer, Alun. “Delusion and Reality in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Romulus the Great.”  Journal of European Studies, 18,4,72 (Dec. 1988): 233-251

- Krishna Kumar. S, Research Scholar, 
Dept of English, University of Madras, 
31.01.’97

23 February 2016

Umberto Eco - Professeur-Writer-Philosopher extraordinaire - 1932-2016

Umberto Eco - the name spells magic!

Magic of a mystique man who bounced with energy, taught semiotics, lectured and discussed on philosophy, wrote classical potboilers (an oxymoron), unabashedly spoke about high-grade literature in the same breath of James Bond and comics and walked the 20th & 21st century hall of literary pantheons!

The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Llona, Baudolino, The Prague Cemetery and Numero Zero being his fictional contributions to the literary world of classics, he has a vast body of non-fiction works about translation, ugliness, writing dissertations and everything else in-between!

RIP great man!


09 February 2016

Thomas Berger’s Who’s Teddy Villanova? as a Barthian post-modernist fiction

Thomas Berger’s Who’s Teddy Villanova? as a Barthian post-modernist fiction

(This is a paper I had presented at the Wednesday Circle of the Professors of Department of Languages and Liberal Arts, University of Magdeburg, Germany, during my stint in 1995-96. I have reworked and rewriten and modified the paper to make it more current. - Oct 2005

Originally presented at the Colloquium on Postmodernism in Literatures in Engish, Department of English, University of Madras, Sept 30 - 1 Oct 1992)

John Barth, in his essay entitled ‘The Literature of Replenishment: Post-modernist Fiction,’ writes:
“My ideal post-modernist author neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates either his twentieth-century Modernist parents or his nineteenth-century pre-modernist grandparents… (he) should hope to reach and delight, …beyond the circle of what (Thomas) Mann used to call the Early Christians: professional devotees of high art.”
Barth further writes, in specific reference to the post-modernist fiction: “The ideal post-modernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and “contentism,” pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction. Alas for professors of literature, it may not need as much teaching as (James) Joyce’s or (Vladimir) Nabokov’s or (Thomas) Pynchon’s books, or some of my own.” [For the information of new, uninitiated readers, John Barth’s THE SOT-WEED FACTOR is one of the long-standing essentials of past-post-graduate studies!)

At the same time, Barth feels that this ideal work will not be off-handed or too light or frivolous, rather it will be delighting and call for further re-readings.

The writings of the contemporary American novelist, Thomas Berger, well qualify to meet the demands of Barth’s expectations. Berger’s writings have ranged from a mock-epic on the Frontier West and Custer’s Last Stand (Little Big Man), through a work set in the American 30s (The Feud) to Who Is Teddy Villanova? (WITV), a detective pot-boiler, and Nowhere, a novel, the events of which happen in a Utopian Land (deja-vu Samuel Butler’s Erewhon !). He has written (at the time of my seminar) fourteen works of fiction since 1958.

Of all these, his 1977 detective fiction written in the form of a pot-boiler novel, Who is Teddy Villanova? can be termed as a stand-offish attempt among his corpus. Of course, no two works of Berger are similar in context or genre; but his Reinhart Tetralogy deal with the same context, Little Big Man has a sequel and so on…; hence WITV is a very different attempt.

Almost all of his fictional works, much like the entire corpus of the post-modern fiction, have language as the theme, and irony and satire as the technique, even while trying to emphasise the spirit of cultural subversion and anarchy that this movement has come to be reckoned by the critics of literature. Where this particular work differs is in its generic approach. Instead of resorting to the standard and high-priestly approach towards writing (post-modernist and post-structuralist writing in particular), much like the writing of Philip Roth, Donald Barthelme or Thomas Pynchon, (not to mention the encryption-fiction writings of Umberto Eco, paperback Dan Brown and some of the Calvinos), Berger chooses the medium of what is called ‘the popular and kitsch novel’ better known as pot-boiler fiction.

Berger uses this medium to portray his concern for the individual in a world polluted with deception, cunning and disguised realities. According to Prof. Hassan,
“Power and Fraud rule that world, distorting appearances and realities, pressing man to the limits of his sanity, and pressing him on the guilt-ridden role of victim or aggressor. But threats also contain their own answer, and shields may be fashioned of weapons. Man’s response, therefore, is to adopt a stance of knowing craziness, resilient simplicity, or defensive defenselessness.”
Berger’s weapon to combat the cultural and social threat takes the form of language. His hero, Russel Wren, is a former teacher of English from State University New York, turned detective by the quirk of fate. He has “…literary pretensions and a style that Samuel Johnson might have developed had he been born 250 years later in New York…” Throughout the work, he juggles with the art of literary parataxis, as much as Berger interests himself for both verbal arrangement without connective as well as parataxis of ideas.

At the very beginning, this is how Wren introduces himself:
I was an unlicensed private investigator, but I possessed an unlicensed firearm… (pressed upon me once, and then forgotten, by a client who, suspecting his wife had taken a lover, had worked a ruse-suicide attempt that, owing to a hair-trigger had cost him an earlobe)… [A]gainst any arm more formidable than a pen-knife it would be outweaponed; and in New York, defending oneself against attack not only is in heinous violation of innumerable ordinances but might well provoke the frustrated assailant to bring a successful suit for damages.
Any author of a detective novel would introduce its protagonist through hectic action of mind or body, in the process of establishing him a macho-type personality; but not Berger. His craft lies in subverting action into words and demystifying the world of survival. His is an approach of “complicated simplicity”, deriving his lineage from the American literary ancestors in Hawthorne, Faulkner and Melville.

At one juncture of the plot, having gone through some harrowing experiences of adventure and escapades a detective hero normally goes through (and is quintessentially let down if it does not happen!), Wren remarks irritated to Alice Ellish, his girl-friend’s room-mate: “Look! I’ve had an unfortunate day, an unconscious night, and an unprecedented morning…” (p.145). A little later, the following conversation ensues between him and his client-cum-alleged criminal Washburn:
“You won’t get a sou from me, you contemptible cur.” Despite his arch terminology, he appeared authentically grim; … I replied in kind, subtly trying to curry his favor by emulation of idiom.
“I am not the knave you take me for, Sir. The day is not more pure than the depths of my heart.”
But he was not mollified by the famous line, and it is a general pity that Racine, like Goethe, is notoriously banal when Englished. (p.152)
Philip Kuberski feels that there is more to the frontal word play than meets the eye, that the literary language is only an external manifestation of a serious of “signs and symbols of sexual and aggressive repression” that Berger loads upon his protagonist. However, this linguistic display makes Berger’s New York, a symbol by itself for any place of crime on earth. Berger achieves this by overturning or subverting an already perverted world of the contemporary metropolis - in this case New York - which has come to be identified more with ghettos, hoodlums, crimes, fraudulence, punk and coke culture and MTV, and the jetsam and flotsam of a fast-paced society, than with its arts, management and cultural schools and festivals. Berger writes with a black humor reminiscent of Faulkner and Melville and portrays a world that Tom Wolfe does with much more somber inflection in The Bonfire of Vanities. Though, the lack of high-seriousness in no way demeans or dissociates Berger’s work from the mainstream.

The work at hand, without moving out from the track of realism, of portraying what is truthfully, also has its innovative and experimental orientations. The book is replete with strange and weird syntax styles, arch constructions of the Jamesian and Macaulayan type, the essentially hardboiled jargons of detective fiction, the hundred percent commercial jingoisms of American television world, juxtaposing alongside the contemporary and post-modern self-reflexiveness. Consider the following contrasts. First, Wren’s conversation with his secretary Peggy Tumulty. “Fantasy has its uses, Peggy. In dreams begin responsibilities, according to your countryman Yeats” (p.239). Next, his ratiocination during his escape from the Police, with the aid of a Gay Assault Team, “… though I have nothing those professing to the persuasion of Marcel Proust, André Gide, and perhaps even the Great Will himself, I am not myself an invert, having, when it comes to intimacies, an absolute addiction to the other and not the same” (p.124). In short, Berger could have made his character simply state his loyalty towards heterosexuality, with lesser intellectual aspirations that the life of the lay readers treating the work as a regular pot-boiler journeyman fiction were made easy.

Consider further how Berger plays with language and the use of related images. At one point, Wren, the ex-English instructor states, “I could only manage my sweep of reason by assembling a broom straw by straw” (p.235), and a little earlier, when he accuses his girlfriend of cohorting with the villains, he says, “…[J]udging from the feathers of the rest of your flock, you are yourself of criminal plumage” (p.177).

Leonard Michaels finds much reflections of “contemporary literature” in Berger’s work – “hilarious and serious at once,” when he writes:
'Berger’s style, which is one of the great pleasures of the book, is something like S.J.Perelman’s – educated, complicated, graceful, silly, destructive in spirit, and brilliant – and it is also something like Mad Comics – densely, sensuously detailed, unpredictable, packed with gags. Beyond all this, it makes an impression of scholarship…'
For Thomas McClanahan, the work poses a different challenge. Desperate ‘to look through the language for a plot,’ he declares that “The pretentious overwriting becomes trying… when the descriptions do nothing to advance the story.” As far as he is concerned, “Wren’s descriptive rambling [is] a futile attempt to save a lackluster book.” McClanahan is over-reacting, since a conscious post-modern credo is to lose itself in the labyrinth of language and is not critiquing the work within the canons of post-modernism. If one accepts that WITV, like Berger’s other works, is an assay at deconstructing the banality of day today human experience and reconstruct the worldly chaos into a meaningful struggle. Berger does adhere to the idea of societal meliorism. He does not try to vindicate the brutality and violence present around us either. For Berger, existence is inevitable, to be gone through whether it is painful or coke-induced happiness. As Reinhart, the protagonist of the eponymous tetralogy declares: “I’m not here to bury life, but to recognize it…” (Reinhart in Love, p.132). And Berger’s approach is to recognize it through the greatest human invention of all – language. As he once described, he is “essentially a voyeur of copulating words.”

To conclude, if the novel is written in an “arch, allusive and rhetorically exhibitionistic style: loquacious, periphrastic, euphuistic”, and does not take itself seriously… therein lies the raison d’etre of this detective parody. It is at once a worthy inheritor of the title “a truly post-modern novel”, whose primary aim is to use the last resort of human sanity – language - to construct a mouse-trap out of conceit, as Friedrich Dürrenmatt described the essential function of comedy, and draw its unsuspecting reader to a lethal dose of literary voyeurism even while delighting and entertaining them; it is also a worthy successor to the children of its creator’s forbear – Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald. And if that does not suffice to authenticate the work’s place in the halls of literary fame, consider the sweep of its touch – Jean Racine, Goethe, Ruskin, Proust and Elias Canetti at one end and, Mad Comics and Charlie Chaplin at the other end.

- To be Annotated with Bibliographical Sources

03 February 2016

The Play in NAGA-MANDALA

The Play in NAGA-MANDALA

the bitter-sweet headache of identifying the protagonist

Presented as a Paper at a Symposium on Indian Literature in English held at the Department of English, University of Madras, Madras on 11th March, 1994.

Lionel Abel, in his book Metatheater: A New View of Dramatic Form, writes that [it is] “the necessary form for dramatizing characters who, having full self-consciousness, cannot but participate in their own dramatization” [fall into the canon of meta-characters]. Citing this, Joesph Federico says that the heroes of the metatheater have “the consciousness of a dramatist as well as that of a character...” This implies that it leads to a conscious role-playing by the character that cannot participate, and also cannot but participate. Is this ambiguity or ambivalence? That is the question of the day.

When the idea of finding what actually Naga-Mandala is all about came, I was confounded, like so many scholars who still break their heads about the chicken or the egg question regarding Paradise Lost: ‘Who is the hero?’ My trouble was, is there a hero in Naga-Mandala at all? Is the story-teller in the play the hero? After all, the meta-play is about his predicament. Or is it either of the two - Naga and Appanna - in the story told? Or is the story-teller without the play - Girish Karnad, the author - himself? The second question was easily solved - neither Naga nor Appanna could be the hero since, if we went by the normal norms of tragedy, Naga does not have any fatal flaw. First and foremost, Naga-Mandala is not a tragedy; second, Naga is only an instrument. Appanna is too unrounded a character and again a sort of an instrument to explore Rani’s drama that his character lacks any weightage. Then, he cannot be a hero. If we can take the story within the story, or the play within the play more seriously than the Man’s story, then Rani stands to qualify as the protagonist. However, since the story of Rani is only a story told by ‘the Story’ to the Man on grounds of mutual help, it really does not qualify for any further discussion. What can be noticed already are the various layers to the play that makes this Chinese box a fascinating conundrum.

The story of Naga-Mandala is more a story of ‘the Man’ and ‘the Story.’ Of the two, the dominant role is that of ‘the Man’ since the crux of the argument is about his predicament and his imminent death, if he does not keep himself awake at least for one full night. It is obvious, the situation, as the Man says and I quote:
I may be dead within the next few hours. I am not talking of ‘acting dead.’ Actually dead. I might die right in front of your eyes. A mendicant told me: ‘You must keep awake at least one whole night this month... If not, you will die...’ [...] I asked the mendicant what I had done to deserve the fate. And he said: ‘You have written plays. You have staged them. You have caused so many good people... to fall asleep...’ (N-M, pg 1 - 2)
It is a matter of life and death for him, whereas, for ‘the Story’ it is not so crucial. Of course, a story lives only when it is retold. That is the quintessence of oral tradition and that is one of the drive-home points in the play. But then, if ‘the Story’ could not narrate the story that it possesses that particular day, it could be done some other day. For ‘the Man’ though, as he says, ‘Tonight is the only chance.’ Without the Man, the Story-teller, the playwright, the story could not be passed on. Hence we can safely conclude that the play is about the Man.

At this stage of my analysis, a new ambiguity arose, a new temptation to question: Can Karnad qualify as the protagonist of the play? Even as Shakespeare used to play with the modal ‘Will’ in his plays and poems in multifarious ways to imply to him in a playful conceit, is Karnad playing with the idea of the story-teller, playwright? The reasons are not far to seek. The Karnad of the Haya-Vadana who wrote in 1972 that ‘... there is our large-hearted audience. It may be that they fall asleep during a play sometimes,’ and the Karnad of Naga-Mandala who writes in 1988 that ‘[I] have caused so many good people... to fall asleep, twisted in miserable chairs...’ are two vastly different playwrights. That is the journey. That is his curve. The Bhagavata of 1972 has evolved into the Man, the Story-teller of 1988.

The very English diction, despite the Indianness of his folk-tale rendition, albeit verbal than oral, of Haya-Vadana has metamorphosed into the quintessential oral more than verbal folk-tale rendition. He has in the sixteen in-between years found the oral idiom and has also effectively fused it into the Western experimental play-within-a-play theatrical tradition. This is not to negate the fact that the objective Prologue rendered by the Stage Manager is a Natya-Sashtra tradition and hence the play-within-a-play is nothing new to the Indian milieu. In fact, Karnad largely approaches the Scheherazade paradigm of keeping the audience awake with a story that travel within and within which there is further story, which again can be mirrored in the Kathasarithsagara and others of similar plumage. To stress this, come to think of it, most oral traditions have the Chinese Box in them. From Mahabharata to Homer’s twin epics, The Aeneid to the Chinese myth of The Monkey King. Such is the scope of inference in Karnad’s work, in general and Naga-Mandala, in specific. 

In Naga-Mandala, not only that, the oral mode is untopographised. Not only is it given a cross-generical treatment, also does the story-telling cross the parochial Kannada limits from where he gets his base story (via A.K. Ramajunan’s collection: A Flowering Tree and other Folk Tales, OUP), and reaches out for a oneness of national cultural flavour. This is achieved not just through what Karnad describes the folk-theatre style in the following words: ‘...although it seems to uphold traditional values, it also has the means of questioning the values... (allowing) for a “complex seeing”.’ It is achieved through the simplicity and disarming way in which he names the characters. The relative word for ‘The Fair One,’ ‘ The Dark One,’ ‘Rani’ (meaning Queen) or ‘Kurudavva’ (meaning ‘The Blind One’) exists in all Indian languages. This ubiquity has evolved with Karnad’s evolution itself through the last 16 years. Also to be mentioned as Karnad’s greatest triumph, to use the words of our honoured Chairperson for the day, Dr. Raju, is ‘the story and the flames. They are invested with recognisable personalities.’

Despite these reasons, there are also certain pitfalls in calling Karnad the protagonist of the play. The first reason, in a slightly amusing way, is to be found in the following lines uttered by the Man: ‘I swear by this absent God... I shall have nothing more to do with themes, plots or stories. I abjure all story-telling, all play-acting.’ (NM, pg 2) If these words are taken literally as those of Karnad in the garb of the Man, it is contradictory in that in order to survive that night, he proceeds as a narrator to relate a tale and he says: ‘I suppose I have no choice... I have no choice. Bear with me, please. As you can see, it is a matter of life and death for me.’ (NM, pg 5) 

The second and more serious reason is the fact that he acknowledges in the Preface that he has only weaved two oral tales that he heard from A.K. Ramanujan. Here again, he is just an instrument or a catalyst bringing together two existing elements to evolve a third element. So, going back to our original argument, it is obvious that the final remaining candidate is the Man; but then, uncertain clouds mar this supposition when we acknowledge a fact. ‘The play’ has been so carefully crafted that ‘the Man’ does not really get to his Act of leading this play till the end. The moment he explains, although apologetically, why the play is being done, he ceases to hold our attention. The Story takes over. The Man becomes a mere audience: an audience beyond the real audience. How then can he be the protagonist?

Naga-Mandala is more about this audience, an audience-within-an-audience than about a play-within-a-play. At the same instance, the narrator, the playwright and the leading character all become audience to the unfolding spectacle. This, in fact, could be the very crux of Post-modern western theatre whose preoccupation has come more to be identified on a generic front - the focus on the form. The very form of the theatre is an attempt to confront the hostile world by turning inward. It results in two things: one is, it results, as can be seen in the contemporary German plays by Peter Handke, in ‘total autistic withdrawal into an imaginary role;’ two is, it results in a ‘capitulation to a social mask. In either case, the true self succumbs to an artificial existence.’ The self-conscious narrator or the confronting playwright becomes an actor.

In the case of Naga-Mandala, by the time the tale of Rani begins, the Man, a playwright by profession, is condemned to be an audience - moves from one mask to another. Overcome by an impotence, faced with extinction, he accepts to face the same treatment he has been meting out to so many in the audience. It is not just a tactic he is adopting, it is his fate. It is an end in itself and a means to survival.

We might, so, be tempted to ask, in what way is it new, if this play has features like other western plays? The difference is, whereas in most other plays the narrator turned actor-cum-audience’s presence is felt continually, in this play, the moment the play-within-the-play begins, till the Story that narrates Rani’s story says: ‘Rani lived happily ever after...,’ we forget the Man’s existence. Also, it is at this point that Karnad’s main card is played. The Man does not want to give up. The dawn is round the corner. If he can be awake till sunlight, he will live. The story-teller in him does not give up. On two counts. One is the fact that it is an opportunity to live, which is actually peripheral to our consideration. The other is, it is his natural proclivity. At the point the Story ends the story, he says: ‘No one will accept this ending.... Too many loose ends.’ (NM, pp 40-41) He knows he has survived the worst. He can get back to business. He goes about tying the ends. The story-teller in him does not allow loose-ends to the narration. He tries ending after ending, in a bid to hand out impartial treatment to others in the tale - Appanna and Naga. Surely, Karnad’s coup-de-theatre! Karnad does not make the commitment for an overall happy ending come from the Man/Playwright. He makes one of the Flames question the Man. ‘Why can’t things end happily for a change?’ The Flames are also subverted into role-playing here. They sound as though they are a section of the audience asking for a satisfactory ending. This shows traces of the play approaching the Brechtian Epic Theatre.

This in fact, is one other element of the oral tradition, because, at the end of it all, it is difficult to imagine the play as a piece written work. The work, couched naturally in intense Indian images and felt words, does not come through as a read-piece. If the words are not to be felt, as they come from a teller’s mouth, then the work fails. Thus, this has to succeed. After all, as he maintains, Karnad has fused two oral folk tales to his convenience. If the Man / Playwright’s presence is not there, if the Story’s presence in physical terms is absent, the play cannot exist, because the whole edifice on which the work is built is the oral mode. However, the paradox lies here. The tellers are there only to give life feel to the story.

From such a point of view, the problem simplifies. The work depends on the narrator only in as much as it needs a person to say it. On this basis, the narrator is himself a connecting link between the word and the audience, the sound and the audience. Then, neither is the Man in Naga-Mandala the protagonist. For we have too many narrators, too many action-furtherers: the playwright Karnad who combines two folk-tales into one, the Man in the main plot whose personal story he unfolds, the Flames which animatedly gossip the stories of their respective households, the Story’s sad story, the story of Rani as told by the Story, Kurudavva who gives a magic root to Rani in an attempt to make Appanna enamoured by Rani, Kappanna who carries around Kurudavva (playing an indirect action-furtherer) and the story that Rani herself narrates in her story. So what / who then is the true protagonist? Here, it is not what is told or by whom it is told that is important, but how. It needs to be told, to be acted, to be sung; in short, to be vocalised.

The actual protagonist in this work then is the oral tradition, the act of vocalising itself; and it stems from the soil of culture. Everything else is comprised and subsumed in this generic form. It was there at the beginning of civilisation and at the beginning of a culture. It has been existing in its transmission from generation through generation, individual to individual. It has found, from time to time the need to equip itself in order to live, to be retold. And in this work of Karnad, the Indian oral, folk tradition has found a very potential existence, having been combined with the needs of an essentially western-oriented style of theatre. Although Karnad states that “it also owes much to hte Western playwrights as Bertold Brecht and Jean Anouilh who delved into classical stories... and retold them in a Western context,” this work has to be acknowledged as a new contribution to Indian Drama in English, since it transcends both the Western theatrical form and the Indian folk-theatre’s narrative style even while fusing both approaches.

I would conclude by saying that Naga-Mandala needs to be baptised as to its genre, for it is to Indian Drama in English what Midnight’s Children is to contemporary Indian Fiction in English.

- S. Krishna Kumar, Research Scholar
Dept of English, University of Madras
11 March, 1994