Torsa Ghosal is the Associate Editor of Papercuts magazine. She is the author of the novel, Open Couplets (2017), published by Yoda Press in India. Her poems and short stories have appeared in venues such as The Hindu BLink, Aaduna, Poydras Review, Unsplendid, Himal Southasian, and Muse India. She is also a researcher, specializing in narrative theories–-that is, the systematic study of the aesthetic experiences offered by stories across media–-and 20th-/21st- century experimental literary forms. Her critical and scholarly writings can be found in Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, South Asian Review, Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus, Post Script, and Latinos and Narrative Media. In the past, she has assisted the editors of the journal, Prose Studies: History, Theory, Criticism. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of post-1945 English literature at California State University, Sacramento.
Staging Death on the Page
In an interview with Saikat Majumdar, we explore his process of reminiscing an extinct theatrical form and culture through fiction.
Saikat Majumdar’s novel The Firebird (Hachette India, 2015) brings to life the chaotic and colorful world of Kolkata’s commercial theatre that flourished from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. A mass medium of entertainment for more than a century, this form of artistic expression is now dead and it was already dying in the 1980s, the decade in which Majumdar’s novel is set. What remain of this world of operatic and melodramatic splendor today are few dilapidated auditoriums in north Kolkata on the verge of demolition, making way for “development” projects in the metropolis; scarce ephemera such as playbills found in certain archives; and peoples’ memories. It is the memories that Majumdar says prompted his novel and that, perhaps, accounts for the beauty and poignancy with which The Firebird evokes a dying and decadent art form.
As the novel opens with a scene of staged death (excerpted in Kenyon Review), readers can sense a looming tragedy. The tragedy concerns not only the death of a medium but also those quotidian moments through which a middle-class family gradually disintegrates; one miscommunication at a time. Ori, a young Bengali boy, is the novel’s protagonist as well as the spectator through whose eyes we see Kolkata’s commercial theatre. Yet, Ori’s point of view is not that of an outsider. His mother Garima Basu is an actor. Her performances, rehearsals, and tour schedules along with her lack of expertise in domestic chores are stigmatized, first by her own family and then, by the society, which does not hold female artists—especially, those in the commercial performing arts—in high esteem.
The Firebird was recently released in the United States with a new title, Play House (Permanent Press, 2017) and it is now being adapted for the screen by Bedabrata Pain (director of Chittagong). Majumdar is also author of the novel Silverfish (2007), in which an ordinary man discovers the voice of a widow from nineteenth century Bengal, and a scholarly monograph, Prose of the World (2013).
In this interview, Torsa Ghosal, the Associate Editor of Papercuts, chats with Saikat Majumdar about his process of writing The Firebird and animating a long-gone world of vernacular performances through prose in English, and the next step in the medial life of his novel—the film.
Torsa Ghosal (TG): The Firebird begins with a performance of death as Ori watches his mother “die” on stage. From that moment, we see death operating as a motif throughout the novel, touching the world of appearances and performances—the world of the stage—as well as the “real” world that Ori navigates. When you started writing the novel, were you consciously structuring it around the motif of death? And why? Were death and the world of theatre closely connected in your imagination?
Saikat Majumdar (SM): The opening “death” in the novel has its roots in real life. Though the story is largely invented, the world depicted in the novel comes from my own life. My mother was a theatre actor, and my earliest memory of her on stage was watching her “die,” in a role filled with sadness, in a play produced at night on the open grounds. The terror of that moment has never quite left me.
I wanted to open the novel with this moment of felt experience of terror, of a physical and almost primitive kind. In the pages that follow, the novel is haunted by a confusion between art and life, performance and reality. It starts with a child’s fear – is my mother really dying? – but slowly hardens into a willful refusal to distinguish between the staged and the real even as he grows older. This is how the motif of adultery creeps into the novel – fabricated on stage but willfully imagined as real. Somehow the spectacle of death keeps looming large on stage, in the life outside, and in the gray zone that lingers in between.
I wouldn’t say I consciously thought about death as a theme except in the opening scene, which was, as it were, “given” to me by life. But theatre in this novel is about the primal moments, and what is more primal than death? Perhaps that’s why it became so central in this novel. And that confusion between art and life – that is such a dangerous thing. It can only end in death.
TG: Your novel also draws attention to Kolkata’s commercial theatre, which is now “dead.” Was documenting the history of a medium of storytelling that has been relegated to the oblivion an impulse for writing the novel? Why did you choose the prose novel form and the mode of fiction to preserve this history?
SM: Writing a novel about theatre has been a strange and fascinating experience. The art form of the novel emerges from a quiet, secular modernity, situated in the isolated, middle-class experience of reading. Theatre is a much more primitive genre, and there is something savage about it. It is rooted in ritual and religion, and is communal in nature as opposed to being a private bourgeois experience. A novel is abstracted through language, while theatre is enmeshed in the sensual movement of the body. You don’t think about these things while writing, and yet I now realize much of the satisfaction of shaping The Firebird has been about bringing together these two very different art forms.
But writing a novel about theatre also offers some interesting challenges. For the novelist, the stage is not just the proscenium but also the audience gallery. The entire community of people in the playhouse, how they are fused together in a common experience even as they react to it differently as individuals. The reader of the novel becomes the audience, whereas the real audience in the gallery becomes part of the stage. The live performance makes it different from film, which is transportable. Everything offers a story – the backstage – the preparation, not just the cast but also the crew – the visual aesthetics of the stage setting, lights, the aural aesthetics of sound – everything is rooted in a sensual reality and a human narrative.
The now-dead art form of commercial theatre in Calcutta plays a key role in this novel, especially through their venues – the old theatre halls of north Calcutta which have now become shopping malls or were mysteriously gutted. But the novel actually moves between the world of commercial theatre and the more highbrow, left-leaning plays of experimental theatre groups, as Ori’s mother tries to cobble together a life and a livelihood moving between the two. Theatre history of India is almost entirely dominated by accounts of the left-leaning progressive theatre, which is admittedly far superior in quality and cutting-edge in its social imagination. Commercial theatre is a much older form – though it started to be called ‘commercial’ only after experimental group theatre arrived on the scene – that can be traced back to decadent feudal culture, with highly skilled courtesans playing some of the first female roles. The social memory of the convergence of the figures of the actress and that of the prostitute has never quite faded in some parts of India, which partly explains the deep social prejudice against women in performance.
TG: Could you tell us about your process of gathering this history? What were the similarities and differences in the way you approached history in The Firebird and Silverfish?
SM: These are very different novels. Silverfish was shaped by the fleshing out of an intellectual idea, though the setting and the context were drawn from the experience of the real world. The Firebird, on the other hand, is a much more visceral book; its core is far more raw and physical. It took its own demoniac course – there is very little in this book by way of abstract ideas or intellectual ambition. The characters and the story just gripped me and demanded to be told. I was far more in control of Silverfish, and it was an intellectual kind of control. Ironically, the lack of control is why I think The Firebird is a more powerful book.
This also accounts for the difference in the use of history in these two novels. Silverfish was partly inspired by the philosophy of subaltern historiography: the telling of history by cornered or marginal voices. That brought together an ordinary, powerless citizen of late-twentieth century Calcutta with a widow from nineteenth century Bengal, the fragments of whose memoirs the latter has come across. For The Firebird, I did a fair amount of historical research in the theatre culture of Calcutta, but ended up using almost none of it (with the crucial exception of the circular, levitating stage, the ruins of which I visited during my fieldwork).
Parts of Silverfish make up historical fiction in the true sense of the term: rooted in a period well beyond the sensual reach of our memory; a period only available to us through the archives. Nothing of The Firebird is history in that sense – I knew this world as a child, and hence it was researching my memory more than researching archives. Walking past old theatre halls, neighborhoods I knew from childhood, little events. But as we have realized while planning the film, much of that is now historical, and many features of this reality make up a period piece; technical questions like these become crucial while making a film. But whatever history is in this novel is history I experienced personally, and my personal memory holds the key to them. I think that’s a very different kind of history than history obtained from the archives.
TG: Yes, I think readers also get the impression that memory and imagination are central to Firebird. And I’m glad you brought up the film adaptation. Given how you capture Ori’s and Ahin Mullick’s mindscapes in the novel, I am especially curious about the ways in which the media changes will impact the story. How closely are you involved with the adaptation process? How is the film adaptation planning to tackle the characters’ interiority? So far have you been surprised by any particular changes that the adaptation for screen has introduced?
SM: It was interesting how this novel attracted interest from filmmakers early on, rather than from theatre-directors. I was on a panel discussing the novel along with Mahesh Dattani, who, as you perhaps know, has also made films though he’s better known as a playwright. Mahesh said that the novel would be hard to adapt for the stage but would make a beautiful film because of its psychological complexities. I was not quite sure what he meant by psychological complexities being not suitable to the stage, but later on in an interview to Mid-Day about the novel, he said again: “The world of the theatre is presented almost like it is a hallucinogen. I think it will make a great film because of its play with the illusions of a deluded mind and the illusions offered by the world of theatre.” Coming from someone who is possibly the greatest living English-language playwright in India, this was exciting!
The novel kept getting nibbled on by directors but nothing definite happened. And then, in 2016, it was selected as a finalist for the Mumbai Film Festival’s Word to Screen Market, where publishers or agents for selected novels made a pitch to over 40 studios and production houses in the film industry. My publisher, Poulomi Chatterjee of Hachette India, pitched the novel to a wide range of producers, including Yash Raj and Aamir Khan Productions, and she tells me that Kiran Rao was greatly interested in the book. However, it soon became clear that the book would not make a popular but an arthouse film, if perhaps a fast-paced one. It was around this time or shortly thereafter that Bedabrata Pain told me that he would like to make a film based on the novel. I was very happy, not only because I knew Bedabrata and trusted him as a person and friend, but also because he had his feet in multiple worlds, genres, and languages. He’s Bengali and originally from Calcutta but has been based in Los Angeles for a long time now, from where he made his last film, Chittagong, for which he won the National Award in 2012. It was a Hindi film, and I would say quite a mainstream, Bollywood treatment of an unusual historical story, starring Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui and music by Shankar Ehsaan Loy. I liked Bedabrata’s mixed credentials, and his scientific expertise with digital camera technology from his NASA days, and was delighted to give him the book.
Bedabrata wants to foreground certain aspects of the story over others. As for instance the character of the mother: in the novel, she is ethereal but elusive, goddess-like but distant. Bedabrata wants to make her more immediate and real. Then he has imagined some amazing camera shots: of Ori moving through the dark wings of the stage, of Ori staring back and forth in silence while words from his fighting parents rap back and forth across the screen.
I wanted to leave it all to Bedabrata as I know nothing about filmmaking. But he wants to involve me in the development of the screenplay. This June we met in Calcutta, and walked through the streets where the novel is set, for him to help to get a sense of the immediate setting. It is easy as much of north Calcutta hasn’t changed at all in all these years!
The biggest decision is the language in which the film will be made. I was kind of shooting for Hindi, but Bedabrata is strongly leaning towards making it in Bangla. So in all probability it will be in Bangla.
TG: Speaking of north Kolkata, though Firebird is a “city novel,” there is a nonmetropolitan sensibility to the para system you depict and your use of language also feels closer to the vernacular than what we come across in some other Calcutta-novels in English—such as Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome or even Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address. What is interesting to me in this context is that the para system and sensibility are gradually becoming things of the past in the actual lived experience of the city but this cultural relic gives your novel a refreshing flavor. In this sense, do you think your novel attests to a phase of transition in South Asian literary fictions written in English?
SM: Yes, I’m very glad you sensed that. In spite of being a city novel, The Firebird feels more provincial than metropolitan. That’s the way I wanted it, and that’s the city that draws me more. Calcutta is a modern city in the historic sense of the term, in the sense in which that modernity is now in decline, or has been for the last three decades at least. This is the modernity that saw its daybreak with the Bengal Renaissance, and which was effectively stalled by the Communist regime inaugurated in 1977. The decay created by that stalled modernity has inspired both my novels. Because it is an intense, atmospheric kind of decay, with sensual contours that are painful, indelible and utterly unforgettable — the load-shedding, traffic jams, the dysfunctional bureaucracy, and crucially for The Firebird, the unique moral policing carried out by the Communist Party that easily crossed over from the city streets to the innards of the home and the life of women.
The word ‘neighborhood’ felt primarily spatial to me, so in The Firebird I used the Bangla word para. The micro-city that has been the most real to me is that where I spent close to 20 years of my life — north Calcutta. Once the hub of the Bengal Renaissance, it now languishes as the provincial and the non-modern section of the city, as opposed to the posher and swankier south, with its wider, tree-lined avenues and, since the new millennium, snazzy malls. The northern cityscape is stubbornly resistant to change.
I think anything or any place can be the subject of literature, but I also have this subliminal conviction that great art is truly provincial. The “cosmopolitan,” much like the glossy magazine that carries its name, and the shiny airplane lounges it decorates, has driven well-meaning conversations about culture for as long as we can remember. It is quick to wear ambassadorial goodwill and gain academic momentum. The idea of the cosmopolitan is the corollary of modernity and the globalization of capitalism this modernity brings forth. The version of cosmopolitanism that circulates in the realm of culture today is essentially a creation of Western modernity. But Joyce’s Dublin, D.H. Lawrence’s Nottinghamshire mining country, William Faulkner’s rural American south – their celebration in literary modernism mocks the very cosmopolitan aspirations with which the movement is overwhelmingly identified. Modernism’s seductive import of provincialism to the metropolis has deepened the delusion. The organic and visceral power of the provincial has fallen farther and farther out of artistic and intellectual memory.
I’m also deeply drawn to the idea of the vernacular as a kind of guiding shadow behind the English fiction that I write. Fiction that is not only vernacular in its English – as Chinua Achebe suggested for African fiction several decades ago – but also in its sensibility and value-system, even occasionally in craftsmanship which creates a kind of awkwardness vis-à-vis the post-Enlightenment, New Critical sense of craft that drives a genre as the novel, especially when written in English. Two novels by the authors you mention, Shadow Lines and A Strange and Sublime Address, were influential for me, in helping me realize that one can write about the local and the provincial while writing in English, that in fact the apparent cultural ‘gulf’ between the represented world and the medium of expression can be a beautiful thing.