Play House by Saikat Majumdar
Permanent Press, 2017
The North American debut of Saikat Majumdar’s Play House was originally published in India as The Firebird and short-listed for the 2015 Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Prize in Fiction. Set in Calcutta in the mid-1980s, the novel follows young Ori’s obsession and fear over his mother’s career on the stage.
From page 11, where, “On the walls, framed posters of plays glowed in the shadows,” the theater is a place like Plato’s Cave, with its shifting realities, a world of artifice, shadows on walls projected by firelight. These shifting realities extend to how women who act in plays are met with rumor and doubt. To ten-year old Ori, his mother, Garima, “was such a natural, such a genius in the role of the fake wife, so full of tears and laughter and domestic bliss, that you forgot that you were watching a play inside a play.” Yet to Ori’s aunt, Rupa, and grandmother, Mummum, “It was wrong of [Garima] to pretend to be someone else’s wife. They hated it.” This duplicity propels the novel—and sustains it through Ori’s growing sense that his mother betrays a logocentric view of motherhood, a notion that the community and Communist Party try to reinforce. As a consequence, Ori learns “how to make himself invisible,” reminiscent of the unrelenting invisibility in Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Untouchable.
Like Ori’s vacillating sense of his mother, Majumdar’s Calcutta is a place of paradox, for instance, when Ori is at the sweetshop: “The sandesh were delicious, and as he chewed on each piece and felt them melt in his mouth, he suffered pain, the pain of glorious taste enjoyed not in the cool shadow of his home but in the yellow heat of the streets, listening to the rickshaw pullers cry out to clear their way.” This sweetness in the context of pain is beautifully expressed.
Ori longs for a rock-solid mother figure, and finds this only in his grandmother: “He wanted to hug Mummum, bury his head in her neck along which green veins stood out like fault lines on an ancient rock.” Partly as a result of this unfulfilled longing, Ori begins to confuse Garima’s lovemaking on stage with that in real life. He implies Garima’s staged indiscretions are real to Mummum, who starts a rumor. As a result, a dubious picture of Garima spirals outward through Calcutta. Ori’s confusion about Garima is central to the novel. She’s a scapegoat for a society terrified of change, of competing forces as history presses forward.
When Ori meets two girls, con artists, at a temple, he accompanies them to an open-air play at a football field and accidently starts a fire. Later, we learn that Ori is glad to have burnt away the artifice of the theater. Fearful and confused, Ori goes to his aunt Rupa’s house. His cousin, Shruti, a sensible, authoritative young woman, takes Ori home to find that Garima and his father have fought over Garima’s acting. Garima flees, neighbors burst in, and the Party arrives. Garima later takes Ori out of school to begin an “odd life.” For Garima, it is a disaster. She can’t cope with reality; she looks for acting jobs. For Ori, it is a gritty, real freedom.
Ahin, owner of the Pantheon Theater, is dangerously confused about life on the stage and real life: “[F]aces and voices teased Ahin, in parks and crowded buses and fish markets, never giving in to his yearning.” One day, Ahin shows up at Ori’s school and spirits him away to act in a play, until Shruti rescues Ori from the train. Ahin mistakes Shruti as Meera, a fallen woman in one of his plays. He tells her, “‘You’re a whore. The loveliest whore there was.’” Then Ahin assaults Shruti—the climactic clashing of Ahin’s theatrically deluded mind and reality: “[Shruti] groaned. It was an ugly sound. She would not hold the sari. She did not care for her character. The world began to crack. Into a million wriggling pieces.” Ahin kills her. As reprehensible as Ahin’s character is, he is chillingly convincing.
Afterward, Rupa unfairly curses her dead daughter, Shruti, for dying “a slut’s death.” Lawyers get Ori removed from Garima’s custody. Time passes and Ori goes to see Garima on stage and realizes his sense of his mother fades: “She was a play house with silver-streaked hair and skin beginning to wrinkle. A play house ready to vanish.” On Diwali, Ori unwittingly assists men from the Party in burning down the Pantheon Theater. Later, Garima falls to a death which may be suicide or an accident. Ori lights his mother’s dead lips with fire, burns her in ritual Mukhagni.
The novel ends with Garima on the telephone with Ori, at a time before her death: “‘Ori?’ she whispered. ‘You know what happened in The Pantheon the night of Diwali. Don’t you?’ ‘Tell me,’ her voice wilted. ‘Tell me, Ori.’” But Ori won’t. He lets the matter die. The novel ends with the tragic sense that Ori cannot share with Garima his satisfaction that the Pantheon is in ashes. In Saikat Majumdar’s captivating and poignant novel, all Ori knows for certain is that his mother, or whatever the word mother means, is lost to him, forever.