by Kiran Nagarkar
Let me at the outset confess that I wrote the talk I am about to give today, as an introduction to a play, Bedtime Story, I had written a long, long time back. You may rightly ask me then whether I was trying to do what I do so brilliantly? And with such panache and exquisite finesse? Skip any kind of labour, especially that unforgivable act of masochism called writing? Unfortunately, I am going to disappoint my lakhs of devotees who along with me believe that what can be done tomorrow should never be done today and what can be done the day after, can wait…. forever. No, this introduction is hot from and fresh from the oven. I wrote most of it just a few days ago and some chunks as late as yesterday. But jokes apart, I wanted to share something with you which I thought cannot and should not be put off till tomorrow or even an hour later.
Is there such a thing as an apposite time, place or reason why a play, painting, symphony, or any other work of art is conceived? Perhaps there is, but I suspect it’s comprehended mostly in retrospect. Looking back, I think I owe my play, Bedtime Story to several factors coming together to jolt me out of my complacency and ignorance.
Let me try and record a few of them. Not many foreign magazines were available in India in the 1960s and ’70s. In any case, I couldn’t have afforded to buy even the few that were. What I got to read were Time and Newsweek, and these were outdated office copies which one of the top managers left behind at the firm I worked for back then. You couldn’t have found a better, or rather, a more uncritical reader than I was. Having been brought up in an old-school notion of journalistic values, I implicitly believed most of what I read in newspapers. The Vietnam War was progressing at a good clip, the Cultural Revolution in China was in full flood, and America was busy doing what it does so well, heroically fighting that handy bogey called communism on every front, never mind if the battlefront was thousands of miles away in Vietnam.
Then by chance I happened to read three biographies. The first one was about Henry Luce, the man primarily responsible for creating the Time–Life publishing empire and who was often referred to as the most influential private citizen of his time in America. Let me just say it was an eye-opener and leave it to your imagination to gauge how much of an understatement that is.
What I learnt was that the central principles of journalism—report what you see and not what you want to see; and, to the extent humanly possible, be objective—were consciously and repeatedly flouted by the boss-man at Time and Life. No, even that does not do justice to the man. Luce, for instance, had no qualms ignoring crucial critical reports on Chiang Kai-shek filed by Theodore White, one of his most respected journalists, and replacing them with completely fabricated reportage. On the other hand, nothing that showed a Marxist regime in a favourable light, however factual it may have been, was tolerated.
It would, however, be foolhardy to think that much has changed since then. Newspapers and TV channels lie as glibly today as they did then and routinely suppress any point of view that differs from theirs. For instance, most American TV channels insisted that Israel had every right to bomb Gaza off the map in mid-2014 since Hamas had fired hundreds of rockets (which incidentally hardly hit any Israeli target), and that it was America’s sacred duty to keep arming Israel. It was naturally of no consequence that, for years, Gaza has been an open prison that no Gazan can leave without Israeli permission. Gazans cannot conduct any business, cannot fish beyond three miles from their coastline, cannot import any food on their own, cannot have an airport or a port of their own, and cannot import urgently required medicines, or machines to start industries without Israeli permission.
By sheer accident, I ended up reading the Luce biography along with those of Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro, which I’d picked up on a visit to Strand Book Stall. I was far too caught up in the hand-to-mouth business of making a living, and given my lack of access to international news, had only vague notions about the history of Vietnam or its elections. No wonder it came as a surprise to me that the French, who had been ruling Vietnam long distance, had been forced to vacate the country by local freedom fighters after a gruesome war. But the real shock was to find that Ho Chi Minh had been democratically elected. And that the mother of all modern-day democracies, the USA, had decided that this tiny, newly independent country thousands of miles away was a threat to its existence and sovereignty and began to attack it. My ignorance was truly staggering.
Fidel Castro and Cuba were the next lessons in my political education. I had vaguely heard of President Batista but it was news to me that this corrupt dictator was an American stooge and his regime, a nightmare. I learnt how Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and a small band of fighters had ousted President Batista using a combination of courage, resolve and sheer happenstance or luck. Fidel and Che were avowed Marxists, a crime in the eyes of free-marketers, but they were liberators of their people from a venal and blood-sucking regime remote-controlled by its neighbouring superpower. I have little doubt that if America had not been so aggressively hostile, and had not repeatedly made attempts to overthrow Castro, and instead treated Cuba fairly, the communist dictatorship may have turned into a democracy in good time. Even as I wrote this, President Obama did a volte face and relations between Cuba and the States are in the process of being normalized after fifty years.
We are all familiar with the U S masterminding coups in Egypt, Cuba, Chile, Haiti and so may other countries. But what of the Soviet Union and China? The figures of genocide in these counties far exceed the ghastly deaths in Hitler’s Germany. It’s estimated that Stalin killed over forty million in his purges and so did Mao in his Great Leap Forward.
The writing of Bedtime Story
I owe Bedtime Story to the rather belated but traumatic loss of my naiveté. I used to work in advertising, a profession that has been pilloried for lying, bamboozling and conning people. Journalism and scholarly research, on the other hand, were lauded for their probity, integrity and honest reporting. Now the scales had fallen off my eyes, at least superficially, since it’s impossible to avoid the insidious and round-the-clock onslaught of various media and their owners’ private agendas. But at least I had woken up to my own callousness towards the terrible injustices perpetrated around me. In truth, I had also become conscious of the fact that there is something worse than callousness, an outburst of righteous rage which subsides just as easily as it had risen.
My ruminations crystallized into a personal notion of responsibility and accountability, which would become, over the years, one of my basic tenets for practising that business called life. It was in this spirit that I began to write my first play, Bedtime Story. Let me say at the outset that I am at heart a philistine and hold the view that the literary and the commercial are not mutually exclusive. I wish to entertain my readers or audiences (and not necessarily by writing Georges Feydeau‑type farces though I enjoy those hugely too), stimulate their minds, and, if possible, provoke them to introspect along with me. My role model has always been Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner who catches hold of the wedding guest and keeps him in thrall, however reluctant a listener he may have been at the start. But I was also keenly aware that any writing that tackled the issues that Bedtime Story set out would contravene my personal code: no overt messages and no preaching. If there was anything worthwhile in what I had to say, it would come through far more potently like a slow-release drug over weeks and months if the story was told powerfully and with conviction. Rightly or wrongly, I believed that the subterranean works better and one’s concerns would automatically filter through.
My task was clear. Make the writing so compelling and hook the reader or the member of the audience from the word go so that he would only realize at the very end that passively watching the action unfold in Bedtime Story came at a heavy price. I chose to use stories from the Mahabharata as a medium to drive home my point about the malaise from which most of us suffer: apathy. (Incidentally I keep going back to this theme in much of my writing. In my novel Cuckold, the Maharaj Kumar remarks sardonically, ‘With what fortitude we bear the misfortunes of others.’) What I had going for me was the fact that the Mahabharata is a living epic in the subcontinent. It’s in the bloodstream of almost every Indian—Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Buddhist. But I decided that I would ring unsettling changes in both the telling and in the stories themselves.
The theme of standing up and raising one’s voice in protest and the appalling consequences of a ‘what-can-we-do?’ attitude gained urgency in 1975 when Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency in the country and abrogated the powers reposed in parliament and the judiciary by appropriating all power to herself and her younger son.
I finished Bedtime Story some time in 1977. Emergency rule was terminated soon after and I thought my play had lost its sting. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was more pertinent at that moment than at any time before. Hardly anybody ever gets a second chance at life, especially when one realizes all too late how precious life is. But we Indians got a second chance because Mrs Gandhi made the biggest miscalculation of her career: she called for an election. The opposition had united under the banner of the Janata Party and won an astounding electoral victory. They came to power for the first time at the Centre. Instead of making good on their promises and showing the people that the new government could make democracy work, they were hell-bent on squabbling amongst themselves about who should be prime minister and what punishment Mrs Gandhi should undergo for declaring the Emergency. Lo and behold, Mrs Gandhi was back in power within three years.
What I had grasped and wanted to communicate to my audience was that if we don’t take cognizance of the brutality, violence, prejudice, hunger, poverty, starvation, hatred and the demagogic persecution of minorities wherever they occur in the world, take a stand and make our voices heard, we are squarely responsible for the consequences of our inaction. As Hedy Epstein, the outspoken ninety-year-old Jewish holocaust-survivor and political activist said after the appalling carnage visited by Israel on the Palestinians in 2014, ‘Anyone who stands idly by becomes complicit in what is going on.’ Kayla Jean Mueller who was captured by ISIS and killed just a few days ago, it’s not clear whether by the terrorists or by a Jordanian air attack, had even stronger views. She said ‘Silence is participation in the crime.’ But the most damning indictment of all of us came from a three-year old Syrian boy just before he died after being fatally wounded. He said, ‘I’m going to tell God everything.’
Can’t you just see him whispering in God’s ears, ‘Kiran was there. He turned his head away when I was shot.’ ‘Barrack Obama has kept repeating the same promise. “I am going to close Guantanamo Bay prison.” Forget the guilty, Obama hasn’t even set free the prisoners who have been declared innocent for over eleven years.’ ‘The Pakistanis won’t take any action and condemn Dawood Ibrahim for the 1993 bomb blasts.’ ‘Sixty per cent of children in Mumbai suffer from malnutrition but who cares? Certainly not the super-rich or the middle class. They are buying a diamond-studded crown for Saibaba who wore nothing but torn clothes and a two-kilo gold necklace for the god in Tirupati.’
We Don’t Give a Damn
I recall a woman from Iraq whose home had been bombed and her entire family killed. She was distraught and desperately seeking help from the American TV crew covering the incident. She stopped suddenly in the middle of a sentence and asked, ‘Why am I talking to you? I know that neither you nor anyone else in the world gives a damn about what happens to us.’
She was right, of course. Nobody gave a damn. The embedded TV crew had turned up by chance and she would make good breaking news. It’s no different here in India or anywhere else. Hardly any one of us gives a damn about what’s happening in our country, or, for that matter, in front of our eyes. When some man in a Porsche or Mercedes gets out of his car on a crowded road and bashes a cyclist for not moving out of his way, we watch the spectacle with exemplary restraint. We manage to shrug off unforgiveable, headline-grabbing crimes like the premeditated grisly murders and persecution of thousands of Sikhs because a Sikh security guard killed Indira Gandhi in 1984. The justification we heard then was, ‘When a big tree falls…’ We have been persecuting, torturing and murdering Dalits for thousands of years and continue to do so with impeccable self-righteousness. Who can ignore the fact that the appalling Gujarat riots of 2002 raised the most troubling questions without providing genuine answers and a satisfactory closure that brought the criminals to justice?
I sometimes think that Moses got it wrong. There were not ten but eleven commandments. Sadly perhaps, the most important was left out. There is no crime greater than apathy or indifference.
Censorship and Bedtime Story
The actor and theatre director Dr Shreeram Lagoo was the first to try to stage Bedtime Story. He realized that the play was provocative and controversial material. He invited all the experimental theatre groups in Bombay for a reading in 1978 because he wanted the whole parallel theatre movement behind the play. In the meantime, the play had been sent to the Censor Board for certification, as the law in Maharashtra demands. It came back with seventy-eight cuts, some of them a page long, so that barely the jacket-covers were left. Eminent academics M.P. Rege, Pushpa Bhave, and a couple of others argued the case for Bedtime Story at a meeting of the Censor Board. Many of the excisions the Board demanded were risible (e.g., drop the names of the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi), some questions did not make any sense (e.g., why are you distorting the original myths?). I must admit I was hoping that the Board would have at least some members from the Marathi literary elite who would have understood the thrust of the play. But I soon realized that I was deluding myself. The Board was convinced that the play was a stain on our culture and needed to be severely sanitized.
There’s an interesting footnote to the Board meeting. As time elapsed and the clock ticked towards 1 p.m., the adamantine insistence on the cuts lost steam. We learnt later that many Board members had travelled from other cities and all they wanted by then was the free lunch and their fees for having attended. When the director of the play finally got a Censorship from the Board, the cuts had been reduced to twenty-four. But by then almost all the actors had withdrawn from the rehearsals because fundamentalist Hindu parties and organizations in Mumbai threatened the director, producer, actors and me, and even the very first rehearsal was not allowed to take place. It helped enormously that none of these vociferous guardians of our culture had read Bedtime Story.
Over the years several directors who felt strongly about the play tried to get it staged. Legal censorship in India can often be gauche, club-footed and hyper-protective of anything and everything but the freedoms of speech and expression. Extra-legal censorship in the country, however, is fearless and effective. It successfully prevented Bedtime Story from being performed for seventeen years.
Rekha Sabnis’s theatre group, Abhivyakti, and the director Achyut Deshingkar kept faith with the play through all the turbulence it generated. They finally staged it in 1995. Experimental theatres run mostly on scarce funds and large doses of enthusiasm. What killed Bedtime Story after twenty-five performances was the absence of small, affordable theatres. The actors had such fun with the firecracker dialogue and the energy within the play and the difficult questions it raised that they pooled their money and revived the play two years later, this time in Hindi, and it had a few more performances. Some time later, Vasant Nath staged the play in Cambridge U.K. and at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.
(I have not been so lucky in publishing Bedtime Story. A prestigious and established publishing house offered to bring out the first edition of the play on four different occasions. Every time, a week or two before the contract was to be signed the publisher got cold feet and withdrew the offer.
This is the first time Bedtime Story is seeing the light of day in print. In the performed version, for the sake of brevity and impact, we had excised all the modern episodes that served as a counterpoint to the reinterpreted original stories.. What you are about to read now is the original version in full. )
I am about to make an extraordinary and a seemingly self-aggrandizing claim that is likely to put off almost all readers. I have mentioned how Bedtime Story had become all the more germane in the immediate post-Emergency era. I had, however, not the vaguest idea then that the world would change so radically for the worse over the next few decades that it would make the theme of Bedtime Story even more pressing and relevant,. At the same time, let me also state emphatically that nothing would make me happier than to find that the world had woken up to the multiple crises facing us and taken effective action, making my play irrelevant..
The crises I am referring to are of two varieties, both of an urgency mankind has never experienced before. The first is the legacy of military adventurism of the two feuding giants, the US and Russia, which started wars in different parts of the world such as Afghanistan and Iraq, armed sections of the populace to the teeth and left behind vast arsenals of deadly weapons and munitions, which have come to haunt the benighted local citizenry. But it is the unintended offshoots of these temporary occupations that have given birth to the most dangerous groups of terrorists in the world. As you may have guessed, I am referring here not only to barbaric organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, but also especially to ISIS or the Islamic State, which has taken torture, sadism and brutality to unimaginably fiendish levels.* Never before has the world seen so many refugees driven away from their homes. Millions have been displaced, resulting in horrendous suffering and hardship, and the UN is unable to cope with the sheer numbers and their demands for help and succour.
And yet even the ISIS threat pales into insignificance when compared with the calamitous state of the planet due to the climate crisis. Entire chunks of Bangladesh, Philippines, and scores of other countries are going to disappear in the next few years.. National leaders around the world have known for years what the human race is up against. The apocalyptic consequences of our fossil fuel economies and unbridled consumerism are no longer in the realm of a celluloid dystopian fantasy—they are already here. The planet is witnessing unprecedented rises in temperatures, droughts, floods, typhoons, tornadoes, famines, the melting of the ice-cap on both poles, and the death and disappearance of thousands of animal, bird and water species. California is facing its worst drought in two thousand years. And as usual, it is the poor who are suffering the most.
What is incomprehensible is that even at this eleventh hour. the leaders and power-brokers of the world are in denial. They are busy playing with words, engaging in double-talk, and sabotaging the initiatives necessary to avoid the death and suffering of large swathes of humankind. Even the most powerful and financially secure nations know damn well that they cannot escape to another planet. What is even worse is the pussyfooting insistence that the other party take action first. Now it’s entirely true that developed nations have plundered the earth and its resources for God knows how many scores of years, fouling up the atmosphere in the process, and they should really pay the price for all the damage done. But as we all know there’s no chance of that. On the other hand, like many developing nations, India’s stance has been that it will look into climate-change later since it needs to develop its own economy first. Do the nations of the world really believe that this is a game of who blinks first? The time for the blame-game is long past. It’s truly now or never for mankind.
The leaders of the developed nations and Wall Street and the fossil fuel industries are not going to get down to the urgent business of formulating a genuine and drastic timetable and stick to it unless we, the populations of the world, force them to, and are ourselves willing to make serious changes in our lifestyles.
No book, play, or work of art can trigger changes overnight. Bedtime Story certainly can’t. But it can, I hope, force people to wake up, think and act.
I would like to end this talk with a short quote from The Arsonist, which is a brief re-imagining of the life of Kabir. This is what Kabir says, ‘There is only one god. And her name is life. She is the only one worthy of worship. All else is irrelevant.’
*N.B. Now we learn that the CIA in America under the aegis of President Bush and all the President’s men practiced torture and demonic brutality against the prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq and in America itself that would compare with that of ISIS.
(Text of the David Sassoon Memorial Lecture, 2015)