Human Predicament in the Selected Plays of Asif Currimbhoy : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb
I do not subscribe to the opinion that Indian Drama is yet to establish itself as a viable genre (Naik, Shyamala 2007:201). Though unacknowledged in comparison to poetry and fiction, Indian drama is there to stay with the dramatic output of playwrights such as Sri Aurobindo, T.P. Kailasam, Tagore, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, G.V. Desani, Lakhan Deb, A.S.P. Ayyar, Lobo-Prabhu, Fyzee Rahamin, Asif Currimbhoy, Nissim Ezekiel, Gieve Patel, Partap Sharma, Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Shiv K. Kumar, Mahasweta Devi, Gurcharan Das, M.V. Rama Sarma, Manohar Malgonkar, J.P. Das, Mahesh Dattani, Dina Mehta, Manjula Padmanabhan, Uma Parameswaran, T.S. Gill and Shashi Tharoor. Often drama is used as a synonym for play; however, there is a slight difference between the two. A play is a drama meant to be performed before a theatrical audience (Murfin 97).
Though several plays have been written in India dealing with a variety of social issues, there are very few who have written plays which can be stage produced. This is where Currimbhoy (1928-1975) has his singular position by producing realistic plays for the stage. In all he had produced 29 plays in 17 years of intense creative output despite his work as a senior Company Executive of the Burmah Shell Oil Company. Born a Khoja Muslim, he had his early education in a Jesuit School. Graduating in Economics from Berkeley University in California, he had a wide range of experiences abroad. His study of the Indian classics like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Gita and the Upanishads coupled with the western exposure he had, brought about a synthesis of the Eastern and the Western cultures in his writings (Agrawal 1-2).
He is considered the first dramatist to show great interest in producing plays by fusing elements of pantomime, dance and song ( Reddy 216). He is also believed to be the most prolific among the Indian dramatists contriving interesting situations with a great sense of atmosphere ( Iyengar 245). He wrote his plays based on what he observed in life. ‘There is a sense of trigger – I think the trigger was life itself, of what I saw around, of how I reacted to it, in other words an emotional reaction’ (Currimbhoy, February 1976 :39).
Currimbhoy explores universal human predicament through his social, moral, religious and political concerns in the plays. He is a voice of universal revolt and anguish. And it is compassion that unifies his plays (Currimbhoy 1993a:ix). Sensing conflicts everywhere he says, ‘…conflict in theatre, conflict at every level – physical, mental, emotional – because from the time really you meet with other people, what is called human relationships’ (Rajinder, Jacob. December1970). This paper is an attempt to give a bird’s eye-view of the human situation and predicament handled by the playwright in his selected plays.
He has been very prolific as a playwright dealing with social, political, religious and psychological issues in plays such as The Tourist Mecca (1959), The Clock (1959), The Doldrummers (1960), The Dumb Dancer (1961), OM (1961), Thorns on a Canvas (1962), The Captives (1963), Goa (1964), The Hungry Ones (1965), Valley of the Assassins (1966), The Temple Dancers (1967), The Lotus Eater (1967), Abbe Faria (1968), The Mercenary (1968), An Experiment with Truth (1969), The Great Indian Bustard (1970), Inquilab (1970), Darjeeling Tea? (1971), The Refugee (1971), Sona Bangla (1972), Om Mane Padme Hum! (1972), The Miracle Seed (1973), Angkor (1973), The Dissident MLA (1974), and This Alien… Native Land (1975).
Inquilab, The Refugee and Sonar Bangla, clubbed together as Bengal trilogy, are set in the background of the Naxalite revolt that haunted West Bengal; the refugee problem faced by the state in the wake of unrest in the freedom struggle for Bangladesh; and the Indo-Pak war. In these plays, K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar finds that the playwright has scrutinised the basic human condition and portrayed the agonised expression of his social conscience (Currimbhoy 1993a:iii). In Inquilab Currimbhoy affirms that the Naxal shortcut is no happy solution to any problem and that evil and hatred can be overcome only through love and understanding. In The Refugee he portrays refugees of all times in the struggle of Yassin. Sona Bangla is symbolic representation of the eternal struggle of humanity against suppression and oppression (Reddy 52).
Inquilab while depicting the Naxalite struggle in Bengal, probes into the way violence breaks loose. The play focuses on Prof. Datta who finds his students resorting to violence propounded by the Marxists. Datta finds it impossible to continue persuading his students with his Gandhian ideals. His son Amar tries to convince him of the Marxist ideologies when he affirms – ‘This is my passion, my poetry, my cause. Look around father, open your eyes: the poverty, the terrible poverty. People dying of hunger, father. Look at the gap between rich and poor. It’s growing, father, dangerously… and unfairly. It’s true, the city is dying, your old beloved city of the privileged’ (Currimbhoy 1993a:13). The revolution takes its toll. Datta is killed by his own elder son who is a Naxal extremist. Jain the landlord is another victim of violence. Finally Amar comes to the realization that his father was right in upholding the Gandhian principles: ‘…my father was right…that change should come through the will of the majority…expressed through a free vote…I’ve found my path…and it will be the same as that of my father’ (80-1). The play ends symbolically with Ahmed confirming his stand of pursuing his Marxist revolution, while Prof. Datta’s wife observing Ahmed, picks up healthy rice seeds from a tray and flings into fertile soil. The play pictures the futility of Marxist ideology bringing destruction through revolution.
The Refugee is a drama of social realism portraying the misery of the Bangladesh refugees in the 1970s. The story revolves around Yassin, a refugee from East Pakistan who gets involved in the liberation of his land joining Mukti Bahini. Coming to Bengal as a refugee Yassin is given shelter by Sengupta who was himself a refugee. Inspired by Sengupta’s children Mita and Ashok, Yassin takes up the challenge to liberate his people. Mita tells him:
Oh Yassin, touch me! Can’t you see I’m a human being? Can’t you see I’m real? Aren’t you moved? The refugees exist the same way. They’re alive…only too real. They bring tears to my eyes, their suffering touches my heart. I can’t bear to leave them alone. All of life draws me…the human condition…if all of us were to…abstain the way you do, we’d be doing harm…done through neglect (Currimbhoy 1993b:29).
Yassin can not continue anymore to live in his comfort zone as he is emotionally determined to join the freedom struggle. ‘I almost said “nothing” through force of habit. But something has. The inevitable. Man really has little choice in life. He is often forced into a situation…where there is no way out. A decision, an action…gets destined, almost involuntarily’ ( 40).
The play is a superb analysis of the human predicament that the central characters face in the wake of the refugee crisis in Bengal. More than the refugee-rehabilitation programme, the play portrays the ideological conflict in the various characters who are caught up between the forces of nationalism and humanism. Finally Yasssin plunges into action setting aside his non-committal attitude ( 577). Srinivasa Iyengar rendered the characters and actions of the play universal when he opined that the “Refugee” is Yassin – he is also Sengupta – he is any refugee, he is all refugees (Currimbhoy 1993a:vi). Reflecting on the refugee problem Currimbhoy himself stated, ‘A mistake committed at a particular point of time seem to have a cumulative effect, and one inevitably gets drawn into it all’ (Currimbhoy 2006d:71).
Sonar Bangla is built around both external and internal conflicts. External conflicts consist of those between : East & West Pakistan; Hindus and Muslims in East Pakistan; Bengali Muslims and guerillas. All these in the backdrop of the refugee crisis leads to Indo-Pak war and the emergence of Bangladesh. The internal conflict is shown through characters like Hussain and Mujib. When the war breaks out Hussain articulates his fears, ‘But I was just thinking… of the pain and scars that’re going to tear my Bangla once again.’ (Currimbhoy 1993c: 87). Mujib when he returns to Bangladesh after his release from solitary confinement gives vent to his internal conflict in the final soliloquy, ‘…I never wept during all those months in solitary confinement. I never wept when they put me on trial. But I wept when I arrived back here and saw my wonderful Sonar Bangla’ (104). Currimbhoy himself was agonized by the war and wrote, ‘The war is a tragedy. Can’t understand why others don’t see it the same way. The blood flows – the hysteria grips all opponents’ (Bowers 1993d:71).
An Experiment with Truth while exploring the works and martyrdom of Gandhiji, is an intense psychological study of human frailty. Through stream of consciousness the play presents bare facts of life ‘that great men have great faults; also a great sense of achievement’ (Currimbhoy 1976:47). Through the various episodes the playwright probes into the major events in the life of the Mahatma culminating in his assassination. The episodes take us through Gandhiji’s fast unto death to bring unity among Hindus and Muslims, Salt march, conflict with Kasturba etc. The play hinges on external and internal conflicts. The play opens with Gandhi summing up his central motif in a feeble voice:
What is the hunger of the stomach compared to the bleeding of the heart? I fast as much for myself, my own penitence, as I do for you, your own salvation…That millions should die, slain by our own hands…when our quest in life was one of peace and non-violence…When I strove for freedom of our nation, I also strove for freedom of our soul. There can be no freedom without brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims, without unity with Sikhs and Christians (Currimbhoy 1993d:10).
The playwright salutes Gandhiji as a beacon of light to bring hope in a broken world as Sheean utters, ‘…If the hand of God did not save him from assassin’s bullet, was it because He wanted to take him away?…through darkness and fear, courage and light in this our mortal plight…never will I forget…this man who led me, his kindly light…’ (66).
Goa is a realistic play based on the story of an Indian boy’s love for a Goan girl. The story is woven around multiple relationships. Rose is central to the story as she is woed by both Krishna and Alphonso. Alphonso describes her, ‘Rose is Goa and Goa is Rose’ (Currimbhoy 1993e:41) and frequently visits them with presents. Her mother Miranda wants both the men to court her instead. The story climaxes in Krishna murdering Alphonso and later raping Rose. The play ends as Krishna’s ‘nude body falls out, with a dagger in his heart’ (Ibid.92). The story is symbolic of Goa’s freedom struggle. Portuguese made Goa an enclave over four hundred years ago. Goa still continued under slavery for 14 years after Indian independence in 1947. The playwright employs the socio-realistic plotting and the play is made an allegory where rape and personal abuse lead to suffering and disintegration (Meserve 12).
Om Mane Padme Hum brings out powerfully the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the way Dalai Lama was forced to make his escape to India. The play is a profound study of the psychological impact the event had on Dalai Lama and the conflicts he experienced. The title is derived from the Buddhist chant “Om Mane Padme Hum” (Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus) being recited by the monks along with young Rimpoche in the Lhasa monastery. The General Chang Chin-wn leading the military to occupy Tibet does not cause bloodshed harming Dalai Lama; instead he instructs his forces to usher in a new cultural revolution: ‘This is a grand mission. We’re not here merely to liberate or occupy but to stay, stay and fortify. Stay and integrate. From this roof of the world…’ (Currimbhoy 1992a: 37). The new cultural revolution is aimed at replacing Buddhism with Communism. As the National oppression surges, conflicts continue to daunt Dalai Lama and the other characters. When the three Abbots ask him to leave Tibet for his personal safety, Dalai Lama refuses saying, ‘…Why should I leave? They’ll kill me? So I shall leave this body. There’ll be a 14th … and 15th Dalai Lama ( 13). The mother of Dalai Lama does not want to renounce him as her child as he is deified and in danger of being killed by the Chinese. As Srinivasa Iyengar observes the play involves something more than the Lama’s or Tibet’s fortunes and it is masterly in juxtaposing of opposites such as Lamaism and Communism; Beauty and the Beast; the Past and the Future; Violence and Sufferance (Iyengar 93). As the Tibetan struggle still continues, the playwright makes the audience/readers experience the tension of the protagonist to a great extent. The play is more than a pictorial representation of living history as it is a universal comment on life (Bowers 6). In the wake of the recent Tibetan uprising, Dalai Lama said: ‘I felt the same tension I felt 50 years ago… I cried for Tibet recently’ (Roy, 1 April 2008).
The Hungry Ones takes us to the streets of Calcutta with its poverty, misery, riots and arson. The play is based on the visit of American beatnik-poet Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky to Calcutta many years ago. They moved around the streets of Calcutta in dirty khaki shorts and dishevelled beards (Currimbhoy 1992b: 21). The playwright brings out two Americans whose actions lead through the various strands in the play through satire, ridicule and humour. They try to involve themselves in various activities such as yoga, carpet-prayer etc. They try to understand the mystery of India with its hunger and poverty. Symbolically they can hear the voice of the woman representing the voices of Indians: ‘So you want to become / one of us, stranger / a hungry one…? / then learn: stranger, learn…/ HUNGER! (30).
In the play symbols dominate with its cyclic movement. The Americans in their search seem to learn something, but what they learn is that they can never learn. The human predicament is well depicted in the final scene where the first scene recurs. Through the frustration of the Americans the playwright represents various insolvable conflicts existing in the Indian society making it still hungry and suffering (Meserve 18).
The story of The Miracle Seed is based on the drought that Maharashtra faced in 1972. The play takes us to the family of Ram that decides to leave for the city after two monsoon failures. Ram’s nephew Laxman comes from the city with the miracle seed, promising a golden harvest, with the new agrarian revolution. Ram acknowledges him: ‘He’s full of ideas, you know…But over and over again he comes back to talking about the hybrid seed… Scientific farming, he calls it…We’ve ploughed and ploughed. Planted the seed. This entire season. He promises we’ll reap…a golden harvest’ ( Currimbhoy 1973:20-21).
But the seeds do not germinate and the family is about to migrate to the city when the miracle takes place when Ram’s daughter Savitri brings some hybrid stalks from her vegetable patch. At the same time Savitri is able to talk without stammering after the exercises with pellet stones in her mouth. Thus the play symbolically represents the green revolution as well as Savitri’s restoration of speech.
Based on the political events that took place in Gujarat in 1974, The Dissident M.L.A. centres on the evil designs of Manu to topple the Government. The play depicts various incidents such as students’ protest against raise in mess bill at the Engineering college hostel, tough examinations, corrupt Government etc. The agitating students gherao the Vice Chancellor and publicly humiliate the Home Minister, shaving his head, blackening his face and parading him riding on a donkey. The events finally lead to dissolution of the Gujarat Assembly. The play is a social criticism in which the playwright satirises politicians who are corrupt and greedy. Manu the M.L.A. uses his son Ramesh to mobilise student revolt to make political gains out of it. At the end of it all, corruption continues in spite of change of guard in administration as the father and son discuss:
MANU: Where was the mistake? We… you and I… rooted out corruption.
RAMESH: Did we? You know what that wise old fox told me? He said there’d be a new election, and new corrupt M.L.A.’s would come in instead of the old corrupt ones… It means we’ve gone through all this for nothing. We’ll have the same old corrupt Government as long as people live (Currimbhoy1974:55).
OM and The Dumb Dancer are religious plays in which Currimbhoy makes his comment on religious yearning of people. Om presents man’s search for God as he himself claimed, ‘There is the mystical element in the human being that always drew me to the spiritual factor in life. I was not attracted to any particular religion; I was attracted to all. As a result I wrote separate plays on religion which are highly academic’ (Currimbhoy 1976:48). In the play he attempts to present the basic philosophical concepts of Hinduism and the ways to salvation and moksa, basing himself on the Vedic and Upanishadic concepts. The Guru – Disciple discourse leads to the mystery of God. The Guru says, ‘As the birds fly in the air, as the fish swim in the sea, leaving no traces behind, even so the pathway to God is traversed by the seeker of spirit’ (Currimbhoy 1993f:73).
The Dumb Dancer takes us through the story of a Kathakali dancer, Bhima, who undergoes psychological and mental confusion, leading to insanity. He plays the role of Bhima in the dance play and believes that he has killed Duryodhana and has eaten his guts. Having been admitted into the mental asylum he is under the treatment of Dr. Prema. She arranges to give a shock therapy by showing him real human entrails. She also begins to communicate with the dumb dancer and allows him to caress her. While trying her psychiatric experiment on the dumb dancer, Dr. Prema herself falls into his arms and decides to kill Shakuntala. Dr. Prema is mesmerised by the dumb dancer and lets out her mind to Dr. Dilip:
Who is sane, Dilip, and who is not? Remember, I tried, Dilip. Really tried. But it drew me closer instead of further. The vertigo… the vortex… I found myself slipping into the terrifying abyss of darkness…slipping, slipping without being able to hold myself back. How much of the insane fantasy was true and how much was not. Sanity lay…as a fine dividing line. It seemed to move…and engulf me. No words can tell you what its discovery means because it lies beyond… the point of no return. No greater passion was there than this stalwart God….When I touched him, I felt the element of distraction grow within me…The desperation grew. Identification. I searched for it. But the other image of myself lay in his world…not mine (Currimbhoy 1993g:80-81).
The play is an intense psychological study of man’s frailty and emotions that become uncontrollable.
The Doldrummers brings before us people living meaningless lives such as the alienated Anglo-Indian youth Tony, Rita, Joe and Liza. They live very immoral and wayward lives. Rita is in love with Tony and longs for him. Tony is told of Rita’s affair with the Fat and Bald Man, but he has no courage to encounter him. Liza becomes a professional prostitute in order to keep Tony to herself. It is Joe who happens to be the first to visit her. She carries Joe’s child and refuses to abort it. However her love for Tony continues and when he returns with Moron Moe, she has no choice but to rush into the sea to end her life. Tony rushes after her and providentially both are saved. Meanwhile Joe commits suicide. The play ends with Tony singing a song about doldrums:
Let’s go my friend,
We’ll go together, my friend,
To where the doldrums end.
Never fear, old man,
That’s where it all began.
Blind though we be,
There’s nothing left to see ( Currimbhoy 1992c : 92).
The Tourist Mecca is written in the backdrop of tourists visiting Agra bringing to focus the story of two lovers, an American citizen, Janet, and Keshav, a local tourist guide. Janet is warned by her mother Lady Toppin that Keshav is a gigolo, a professional lover. Though Keshav vows his genuine love for her, she leaves promising to return the following year. The play ends Keshav whispering to himself, ‘Goodbye, Janet, until next year… and the year after that… until love will have lost its meaning; but for no reason we’ll still be there’ ( Currimbhoy 1993h:72). Though Keshav is a professional lover hired by foreign tourists, his genuine love for Janet remains a deep-rooted reality. The conflict in him between professional love and real love brings him to the brink of psychological breakdown.
Darjeeling Tea? is centred on the study of Big Mac a Darjeeling planter, his wife Jennie and his illegitimate daughter Didi from a local Nepali girl. Bunty, a young Indian planter falls in love with Didi adding romantic zest to the play. The play dramatises a serious conflict between levels of society. (Meserve, Walter 1992:11). Jennie had been living a conflicting and unhappy life for the past 19 years due to her husband’s illicit relationship with a local woman. Jennie plans to leave India and says, ‘I’m not leaving you, Mac. I’m just going away to Scotland. Like Hugh said, my offer’s open… anytime. I’ll be waiting there, Mac, I’ll be waiting there… for you… No, don’t say a word, Mac. Just look after yourself…You’re the most precious thing I have… and I’ll never forget you… Goodbye, love…’ (Currimbhoy 1992d :51-53).
This Alien…Native Land is built around the life of an Indian middle-class Jewish family – Joseph and Rachel and their three children Jacob, David and Sarah. The family is in great predicament with their growing problems of joblessness and marital problems. Sarah unable to find a Jew to marry her, plans to settle with a married Muslim. But in the end she goes off to Israel. Jacob marries Tara, a divorcee who does not follow traditional religious practices of the family. The story further delves into problems such as – Rachel’s oedipal relations with her sons; David’s illicit affair with his brother’s wife, etc. As the title suggests, they remain aliens in India, dreaming of the promised land. The psychological impact due to conflicts faced by the characters reveal many things related to the predicaments of that community. Their frustration is expressed by David when he speaks to his mother after the death of his father:
A requiem. A requiem for the dead…in this, our native land… I’m sure he dreamed of flowers and a graveyard for the family, where his ghost could point proudly…to a family heritage. Lines of mourners, in greys and blacks, the fine drizzle of rain, with heads bent low…It wasn’t quite like that, was it, Ma? The city swamped us, our brothers left, the graveyard decayed beyond death, the lilies festered, and there was the vulgar laugh of the not-so-dead…Oh father of mine, that I could have reburied you, in my arms… (Currimbhoy 1992e: 41-42).
Currimbhoy’s plays are all centred on human predicament which puzzles him so much that he shares the pain and agony of humanity through the characters he creates. The pathetic human condition is uppermost in his mind. Hence, while expressing his compassion for mankind in doldrums, he draws the attention of his audience/readers to become sympathizers in turn. His imagination is built on the experience of life. There is a perfect fusion of thought and feeling as ‘the world of the mind as well as the social and political world that surround him… He has something to say… a message to deliver, a vision to fulfill and he must work, speak, write and act.’ (Meserve10).
All his plays deal with serious social, political, moral and religious issues with pathos, sentiment, irony and social criticism. He also adds gentle comic laughter with a cynical and ironic purpose. Currimbhoy is considered India’s first authentic voice in theatre writing plays of dissent (Bowers 1993d : viii). All his issues, though local in colour, are of universal appeal, drawing attention to problems of man everywhere such as denial of human rights, justice and freedom. This is evident from the appreciation he has received from theatres across the world, where the plays have been successfully staged. The conflicts presented are internal as well as external in nature, rendering them superb psychological studies. Scholars like M.K. Naik have pointed out certain incongruities in his work and art:
Most of these plays have a strong ‘documentary’ element about them and there is no attempt to understand and project in dramatic terms the ideological implications of the political conflicts dealt within. The dramatist appears to be primarily interested in the thrill of the exciting events rather than the thought processes which shaped them. The result is sheer reportage; and when Currimbhoy gives free rein to his imagination, the upshot is often crude and contrived symbolism… Unless Currimbhoy realizes that drama is something more than simply play of lights, plethora of sounds and parade of violence, all his enviable industry and enthusiasm are unlikely to produce viable and worthwhile plays (Naik, M.K 258-61).
Despite the flaws pointed out, his plays have been highly appreciated and successfully staged in several countries. A perceptive critic will also find it extremely difficult to separate his didacticism from his dramatic art. His dramatic techniques are meant ‘to provide visual images to stimulate the minds, the ears, and the eyes of his audience’ (Meserve 15). In the process he makes excellent use of monologues, choruses, pantomime, music and visual effects.
Currimbhoy’s compassion for humanity is the central motif as he details out the predicament of man in agony and ecstasy. The plays are excellent studies in human behaviour. His purpose is to make his audience/readers appreciate life in its totality. In the process he presents social evils and chaos letting his audience/readers to find the right answers themselves. At the same time one gets the impression that the playwright is personally involved in the plays and uses the stage to present societal issues with the intention of social transformation. However the playwright does not like to be labelled a propagandist as he claims to let his audience make their conclusions from his presentation of facts (Currimbhoy, February 1976 :41).
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