Badal Sircar’s Life of Bangla: A study in human will and determination : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb
Badal Sircar (1925 – ), the Bengali dramatist, is known as the innovator of contemporary Indian theatre. with his oeuvre of nearly fifty plays. Though a trained civil engineer and town planner, he took a keen interest in theatre. Dismayed by the paucity of Bengali drama, he began writing plays from 1950s. With his flair for comedy he wrote witty plays in the everyday speech of middle-class people of Culcutta. He is concerned with the pointlessness of existence, compounded by a sense of associative guilt and responsibility in disturbed persons belonging to the urban middle class, in a world of increasing violence and inhumanity. As a producer, he conceptualized anganmancha or Third Theatre, which abandoned proscenium stages and performed in a bare room or open space with spectators sitting all around. Though he had his conventional theatre group Satabdi (Century) since 1967, Sircar opted for the Third Theatre which broke the barriers between performer and spectator, performer and performer, spectator and spectator. He wanted theatre to be a collective exercise to awaken and enhance the social consciousness of people. In the process he achieved the involvement of villagers with whom he lived during the process of some plays in writing and production (“Badal Sircar”http://www.indianetzone.com).
During the course of his engineering assignments in India and abroad, he kept up his playwriting with the purpose of social transformation. Though he subscribed to a leftist worldview earlier, eventually, he lost his faith in the official left position( TP xiv).
Sircar found naturalistic theatre which sought to depict life as it is, by creating separation between audience and actors, not a dramatic form of his taste. He wanted to break the barrier and create easy communication between the actors and the audience. He stuck to the open-air-format with the purpose of creating awareness among people about socio-economic oppression (xxiii). The Third Theatre is flexible, portable and inexpensive without having to depend on props, costumes and other paraphernalia of naturalistic theatre (TP xxiv). It has been the result of Sircar’s attempt at creating a theatre of synthesis by trying to break through the system of ‘story’ and ‘characters’ to give prominence to ‘theme’ and ‘types.’ His method was one of addressing directly to the spectators than mere ‘dialogue’ between stage characters, through physical ‘acting’ than ‘language’ (Lal 427). Thus he has been very effective through his plays to spread his ideas.
Life of Bagala (Bagalacharitmanas) opens with two Stage Managers standing together to blow their imaginary trumpets. They repeat the imaginary action but no hero enters. They keep shouting “Ente-r the hero! Hero! Hero! Ente-r the hero!” (53). They search for the hero in the audience. Suddenly a simple ordinary person comes out from the crowd, showing his disgust with life. As the trumpets keep blowing, the hero keeps covering his ears though he neither sees nor hears them. He utters his helplessness: “Seems I’m losing my mind. All of a sudden… as if someone’s blowing a trumpet. But I was to blow the trumpet. Since childhood…” (54). The Stage managers introduce the hero, Bagalacharan Batabyal. He utters that he should have been thrown into the Ganges with a 10 kg stone tied to his neck since orphaned from childhood, when his parents died in a bus mishap. He curses his unfortunate lot since he is ill-treated by his guardians.
Baga them returns to his childhood when he used to be taunted by his school friends. The Stage Managers join making fun of him, pulling his hair. As the dancing goes on, his college days are recalled with a Professor taking attendance. While all students pronounce their names, Bagala is reluctant to do so. When he utters his name ‘Batabyal,’ all make fun of him calling ‘Batball.’ As the Professor further asks questions on his identity, it is revealed, how after the untimely death of his parents, he was looked after by his maternal uncle.
As his friends poke fun at him, his aunt arrives to chide him for forgetting to buy fish at the end of the day from the fishmonger. Bagala tells her that the fishmonger refused to sell him fish with scales taken out as she instructed him.
BAGALA: No aunt. It ‘s true. He said… taking off scales for fish weighing 250 grams.
AUNT: 250 grams! Shall I buy 1 kg fish and feed you? How much money did your daddy
leave behind? (59).
When the aunt leaves in a rage, his uncle comes in asking for the batteries he had told him to purchase. He excuses himself for not purchasing it as he had to go far away to Sambhuda’s shop. Bagala asks his uncle to buy a bicycle for him to do errands. Meanwhile, the aunt tells him to coach Mantu, her son in maths.
A group of boys and girls enter and dance around clapping hands. The Stage Managers separate themselves and announce that Bagala, the hero, is at his maternal uncle’s home. On his part he says humorously that there is no one to bash him up as he had received all the bashing in childhood.
The Stage Managers make their comments on how he burnt midnight oil to pass B.Com with flying colours. Though he attended several interviews, he never got a job. The sequence shifts to three interviewers questioning Bangala with irony and humour. Stammering, he is unable to respond to their questions. The sequence shifts to his uncle taunting him to get a job: “Somehow you’d grab a job…you’d be independent… though you’ve got nothing in these six months…” (61).
His aunt enters, admonishing him to put on some decent dress since they are to go to his would be father-in-law. But on his part, he refuses to marry. Their intention is to grab the fifty thousand rupees that is offered as dowry. He tells them that he would pay back all that they had invested in his studies, when he gets his salary from the job he would get. Telling him to put on his dhoti-kurta, his aunt tells him to be ready for the trip. He dances around fretting wildly with clenched teeth and uttering many meaningless words. The Stage Managers make their comment on the boy’s behaviour:
STAGE MANAGER 1: This needs explanation. It is not hysteria. Our hero often resorts to
manifesting his anger and suppressed wrath in this manner.
STAGE MANAGER 2: In solitude and in subdued voice. Because he could never attain a
personality to speak his mind clearly in someone else’s presence.
STAGE MANAGER 1: He has always preferred stepping back and escaping to plain
speaking in others’ presence.
Fretting, Bagala continues to dance around wildly. He plans to run away with all he has in his pocket. He drops coin by coin on the floor: “ Three rupees seventy-five paise. Oh! Done shopping over the years. Had I put away some money! I’d been honest! What’ve I got out of honesty? Three rupees seventy-five paise! Honesty? Nonsense! I was afraid to steal. Afraid. Simply afraid! Afraid of Uncle, afraid of Aunt, afraid of Mantu, afraid of the class-mates, afraid of the teachers, afraid of the Professor-s” (62-3).
Bagala continues to speak of his fear ingrained in him, of all sorts of people such as the neighbourhood boys, the clerk at the college office, the guard at the college gate, traffic police, grocers, bus conductors, peons, cows, dogs, lizards, cockroaches and spiders.
The Stage Managers continue to make comments about his honesty. He had been a servant without wages and a private tutor to Mantu. He is to marry an ugly, quarrelsome and pampered only daughter of an executive officer of a business house. The big dowry would go to the pockets of his uncle and aunt. Bagala has no courage to oppose their orders. If he marries and stays with his father-in-law, he would be given a job. The only option left for him is to disappear. But he is afraid of his uncle sending the police after him to get hold of the Rs.50000/- dowry. The Stage Managers get frustrated and leave while Bagala tells his aunt that his dhoti has been taken away by big rats.
The uncle searches for the missing Bagala and bargains with the neighbourhood boys, offering them five hundred rupees, instead of involving the police. As the uncle moves out, the boys laugh, sing and dance. The Stage Managers enter and blow trumpet to announce that Bagala has run away. The sequence moves to the sound of approaching train and Bagala going towards the railway tracks to commit suicide. Instantly an old man appears, talking to someone invisible. He talks all absurd things and about corruption in society:
Listen. I’m a man. And men must die… Have to part with you if I die…Again sobbing?… We’ve been together for so long. Bound to feel bad. But when I die, you must fall in some able hands – got to settle it while I’m still alive…The country’s full of thieves, swindlers, goons, frauds, black marketers and politicians – if you come into their hands, can you imagine what’ll happen to the country? I was thinking of an honest person… Someone honest and decent yet poverty-stricken or in some difficulties (73).
Bagala enters and walks on the rail tracks and puts his head down to end his life. The old man observes him and tells the invisible person to pick him up from the tracks. A chorus enters in the form of a train. The invisible hand pulls him away and holds his wrist as the old man comes forward. The old man questions why Bagala attempted suicide. He wanted to know who had pulled him out of the tracks. The old man tells him it was Nila who saved him. He reveals to the old man why he opted to end his life, “My entire life…uncle, aunt, father-in-law, mother-in-law…Why’d I marry? I’d not marry” (74). The old man tells him that he suffers from nervous shock. He forces Bagala to move along with him on the tracks, though he resists. Bagala is curious to know who Nila is. The old man tells Nila could be any one – daughter, granddaughter or even mother.
The old man takes Bagala to his living room. To his utter surprise, Bagala finds dal, rice and fried pomfret fish served hot at that late night. The old man acknowledges that Nila has done all that so efficiently. When the boy regrets that he has not seen her, the old man signals him and communicates with someone invisible. Talking with the boy the old man learns that he has no bad habits such as smoking, boozing or stealing. He tells Bagala: “In short, you’re extremely honest. And you- what I think – suffer from an inferiority complex. Moreover, you’re too reticent. You got a first-class degree in B. Com, yet couldn’t answer simple questions at the interview. Rather than facing life, you prefer escaping to a hole” (78).
Bagala lowers his face feeling ashamed of his position and the old man tells him that he utterly needs Nila to transform him. “You’re her able inheritor. That’s why I leave Nila in your hands… I’m not trying to marry off Nila with you. Actually, it’s not even possible. Because Nila isn’t a human being” (78). Offering a lighter, the old man makes him strike it to ignite the lamp. When he succeeds in striking the lighter after several attempts, he beholds a beautifully dressed gracious lady in blue in a dance-like movement, sitting on her knees. As he jumps up in shock, Nila begs him, her master, to order her. The old man introduces her as Nilpari whom he can see and listen to and give orders. He tells him that he can order her for whatever he wishes. When Bagala is totally confused, the old man tells him that it would take a bit of time to get used to her. On his part, Bagala makes gestures to indicate that he wishes her to disappear. The old man tells him to strike the lighter. Since Bagala is unable to strike the lighter, the old man demonstrates. When Bagala succeeds, Nila disappears. A frustrated old man tells him, “You can’t be let alone with this at the moment. An extended training is required. You stay here for some time. Learn – how to summon Nila, give orders, and send her back” (81).
When Bagala stammers with fear, he is told that Nila would cook food and do all household chores. The old man tells him that he could stay with him in the small place and sleep. He reprimands Bagala for attempting to commit suicide since he didn’t want to marry and stay at his father-in-law’s. When he tells the old man about a job for him, he is told not to worry but to call Nila to make his bed to have a goodnight’s rest. When he shows his reluctance to call Nila, the old man tells him that it is pure magic and the lamp is like that of Aladdin’s magic lamp.
The Stage Managers comment on the hero who slept well on a bed brought by Nila till late afternoon the following day. When Bagala expresses his need to get a job, offering the lighter the old man tells him to call Nila. He is told to make a habit of calling Nila whenever he needs anything, considering her to be his girlfriend. The old man tells him to strike the lighter, but he is scared. The old man sums up the meaningless life Bagala lived: “Never ordered anyone in your life. Never made a request as well? Only followed what others ordered. That’s why you were to marry and stay at father-in-law’s following your uncle and aunt’s order” (84). When he picks up courage and strikes the lighter, Nila appears and sits in front of him asking for his bidding. He orders her to get three most popular newspapers of the previous Sunday. He reads classified ad-s. Being unhappy with all the ad-s, he refers to an interview letter left at his uncle’s home. The old man tells him to give the address to Nila to go and fetch it. The old man gives him practice for the interview and instils confidence in him. He is given a trial to speak out with courage at the interview. The old man reprimands him when he shows diffidence by looking elsewhere when questioned. Nila also prompts him how to speak properly. The mock interview, however, lets Bagala go out with a drooping head. The old man calls him back and Nila keeps her gaze on him. The old man warns him that he would never get a job and suggests that Nila could get him all he longs for. “You can hide in a room and live your life comfortably without an employment. Do you want it that way?” (91). The old man wants to know why he doesn’t want to marry and stay at the father-in-law’s. He warns him that unless he wards of his baseless fear, he would never get a job.
As the old man paces up and down, Nila shows her sympathy for Bagala and places her hand on his shoulders. Though surprised, he does not move away from her, but lowers his face after looking at her for a moment. Bagala strikes the lighter and Nila disappears.
The Stage Manager announces that the audience is able to see and listen to Nila for the sake of the play to continue. The old man strikes the lighter and Nila appears kneeling in front of him. As he talks to Nila he tells Bagala to go outside. But Nila tells him not to let Bagala go out, lest he would go towards the railway tracks to commit suicide. Nila reveal the main problem disturbing Bagala due to his uncle and aunt. “Their rough treatment and orders since childhood. Besides, all poking fun – as a result he got highly, what do they say – sensitive, about his name” (93). When the old man queries about possible therapy, Nila suggests that he should be kept alive to face his uncle and aunt.
The old man strikes the lighter and asks for Rs.10,100/-. Instantly a bag comes flying in and Nila disappears to Bagala’s utter surprise. The old man tells him to go home and tell his uncle and aunt that he won’t live there. If he can’t face them, he could write a letter writing down all the expenses they had incurred for his food, clothing and studies and also returns in compensation Rs. 10,000/-. He is also given a hundred rupees for travel and other expenses. Striking the lighter he asks Nila from where the money came. She reveals it to be real money wasted in accidents. He doesn’t pick up courage to write the letter and expresses reluctance to go to the house. Nila tells him to take her along with him to get courage. But he keeps uttering his lack of guts as he never did anything of that kind in life. When the old man corners him how he got courage to run away from home, he replies that it was guts. Nila challenges him, “without guts could you put them to shame? Could you leave home with just 3 rupees 75 paise? Could you tell stories about rats nibbling a dhoti?” (95).
When Bagala is thus challenged he tells how he should get guts recollecting a word from the past. After much coxing he utters, “Bastard… Bastard uncle. Bastard aunt. Bastard father-in-law. Bastard mother-in-law…And their daughter!…All are bastards!” (97). The old man encourages him to shout louder and louder to get courage. Nila dances with joy and hands over paper for him to write that magic word “bastard” which becomes like a sacred chant. Nila offers an envelope and the letter is enclosed.
The Stage Managers appear and give more information on Bagala’s childhood and adolescence. When the exit the old man tells Bagala not to be afraid of meeting uncle and aunt as there was no reason to be bogged down. He promises to make the trip the following day. The old man applauds him for not stammering. He requests the old man to order him around. But he declines saying that such decisions on his part can’t be done by orders. Bagala, pacing up and down, dishevels his hair. Looking afar, he starts singing, while Nila comes back and sits beside the old man. The old man is impressed by the song and asks if he has composed it. He had composed a couple of them and left them on the shelf behind the books at home which Nila brings out by magic.
The Stage Manager appears and takes the story to the following morning when Bagala’s tongue is found more loosened as he became a bit more courageous. The old man tells him to keep Nila in his pocket lest people might bump into her or some car would run over her in the busy streets of Calcutta. Bagala strikes the lighter to let Nila disappear, and keeps it in his pocket. The old man advices him to call Nila whenever he needs, especially immediately after he enters his uncle’s home. The old man blesses him uttering, “May goddess ‘bastard’ be ever awake on the tip of your tongue. Be careful about the bag on the bus…take care of the lighter. If the bag’s lost, you’ll get many such bags – if the lighter’s with you” (101).
As Bagala and Old Man exit, the Stage Managers make their comments on the uncle’s home where the angry father-in-law quarrels with them for having broken the marriage proposal. But they are confident that the boy would return soon, since he has no money with him. Being an honest and sincere boy they assure the man that he wouldn’t steal or beg, instead would return. The man on his part threatens them to produce him within twenty four hours or return the advance of Rs. 5000/- taken from the dowry.
When Bagala reaches home along with Nila, he finds an enraged uncle and aunt. When the man questions if he would marry his daughter, Nila prompts him to agree to the proposal. Nila plays tricks on the man by tapping him on the shoulder. Irritated the man charges the uncle for disturbing him. She also taps him from the aunt’s side and throws away the shawl from his shoulder. As the interrogation continues, Nila pushes the aunt who is caught by the uncle. The man expresses his disgust in their embracing each other. Nila next puts the man’s shawl on Bagala. She keeps playing tricks pulling aunt’s hair, tapping uncle’s head and letting them into a monkey dance. The man gets annoyed with their crazy behaviour and surmises it to be a family trait. Facing Bagala, Nila shouts “Bastard,” which he repeats to the shock of the man. Meanwhile, Nila pushes uncle who bumps into the man. As they fall to the ground, she pushes down aunt. When the man shouts for help, Bagala attempts to help but he is also pushed down. In the confusion the man makes his escape without his Rs.5000/-.
Taking out the letter from Bagala’s pocket and handing it over to him, Nila prompts him to give his enraged uncle. His face toughens and he tears up the letter and speaks with courage: “Bastard? Son of a bitch? It must be. Otherwise why’d I suffer smacking and spanking in your hands for all these years? Yes. You’re right. I’m a bastard. Son of a bitch” (105).
Uncle, aunt and Nila are transfixed and surprised at his expression. He tells them that he spoke directly what he had written in the letter and whatever he owed them he had repaid with hard work. Throwing the money bag at the uncle, he speaks in a rage, “There’s ten thousand here. And listen – you bastard uncle!…If you aren’t a son of a bitch yourself, return five thousand rupees to that gentleman” (106). As he exits in arrogance with Nila, she pinches uncle and aunt on their cheek and takes the man’s shawl and puts on aunt’s head. The couple gets shocked. When the uncle wonders who Nila is, his wife utters hysterically “Witch! Witch!…Our Bagai’s bewitched!” (106).
The Stage Managers enter and push out uncle and aunt and exit crying and shouting. They comment on Bagala, the hero who has taken to the streets like a valiant victor. In his excitement he is completely unmindful of Nila. Putting her hand on his shoulders, Nila walks behind him, hiding herself. He drags her beside, walking arm-in-arm, endangering her in the busy street. Nila begs him to take her in his pocket. He strikes the lighter and she disappears. Observing him light the striker, a pedestrian reminds him that he had forgotten to put a cigarette in his mouth. When he replies that he doesn’t smoke, the man thinks him crazily strike the lighter for light in the streets at noon.
Though the old man enters laughing, he is disappointed that Bagala had not given the letter. When the boy strikes the lighter, Nila enters and rushes to hold both his hands and twirls him around. As Nila lets him go, he tries to maintain balance and sits down. When the old man reminds him of the interview on Friday he shows his guts to attend it:
BAGALA: I’ll go all out!
OLD MAN: With Nila’s help…
BAGALA: Don’t need it. Go all out myself! Got to stand on my own feet!
OLD MAN: Bravo! If all of your age could stand on their own feet, could say they’d go all out, then…
BAGALA: The what?
OLD MAN: Then the world wouldn’t have been like this. We haven’t learnt to stand up, never went to fight. We always think that everything will be changed by magic.
BAGALA: No magic! No magic! Everything’s to be done with one’s own strength! With one’s own hand! I’ll tell everyone!
NILA: Then don’t you need me any longer, master?
BAGALA (startled): You… with him…
(Puts forth the lighter to the OLD MAN).
OLD MAN: No. No. I won’t take it anymore. I started depending too much on Nila. Now I too will stand on my own feet. Go all out!
Nila is confused as to what she would do henceforth. Bagala tells her to be his girlfriend. In the meantime, the old man decides to take a break for a month to go off to the Himalayas and other places of pilgrimage. But when Nila asks him how much money he requires, he declines her offer saying, “No money! No magic money! The money I earned is in the bank. I’ll set off once you get a job. Both of you stay here. Look after my house. When she offers to do everything through her magical power, Bagala tells her that everything will be done with their own hands. When Nila reveals her helplessness in doing things by her own hands, he offers to teach everything which he had learnt in his uncle’s home. When she fumbles he scolds and tells her, “Shut up! Stop stammering! Don’t have to stand on your own feet?” (109). When the old man reminds him of the past when he had been to the railway tracks to commit suicide, Bagala reacts with sternness:
BAGALA: Bastard. Who needs to be on the railway tracks? Sorry I…
OLD MAN: No sorry! Let Nila and ‘bastard’ be ever alive in your pocket and heart, respectively” (109).
The Stage Managers enter and inform how Bagala was rewarded with a job. The old man set off to the Himalayas. Bagala began to teach Nila cooking and other household chores. She finds it difficult even to peel onions, however, she shows her great patience. She exhorts him to sing the song he composed after getting the job. As he sings Nila joins too:
BAGALA-NILA: Magic doesn’t help a real attempt
Do away with it at this moment
Come with brooms, running
Clean the filth by sweeping
Sloth, coward, idler – all
Brooms in your hands, have a ball (110).
Bagala’s story brings to surface how human will and determination alone can make one stand on his own feet instead of living in a make-believe world of magic. The dramatist reaches out to his audience with a moral lesson in establishing ones own identity as a worthwhile human being, shedding built in inferiority complex under whatever oppressive circumstances. In the beginning of the play Bagala mentions about his desire to blow trumpet from childhood, referring to his desire to bloom and mature as a normal child. But the opportunity was denied him due to accidental death of his parents, leading to a warped life at his uncle’s home. His inferiority complex continues to be established at school and college when he is looked down upon by jeering peers and teachers. His decision to escape from life by suicide is thwarted by the magical assistance of the old man. In course of time, he is transformed by the magical life he lives with Nila, who instills courage in him through the promptings of his mentor. Once he matures in self confidence, the old man challenges him to stand on his own feet, shedding a magical solution to solve his angst. He proves that it is only acquired guts and courage that can lead one to self determination. In the final analysis, Bagala sheds the power of magic to live a normal life, challenging his own diffidence and fear of those who suppressed him. Success dawns when he relies on his own will and determination.
Sircar has been probing into the meaninglessness of life which the existentialists refer to as Angst or anguish a Germanic word for fear or anxiety. Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit could be rendered as Anxiety, uneasiness or malaise suggesting our daily anxieties. For Kierkegaard Angst meant dread while for Sartre anguish ( Macquarrie 164-5). Kierkegaard’s Angst (dread) describes an innate spiritual state of insecurity and despair. According to him, “anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit, and as such it has its place in psychology…. In anxiety it (innocence) is related to the forbidden and to the punishment. Innocence is not guilty, yet there is anxiety as though it were lost…” ( Kierkegaard 41- 5). It is angst that frustrates the protagonist, leading him to run away from home and attempt suicide.
The playwright seems to borrow from the absurdists for whom reality being meaningless, life is reduced to a mere circular progress from nothing to nothing. The true field of battle is inside us, in the Unconscious. Hence Sircar attacks us below the threshold of consciousness using mainly visual devices and language in a state of fragmentation. His concern is with the doomed individual, the man in despair and distress, alone and bitter in the wide world (Sebastian 15). The dramatist very deftly confronts his audience with harsh facts of isolated life in an alien world.
The playwright has been very successful bringing to focus various aspects of unconventional free theatre. In his creativity, he has been inspired by the art of Bernard Shaw, Moliere and O’Neill. His fusion of farce, nonsense, existential and absurd elements, render his plays differ from the conventional naturalistic drama, as he claimed, “My plays are never naturalistic. Invariably too, they deal with a human situation or problem. I realized long ago that I wasn’t cut out to be a novelist. Writers can analyze individual human beings from a point of detachment. I haven’t looked at life that way” (“Off Stage.”http://www.indiaprofile.com).
Third Theatre has been successful since it establishes the intimacy of sharing an experience with the audience with free play of imagination, manifested through symbolic costumes. It also provides freedom to perform within the arena format with the intense use of body language which has immense possibilities as the body relates to one’s consciousness, emotions and knowledge (“Off Stage.”http://www.indiaprofile.com). The technique applied to the