One River, One Crab (Old article published in The Indian Express circa 2008)

I have been feeling for a while that scripted English language theatre, as against devised theatre, is going through a crisis of form, content and method. But two plays I saw during the Royal Court Theatre Writer’s Bloc Festival, offer hope. One was Turel (River) by Swar Thounaojam and the other, Crab by Ram Ganesh Kamatham. The former sinuous, slithered along the earth, mysterious and apparently placid. The latter was sky bound, with harsh bursts of firecracker dialogue that sounded the way we speak in Indian cities.

Turel is set on a riverbank outside Imphal. A child has died and is being buried. Two characters, the old Brahmin, Eigya and the drunken Luwangcha, are living their separate, yet interconnected lives on the river bank. Eigya comes by every day to put fresh flowers on his grandchild’s grave and Luwangcha teases him, keeps him company.

There are subtle mentions of insurgency and the Meirapeibi – “young men with guns, women with torches” - and one is acutely aware that this is Manipur. The language spells impermanence. The shifting riverbank sand, Luwangcha’s missing wife, the anticipation of violence.

Then that thing happens. Luwangcha is attacked by a commando who, interestingly, speaks in Hindi. All other dialogue is in English with a little Meiteilon. So the choice of Hindi as the language of the commando comes as a scathing indictment of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows the Outsider to penetrate a culture and a people with brutality. As he prods him with his gun, he discovers Luwangcha’s secret and something changes unalterably.

English language theatre in India has often shied away from political content. So watching a play about Manipur that is so exacting is a new experience. The playwright has rooted the play in a deeply personal space – the relationship between Eigya and Luwangcha. But following the discovery of Luwangcha’s secret, the play explodes into the political domain and then unravels further, till personal and political are inseparable.

About Crab, it has nothing to do with the sand critter. This Crab is an abbreviation of carabiner, the rock climber’s tool. Turel and Crab are both written by young writers grappling with the sounds and vibrations of societies that are adrift. The central metaphor of each play is one of longing. The birth pangs of the river. The solitude of a rock face. Both have that quality of viraha, so beloved of Indian aesthetics.

Crab has four characters, but one who matters. Zamiel. The existential heir of Meursault in his remorseless commitment to the truth and Gregor Samsa in his love that is willing to go the length. In 2007, when measures of success are employability, disposable income and other corporate-speak, the “alone-ness” of Zamiel is stark and darkly romantic. In contrast you have the hapless Rocky. Would that he were called Stone. He’s never gonna get the girl. Try as he might to get the job, learn to climb, scramble, achieve… It’s downhill for Rocky. Yet the characters are sufficiently grayscale (Zamiel’s relentlessness could well be a pain in the neck and Rocky’s stupidity is often endearing) to make the audience see oneself in Rocky while aspiring to be Zamiel.

There were things that I would change about both scripts but playwrights are works in progress and deserving of time. The purpose of this article is to say, something’s going on here, man! In the hands of these diverse, angry-joyous-introspective-self absorbed-globally aware Indian kids from Manipur to Banglore – English language theatre is looking up. And the Royal Court Theatre is looking India-ways.

- Kirtana Kumar

Kirtana Kumar is a Bangalore based theatre artist and documentary film-maker.

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