Writing for life

Print edition : June 20, 2008

VIJAY TENDULKAR. HE did not demand anything from life, but let the tides wash over him at will.-VIVEK BENDRE

Vijay Tendulkar (1928-2008), acknowledged as modern Indias finest playwright, never shied away from unpalatable, even unutterable, truths.

Death is the most interesting happening in life, because no one quite knows what it means to undergo the experience, he once said. Later he wrote to a friend, I want to live the moment of my death and die as I feel it in my body.

The wish may not have come true for the writer, Vijay Tendulkar. With a downslide in health for months, much of the time spent in hospital, he slipped into a coma before the end came on May 19. He suffered from the rare muscular disease myasthenia gravis about which he joked, I thought only film stars got it. But his mind remained razor sharp through the last decade of physical debilitation. All kinds of infections develop a fascination for me, wont leave me once they get in. At this rate Id best open my own pharmacy, he said.

The man was acknowledged by three generations of admirers even by some adversaries as Indias finest playwright. At least, that is what fellow playwright Girish Karnad declared and added, No one understood the sense of humiliation as Vijay Tendulkar did.

Is this awareness of humiliation why, among 30 full-length plays written over four decades, Tendulkar had a special affection for his unsuccessful Baby? A brother reacts to the rape of his sister by attacking the perpetrator, the local dada. Returning to his mohalla after serving prison sentence, the man finds his sister telling him not to offend the rapist she is now living with him. When a translator abandoned Baby half way as gruesome, Tendulkar asked, You want to go through life with blinkers on?

Known for his reticence about his work, Tendulkar rarely watched his plays being performed. He nevertheless opened up when questioned about his failures. You knew just why he enjoyed film-maker Ritwik Ghataks quip, The audience flopped, not my film!, when he explained that Baby did not make drama of cruelty, it just showed the way people lived. People dont like to acknowledge that kind of matter-of-fact reality. Where else could the girl go? Was he cynical? No, I just refuse to pamper myself with illusions.

No one could accuse Tendulkar for shying away from unpalatable, even unutterable, truths. Born to doting lower middle-class parents, favourite child Vijay grew up with a mute visual of his father threatening his mother. Years later, he was to write one of his most moving prose tracts about his father, and another about his sister. They show how his feelings for his nearest and dearest could be complex, even disturbing.

A friend felt those shadows when Tendulkar mused in 1997: For months together I forget I had my parents in my life but when it comes to me, the memory, the love I received at the cost of my sister I yearn to have the two by my side, force-feeding me (as they did when I was sick in childhood) and I crying my heart out. My sister is past 75 now. My father, with his principle of not making an exhibition piece of his daughter to marry her off, could not see her married. She did not have looks, nor the kind of grooming to involve a man. She grew up with an inferiority complex at not being a boy. And that too a girl of plain looks with no special attributes. She lives in an old womens institution now, quietly claims she is happy where she is, doesnt want to borrow the problems of our families; she says she is better off with the problems of the women around her. They love her, dont want her to leave. She is always affectionate to me, as if mentally she sees herself as my mother now. I go to Pune to spend time with her, but become uncomfortable after some time.

Tendulkars popular play Ghashiram Kotwal, inspired by the rise of the Shiv Sena, was first directed by B.V. Karanth. Above, a scene from the play when it was staged at Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal on September 3, 2006, to mark the fourth death anniversary of Karanth.-A.M. FARUQUI

As a small-time publisher and theatre aficionado, Tendulkar senior provided a literary ambience at home, but the young Vijay grew up in a Bombay (Mumbai) chawl where life was sliced in the raw every day. Two uncles turned mad, and he found his missing brother, an alcoholic, dead in a ditch. A stint in journalism heightened his sense of immediate, unvarnished reality, while the rambles at night made him witness desperate moments a sex worker who plied her trade with a child under the cot, a sudden brawl where he saw a man decapitated by a cracked liquor bottle.

Tendulkar accepted violence as an inexorable fact of life. He was fascinated by what he called the Mickey Mouse Syndrome. Human beings were divided into two classes only aggressors and victims. When the cycle changed and the victims became powerful, they preyed upon others with gusto. These dawnings made him study emerging patterns of violence with his Nehru Fellowship in 1974-75. He travelled to troubled spots and spent nights in police stations, watching thrashings and hearing moans under torture. Once he said he glimpsed naxalites enacting in play what they proposed to do in life. Chilling? No, it was expected, was his taciturn comment.

He was attached to Mitrachi Goshta (A Friends Story), the first Indian play on same-sex relations, which also faced empty halls when premiered with Rohini Hattangady in the lead. She recalled, In those days, nobody talked, let alone or put up a play on the subject.

Mitra entered adolescent Vijays life when he saw her cycling to college in white saree, plain borderless blouse with a collar, white tennis shoes. She lacked feminine curves, she was erect and manly. Years later, his actor-friend shared memories of his friend Mitra who had a trait I had not heard of before, a craving for a girl. A short story was born, about a nave boy and an older young woman who fascinates and frightens him. Years later, catching a glimpse of the real, now old Mitra, Tendulkar found a play written in spite of me, out of some compulsion that had no logic Only a few shows, which were hated by the women and sneered at by the men in the audience.

But audience response had never been a factor in Tendulkars writings. Perhaps that is why he hated doing screenplays where he had to accommodate other peoples requirements. My director is patiently waiting for me to see what he sees. Im struggling to make him see what I see, he says about being taken to a directors ideal location. We are here. But this world has undergone a vast change after my director grew out of his sweet childhood. He stood there, dejected, and I stood with him wondering what was so sweet about this place? Why had he trudged so much for it? And how am I going to use it in my script which has to be pleasant, with magical elements of pure, simple nostalgia for a world which is no more and which every member of the audience would like to have back? The director has engaged another writer (though without any nostalgic memories of his own childhood) in case I do not deliver the goods. I will be happy to hand over the project to him and go back to my easy chair.

But the director is pleased with Tendulkars jottings. I am destined to die writing film scripts, Tendulkar groans and begins to flesh out the script, in English, his language for screenplays.

The dramatists dislike arose from the fact that the writer has little freedom in cinema. The word is subservient to the visual. Tendulkar publicly criticised changes film-makers made to his script, though on occasion he also praised such changes as better than his original. With the highly researched Sardar screenplay profiling Vallabhbhai Patel, he took no chances but published the film script independently for the record.

He did not change his mind even after awards and accolades for classics such as Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, Manthan and Akriet, which were marked by verbal economy and stark silences. His contribution was vital to the New Wave Indian cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. The film-maker Shyam Benegal remembers Tendulkars beautifully handwritten draft, no word scratched out, breathing an incredible sense of drama, no such thing as an information scene to tie up the narrative. He never simplified a character either. In Nishant, the woman [Shabana Azmi] runs away with her abductor, in a turning of the Ramayana on its head! Jabbar Patel, who directed his play (Ghashiram Kotwal) and screenplay (Simhasan), explains that with Tendulkar language was gesture. When you read it you know what to do, what gesture or movement to make. Shabana Azmi sums up Tendulkars approach: He takes no positions, waves no flags, just focusses on truth.

And what a fantastic canvas he presented in four decades of exhilarating output! Starting with a flop, Grihasth (1955), he went on to create an entirely new genre of realistic/naturalistic drama produced by thespians in his own Maharashtra State Arvind Deshpande, Damu Kenkre, Kamalakar Sarang, Shriram Lagoo and Vijaya Mehta. Apart from the Padma Bhushan and Saraswati Samman, he was many times winner of the State governments Award for Best Play.

Since then three generations have produced his plays in Marathi and in other languages, including English. In 2004, The Fifth Woman, a play written in English as a prelude to Sakharam Binder, was premiered at the month-long Tendulkar Festival in New York. Sakharam Binder itself, produced by The Play Company and directed by Maria Mileaf, proved that Tendulkar was wholly accessible to a new audience across the Atlantic. One reviewer called it the Spell Binder. The New York Times wrote: Sakharams tragedy turns out to hinge on his budding social consciousness, his arrested enlightenment Like Brechts Mother Courage, he exploits a corrupt system for personal advantage, then discovers that the price of playing the game is everything he hoped to protect. Unlike Brecht though, Mr. Tendulkar never judges his protagonist but concentrates instead on painting him with unsettling compassion, perceptiveness and thoroughness. His play deserves to be much better known in the U.S. than it is.

In the earlier years, Tendulkar did welcome trustworthy editing. A six-hour-long Mee Jinkalo Mee Harlo was edited drastically by Vijaya Mehta, and Shriram Lagoo reduced Vultures to taut explosiveness. But once published, Tendulkar refused to accept snips and cuts. When an irate woman cribbed about the inordinate length of a monologue in Silence! The Court is in Session, he explained patiently that all it needed was a good actor.

Lillette Dubey in Tendulkars Kanya Daan, in Hyderabad in 2007.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Tendulkars stage directions can be longer than dialogues, a fellow playwright quipped. And indeed the thespians dislike of tamperings was well known. Make your script so tight that it prevents directorial interference, he warned. He faulted scripts allowing diverse interpretations, and the director whose reinterpretation adjusted the thrust of the play to change its sense, treating the play as a script, raw material, or ready vehicle for his creative talents and message.

Much has been written about the controversies trailing Tendulkars work, inevitable with any writer so ahead of his times. Ghashiram Kotwal and Sakharam Binder sparked violent political protests. Though Ghashiram was inspired by the rise of the Shiv Sena, Tendulkar lived long enough to see that the story was applicable to other political situations in his country, and the world. Sakharam Binder challenged middle-class beliefs about marriage and female sexuality. No play shocked middle-class Maharashtrian sensibilities as much as Vultures did. He almost created a new language to deal out the electrifying shocks of a family steeped in evil. The kicking of the pregnant woman to cause a miscarriage, and the woman running in with blood on her sari (dyed green instead of red as a concession to censorship!) froze audiences to the marrow. Such cruelty had not been the stuff of Marathi theatre ever, exploding as it did preconceived notions of parental and familial bonds.

The real surprise in Tendulkars world is his range of form. The man hardly repeated himself. Every play has its own structure. The huge success of Ghashiram Kotwal did not make Tendulkar re-employ music and dance or the folk elements, which were being avidly promoted in the theatre of the times. Some of his plays may seem overwritten, demanding closer editing and fine-tuning. But the language is terse, not prolix. Many of them still await translation. Some early plays (Manus Navache Bet 1956, Ek Hatti Mulgi 1968, Mee Jinkalo Mee Harlo 1963) may need just a little updating to be relevant today.

Experts note that Tendulkar stayed as much within tradition as he broke from it. Marathi theatre had long centre-staged women to fight reformist battles. The Tendulkar gaze avoids sentimentality and pretence. It has empathy and fellow-feeling. You see it in Kamala, where the middle-class Sarita, wife of a journalist, meets the woman he has bought in a rural bazaar to prove that human trafficking exists in modern India. Kamala is not Tendulkar at his best for a writer who is known for playing with greys, he paints the male journalist black and the idealistic uncle white. But it strikes truth when the village woman asks Sarita: And for how much did he buy you? It is not a man who makes Sarita aware of her own slavery but a woman, and an illiterate village woman at that.

Tendulkars directors have mostly seen his work as realistic/naturalistic proscenium fare. A Tendulkar Festival in Mumbai (1990s) had 10 young directors staging their choice, mostly on the trodden path. It was the same in Pune, where Amol Palekar and Sandhya Gokhale organised a week-long homage to the playwright in 2005. Yet, plays such as Sakharam Binder, Ghashiram Kotwal or Pahije Jatiche cry out to be staged in more experimental spaces. His one-act plays, said to be his best, may allow an energising freedom.

Celebrated for uncompromising bleakness, Tendulkar did love playing with blithe notes, especially when he interspersed them with some sombre streaks, which also provoked hilarity in the audience. A friends love for the niece of the college chairman came to a sad end. I turned it into a humorous climax in Pahije Jatiche. Because I wanted to get away from serious matters. In life it was not possible [Humorist] Pu La Deshpande is the central character, I use his speech rhythms. In fact Deshpande was a subtle influence in the dialogues of all my light plays.

Tendulkar himself revolutionised speech rhythms by making the spoken resonate with the unspoken. He wrote half sentences, part phrases, tentative expressions, pauses, and silences as no one had done before him (or after). I have an ear for the speech habits of people and an eye for mannerisms and personal peculiarities, he admitted. Everything gets stored in the brain. I dont have to call for it when I write. It comes by itself.

His anecdotes could vividly individuate Hindustani vocalist Jitendra Abhisheki, once a part of his daily life, or describe his first days as a journalist in Loksatta, where Bal Thackeray was his cartoonist colleague. He engrossed listeners with live readings of other playwrights works. He could never turn anyone away. About a blind visitor, he says, I was happy to see him and mad at his dropping in when he was unwanted. I cursed myself while he recited his poems. Why the hell are you here now I kept shouting at him mentally, and appreciated his poems at the same time. Listening was an addiction almost.

When he wrote his first novel Kadambari One in 1996, the celebrated playwright was not without apprehensions. I want to make a humble beginning, knowing how difficult it is to master a new form. It is dense enough and precise. The rest I dont know. Mixed reactions (Cant decide, Gripped by a sense of repulsion, Youve found your medium) did not abort the second novel. To a woman in a literary conference who labelled Tendulkar as a spent force who continues to write novels of no significance, his reaction was typical: There is no dearth of spent forces in Marathi literature [many of them present at that conference]. But they are wise enough not to write. They bask in their past glory, sigh over the total degradation after they stopped writing. They are heard with respect. I happen to be among the few who dare to write and face the prospect of being exposed.

In life, Tendulkar remained an enigma to many cryptic, aloof, quiet. His friends and he had many knew his sunny side, full of sly wisecracks, genial and warm-hearted. Young people flocked to him at all times, even until the last hours. Playwrights and actors found a friend in him. He could detect potential even in flawed creations, encourage unstintingly and criticise unsparingly.

His influence on the Marathi and Indian landscape is strong, often unexpected. Recently, when funds collected from friends for his expensive treatment exceeded the need, Tendulkar had an answer. An annual Sahitya Rangabhoomi Pratishthan fellowship of Rs.1 lakh for a promising young theatre person, given quietly. No function, fanfare, publicity, or even monitoring. Tendulkar reckoned that it is the recipients not the givers responsibility to make the best use of it.

He did not demand anything from life but let the tides wash over him at will, trying to live each moment as it happened, fully, attempting to make sense of the experience. This determination made him essentially a loner even when surrounded by friends.

Tendulkar understood being bereft like few did. You see it in his work. Even a forgotten radio play Dard Na Jaane Koyi (None Knows My Pain), the title borrowed from Mirabai, actualises the agony of the legendary vocalist Kumar Gandharv when he lost his voice, an experience that Tendulkar himself was to undergo later.

His personal tragedies made him reflective. He displayed a compassionate irony and had few expectations of fellow humans. Terrible blows the long illness of a bedridden wife, the death of a son and a daughter, his own mounting health problems, and financial uncertainties could not destroy his love of life. He wrote, I think I am slowly but definitely accepting the fact that very little time is left for me to do what I like. I am not in a rush but want to have whatever time is left for myself. The mind asks for mobility, not the body.

Writing every day was as natural as breathing to this writer of over 30 full-length plays, and a number of one-act plays, childrens plays, screenplays, translations, short stories, essays and novels. He was engaged in writing an autobiographical account of his times when he passed away.

Friends brought him books and music that he consumed avidly and then gave away. Only towards the very end did he say, I cant speak, listen to music, read. I cant write. Its time to go. And go he did, quietly, without fuss, according to his wishes. Then you remembered how he hated nostalgia, and refused to see the irony and grief in John Keats epitaph for himself (Here lies one whose name was writ in water). Why, Thats good. Just right. How it should be. At least, for me.

Long ago I wrote of Tendulkar: He has been criticised for exaggerating the spiritual bankruptcy of the degenerate socio-cultural milieu in which we live. He has been accused of neo-realistic projections of squalor, poverty, crime, disorder and mental titillations to titillate and, worse, of promoting defeatist apathy. But he has also been hailed as one of Indias best living playwrights.

Tendulkar said the description sounded like a public announcement. Anything you write, even for newspapers, must have something of you in it. He enjoyed arguments, and disliked my yearning for the past. Mourn so much for the dead and you forget the here and now, he said. For an intelligent woman you are really stupid!

I want to be in the present, however painful and unbearable it is. Want to be a man without a past.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

He loved to be surprised with a poem. Why do we love poetry? Because a poem says what we already know but dont know we know. Then why cry? Because there is nothing else to do, is there?

He also ensured through friends that I got to meet the reclusive poet Arun Kolatkar. When Kolatkar died I wrote a play (Dark Horse) about the man and his work. Tendulkar saw it and said, Im glad you celebrated his poetry, not the man. Now, you should stop writing for a living. Write for life, write to be alive.

Finally he said, I have a past which is longer than yours but I have to rub it off in my memory. It is a load I am weary of carrying. Even with soothing things which are not small in number. It makes me cry for my losses. Eats up my soul for things I should not have done, and things which I did not do. Hereafter, I want to be in the present, however painful and unbearable it is. Want to be a man without a past.

Each time we read him, he lives in the present.

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