Demons at a Calcutta Playhouse: Kitaab review of ‘The Firebird’ by Saikat Majumdar

Review by Rajat Chaudhuri 

majumdar-firebirdThe Firebird, Saikat Majumdar, Hachette, 2015, pp 233, INR 499

From the few visits to Circarina—the Calcutta playhouse with the revolving stage—that one made in the early flush of youth, the figure of an elderly dhoti-clad gentleman who would sit in the front row rises up from the depths of memory. He would always be holding a freshly-picked rose in his hand, which he would present to one of the performers immediately after a song and dance sequence. It was a heady experience watching those plays, the throbbing darkness inside the hall, the coloured spotlight beams lighting up the elaborate sets, the filmi music, the Bollywood style bump and grind and the crackling storylines. All of it came back in a rush while reading The Firebird, Saikat Majumdar’s novel set in the world of commercial theatre. A powerful story of subversion, decay and dissonance in a north Calcutta family with a young boy at its centre.

Ori. A complex and slightly unpredictable child whose mother Garima Basu is a stage actress, a profession that doesn’t find favour in their middle-class family. The young Ori, who studies in class five at the beginning of the book seeks refuge in the tales told by his grandmother—Mummum—or hangs out with his cousin Shruti and her college friends. Ori’s own father is an alcoholic and a sleeping pill-addict who is mostly at the margins of the plot.How does a child’s mind react when he sees his mother on stage dying, falling in love and getting into bed with strangers? Ori’s reactions to his mother’s profession and the effect that servants, neighbours and the Party has on him as they discuss and dissect Garima’s “character” is the fuel that powers The Firebird.

Naturally the setting for the story is often the cavernous halls of old Calcutta playhouses, real and imaginary, with names like Ruby theatre, Minerva and the Pantheon. But most of all it is the Pantheon and it’s magic stage, which takes us back again to the gentleman who would offer the solitary rose to the woman at Circarina theatre.

Curiously, this dhoti-clad theatre aficionado of real life brings to mind one of the memorable characters in Majumdar’s book—Ahin Mullick. Ahin, owner of Pantheon—a commercial theatre producer and playwright—is writing a play called Dusk and looking for actors. Dusk is a story within a story which has a promiscuous affinity for the plot of the novel and vice versa, a chemistry which will eventually determine where The Firebird will fly.

At the beginning of the book, commercial “board” theatre is slowly falling out of favour because of the pressures of television and the Party’s determination to play moral guardian. But Ahin soldiers on, producing plays at the Pantheon, the only playhouse with the revolving stage. He is a slightly crazed and anachronistic character who refuses to fall in line. Majumdar draws him brilliantly with deft brushstrokes:

They laughed at him these days, at Ahin Mullick, whose silk kurta, once regal, was now splotched with betel juice, the last soul from the ancient family in Hatibagan who had owned the most glittering playhouse of Calcutta. Men who bedded the prettiest actresses and paid for their glitz. What silken days!

And then beautifully evokes those times that Ahin Mullick inhabited in his mind. We can sense a wistfulness in these lines:

The British still owned companies in Dalhousie Square then and firang dancers frolicked in the Grand Hotel and the Great Eastern and you drank Pink Lady and White Lady in Firpo’s and Trincas and Magnolias to glowing music and cabaret crooners, the same crooners who spiced up the plays that drew the crowds to Indralok and Rangmahal and Minerva.

We can well imagine that Ahin’s attempts to recruit actors and actresses for Dusk, literally off the streets, will go horribly wrong, lighting up another fuse that will start many real and metaphorical fires.

Just like the magic stage of Pantheon, which rises from a dark pit in the basement with a glittering set, each time a new scene begins, this novel is layered with light and dark. The evanescent light in Ori’s life comes from the time spent with his grandma but soon darkness, deep-seated and pathological, takes over. There is light at the beginning also, light of the fire pit of the staged crematorium, which really foreshadows the deaths and disaster that will follow. While fire gives light, it also burns. Incendiaries lurk among these pages, some determined arsonists others who dream of lighting fires in the hearts of spectators ringed around the stage.

Majumdar’s prose, here as in his previous work Silverfish, is alive with the sights, sounds and fragrances of north Calcutta where most of these theatre halls stood. However what makes this book special is the undercurrent of darkness, gushing out often like a Stygian spring—heavily shaded characters almost Toulouse-Lautrecian in their decadence, the glitz of professional theatre with its magnificent sets, its green room secrets and box office bloodbaths, its footlights and strobes, the powdered faces and rouged cheeks, scary visages distorted by naked filament bulbs and the emptiness gnawing at the edges of a life of glamour.

Beyond the stage and the darkened aisles, the author of The Firebird builds up a rhythm in his storytelling with motifs, repeated over chapters: braided hair, houses big and small, happy and sad, houses which are almost human, old pigeons, pigeons that cannot fly. The braiding of hair into plaits returns in pivotal scenes just as houses prefigure the action. A huge north Calcutta house where Ori lives, cracking up because of the tension brewing within its walls, a “strange, large-hearted” house where Ori finds a retreat which however has fire engines parked on the grounds, a “wind-swept empty house with the smell of paint and dust” in the suburbs which can only be approached in a rickshaw and finally a house, belonging to the local councillor which “was not a house which gave answers”.

Like houses, there are the pigeons. The flightless pigeons that make their home in Ori’s house, return in quite a few scenes as if signifying the lack of independence that stifles the lives of the characters:

Wings flapped high above his head. Pigeons. Old pigeons that had forgotten how to fly. Through the window before him, he could see a room he knew well.

But flapping wings of flightless birds can fan smouldering fires, and independence can have many enemies within and without. Here it will be neighbours poking their nose into Garima’s professional and personal life, it will be Ori’s inability to face his friends after school because they might ask him about things at home and most of all it will be the “Party”, omniscient and omnipotent, which has decided to meddle in everything. Everything from the personal lives of citizens right up to the cultural landscape of the city.

Totalitarian ideologies and the politics born out of these have a tendency to intrude in all aspects of life including entertainment and art. Their proponents, whether from the right or the left, pass decrees about good and bad art, decide what is high or low culture, while their cheerleaders measure “morality” with twisted calipers taking readings through ideology tinted eyeglasses. The Party in Majumdar’s story looms in the background, its foot soldiers and satraps gradually assuming an increasingly important role in the plot, passing judgement on Garima’s lifestyle and casting a lengthening shadow on the life of commercial theatre, till gratuitous violence near the end and an ingenious twist draw us on towards the climax.

During the closing decade of the twentieth century many, Calcuttans noticed with growing despair how these commercial theatre ventures folded up succumbing to political pressure from leftist parties and the assault of television. A few theatre halls perished in mysterious fires. With the closing of Circarina, which transforms into the Pantheon in Majumdar’s novel, vanished that singular patron of Calcutta’s commercial theatre, who would always gift a rose to the dancer on the magic stage of the old playhouse.

Over the centuries, literature has engaged with political interference and persecution in various fashions. It has given us Zamyatin’s dystopia, it has woven for us The Master and Margarita, it has mocked the powerful with laughter and the power hungry with cold satire. Outside of the novel’s red hot core, where Ori, his artist mother Garima, Shruti and Ahin Mullick navigate the dim lit alleys of a vanishing world, fighting many demons, Majumdar’s The Firebird is also a lament for a city dissipating and a culture wasting away because of greed, indifference and the intrusion of political power into private lives. A mesmerising work, almost gothic — brilliant!   

Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace Fellow, a winner of the Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, 2015 and author of the novels Hotel Calcutta and Amber Dusk.