Book: The Firebird
Author: Saikat Majumdar
Publisher: Hachette India
Pages: 240 pages
Price: Rs 499
Ori, the child who loves listening to stories in Saikat Majumdar’s The Firebird, does not know of the Natyashashtra. In the ancient Indian treatise of the performing arts, angry sages set a curse upon theatre — all actors are shudras, condemned to live in the margins. From this outer world, comes Ori’s mother.
“His mother acted in plays. He carried that knowledge like a wound,” writes Majumdar, encapsulating the central dilemma of the book. Ori watches his mother, Garima Basu, become a different person on stage, like a shape-shifting monster. She wears body-hugging clothes, plays wife to other men, falls into bed with them, and dies in a cone of light. The reality and illusion of his mother’s life wracks the five-year-old when the novel begins. He learns to negotiate with these as he grows up, until he is able to twist truth and fiction together like the grey-and-white strands of his beloved grandmother’s braids.
Majumdar tells the story of a boy who spirals into dark depths but he also keeps his eye on Ori’s environment that feeds his destructive streak. The title is drawn from the Bengali adaptation of a French play about Joan of Arc, which Garima acts in. But, in Egyptian mythology and a famous Russian ballet, a firebird is a massive creature that can light up the midnight sky with its sparkling wings. Majumdar, however, builds the book like a cobweb, with the spider suspended by thin threads from the walls around him.
Ori’s family home could have been his sanctuary. It is a tight Bengali cluster, with a widowed grandmother, a hardworking aunt, a sprightly cousin, an erudite father and an actor mother. As his mother goes out dressed up to act in the local theatre every evening, the adults simmer and the servants snigger. Majumdar paints a crowded miniature of an old Kolkata family in which legacy and learning — Ori’s grandfather had been presented at the court of George V after qualifying as a barrister in England — are balanced by patriarchal perceptions of morality. In the family’s “great dark swathes” of bitterness towards Garima, there is the shadow of the fallen women who acted in plays in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Bengal, such as Binodini Dasi and Tara Sundori.
It is not that Garima does not care about her son, but acting demands an erasure of a performer’s self. The actor not only challenges but also negates a woman’s role of child-rearing. For a few hours every day, Garima stops being Ori’s mother.
As Majumdar builds the other strands in Ori’s life in detail, the tropes of Kolkata spill out of the pages. “The Party”, which befriends Ori and is out to clean away bad art and dirty women, represents the ubiquitous political muscle that the gentry either support or dread. The fragrance of flowers gives away the red-light district of Sonagachhi before Ori can see the women who circle their buns with garlands. Durga Puja, the neighbourhood ghoogni seller, Park Street colleges, the maze of words and lanes that make up Kolkata paras, sweet shops, — of such scenic and sociological images is Ori’s city made and Majumdar recreates it with tactile fervour.
The end comes, like the mythological bird and Joan of Arc’s punishment, with fire, the element that tests, destroys and purifies. The margins that Natyashashtra had referred to, go up in smoke. A sense of foreboding, however, smoulders long after the book is closed.