Book review – Bedtime Story/Black Tulip: A Screenplay Story

Kiran Nagarkar’s play, censored for 17 years, belongs to a fine tradition of retelling the epics subversively.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: May 16, 2015 12:00:47 am
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Title: Bedtime Story/Black Tulip: A Screenplay Story
Author: Kiran Nagarkar
Publisher: 4th Estate
Pages: 304 
Price: Rs 650

Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story was written in 1977, just before the end of the Emergency. Vigilante censorship kept it off the boards for 17 years, and it remained in search of a publisher until 4th Estate brought out an excellent hardback, back to back with a film script titled Black Tulip (no relation to Dumas’ novel).

The play, which retells cusp stories from the Mahabharata that flit between myth and contemporary reality, headlines apathy, the national trait which causes us to stand by and observe acts of appalling criminality “with admirable self-restraint”. In his preface, Nagarkar lists a series of political outrages including the “riots” of 1984 and 2002, which “raised the most troubling questions without providing genuine answers and a satisfactory closure.”

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Bedtime Story went to the Censor Board in 1978 and returned with 78 suggested cuts. Other than the numerical coincidence, this seemed to be a random act of cultural violence. In what manner had Nagarkar sinned more than the hundreds who have retold the Indian epics subversively? It’s a lively crop, from subversive medieval women’s Ramayanas to the slapstick Mahabharata scene from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, in which Om Puri appears as Bheem in CIA shades, Duryodhan is naked but for candy-striped 1970s underwear and the stage rings with cries of, “Abbe shant, gadadhari Bheem, shant.” Recently, Devdutt Pattnaik retold the world’s biggest epic in 36 tweets pushed out over 40 minutes. Apart from the staccato brevity, the account elides a crucially important dog, a serious transgression for Mahabharata fans.

The Mahabharata depicts real-world complexities and ethical ambiguities but even the Ramayana, a sacred text about a god on earth, has been subverted to tell the story from the point of view of the oppressed. GN Devy has compiled counter-Ramayanas from the tribal oral traditions. In one, Ravana is a helpless, limbless child who gets about by rolling along the ground. Not much of a tyrant, really.

In 2012, Zubaan published a range of contemporary speculative stories based on the Ramayana in Breaking the Bow, edited by Aditi Menon and Vandana Singh. Authors included K Srilata, Tabish Khair, Priya Sarukkai Chhabria, Tori Truslow and Manjula Padmanabhan. Amit Chaudhuri, who riffed on the Surpanakha episode in the last decade, was absent from that collection.

In Upakatha (Folk Tales), the Tamil street theatre activist Pralayan put political words in Rama’s mouth: “I killed Tadaka because Vishwamitra told me to. I killed Vali because Sugriva told me to. Now you are telling me: Kill Shambuka! I have never, so far, done what I myself wanted. How much longer will you all keep using me for your own ends?”

In the same play, Ekalavya shot Arjuna and sent him packing from Nishadha. In Bedtime Story, he only diddled Dronacharya when his thumb is demanded as gurudakshina. Since he practised archery before the guru’s earthen image, he picked up some earth, spat on it, moulded it into a thumb and offered it: “Like guru, like gift.”

From the palace of Hastinapur and the UN General Assembly to a hut in East Pakistan, Nagarkar offers fractured, twisted retellings. What is staked in the game of dice: the Peacock Throne, the Topkapi palace in Istanbul, Mitsubishi Corporation, all rights to the numbers rackets, all rights to Daughter of Deep Throat, Lockheed, the World Bank, the Mafia, Mossad… Good fun, really.

Nagarkar was mystified by the Censor Board’s questions like: “Why are you distorting the original myths?” But that was precisely the problem. Another great Mahabharata reteller, C Rajagopalachari, had declared in the preface to his version of the epic: “It is my cherished belief that to hear it faithfully told is to love it and come under its elevated influence.” But Nagarkar’s chorus speaks in a tone calculated to rupture reverential spells: “Getting back to our own little world is a blessed relief after a play like this. Not meddling in other people’s affairs, just carrying on with our little jealousies and getting the kids married off, and tea with friends, and a newspaper in the morning. Once in a while there’s news that a couple of tribals’ eyes have been gouged out, or their huts burned down, or their lands snatched away. But those are exceptions…”

Not much elevation going on here, and a morally paralysed society is painfully exposed: “What’s the use of keeping a tongue in your head if it doesn’t do its work when required? Evolution took man’s tail from him. One day it’ll take away his tongue.”

But perhaps not right away. Pralayan’s Eklavya insists that so long as the society remains diverse, the epics will be versioned:

Questioner: “Ekalavya, you shock people who have been immersed in the stories of the Mahabharata.”

Ekalavya: “You told the story acceptable to you. I tell the story acceptable to me.”

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