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Pankaj Kapur on his literary debut and why it took 27 years

In an interview with, actor Pankaj Kapur talks about his debut novella Dopehri and what he seeks to achieve with it.

Written by Ishita Sengupta | New Delhi |
Updated: November 5, 2019 12:09:58 pm
pankaj kapur, pankaj kapur novel, pankaj kapur dopehri, pankaj kapur interview, pankaj kapur dopehri, indian express, indian express news The passage of time has not dented the appeal of Pankaj Kapur’s novella.

On Friday, at a plush hotel in New Delhi, Pankaj Kapur was busy deciding on how to hold a book and pose for the camera. “Should I hold it like this? I can.” He was not seeking the approval from a director but from a journalist. It was not a scene where the veteran actor was essaying the role of an author. The book, Dopehri, gingerly held by him was not a prop. He has written it. 

“It still has not gone down,” he says, referring to his experience of finally authoring a book. It could be disbelief or his inherent calm demeanour, but the actor does exercise remarkable restraint. It is betrayed only in a throwaway instance when he dons a pair of shades indoors and pretends to read. It is meant to be playful, but it is both precious and intimate. The author — revelling in abandoned joy of having written his first book — takes refuge in unrehearsed improvisations of an experienced actor to conceal his emotions. In private, however, when he confesses being overwhelmed after reading the introduction in printed form for the first time, it is the actor who is in awe of the author. “It is a very strange feeling. I will not say I feel proud but it is very heartwarming. This (the book) is for good. My grandchildren can read this and it will make me very happy if people read and enjoy this.”

‘Dopehri was written in 1992’

Much of his incredulity stems from the fact that he had written Dopehri in 1992, and it has been published 27 years later. He places the blame squarely on one person: himself. “I am very lazy.” He had finished writing it in four days and though he had realised it was something, he did not think much of it. It took validation from a friend — “Gentleman, do you realise you have written literature?” — for him to be convinced. “My friend Akshay Upadhyay and I used to write poetry and read out to each other. That time I had written this story instead. He heard it overnight and then told my wife, Supriya, that it must be printed.” 

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Dopehri indeed was printed in 1994 in Sakshatkar, a literary magazine that used to be published in Bhopal. A series of coincidences ensured that the story stayed alive in public memory over the years. It was read out on stage when Ram Gopal Bajaj, the then-director of the National School of Drama, heard and insisted that it must be. This also marked the beginning of Dopehri’s journey as a stage play, a medium the author takes very seriously.

Even after over 50 stage shows, Kapur holds the book while performing. He remembers every line (he frequently quotes while talking about a particular moment from it) but wants the audience to know that he is not mouthing borrowed words. They have been written by him. “I want the audience to know this is an actor who is a writer.” The impending culmination of Dopehri from a stage play to a novella was brought about by his wife and actor, Supriya Pathak. She had contacted a literary agent. The actor gives a warm nod to this in the foreword.”My Supriya’s hard work brought it, through Kanishka Gupta, to HarperCollins”. 

The passage of time has not dented the appeal of Kapur’s novella, a disarming work that derives its title from that part of the day which allows and breeds solitude. Gently tucked in between frantic mornings and chaotic nights, afternoons can also be relentlessly oppressive for those who are compelled to stay by themselves. It can accentuate the unendurability of loneliness. It can feel as unending and tiresome as writing with a vanishing ink.

Using this as a framework, Kapur draws our attention to those women who selflessly halted so that we could take the leap, who sacrificed so that we could reap benefits. We have been caught up since then, we have not turned back. Through his work, Kapur asks: how do you think they spend their afternoons?

Dopehri was also a stage play.

Amma Bi is terrified of afternoons

Amma Bi, the 65-year-old widow no longer remembers the last time she had people over. Much like the haveli she stays in, she is proud and lonely. And much like her abode, she is too proud to admit that she is lonely. She confronts the all-pervasive desolation with a steely resolve and a mouth full of bitterness. But it is in the afternoon(s) that she falters. As the clock strikes three, she hears “sound of footsteps, the rustling of leaves”, sees “a shadow outside the door”. 

Alone and terrified, she is an unlikely protagonist. Staying at an unspecified haveli, she seems even far removed. But if peered closely, her prosaic ordinariness spills forth. She spends her days waiting for her son’s phone call from abroad or gazing at her dead husband’s portrait “with reproaching eyes”. This life, like other things, had been thrust upon her. She had no choice. In her helplessness and desperation to swallow her ego and — much to her humiliation — request her help, Jumman, to stay over, she comes across as someone we have known or have stayed with. Someone who occupies a part in our lives without demand or a noise. Someone we fondly call by an endearing term and, with equal ease, forget to ask anything further. Even their name. 

‘It is never too late’

“We have ambitions, we go on with our lives. We get married and have families. But I was interested to know what happens to those girls who become mothers and grandmothers. They sacrificed their self at a time when they were young and healthy. What are we doing for them?” the author asks.

He is not pointing accusatory fingers here, evident in the way he refrains from using the overused and convenient tool of guilt to drive his point home. When he says that we move on with our lives, he does so with compassion and empathy; as somebody who probably has done the same or has witnessed something similar. He understands the compulsions. Bi’s son, Javed does not stay with her but is not negligent. He calls, sends money. 

Kapur does not admonish Javed but, through him, asks larger questions: is caring for parents from a distance a sufficient form of caregiving? Could we do more, and if we do, can it bring about a change? His intent is revealed when sudden companionship, care, and attention from a lodger change Bi’s life, helping her identify her self-worth and reminding her of her name. 

A resolve such as this is wishful thinking. The author understands. What he hopes for in reality is simpler. “I want that after reading this, people call up their grandmothers or mothers and ask them how they are doing. If that happens, I will feel very fulfilled.” His defiant optimism percolates even in the choice of his novella’s title. Notwithstanding the sombre connotations, Kapur maintains that Dopehri implies that Bi is in the afternoon of her life. She has lost the day but it is about to be evening. And she will go through it with a renewed sense of self. “It is never too late,” the author consoles, both to those who have been forgotten, and to those who have forgotten. 




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