Spanning over two hours, Jean Paul Sartre’s seminal 1944 play No Exit (Huis Clos) is an acquired taste. It has to be consumed one take at a time, like the gentle chewing of undercooked rice. As part of Bangalore Little Theatre’s (BLT) three-day French Theatre Festival, Alliance Francaise de Bangalore staged the play on 20th August. BLT’s Director Training programme is an initiative to propel new artists and directors to come up with live productions within three months while learning to manage a theatre production. The third edition of the festival saw two more plays staged; Jean Anouilh’s Dinner With The Family and Moliere’s Tartuffe.
The afternoon show at 1 seemed auspicious with the patchy sky and the venue had a sombre air, synonymous to what an existentialist play would demand. Although it wasn’t a full house, as expected on an afternoon, the people present in the room had not come to watch just any other play. Sartre demands your attention at all times and fraying from this rule even for a moment means one cannot comprehend the next scene. The play, directed by Deepak Mote is a mélange of many sensory elements. One has to shift between what is happening on stage to what is happening on the other part of the stage while being in tune with the rumbling bass, snare drum with the cymbals against the backdrop.
‘Hell is other people’ is the meaning behind Sartre’s No Exit. As three individuals find themselves in a not-so-everyday living room sans the ‘devices of torture’, their conception of how the afterlife of damnation would be like comes crashing down. A bellboy with neatly combed hair in a snappy black jacket comes on stage and brings into the room its first occupant Joseph Garcin and answers many of his stock questions about torture chambers and hellfire. Garcin is soon followed by Inez and Estelle, two women who are to be his roommates for eternity. “It’s like this”, says Garcin in an inquisitive manner. “It’s like this”, answers the bellboy in a bored fashion.
The three occupants start showing their connections to the real world, portrayed by dancers on the other part of the stage, separated by a flimsy cloth. It gives the idea that it is within one’s reach yet unreachable. There are no mirrors in the room and the furniture is colour coded to match their personalities. Estelle frantically looks for a mirror to check on her appearance. Inez offers to be her mirror and tells her to look into her eyes. As Estelle frantically tries to put on her lipstick, Inez reveals the many dark secrets of Estelle and frightens her to the core. The three of them serve as mirrors for each other and in turn become unrelenting torturers.
Garcin is a dapper figure dressed in a beige coat and white shirt, a journalist from Rio de Janeiro by profession. As the heat in the room rises, he sheds his civilised self and the caricature of the coward and the unfaithful wife abuser he came out. He flees his country during the outbreak of the war and gets killed in action. Estelle, clad in a lilac one piece dress is a chirping flirtatious lady from Paris but like Garcin, her true face of a hypocrite and a child murderer propelled by lust and vanity emerges. Inez is a cold and calculated figure who is not afraid to say her mind and stand up for the same. A lesbian postal clerk, she ends up turning her cousin’s wife against him resulting in the murder of the latter. She doesn’t flinch away from showing her sexual desire towards Estelle who never reciprocates. Estelle, on the other hand, shows her lascivious nature towards Garcin because he is a man. Although reluctant at first, Garcin finally gives in to Estelle’s advancements, much to the distaste of Inez. He begs Estelle to not call him a coward and while she complies, Inez remarks that Estelle is doing the same just to feign attraction because he is a man and at this point, any man would do for her. This causes Joseph to make an attempt of escape from the room and although the door opens up, he isn’t able to leave because his redemption lies in convincing Inez that he isn’t a coward.
As their verbal paroxysms shoot up with the temperature in the room, the trio is able to see the characters they formed while they were alive. Now, in hell, nothing can be changed but to shed their outer pretentious selves and embrace what lies inside them. Isolated in space and time, in a room when the night never comes they are able to perceive the torture device they themselves are to one another. For all eternity, Estelle won’t care that Garcin is a coward till he kisses her; Garcia won’t be able to kiss her because he knows he is a coward while Inez will always despise Garcia and lust after Estelle in vain.
The lighting and the musical score in the backdrop play a crucial role in the play, highlighting the moments of crescendo. Somehow, the electricity cuts in between the play would not have surprised the viewer as it fits seamlessly into the atmosphere of it. The dancers depicting the earthly lives of the three characters are able to portray the emotion that is expected from them. The play gives Sartre’s message that for the living, change is always possible until the final choice is made.
Duliajan is also known as the Oil Town of Assam. Digboi, the place where the Britishers dug the first oil well in the country is situated just 80 kilometres away. Oil India Limited found oil fields in Duliajan and established a modern0town with quarters and various other amenities for their employees. I was born in a hospital which had the words Oil India in it. C-Type, our first quarter was a cramped 2-BHK house which was excruciatingly hot during summers, owing to the asbestos roofs above. It was the house where I watched Teletubbies and Kaun Banega Crorepati as a toddler for the first time while my father struggled with the TV antenna outside to get a good signal. Cable hadn’t arrived till then. It was also the house which housed our vomit yellow FIAT Padmini in the cane-walled garage while the red Hero Honda gleamed beside it. Most importantly, it was the house whose walls were abused with crayons by yours truly in such a disgusting way that the occupants after us were traumatised.
I was a particularly shy kid, as my parents tell me. Babu Dada was my favourite relative. His mother used to call me out from the back of their gate in the evenings while I stood behind our gate looking like some lost puppy, drooling. Sometimes she opened the gate and advanced to pick me up and that was when I ran inside. They lived opposite to our house. Babu Dada was a teenager at that time and he had a lot of good toys, especially that green truck which was my favourite among the lot. He gave me that truck when we left C-Type as a parting gift. I was ecstatic. I attended a play school for some time before going to Tiny Tots for kindergarten. My father used to haul me up on the petrol tank of our Hero Honda and drop me till the school, which was actually a house. On a hot summer day, the tank used to burn my bum but I seldom paid any attention to it. A few passers-by giggled as they saw me sitting awkwardly on the tank and not on the back seat. I was too young to sit back there without falling off. When my father napped in the afternoons, I used to go near the bike and twist its accelerator while making bike noises. I could never reach the seat. One foot rested on the ground while the other used to stay at the footrest. There is a picture of me doing that when one day my father saw me and got very fascinated. We had a Yashica back then and father used to take a lot of pictures with it.
Outside our quarters, we had a small garden in which big, yellow dahlias bloomed during spring. My mother was fond of gardening and there was space to do all that. We also had a few jasmine plants and chrysanthemums. Then one day, there was a storm. We had been reading the papers that a cyclone was imminent and we were terrified. Father was out of Duliajan for some reason and my mom and sister were even more worried as to what was going to happen. None of us even knew what a cyclonic phenomenon was. There were high-speed winds that day and it rained for hours. We stayed inside and I think my mother was praying now and then, she is immensely scared of thunder and lightning. The cyclone didn’t blow us all away but it decimated the garden outside. It was pitiful to look at all the dismantled flowers which my mother painstakingly grew. She was upset. I had experienced a cyclone for the first time and survived through it.
Father got a promotion and we had to leave C-Type by the time I enrolled into a nursery. We moved to the quarters named DD (pronounced Double D) which were a few kilometres away. DD was resided by people who belonged to the ‘executive classes. We got free gas, free electricity, free water, a maid, and a small patch of a garden, a large 2-BHK house which had a terrace which made the house hot yet again and three families as immediate neighbours in the block. Parul Didi was our maid and she used to take me to Tiny Tots. She was from Andhra Pradesh but she had lived in Duliajan for many years and had learnt Assamese. She used to bathe me, feed me and tolerate all my not-gonna-go-to-school tantrums early in the morning while my mom shouted in the background; I hated school from the very beginning. I walked with her to Tiny Tots for three years. She introduced my mom to idli and even got a cooker from her native place and taught her the process of using it. Back then, my mother was one experimental cook. We got a microwave oven and I was fixated in just opening and closing the damned door of it. It was probably the best invention I had seen till then. Mom even made dhoklas in that oven.
We lived on the first floor and DD-39 had a balcony too. Overlooking the balcony was a badly maintained road and across that was a high concrete wall with barbed wires on top. Beyond the wall lay a stretch of tea plantations which extended all the way to the horizon. Sometimes we saw women and kids plucking tea leaves and they waved at us when we stood in the balcony. I waved back at them but my mother was a bit reluctant to do that for some reason. There was a road on the horizon which went to this place called Tinsukia and the vehicles plying looked like fireflies at night with their headlights. My mother got a lot of potted plants and decorated the balcony to match those of our neighbours. Our neighbours were nice people but I never had the kind of toys their children had. They had Beyblades and Hot Wheels sets while I was only permitted to have a small blue Maruti Zen and a yellow Tata Sumo. Sometimes I felt that gross injustice was done to me but I seldom protested in front of my parents. There was this one incident in Oil Market. Everything in Duliajan had Oil in it, even the market. So, Oil Market was this enclosed bazaar that we frequented. There was a shop named Pick-Me which we crossed on our way to other shops. It had a glass-paned counter and behind that were chocolates. There was one big blue pack of Dairy Milk which I will never forget; it is perhaps the biggest Dairy Milk I have ever seen. I don’t remember how many times I begged my mother to buy me that, but she never did. One time, I got so hysterical that the shopkeepers inside looked surprised as to what was happening outside. My mom, on the other hand, did not budge.
Our neighbours included our family to the executive life by taking us to Zaloni Club. The place was a hangout place for many of the people in our colony and others. It had a movie theatre which was also an auditorium, a swimming pool, tennis and squash courts, a bar, a restaurant, a canteen, open space with a stage for events that happened, a gym, a place for aerobics, a venue for table tennis, a small cricket pitch and a lot of rooms behind which I don’t know what lay. None of us had seen a place like this and we were surprised by the openness of culture over there. Kids were roaming around in shorts, speaking fluent English because they were from DPS (I was in KV and there was a rivalry with them) while their mothers walked around in high heels with short hair and smeared themselves with red lipstick. All the kids in my neighbourhood did some kind of coaching in Zaloni Club, some did tennis, others did squash or swimming or TT. Naturally, my parents expected me to do something as well. My father joined the gym and found his long lost love for swimming and so did my sister. Mom joined aerobics and gym for a short time as well. Everyone lived a very healthy, active lifestyle. I tried swimming but failed miserably due to hydrophobia and I screamed and wailed in the swimming pool and made life hell for my father. “I am not taking this good-for-nothing back there again”, he told my mom one day. I enrolled for TT instead because tennis was beyond my physical capabilities. I was the only noobie in the TT department and the coach ignored me because he already had some ten kids who were playing quite well and deserved more attention. I learnt some of the basics but failed to catch the attention of the coach. My first time of watching a movie in the theatre happened here as well. It was The Polar Express which was screened as part of Club Week, a week long fiesta involving a lot of food, games, competitions and other upper-class stuff like flower shows and all. Most of my friends in the neighbourhood went there while I was forbidden to do so. Kids were allowed to buy ice cream by just signing a coupon and writing their parents’ name. They didn’t have to pay money because it got deducted automatically from the parents’ bank account. I was strictly forbidden to do this as well.
In the Club Week of the year 2004, I decided to take part in a children marathon race. It started from Zaloni Club went through the DX quarters, took a U-Turn, beside the Golf Course and back to the starting point. It was a beautiful stretch, shady with trees and shrubs along the side of the road. There was a kid who lived in a couple of blocks from us named Riki. Now, the news was floating that Riki had been practising for the event with his father in the Golf Course every evening. Everyone in the neighbourhood was sure that he will bag the first prize. I didn’t do any practising but my father gave me a couple of tips. Start slow, keep your stamina for the final 400 meters, let everyone pass you first but they would eventually die out, regulate your breathing and do not open your mouth at any cost. I did the same, I was in the third position for quite a long time and was content with that. The organisers gave everyone Center Fresh before the race. That’s when I got greedy. I stopped and my fingers went into the pocket to get my chewing gum. I looked back and saw a few kids but they were far. I forgot the last rule my father said and ate the gum and started running. Naturally, I inhaled from my mouth and that’s when my lungs got tired and the lactic acid crept in. There was a shooting pain and I lost my speed. There was still around 300 meters to cover and my breath was gone. I saw a kid run past me and then another until some four kids crossed me. Ricky was in the first place as expected and he won. I sipped the glucose which was given after the race dejectedly, cursing myself. Back home, I told my parents what happened and they face-palmed themselves on my stupidity.
Duliajan was one terrific place. After father got a transfer and we shifted to Tezpur, I and my sister got a tremendous culture shock. We had to leave our executive lives behind and move to a place which was ordinary and mundane, didn’t have clubs or swimming pools or round-the-day electricity. It took me around six months to assimilate with the new place but I missed Duliajan a lot. Many years down the line, I occasionally gave a thought as to how life would have been like if I grew up in Duliajan as a teenager. It would have been exciting and active and fun-filled maybe. But in some ways, I was also glad that I was able to grow up in a much humbler setting than Duliajan, amidst the common folk. I left Duliajan in 2005 and haven’t seen it ever since. From what I have heard, things are pretty much the same. There are still Club Weeks and other stuff which happen every year. Many of the kids I knew played with are doing different things in different places. Duliajan was my hometown for nine years but it gave me moments worth writing for.
There was one occasion every year which my sister devotedly followed and that was Raksha Bandhan. I remember her waking up earlier than usual on those days, taking a quick bath and arranging the thali. As I came out of the bathroom, she used to stand ready with a lighted diya, a rakhi, a bit of tika, some flowers with rice and some sweet, mostly a rosgolla. She used to wear a churidar on those days, tie her hair up and put some kajal. Mother stood close by as she did the aarti by doing the whole ‘thali in a circular motion’ in front of my face. There was something in that warm glow from the diya which stayed with me for a long time. The rakhi stayed on my wrist till the end of the day. Afterwards, we used to hurry off to school. I never gave her anything as a gift for quite a long time. I felt kind of shy in front of her during those days; mostly because this was too much of sudden sibling love and it was unlike us because we used to fight with each other all the time.
My earliest memory of gifting her something goes back to 6th grade. By that time, I had gathered knowledge that one is supposed to give something to his sister during Raksha Bandhans. TV ads and the fact that my sister got gifts from her bro-zoned classmates made me realise that. I gifted my sister a chocolate that year and I remember the Cadbury Celebrations that she got from some classmate-turned-brother in school. I followed this never-seen-before box all the way to the refrigerator and hoped earnestly that she would share it with me. She did share but she consumed most of its contents herself. My tiny 20 rupee Dairy Milk seemed inferior against that large cache of chocolates. By the next year, she had moved out of Tezpur for her higher studies to Guwahati and things changed a lot. There were no early morning aartis anymore but instead, the rakhis started arriving by post, with a hand written letter in the envelope. I received the first letter of my life in 7th grade written by her using sketch pens. This was also very unlike of her and I was surprised that she wrote something for me. Needless to say, I felt very special and for the first time, sensed that someone was actually missing me. I mentally did somersaults and blushed as I read that letter which was filled with a sort of sibling love that I hadn’t experienced before. Her words conveyed a lot than her physical presence ever did. It said all the things we could never say to each other verbally and it made her absence all the more profound. I felt that the letter deserved a reply and I wrote and posted one, tried my best to convey everything that I was feeling and mentioned that we will talk more over the phone and share things from now on. I promised her over the phone that I will gift her something when she comes home during the vacations. The next year, I received a similar package and I decided to act mature. I asked my sister over the phone as to what gift she wanted this time. I had saved a bit of money by now as I was ‘old enough’ to handle money on my own. She told me that she wanted an eyeliner and a few good nail polish bottles. I didn’t have any knowledge about cosmetics so I had to confirm which colour of nail polish she preferred. After getting an idea of everything, I went to the market on my own to buy the same. Mom didn’t know what was happening. It was the first time I was buying cosmetics for someone so it took me a while to figure out which brand to get and what Lakme Colossal Kajal actually was. I gave her gift when she came home during her Autumn Break and she was happy with the nail polish colours I chose. I felt glad as a level of competence flashed on my face. My mom gave me surprised looks because I had managed to do everything so discreetly.
This tradition continued till 10th grade, although the length of those letters decreased to the size of a note. By then she had moved to Bangalore and the rakhis took more time to arrive by post. Instead of me giving her gifts every year, she made sure that the parcel contained not only a rakhi but a small gift as well. There was a t-shirt one time and when she wasn’t able to include one with the rakhi, she made sure she got something on her visits during the vacations. Each time I made the same promise of yeah, I will give you the gift when you come home. By the time I had reached 12th grade, I already had three years’ worth of pending rakhi gifts that I was supposed to give her. That backlog lives to this very day.
Truth be told, I have seldom protected my sister from anything and over the last year, Raksha Bandhan isn’t the same for me anymore. I understand the essence of a sibling connection but I am so not okay with the whole brother-protecting-sister thing. My sis has protected herself just fine all these years so why follow some tradition just because our history and parents tell us to? For issues involving family and parents, I have covered up for her, more so in recent years. She has protected me equally but more than that she has been a guiding post and that matters a lot more for me. Last week when she told me to meet up as she wanted to give me the rakhi in advance, the feminist in me was in a conflicting position. I texted her saying that I don’t want the rakhi as I do not comply with the tradition behind Raksha Bandhan anymore. I told her that should a case arise, I would be there to ‘protect’ and support her in all ways possible and that a thread wasn’t necessary to make sure that happened. I used sentences like “patriarchal traditions” and “why are we still doing this”. She agreed with what I was trying to say but she urged me to understand that this was something she wanted to do, regardless of what history or tradition says about it. I was glad to see that she took this tradition for what it is meant to be, a bond between siblings. That’s all. She didn’t want to break the bond which was created well before I was in 6th grade and I couldn’t say no to that either.
Actually, I feel like I should tie a rakhi on her wrist as well.
The first instance I remember of my mother showing her wrath for me was when I refused to go to kindergarten. It used to be a daily ritual for me to cry like a lost chicken while my mother would hurl curses and abuses from the balcony above. Our maid Parul didi would try to tug me like one would tug an adamant, immovable cow. Teary eyed and sad, I used to reach my school with Parul didi and sit beside this certain girl who fed me apples during recess for an entire year when I was in Nursery. There was very little conversation between us and I don’t remember anything apart from the pieces of apple she gave me. After reaching home, I used to recite the rhymes that were taught to us in class and say one line in the end, “Ma, we don’t have school tomorrow. It’s a holiday.” Of course, it wasn’t always a holiday and the cycle continued.
I have seen the not-so-pleasant side of my mother multiple times. Some of them have been so extreme that I possibly cannot write about them here. There have been times when I have refused to do household chores or bring oil from the nearby departmental store. This has produced two kinds of results; one is that my mother gets a bit irritated and mutters under her breath without further action and the second is that she transforms into one angry human, spewing venom and sometimes throwing the only nearest thing that she can deem as a weapon. This has varied from chappals, brooms to moisturizer bottles and spoons. I was stressed most of the time during my PU years and as I was a science student, the prevailing atmosphere at home was stressful as well. My mother had all of her stress visible on her face as she contemplated my purpose in life in front of our neighbours and practically everyone who came to our house. My poor marks during tests in school didn’t help to the cause and my prevailing laziness in terms of everything else made things worst. My mother was totally dissatisfied with my existence and she used to repeat time and time again, “Why did I give birth to this good-for-nothing creature”. I could understand her existential questions. “At least study and get some marks man, we know you can’t do anything else anyway, So, at least be good in your studies. How hard can it be to be good in one thing?” she repeated the same for two years. It hardly changed anything. There were days when I used to wake up really late; waking up at 9.30 AM is the biggest sin any mortal can make in our household. My mother would be doing her kitchen chores and she would start with her morning ‘why-did-I-give-birth…’ chanting early in the morning, in a voice loud enough for me to be heard. Let’s be real, it is certainly not pleasant to wake up in the morning and hear your own mother curse about her decisions in life, especially when that decision is you yourself. It gives such a bad taste in your brain, the likes of which is equivalent to getting a whiff of vomit while walking on the road. On other days, she used to come to my room with a broom to sweep and howl in order to wake me up. I will describe how the scenario actually feels like as best as I can. Your mother barges in and starts shouting at you, the day is hot and humid and the first thing she does is to switch off the fan and you start sweating immediately. Maybe you have been already sweating. The vomit distaste of the brain has already set in and the first question that pops up in your mind after you wake up is “why on earth did I ever take up Science”. Your mother goes on to describe how Sunny who lives five houses away, goes to play cricket at 6 in the morning and is also preparing for his medical entrance exams while you are doing nothing, not even maintaining your health. She sweeps the room angrily while you choose to be adamant and stay on your bed. “Uthiso ne nai?!” she shouts at the top of her voice and threatens to call your father who is busy working in the room upstairs. You realise that things wouldn’t turn out well if the father gets involved so you make a move to get up but your mother isn’t convinced. She gets really angry by now and the broom comes crashing down on your bare legs which tears apart the remaining sleep that you had like mozzarella cheese is detached from a pizza when you take a bite. It just snaps away and all you are left with is a lasting burning sensation and a very bad start to the day. There have been times when I had stayed put even after she was done using her weapon, just as a sign of protest and there have been times when I have angrily snapped back at her. This happened to many times during my gruesome two years as a high school Science student. Sleeping and waking up on time is a big deal in our family and my parents still haven’t been comfortable with the idea that every individual has the right to sleep and wake up whenever he/she desires.
There is one more topic which irks my mother like anything. And that is me and my sister’s marriage. Time and time again, both of us have tried to show my mother reason that it might be alright for Brahmin people to marry non-Brahmins because we live in a modern time and old rules and ways should change. My mother is not okay with this ideology and once she told me angrily that she wouldn’t think twice before disowning me and giving away all of my father’s property to some charity or orphanage if I end up tarnishing the family name. She has cursed our generation, for us being “so modern” so as to forget our family values and culture. Above all, she believes that cell phones are the reason for this abomination of the mind and it will give all of us cancer. She has become a lot more liberal now but her stand on marriage remains more or less the same, especially when it comes to me.
“It’s only because of marriage that I had to leave my job, or else I would have been in a good post by now”, one can hear this line emerging every now and then in our household, mostly after my mother has had an argument with my father. This is the time when she reviews many of her life decisions like her marriage to my father, her deciding to give up her job. In the midst of all of that, she would turn towards me and blame me for my existence as well. If the maid is absent on such a day, she would be blamed as well. According to her, she was a teacher in some adult education school before her marriage but after the wedding was fixed, she had to leave her hometown and come to the sasuraal, which was situated some 250 kilometers away. The saddest part is that she never tried looking for a job again. Even in front of relatives, she has expressed this loss in her life as she mentally calculates the salary she would have been earning right now. Mother gets mad for the most trivial reasons nowadays, sometimes I feel like she is getting more and more short tempered with age and there’s nothing that can be done about it. “We come from a different era. Just like there is no point in giving manure to a matured tree, there is no point in giving me all your modern ideas okay”, she would say as a concluding remark to every argument. In a way, it is true.