Girish Karnad’s play, Boiled Beans on Toast, offers insight into the Bangalore of today.

The title of Girish Karnad’s play, Boiled Beans on Toast (Benda Kalu on Toast) invokes the myth behind Banglore’s name, when a king, moved by an old woman’s offer of boiled beans, had named the area she inhabited Bendakalooru, the place of boiled beans. This was back in the 11th Century. Today, Bangalore has exploded with growth, and Karnad offers us a cross section of fellow residents of the city, exploring a world that isn’t just about software engineers and IT firms, but much more. Originally written in Kannada, the play has been published by Oxford University Press, India.

Excerpts from an interview:

A little about the Bangalore of Boiled Beans on Toast?

Bombay and Calcutta have been there since last 200 years, they have been continuous. Bangalore has exploded into this metropolitan city in the last 25 years. That way, it’s more comparable to Ahmedabad or Pune because these were good, nice, traditional cities that suddenly became megalopolises. There, the culture is very different from Calcutta or Bombay. That is the kind of culture I wanted to explore. In 1970, the population of Bangalore was 30 lakh. Now it’s more than a crore. So that’s four times explosion in 40 years. People have been coming into the city from all levels, not just the IT level. The IT crowd is often written about and explored in English novels. But underneath them is a whole underbelly of people, of servants and auto-rickshaw drivers, etc. that is often missed, because most middleclass people and writers have no experience of it. A good example of that kind of book is Maximum City. That is Bombay being explored at all levels.

It is, of course, impossible to explore each facet and level in the city and your play picks specific characters. What influenced the choice of stories you picked?

The point is, it is a play. It’s not a book where you can go anywhere. It needs to have coherence. At the end of two hours, the audience mustn’t say, what did that mean, that made no sense to me. So a play needs a focus, needs a place. A place where it can happen. I chose Anjana’s simple, middleclass house, which will usually be seen as a place for middleclass drama, people battling it out in living rooms and such things. But nowadays, we are so dependent on servants, so dependent on outside services, that even the living room of a middleclass house becomes a microcosm for the whole city.

There are no clean resolutions in the play, no beginnings or ends.

If they were clean resolutions, it wouldn’t be today’s city. In today’s city, people come into your life and then they disappear. They affect and influence your life profoundly and then they go, find a job, move somewhere, get married, unlike a small town where your neighbour or teacher, become part of your life. In a city, the encounters are very brief, but they can be very shattering.

Were there real people who influenced these characters?

Anjana is based on a real person, who had found her life at a dead end, with her son grown up and her husband earning enough money for there to be many servants in the house. Now usually, this can be negative and depressing. But there are also people who take the more positive way out of it. The city is not merely destructive. There are positives to it. And that’s what happens to Anjana too, who finds Karunashrya. Of course, you find inspiration in real life, look at people you meet. But what you do with them in the play is different. What happens to them in the play need not happen in real life.

It’s not just the city that you don’t judge. The characters inhabit a sort of grey area.

It’s like what transaction of analysis, called games people play. The theme was we all play games. Games of survival, games of friendship, but you know, the other party also responds to it. All these people work out their own scripts, and play them, like in case of dolly, for emotional satisfaction, or for monetary needs, in Muttu’s case. Someone like Vimala is not only a thief. She is a tough woman, who has eked out a living in the city somehow. This is about the various challenges that the city throws at individuals, including even someone like Anjana’s husband, who is never there, instead running around making money.

While the authorial voice does not carry a note of nostalgia and celebration for the city, the characters do. While Anjana weeps for her rain tree, Prabhakar revels in the high-rise splendour.

Those statements come from the characters. You see, the people who come into the city, have their own stories and scripts. If you come to Bangalore, everyone is talking about how it used to be an air-conditioned city. How you didn’t need fans in this city 20 years ago. As a city gets a new shape, things change. I have deliberately put these lines in because everyone talks about how much Bangalore has changed. Roads are being widened and houses are being knocked down by the Bangalore Corporation. Everything in the play is something I have heard or responded to or thought, because you know I myself came to Bangalore 20 years ago, and this sums up my thoughts as well.