Asmita’s staging of GP Deshpande’s “Raaste” was an intellectual class act

In their 20th year, Delhi’s Asmita Theatre was in its element this week when the group staged a Hindi translation of “Raaste” — G.P. Deshpande’s Marathi play on the dialectic between various ideologies. The play was part of the Natsamrat National Theatre Festival.

The plot traces the lives of three friends with diverse political leanings who graduate from Baroda University. Gangadhar (played by Gaurav Mishra), the communist, goes on to become a journalist in Pune who makes a fortune from setting up a mall on his ancestral property. His family however is torn apart after his daughter Durga (Shilpi Marwaha) joins an underground armed group and his son Madhav (Ishwak Singh) constantly struggles with the ideological baggage of his father and his own middle-class aspirations.

Of the other two friends, Damodar Gokhale (Suraj Singh) — a Hindutva nationalist — settles down in the U.S. Both his children marry American Christians. This breaks Gokhale’s heart and he disowns them. He later dedicates himself to preaching Hinduism abroad.

The third friend Kachubhai Shah (Shiv Chauhan) — a laissez-faire liberal — also goes to the U.S. He gets married, but doesn’t have children. He returns to India to work for the uplift of the Adivasis.

The crux of the play is Marx’s thesis: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” The play opens in Baroda in 1979. The Soviet Union is in its heyday and, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is reasserting itself after the Emergency. The three friends have heated debates over socialism. The play sheds light on the socialist leanings of RSS ideologue V.D. Savarkar. Shah, the pragmatist, pokes holes in both his friends’ ideologies.

The intensity and honesty of the debate in the play is a welcome relief to the superficial engagement with politics in many contemporary plays. Director Arvind Gaur’s clarity and translator Jyoti Subhash’s brilliance shines through. Not only is it hard to respectably execute a cerebral play, it is also a Himalayan task to attract crowds without the mandatory slapstick comedy Delhi loves. Gaur wins on both counts. He was rewarded with a packed Muktadhara auditorium, despite the rain.

The narration of the plot is woven with letters Durga sends her father while she is underground. Durga — a sexually liberal feminist — also tires of her father’s ideological baggage, finally joining a radical communist faction that considers her father’s party as “betrayers of the ideology.” In the jungles too she faces ideological and personal conflicts with her comrades, even as she and her commander have a daughter out of wedlock.

Her banker brother Madhav faces the same dilemma as his father’s generation — whether to leave India to prosper or stay back and build his fortune. He loses his girlfriend in the process. Madhav confronts his own angst by secretly reading Durga’s letters to her father. Despite his trepidation with the dialogue, Ishwak Singh plays the part of a confused young professional well.

The star of the show was Shilpi Marwaha. Her passionate portrayal of Durga, a fighter who challenges every social norm, including her own beliefs, was flawless. Her tone, expressions and lines were spot on, and her presence filled the stage, almost as if she was possessed by the spirit of a radical.

In the closing scene, the three friends reunite in 21st Century Pune. Another fierce debate takes place in front of their wives, who — in stark contrast to Durga — are the stereotypical docile ‘Bharatiya naari’. The debate strikes at the roots of contemporary political discourse on euro-communism and the Bahujan movement. All three friends are driven to the conclusion that negativism has vitiated meaningful political dialectic and superficiality has triumphed over reason.

Finally Gangadhar is forced to read Durga’s latest letter. The spotlight falls on Durga who says that her quest to change society has led to a split within her group. Though she is hurtling towards certain destruction, she has gone too far to turn back. In the face of all odds, her quest for change and struggle continues. From one generation to the next, fresh ideas will continue to blaze new trails, often paved with the blood of those who create them.