Bora’s “Pagdi” explores how the value of history and faith changes with generations
The soulful yet somewhat melancholic “Wahe Guru” playing in the background may have, in retrospect, subtly suggested that the play is based on the repercussions of faith, and one may think, how faith sometimes creates history and continues to create personal histories. Even the title “Pagdi” did not somehow sink in at first.
But the build-up, through the rehearsal reading of Swetanshu Bora’s monologue “Pagdi”, that won this year’s Toto Award for Creative Writing, at the British Library, definitely hit some powerful chords. The reading was directed by Abhishek Majumdar.
The main character potently played by Kanchan Bhattacharya, is sitting a distance away from a candlelit vigil for murdered kin. He attributes his being there to Geet, presumably his girlfriend. He is bitter and he is insecure whether he will be accepted by his community as he is in his current status.
And who he was, one slowly gathers, first from the video of a British lesson that is showing the step-by-step of how to tie a turban, as a man demonstrates, was a Sardar.
Then he begins narrating the story of the day he got his first turban, how embarrassed he was, his sisters giggling and calling him “Sardarji”. He certainly didn’t feel like one. He grows up, wanting to be an engineer and his father supports his ambitions. He goes away to Delhi, the land of women and pubs, breaks-up with his hometown girlfriend Navneet who follows him there because she was not growing with him, though he still stalks her on a social networking site. He made sure to learn English before we went there because he didn’t want to be called “dehati”.
Later he begins a relationship with Geet, who in a drunken stupor sketches him with hair, short and sticking-up. He takes it seriously, and in an experimental fit, wants to cut his hair. His father throws him out of the house after a fight over him wanting his hair short.
He walks out, cuts his hair, having decided never to look back, until his sister’s rather formal invitation to her wedding. His effort to patch things up didn’t work. He was now a stranger in his own house. He then sets off abroad, soon after taking up a job in Bangalore. He lands in the USA, a place that’s closer to Geet. He was living his dream, until his world “came crashing down” after the news of his father’s death.
When he goes home, he realises that his family holds him responsible for his father’s death, as he died nursing disappointment. It was only then he was told how his father refused to cut his own hair, let go of his faith, even in the face of death during the 1984 riots in Delhi. He had slept through it all. But his father hadn’t wanted to tell him about that, about what his faith meant to him.
But he didn’t think it meant so much to cut his hair. He refuses to do so even after his mother says the turban is his only redemption. But there he was, spying on the vigil for the Sikhs who were shot in the gurudwara. His fingers remember how to tie the turban, and he thinks he may as well.
Why was the character so Westernised, if he came from a family that stayed in Amritsar? “The information (in the environment) was always there,” answered Swetanshu. “It was a choice. He had his own battles to fight. He is sorry about what happened in the past. But he is an Asian living in New York and he has his own problems. And so this is his choice.”