Abhishek Majumdar talks about the process of creating a world peopled by those he's met, and their quirks

When Abhishek Majumdar started writing “An Arrangement of Shoes”, all he had in mind was this image — a girl on stage with lots of shoes and with nothing to hold on to in life, except the shoes. That girl turned out to be 28-year-old Rukhsar. All the characters, complete with their quirks, were drawn from people around him.

Rukhsar's story, set in a railway colony in Barauni, took shape from Abhishek's own fond memories of living with one of his uncles in a railway colony in Lucknow. “Sub-consciously, I used to love that cocooned, self-contained world,” he says. Life on the JNU campus with his parents added to a world view from within that cosseted space.

As he wrote, the story that emerged was one of hope, of how large movements of the world affect people in small towns in extraordinary ways — something that goes largely ignored. Our perception of the large things in life — such as religion, language, differences in gender — affect smaller things, something we again don't acknowledge, he argues. “How much can you understand humanity? So, one tends to hold on to little things — a picture, a town…,” says Abhishek.

Abhishek insists he never sets out to write anything; there's no plan. “The stories write themselves. I never write a play to tell a story. The first draft is like me listening to the story for the first time.”

Rukhsar's god-fearing and religious Dadajaan with his regimented life is as endearing as the cinema-loving Dadijaan who's relieved to be in a big town where there's “a school, a playground and a cinema hall — everything that children need to grow.” Then, there's Nisar, Rukhsar's twin sister — the methodical stealer of shoes, the inheritor of the love of cinema, the one who never played with her kitchen set as a child, because she was busy being the heroine in love.

“The characters are derived from people I know…people in towns who have remarkable lives. They are not famous and we don't read about them; but 90 per cent of us come from there.”

How did shoes become central to the play? “The shoes were always there; as I wrote, and as the play evolved it became clearer to me what the shoes stood for and what an arrangement of shoes stood for, for Rukhsar — that too evolved,” says Abhishek of the recurring motif of shoe arrangement.

To Abhishek, life is a lot of arrangement and re-arrangement. He believes that when you go to someone's house, you can figure out what is important to them by just looking at their living room, their bookshelf, the way they arrange their shoes… “We are arranging ourselves by our stories. We are frustrated when our story doesn't come together.”

And, arrangement is intrinsic to the Indian middle class and lower-middle class, he observes. “It's a metaphor of our psyche, where we come from.”

Dadajaan and Nisar also weave a thin yet evident web of communal tension, brought about by a seemingly unconnected act — stealing shoes. The religious undertone had to be kept an undertone, says Abhishek, because “I still like to believe that for a majority of the country, being a Hindu or a Muslim is a non-issue. Only a miniscule population thinks differently, and that scars a lot of people”.

(The third in the series of five interviews with writers shortlisted for the MetroPlus Playwright Award 2010)