Manjima Chatterjee talks about bringing together fact and fable in her play The Mountain of Bones, which has been shortlisted for the MetroPlus Playwright Award 2013
Noida-based Manjima Chatterjee has been writing plays “for a while”. Manjima, previously shortlisted for the MetroPlus Playwright Award 2010 for Limbo, now tackles the attitude to food in The Mountain of Bones, where three stories come together to tell a tale of deprivation and apathy. Excerpts from an interview:
With a problem as multi-pronged as hunger, what were the challenges in encapsulating it in a play?
Hunger is not a theatrical concept. It doesn’t make for good drama the way emotional alienation or the fall of a hero does. There was a time when theatre in India, particularly the works of the great Leftist writers of the 1940s, focused on it. But even then, it didn’t become a movement. In recent times, we have had Krishna Baldev Vaid’s excellent Bhookh Aag Hai, but not much else to speak of. Mostly, hunger is used to focus on some other issue of a political nature, as a tool, say the way Anna Hazare brought the hunger strike back into fashion. A study of hunger tends to requisition facts and prosaic data, which are not drama-friendly. So it was certainly difficult to retain focus on it throughout the play. However, I was sure that was how I wanted it.
You have said that the concept of “the hungry crowd” in the play originated from Manik Bandopadhyay’s short story? Could you elaborate?
One of the take-off points of the play was a short story by Manik Bandopadhyay, called Chhiniye Khai ni Keno?, or ‘Why Didn’t They Snatch and Eat?’ The character of Jogi Dakat is borrowed from there, as is the concept of the hungry body eating itself.
The play takes place at three levels. Did you envisage difficulties when it came to enacting it on stage? How much tweaking did it involve?
Yes, I can’t see it being an easy play to stage! Some things, like some ad spoofs, came in as a bit of nostalgia, but had to be thrown out finally, as they didn’t fit. Also, the story of the two men on the tree underwent some edits in this play. I had to let go of a lot of research, things I found interesting but could not be fitted into the principal structure of the play. I can see it undergoing some edits and tweaking.
To what extent have you drawn from Bengali literature when writing the play?
When I started reading on the subject, I began with P. Sainath’s articles on farmer suicides and Manik Bandopadhyay’s work, which helped me locate the play in Bengal in 1943. I also explored a lot of Communist literature from the mid-1940s, and specifically the sketches and writings of the artist Chittaprosad, who toured the Midnapore area during the famine. But the richest source of information were the archives of the Amrita Bazar Patrika, which were particularly good for political information from the times. Amartya Sen’s writings and the debate over the accurate interpretation of the famine were also rich sources of learning about the period. But when it came to writing, I found myself drawn to a news article about two men stuck on a tree for several days during the Burdwan floods. I started writing it as a radio play, as I could see a lot of scope for sound and voice and not for the body. At this time I was also trying to introduce my young daughter to Thakurmar Jhuli, a collection of Bengali folk tales by Sri Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar. (Dalim Kumar’s story belongs there, but the version here is my own interpretation.) The image of The Mountain of Bones comes from an illustration in that book.
I was able to correlate a number of these strands in my head, but was struggling to work out how to do it. One day in the course of a teachers’ training workshop, the completely unrelated image of a Babu with a shopping bag came floating into my head. It was a strong image, one that I have grown up with, one that I could totally relate to. Everything else just followed from there.
Would you like to direct the play?
No. I can’t be objective about my own script, and I’m fairly sure I’d make a bad director if I was even remotely passionate about the script. I’d either be rewriting fresh drafts everyday, or be completely unable to take feedback. I wouldn’t mind acting in it, though. I’m a fairly competent actress, or so I’ve been told.