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Voicing silences

DEEPA GANESH
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LEAFING THROUGH D.S. Chougle's play Kasturba, with its straight, linear narration, challenges us to fill in the gaps

Kasturba by D.S. Chougle

Damini Sahitya, Rs. 60

How does one read an episodic narrative? Do life stories exist in episodes? Can people be understood as continuity from one incident to another? What happens to the story between episodes — the silences that linger on as erasures? As one reads D.S. Chougle's Kannada play “Kasturba” these questions of “told”(said) and untold” (unsaid) emerge. While the life of Gandhiji has been recorded painstakingly and in excruciating detail by writers and historians, Kasturba was rarely recognised as an important figure.In such a context, Chougle's play is significant.

Even as you begrudge the intervallic narrative of “Kasturba”, it brings to fore a woman of enormous conviction and an independent spirit — not of adamant aggression, but of a fine sense of justice. She could have been an important figure in the years of nation building — for the manner in which she took a plunge into the struggle, the way she led and mobilised women — if only she had not been clouded by the overwhelming presence of Bapu. Kasturba unfolds as continuity to Bapu's commitment to the freedom struggle leaving her image of docile surrender far behind. If she bore the burden of the extremely-exacting Bapu, it was not because being his ideal wife was of sole importance to her, but because the purpose of her own life was not different from that of Bapu's. In fact, there have been several occasions when Ba exceeded Bapu, and the Rajkot episode of 1939 is a case in point. Gandhi had to answer his critics with a letter in the Harijan; Kasturba is a woman who acts according to her “inner prompting”, he says.

In fact, as Gandhi himself writes in his autobiography, he had almost decided to throw Kasturba out of his home, when she balked at having to clean the toilets. She stoutly refused and Bapu was infuriated. Chougle, in his simple narration, powerfully puts on record Kasturba's moments of personal urgency: for instance, her decision to join the agitation in South Africa. She was arrested and thrown into a tough life in jail, but her spirit was indomitable. She starts an agitation in the prison protesting the unfair treatment meted out to Indians and women. Kasturba, as Chougle traces from scene to scene, also melts into Bapu's scheme of things, his rules and regulations, and his demands — but as a fellow freedom fighter and thinker. She does it out of a deep philosophical and spiritual agreement with Bapu, never from the position of a reconciled wife.

Having crossed this initial hurdle of the play's staccato presentation and its challenges, you want to ask, what is the realm in which a play works? As a text or as a stage production? Or does it work in the collective unconscious of its audience? Unlike many historical-mythological recasts, this play exists in the “real” and doesn't tread the boundaries of the “imagined”. It doesn't seek to analyse, it presents things the way they were.

How best can we capture a life of action in the world of words? This is perhaps where the play bursts into life — its strength lies in its immense potential as a stage production more than a literary experience. It opens possibilities of a meta-narrative for its stage auteur.

Through Kasturba, we see in the play the unyielding Gandhi who could not bear to be questioned, their disagreements in the upbringing of their children, and the moving story of the disillusioned Harilal. There are also moments of great affection between them, and as Chougle rightly puts it in Bapu's monologue that forms the refrain of the play, — “My life would have been incomplete without Kastura” — Ba gave him the moral fortitude, she was the trial run for all Bapu's experiments. The play not only places us on the inescapable plurality of truths as one sees it in the personalities of Bapu and Ba, it also begins our intimate conversations with Kasturba. The play can also be read as yet another telling of Bapu.

DEEPA GANESH


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