“There was food in the fields, babu. There were fruits on the trees. Why didn’t they snatch it and eat? Because they really believed in their society, babu...”
Manjima Chatterjee’s The Mountain of Bones is a grim commentary on the attitude to food, the deprivation of which is not so much a result of depleted resources as is a combination of misguided policies and misplaced priorities.
The narrative simultaneously occurs in three spaces — a village in which an old woman is telling a young girl a strange fable; a flooded area where a man stranded atop a tree with a young boy awaits rescue; and another where the whole theatre of State machinery, bureaucracy, well-meaning Communists, yes-men and the large, faceless entity called the ‘The Hungry Crowd’ plays out. There are no speeches, and truths are cloaked in the exaggeratedly ridiculous.
“The State is made up of us; we are the State. This blindness towards something that is so vital to us is something that I find very frustrating, something difficult to deal with or understand. Perhaps that is what’s reflecting there,” says Manjima. There was another ironic angle that she sought to explore but finally chose not to include — the directly proportional relationship between wealth and disdain for food.
Manjima, who is based in Noida, where she teaches theatre, was previously shortlisted for the MetroPlus Playwright Award 2010 for Limbo , where she looked at marriage through the interactions of three couples. For The Mountain of Bones she says P. Sainath’s articles on famine and the farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh set the course. Research on the subject led her to Bengali writer Manik Bandhopadhyay’s short story Chhiniye Khaynee Keno ? (Why didn’t they snatch and eat?) from which the concept of ‘The Hungry Crowd’ originated. The old woman’s story about the blind prince and the mountain of bones (from which the play draws its name) is the playwright’s interpretation of a tale from Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandmother’s Bag), the collection of Bengali folktales.