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The city within: Janhavi Acharekar reviews Anju Makhija’s ‘Mumbai Traps’



The city of Mumbai has always held writers in its thrall. With Mumbai Traps, we see the maximum city represented in a literary genre not easily available in book form these days: drama.

Some staged, others yet to be performed, this collection of six plays (including poetic drama and a musical) by Mumbai poet and playwright Anju Makhija evokes the city’s verve and highlights its fissures. From an unlikely mix of characters stuck in the first class compartment of a local train stalled on a bridge to a woman who bequeaths her posh South Mumbai flat to a flower-seller rather than to her family; from a woman’s encounter with Yama after a crime of passion to a man’s encounter with god in his soulmate’s avatar; from conniving wealthy women who steal stolen jewellery from a thief to a fish turned into a Mumbai restaurateur-socialite, Mumbai Traps essays situations that border along the believable and the bizarre, the absurd and the surreal.

“What’s real, what’s unreal?” asks the lead character Brinda of Yama in the play Meeting with Lord Yama. A city where truth is stranger than fiction, nothing is more real than money, crime and passion. Most characters reside in some sort of purgatory, and that purgatory could well be Mumbai. And yet, they are presented with choices that might lead to their redemption; if the city throws them into circumstantial traps, the key to the trapdoor lies with the characters themselves. In Off The Hook, an urban parallel to The Little Mermaid story that alludes to immigrant experience and aspirations, the fish-turned-man who desperately seeks to belong eventually chooses to reject the materialistic life of Mumbai and return to the sea.

In The Last Train, the local train becomes a metaphor for Mumbai when the lives of ordinary commuters are disrupted in the aftermath of a political murder. Trapped in a compartment and suspended in limbo, the motley group of characters find themselves in an existentialist situation. Their dialogues are reminiscent of the theatre of the absurd and yet are firmly rooted in the reality of Mumbai, indicating the blurring of lines between the absurd and the real in the city’s daily life.

In If Wishes were Horses, the haves and have-nots come together against patriarchy as a daughter chooses to take up the cudgels for the flower-seller to whom her dead mother has willed a flat. That she must do this by going against her father and brother and that the flower seller’s husband decides on the future of the flat before it is hers, highlight the women’s powerlessness in the family structure.

Makhija counters the materialism of Mumbai with reflection and spirituality. “Nothing is permanent, Cyrus, except this moment. Tomorrow is just a promissory note,” says Serena in Now She Says She’s God. Similarly, Meeting with Lord Yama is introspective while If Wishes Were Horses is peppered with quotes from the Guru Granth Sahib. Not surprisingly, given Makhija’s philosophical inclination, her works include translation of the verses of the 16th century Sufi poet, Shah Abdul Latif.

An award-winning poet, playwright and translator, Makhija was on the English Advisory Board of the Sahitya Akademi in 2005 when a programme to publish Indo-English plays was initiated. Nearly two decades since, it is heartening to see plays being published at all in a country where theatre as a whole remains an overlooked art form (“Most of the time, it’s only passion that keeps us going,” says Makhija in her author’s note, echoing the refrain of so many fellow theatre professionals).

In Mumbai Traps, some plays appeal more than others but together they make sense as pieces of the impossible jigsaw puzzle that is Mumbai.  

Mumbai Traps: Collected Plays, Anju Makhija, Dhauli Books, ₹595

The Mumbai-based writer is the author of several books including the novel, Wanderers, All.

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Printable version | Jun 7, 2022 6:22:56 pm |