'Sordid', nominated for The Hindu Playwright Awards 2019, tells the story of water wives

With Sordid, playwright V Balakrishnan paints a picture of the starkly disturbing truth of water wives through a narrative that shuttles between dialogues and monologues

August 12, 2019 04:10 pm | Updated August 25, 2019 06:33 am IST

The setting is inconsequential, so is the time. The ground reality, though, remains starkly disturbing. Director, actor and playwright V Balakrishnan’s Sordid, one of the four scripts shortlisted for The Hindu Playwright Awards 2019, paints an elaborate picture of a hard truth: the stories of water wives. The term now qualifies as widely known, and refers to the practice where farmers from drought-ridden villages marry more than once solely to procure extra hands to draw water. They are stripped of conjugal rights and are assured instead of a roof over their head and food to eat. In Sordid, Balakrishnan zooms in on one such family: of a farmer, three wives and six children; every single day passes by with the quest for water.

While Suki commands the power of the conjugally wedded wife, Jhuri and Kaali are mere ‘paanibais’. The script, with a primary focus on these characters, also looks closely at the dynamic within this family and bigger questions of marriage, gender, and most importantly, survival. Woven through simple, colloquial prose, that shuttles between monologues and dialogues — “That’s just how I write” — the play is predominantly conversational. Though the prose is breezy, this story of survival speaks of sacrifices and struggle.

Sordid is a careful marriage of realism and fiction, as Balakrishnan puts it. In fact, the play draws from real stories, and yet is not devoid of fictional elements. The Chennai-based writer, who has been actively involved in theatre for the past 20 years, is venturing into semi-realistic fiction, after a brief hiatus (He is recognised for his work that adapts stories from mythology and the Indian epics).

Speaking about the inception of the idea, the writer says, “There were two different stories. When I was reading the UN reports of people who were suffering because of water shortage, I came across a report of women in Africa. When they go to fetch water miles away, the soldiers molest them. Despite this, they have no choice but to continue fetching water.” The other story that Balakrishnan came across, was from a newspaper article that featured the water wives of Indian states. “For me, the play evolved from these two stories together.”

Apart from the larger issues, Sordid travels deeper into the individual stories and relationships within the family — “It kind of sprouted from the fact that the wives have their basic needs and wants, just like anyone else. The situations that unfold in the play, according to me, were inevitable,” says Balakrishnan, adding that he did not do any logistical research per say. However, he did look up the fact that, in many Indian villages, dams are built (manual labourers are called for this work from the village) under the pretext of providing water to the villages. “But when the work is done, pipelines go directly into the city.” Having said that, the setting, time and such specifics are left to the readers’ imagination, and are largely universal.

Balakrishnan is an ardent follower of Bertolt Brecht and Peter Brook’s works — his writing style usually leans towards soliloquies, and this piece is no exception. However, dialogues too, make appearances. “Monologues, I believe, make the narrative more lucid. And they instantly draw the audience,” says the playwright, who staunchly believes in the concept of a ‘sutradhara’ or narrator. In Sordid , the characters break the fourth wall, multiple times — and the monologues, too, take a strong stance.

Tickets available on  www.insider.in  and The Hindu's Theatre Fest page

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