A review of The Firebird by Saikat Majumdar

Reviewed by Ketaki Datta

The Firebird
by Saikat Majumdar
Hachette India
June 21, 2015, Hardcover, 240 pages, ISBN-13 978-9350099209

It was nearly five years ago. The late afternoon siesta took everyone in my family in its fold and I was happy to take the Sunday Literary Supplement of an eminent daily from my uncle’s reclined chest, beneath which I heard his noisy breathing. A long page was devoted to The Firebird, a new novel, the second from a young novelist, Saikat Majumdar, then teaching at Stanford University in the US. I lapped up the review and it rang bells somewhere, transporting me down memory lane to the days of yore, when I used to accompany my parents to the theatre. Circarina, a renowned theatre-hall in then Calcutta, held out its never-fading charm to me as with wide-eyed wonder I used to gape at the actors and actresses belting out their dialogues surfacing from the wonder-cave, in which the stage disappeared and resurfaced. I loved it. I still remember watching ‘Samrat o Sundari’[The Emperor and the Beauty] on that magic stage, though much of it went off my head as I was particularly interested in watching the gyrations of the stage itself, speeding down and floating up simultaneously, with a scene to begin while another fading out. 

I wrote to the novelist, stating my childhood experiences of frequenting the theatres. And he answered my mail quite promptly, highlighting the closure of theatres in Kolkata in recent times, which acted as a backdrop to his novel. And then I read the novel again and again, awestruck, shedding tears each time I read of Garima’s sad demise. The theatre-halls were either being sold out by the owners to predatory realtors or to rich business magnates who razed the hall to put up a zany shopping mall there. It was crucial times for theatre-halls then, no doubt. Perhaps, it was a faint remembrance of days past, when in England, the theatres faced abrupt closing down in the 1640s, the reasons being different though.  

Majumdar’s novel made a dent in such crucial times, portraying a Bengali middle-class family and its reaction to the enrolment of one of its female members into stage-acting in then Calcutta. Calcutta was still in its pristine pride, still in possession of its old-world charm, a legacy of the stiff-lipped British rule. The household maids were still not accepted as stage-performers rubbing shoulders with the menfolk at its helm. 

Majumdar’s novel opens with a very touching scene, where Ori alias Oritro was on the verge of tears to see her mother breathing her last on the stage. He was perturbed within, feeling utterly shaken, holding on to his father, haplessly, while father’s assuring words sounded welcome solace to his ears,  

           ‘Come….just hold on to my hand. Tight korey’ [tightly] (Majumdar, 2)

Ori was really proud of his mother, Garima, who was blessed with histrionic talents. He grew up seeing his mother ‘heavy with gold jewelry and the rich sari’ (2). He had even ‘shared the stage with her’ once upon a time. He was a baby then, taken for a role of a baby, fast asleep, while he was hacked to death to appease a ‘thirsty goddess’. His mother played the part of a ‘cruel queen’. Since then, he grew enamoured of stage. But his mother never allowed him to make a foray into this magic world of lights and fragrance. He had been debarred from an entry into the world of stage performance, ‘always with that look of indifference’. 

   The mother-son relationship is a strong bond here, which in a way could be profaned by his admittance into the world of acting. Little Ori grew into an adolescent there in the precincts of North Calcutta, with the young men throwing wisps of smoke from their cigarettes into the dusty air or the fragrance of flowers leaving him enchanted as evening approached. The rows of women in the flesh market raised a slew of queries and misgivings in his mind. Entry into the theatre hall left him with sundry conflicting emotions and feelings. Even the croon of the popular lyric, ‘sunsabasun’ did not escape Ori’s ears! The theatre actor’s pedophilic proclivity was explicit in his demand to take his shirt off. He came up with an innocuous comment though, ‘Very nice complexion!’  Ori’s mother knew the ins and outs of the theatre people and hence was protective of Ori. 

Middle-class families in India, let alone in Bengal, are a bit conservative in outlook, nursing exasperation and grudge at the housewife’s active participation in something, which called for daily attendance on the stage, ‘delicately dressed and fragrant’. Ori’s grandmother tried to conceal the bitterness which hung heavily in the air at home. 

Majumdar leaves us nostalgic while he takes us to the golden days of theatre in Calcutta, as he refers to a popular play, Barbodhu [the lead role being played by the famous stage-legend Ketaki Dutta, daughter of Prabha Debi, older sister of Chapal Bhaduri], which ran for many a night at Rangmahal, portraying the seemingly colourful life of a woman who played the role of a wife to the men who paid for it. Garima kept the audience mesmerized, night after night, with her brilliant acting as a spurious wife and Ori was proud of his mother for her talents. But the joint family structure, extant in those times, was critical of the excessive liberty enjoyed by a daring wife, who would stay in the household and mind domestic chores and child-rearing, and nothing else. 

Garima stood out as a New Woman, who aspired to prove her own identity from among the crowd. She was criticized inside the family and outside but she did not waver to pursue her dreams, centering round the stage. In her times, it was not easy to step out of the precincts of the family to prove herself, her capabilities, her charisma. But she did. She hardly took to mind the harsh criticism behind her eyes, rather she turned deaf ears to them. Right from her mother-in-law to Rupa, her sister-in-law, to the local youths. The party-brats to the petty shop-owner— all were overly critical of her professional life. The petty sweet shop owner did not hesitate to make snide remarks like, ‘She is out all evening, isn’t she?’ Even he empathized with Ori and expressed deep concern, ‘ No one to feed you after you come home from school?’ He went on bombarding Ori with the same query for days together and Ori had to answer with the bitter-taste of the syrupy sweets in her mouth, ‘ She comes back late…after I’ve gone to sleep.’ Faint notes of feeling neglected can be heard. Though, that is not all.

Ori was growing up, thoughtful, covertly rebellious, reactionary to his mother’s commitment to theatre, family, and relationships. Abir, Shruti, the boys of the locality all held a certain place in his mental domain. Mummum [grandmother] was a sort of refuge, to whom he could disgorge the pent-up feelings unhesitatingly. It was Mummum who regaled him with the story of ‘grandfather’s trip to England’, how he stood before George the Fifth after passing his ‘barrister’s exams’. Every bit of the stories Ori loved, but he shed a tear or two on the pillow, missing his mother, who would come when he would be dead to the world. A child’s psyche has been brilliantly explored by Majumdar. According to a renowned psychologist[name withheld] of Kolkata, “A child’s brain is innately receptive. Everything leaves an impression on his mind, be it sorrowful or joyous. And these impressions often last for a lifetime.” This exactly happens with Ori. Mummum replaced his mother in his mental terrain but he could not be oblivious to his mother’s towering presence at the same time. Hence, he did not think twice while expressing his disapproval of his mothers sharing the bed with Samiran Uncle and locking her lips with his. All this had happened on the stage. And repeatedly in umpteen rehearsals preceding the show.  However, this ‘wantonness’ of his mother came as a blow to Ori, being reared up in a conservative ambiance of North Calcutta. Be it a part of acting or whatever! Garima Basu acting in the role of Antigone raised many an eyebrow. Ori could not slap them to silence. Rather, he did not want to. His mother was busy with her life in the dazzling world of theatre, while Ori was being snared by the older boys of his school who enticed him with ‘drinks’ while fooling around with it. His mother found him in an inebriated state and gave him a piece of her mind. His grandmother, however, was kept blissfully ignorant of her little grandson returning home ‘drunk, sick, smeared with vomit.’ Life followed its own course with the pain locked in the heart of Ori and his mother’s daily stage performance. But none of them got the wind of the fact that Trinankur, the brat of the Party was behind all such nuisance. The maidservants, the curious lot of the locality helped spread the news like a wildfire. His aunt, Rupa, nursed him back to health, again, her ‘composure’ was enough to betray her nonchalance, bringing into the open her inner joy to see the son of her sister-in-law going astray. A typical middle-class mindset of a joint family of Calcutta! But, this incident came as a blessing in disguise to Ori as he got his mother beside him for a few days, as she skipped her acting because of being with him, being extra-wary of the bad company he was supposedly in. And later, as he came round, Garima decided to take him along on a stage tour to a small suburban town, a few hours’ journey by train from Calcutta.  Similar other experiences in the life of little Ori take us to a different level of comprehending his relationship with his mother, his grandmother, his aunt, the people of the theatres, the local boys and the boys in his school, his cousins, so on, so forth.

Ahin Mullick’s silk kurta which was once ‘regal’ had now been ‘splotched with betel juice’, symbolizing the trying times the playhouses he owned were facing. The olden times and the present were quite different. The theatre enthusiasts were there but the playhouses could not evade the glance of the realtors and the businessmen with narrow interests, eyeing more profit, even at the expense of such theatre halls! ‘His mother kept on rehearsing for a raunchy role’ with the Damocles’ sword hanging on the future of these cavernous halls, witness to sundry emotion-laden histrionic moments. Even the sad moments, laced with the search of a son for his mother in the day-to-day vacuity, are accepted as a part and parcel of the ambiance. Majumdar in an anaphoric sentence puts the plight of the children of the mothers who come to make some bucks here at the theatres, ‘ Little boys and girls came to the theatres from time to time, looking for their mothers. Mothers who were busy wrapping sari ends around waists to do a dance number, mothers running after characters with make-up kits, mothers who tended hair and brushed wigs to perfection.’(Majumdar, 135)

Sometimes, Garima Basu tempts me to draw a far-fetched comparison with Julia, an actress in W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Theatre [1937], who was happy with her career in the theatres, with her son, Roger, who was struggling into manhood. She did not have to think twice while entering into an extramarital relationship with Tom and fear the gossip she would have to face. Attitudinal differences are quite distinct in a Bengali actress hailing from a  middle-class background and an English actress of London, who never thought that ‘the look in her eyes when they danced together betrayed her. She looked upon her position as so privileged that it never occurred to her that people, at last, were beginning to gossip.’ (Maugham, 131). Both Garima and Julia were ready to face criticism, whatsoever harsh or virulent that might have been. To Julia, life in theatres appeared to be a make-believe one. To Garima, it was a world that was more than real to her. It was her dream-world! To Julia, making love to a boy half her age was not a matter of shame. To Garima, she had no choice but to be a gewgaw in the hands of the men of the theatres. Ori had been witness to all the vicissitudes of her life, from different roles she brought to life on stage to her clandestine relationship with Ahin Mullick to her concern for him, as her only son. And therein lay Ori’s love of life, love of the chintzy world of light and shadow, the chiaroscuro, to be precise. Rupa’s aunt used to pack tiffin for him as he went to school, Mummum did not stop his mother when she went out to start a new life outside her familiar precincts. Ori died each day, he missed all of his relations there, when Shruti came to meet him on the platform, he learned that Mummum groped for her keys all day long, while they dangled in a bunch from her sari-end. And his father had gone back to the days of his childhood, it seemed, as Shruti reported. In front of Ori’s eyes, all were in for a change. The house he resided in since his childhood, the people around him, everything and all. 

Julia of Somerset Maugham would never understand how it felt to stay as a struggling actress forever, currying favour with the directors or the powers-that-be in the theatres! But Garima Basu faced it all. She would definitely fit into the concept of a New Woman who can go to any extent to win her freedom, but she could not be free in any sphere of her life. Her striving would suffice to appellate her as a New Woman, but success would again pull her down to the nadir, where everything stood shattered to smithereens, her family life, her husband even her son who she loved the most. Her husband was being looked after by his sister-in-law, Rupa, who took him to the Court, to the lawyer, just to wrench him free from the clutch of Garima, a woman who was not a whit more than a fallen woman in the eyes of her in-laws’ family. At last, she had to lose the battle to the keenness of the family for her expulsion from there. Consequently, Garima had to give in to the ‘divorce’ which they aimed at. 

Ori was the worst affected by the ruckus which tore him from within. In fact, children are the worst victims of such egocentric conflicts in a family. Life had no charm to offer save his going to school alone, coming back alone, chancing upon a facing the boring questions all the parents asked him, which he hated to answer, chancing upon a book in the school library which opened floodgates of imagination in him. Miss Miranda, Father O’Flaherty was the blessed presence in his life, though. 

His mother went on acting on stage, in different plays like Wish Car, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dusk, one after another. But that fateful day of Diwali, when the Pantheon got burnt to ashes in a late-night fire, Garima was driven to her death, she made into the abyss of ‘nada’ [nothingness], quite abruptly. ‘Carelessly, she had floated to a death that had stunned life’ (Majumdar, 226). Like a Firebird, she rose in her death, catapulting herself to the level of a crusader rather than a loser, who had struggled all her life, in her family, in the world of her passion. Ori held on to his father’s fingers, tight, tighter than before.

The story ends here. But Majumdar looms large at the back of our mind with the undying appeal of his images, the pithy expressions, and the spell he casts on the readers with his words. 

She had a lifetime of memories from the Pantheon. A lifetime, she had whispered. Sheaves and sheaves of laughter and play (Majumdar, 229)

Again, Maugham’s Julia comes up with her reassuring voice,

Roger says we do not exist. Why, it’s only we who do exist. They are the shadows and we give them substance. We are the symbols of all this confused, aimless struggling that they call life, and it’s only the symbol which is real. They say acting is only make-believe. The make-believe is the only reality.’ (Maugham, 231)

Ah yes! ‘All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players/ They have their exits and their entrances …’ (Shakespeare.W, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, Lines139-141, p. 225)

Majumdar’s narration through the unfolding of the plot to dovetailing the history of the Calcutta Theatres to the story keeps the readers hooked, making them marvel at the portrayal of a world, all are interested in. The Firebird will definitely carve a niche in the minds of the readers for many more years to come. 

Works cited

Majumdar, Saikat. The Firebird, Hachette India, Gurgaon, 2015.

Maugham, W. Somerset. Theatre, William Heinemann Ltd, 1937.

Clark, W.G and Wright, W.A. The Works of William Shakespeare, Macmillan & Co. Ltd, London, 1961.

About the reviewer: Dr. Ketaki Datta is an Associate Professor of English with Bidhannagar Govt. College, Kolkata. Apart from academic publications, she has two novels, three translated novels, and a book of poems, “Across the Blue Horizon”[ funded by Arts Council, England]to her credit apart from a bunch of short stories: both original and translated. She had been to Lisbon, California and University of Oxford on an invitation to read out her papers, mainly on indigenous and World theatre.  She is Regional Editor of The Theatre Times from India, headed by Prof. Magda Romanska, Professor, Emerson College, Boston. She has contributed to Routledge Companion to Dramaturgy, edited by Magda Romanska; Beyond Improbable Lines: The Partition of India (Cambridge Scholar Publishing) by Daniela Rogobete and Elisabetta Marino. Lately, she has co-authored a book of photos and poems titled “ Urban Reflections” with Prof. Wilfried Raussert, Univ. of Bielefeld, Germany. Her book on Oral Stories of Totos is coming out soon from Sahitya Akademi. 

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