One evening in the ’40s, writer Saadat Hasan Manto landed in Delhi with a job with the All India Radio and met fellow writer Krishan Chander. Manto had just quit editing a film journal in Bombay and the two friends chatted through the night. The next morning, he asked Chander for whisky to eliminate the taste of the night’s alcohol and took out a short story from his bag. In the Pity of Partition, Manto’s niece and academic Ayesha Jalal, writes of the his Delhi stint and the nature of his friendships with India’s first progressives in Urdu and Hindi literature -- Upendranath Ashk, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Chirag Hasan Hasrat and Rafi Pir -- relationships built on jibes, jest, a merciless critique of each other’s work but immense support for their shared day-to-day struggles.
Literary friendships, then, were about literature certainly, but they were also about creating a community, a milieu.
Mohan Rakesh and Kamleshwar belonged to the post-Independence literary wave in Hindi literature -- the Nayi Kahani movement. KC Shankar, actor and co-founder of the Jashn-e-Qalam initiative that is bringing to Delhi four solo performances of short stories from both generations, says Mohan Rakesh was a novelist of the new neuroses and obsessions of the middle class. “Kamleshwar, unlike writers of the earlier generation like Manto, Chughtai and Bedi, focussed on character psychology rather than seeing the character through the prism of history.
The Ek Baar Ki Baat performance opens with Manto’s Padhiye Kalma; followed by Bedi’s Chechak Ke Daag’. In Manto’s story (enacted by Manjeet Mahipal), a Muslim is caught stabbing a Hindu to death. The police consider it an open-and-shut case: one man killed another because of communal reasons. “The story is a critique of this mindset. It was actually a crime of passion. The man was willing to confess to this but no one listens to him,” says Shankar. “Manto knew that it is only in art that a convict will get a fair hearing. We have similar cases in today’s times. Who listens to the convict’s side of the story?”
A woman is tested on her wedding night when she discovers her husband has pock marks all over his face. This Bedi story is enacted by Shashwita Sharma. “Although written in 1952 the story is very contemporary,” says Sharma. “We have set standards of beauty but there are inner complexes that need to be sorted out first.”
Kamleshwar’s Apne Desh Ke Log (enacted by Shankar), written in the 1960s, could well have been written for our times. “After smartphones and smart cities, it’s time to ensure the workforce is made smart too,” says the Jashn-e-Qalam collective.
“Set in an office, it encourages its citizen-workers to adopt discipline as the route to development. When someone has an operation, the image of his office is transplanted in his eyes, his official files are put in his head…” Mohan Rakesh’s story, Parmatma Ka Kutta, another take on the office, is about battling bureaucracy and red-tape. Vicky Ahuja enacts this story.
All the performances are prop-free and end with audience discussion. That certainly should be a different experience in the age of internet where one can ‘play’ or ‘pause’ a work of art mid-way and where the preferred way of viewing is in isolation. “’Did I see what you saw?’ ‘What visual did I enjoy?’ A discussion helps us, it helps the audience,” says Shankar. “We see the same things but it’s a different play going on in all our heads. Let’s talk about it.”
What: Ek Baar Ki Baat
When: July 23, 7 pm; July 24, 12 pm
Where: Greenr Café, 416 Shahpur Jat, Siri Fort