I want to make it absolutely clear that my war is not against the ever-expanding community of morons. My anger is against a few members of that community who have succeeded in banning Habib Tanvir’s masterful play, Charandas Chor (Charandas the Thief) in the playwright’s home state of Chhattisgarh some two months after his death.
It would be easy, if not downright wrong, to isolate Moron No. 1: the Satnam Dalit leader Baldas who had been insisting for the last five years that the play “maligns” Guru Ghasidas, the founder of the Satnami religious sect. Moron No. 2 and No. 3 are Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh and his Education Minister Brijmohan Agrawal. The latter’s comment, “We see no point to the reading of [Charandas Chor] if it hurts people’s sentiments,” sums up statutory reaction to complaints in this country against any book, performance or work of art not under the contraceptive protection of religion or identity politics.
Tanvir adapted the story of Charandas the truthful thief with a heart of gold from writer-folklorist Vijaydan Detha’s take on a Rajasthani folk tale. On being relentlessly pursued by a policeman, Charandas seeks safety in a money-grubbing guru. In the process, he makes four vows — all ridiculous ones. Or so he thinks.
The guru also tries to convince him to give up stealing. Charandas refuses. But as a compromise, he is made to vow never to lie again. “You can’t separate sunshine from the sun, can you? You can’t separate a nail from the flesh, can you? Then how can you separate thieving and lying — they go together, Guruji,” pleads Charandas. He ultimately agrees. The problem is that he takes his vow of speaking only the truth very, very seriously. And therein lies the fundamental problem that Tanvir presents: being morally true in a thieving world. As circumstances would have it, Charandas finds himself in all the situations he never expected to be in. One of them includes the queen wanting to marry him. He rejects this offer because of the vow made to the Guruji and is sent to his death by the humiliated queen.
As Javed Malick in the introduction to an English edition of the play (translated by Anjum Katyal, published by Seagull Books) writes, “Charandas Chor is constructed on the principle of carnivalesque reversal, the principle of a world turned upside down.... Truthfulness, honesty, integrity, ethical values, and even professional efficiency are shown to belong exclusively to a thief, leaving the upper echelons of society devoid precisely of these values and virtues.”
Even as the play uses Chhattisgarhi language and folk elements of song and humour, Tanvir’s anti-hero Charandas reminds me of another ‘anti-social’ good man: Raymond Chandler’s famous detective, Philip Marlowe. “P. Marlowe has as much social conscience as a horse,” wrote Chandler in a letter. “He has a personal conscience, which is an entirely different matter.” Charandas is also, what the philosopher Hannah Arendt calls, the embodiment of “absolute, natural innocence... [which] is at war with the peace of the world”.
Why am I so bothered, you ask, if only one state has banned Charandas Chor? For one, there is an unbearable irony that Tanvir’s work, rooted so much in Chhattisgarh, is contraband in his home state. For another, the state was bothered enough by some inane complaint to ban the play. So it’s now my turn. But what makes me truly believe that India doesn’t deserve its art is that not a single Gandhiji-spouting politician said a word when the finest work of one of our greatest playwrights gets banned in a state. The morons have it.