Opinion Columnists 21 Sep 2016 Thinking Allowed: Ab ...
Antara Dev Sen is Editor of The Little Magazine. She can be contacted at: sen@littlemag.com

Thinking Allowed: Absurd theatre is alive

Published Sep 21, 2016, 12:42 am IST
Updated Sep 21, 2016, 7:17 am IST
Why do we need a public debate on European history and political philosophy?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: PTI)

The theatre of the absurd is back. Edward Albee, 88, the master of absurd theatre, died last week. And words, images, bits and pieces of scenes and dialogues tumbled out of the crevices of memory to flood the mind. Hailed as one of the greatest American playwrights, Albee is best remembered for plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, The Zoo Story or A Delicate Balance. But more than any particular play, he will be remembered for the impact he had on the world of theatre, the influence he had over generations with his sharp chiselling of a curious, scary, violent, absurdly tangible reality that provoked you out of your comfort zone. “A play, at its very best, is an act of aggression against the status quo,” Albee believed. And once the theatre of the absurd comes flooding back, there is no escape. You see it all around you. Wherever you look. Take Gujarat. Because our Prime Minister wished to visit his mother in Ahmedabad on his birthday, hundreds of innocent people were swiftly arrested in Ahmedabad.

They would be released, assured the police, after the PM finished his two-day birthday celebrations in the state and left for Delhi. Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, who had organised the Una protests, was whisked away as soon as he landed at Ahmedabad airport, and put behind bars. So was Reshma Patel, leader of Hardik Patel’s Patidar Amanat Andolan Samiti (PAAS). Members of PAAS objected, threatening to stage a demonstration, so the smart Gujarat police swiftly locked up around 400 of the grumblers. Whew! Preparing for birthday parties is tough. Especially in a democracy where everyone seems to have a voice and intends to use it. Wouldn’t it be awful if there were demonstrations during the PM’s birthday celebrations? Thank god for preventive detention. All went well. The ma-beta photos were great. Everyone was happy. Well, everyone who mattered, anyway. Isn’t it curious that the PM of India, who once ruled Gujarat with an iron fist as its chief minister, is now so scared of demonstrations that he needs to get all protesters locked up before he sets foot on Gujarati soil? But isn’t it so brave of our PM to be the supreme leader of the world’s largest democracy in spite of his fright of free speech and democratic freedoms?

 

Not that we are narrow minded — and only concerned about grumblers in Gujarat. We are very conscious of what the whole world thinks of us. So while we were pushing dalit and Patidar activists behind bars in Gujarat, we did a similar exercise in Srinagar. We picked up Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Pervez from his home at midnight and locked him up. The day before, Pervez, chair of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, had been stopped at the immigrations at Delhi, and prevented from going to Geneva for a meeting with the United Nations Human Rights Commission. When he went back home to Srinagar, he was locked up and kept in police custody for 24 hours before being sent off to jail again at midnight. So you see, we care. We care as much about your loud protests in the streets of Ahmedabad as about your refined dialogue with people at the UNHCR in Geneva. And we will not have any of it.

Yes, of course we have no patience for rubbish like freedom of speech and expression. Nonsense! Law and order is sacred, almost as sacred as the holy cow. And protecting law and order is obviously much more important than any free speech gibberish. So we have preventive detention. To protect law and order, guard nationalism and save birthday parties. You think that is fascist? Ha ha! You are so outdated. Even the comrades — the arch enemies of fascists forever — don’t think we are fascist. They think our present government is merely authoritarian. So there! Not fascist. This the comrades agree on. But they are engaged in a meaningful debate on whether we are going towards fascism, or inherently protected against fascism and happily stuck in authoritarianism. “In India today, neither has fascism been established, nor are the conditions present — in political, economic and class terms – for a fascist regime to be established,” said Prakash Karat, the scholarly comrade who as general secretary of the CPI(M) brilliantly oversaw the downsizing of the Left in Parliament.

His successor Sitaram Yechury, exhibiting charming pirouettes on a tightrope while skipping between “fascist”, “fascism” and “fascistic” explained that “what we have in India today is not fascism of the variety we had seen in Germany of the 1930s. But if this situation is allowed to progress, then it could lead up to that.” How nice to know. But frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. Do you? Can’t we just get on with poll alliances and poll planks and curious deals and shameless speeches? Why do we need a public debate on European history and political philosophy? And that too from people who don’t usually open their mouths except in closed door politburo meetings.

Meanwhile in Kolkata, the erstwhile bastion of the Left, The National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) has come up with a new set of service rules that throws the freedom of its employees out of the window. They even ask employees to report relatives who may indulge in “subversive” activities against the government. This is apart from barring employees from criticising the NUJS ever, and generally prohibiting them from talking to the media or being on radio or television, or writing articles or books, without the permission of the university. So much for democratic freedoms in a premier university of law. A university that is to shape the future protectors of our democracy. Just start out by spying and snitching on your family and loved ones. Keep your eyes and mouth shut on all other matters. Nice. Wait. As I write this, I see that we are raring to go to war with Pakistan. We, a nuclear power, seem to want to attack Pakistan, a nuclear power. Any conventional war between India and Pakistan may at any point lead to one nuking the other, which will destroy both countries. But who cares? Because 18 jawans were killed in the despicable Uri attack we are willing to risk a nuclear war that could kill 12 million of us on either side of the border. And devastate our future generations for decades. Make sense? Even after Edward Albee bows out, absurd theatre is alive and well. The question is, shall we be?

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