The work of the Marathi playwright Makarand Sathe has always been framed by powerful ideas and politics, much like the 20th-century European literature that he admires. In the introduction to The Man Who Saw the Sun and Other Plays , writer and translator Shantha Gokhale describes how it was in the work of Eugene Ionesco that he found “the theatre that he felt closest to”. This influence is not subtle. Many of Sathe’s plays adopt the superficial features of absurdism — a detachment from time and space, a pessimism of purpose and language, a despair with modern life. But, as Gokhale points out, they are not about these things in any sense — they are not about “the meaninglessness of life”. Rather, Sathe marries the absurdist aesthetic to the political tradition of Marathi theatre. While this combination does create something unique and interesting, it also leads to a problem of classification. This is a problem that is given form through the avatar of Achyut Athvale, Sathe’s version of Jean Berenger, Ionesco’s famous alter ego. Athvale is a recurring figure in Sathe’s work but he’s never the same person twice. Defying easy classification, he becomes a metaphor for the complexity of human identity.
In this new collection, Athvale appears in the middle play, Crossroads (or Chowk in the original Marathi). In this play, a sutradhar leads the audience in and out of the lives of a varied cast of characters stuck in a Mumbai traffic jam. There are Brahmins, Muslims, activists, millionaires, communists and mendicants. This is the most ‘realistic’ of Sathe’s plays, a pessimistic satire about life “in the gaps between riots”. The play is about the complexity at the heart of people — their broad inner lives and hidden ‘monologues’. As the sutradhar explains, dialogue is difficult because to “understand the spoken one sentence”, you have to “understand the unspoken nine that precede it”. But for a work that displays a great sympathy for people, it seems to feature a severe lack of faith in them. The characters tend toward the incompetent. Even the sutradhar is frustrating — exceedingly heavy-handed on many occasions, puzzlingly silent during others. The final effect is less a celebration of individual richness and more of inevitable human failure.
The titular play, The Man Who Saw the Sun , follows the death of Socrates and features powerful moments of eloquence from the philosopher as he defends himself and the idea of reason. But the absurdist elements seem to be extraneous, tacked onto a central story of great sorrow and beauty. The play’s conceit involves a few unnamed characters observing the story of Socrates from within Plato’s Cave. In Plato’s original story, men mistake the shadows on the cave walls to be reality. Only a few can escape the cave and see the light. But when they return to the cave to try and free their fellow men, they meet violent ends. It’s a tale that resonates painfully with the murders of rationalists like Pansare, Dabholkar, Kalburgi and others in recent times.
The unnamed characters are ostensibly stand-ins for the audience but they seem to serve little actual purpose.
The most disturbing of the three plays in the collection is They Went Ahead . In this, a character simply referred to as A (for Athvale?) is stuck with B in a limbo-like afterlife. B, a middle-class man, is a new entrant to this psychological space. A, an upper-class intellectual, spends most of the play struggling to explain the rules of this space while keeping B’s attention away from Khanduji and Godavaribai, two sleeping farmers. A is obviously distraught — he rambles, meanders, rants and raves his story. Slowly, his point becomes clear. To leave this space, to ‘progress’, they have to commit a heinous act — they have to sexually violate Godavaribai. The play ends with A and B committing an act of rape.
While the play so far was filled with a sense of Beckettian dread, this stomach-churning revelation comes out of nowhere. It is a gruesome and disappointing twist. Sathe’s point is that the privileged class ignores and exploits the pain of farmers. It’s an admirable point that is ruined by the deployment of a metaphor that ignores and exploits the pain of women. This use of rape is not a harmless exercise. It has a long, sick and exhausting history. From Lucretia to James Bond, the rape of women has become a standard and gratuitous set piece in the writings of men. This has contributed to a culture that trivialises the lived reality of so many people. The gross implication of this ending is that rape is worse than death. Or at least, that it is more affecting an image than a person taking their own life. It is a profoundly twisted society that needs the imagery of a woman being violated to empathise with the mass suicide of farmers. This society does not need to be indulged.
Perforated with ideas, this collection of plays offers readers a variety of material — some to inspire, some to push against.
Thomas Manuel is the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016