Roundabout | The game is the thing and Mumbai the protagonist
“Anju Makhija has three qualities needed in a writer: an ear for natural dialogue, in-depth character creation, and above all listening to the heart.” This is how the veteran of the theater, the late Alyque Padamsee, had described the writing prowess of the poet-playwright.
One of the pioneer writers of English, Makhija used her talents as a poet, playwright and translator. She won the Sahitya Akademi Award for her translation of 16th-century Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif’s “Seeking the Beloved,” and has received numerous other accolades for her poetry and plays.
While the focus is on his Mumbai plays, one cannot help but dwell on his signature poem as poets get the best out of playwrights across languages and poetry is the highest mark of creativity . “Pickling Season” is one of her most beloved poems, in which she begins by appreciating nature’s bounty and “then on to peeling, chopping, salting, boiling, spicing, bottling…”. The people of Chandigarh, which was largely built on mango trees, will relate to the process. However, it takes a poet with Makhija’s talent and insight to relate it to broader human relationships.
She asks, “Will the witchcraft work? / Hopefully at the end of the year, when / the pungent brine matures. / The zing depends on the turmeric balancing the tamarind, / the chilli complementing the ‘amchur,/ and if asafetida is poured by candlelight/ a late night walks for pickles/ as so rarely for couples, except since the first season of pickling./ Alchemy has seldom bewitched,/ Jaggery sours, vinegar burns the tongue./ To change the recipe we tried / on the advice of the old ladies,/ but nature moves inexorably,/ and life unfolds predictably/ under the mango tree.
A new look at Indian theater
In Mumbai Traps, a six-part volume written over the past three decades and published by Dhauli Books, Mumbai is a central character of many shades – at times, like a reflection of the city’s obsessions; other times, as the confidante of his secrets. The titles included in this volume are revealing: If Wishes Were Horses, The Last Train, Cold Gold, Now She Says She’s God, Meeting With Lord Yama and Off the Hook.
About her interest in playwriting, Makhija says, “My obsession with acting started when I was a student at the State University of New York. Being on a very limited budget, my options were few. Much to my delight, I found many of the readings and performances to be free, especially the Off-Broadway variety. From renowned playwrights, like Arthur Miller, to contemporaries, like John Guare, I have been exposed to an exhilarating array of plays. Later, when I continued my studies in Montreal, Canada’s multicultural mosaic broadened my outlook – from French satire to Chinese folklore, I absorbed it all”.
However, Makhija, who was rooted in Indian soil and made Mumbai his home, decided to make up for his lack of exposure to regional Indian theater by exploring the works of well-known Indian playwrights in languages such as Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad , Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar, Mahasweta Devi and others of the generation. Understanding the complexity of their work, she began to evolve her own form from the two worlds. It was something different as most Indian writers of English only looked to the West, rejecting the ‘bhasha’ writers. But here is a writer who knew she wanted to write about the world around her and isolation of any kind wouldn’t help her because regional drama had outstripped Western fare.
City looking for a playwright
The first play Makhija wrote was “If Wishes Were Horses” and was quite ready due to lack of enthusiasm when she read it at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai. But what happened was quite the opposite as two directors expressed interest in it, and even prominent theater manager Pearl Padamsee discussed it avidly with her saying that class discrimination was in the heart of the room. Makhija recalls, “It ended up being directed by Anahita Uberoi in a pretty unique way. I was not in favor of Hinglish, which was insinuating itself into the theatrical scene at the time, and I had suggested that the play be performed bilingually. Anahita respected this and presented it in English with a generous dose of Hindi and Marathi.
The play was hailed as the first bilingual play in India. Jiten Merchant’s review in a major newspaper said: “In If Wishes Were Horses a lot is discussed – women’s rights, the dreams of the underprivileged and the difficulty of reconciling idealism and practicality. Anju Makhija’s symmetrically constructed script strikes a chord or three… It ranges from extreme naturalism to surreal fantasy with bits of lightly scenic dialogue and moments of almost wacky high comedy.
The playwright evolved her own medium and she had to chisel it more from play to play, tackling several issues along the way. Uma Narain, a well-known theater scholar and founder of the School of Liberal Arts in Mumbai, calls the plays “a life’s work”.
“The volume is called Mumbai Traps and its most striking feature is the omnipresence of the omniscient city; Mumbai materializes in different shapes and forms. Sometimes it’s the other way around and Mumbai becomes the almighty behrupiya looking for a playwright, demanding to be cast in myriad shades of characters and situations. Either way, the city is a palpable presence throughout the work as a character, a trap, an elusive ambition or simply a backdrop contextualizing and influencing the narrative, but never inert or docile”.
An inspiring journey
It is indeed an inspiring journey, remarkable for the sheer sincerity of its search not only for the words but also for the people behind the words, people of different folds, wearing different clothes and speaking different languages. Makhija’s plays have been staged in India and abroad. His other awards include: the Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship and the BBC World Poetry Prize. She served on the English Advisory Board of the Sahitya Akademi for five years and is a co-founder of the Auroville Poetry Festival.