Sunday, July 10, 2016

Chapters from My Nostalgia: My First Play

(This is nothing extraordinary. But it's a charming chapter from my past that I really love revisiting from time to time. I had been wanting to write this experience down for a very long time. Am quite pleased that I finally did it. I hope you enjoy reading it as much I enjoyed writing it.)


“Arre baccha Govardhan Das, kya bhiksa laya?”

“What the bloody hell is ‘bhiksa’? Its ‘bhiksha’ Abhay, ‘bhiksha’. And why the hell are you muttering your line as if you are crying? Are you having a pain in your stomach?” said an irritated Shikha Ma’am, our usually benign dance teacher who had now also been given the responsibility of directing a play for the fourth standard students of our school for the upcoming annual function.

The play that had been chosen was ‘Andher Nagri Chaupat Raja’ (a famous Hindi play written by Bharatendu Harishchandra) and at present auditions were on in the dance room of the school. The lead character – Govardhan Das – had been selected, among several others, and now the hunt was on for the one who would play his guru; a ‘mahant’ or an ascetic to be precise.

According to the teacher, the mahant needed to be tall and hence about a dozen tall boys, myself included, from the 4th standard had been selected to audition for the role. All of us were standing in a line and were being auditioned one by one. The selection process was simple: say the line “Arre baccha Govardhan Das, kya bhikhsa laya?” properly.  Unfortunately, Shikha Ma’am hadn’t been impressed by anyone as of yet.  

I, being the tallest one, was right at the end of the line. Seeing boy after boy being rejected was making me fidgety. I had never done anything like this before. Moreover, we hadn’t been given any time to prepare; even if it was for just a line, I thought nervously. And as Abhay was asked to move away, I became even more anxious. I was next.

Controlling the rampaging beats of my heart, and choosing to ignore the fact that about twenty eyes were fixed on me at that moment, I said my dialogue out aloud with all the confidence I could muster: “Arre baccha Govardhan Das, kya bhikhsa laya?”

Shikha Ma’am smiled. “Yes! That was perfect. Come stand here,” she said and gestured at me to join a group of boys and girls who had been selected for the play. I had always felt that she liked me for some reason and was pleased that I had done well in the audition. Gourav Soni, my chubby and amiable class-mate who was playing Govardhan Das, the lead character, beamed at me from the group. There were quite a few others too; faces which I barely recognized.

The others, the rejected ones, were asked to leave the room. Shikha Ma’am then began to brief us about the play and our respective roles. I had quite a few lines, much more than my liking, and had to be present in the first, third and last acts of this six-act play. In fact, my role in the climax was extremely crucial and I hence had a lot of tough rehearsals ahead which were to begin from next week.

Regardless of the nervousness I had about my role, or the prospect of delivering my lines in front of a packed audience, I was still quite pleased. This was the first time I would be doing a play and I couldn’t wait to tell my mother about it.

With these happy thoughts, I moved out of the classroom along with the others. This being the last period of Saturday, I now had an entire Sunday to celebrate my successful selection in my first play.

***

‘Andher Nagri Chaupat Raja’ was a pretty entertaining play, I realized as I read the book I had taken from the teacher for the weekend. I wanted to have a better grasp of the story I was being a part of. The story centered on Govardhan Das, who, despite his guru’s apprehensions, ventures into a city called ‘Andher Nagri’ or 'The City of Darkness' which is governed by a foolish king and is filled with imbecilic citizens. Somehow, Govardhan Das gets caught in the king’s idiotic ways and is commanded by him to be hanged. In the end, Govardhan Das’s guru comes in just in the nick of time and, using his wit, saves his disciple while tricking the king to hang himself instead.




I was pleased to read the story. More so because I knew that I had a vital part to play. I actually couldn’t wait for the rehearsals to begin now.  


***

“Zor se bolo…Mujhe hi sunai nahi de raha to audience kya khak sunegi. Gale me dard hai kya? (Speak loudly. Even I can’t hear your lines; the audience will never be able to hear it. Do you have pain in your throat?),”said an irritated Banarasi Lal Sirji to one of the students playing a ‘sabzi wala’ in Andher Nagri. The boy cowered meekly as Banarasi Lal Sir – our very strict Hindi teacher – glowered at him. He had taken over the direction along with Shikha Ma’am and was now getting impatient with the continued failure of some students to grasp the dialogues of the play properly.

A rotund, half-bald man in his fifties, Banarasi Sir had a thick Bihari accent and struck fear in the hearts of everyone whenever he was around. He wore a simple half-shirt and trousers all the time, but when he raised his voice many were known to piss their pants.

Presently, we were on stage at Gyan Manch – our school’s auditorium – and were practicing for the play. We were already a good week into the rehearsals and had just had another four days left. Banarasi Sir’s impatience, hence, was understandable. Thankfully, Shikha Ma’am came in and gave some instructions to the poor boy calmly after which he nodded, still eyeing Banarasi Sir fearfully as if he will thrash him any moment.

All of us had been given our cues on where to stand on the stage and when to enter and say the precise dialogues. At present, the rehearsal for the second act was underway where Govardhan Das was scouring the markets of Andher Nagari. Being in an empty Gyan Manch, though, felt weird; I had always seen it chock-a-block. The first few days here had been surreal. I was just too thrilled to be a part of a real school play and finally being on stage. But slowly, I had gotten in my groove.

I stood offstage, right at the corner, awaiting my cue on the third act and observing the goings on in the center. I twiddled my thumbs and replayed my upcoming scene in my head. Being an ascetic, I had to enter slowly and rhythmically, swaying from side to side with a pair of ‘khartals’ in my hands while chanting “Ram Bhajo Ram Bhajo Ram Bhajo Bhai… Ram Bhajan Bin Janum Sadaa Dukhdaayi…” Then, I would greet Govardhan Das, who would be right behind me, and say: “Arre Baccha Govardhan Das, kya bhiksha laya?” After practicing for more than a week, I had memorized my lines and my movements quite well and was quietly confident.

While the rehearsals continued, I turned around to look what was behind the stage. It was pitch dark with not a person in sight. It felt quite eerie and yet quite captivating. I had never explored that part before. All I could see was long, black drapes and dark, open spaces, which I felt were pulling me towards them. I wondered what would be behind those dark spaces and despite being a tad scared was intrigued enough to take a peep.  

“Aye, Bhavesh! Where the hell are you staring? Get ready!” came Shikha Ma’am’s voice to break my reverie. With a final furtive glance at those black spaces, I hastened ahead.

***

Being a part of a school play did have its perks. I got to leave for rehearsals even while regular classes were on. It was fun to earn the jealous stares of my classmates as I would saunter off to my rehearsals while they would be forced to study. However, as the D-Day began dawning in, I began to get jittery and nervous. Scary thoughts of tripping on stage and forgetting my lines began consuming me from inside.

But there was also some excitement. After all, this would be my first play. Moreover, my parents too would be there at the function to watch the play. Shikha Ma’am’s constant encouragement helped too. I was now a bundle of energy eager to relish this first-time experience.


***

I felt groggy and my eyes took some time adjusting to the sunlight coming in from the window in front of me. With a sudden burst of nervous excitement, I realized that it was the day of my play. The D-Day had arrived.

“Maa…Give me my breakfast quick,” I tried to say. But all that came out of my throat was a hoarse cough.

Still a little dazed, I cleared my throat and said again, “Maa…”

Again that hoarse cough; like a dry bark of a dog.

Panic leaped inside me and I tried to clear my throat with a little more force. But nothing changed. I realized with utter disappointment that I had a sore throat. Probably because of the endless rehearsals where I had to keep saying my dialogues in an elevated voice.

It felt like a rock was dropping through my chest. What will I do now? I thought miserably. Banarasi Lal Sir will be furious. How will I face the others? How will I perform today? Will I be thrown out of my first ever play? These unhappy thoughts began gnawing at me.

After discovering my condition, my mother gave me some hot, salt water for gargling. Wanting to have immediate results, I gargled thrice. But nothing changed.

I gave up and did not know what to do next. Dejected, I resigned myself to fate and went gloomily to school; fearing the worst.

***

Banarasi Lal Sir was in his usual staff room when I went to look for him right after entering school. He was engrossed in a Hindi newspaper like always while sipping a hot cup of tea.

The moment I said “Sir” to address him, he knew that there was something wrong. He looked at me from behind the newspaper with his piercing eyes and asked, “Awaz ko kya hua? (What happened to your voice?)”

I said I had no idea and waited for his outburst.

He asked me to sit opposite him and immediately ordered the peon to bring a hot cup of tea. Then he took out a small blue box from his trouser’s pocket. It was the box where he kept his ‘chuna’ for his paan; I had seen him apply it on the paan several times during classes.

Before I could understand what was happening, he began applying the chuna on my throat. “Isse araam milega (This will give you relief),” he said calmly and lightly applied the thick, white paste all over my throat.

Pretty soon the peon bought hot tea. Sir asked me to drink it and went away, saying it should help soothe my throat. I felt weird sipping the tea alone in the staff room and wondered how would a paste of chuna help cure my sore throat.

Sir returned soon with Shika Ma’am and a bunch of other teachers. I expected them to lecture me but instead all of them were very kind. They began discussing among themselves what would be the best way to get my sore throat cured before the play starts. It was soon unanimously decided that I will not attend any classes that day lest I talk and do more damage to my voice. I was hence to sit in the staff room all day and keep drinking hot lemon water on an hourly basis.

Thus, over the next few hours, I sat quietly while I was served hot lemon water regularly and then was given hot tomato soup for lunch. Students kept trying to peek at me from outside, wondering why I was being treated so royally in the staff room. But I did not feel royal. Although my gloom from the morning had certainly subsided and I was pleased with the way the teachers had treated me, there was still the question of performing in the play with my sore throat. It was the first play of my life and I really did not want to spoil it in front of my parents, friends, and teachers.

Sighing with these morose thoughts, I quietly took another sip of the hot lemon water.

***

I had never been inside the Gyan Manch green room before. It was huge with multiple rooms and had bright lights and tall mirrors everywhere. At present, the green room was crammed as boys and girls, dressed in myriad clothes, got dressed for their respective acts.

I looked at my reflection and suppressed a laugh. My lanky body had been clad in an orange dhoti and chaddar and a make-up man was fitting a bald-cap on my head which also had a long choti. To put it mildly, I could not recognize myself. I really did appear like a young, bald sadhu.

Banarasi Lal Sir and Shikha Ma’am then entered the room. Shikha Ma’am laughed as she looked at me and then touched my bald-cap; trying to check if it would fall off. "Bapree! Kitne lambe ho tum yaar! (My God! How tall are you!)", she exclaimed as she struggled to reach my head.

Satisfied with the cap’s hold, she patted my back and went to check on the other students of the play. Banarasi Lal Sir now came forward and handed me the ‘khartals’.

“Saaf bolna aur zor se bolna. Baaki sab bhool jaao. Tumne bahut mehnat ki hai. Mujhe vishwas hai tum bahut accha karoge. Chalo, shabaash! (Speak clearly and loudly. Forget everything else. You have worked very hard. I am certain you will do very well. Come on, good boy!),” he said kindly and patted my cheeks lightly.

I realized that Banarasi Sir wasn’t all that strict after all as I watched him check out the other students. My misery from earlier had now been surpassed with renewed confidence. I wanted to do well; not for myself but for Banarasi Sir and Shikha Ma’am who had both shown so much faith in me.

As I stepped out and walked towards the stage, lots of students, girls mostly, giggled at my appearance. I knew I looked funny but I was hardly bothered about these reactions presently. I had an important job at hand, after all.

I saw Gourav Soni already standing at the corner of the offstage, waiting for me. He too, being my disciple in the play, was dressed in the same attire as mine. He smiled and nodded at me as I walked up to him. I returned the smile and tried to calm my nerves.

Standing at the corner of the stage, I peeped out. Although the curtains were drawn and the lights were off, I could make out that the auditorium was completely filled; mostly with parents. I tried to locate my parents in the crowd but couldn’t. It was too dark. But I could sense an excited murmur in the crowd. They had enjoyed the song and dance routines in the last hour or so and were very keen for the play to begin now. All these years I had always been in the audience, sitting comfortably on the chair and enjoying the proceedings onstage. And now, it felt strange to be on the other side.

The announcer’s voice then resounded through the darkness: “And now, we present to you the famous Hindi play ‘Andher Nagri Chaupat Raja’ ”. The lights came on stage. The curtains were slowly drawn open. This was it. The moment had finally arrived.

My heart began thumping madly. I took my position in front as I was to go in first, followed by Gourav. I closed my eyes and repeated Banarasi Sir’s words in my mind.

Then, clutching the khartals firmly in my hands, I went in.

“Ram Bhajo Ram Bhajo Ram Bhajo Bhai… Ram Bhajan Bin Janum Sadaa Dukhdaayi” I chanted loudly and clearly, with all the strength my throat could muster. And oddly enough, my voice sounded pretty normal.

I was right at the center of the stage now with Gaurav beside me. The lights surrounded me from all sides. Just for a second, I stole a glance at the audience. Shiny faces looked back at me. Among them, I saw someone with spectacles. Although I did not have the time to ascertain it, I assumed that person to be my father. The fact that my parents were sitting there in the audience was comforting to me. The thumping in my chest was now slowly receding. I had done it!

Then, turning towards Gaurav with confidence, I said, “Arre Baccha Govardhan Das…”


 ***

The Monday following the play was a very memorable one. While entering my classroom, I found Banarasi Lal Sir, Shikha Ma’am and a few other teachers at the gate greeting all the students who had taken part in the function. Apparently, my act had impressed all the teachers.

Mahant Ji…Hume bhi aashirwad dijie (Mahant Ji, bless us too),” said Madhumita Ma’am, our jolly math teacher. The others laughed loudly.

Banarasi Lal Sir smiled widely at me and ruffling my hair said, “Bahut accha kie tum (You did very well).”

Inside the classroom, everyone was teasing me about my bald-cap and kept calling me ‘mahant’ all day long. I did not mind the attention one bit. It was quite pleasing really after the fear, gloom and madness of the previous day.

Word had also gotten around about the special treatment I had received from Banarasi Sir and the other teachers on the day of the play and everyone began flocking me to hear my version of the story. I made full use of my voice having returned to its normal state and kept retelling the incidents with a lot of vigor. Studies had officially taken a backseat. Today, it was all about me.


                                                                                                                    ***

Throughout my school life, despite the opportunities, I never took part in another play for some reason. It was only in college, where I did a number of skits and plays, that my fire for acting on stage was rekindled. Although all those were very memorable, my first play, for very obvious reasons, will always hold a significant place in my heart.

More than 20 years have gone by, but I have never quite forgotten the dialogues, the rehearsals, the fear and the excitement that my first play brought. More than the actual play itself, it is the moments that led to it which I look back on with great fondness. And although I know that I will never ever be taking part in a play again, I just wish at times that somehow…just somehow…I could get a chance to visit the backstage of Gyan Manch once again. I have a feeling that Govardhan Das might still be waiting for me there.