Author! Author! Speech! Speech!

 Speech by Ramu Ramnathan

I take deep satisfaction in expressing my respectful gratitude to Roopvedh Pratishthan for having graciously honoured me with the Tanveer Abhyaasvrutti.

There are times in any theatrewallah's life when he feels lonely - and forlorn. He begins to believe that no one "out there" is taking notice of the long and perseverant endeavours. In that sense, the Tanveer Abhyaasvrutti comes at the right time. Its heartening to know that there are friends and colleagues around, who care. It gives me the courage to plod on.

I was told by a friend that I'll be accepting the award in Pune - and that many among the audience may wonder who I am.

Permit me, then, to present myself in as objective a manner as is humanly possible.

I am the child of many civilizations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage.

My father is a Palghat Brahmin, who should have been a collector of obscure, irrelevant items but instead studied physics. Mother is Punjabi born in Rohtak (Haryana) and is a Gandhian. So she likes longish walks, playing the sitar, vegetarianism, abstinence, and in true Gandhian spirit offering advise. In my formative years, after my parent shifted to Mumbai, they would keep dashing off to see plays by someone called: Satyadev Dubey. Other children were scared of bua baba and bhoot and rakhshasas. I was scared of Satyadev Dubey and his plays. He stole my parents from me.

There was a lady called Pramila who worked for us. She swore to put mirchi in my eyes if I didn’t have dinner, while she heard Bhimsen Joshi and Jitendra Abhisheki rendering natya pads on All India Radio. I never understood why she didn’t listen to normal, bad music like the rest of us. I was told, Pramila was Dalit and her father & grand-father were bhajanis. She kept dragging me for lok natya performances in open air maidans and telling me Dada Kondke is the greatest actor of all times. And Ram Nagarkar and Nilu Phule, the second best. Of course being a Dalit with bhajani progenitors and preference for Dada Kondke was not a big thing in those days. If it was I would have asked Pramila Tai to narrate her memoirs to me. Then like V S Naipaul I would have written it in English and become famous.

Paternal grand-father is from Kerala who spoke Sanskrit. His conclusive ritual of the day was the preparation of milk for his sons and daughters and their sons and daughters and the assorted humanity who he “ashramed” in his house. We would line-up as per our age next to a dismembered kitchen door on which he leaned, whilst he served us milk and reviewed the high-point of our day. Then he predicted our future. Grand-father lived in 123, Karupaa Gounder Street. This house overlooked a busy chauraha. This neighbourhood chauraha was the Kurukshetra for the battle between AIADMK and DMK. There was a belief that the election speech at Karuppa Gounder sealed the fate of Coimbatore constituency. And so, come election day, both the two giants would descend their troupe. These were: MGR and Karunanidhi. They would orate and speechify. MGR oozed with stage presence, while Karunanidihi was a tremendous performer. Both deployed outdated stage techniques. They knew when to get a few laughs or trigger applause among their party cadre. I watched this show from our terrace. A balcony seat. Fascinating.

My grand-mother was profoundly religious but wickedly blasphemous. I’ve visited each and every temple in south India with her. And then I vomited in each and every Garbha Gar because of the fumes of ghee, stale flowers, chandan and atheism. My grand-mother swore at me and called me a TULLAKAN (which is Musalman in Tamil Nadu but not as bad a word as it is North of Nagpur). I remember watching Krishnattamkali performances at the Gurvayoor Temple perched on my grand-father’s shoulders. We had a disagreement after one all-night show. My grand-father thought Kathakali was better, I thought it was art, and my grand-mother thought it was religion, and only a TULLAKAN like me could call Krishnattamakali, art.

Maternal Grand-father from Lahore, prof of Eng Lit, and an Urdu-Sankrit scholar. He was a fine example of the oral tradition’ which was so rampant in the past and is on the wane … He knew his Upanishads, Kabir, Mirza Ghalib and Shakespeare at the tip of his tongue. He made strange choices. He publicly risked his neck and supported Lala Jagat Narain, founder of the Hind Samachar newspaper. Lala Jagat Narain was finally murdered by insurgents en route to Jalahander. His death signalled the official rise of the Khalistani Movement. Grand-father wrote long editorials extolling the role of Gurcharan Singh and his motley crew of theatre workers during the Khalistan Movement. When I pointed out that the plays were propaganda and pedagogic, my Grand-father said, the alternative was: death!

Maternal grand-mother from Amritsar and the only person on earth who could make "doodhi" delicious. Ram Lila on the grounds of Chandigarh was her favourite. But she used to be very upset when Ram fired his baana at Ravana. “Har saal, Ravana ko maarke, kya fayada? Usne apni galti kabool kar di hain. Ab kisi aur Ravana ke khilaaf mukadma chalao.”

I was born in Calcutta (Bengali was my favourite language - until I forgot it). As part of my cultural development, I was taken for plays of Shombhu Mitra and Utpal Dutt. For both plays, I started crying in the first 15 minutes, and was rushed out of the auditorium. When a neighbour was told about my theatre going habits, he remarked. “Arre, Arre, Bengal ke dono maharathi ko naakar diya, isne. Yeh ladka bada banke, jaroor critic banega!”

My wife, is a Nagar from Vile Parle (west). By the by, Jawarahlal Nehru is a Nagar, too. But my wife claims the Nagars from Vile Parle (west) are superior to Brahmins from other parts of the country. I agree with her. Those among you who have wives, will know, I’m being prudent. One day, I was rummaging through a collection of books in her father’s library. More than 50% of the books were plays. Distinguished classics. All masterpieces. Thumbed, notes in the margin, and comments. Not just that the family had produced playwrights like Jitubhai Mehta, Harinbhai Mehta, Karthik Mehta who had thousands of house full shows in between them. It humbled me. I stopped boasting about 19 shows of Vaclav Havel in three years; and 13 shows of Marguerite Duras in two years.

In the early seventies, I've been a Mumbaite. Studied in a Jesuit school. St Stanislaus, Bandra. In Class VI, I was told in the Moral Science class that the patron saint of the school, St Peters was crucified upside down because he felt an imitation of Christ, would be dishonourable. Anyways, my contemporaries were Salman Khan & Deepak Chopra & Marcellous Gomes. All honourable men. Like all schools, we did inter-school plays. Our plays weren’t DURGA ZHALI GAURI. Nor Grips Theatre. They were atrocious and silly. People’s pants or wigs would keep falling off. Red and green lights would keep flickering during key scenes. Everyone forgot their lines, or in their enthusiasm spoke the co-actors lines, too. But hey the plays were great.

My childhood was spent at Dr Ambedkar Rd, which is neither here-nor-there. I was part of a rum-and-whisky club The Smilies. We met (informally) and discussed John Le Carre and pretended to be George Smiley wanna-bees till we were drunk and debauched. The club was the creation of a friend of mine who died of jaundice and syphilis and AIDS. He used to work for Metal Box and could procure passes for performances by International Theatre Groups as well as the English plays by Theatre Group. I saw the Bolshoi Ballet at the Homi Bhabha. The first act was a big bore. Then my friend knocked me on the head. He said, young man, this ticket costs Rs 2000. I woke up. The second act was brilliant. In the eighties, for Rs 2000, anything was brilliant. It’s curious but other than me every member of the Smiley’s Club is dead. One drowned with his ship near Australia (the ship was never found!). Four months after his death, I received a post card he had sent from a 10-day Gay Theatre Festival in Brisbane. Another friend had a brain tumour and lapsed into coma for 9 months. Another friend (who had tutored under Pearl Padamsee), fell-off a 350 cc Rajdoot bike and never got up. A Christian friend renounced the world, converted to Islam and is aspiring to be a mullah. There was another friend, whose dad was called the sexiest man on earth by Bo Derek. The dad was working for one of the huge international film companies in the world and had a Sunday film club for children in which we saw film versions of the great plays. He used to play the children game: Name, Place, Animal, Thing with us. The difference being, the names, places, animals and things had to be from the plays of Shakespeare.

I recall my first known instance of theatre.

My parents were working parents. Our dinner table was dominated by talk about gratuity annualization and insurance tariff structures. This meant dinner was a prolonged affair. Urmilla Tai who used to serve us our hot, piping food used to bicker a fair bit. But her bickering fell on deaf years. So, one night, she walked upto the table, slammed the plate of rotis on the table and said in a loud voice: TOO MUCH OF EXPLOITATION. My parents froze. Stunned silence. This was the first dialogue which I had penned - and rehearsed with Urmilla Tai. It was a big hit.

That big hit gave me the confidence to write on.

In school, we had an English composition competition. The subject was: My House. I wrote. I live in my house. My house is very unclean and untidy. Sometime rats and bats enter my house. Half of my house is on a hill. If it rains a lot, my house will float, away along with the trees and boulders and squirrels. One week ago, a snake came into our living room. Snakes come to our house, very often. The ceiling in my room leaks. We keep two buckets in my room to collect the water. I've friends in my house. These are: snails and cockroaches. I love my house.

If I'm not mistaken, for the next PTA meeting, my parents were summoned to school by a humourless vice principal. To-date, I think, my parents are terrified of me. Everytime, I tell them I've written a new something, they exchange worried looks.

Today, I've a bagful of little plays with me. I always carry them with me – in my head.

So, let me share them with you.

For the past decade or so, I've been living in Dhobhi Ghat in Vakola. I think it is the THEATRE HUB of Mumbai. But in reality, its a world which is labouring under the burden of poverty and debts and starvation. Perhaps - 30% of Mumbai's rickshaws and taxis originate from here. It is sandwiched between Hyatt and the Airport Runaway. But none of the MNC products are available. Almost, everything is manufactured by the local Dhobhi Ghat industry. From fish, to goats, to the cheapest vegetables and fruits, everything is sold. There are no Dhobhis though ... because there is no Dhobhi Ghat. But there is a Malgudi Phone Booth.

There are young unemployed men, who stand and spit. Morning, evening and night. That's all they ever do. Spit. They spring to life ONLY when there's Ganapati and Navratri. This year, we had five massive Navratris on our tiny lane. One followed by the other. One louder and more garish than the other. Each Navratri is affiliated to one major political party on Maharashtra. Drama happens: bhashan baazi, singing and dancing competitions; small time rioting; Lord Shiva does his Tanadava - and for some reason, he is being egged on by Mickey Mouse. A shahir sings, Garja Maharashtra Maajha and culminates with Karjyat Maharashtra Maajha! The audience loves it. Shivaji Maharaja steps, forward. He is a Goan Christian, so he speaks in Konkani. Tanaji is a Bihari. In the middle of his speech, Tilak pauses to enquire “arre, ha mike barobar ahe, na?” And everyone is having a jolly good time. Just then, the police land up, to enforce the Ten O Clock Ban. On cue, the local drunk speaks about Rashtrabhakti, the audience loves it. Everyone starts to sing the national anthem. The police have to wait for an extra five minutes.

And life goes on. First Act leading into Second Act and so on.

It is early morning. I need a haircut. I spot the roadside barber saloon, which is plonked on top of a gutter. Its owned and manned and run by one person. Its called Maharashtra. So, I speak in Marathi. A play, begins. The man doesn’t understand a word of my Marathi. I sit on the rickety chair. I spot two boards in Urdu. I say to myself, he is a Musalmaan and hence doesn’t speak Marathi. After a few moments, a man passes by, my barber, says Jai Hari Om. Religious pleasantries are exchanged. Ganga jal has arrived from the village. I'm very confused. A few moments later, I butt in with small talk, so, which dialect of Awadhi is this? He replies, this is not Awadhi. Its Brij. Mistake, number two. I decide to keep my mouth shut. The hair is cut, the beard is trimmed. He says, Rs 20. I give him Rs 50 and tell him to keep the change. Then I hop across to the medical store. As I'm returning, the man is shutting-down his makeshift saloon. Some is asking ask him, kya hua? He says, Koi bewkoof aaya tha. Usse din ka paisa kama liya. Ab kaam karke kisko phayda.

At the entrance to my building, there is a shulabh sauchalya. Its basically four doors that lead into four tiny compartments, poised over the nulla. Locals call it nulla. But urban planners call it a tributary to the Mithi River. In the late evenings, the place is swarming with women from the locality. Initially, this used to disconcert me. But later, I realise this is the only outlet in their lives. A play unfolds. A Greek Tragedy. They sit on stones and talk, gossip, crib. The men at home can’t deny them going to the shulab sauchalya. They speak of broken marriage; the other woman; wife beating; about women who are locked in the kholis when the men step out of the house to go to work. About newly wed wives, who have not seen the sun for days. Then, they rub tobacco in their teeth and return to their homes. This happens every night.

Why am I sharing this with you? ... Because I think these are little plays which will never be staged.

I hope they, do. … Why?

Simply because ... theatre is generous and sympathetic. In the same way that it dwells with the happy ones it does not desert the wretched.

This is what has kept me going. I find peace of mind by writing! In the beginning, it was little plays and bigger skits. And staging them; as and when possible.These are a few little truths which I've learnt in the past few years. I, always, carry these truths with me. Truth No 1. - Like everyone, I've attended my fair share of plays. One of the things I've understood is: a good audience is usually thinking about something else! Truth No 2. - Like everyone I've conducted interviews with theatre persons. That’s when I realised the truly great theatre people reflected on the bygone days, the one thing they remembered was: the idle time! The insubstantial, happy, foolish time they wasted! The days when time was in their grip.Truth No 3. - Like everyone I've got a solid piece of advise. After a particularly poor house of a play of mine that nobody understood: COLLABORATORS, I was consoled by Tiwariji at Prithvi Theatre. He consoled me, by saying, look into the sky, sometimes even the sky is empty!Truth No 4. - Like everyone I want to write that one magnificent scene. In this scene, Sartre and Tagore will come face to face with each other, in the after-life. Sartre would say, "Hell is other people." And Tagore would exclaim, "So is heaven".Truth No 5. - Like everyone, there are times when I think I know everything about the theatre. And on cue, I'm informed, that Patte Baburao penned thousands and thousands of lavnyas. Hmm. Its so unfair. Sometimes, I feel, there's a bit too much of culture, going around. And I can't digest it.
And finally - Like everyone when despondency is at its worst, I believe I should die. The question is, should I die at home reading a play; or in a rehearsal, or on the stage, in silence. The point is, Shakespeare used to place ink on paper. Today we have playwrights who maintain text databases, playwrights who cut-and-paste from CD-ROMs, playwrights who produce multimedia plays. And by the way, they also put ink on paper. What then is a playwright? What then is the theatre?

These are big issues and at most times, I feel I don’t understand all of them.

All I know is, Urmilla Tai still works in my parents house. Her lot hasn't improved. Ah yes. Her vocabulary has improved. Now, she can say, Workers of the world, you have nothing to lose except your chain. She had said that, when Prof Ishwar Dayal (a management guru) was invited for dinner. To-date Prof Dayal refers to Urmilla Tai as "that Marxist Krantikari." Today, Urmilla Tai has a tumour in her stomach. If it bursts, she will die. Life is as simple as that. This makes me very sad.

I think of death, a great deal, these days. Every night, I sleep with the thought that my parents are going to die soon, and when that happens, I'll miss them. I lean over to hear if my wife is still breathing. I sms friends, and ask, are you alive, still?
Then I peer out of the city and look at the city of Mumbai. Everything is silent, totally still. I wonder if anyone is alive. What if the entire city is dead? What if I step out in the morning – and there’s not a single living person on the streets of Mumbai? All gone.

Will this be the beginning of a new play; or the end of an old one?


I beg your pardon, ladies and gentlemen, for, today is a day of celebration and festivity; and I feel I may have somewhat troubled your calm.

On that note, I can safely say, its time for the curtain to come down on my little rambling.

I ONCE AGAIN reiterate my thanks to Roopvedh Pratishthan for honouring me with the Tanveer Abhyaasvrutti. And allowing me the luxury of dreaming my silly dreams.


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