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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 23, May 25, 2013

The Gift

Monday 27 May 2013, by Sagari Chhabra

This month marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Pokhran II nuclear explosions. On this occasion we are carrying the following excerpts from the play that appeared in Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi’s Bi-monthly Journal), September-October 2011. These are being published with due acknowledgement and the playwright’s permission.

Synopsis of the First Act of The Gift

The play is set in a capital city. The Minister of Defence announces, ‘The Buddha is Smiling’ at a press conference. In his speech he likens Pokhran to the famous salt march led by Mahatma Gandhi. When Saleem questions the logic, ‘by making salt Gandhi was asking the British to quit India,’ the minister responds, ‘the making of radio-active soil signals we are a super-power...’. The news is received with applause by everyone present except Ananya, an activist, her boyfriend Saleem, and Kuldip, a journalist of the old guard. A tribal who has been displaced is informed that his village is now a Special Economic Zone under the Land Acquisition Act. Khan the scientist who achieved this ‘indigenous feat’ is feted. The Minister meanwhile, is having a clandestine affair with Kamia, the wife of Secretary of Defence, Babu. The couple’s amorous ventures are disturbed by a clicking sound and the shattering of glass. Ananya, the daughter of Babu and Kamia, argues with Babu who responds that nuclear weapons act as a deterrence, ‘you don’t use them, you just have them.’ A campaign is launched to demolish a mosque. Yudhvir exhorts all, that the site on which the mosque was built, is precisely God Ram’s birth-place. The glass-breaker and glass repairman lead the stoning as Ananya and Saleem witness the horror. A space is created below the site by which a placard, ‘DISPUTED SITE/(SACRED!)’ is placed.

Meanwhile Khan goes missing along with an undisclosed quantity of plutonium and a cobalt pencil. At a masquerade to felicitate the Minister on his birthday, the crooner sings paeans to those who led the assault on Poke-Her-Run. Just then there is a noiseless flash followed by a nuclear alert, ‘Citizens take shelter immediately!’...

Act 2 Scene 1

[The ‘DISPUTED SITE (SACRED!),’ is now converted into a nuclear shelter on stage—right. The black parapet with the stair is a symbolic division between the ground-level and the under-ground. Two soldiers are positioned outside, stage-left. They are armed. A siren goes off intermittently. The sound of running is mixed with screams and shouts of fear and distress.

Every member of the cast shown earlier, runs into the shelter by the sign, in sheer panic. This must be done creatively; the clairvoyant with her crystal ball, the glass repair-men with their glass and so on.... The ones left outside form the Chorus.]...

Soldier:

[with radio crackling] Silence! The head of the nation broadcasts to the nation. Shhhhh!!!!

Listen!!! [The radio is crackling, yet an audible voice is heard.]

Broadcast:

Friends and countrymen! Long ago, we made a tryst with destiny. And now the time has come to redeem our pledge. In this hour of glory, I call upon each of you to act like a hero!

First Soldier:

Why does he want, each of us to act like a hero?

Pagli:

[in a grim tone to all present] Because we have now become the state of [drawing out the words, slowly] He-ro-shi-ma. [Sound of crashing glass as everyone lies down and takes cover. Darkness. Brief interlude. Then the lights come on.]

Pagli:

[slowly rising] And everyone asked the corpse of the loved one to stand.

Chorus:

[slowly rising] And then?

Pagli:

The corpse did not move!

Chorus:

And then?

Pagli:

The entire family begged the corpse. Please get up! At least say something!

Chorus:

And then?

Pagli:

The corpse still did not move. In fact it lay still.

Chorus:

And then?

Pagli:

The entire city begged the corpse, ‘we love you, deeply. Don’t go like this!’

Chorus:

And then?

Pagli:

The corpse’s eyes seemed to say ‘why did you not say this, when I lived’ and it died.

Chorus:

Oh! [Mournfully]

Pagli:

Many loved ones have died in this city.

Chorus:

Is this a gas leak? Just like what happened in Bhopal?

Pagli:

Much worse. It’s inter-generational.

Chorus:

What’s that?

Pagli:

Your children. Your children’s children, they will all be affected. You are liable for generations to come. They [points] have ‘limited liability’. That’s the deal, the nuclear deal.

Chorus:

Oh! [Mournfully] They didn’t tell us!

Pagli:

[cups her ears] The radio broadcast resumes. Listen! Radio

Broadcast:

Now for some procedural announcements. Everyone is asked to grow phytoplankton. All women will be hereby checked for radio-activity and those whose wombs are healthy will be certified for reproductive activity. The climate change envoy B. Sharm will issue each person a universal identification number. All marriages and the Indian Constitution hereby stand dissolved. Please remain calm and stay tuned for further announcements....

Chorus:

[in dismay]

We should never

Have given them

So much power.

This is indeed

An unholy hour.

They fed us honey

Served on a razor’s edge

And now it has cut us!

Pagli:

Shhh! The radio broadcast resumes, listen! [All bend towards the radio and listen intently.]

Broadcast:

We ask you to stand-by for an important announcement. We regret to announce the demise of the Indian people. Please maintain a moment’s silence.

[Silence] This is the end of the news.

Chorus:

[in panic]. How do we go back? Tell us?

Pagli:

We only know how

To release it.

We don’t know

How to retrieve it.

The gift is now

Unwrapped;

Lie down and

Take the rap,

For death is

But a quiet nap....

Chorus:

[following] Om shaanti shaanti shaanti... peace, peace, peace. [Coughing and spluttering, each one slowly slumps in agony. The guards with their masks, march by, unaffected.]

[Black-out]

Act 2 Scene 2

[The lights now come on inside the shelter. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and one of panic. Like rats in a cage, they go around, to find no exit.]...

Kamia:

There it goes again.

Minister:

Quiet, let’s all listen.

Saleem:

It seems to come from him [Points at the saffronrobed priest.]

Priest:

[Admonishing Saleem who comes towards him, while keeping everyone at bay.] You seem to be forgetting your religion. I am a priest.

Saleem:

Right now, the only religion is survival.

Priest:

I am a Brahmin, don’t you dare touch my ‘janeau’ — my sacred thread! [Saleem wrestles with him. He overpowers and disrobes him. He finds a slim, small object emitting a clicking sound from the sacred thread around the priest’s neck.]

Saleem:

[almost throttling] What is this? [Holds the object up.] Tell me or I’ll....

Priest:

[with great reluctance] The cobalt pencil.

Saleem:

[as realisation dawns] Oh, so you are Dr Khan, the missing scientist who is supposed to have sold our nuclear secrets. [Everyone reacts with shock.]

Babu:

Nuclear jihadi!

Priest:

[blasé] What’s secret about nuclear weapons? It’s the greatest status symbol of today — ‘don’t mess with me or I’ll nuke you!’

Kamia:

So will this chattering pencil get us out?

Priest:

No, it’s telling us there is radioactivity. We could all be radioactive. [Stunned silence.]

Saleem:

[angry] You got us here!

Crowd:

[violent and angry] You got us in this hole!

Priest:

[shaking off Saleem, with new-found energy] Everyone wanted it! At that time, the bomb was the biggest insurance agent, the peace-keeper, the big deterrent!

Minister:

[defensively]. They were making it, so we had to do it, as well.

Kamia:

Now, we don’t know, who or what has got us into this hole.

Babu:

No one talked of disarmament.

Minister:

For God’s sake, stop this nonsense! Let’s get out of here and we’ll work to get rid of the bombs. It’s hell in here!

Kamia:

The truth is no one told us it could turn out like this. We thought they were instruments of peace, of deterrence!

[Bitterly] We believed the lies the CORP-STATE combo fed us. [Looking at the Minister, horrified.] And now I might end up a CORPSE! [Silence.]...

Ananya:

In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man and the Word is with Men. [Raising her arms upwards, as if in prayer.]

First we plundered, 

Then went berserk 

Tearing asunder

Your gentle skin.

Sinking into your crust

We thrust,

With lust,

Deep within.

Spewing steel and fire

Insignias of our arrival;

We quite forgot

We perhaps,

Needed you

For our survival.

But when the radiation

Rent the air

The bodies

Of our children,

Lay scattered

Everywhere....

Child:

[interrupts] I can sense ghosts....

Mother:

Shhh!! They are not ghosts dear, they are wandering souls.

Ananya:

Let us pray then, for those wandering souls; the Jews of the Holocaust, the dead in the two World Wars, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those who succumbed to agent orange and napalm in Vietnam, the displaced in the Partition of the Indian subcontinent, the gasping in the Bhopal gas leak, Iraq....

We treat all living things as sacred,

We eschew all hatred.

[All present fervently pray; some fold their hands while others are on their knees.]

All chant:

We treat all living things as sacred. We eschew all hatred.

Ananya:

We idolise the earth, As a place of serenity. This is our prayer, For eternity.

All chant:

We idolise the earth

As a place of serenity,

This is our prayer

For eternity.

[Black-out]

Act 2 Scene 3

[The lights now come onto stage-left; the world above. The people in the shelter, on the right, remain in darkness but on stage. The audience see both simultaneously. The soldier is outside the shelter, with his gun and a protective mask. The set is dotted with fall-out, signifying the nuclear aftermath. A frail man enters.]

Soldier:

Halt! [aiming his gun] Or I’ll shoot! There is no more room inside. [Points to shelter.] You can’t go down there.

Primo Levi:

That won’t be necessary my boy.

Soldier:

[still pointing his gun] Who are you?

Primo Levi:

I am Primo Levi.

Soldier:

Where have you come from?

Primo Levi:

I am a survivor of Auschwitz—one of Hitler’s concentration camps.

Soldier:

[genuinely surprised] You escaped one concentration camp to join another? [Points to the shelter.]

Primo Levi:

No, I don’t want to go inside.

Soldier:

[intrigued]. What did you see on the way?

Primo Levi:

The banality of evil.

Soldier:

Look, don’t impose high-faluting words on me. What do you mean by the banality of evil?

Primo Levi:

Well, all this talk of ‘collateral damage’ and ‘atomic deterrence’, what does it amount to? Only death and destruction. I saw men lying like burnt fish on the way, gasping for water! This is much worse than the holocaust. And all by pushing a button, that’s how banal it is.

Soldier:

Oh, I could have told you that. But how do you explain that to the politicians?

Primo Levi:

They couch evil in jargon. When they dropped the bomb in Hiroshima, they called it ‘Little Boy,’ but it killed all the little boys around. At Nagasaki, ‘Fat Man....’...

Soldier:

[to man in Greek toga] Halt! Don’t come near or I’ll shoot!

The Martyr:

[holding a bowl] That won’t be necessary my boy.

Soldier:

You can’t go in [pointing to the shelter] it’s full.

The Martyr:

I’m not looking for shelter.

Soldier:

Who are you?

The Martyr:

I’m Socrates.

Soldier:

Socrates—Greek huh? And what are you looking for then?

The Martyr:

Truth.

Soldier:

Truth? [Laughs aloud, sardonically] Listen, [urgently] over a dozen people are croaking out their lives, down there. Got any food?

The Martyr:

No, I don’t have any food. But my son, I do have this [holding out a bowl].

Soldier:

[grabbing the bowl]. What’s this?

The Martyr:

The poison they served me was in this bowl. And I drank from it. They said I was poisoning young lives, by teaching them the Socratic Method.

Soldier:

Which is?

The Martyr:

Question! Question the answers the powers that be, are poisoning you with. Show truth to power! And they served me poison from this very bowl.

Soldier:

[holding the bowl upside down] Empty bowl?! [Holds bowl up to him, in a beggarly manner.] No food! No water! We are all ravenous!

The Martyr:

That’s all I have to offer son. [He moves off-stage.

The soldier is left standing there. There is a scraping sound, as a man with a cross enters.]

Soldier:

Who are you? [Fearfully] A suicide bomber? [Raising gun and pointing it at him.]

Man with a cross:

[gently] Stay calm my boy; no I am not a suicide bomber.

Soldier:

What’s this on your back? Grenades? Man with a cross: [reassuring]. No, my boy, I’m Jesus Christ and on my back [motions behind] is my cross.

Soldier:

[stepping back] Jesus Christ! Good heavens! What have you come for, salvation? [urgently] Listen, you got any food? Water? There are people starving down there! [Points towards shelter.] I [touching his stomach in desperation] haven’t eaten in days.

Man with a cross:

[sadly] No son, I have no food to give you.

Soldier:

[bitterly]. So what do you have, besides words?

Man with a cross:

I have this [reaches back to the cross].

Soldier:

[grabbing and examining it] A nail! [Sarcastic] And pray, what good is this going to do?

Man with a cross:

It’s what they nailed me to the cross with.

Soldier:

I can’t eat it. Try to understand; we have no food, absolutely no water, for days and days....

Man with a cross:

That’s all I have. Ask and ye shall receive. [Leaves.]

Soldier:

Wonderful! An empty bowl and a nail for my coffin! [Examining both contemptuously.] But, who is that?

[Man in a loin cloth, walking closer with a walking stick.]

Soldier:

Now, I don’t shoot to maim. I kill! Got any food? [Roars.]

Man in a loin cloth:

[humbly] I’ve got [He hunts within his loin cloth, takes out a small white package and offers it.] this.

Soldier:

[grabs] Ah, food! What is it? [examining it, closely].

Man in a loin cloth:

[gently] Salt.

Soldier:

[clutching his stomach, doubling over] I’m starving and you are rubbing salt on my wounds?

Man in a loin cloth:

It’s with salt that I struggled with the Empire.

Soldier:

[holding the salt, aloft, incredulously] But that was the Empire, we are free now. Anyway, who are you?

Man in a loin cloth:

Empires my son, are replaced by other Empires. Since you ask, I am Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Soldier:

[reverentially] Mahatma Gandhi! But I had thought Bapu, you had gone to the clouds! [Points upwards.]

Man in a loin cloth:

I had son. But it’s the mushroom cloud, it’s this tragedy that has brought me to visit.

Soldier:

[eagerly] How can we be saved?

Man in a loin cloth:

You have to do satyagraha.

Soldier:

Satya-graha. [Draws out the words.] What’s that?

Man in a loin cloth:

The struggle for truth through non-violence.

Soldier:

[astounded]. Non-violence! Bapu, we are way past twentieth century words now. The bomb has gone off, only we just don’t know who has done it and we are past caring....

Man in a loin cloth:

You will have to experiment to seek the truth. But, here take this. [handing him].

Soldier:

[examining it]. Khadi, it’s a relic from the past!

Man in a loin cloth:

[looking into his eyes with deep love] Son, you will enable the poor to better their hard lot through dignified labour, won’t you?

Soldier:

[in desperation] Bapu, [his finger making an upward spiralling gesture] we have spun into a vortex of violence and you are still advocating home-spun cotton [spinning his finger in a horizontal manner] through your damn spindly charkha!

Man in a loin cloth:

[simply and with utmost humility] Salt and khadi is all I have, son. [Preparing to leave.]...

Act 2 Scene 5

[In a few moments a search party comes. A group of men with gas masks.]

First Rescue Worker:

I could swear I just heard the sound of a flute.

Second Rescue Worker:

Are you sure you are not hearing things? Who would play music in these times? Besides it’s been eight days and there is absolutely no sign of any survivors!

First Rescue Worker:

It was faint... very faint... [cupping his ears] Besides, there has to be some sign of life. [Looking around.] There were once over a billion people on this land! [turning to him] This was not just a country, but a whole civilisation. [Pause] If only I had a dog.

Second Rescue Worker:

A dog? Do you know what you are asking for? They are extinct from ground zero for miles. They died choking and gasping along with the larger mammals; cows, pigs, homo-sapiens... it was my job to dump the carcasses. This is no ordinary pandemic; it cannot be contained even after a few million deaths.

First Rescue Worker:

I just know, I feel it in my bones, someone is calling for help. I have faith.

Second Rescue Worker:

[scornfully] Faith? In these times?

First Rescue Worker:

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the sum evidence of things not seen.

Second Rescue Worker:

Believe me, I’ve seen enough in the last few days; fires raging, imploded buildings; but when we saw mildew appear on the bodies, we bowed our heads and prayed in gratitude.

First Rescue Worker:

Gratitude for mildewing bodies?

Second Rescue Worker:

Because even mildew is a sign of life. You ain’t seen nothing, yet! But let me see if I can help.

[Leaves the stage, but returns soon with a black boxlike machine, which has a furry tail and a face on a leash. He is now accompanied by a few more rescue workers.]...

First Rescue Worker:

[excitedly] Look rose-marks! [Looking closely.] In fact they are bloodied foot-prints!

Second Rescue Worker:

[disbelieving] This is supposed to be a blood-less death. [looking] Besides, it’s only one foot, the other I can’t make out. It must be a strange animal or could even be the yeti.

First Rescue Worker:

The yeti?

Second Rescue Worker:

After the extinction of the Himalayan eco-system the animals have turned monstrous. This must be a wounded animal, rummaging around, trying to find some place to hide. [Laughs cynically.] These are bizarre times.

First Rescue Worker:

[gets on his knees to examine closely] Salt encrusted footprints! Amazing, let’s follow them! [Both follow the footprints. They reach Ananya, who is lying by the ‘DISPUTED SITE (SACRED!)’ sign in a heap, still clutching the peacock feather and the salt-laden bowl. All rush towards the body, draped in a scarf.]

Second Rescue Worker:

Incredible!

[First Rescue Worker picks up the scarf and reads aloud from it, like a scroll:]

I once lived

In a fragrant garden

With feathered birds

Who sang in a choir.

Then came the builders,

They filled the lake

With waste and mire

Silencing the choir.

Arise, oh friend of humanity

Restore some semblance of sanity.

Step out of the madding crowd,

Lift this death shroud;

Give me my garden,

The lake,

The feathered birds

Of the choir,

Oh, retrieve us

From this quagmire!

First Rescue Worker:

[in amazement] ‘Retrieve us from this quagmire!’ [He picks her up gently and caresses her lips with the peacock feather.] She breathes!

[Attending to her] There certainly must be others around!

Second Rescue Worker:

[looking at the first rescue-worker] It’s just poetry; don’t delude yourself.

First Rescue Worker:

Poetry, my dear, deserves to be taken seriously.

Second Rescue Worker:

Even in these times?

First Rescue Worker:

Particularly in these times. It’s the purest form of utterance....

[

Playwright’s Note:

‘The Gift’, dedicated to my beloved daughter Sachi, was started after Pokhran II, in response to the nuclear blasts in 1998. Somehow it lay unfinished on my desk and was completed in August 2010. The later events in Fukushima in March 2011 brought parts of the play almost true to life.]

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