Friday 5 December 2014

Victims: A One Act Play


FARZANA: A young woman, quite modern, who dresses in jeans and wears jewellery.

 YUSUF: Her husband, also young and smartly dressed.

SULTANA: FARZANA’s mother, whose voice only is heard.

SARFRAZ: YUSUF’s elder brother, who dresses as a conservative Muslim.

SCENE: A living room in an average middle class apartment. A sofa along one wall sits opposite a television on a set of drawers. Over the sofa there’s a large unfaded rectangular patch on the wall, as though a framed picture of some sort which hung there has been recently removed. There are two doors, one, stage left, leading outside and the other, next to the sofa, presumably giving access to the rest of the flat. There is a large steel cupboard stage right, with its side to the audience, which is open.

As the CURTAIN rises we see YUSUF kneeling on the floor, with a spread newspaper before him and a rucksack which conceals from our view exactly what he’s doing with his hands. He’s speaking on a mobile phone with headphone earpieces plugged into his ears.

YUSUF (on phone): Yes, I understand. I’ll be there as soon as I’m done. Yes, of course I know how important it is. You don’t have to keep repeating –

[Enter FARZANA from the door leading to the outside. She takes off her shoes and unties the cloth over her hair as YUSUF keeps talking, without realising she’s there.]

YUSUF (on phone): Look, brother, I know all that. The package will be delivered to the right place at the right time. I’m not going to fail you.

FARZANA (walks over and taps YUSUF on the shoulder): Yusuf?

YUSUF (starts violently, hurriedly into phone): I’ll talk to you later. (Takes out earpieces, turns to FARZANA) You’re back early.

FARZANA: Yusuf, what’s going on?

YUSUF (stuffing thing quickly into rucksack): Nothing. Why, should something be going on?

FARZANA: Who were you talking to just now, and what are you putting in the bag?

YUSUF: It’s nothing. Just work.

FARZANA: Yusuf, I’m neither a child nor am I stupid. What are you doing?

YUSUF (shutting the rucksack, getting up): Farzana, let’s sit down. How was your day? How come you’re back early from work? Is something wrong?

FARZANA: You’re asking me what’s wrong? Isn’t that sort of strange? I’m not the one hiding things from my partner.

YUSUF (looking away): I’m not hiding anything from you.

FARZANA: Then tell me who that was on the phone, and what’s in the bag.

YUSUF: I’ll tell you...later.

FARZANA: What’s later? What does later mean? [She gets up off the sofa and makes to go over to the rucksack. YUSUF quickly grabs her by the arm.] Stop it. Let me go, you’re hurting me.

YUSUF: Sit down, Farzana. Sit down and hear me out.

FARZANA: Let me go first. [He lets go. They sit down on the sofa] Now. Tell me.

YUSUF [Indicating the television set]: You’ve been watching the news. You know as well as I do that things aren’t good for our people. They’re making threats.

FARZANA: Who are our people? How do you mean, our people?

YUSUF: You know as well as I do. We Muslims.

FARZANA: No, I don’t know. All I know is that I have nothing in common with the lot who pray in the mosques five times a day and drape their women in burqas –

YUSUF (interrupting): Like Sarfraz, you mean?

FARZANA: Yes, like Sarfraz. I’m not like that, you aren’t like that, we don’t even talk about religion in this house, and I don’t see what –

YUSUF: When they come for us, Farzana, they won’t distinguish between who’s a believer and who isn’t. All they see is people with Muslim names, and that’s enough.

FARZANA: So what are you planning to do about it? [She eyes the rucksack] Well?

YUSUF: I’ve been talking to some people.

FARZANA: Which people?

YUSUF: It’s better you don’t know. Then you won’t be implicated.

FARZANA: Implicated? [She stares at YUSUF, frowning] What is in that rucksack, Yusuf?

YUSUF: You don’t need to know. [Gets up and begins walking back and forth, growing increasingly excited] When I was young I believed the tales that everyone was equal in this country, that it didn’t matter what your name was or which god you prayed to. I thought all that mattered was my intelligence and willingness to work hard, and I had plenty of both. And then what happened? Everywhere it’s the same, as soon as they find out you’re Muslim the job offers vanish, the interview calls don’t come, you find people with lesser qualifications being chosen ahead of you, and so on. You remember how much trouble we had finding this apartment? Everywhere, as soon as they found out we’re Muslim, they didn’t have any further place to let. That’s why we’re stuck here in the ghetto with hardly any facilities – because only a Muslim area will accept us!

FARZANA: Yusuf –

YUSUF: I’m not finished. But just pushing us to the margins isn’t enough, is it? We’ve to be treated as though we’re foreigners and terrorists, as though we’re guilty unless proven innocent, as though we haven’t any right to a voice. When is the last time you heard of Muslims being given justice by the courts? Well?

FARZANA: So what’s your solution? Are you planning to start going to the mosque, like Sarfraz?

YUSUF (laughs): Oh yeah, that’s going to do a lot of good. I could bend my back towards Mecca five times a day, put on a skullcap, and grow a beard, and exactly what would change? Nothing. [Gestures angrily.] You and I, we distanced ourselves as much as we could from our roots. We don’t live with my family, though that broke my parents’ hearts. We don’t go to the mosque. We don’t fast during Ramadan. I even took off that print of the Kabaa on the wall you didn’t like. I let you dress as you please, go to work, and in all ways we try and be like anyone else. But at the end of the day what are we? Just another couple of Muslims.

FARZANA: What are your options? Are you thinking of emigrating to the Gulf or something?

YUSUF: They treat us Indians worse than slaves there, and you know that as well as I do. No, this is a war against us here, and the earlier we acknowledge that the better.

FARZANA: Who’s fighting this war against us?

YUSUF: Are you stupid? The Hindus.

FARZANA: All Hindus? My friend Meenakshi, for instance? She’s fighting this war as well?

YUSUF: You know what I’m talking about.

FARZANA: No, really, I don’t. I don’t see any war here. I don’t see who’s fighting, and I don’t understand what you intend to do.

YUSUF: You’ll find out. [Goes over to rucksack, slings it over his shoulder and walks to the door.] Don’t wait up, I may be late.

FARZANA: Yusuf, wait. I have something to tell you –

YUSUF: Later. Tell me later!

[Exit YUSUF, slamming door.]

[FARZANA stares after him, stricken. Goes as though to put on her shoes and follow him, thinks better of it, and walks over to the cupboard. Now that the rucksack is gone, the audience can see that there are some coils of wire, a screwdriver, pliers and a couple of pieces of electronic equipment on the newspaper. She stands looking down at them, her fingers to her mouth.]

FARZANA: What on earth...?

[FARZANA’s cell phone rings. She goes to where she’d left it on the sofa.]

FARZANA (quickly, without looking, into phone): Yusuf? [Pause] Oh, it’s you, mother. Listen, I can’t talk now, something’s wrong...

SULTANA (voice off): Did you get the report? What did it say?

FARZANA: Yes, it was positive. I’m, I’m pregnant. [SULTANA squeals with excitement] Mother, mother, listen, I can’t talk now.

SULTANA: What did Yusuf say? Is he happy?

FARZANA: I don’t know. He’s gone out. I couldn’t tell him.

SULTANA: You call and tell him. I know he’ll be so happy. And you’ve got to start taking care of yourself too, now that there’s the baby to think about. I just wish your father were still alive to hear this. I’m...

FARZANA: Mother. I can’t talk now. I’m sorry. [Ends call, puts down cell phone. There’s a knock at the door. She turns eagerly.] Yusuf?

[SARFRAZ enters. He’s a fairly stereotypical fundamentalist Muslim man with a beard, in salwar and a skull cap. He looks around.]

SARFRAZ: Good evening, sister. Is Yusuf here?

FARZANA: No. He’s gone out. [She has a sudden thought.] Do you know where he is?

SARFRAZ: No. Why, did he want to meet me?

FARZANA: I don’t know where he’s gone. He said [hesitates] He said...


FARZANA: That the Hindus are fighting a war against us Muslims, and the earlier we admitted that the better.

SARFRAZ: Oh. [Rubs his beard] Do you know what he meant by that?

FARZANA: I can guess. There was a bag there, which he was filling with something and talking about delivering a package on the phone. He wouldn’t tell me what was in it.

SARFRAZ: But that’s...if it’s what you think it is...

[FARZANA nods]

SARFRAZ: That’s very wrong. It’s completely unjustifiable to harm innocents. Did you tell him that?

FARZANA: I couldn’t tell him anything. He didn’t listen.

SARFRAZ: Sister – we have to stop him.


SARFRAZ: I’ll go look for him. You try and contact him on his cell phone. Tell him not to do anything till I talk to him.

FARZANA: And if he won’t listen?

SARFRAZ: In that case we may have to contact the police.

FARZANA: Not the police! They’ll kill him.

SARFRAZ: It may have to be a choice between his life and those of a hundred innocents, sister. [Shakes his head] If only he’d been more interested in religion, he’d have known this is against...

FARZANA: Spare me the lecture, please. Find my husband for me. That’s all I want.

SARFRAZ (looks at her, begins to say something and thinks better of it.): Very well. I will do what I can. Inshallah, nothing bad will happen. Khuda hafiz. [Exits]

FARZANA (to closed door): And goodbye to you, too. [Picks up phone, types number] Yusuf? Please answer, Yusuf. [Listens eagerly, but there’s no answer.] Damn!

[In the distance there’s the sound of an explosion. FARZANA turns slowly. The cell phone drops from her fingers on to the sofa. There’s a long moment of silence, and then ambulance sirens can be faintly heard.]

[FARZANA’s cell phone rings. She stares at it, puts her fingers out to touch it, and draws them back quickly again as though it’s red hot.]

FARZANA (mouths silently) : Yusuf?

[Shots sound in the distance.]

[The cell phone stops ringing.]


Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Heroic Sacrifice

Title: Heroic Sacrifice

Material: Watercolour and Pencil on Paper

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

(I agree in advance with any criticism that this one is simplistic. It is simplistic by my standards. But I didn't want any distraction from the central theme.)

Cafe Mondegar

That day he saw her in Cafe Mondegar.

He’d thought he’d seen her a lot of times before, in a lot of places. Sometimes she was half-glimpsed in the crowd near Victoria Terminus, walking down to the basement crossing where the flybatters crackled and the heat and humidity were so intense it was like a blanket thrown over the air. Sometimes he had caught sight of her in the crowd, about to board a train, or in the back seat of a black and yellow Padmini taxi trundling by. Once he’d been quite positive he’d seen her, in the late dusk of evening, entering Khyber restaurant, and imagined her among its faux-Afghan decor. But it was always only the merest glimpse, and when it was over he wasn’t sure he’d seen her at all.

This time though there was surely no doubt. He paused on the pavement, unwilling to turn his head to look, watching from the corner of his eye. It was only the morning, and the cafe was fairly deserted, so she was easy to see, sitting hunched over a little across from a man. He couldn’t really see the man, and in any case he didn’t matter. He stood where he was, watching her.

She was just as he remembered, the times he’d almost seen her and the times before. He could see her face, the hair curling a little where it fell on her shoulders, and he knew that she’d be looking up at the man from under her brows, smiling and replying in her little-girl voice. He’d loved to tease her about that voice, saying her schoolgirl daughter sounded more mature than her. He stood and watched, and felt the voice in his ear, as it had been so often, once.

The crowd flowed past him. Nobody took any notice, nobody buffeted him, and if they had he’d probably not have been aware of it anyway. He watched her until his eyes began to blur and he wasn’t quite clear what he was seeing any longer. Then she got up and left the cafe with the man, and though she passed right by him she didn’t see him and he made no attempt to talk to her.

He followed her up the street, towards the stall-lined stretch of the Causeway. They walked past Leopold Cafe, in which grinning foreign tourists sat sipping from green bottles of beer where terrorist grenades had exploded only a few years before. He had never been inside Leopold, and suddenly he wished they’d visited it, at least once.

At night the Causeway was a stretch of jewelled lights and wonder, its stalls crowded with minerals and telescopes, perfumes and incense, clothes and books and all manner of things imaginable. At night one could lose oneself for hours in the Causeway, if one had a mind to. But in the harsh hot morning light it was merely tawdry and commercial, and the vendors gestured and cajoled everyone who passed to buy, buy, buy. But they did not stop him, as he drifted behind her, carried along as by a tide.

They’d sat on the wall above the sea on Marine Drive as the tide came in, the night dark and warm and seductive. She’d been lying with her head on his lap, and he’d been telling her stories. The stories he had been telling were silly, and he’d stopped frequently to make up the next bit, and after some time he’d realised she’d fallen asleep on his lap. He’d sat there stroking her head and watching the reflected light on the water, and listening to the squealing of kids playing on the pavement while their parents basked in the night. But that was then.

They stopped once, to read the menu outside an ice cream shop. He’d eaten ice cream once with her, at this very shop. It hadn’t been very good ice cream. She’d preferred Natural, but there was no Natural shop on Causeway. There was one on Marine Drive, and they’d sat there and eaten cone after cone. All kinds of flavours, pineapple and custard apple and mango and the rest of them.

He wondered where they were going. Perhaps they’d go watch a movie. He didn’t know. She might call a cab any minute, and then they might go anywhere. Suddenly, he was filled with terror that if he lost sight of her, even for a moment, he wouldn’t be able to find her again. Picking up his pace, he closed the distance between them, as fast as he could.

The crowd flowed past like water. He could only see her up ahead, nothing else. Her sandals, slapping on the pavement – she’d broken the straps so frequently it had become a running joke with them. The silver glint of anklets on her feet. Her salwar, orange and white, the brown leather handbag slung over her shoulder. Everything else blurred out except that. He began to run, slipped effortlessly between a fat white man haggling with a thin stall owner over a T shirt, passed her and turned, his arms raised.

She didn’t see him.

She didn’t even notice his existence. Her eyes were turned to the man at her side, her hand wrapped round his forearm, a look of wonder on her face. He followed the line of her gaze, and, at last, saw the man’s familiar face.


He opens his eyes and rubs at the tears. They come at night these days, when he’s alone and no longer has to keep them under control. And they come when he closes his eyes, roiling his dreams and soaking his pillow.

He raises his head and tries to make out the time. It’s still a long way to dawn. He tries to move his arms and legs, but they don’t obey his orders any longer. He lies back, dreading what dreams may come, and closes his eyes again.

And then he’s sitting opposite her in Cafe Mondegar, talking about the Mario Miranda cartoons on the walls, while she caresses his hand with her fingertips, and looks up at him from under her brows, smiling.

For an instant he thinks he sees someone who looks terribly familiar, standing outside the door and watching her, watching them, together, and he has a sense of immense sadness and yearning. But when he looks again, there is nobody there.

It must have been a trick of the light, he thinks, and turns to her again.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Monday 1 December 2014

Ratastrophe: An Allegory Of Something Or Other

There was once a white rat who decided that he was the luckiest in the whole wide world.

He lived in a cage in a big white laboratory, and every day an attendant in a white coat would come and feed him nuggets of food, and changed the bottle which dripped water for him to drink through a tube.

This made the white rat very happy.

“I must be something special,” he thought to himself, “if I have an attendant of my very own, who brings me food and water – not to speak of this splendid cage, which is the best house I could have imagined.”

There were other rats in the laboratory, and some of them laughed when they heard him say this sort of thing.

“Sure,” they jeered. “And then one day some man in a white coat will stick a needle in you, and fill you with germs, and then pump you with chemicals to see if you live.”

“Or they’ll shave away your fur, and put creams and gels to your skin to see if you get cancer,” another rat added.

“They might do that to you,” the luckiest rat in the world said loftily. “But I’m special, and nothing like that will ever happen to me.”

“How can you say you’re special?” another of the rats asked. “You’re just another rat in a laboratory, living your life in a cage.”

“Of course I’m special,” he told her. “Otherwise I could have been like one of the wild rats, living in sewers and holes in the ground, filthy and covered with fleas. And so are you, but you’re too stupid to understand it.”

The other rats sneered. “Your time will come,” they told him. “Then you’ll see.”

“You’re just jealous,” he replied, “because none of you are as lucky and special as I am.”

But then one day a hand reached into the cage, picked him out, and injected him with a mixture of germs, so that a day later he was burning up with fever and trembling in all his limbs.

Now do you agree that you’re not special?” the other rats called to him where he lay on the floor of his cage.

“Never,” he replied, or he would have, if he could speak.

But then the same hand took him out of the cage, and injected him full of chemicals, which flooded through his body and made him feel sicker than ever; but little by little he did get better. And the other rats in the cages who had mocked him and had been injected with the same diseases but with different chemicals were all dead.

“I am the greatest!” the rat cheered. “I’m the luckiest, most wonderful rat in the world!”

Except mayhap in the sewers beneath the lab floor, where the dirty brown wild rats perhaps heard and sniggered, nobody said anything.

There was nobody left to reply.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014