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Location: New Delhi, India

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Between the Shadow and the Substance

Here we are in the City of Djinns, the real city and djinns coexisting with each other in harmony or in disarray. Here, we are watching a play by the same title, epitomizing the unreality that exists side by side with its mundane, harsh and often poignant reality.


On the ground floor of the stage are characters relating harsh tales of painful partition and bloody riots, moving in dirty streets amidst the rudeness, greed, the humdrum and the noisier aspects of daily living, and reacting to it in their own heroic, unheroic or indifferent way. The protagonist is an English journalist (enacted by Tom Alter) tormented by the tedious bureaucratic rules of the city, who holds his cool until he finally loses his temper in a moment of climax on a persistent, moneygrabbing chaiwallah. But he also has his moments of wonder. In his journeys across the city, on this ground floor of existence, he comes across a wide array of people. He has a nice but painfully overindulgent landlady and a lecherous but ever ready taxiwallah. He meets an old British woman looking at the world from her British eyes, braving against it's changes, an obsolete calligrapher trying to do the same, stuck with a sordid worldly-wise cameraman son, a similar badmash customs officer who pines for foreign goods and an almost obsolete doctor, zealous to protect the ancient medical secrets he has inherited from his forefathers. He thereby catches glimpses of various viewpoints on reality, and of people trying to be comfortable wherever they are.

Above them are characters almost out of a magical world, living in an age of nostalgia, memory and dreams. There are eunuchs, castrated men, who dream of being women and long to be loved, dancing their way into a sexless paradise, Persian scholars and Urdu poets, reminiscing the glory days of yore, and Kings of the Mughal era beginning and ending epochs. Unreal city, living in its romances, as the archeologist later enlightens us, of lands and lives embellished by poets, beautiful on their own, but reality intruding upon it in the form not composed of golden palaces and silver vases but of painted grey ware, mud houses, and an ordinary non-decorated feudal war called the Mahabharata fought on the plains of this city.

These two levels live side by side, hand in hand, contradicting each other at times, complementing on other occasions and sometimes, just are. And somewhere in the crowd is my experience of this city. My fond friend sits and stands by my side, creating trends by being the first one to move off the stereotypical stage onto the lovely romantic grass to watch the play more clearly, the rest of the crowd following her in the process. The crowd here too is carnivalesque like the stage, exhibiting its own characters, with one side on the real and supposed existence of the ordered seating arrangements, and the other lying or sitting in various positions on the grass, weaving itself into the breeze of the evening and the smell of grass wafting its way into their unsupposed, almost unreal senses. The crescent new moon shines on our necks and the napes of those it chooses to shine upon. She, the beautiful one by my side, puts her arms around my neck and gasps in wonder at the fanfare displayed splendidly in front of us; her head rests on my shoulder, protected against the dusty wind. At times my heels hurt, shuddering me back to reality till I take off my shoes to place my feet on the moonlit grass. I am comfortable again, her hands in mine, caressed by her fingertips. I am both cared for and cherished.

Another part of our existence, the real one is defined by her repeated reminders of her being only a little fond of me, and such other small tokens of affection that sustain friendships, interspersed by her playful scoldings, my unmindful jealousies and everyday chit-chat. Only in this City of Djinns do these things take place, where the unreal and the real, the unspoken and the spoken mingle; the irrational, emotional and sensual longings live with the real past, present and future, each striving to find its own way, trying not to intrude into each other. Behind the stage are the musicians celebrating and lamenting both. The lonely voice of a prophet connects us to the stage crying out the oxymoronic phrase," City of Djinns! Behold! The City of Djinns! "

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