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Childhood's End

Review of The Firebird by Saikat Majumdar (Hatchette, India; Fiction; 233 pp; Rs 499/-), by P K Vijayan

Saikat Majumdar's novel The Firebird is a subtle, layered novel, set in late twentieth century

Calcutta, and woven around the motif of the gradual decadence of Calcutta's theatre culture. It is narrated

mostly from the point of view of its young protagonist, Ori, but with this narrative occasionally interjected with

the points of view of other characters. The narrative tracks Ori's transition from childhood to adolescence

through a series of vignettes of his life from the age of five through to fourteen, focusing especially on his

extremely complex relation with his mother, Garima, a stage actress struggling with age, prejudice, and even

her own maternality. In fact, the novel opens with the striking line, 'Disaster came early in Ori's life, at the age

of five, the first time he saw his mother die.' (1) All the complexities of negotiating loss, death, the difference

between illusion and reality, and indeed, negotiating the bleakness of these and other knowledges

concomitant with 'growing up' all resonate outward from this first line, through this slim, intense tale.

The narrative is plotted with a sparseness that matches its bleakness: opening with the child's

growing awareness of the familial tensions arising out of his mother's involvement with theatre, it steadily

plots Ori's relationship with his cousin Shruti, whose unstinting admiration of his mother unwittingly becomes

the cause of her own death; with his widowed aunt Rupa, Shruti's mother, whose conservative efficiency,

relentless care-giving and ultimately, her vicious rejection of her daughter, stand as the exemplar of all that

Garima is not; with various shadowy and violent men of the neighbourhood especially Abir, Shruti's

boyfriend; Tatai and Dushtu, former criminals, now working for 'The Party' (presumably referring to the ruling

Communist Party); and Trinankur, The Party's local councilman who emerge as the voices of the

community who will judge Garima; and Ahin Mullick, the crazed owner of the Pantheon, and producer of

plays but more importantly, who, along with the other men, will oversee the violences of his transition into

adolescent masculinity.

All of these are of course woven around Ori's relationship with his mother: from the first vision of his

mother, smiling in the green room's mirror after her 'death' on stage, to the final vision of her unsmiling

vacant expression in the mirror, nine years later, just before her actual death, Ori relentlessly attempts to

negotiate his mother's unreality the virtual unreality of her roles on stage as well as the actual unreality of

her maternality. His failures in these attempts to win his mother back by sabotaging her professional work,

are plotted through his various acts of sabotage of her career, beginning with his spreading rumours about

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her affair with a co-star, and culminating in his active participation in the destruction of her plays by 'The

Party'. It is only in her death at the end that he finds release from his childhood but the unstated question of

course is, What does he become in the process?

Ori is in fact, all the characters are sketched with an understated sympathy and a rigorously

maintained moral neutrality: the writer never judges, or asks us to judge, the choices and biases of the

characters. But there is a continuous suggestion that much that happens in the novel is either bordering on,

or has tipped over into, psycho-pathological abnormalcy. For instance, Ori's recruitment of Rana, the five

year old son of Pallabi, who is his mother's understudy, to sabotage their play at the end, is reminiscent of

and an extension of his own recruitment at the hands of 'The Party', to destroy the theatre, but with a

peculiar twist: at the end, Ori's bringing Rana to see his mother on stage 'his palm on the boy's back, a light

touch of ownership' (190) is deliberately reminiscent of the way Ahin Mullick had once similarly 'guided'

him. The unmistakable suggestion that Ori is becoming like Ahin is reinforced by the fact that neither is able

to really differentiate play from life, illusion from reality.

The title of this bleak, utterly humourless novel, is of course an allusion to the phoenix, the mythical

bird that spontaneously combusts and then rises out of its own ashes, and the obvious allegory is to

adolescence emerging out of the end of childhood but the novel's use of allegory is far from from

exhausted by this. The device of the tale-within-the-tale is also used repeatedly, allegorically, so that Ahin's

play, 'Dusk', becomes a kind of extension of the 'Firebird' i.e., as the day is consumed with dusk, so too the

morrow emerges out of the dark. Ahin's 'Dusk' has resonances with the narrative of the novel, as well as with

other narratives within the novel for instance, with the final, sabotaged play, 'The Wishcar'. But most

tellingly, it is possible to see a somewhat peculiar inversion of Stravinsky's ballet by the same name in

Majumdar's novel. In Stravinsky's ballet, the hero rescues the heroine from the clutches of an evil magician

who has her, and indeed the whole kingdom, in thrall, with the help of a firebird whose life he once spared. In

Majumdar's tale, it appears that the stage, and the world of theatre, are the equivalent of the evil magician,

from whom Ori must rescue his mother. Quite apart from the Oedipal resonances, right down to her death,

the novel turns Stravinsky's tale into one in which, rather than rescuing the heroine, the hero becomes

trapped in an entire different kind of illusion that of the political pressures and moral prejudices that make

him complicit in the death of his own mother.

This slow-paced, meditative novel is, on the face of it, a carefully researched account of the decay of

theatre culture in 1980s Calcutta. But woven tightly into this account is the narrating of a complex web of

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incipient desires, stifled ambitions, and latent and actual violences (sexual and otherwise) that pass for

human relations for the protagonist, moving from childhood to adolescence, and for his world, moving

towards greater and greater intolerance. This is a novel that will leave you sad, but glad that you read it.

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