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  • Jacob M. Appel
  • Randy Ross
  • Saikat Majumdar
  • Baron Birtcher
  • James Conroy
  • Howard Owen
  • Kathleen Novak
  • Erik Mauritzson

           

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Play House - Saikat Majumdar
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"The North American debut of Saikat Majumdar’s Play House was originally published in India as The Firebird and short-listed for the 2015 Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Prize in Fiction. Set in Calcutta in the mid-1980s, the novel follows young Ori’s obsession and fear over his mother’s career on the stage. From page 11, where, “On the walls, framed posters of plays glowed in the shadows,” the theater is a place like Plato’s Cave, with its shifting realities, a world of artifice, shadows on walls projected by firelight. These shifting realities extend to how women who act in plays are met with rumor and doubt. To ten-year old Ori, his mother, Garima, “was such a natural, such a genius in the role of the fake wife, so full of tears and laughter and domestic bliss, that you forgot that you were watching a play inside a play.” Yet to Ori’s aunt, Rupa, and grandmother, Mummum, “It was wrong of [Garima] to pretend to be someone else’s wife. They hated it.” This duplicity propels the novel—and sustains it through Ori’s growing sense that his mother betrays a logocentric view of motherhood, a notion that the community and Communist Party try to reinforce. As a consequence, Ori learns “how to make himself invisible,” reminiscent of the unrelenting invisibility in Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Untouchable.

Like Ori’s vacillating sense of his mother, Majumdar’s Calcutta is a place of paradox, for instance, when Ori is at the sweetshop: “The sandesh were delicious, and as he chewed on each piece and felt them melt in his mouth, he suffered pain, the pain of glorious taste enjoyed not in the cool shadow of his home but in the yellow heat of the streets, listening to the rickshaw pullers cry out to clear their way.” This sweetness in the context of pain is beautifully expressed.

Ori longs for a rock-solid mother figure, and finds this only in his grandmother: “He wanted to hug Mummum, bury his head in her neck along which green veins stood out like fault lines on an ancient rock.” Partly as a result of this unfulfilled longing, Ori begins to confuse Garima’s lovemaking on stage with that in real life. He implies Garima’s staged indiscretions are real to Mummum, who starts a rumor. As a result, a dubious picture of Garima spirals outward through Calcutta. Ori’s confusion about Garima is central to the novel. She’s a scapegoat for a society terrified of change, of competing forces as history presses forward.

When Ori meets two girls, con artists, at a temple, he accompanies them to an open-air play at a football field and accidently starts a fire. Later, we learn that Ori is glad to have burnt away the artifice of the theater. Fearful and confused, Ori goes to his aunt Rupa’s house. His cousin, Shruti, a sensible, authoritative young woman, takes Ori home to find that Garima and his father have fought over Garima’s acting. Garima flees, neighbors burst in, and the Party arrives. Garima later takes Ori out of school to begin an “odd life.” For Garima, it is a disaster. She can’t cope with reality; she looks for acting jobs. For Ori, it is a gritty, real freedom.

In Saikat Majumdar’s captivating and poignant novel, all Ori knows for certain is that his mother, or whatever the word mother means, is lost to him, forever." -Necessary Fiction