A life in waiting
Has our life turned into a waiting lounge, even as we yearn to revive the systems we miss - be it a Friday movie, Ganesh festivities or suburban train connectivity
Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot picked up momentum only after its 1957 performance in front of prison inmates. Saint Quentin prisoners appreciated the absurdist play much more than the theatre-going audience, which was unamused by a plot centred around two characters who wait for the third one. The legend is often recalled in theatre history. Little remembered, however, is a Marathi group's rendering of the same play in Mumbai's oldest prison, Arthur Road Jail, in 2010. Not only did the prisoners enjoy the show, in which late Tom Alter presented Pozzo's dilemma in fluent Marathi, but they also had a tête-à-tête with the performers. One of the prison mates, who happened to be a student of the National School of Drama, said Godot's upside down universe felt so close to reality. "I think the abstract cosmos of the play connects with the prisoners' isolated state," says the play's producer Anant Panshikar. He feels the script works in the current lockdown times too; in fact, he is now in search of a cast, which can project Beckett's vision on a digital platform. "I also wait for a defined audience, which most theatre people do," Panshikar says half-jokingly.
In the pandemic times, when the world awaits normalcy, Waiting for Godot, resonates in a funny way because waiting has become as integral as sleeping or dining. Each wait is individual, different in way, shape and form. Some wait for the COVID-19 vaccine, some wait for an ambulance to ferry their dear ones, some long for pathology test results, some pine for the resounding aarti of Lord Ganesh, while others yearn for schools to begin. At the root of the waiting, there is faith that we will be able to resuscitate the identifiable systems/practices, which we call life.
Theatre director Sunil Shanbag shares a beautiful anecdote from his Rishi Valley schooling years. The school shifted the week by turning Sunday into a half-working day, and Monday a full holiday. "Though this is an experience dating back to 1970, I still remember the disorientation and uneasiness we experienced as students,"
In today's lockdown context, one can relate to the uneasiness people are feeling because of the blurred lines between a weekend and a week. A Sunday is a Sunday, and no other day wears that smell. "Ask a theatre person what it means to perform on a Saturday night. It's an irreplaceable feeling," adds Shanbag.
Waiting is oft-perceived as a hindrance by many, especially people who believe in a full-scale activity calendar with rare rest stops. Balladeer-Dalit activist-music composer Sambhaji Bhagat shares the restlessness that stems from cessation of activity. He is stuck in his Badlapur flat, away from his family in Kurla, where he had come in March to play a part in an almost-done film on death. At present, he stays alone in the flat where he cooks for himself and reads books on Babasaheb Ambedkar. As part of his venture Mission Manuskey (Humanity) he runs an online school experiment called Manuskichi Shaala in select slum pockets of Mumbai and around. In fact, he had planned to widen the school network in slum areas, for which he was touring extensively. He was to travel to Bihar in the summer. "Never once did I imagine myself cut off from the world for such a long time. For a grassroots worker, can there be a life without direct interaction? I am dying to visit the schools physically," Bhagat says.
Waiting is amply addressed in popular literature. Urdu poetry thrives on Intezaar of the loved one, the reflection of which is vivid in Hindi film rhetoric. The oft-quoted Mirza Ghalib's "ye na thi hamari qismat ki visal-e-yaar hota/agar aur jeete rahte yahi intezar hota" speaks of an ever-waiting lover, who not just laments unconsummated love, but is certain that even if he had lived longer, he was destined to wait forever. The wait is articulated at a high pitch in Hindi film romances over generations —Madhumati's Dil Tadap Tadap Ke Keh Raha Hai, Julie's My Heart Is Beating I am Waiting For You, or as late as Kiska Hain Yeh Tumko Intezaar Main Hoon Na. The songs on the sentiment of waiting have created popularity records, like the latest Arijit Singh Intezaar video.
English poetry on waiting weaves varied textures. The much quoted Emily Dickinson's "It is easy to wait a lifetime, even eternity, if love is the reward" dwells on the worth of the wait; whereas TS Elliot's wait without hope in uncertain war-like times is evident in "Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So, the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing" goes so close to the wait for normalcy in the post pandemic world. The haiku crop on web platforms evokes similar hopelessness. Celebs and common people have taken to verse to voice their wait for normal joys like birthday parties and family reunions.
The Marathi 'kavyahotra' is also actively chasing the waiting-for-the-crisis-to-be-over theme. Home-bound women are more evident in these FB poetry hubs where the poet either recites a limerick of her own, or relies on greats like Kusumagraj, Suresh Bhat or Vinda Karandikar, to express faith in the return of good times. Very often Marathi saint poetry comes to their rescue because it is suffused with 'waiting' for the Lord's blessings. The aarti sung on most religious occasions—nidhalavari kar thevuni vaat mee paahe—talks about an earnest wait. Similarly, Saint Tukaram's "bheti laagi jeeva laagalise aas" and Saint Namdev's "doloole shinale vaatuli paahata" instil faith in waiting for life's miraculous possibilities. In fact, many locate the power of transformation in the verse of Janabai and Soyarabai. The seemingly 'unempowered' women found their own means to life. They had little else to fall back on; their wait for radical change wouldn't have borne fruit, so they chanted and imagined the Lord while navigating through never-ending day-long chores.
Waiting is a funny territory in the world of illustrated cartoons, especially zeroing in on lockdown breakdowns and work-from-home exhaustion. Two themes struck me the most in these comic strips. First, the wait of divorce lawyers for a rise in domestic discord cases because of prolonged compulsory home confinement; second, the wait of the introverts of the world to see family members go out, so that they can reclaim their me-time.
At a personal level, I have a different wait. I am waiting for the day when I can leave home at sharp 7.30 am, after applying my dark mauve lipstick, to present myself (without a mask) in my rightful office space. I know that day is far off and I will have to wait through intermediate precautionary phases.
As people who have faced the pandemic and resultant lockdown for five months, waiting is one aspect that none of us have been able to avoid. To some extent it has made us more patient, and to a larger extent it has consumed us. To bide by our time is work for now.
Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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