Sunday, December 13, 2009

Strident Optimism

Watched a wonderful play a couple of days back -"Happy Days", written by Samuel Beckett. Exemplary acting by the cast of two - Patty Gallagher and Joe McGrath, performed in an intimate theater setting, like the one at NCPA I used to frequent at Mumbai, the location Rangshankara, Bangalore - which even has its announcements in the voice of Girish Karnad, an old friend sitting besides me, and a young niece on the other side, watching a play like this for the first time. A rare rare treat, in more ways than one.

The play itself, left lot more unsaid than the narrative itself. I was so intently listening to what was being said, that I could not reflect on what was not being said. Age, me thinks. There were times when I could listen and reflect, both at the same time. Ah, well…... Guess age has its compensations, such as being able to appreciate and ruminate over a play like this. Age is better. Yes, it is.

Coming back to the play - the play was about a woman, Winnie, buried in sand, waist down in the first act, and neck down in the second one. No reason evident on why it was so, the sand being a metaphor for many many things. She could be buried in a meaningless existence, a soulless marriage, a dead-end job, whatever. And the sand was just taking her deeper and deeper into the earth, to non-existence, slowly, inexorably, and presumably, agonizingly. And she has a husband, Willie, who lives around her, maybe due to the matrimonial bond, or some other, who is mobile, and yet chooses to live in a hole, crawling in and out of it, sometimes using his elbows and sometimes his head.

The play is about the optimism of Winnie, of her being determined to have a “Happy Day”, despite her being buried the way she is, and her efforts to reach out to Willie as she masticates over the memories when she was not buried thus, engages in her daily routine which she turns into a ceremony, murmurs half forgotten prayers, and tries very hard to reach out and engage with Willie, urging him to connect with her, terrified as she is about "talking to herself". She does not complain about being buried, but just accepts it the way it is, refusing to use the revolver she has in her bag at all times, which could end it all at one go, that which is any case is ending slowly, excruciatingly. She has her days of panic, when she fears about Willie not being there, and her days of doubt as she wonders what people (Shower/Cooker….or something that ended with an ‘er’) say about her, and resigns herself to existing and surviving, and tries to choose the perfect time to “sing her song”. And in all this, she is perennially gay, thanking her God for the thousand mercies, and once even curses mobility, the one thing she does not have, being buried so.

The play ends when Willie crawls out of his hole, one Happy Day, and reaches out to her, to maybe give her a kiss or maybe to make the revolver kiss her, maybe to end her pitiful yearning for intimacy with him, or snuffing out her pitiful existence- difficult to say, which, and when Winnie finally, finally, sings her song. Lilting, not musical, not good, but yet, her song, the Winnie song.

As I walked out with friends, I could feel a disquiet within me. This was an optimistic play, in a way, as Winnie is so hell bent on being happy, and yet, I felt so sad inside. No, this was a terribly dark sad play, I reflected later. Her insistence to be happy, in a situation which is so obviously an unhappy one, is sadder than everything else.

No wonder, the flyer that came with the play called her a “Strident Optimist”. Winnie is optimistic, but her optimism jars. I wish she wasn’t so, I wish I could tell her, “Winnie, it is’nt getting any better, you are just fooling yourself! Your optimism is sad. Very sad, sadder than the wails that you have throttled inside. Cry, if you must, but don’t smile. You are in a hell hole, and it maybe better to just end it, rather than go on this way, it may be kinder to die than to survive.” Maybe thats what Willie decides to do that after all. Kill her rather than face her strident optimism.

I have no idea of what Beckett meant when he wrote this play, or what others say about it. Maybe after I am done thinking about it, I would look for what others have to say, but for today, I need to think more about what he meant, and what sense I can make of it.

To me, the play typified the pain that we all go through, terrified of being alone, of talking to no one. Just like Winnie, we are all scared deep inside when the day will come with the ‘words will cease’, when our breaths are wound down. Just like her, we reach out to find companions, who would care, who find us lovable, and despite finding that the “Willie” we are with, does not care or does not want to, we incessantly try and find meanings in our relationships when maybe there aren’t any. We console ourselves with optimism when sometimes it is obvious that there isn’t any sense in it. And that’s the darkest hour. When we know internally that we are even faking hope.

It happens. It has happened to me. Hopefully, it wont ever happen again. But it did. Then I survived because there was nothing else to do but survive. It did not make sense to survive. Survival seemed worse than death, but survive I did – as I made the notions of going through the day, counting seconds, counting minutes and then hours, every single day, waiting for the sun to rise and set, willing myself to live the next second, even when it made no sense to, as I struggled with the multiple options that I could use to end it all, and found none to be satisfactory.

I survived. And it wasn’t because of hope. Hope had died. But I could not die even when hope had died. I remember a friend asking me of those days – "Just how did you survive?" And I remember answering him – “What else was there to do?”

Inane reason, but who said truths aren’t inane?

Willie survives, and so do the most tortured lives. Not because survival means something better, but because annihilating oneself is tougher and scarier than survival. So, one takes the easy option - Survives, fakes hope, puts on a cheery smile, and calls is optimism. Strident Optimism.

This is so dark, so full of despair. I recognized it because I have been here. Maybe Beckett had been here too. But wait wait wait….That was then. I am not at that emotional junction today, not today. No No.

Today, I would have chosen to take the other perspective, the other path. Not in its emptiness, not in despair. Not even in hope. But in acceptance - not in optimistic way that Winnie did, but in simple, stoic acceptance. Not in right or wrong, good or bad, but accepting reality the way it is, and dealing with it in a spirit of benediction to myself – not because the universe is kind – I still think it is indifferent – but because it is kinder on myself if I think it that way. Lame? Faking it, you say? Yes, maybe.

But could I sing my song, the way Winnie did, in my acceptance mode? No. I don't think so. I wish I could though. Stoic-ism does not lend itself to songs. Singing songs would definately be better, if I could figure out how to. The way, Rabindranath Tagore did. Where I can believe in the benediction of the universe, surrender to it, and believe that there is a beloved waiting for me somewhere, after this worldly existence, even though I have no means of really knowing that He is there, and sing my song, like Tagore does...with so much certainty.

“The song that I came to sing, remains unsung to this day.
I have spent my days in stringing and unstringing my instrument.
The time has not come true, the words have not seen rightly set; only there is the agony of wishing in my heart.
The blossom has not opened, only the wind is sighing by.
I have not seen his face, nor have I listened to his voice; only I have heard his gentle footsteps from the road before my house.
The livelong day had passed in spreading his seat on the floor; but the lamp has not been lit and I cannot ask him into my home
I live in the hope of meeting him; but this meeting is not yet.”

-Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore

Some day, I hope, I can feel the way Tagore felt when he wrote that. And I hope that on no day, I feel like the way I think Beckett must have felt when he wrote Happy Day. No, I don’t want to go on that path again.

The day I feel like Tagore did, I would be at peace with me, my existence and that of the universe, and that day, I would need no “Willie”, nor would I need to fake optimism, strident or otherwise. Till then, stoic-ness is what I will stick to. Try to.