On The Cyclist:
By Balwant Bhaneja
For the past four decades, Vijay Tendulkar
has been the most influential dramatist in India. His plays written
in Marathi, the principal language of the state of Maharashtra,
are continually produced all across the country, and have been
translated into other regional languages and English. A lifelong
resident of Mumbai, Tendulkar (b.1928) is also a novelist, literary
essayist, journalist, television and screenplay writer, and social
activist. (1) Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul has called him India's
best playwright. (2)
Tendulkar is author of thirty full-length
plays, twenty-three one act plays, several of which have become
classics of modern Indian theatre. (3) Among his well-known plays
are: Shanta! Court chalu ahe (Silence! The Court
is in Session, 1967), Sakharam Binder (Sakharam,
the Bookbinder, 1972), Kamala (1981), and Kanyadaan
(The Gift of a Daughter, 1983). His Ghashiram Kotwal
(Ghashiram the Constable, 1972), a musical combining
Marathi folk performance and contemporary theatrical techniques,
is one of the most performed plays in the world, with over six
thousand showings in India and abroad. New York's Indo-American
Cultural Council dedicated October 2004 as a tribute to Tendulkar's
prodigious literary contributions, presenting in English a wide
range of his plays and films.
The Cyclist was intended to be
Tendulkar's last play, and perhaps his ultimate comment on himself
and the reality surrounding him. In 1991, Tendulkar, in his early
sixties, had written 28 full-length plays, his work singularly
recognized for its intellectual integrity, innovative form and
content. His plays have generally dealt with themes that unravel
the exploitation of power and latent violence in human relationships,
seeking always a well-deliberated resolution. The desire to write
an allegorical play denoting life's journey must have been a tempting
one. Despite its numerous productions, The Cyclist has
continued to confound its directors and audience. Critics have
not been sure whether the play is a metaphor for contemporary
Indian reality or an allegory about the journey of life.
As an intended last play (4), The Cyclist
is different from Tendulkar's large body of work. It is a skillfully
crafted, uninterrupted piece about the adventure of life told
through a cyclist's journey. As an experimental playwright, Tendulkar's
every play, in its form and structure, is different from the previous
one. This complex theme he takes head on, and tackles with a simple
form and language -- an episodic structure and naturalistic mot
naif dialogue. Life's complexity can perhaps be best understood
when told in simple terms. In this, Tendulkar joins other great
journey writers such as Homer (The Odyssey), Voltaire
(Candide), Ibsen (Peer Gynt), and Beckett (Waiting
The Cyclist is not about one but
three journeys: geographical, an historical journey of the bicycle,
and a psychological exploration. A young man is about to start
a "world trip" on his bicycle. There is no specific
geographical location in which the play is set, but a place from
which he is trying to get away. He dreams of distant lands, oceans
and mountains, wanting to see exotic places, meet interesting
The geographical journey is at the same
time the story of the development of bicycle itself -- the cycle
as a symbol of progress, opening new horizons for the society
despite all the obstacles placed in its way to stop its advancement.
The adventure gets darker and darker as the journey progresses,
the Cyclist facing difficult elements both natural and human.
It unravels man's dehumanization through a series of encounters
which, though often extravagantly comic, tend to become illogical
and bizarre as we move deeper into the play.
In journey narratives, the obstacles encountered
are generally surmounted; in The Cyclist the process
is reversed, the expectation of certainty whimpering into nothingness.
It's only in the later part of the Cyclist's trip that we come
to find out that this is essentially a metaphysical journey --
a journey of the mind. Buried deep in the play is the grand existential
question: "where I came from, where I am going"? -- life's journey
in search of elusive truth.
The play generates a train of events manifested
on stage through a series of slapstick situations. Tendulkar lets
his character Cyclist play straight, whereas those he encounters
on the way come in a group as hoodlums, in pairs as the Lords
of Earth and Sun, or single as Sage, or Actor. These latter are
written in exaggerated manner. Perils of the journey are mixed
with uneasy laughter.
Tendulkar has described his plays as about
the reality surrounding him: "I write to let my concerns vis-a-vis
my reality -- the human conditions as I perceive it." The reality
in The Cyclist, however, with its layered journeys, gets
elevated to a level transcending geographical and cultural boundaries.
For example, all the characters in the play have been consciously
given symbolic names. e.g. X,Y, Z. or such titles as Ma, Pa, Lion,
Ghost, etc. And even the central protagonist the Cyclist is neutrally
called the Main Character.
Tendulkar has said that it is the content
of his work that determines the form. He is precise about directions
for staging the play. The script points to a minimalist setting
-- an exercise bike as the sole prop. The bald patch on the Cyclist's
head, which viewers see in the last scene, is to ensure that the
play is about an adult and is not mistaken for any children's
fantasy. Again, the use of coarse language at the beginning, in
a violent crowd scene, reinforces the playwright's intent about
the adult nature of the play. Most directions are embedded in
the dialogue which in its naturalistic idiom is marked by short
sentences, often half finished.
In The Cyclist, unlike most of
Tendulkar's other plays, there is no strong female character.
Instead, it's a Mermaid (a woman with a fish's torso) who eventually
strips the Cyclist to his flesh and bones, having swallowed his
wet clothes. Mermaid's seduction of the Cyclist is that of Oedipus,
a composite of mother, girlfriend, and an enchantress.
Main Character: Why
are you laughing?
Mermaid: Because your
clothes are in my stomach!
Main Character: Where?
Stom…No, this can't be!
Mermaid: If you got
the clothes, you'll run away from me, somewhere far…thinking
that I swallowed your clothes (in a guilt-ridden voice)
Main Character: (not
believing and with fright) Swallowed them? (a bit pathetically)
Ridiculous…I have to go on my travel…the world journey…by cycle..oh,
such an old dream of mine…
Mermaid: (in a dreamy
voice) I'll guard them for nine months in my womb. Then
I'll give birth to a lovely child. A child in your clothes,
handsome as you. He'll call you Pa…Pa, Papa, and me…Ma, Ma….
Referring to the pointless search for meaning
in his plays, Tendulkar has said, it's a "jungle in which you
can always enter, but has no way out." Unlike his other plays,
which often have a pall of gloom over them, The Cyclist
was written in an upbeat frame of mind. Despite all the travails
and troubles that the journey brings, the Cyclist does not give
up. As he remarks: "A journey is a journey. It has to be completed.
Mine will not be affected by any loss or pain." The Main Character
has the will to overcome obstacles. And even when the Cyclist's
determination dissipates and the situation is hopeless, his cry
for help is rewarded. Pa appears out of nowhere as a shining light
with his clichéd advice to get him out of his pickle. The best
solution Pa can offer in one Zen-like moment of revelation --
(when everything fails) "Do nothing, sometimes that's all you
need to do."
The journey has to be completed even when
we don't know its ultimate destination (except one's mortality).
There are two options. It could be an open-ended journey to a
place different from where one started; or it's a completed journey
that culminates with a return home -- to the place one began.
In Eastern philosophy, the path is more significant than the destination.
Injured and exhausted, stripped of his
clothing, the Cyclist lays naked beside his bicycle in the end.
He curls in a womb-like position and falls asleep. It is not clear
whether he will be up the next day to continue his adventure.
Tendulkar has declined comment on the play
except to say that it speaks for itself. In my correspondence
with him (which spans a decade), he made only one remark comparing
the situation in India in 1999 to the play: "Life here is as in
the Cyclist. It will never change. Each day we ride our old, dilapidated
wheel-less cycle and go places. Breath-taking static activity."
(1) Two important sources on Vijay Tendulkar
are: Shoma Choudhury and Gita Rajan (eds.), Vijay Tendulkar,
New-Delhi: Katha, 2001, and Vijay Tendulkar, Sri Ram Memorial
Lecture -- The Play is the Thing, New-Delhi: Sri Ram Centre
for Performing Arts, 1997.
(2) Khushwant Singh, "Storm in a Chat Show," The Tribune,
March 31, 2001.
(3) For English translations of Vijay Tendulkar's work, see: Vijay
Tendulkar (with an Introduction by Samik Bandyopadhay), Collected
plays in Translation, New-Delhi: Oxford University Press,
2003, and Vijay Tendulkar, Five Plays, Bombay: Oxford
University Press, 1992.
(4) A decade later The Cyclist was followed by another
Tendulkar play, The Masseur, two novels, and his first
play in English, entitiled His Fifth Woman (written for
the Lark Theatre in New York as part of the Tendulkar festival).