Vivek Shanbhag’s latest play pits nostalgia against realty

Vivek Shanbhag (centre), Ranga Shankara director Surendranath and writer Jogi (right) discuss the play ‘Illiruvudu Summane’ at Ranga Shankara

Vivek Shanbhag’s third and latest play, ‘Illiruvudu Summane’ (‘Here Just Like That’), received a warm welcome at a book club discussion at Ranga Shankara.

The play comes six years after an English translation of the novella ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ (by Srinath Perur) took Vivek to readers in Europe and the US, earning him wide acclaim. Critics were especially delighted with the understated humour in the story of a modest lower-middle class family growing into affluence, and changing insidiously, as Bengaluru explodes into a monster city.

A crowd of about 50 heard writer Jogi and theatre director Surendranath discuss the Kannada play at the Ranga Shankara lounge. Two actors read out a scene. Vivek answered questions from the Sunday afternoon audience.

Like ‘Ghachar Ghochar’, ‘Illiruvudu Summane’ is set in contemporary Bengaluru. It follows the story of Vikram, a nostalgic NRI returning from the US with a house key, only to find that a tall building with 12 apartments has come up where his house and its swing once stood. He tries to make sense of the loss, and retrace the story of his father who spent his last lonely days there.

The caretaker has scammed the family, and so Vikram sets out to track him down with the help of his friends and acquaintances. In this journey, he encounters a bunch of curious characters, including fixer Cutlet Naga with an MA (in what subject we aren’t told), an all-powerful don no one has ever seen, and a friend’s wife called Madhuri who is unduly curious about his one-time neighbour and childhood sweetheart, also called Madhuri.

In the denouement, Vikram meets his scammer, a smooth talker called Srinivasa, and also a linguistic babble of families living in the apartments that he wants razed to make way for his childhood house and swing again. The play ends when he meets Betala, an old friend, who talks him out of his unrealistic nostalgia and convinces him to let things be.

The play is structured neatly, like all of Shanbhag’s works, introducing new characters and their eccentricities with each new scene. It mocks the romantic earnestness of Vikram and the murky conventions of a real estate-crazed city, but astonishingly, the narrative eventually comes across as a philosophical justification for land grab and Bengaluru’s widespread disregard for municipal rules. Successive governments, regardless of which party they represent, have cited the impracticality of enforcing municipal rules in Bengaluru, and pushed for Akrama Sakrama, a scheme that allows legalising of violations for a fee.

Betala, although Vikram’s friend and a disinterested party, talks on behalf of the builders and politicians who rob citizens of a dignified life, deprive children of parks and playgrounds, and enrich themselves by giving an altruistic spin to their crimes. It is true that Vikram, with all his privilege, looks like fair game, but such scamming also brings down entire buildings, narrows and turns roads into death traps, and routinely claims the lives of the less privileged. As can be seen in his earlier work, Shanbhag is not oblivious to the hidden violence of big capital and big cities, but the play oddly seems to turn away from it.

‘Illiruvudu Summane’ is a breezy read, with some sparkling dialogue and wicked humour. That last quality you find in many of Vivek’s works. In ‘Sakinala Muttu’, his most recent novel, an awkward, just-married couple bond when they discover they have both secretly read the same self-improvement books.

Some questions persist after you have read the play. How is Vikram so naive and unaware of the mad, wild growth of Bengaluru when even Obama has spoken about American jobs being Bangalored? Also intriguing is why Srinivasa, after pulling off such a big heist, is still so poor.

Vivek wrote ‘Illiruvudu Summane’ for the theatre group Lokacharita, and it was to premiere on stage with direction by the well-known graphic artist and theatre actor Channakeshava, but tragically, he passed away earlier this year. A stage production is sure to show the strengths of the play better than just a reading. There’s a lot of stage-worthy drama in the paradoxes of Bengaluru.