In these ironic and intertextual times, Saikat Majumdar’s novel, The Firebird, dares to bring back the scope and sprawl of colossal tragedy. Heartbreaking and shocking in equal parts, it is a book that propels us into a cathartic reading. Set in the dying world of Calcutta’s commercial playhouses in the ’80s, a sense of theatre pulsates through this literary page-turner. Ten-year-old Ori’s doomed love and longing for his mother—a stage actress of great repute and splendour—deludes us into a moral slipperiness. As with all questions of morality, it is a matter of choice, impelled at first by the confused naivete of a hurting child and then becoming something darker post innocence.
Modestly put, the book is about Ori’s adolescence in an unstable home, an artist mother, the resentment and disapproval she earns from people, his consuming hatred of the stage and its catastrophic consequences. In that sense, it might be regarded as an old-fashioned bildungsroman. Ori deconstructs most things with an infallible intuition and his inchoate perception of time robs him of hope. Through his gaze and sensory placement of people, gestures, clues, the business of living becomes a tenuous affair. The author challenges the cliched notion of childhood. He mocks at his own use of the ‘third person narrative’, to establish firmly that children walk on an easily violable precipice—the care and protection of parents and family who are themselves deeply flawed, nothing but flimsy sentinels.
The non-viable relationship of art and motherhood is at the heart of this book. A strongly feminist theme, its insufferable anguish has found a compassionate pen—Ori’s conversation with his mother while she irons his school shirt is one such memorable passage.
Majumdar’s language is a delicate tiptoe. Devoid of weighty qualifiers, he writes with a breathtaking honesty.
A deeply personal tale, The Firebird also depicts a moment of change in cultural history, when theatre gives way to new and commercial forms of entertainment. Pantheon, the fictional revolving stage theatre, serves as the seat of showdown and violence. It has its own hellish depths, the dark and musty ‘pit under the stage’ where acts of perverse violence are played out amidst toy forests and Edenic props of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A foil to Ori’s loss of innocence is the staged crime of Ahin Mullick, owner of the fledgling playhouse. Like a play within a play, this subplot is about The Dusk, a play scripted and personified by Ahin. Fierce, complex and sexual, The Dusk moves subterraneously, becoming an allegory of theatre, loss, sexuality and the peril of everything the plot deals with.
The language is a delicate tiptoe, shy, yet intense like Ori. Devoid of weighty qualifiers and jaunty adverbs, Majumdar writes with a breathtaking honesty. In this novel, time wraps itself around in curious loops, existing on multiple revealed and discreet planes. It stops, sulks, quickens, thuds, always bound inextricably to the experiential quality of that moment. Worth mentioning is the episode in which neighbours and political goons waylay Ori with Chinese food and alcohol-laced cola. Their seductive probing, besides emulating an urban witchhunt, also has the lilting and damning quality of a chorus.
Majumdar’s realism is acute and unsparing, peopled with persuasive characters and an ache that lingers long after the surprisingly pacy read.