Vitthal Rao: Painter, an irritable, bespectacled old man.
Ramdas: sculptor, mild-mannered, thick grey hair, a friend of Vitthal Rao.
Joseph (Jo): a puny young man.
Inspector Gole: Middle-aged, bald, sweating profusely.
Madhu: An elegant elderly lady, and dancer.
Time: Present day, the year 2023, noon.
Place: The drawing room of ‘Kalaa Sadan’, the bungalow of Ramdas and Vitthal Rao
Ramdas and Vitthal Rao are seated on a worn-out sofa, opposite Inspector Gole. Joseph is sitting on a creaky chair, adjacent to Ramdas. The room has several paintings, and sculptures, but no electrical appliances other than a slowly rotating ceiling fan. The centre table has a sculpture of a man setting a sparrow free from his hands, the cage is open by the side. A police constable is stationed at the entrance of the house. The Inspector has come for police verification of Ramdas and Vittal Rao, who have recently signed a rent agreement for a home in the neighbourhood.
Inspector Gole: (scowling at the slowly moving ceiling fan, and swearing under his breath): So, none of you has a valid ID proof what-so-ever?
The senior citizens look at the fan and shake their heads slowly, in unison.
Joseph: Hah! They had, but they are missing.
Ramdas: Yes, we miss them.
Vitthal Rao (shooting his friend an irritated look): He means, we have looked for them all around the house, but we can’t find them.
Inspector Gole: ALL the IDs?
Vitthal Rao: Yes, all of them.
Inspector: Why did you not report them missing?
Ramdas: Oh, we thought they would come back in time…
Joseph (interrupting him hastily): They discovered the IDs missing last night. Just when they were preparing for this police verification scheduled today.
Inspector (turning to Joseph): And who are you, Sir?
Joseph: I am like their son. I help them around, you know?
Ramdas: Yes, he helps. He is such a good boy, he has promised us he will get ….
Vitthal Rao: Inspector, what do we do now? How will you verify us? We really need to rent that house as soon as possible.
Inspector (glancing around and teasing a patch of paint peeling off the walls): This house seems pretty decent. Is it rented?
Ramdas: No, it is ours.
Inspector: I see. So then, you will have its papers. That could make your proof of residence easy.
Ramdas: Ah yes!
Vitthal Rao ( glaring at his friend): No! We lost them as well! We have no papers, Inspector. But we need that other house. We have already signed the rent agreement…now this silly law of police verification for us tenants…
Ramdas: Yes, silly.
Joseph: No, no, of course not! Sir, the law is not silly at all! It is only right to scrutinize the tenants before renting out a property. Pardon my dear Grandpa, he is getting rather senile…
Inspector: Don’t you have a senior citizen’s card at least?
Vitthal Rao: We have nothing! What to do now?
Inspector: Don’t you avail concessions on train travel? You must have a senior citizen’s card.
Ramdas: We don’t travel.
Joseph (Shifting in his chair, making it creak on purpose): Well, at this age…
Inspector: Yeah, I get it. They are old. But there must be some kind of official papers, right? Tax returns, bank statements, Aadhar cards, driver’s licence…
Ramdas: Yes, I have a driver’s licence, but it does not work anymore. Jo says…
Joseph: (Coughs) No, it has expired. Hehe.
Ramdas: No, my boy, the licence was fine, it was I who expired!
(Cough! Cough! Joseph coughs violently, bending double.)
Inspector: Are you ok? Can someone get him some water?
(Joseph falls off the sofa coughing. Vitthal Rao clenches Ramdas’s shoulder.)
Vitthal Rao: Madhu does NOT stay here. Excuse me, Inspector, my friend is quite forgetful…but really, is there no way out? We NEED to get that house on rent.
Ramdas: Yes, this one is so crowded. And the ruckus they make…tch tch…
(Joseph jumps up in panic from his folded position on the floor. Vitthal Rao is on his feet, pulling Ramdas by the hand.)
Joseph: I think Grandpa here needs some rest.
Inspector: Grandpa? But did you not say you were like a son?
Joseph: Yes. Son. With an elderly father. An old, old father…
Vitthal Rao: We will have guests soon. Our children are visiting from abroad. This house is too small…
Inspector: Ah! THEY must have copies of your IDs then! Ask them to send the documents to you on your phone.
Ramdas: We don’t have a phone. I told him, he won’t get one. Tch tch.
Vitthal Rao: We will let you know when they arrive, Inspector.
Inspector: No phone at all? How do you speak to your children?
Joseph: Sir they use my phone…psst… Silly old men, really.
(He walks out of the door and then turns abruptly.)
Inspector: How old are you, gentlemen?
(Joseph leaps in front of Ramdas and screens him from the Inspector.)
Vitthal Rao: I am seventy, and my friend here is seventy-five or so…
Ramdas(Peeking from behind Joseph): We stopped counting when…
(Now Vitthal Rao begins coughing.)
Joseph: Ha ha ha…Grandpa has lost control over his bladder, but his sense of humour remains intact!
Vitthal Rao is still coughing. Inspector Gole wipes his sweaty, bald forehead, all the while eyeing the sluggishly rotating ceiling fan.
Inspector: It is awfully hot, isn’t it? How do you gentlemen manage with this fan? Do you need help with calling a repairman?
Vittal Rao (Rising and escorting the inspector out of the house): We will just shift to the new house with the better fan…
Ramdas: No, no. We stay here. THEY move out! Right, Jo?
(Joseph nods, gesturing him to keep silent.)
Inspector(Narrowing his eyes): Right. Besides, you don’t seem to be sweating at all! (Laughs).
Joseph: That’s because they are…
Inspector (sarcastically): Old. I know. In any case, give me a call once the children are here. The police verification will only be completed once I look at the documents.
(The Inspector walks out the door, glaring at Joseph, who waves subserviently at him.
Meanwhile, Ramdas is seated on his sofa, muttering.).
Ramdas: Make him forget, make him forget, trivialities and this and that, Dumbum bham bham…
Vitthal Rao: Stop! That does not work with us anymore, you said it yourself!
Ramdas: Oh yes, it will. Joseph can and will do anything we want. Jo, my boy, chant with me…
Time: Two days before
Place: The library on the top floor of the bungalow, late evening.
A Hindi song plays on the transistor radio. Ramdas is nodding his head, absorbed in the music.
Vitthal Rao sits on a rocking chair, his spectacles dangling on a string around his neck. Joseph is standing in front of Vitthal Rao, his hands folded behind his back.
Vitthal Rao (clenching his teeth): Ramdas, how many times do I have to tell you not to get the radio to the library?
Ramdas: It drowns out the noise from the rest of the house. I’m helping you build silence. What say, Jo? (He winks at Joseph.)
Vitthal Rao (Fixing his stern gaze on Joseph): We are permitting you to stay in this house under extraordinary circumstances. You must be our face to the world. You must not ask too many questions.
(Joseph nods in agreement.)
CRASH! (Sound of glass breaking)
Vitthal Rao: (Raises his voice)...What is it?
A lady’s voice is heard from downstairs…”Nothing. The little one fell off the terrace with a vase in his hand!”
Ramdas: Tch, tch…ask her to clean up. I hate stepping on shards of glass, even now.
Vitthal Rao: These monsters! Not a moment of peace since they entered our lives!
Ramdas: I wonder if we have a right to complain about our LIVES.
Vitthal Rao: Why don’t you take inspiration from your sculptures and stay mute?
(Ramdas chuckles, then cups his palm around his ear…Shhh…Can you hear that? Madhu is dancing again…
Joseph looks up, alarmed. The sound of anklets is loud and clear. Chhan, chhan.)
Vitthal Rao (his gaze seems softened): You must stay in this house till your job is done. You might hear sounds, you know…or see people walking around the house…
Joseph: Are there OTHERS living here?
Vitthal Rao: Ah, well. Yes, there are. Far too many. This is Kalaa Sadan- A haven for artists. There is bound to be an activity where there is creativity. But that is not your concern. You just remember we are the only two occupants of this house.
Joseph: And you remember your end of the bargain?
Vitthal Rao: Yes, you will have the masterpieces you chose. We will let you have them the day we get the other house on rent, and let these noisemakers out.
Joseph: And you relinquish your claim on those? I want no trouble selling them.
Ramdas: (His eyes bulging) You are selling those people off? Does someone WANT them?
Vitthal Rao: You’ve really become as dumb as your sculptures.
Joseph: Why is it so dark? Shall I turn on the lights?
Ramdas: Look around, my boy. There ARE none. No water either. Who do you think would pay the bills?
Vitthal Rao: Get back the lights and the water, before the police come for verification. Remember to keep your curiosity to the bare minimum. And you might need to cover up for Ramdas here. He is a dearie but understands little of the world today.
Ramdas turns up the volume on the radio. A Hindi song plays…
Aage bhi jaane na tu,
Peeche bhi jaane na tu,
Jo bhi hai, bas yahi ek pal hai.
Time: A week before
Place: The drawing room, ‘Kalaa Sadan’
Ramdas and Vitthal Rao are seated on the sofa with their feet drawn up, and their knees touching their chests.
A fat man is talking to an extremely thin lady about his upcoming book. A girl of fourteen sits on a stool, playing the violin. The sound of different musical instruments is heard drifting from the top floor. This is punctuated by the tapping of fingers furiously typing on the laptops, a dozen writers are seated in the courtyard.
Ramdas begins tuning his radio.
Vitthal Rao: No! For heaven’s sake! Don’t add your radio to this pandemonium.
Ramdas: Pandemic-induced pandemonium.
Vitthal Rao: Oh yes! Who would have thought staying at home would make an artist out of so many?
Ramdas: Who would have thought the pandemic would kill as many?
THAK! THAK! THAK! (Hammering sound heard from the balcony of the bedroom)
Vitthal Rao: Stop that! The neighbours can hear you!
Ramdas: It is the young sculptor. Sincere chap.
A lanky writer gets up with his satchel and begins walking towards the front yard. Vitthal Rao grabs him by the collar.
Lanky writer: What? I need to sit in the open, to let my ideas flow.
Vitthal Rao: Get in! You could be seen by the neighbours!
Lanky writer (Releasing himself from the old man’s grip and walking out): Alright. I won’t be seen.
Vitthal Rao: We are losing control. This no longer seems like the haven of artists I had visualized.
Ramdas: Much as I hate it, I agree with you on this one point. There is too much traffic here. And Madhu is so rattled, she seems to have stopped dancing altogether. I find my days meaningless if I don’t see her smile.
Vitthal Rao: Stop acting like a lovelorn boy, old man! Madhu does not have a single tooth left.
Ramdas: Our love is eternal. I was thinking of…
Vitthal Rao: Stop thinking! She will not marry you, she is a free soul. Besides, if you keep up your creepy ways, she might decide to leave with this new bunch of artists.
Ramdas( Pulling at his earlobes): No, she cant! She is a part of the first generation of occupants of Kalaa Sadan. She will always remain here.
Vitthal Rao (in a hushed tone): In that case, you must agree with my idea. We must rent out a new premise and let these youngsters stay there. Let us continue to live and pursue our art in peace.
Ramdas (in a faux hushed manner, with his voice loud enough to be heard by the neighbours): These imbeciles no nothing of living incognito! How could we leave them alone?
All noise stops suddenly. All eyes are on the two friends.
Vitthal Rao slaps his forehead. The bunch of writers begins sobbing. The musicians begin closing in on Vitthal Rao.
Chorus: Are you abandoning us?
Vitthal Rao: Of course not! We would never have admitted you if we did not want you here.
(A few writers are still sobbing)
Ramdas: There, there…don’t you cry…there can never be too many artists. There is always space for more art!
Vitthal Rao: But the neighbours might grow suspicious. We must keep up appearances if we want to exist, right?
Vitthal Rao walks to the centre of the room. His broad frame seems poised, he peers at the crowd from over his spectacles.
There is a clinking of anklets, as an elegant old lady steps out of the bedroom on the top floor. Ramdas looks in her direction and breaks into a smile. She looks past him.
Ramdas: Did you see that, Vitthal? Madhu ignored me as if I were a ghost! Ha ha!
The crowd grunts in disapproval, even as Madhu rolls her eyes and tucks in the stray strands of silver hair in her bun.
Vitthal Rao: When I first opened the doors of this house for artists, with my dear friend Ramdas, he was a sensible man. And together, we had hoped to provide a haven for creators and worshippers of art, of course, with very specific terms and conditions.
Ramdas (interrupting Vitthal Rao): The conditions changed in this pandemic, and the terms were not clear…And that is how all of you are here…(chuckles)
Vitthal Rao (assuming an exasperated expression): True to our vision before dementia took over Ramdas, we welcomed you all with open arms.
(The crowd claps.)
Vitthal Rao (gestures to them to maintain silence): But the world out there is not as welcoming. They ask questions- Where are you from? When were you born? What do you do? And we do not have answers.
Ramdas (Raising his hand in opposition): We have answers, but they will not be able to digest them!
(Thunderous applause from the crowd)
Madhu: Shhh…they must not hear!
Vitthal Rao: You youngsters know well, these days you need a lot of papers to prove you exist! And the few papers we have on ourselves only weaken our case. If we are aiming to let our tribe grow, we need another house. And we need someone to finish the formalities.
Madhu: How about that joker who keeps begging to sell your pieces on the black market?
Vitthal Rao: Brilliant suggestion! Madhu, I cannot tell you how valuable you have been in nurturing Kalaa Sadan…
Ramdas: Don’t worry. I shall tell her. Meanwhile, you could proceed with your speech. ( He walks in Madhu’s direction, but stops in alarm. Madhu is nowhere to be seen.)
Vitthal Rao: Stop haunting her, you fool. She must be around. ( Directing his gaze to the crowd around him)…I need your support. You must neither be heard nor be seen when that joker Joseph walks into the house.
Ramdas: Behave like you are dead for some time!
The entire crowd glares at Ramdas. He smiles, but no one returns his smile. He turns on the radio, indicating that the meeting is adjourned.
A Hindi song plays,
Naam gum jaayega,
Chehra ye badal jayega,
Meri aawaaz hi pehchaan hai,
Gar yaad rahe.
Time: The year 1986
Place: The drawing room, with the same sofa.
The paint on the walls looks fresh. Ramdas and Vitthal das look the same as in the previous act. Ramdas is carving a stone sculpture of a man setting a sparrow free in the corner of the room. He taps the back of his chisel deftly with the other hand, even as he nods to the music playing on the radio.
Vitthaldas enters the room with an old lady. They stand in silence, observing Ramdas at work.
The baritone on the radio announces,
Jee haan, behno aur bhaiyon, Main hoon aapka dost Ameen Sayani, aur aap sun rahe hain Binaca Geetmala.
The lady, Madhu, is keenly observing the paintings on the wall. The life-like portraits are done in stark and bright colours.
Madhu: These bear the mark of a genius.
Vitthal Rao is about to acknowledge the compliment when Ramdas looks up startled by their voices.
Ramdas(scowling): Is she the new entrant you spoke about? (He looks into her kohl-rimmed eyes, and he takes a short gasp.)
Vitthal Rao: Yes. She is Ms. Madhu, a Kathak dancer. From Gwalior, right?
Madhu: Right. I am indebted to you for letting me be a part of your umm…venture.
Ramdas (smiling broadly): No, this is just our attempt to keep art alive…I mean…not that it is dead…we are…I mean…you are…
Vitthal Rao: You are welcome, and he is an idiot when it comes to speaking with ladies.
Madhu: I am still puzzled…I mean…I do not remember how I ended up at your doorstep. The last thing I remember is I was on my bed in my house, surrounded by my grandchildren…And then I saw you opening the door…
Vitthal Rao: We are confused ourselves. We had no idea our …um…endeavour was part of public knowledge. We have lived confined lives…you know…
Ramdas: I think destiny brought you here. You must love your art beyond measure.
Madhu (Looks past Ramdas, and gives a grateful smile to Vitthal Rao, revealing a total absence of teeth): The freedom to dance whenever I desire- I could ask for nothing more. I could die of happiness!
(Ramdas looks delighted, Vitthal Rao shakes his head in disapproval.)
A Hindi song is heard in the background,
Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai,
Aaj phir marne ka irada hai.
Time: The year 1980. Evening, 7pm
Place: The drawing room at Kalaa Sadan.
There is no sculpture in the room, and a single painting is displayed on the wall facing the main door. There is a toran of fresh marigolds and Ashoka leaves over the door.
Ramdas and VitthalRao are sitting on the sofa, which does not creak on being sat upon. There is a stool with two glasses and a bottle of whiskey in front of them. Ramdas is pouring them a drink.
The radio plays in the background.
Ramdas: Are you sure, my friend? What you are asking is not easy.
Vitthal Rao: I know. But think about it. The only thing I have ever truly, deeply wished for in my life is for me to practice my art in peace. When I am painting, I lose track of time. This pain, which has become a constant companion since cancer took hold of my lungs seems to vanish. (He gets a lump in his throat, and washes it down with the glass full of whiskey).
Ramdas: You have been brave, my friend. And I agree, there is nothing more to me than my art. I do not even have a family, not because I did not want one, but because my art filled up my life to the brim! This orphan did not miss a family!
Vitthal Rao: Oh come on! You do not have a family because you are a blithering idiot around ladies. Remember that dancer from fine arts college? What was her name…
Ramdas: Madhu…she is married, has a couple of kids and a dozen grandchildren. I bet she did not even know of my existence. (He drains his glass and refills it.)
Vitthal Rao (hiccups): Hic…hic…but we are getting distracted. I do not have much time left. Just tell me, would you do it? Hic…I know you are capable of it. Can you make a man cross to the other realm and still let him stay back in this world?
Ramdas: (laughs aloud) I can. But here is my condition. I go with you. Tell me, yes, and I will do it.
Vitthal Das (Gets up with a jerk): Impossible! You are healthy, you have a full life looking you in the face!
Ramdas: An orphan with no one behind me. You are my best friend. What have I to lose? Let us cross together.
Vitthal Das: I do have my wife…she left before me. Do you think she might be waiting at the next stop…or whatever they call the destination after death? If I stay back after my death…
Ramdas: Have you not troubled her enough, you moody old man! She deserves better! (slaps his friend on the back)
Vitthal Rao (Laughs hysterically): Cheers to that! Cough! Cough!
Ramdas: Any last-minute wishes, my friend?
Vitthal Rao: None. They say art is immortal. It is only fitting that the creator of the art is given relaxation from a finite lifetime. A lifetime is not enough to make art, whatever form it may be.
Ramdas (Sitting up straight, he closes his eyes): True. May we continue to live here, and do what we do best. We are blessed, we did not chase fame. May we continue to create masterpieces, The world did not recognize us in this lifetime, may it fail to recognize us beyond as well!
Vitthal Rao: Cheers!
Ramdas (chanting): Am…bham….may we begin at the end…balooran thooran….may we stay back at the bend…..ambham bham….
Vitthal Rao: This mumble jumble does not sound like dark magic…are you scamming a dying man?
Ramdas: You keep wondering. You have all eternity to figure it out!
(Both of them suddenly begin shivering, first slowly, then violently. There is thunder in the background, and a sudden gush of wind bangs the door shut).
Vitthal Rao: Hey, wait! We should have stocked up on raw materials…paints, plaster of Paris, glue, and brushes….can ghosts do magic?
Ramdas: No. The lowly version of ghosts that we are turning into, are pretty much handicapped. They can’t do black magic. Only mortals can. But don’t worry, ghosts can steal! (winks).
A Hindi song plays on the radio
Jeena yahaan, marna yahaan, iske siva jaana kahaan,
Jee chahe jab humko awaaz do, hum hain yahin, hum the jahaan.
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