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September 02, 2018


I would truly feel small if asked to comment on a work of art as brilliant, celebrated and so thoroughly analysed and critiqued as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. However, what prompts me today to mention this apparently minimalistic, but highly symbolic, play is what I’ve discovered for myself in its themes and characters: the uncanny resemblance with, and the analogous reflection of the state of affairs in, Pakistan.

In the varied interpretations of the play offered by critics and scholars, either distinctly existential or a mix of existential, political and religious undertones are highlighted. The play was written in French in 1948-49 and staged in Paris in 1953. It was translated into English by the playwright himself and staged in London in 1955. Some analyses make clear references to wartime and post-Second World War European politics as Beckett viewed it. Besides, some others find the longstanding Irish-English tension at play which Beckett was fully aware of and vocal about. There are some purely Freudian and ethical or biblical interpretations available as well. Indeed, art cannot be reduced to its explications, leave alone a single interpretation. But since a great piece of art and literature is allusive and multi-layered, someone sitting on the slopes of the Margalla Hills — away from Beckett and his play by nearly 7,000 kilometres and 60 years — can see himself and his times reflected in the mirror of Waiting for Godot.

This two-act play — with no change in the backdrop except for a few leaves appearing on the branches of the leafless tree in the second act — begins with Vladimir and Estragon, the main protagonists, meeting on a country road near a tree. They have — at times meaningful, but mostly trivial and absurd — conversations on diverse topics ranging from faith and feeling to carrots and boots. Vladimir looks mature and wise while Estragon is weak and dependent. Their dialogue reveals that they are waiting for a man called Godot. While they wait, another man, Pozzo, and his man-slave Lucky enter. Pozzo is on his way to the market to sell Lucky. Lucky has a leash around his neck and carries the bags and sitting stool of his master. He entertains all by dancing and then by thinking aloud. After Pozzo and Lucky leave, a boy enters and tells Vladimir that he is a messenger from Godot and that Godot will not be coming that night, but promises to come the next day.

In the second act, Vladimir and Estragon again meet near the tree to wait for Godot. Lucky and Pozzo reappear, but now Pozzo is blind and Lucky is mute. When Pozzo says that he is blind, Estragon replies: “Perhaps he can see into the future.” Pozzo doesn’t remember what had happened the night before. They leave while Vladimir and Estragon continue to wait. The boy enters again and tells Vladimir that Godot will not be coming that night either. Just as Pozzo didn’t remember meeting them, the boy also insists that he did not speak to Vladimir the night before. Vladimir and Estragon, who have also contemplated suicide in the meanwhile, now decide to leave. But again they do not move as the play ends.

In our case, Vladimir is a man from the educated middle-class who has some limited ability to philosophise and theologise before sinking into blabber and farce. Estragon is an ordinary person with a short memory and limited understanding. Both believe that a messiah will come and relieve Estragon from the pain of something as mundane as his boots that hurt and liberate Vladimir from the perils of the material and spiritual world. There comes a time in the play when you get an impression that Pozzo is, in fact, Godot. But that is not the case. Pozzo comes with his enslaved following — Lucky — with whom he has a love-hate relationship. In the first act in Pakistan during the 1970s, Pozzo could see and Lucky could dance. In the second act that we watch now in 2018, Pozzo is blind and Lucky is dumb. But perhaps Pozzo can see into the future. Godot is not coming.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 2nd, 2018