Akbar, my occasional partner at literary Snakes and Ladders, wants to write a story with me as its main character. It’s taken him six months and he’s only written a few pages. The problem, he says, is not in presenting me, but in fictionalising himself.
I’ve just published a book I’ve subtitled Instead of an Autobiography; I’ve been thinking about self-representation. Why, my niece Leia asked me, is my surrogate in some of my fictions called Murad, in others Mehran and Aamer in yet others? Those adopted names give me the freedom to be someone else, but also free me into the landscape of a particular story — calling myself by my own name burdens me with memory and fact.
Another question I’m often asked: when do I fictionalise others? Recent commentators assume that a procession of characters taken directly from life troops through all my books, but that isn’t so. Fahmida Riaz once asked me how I create composite (or invented) characters. I said, elements of people I know enter my fictions, but the moment I call a work a column, a reminiscence, or an obituary, I’ll immediately feel responsible to the people, alive or dead, that I portray.
These thoughts were at the borders of my mind when a slim, beautiful volume came through my letterbox a week ago: Manipuri writer M.K. Binodini’s play Crimson Rainclouds. The Maharaja’s Household: A Daughter’s Memoirs of Her Father — the first book by Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi (1922-2011) to be translated into English — was a chronicle of the royal family of her father and forebears. She played a minor part as witness and listener in this detailed, loving portrayal of a culture in its declining years, and of the strong noblewomen whose lives were nevertheless governed by polygamy and the politics of class and gender.
This September, I read The Princess and the Political Agent, Binodini’s story of her paternal aunt, Sanatombi, who had run away with Maxwell, the eponymous agent. She decided to write it as historical fiction, using a novelist’s imaginative licence to recreate an era she hadn’t directly witnessed. She gave her heroine an interiority that possibly had much in common with her experiences a generation later, though Binodini herself, unlike her tragic aunt, escaped the confines of privilege to claim a university education. She became a sculptor, artist and, notably, a writer in many genres.
One of Binodini’s preoccupations in both memoir and novel is to foreground the cruelties and injustices perpetrated by the British on the little kingdom of Manipur that considered itself autonomous until the late 19th century. No apologist for her culture, Binodini juxtaposes outworn feudal traditions with a striving for modernity. Given her autobiographical impulse, it isn’t surprising that her son introduces this play, too, as a fictionalised version of Binodini’s platonic friendship with her mentor Ramkikar Baij, a Bengali artist who painted several portraits of her during her years in Santiniketan.
Rather than biography, however, Binodini’s preoccupation in this quasi-existentialist piece about freedom and responsibility is to dramatise the inner and outer conflicts of her protagonists through the social strictures an idealistic artist encounters and the choices open to women.
Crimson Rainclouds is set in the art world in an unnamed city. It doesn’t delve into political complexity, but covers a short period in the life of the very talented and unworldly Gautam, whose childhood friend and muse Indu, a pragmatic young teacher, tries to persuade him to take a teaching job while he is curating an exhibition of his paintings.
A third character, Keinatombi, who sells betel in a nearby shop, also hovers protectively around Gautam, who is alternately inspired by her and neglects her. The play’s emotional triangle of one-sided desire, separation and hope resembles the better Indian films of the 1950s and ’60s (the play was written in ‘67). It also bears a passing resemblance to the painting-inspired fictions of Binodini’s Punjabi contemporary, Amrita Pritam. With minor changes, it could be adapted for contemporary Pakistani audiences.
At first, one might think — since we’ve been informed of the play’s biographical content by Binodini’s son and translator, L. Somi Roy — that its setting is Calcutta: there are, for example, constant citations of Rabindranath Tagore. But as the story develops, we realise, through a scattering of references (helpful to the foreign reader), that we are in Manipur’s capital, Imphal. The displaced peasant Keinatombi, in contrast to the urbanised Gautam and Indu who could belong to any part of South Asia, is a living personification of Manipur’s beautiful hinterlands.
I hadn’t heard of Baij, though this volume is beautifully embellished with his portraits of the young Binodini. The biographical element didn’t much concern me. Gautam, for all his modern ways, is depicted as a modern Manipuri, painting in a far more confined milieu than that of mid-20th century Calcutta. Our assumption, then, is that, rather being true to real-life events, Binodini mindfully explores the relationship between an artist and his two muses, and the struggles between economic practicalities and artistic and personal freedom (freedom is a recurrent word in the play).
I also watched My Son, My Precious, an exquisite film scripted by the author. Woman-centred and set among ordinary people, it displayed Binodini’s deep connection with Manipur’s working classes and peasants, in contrast to her later prose works. On second reading, it’s Keinatombi who personifies this connection in Crimson Rainclouds. If Gautam’s rebellion was inspired by Baij, was Binodini dividing her own experiences with an artist-mentor between her play’s female protagonists? We can’t know, but let’s look at some of the strong female characters in her work.
In The Princess and the Political Agent, Sanatombi is repudiated by her dull husband when he suspects her of an affair with Maxwell. However, the power of tradition and the pull of homeland ultimately reclaim her and she dies in despair.
Indu chooses a conventional existence. But Keinatombi decides to leave chaotic Imphal, not for a man, but for a fuller life in her native village. She offers Gautam a journey to a living landscape of crimson rainclouds, with the knowledge that freedom, artistic or emotional, comes with its own responsibilities.
The columnist is a London-based novelist and short story writer
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 17th, 2021