“And Then?” A Kind-Of-Review

Word Count: 2446


Ayush Mukherjee

Ayush is a writer of low-key romances and slice-of-life fiction. A theorist at heart, he can often be spotted at conventional nooks of isolation around the city—atop library shelves and behind coffee spoons. He is opinionated about trivial matters and plans to realize fiction as a tool of import within classrooms. His works are not too many and far between.

Let us call this piece an interruption.

My plan was to write a series of posts detailing our criteria for selecting stories for State of Matter. I would start, as I did in the last post, with the movie Ratatouille and the problematics of time when we encounter something ‘novel’. To understand something as new, I would argue, is to understand it as a rupture in time. The next entry would be inspired by Auster’s New York Trilogy, and the motif of the detective that he builds, and how a character becomes the sinkhole for everybody else. However, between these pieces, a rift has opened up. A new temporality, it would seem, has revealed itself.

Last month, Tahatto put up its play, Love in the Cholera of Time. A review, it would seem, has demanded itself.

The play has aged past its initial runs. Last year, when Jagriti Theatre put it up, a friend brought it to my attention. He told me that it combined many of my interests: time, Marquez, meta-textuality, the experience of non-linearity, the theatre, the incorporation of an audience in what is supposed to be a contained act, the body and its orientations and its movement — themes that escape conventional discussion. Since that day, and until this kind-of-review is published, I am already a few beats of the cosmos too late. Tahatto has organised this play multiple times in different cities, most recently in Delhi.

Perhaps the review would be better suited if I could point to an upcoming show and link to it. That does not seem possible right now. Then again, I may defer to the celebration of non-linearity within the play, hoping that not all of the past is lost, and not all of a future is exhausted in anticipation.

This delay gives my kind-of-review some breathing space. Other places (see reviews in The Hindu and Indulge Express, for instance) have already spoken about the motivation, preparation and organisation of the play. But because I am late, I can skimp on the summaries, the temptations, the causal linkages from page to stage. This review might be stationed outside of chronological time. Let us call this a transverse time, and remember Bachelard again,1 who tells us that the present instant, the now, sits resolutely outside of the continuous flow of time. He says that in this now, we may experience a multiplicity of experience, without necessarily arguing what comes before and what comes after. We may ask then what it would be to review a work of art, a play, a composition, a story, standing not before nor after the piece, but by its side, or vertically above it. What must we speak about to speak about the play?

Time? Cholera? Or just plain old love? Perhaps, like Bachelard proposes, I need to be inspired by a poetic image, allow its reverberations to unsettle me.

Let me start with time. Let me also be pedantic for a moment, revisiting that century-old scientific breakthrough that is Einsteinian relativity. Einstein, invoked in the descriptions of the play, proposes that space-time does not offer us a certain Archimedean position. In his careful descriptions, clocks and rulers lose their solidity: they stretch and skew, they enmesh what they measure (time, space, time-space!) and they demand always a trace of where they measure it from.2 In doing so, Einstein upsets our tripartite categories of time. No longer is time merely a matter of the past behind the present behind the future! A new category appears: the “absolute elsewhere”, that livezone of other happenings from which light cannot make it to the ‘here-now’, or to where light from here-now may not reach. This may just be the transverse zone (of escape? of desire? of political possibility?) in which the past reaches out to a different life, from which the future will have eventually become possible.3

It seems that in these places, we come unstuck in time. Like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse V, who found himself loosened in the temporal flow, the characters of the play find themselves pushed outside the here-now, outside enclosures (of marriage, of prison), to meet in an other-zone. Where? When? In a time neither His nor Hers, not in-between either. The play opens with a juxtaposition outside prosaic time: a playful sort of beginning that has no ‘bearing’ upon a strict sequence of events the way conventional narratives do. What if the moon was made of cheese? Not a what-if that burgeons into a science fiction narrative, but a what-if unburdened from its own future. The question leads nowhere important, but is revived again and again, gaining currency in its recurrence. The first rule of the other-zone is that there is no rigorous plot: there is just idyllic romance around the moon, which splits, like Debussy’s reprises, throughout the play.

If I were to point to the strength of the play, I would point to this… this playfulness of its scenes. A play as play, whoever could think of that! Notice at the same time the sheer fluidity with which it indulges its audience in the time-settings of its characters. Almost to the extent where you feel that it is your anticipation that makes characters meet and speak on stage. To an extent where the audience intimately perceives multiple modalities at work: a visuality among the cast interacting with the stage, the rising music, that artistic sensibility of time that we insipidly call pacing

But the critic is condemned to seriously engage even with playfulness! To speak a little about the stylistics and the themes of the production.

We folks begin as beings with brute speech; art, perhaps, is our development into nuanced language. When we first come across Einsteinian time, we say, “Time is non-linear,” to sketch its broad contours. Linearity is a Cartesian gridline; it is to act per rules, to realise freedom with reference to an overarching rulebook. Chronology is linearity in time. The play’s the thing that substantiates non-linearity: in marking time this way or that, it points us toward the dramatic curve that our own lives occupy. Is time all-knowing? Is all already known? Can there be no surprise from this moment to the next?

The distance between a broad non-chronology — the time guardians would explain to you as the play begins — and how the act will be chronologically structured for ‘you’, the viewer, is what sets up its tension. There are, on one hand, the themes of destiny and certainty. The Nation is under construction; we know that it will become independent; that is history. Our own world will see the proliferation of dehumanisation, such as the business of deleting old social media accounts; we may predict this much future; that is sociopolitics.4 The power of a thousand Black Holes will be unleashed; the device that the actor hands the audience member must be of some import; that is good storytelling! On the other hand, there is desire, there is the possibility of chance. Will He and She meet again? Might the Moon be really made of cheese?5 The play shores up and lets go of this tension with metric certainty, playing upon an irony with the audience. And this too is its way of drawing the audience into its own telling. Here, when He reveals a fact that is Her proper future, the audience is in on the joke — we laugh at the characters. There, when the audience is treated as mere ‘humans’, limited in the way they understand time, the audience is the butt of the joke — we laugh at ourselves. And then, when someone asks out loud, “What sort of a question is And then?” we are not sure what to laugh at, because so central is this question to the telling of a story that the joke seems targeted to every one of us, the actors, the audience, the fictional characters, the multiple allusions, perhaps even the city itself.

Enough about time; there is also cholera and love, the signals for passion and romance, evoking that strange combination that is Marquez’ story.6

Marquez gives us Him and Her, Florentino and Fermina, whose soft names constantly interrupt the world of the novel. Cholera, water-borne, a disease from the very thing that must sustain you, is perhaps in this regard much like love. And I have “confused cholera with love, of course” like Marquez’ character. The afflicted man in either case displays all the signs of a lack of health, a paleness that persists somewhere deeper than his bones. His passions run wild; he retches his insides out. Bleeding from every orifice, he realises that he is a dead man walking, talking, acting out a part not his own. Love, the choleric kind, erupts. Perhaps, love in the cholera of time should erupt too. That evocation is missed in the play; that kind of love impinges itself as an absence in the play. That feels like a loss.

What is this temporal syndrome, this ‘cholera-of-time’? In his landmark work on perception, Merleau-Ponty says that time-instants are telegraphed, embodied totalities7 — you find yourself a Russian doll, stacked as moment within moment within moment, each moment a full life — and that moments do not die, but remain open like a wound. Love, the choleric kind, then, persists multiply and totally because you encounter it along many worldlines, chaotically and surprisingly arranged. A full life here, and here again, and then, and then again. What better way to tell a love story then than to tell it as a series of images that stand relatively alone, among which you see not at first a narrative but a reverberation, where scenes do not follow or precede other scenes but contract them, like one contracts an illness. What is written now exists autonomously in the past: a letter, a rose find themselves travelling in time, characters have memories of the future and anticipate the past. And just like that, life is brought up short by time.

Surely the operational concept is that of movement. Surely, disturbing the nature of time must cause paradoxes of motion. If love may be encountered along all possible worldlines, if I may enter it faltering and stumbling, open doors to it and briskly walk in, be whisked away into the past or slip, violating some physical laws, into the absolute elsewhere of my own existence, how may I go about making such a huge range of motion possible? The characters must mount a difficulty with an obvious answer, that which in Boulder,8 Baltasar explains with surprising clarity, “But all this tunneling has opened rifts through which the captive parts of me have started to emerge.” Against the inner borders of the tripartite stage-set, the characters must thrust and recede and tunnel: at the right time, after all, these borders have to be transgressed for Him and Her to appear elsewhere. It feels in such moments of transgression that the extended gag to open a door for a performance appraisal, or the conversation with a parent across prison walls — that these are conditioning possibilities; that these mundane motions make the extraordinary flights of the characters possible. The play hints at these minor confinements, these minor escapes, until it is time for a major escape, a major stumbling into a transverse world with another. If there is a concern, it is only that these possibilities skew more toward Him than Her, that He has been apportioned more of the conditions of motion than She.

But let me not nitpick here. Let me insist that in the play, love possesses some allure. Love’s preferred symbol, like in poetry, is the moon. Here, the play becomes indulgent, especially with Debussy’s Clair de Lune. The moon, like in Calvino’s cosmology, becomes desire and its fulfilment, fantasy and its reason, the promise of and pining for love. The moon, we are told, holds hands with the earth the way lovers must hold hands. Scientifically, it is of interest that the moon is a poor companion: it is drifting away from us a little each day. Scientifically, it is also of interest that the earth and the moon do not hold hands; their motion is, perhaps, best described as falling past each other at immense speeds, a constant choreography of sidestepping the other. There is thus in this romance, some wish-fulfilment, some pure fiction. Surely, something in this romance might interrupt the celestial motion of the planets. Surely, something in this romance might even stop time.

Of course, that happens… In perhaps one of the more explosive displays of telling a story, time slows. The actors slowly lunge at one another, falling past one another with insufficient speed. It is the acting out of slow motion, an effect which might be borrowed partly from slapstick, partly from old Bollywood, partly from the history of movement on stage. It is cathartic (look, the device that had been foreshadowed has been used!), comical (look they are jumping and tumbling!), intense (where is this sequence going?). Almost everybody who walked out of the theatre with me marvelled at this sequence. Weeks later, they could remember the visuals from the scene. “Like a movie,” said someone, offering that paradigmatic comparison that we often make for excellence in visuality. “Like time actually slowed,” said someone else, as if time actually hadn’t! My favourite comparison comes from a friend who has the disappointing habit of stating the answer obviously embedded in the question. “Like in love,” they said.

Yes, like that.


Notes

  1. Bachelard, G. (2013). Intuition of the instant (E. Rizo-Patron, Trans.). Northwestern University Press. (Original work published 1932).
  2. Ismael, J. (2021). Time: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press. See sections on Einstein for a quick summary. Most of the reproduction here is succinctly presented in Ismael’s work.
  3. It is tempting here to cite so much of Bergson, whose historic debate with Einstein spells out much of twentieth-century tussles between the great disciplines. See for instance:
    Bergson, H, (1930). The possible and the real (DVL, Trans.). Bergsonian.org. https://bergsonian.org/the-possible-and-the-real/
  4. Here, of course, a host of texts come to mind. For a relatively accessible and recent TV series, see Upload.
    Daniels, G. (2020). Upload. Amazon Prime Video.
  5. Of course, one does not talk about the Moon this way and forget Calvino’s Cosmicomics, and the many degrees of desire and liminality that it suggests.
    Calvino, I. (2010). The complete cosmicomics. Penguin. (Originally published 1965).
  6. Márquez, G. G. (2003). Love in the time of cholera (E. Grossman, Trans.). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. (Originally published 1985).
  7. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945). Phenomenology of perception. Routledge.
  8. Baltasar, E. (2022). Boulder (J. Sanches, Trans.). And Other Stories.