`The plays are relevant to our own times as they draw attention to the fundamentalisms existing within one's own religion making it almost impossible to hear voices counselling sanity.'
Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.
T.S. Eliot, `Burnt Norton'
ELIOT'S "Murder in the Cathedral" and Vajahat's "Jis Lahore na dekhya voh janmya nahin" are pieces of poetic drama with some stunning resonances. Both conceive of murder as martyrdom lending greater meaning to a struggle between the conventional forces of good and evil. They celebrate martyrdom, however, rather than demystify it.
"Jis Lahore na dekhya voh janmya nahin" is set in post-Partition Lahore where a 22-roomed haveli is allotted to a Muslim refugee family from east Punjab. In it they find one of the original inhabitants an old stubborn Hindu woman who refuses to leave. Subsequent events find the old Hindu and the new Muslims living harmoniously and the woman, referred to as Rattan di ma (Rattan's mother) is permitted to light diyas during Diwali. The harmony within is marred, however, by the constant threats of a goonda and his followers who find this living situation sacrilegious. The neighbourhood Maulvi responds with an interpretation of Islam as a religion of love and toleration. When Rattan di ma dies, there is a heated discussion on the disposal of her body: the Maulvi wins and she is cremated. Those in the neighbourhood who feel the Maulvi has crossed the boundaries of their faith then murder him when he is saying his prayers.
"Murder in the Cathedral" is a play about Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Henry. King Henry had accorded Chancellor Becket the title of Archbishop hoping that he could perform both jobs bearing in mind his radical views about the separation of church and the state. On the face of it, there is disagreement between him and the king's men but at a deeper level the actual conflict lies between Becket and his conscience. His inability to serve these two opposing masters results in his death and subsequent martyrdom, delving the play deep into the spiritual and temporal quarrels of Christendom. Just as Christ had Tempters, Becket is offered power and material wealth in exchange for altering his principles. The archbishop proclaims, "I shall no longer act or suffer to the sword's end. I give my life to the law of God above the law of man". The plays draw our attention to the futility involved in the act of killing: the chorus helps us transit from fearing the unknown to accepting God:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet/ faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works
And days of hands.
The murder in both the plays does not compel an affirmation of faith despite the power of an individual's faith. They intrigue and leave us both exalted and sceptical because the pious have been taken in by another holy fraud, what is more, on the sacred site of martyrdom itself. The same emotions are articulated by a poet, Akhtar Azmi, who agrees with the Maulvi:
Gaye dinon ka surag lekar kidhar se aaya kidhar gaya voh
Ajeeb maanas ajnabi tha mujhe to hairan kar gaya voh ...
Voh hijr ki raat ka sitara voh hum nafas hum sukhan hamara
Sadaa rahe uska naam pyara, suna hai kal raat mar gaya voh.
(Holding the secret of the Ages, where did he come from and go
a unique man who confounded me
my constant companion, like the star on the night of separation
May he be for ever loved, I heard he died last night.)
There are no answers. Questions build on each other, taking a new form. The meaning of that lost life lies in its power to capture a moment of possibility and accommodation in conflict. With the passing away of good men is the death of basic human values and conscience. Like the poetic music interludes in "Jis Lahore na dekhya voh janmya nahin", the Chorus in "Murder in the Cathedral" reflects the quandary of the human soul in verse.
The plays are relevant to our own times as they draw attention to the fundamentalisms existing within one's own religion making it almost impossible to hear voices counselling sanity. Our own response to martyrdom, contrived or real, is important because single acts of murder have been replaced by a vast democratisation of violence in our society today.
JYOTI NAIR BELLIAPPA
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