SALT: A play by Abhishek Majumdar

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SALT: A play by Abhishek Majumdar

A disease has come in an aeroplane.

Three plates on the floor. Three balls of rice. Some Salt.

A woman and her two daughters enter the stage. Look at the audience, look at their plates.

Sit down. They perform as if they are sitting in a circle.

They are mixing the salt with the rice.

***

1

The Woman gets up

“Once upon a time, there was (pause)

Once there was (pause)

There was (pause) “

Yes.

“There was a girl who was (pause)”

“A girl once was”

“Once ..a girl..”

A short story. A really really short story. (pause) my daughters love endings.

Dislike for stories that do not end with the rice on their plate.

Rice.

(pause. She looks at it)

I work there. Over there. Clean vessels in seven houses. sweep. mop. 5 am to 1 pm.

Then I get back. Put the rice in this vessel on the stove. It takes 25 minutes to cook. They return from school. We eat. I tell them a story. A long story.

We are poor. But we eat. I earn. From that building where I clean dishes and floors. In Seven houses.

They eat. I have to stretch the story. I stretch because they want the last line to coincide with the last ball of rice.

Their father worked in construction. He made that building. Well. Almost.
Two days before it opened, he was fixing the last coat of paint on that terrace. Fell. We saw him fall. The girls were younger. They thought he was going to fly.
I screamed. They clapped.

It took 4.5 seconds I am told. For him to fall from there. and break everything except his right hand. He died with the brush in his hands. He didn’t even loosen the grip. He was thinking, I am sure, if I survive the fall, I’ll get back up and finish the work. Then go back with today’s wage and rice for tomorrow.

“Once upon a girl”

“Girls, once ..”

I was employed there. When the building opened. People came in. No one knows a man died building it. No one knows, sometimes while I am cleaning the glass and thinking to myself if I was working then, I would have seen him fall and perhaps I could have saved him. Ran down in 4.5 seconds and placed a giant mattress or a large tank of water underneath him.

We have the superhuman ability. We built this city.

We came here from the village. Together. Sat behind a tractor, with bedding and these three plates. Our youngest was too young for her own plate then. Also, we could only afford three.
Our daughters slept through the journey. We held them tight.
He said we’ll work. We’ll send them to school. We will feed them every day. Thrice. Rice. Good. Clean. Proper rice. With salt.

(pause) We’ll do it without asking. We’ll work. Not beg. We have our bodies. Your hands, my fingers, we’ll clean, cook, build whatever it takes but we’ll feed them. Rice and salt. At least.

He brought a lot of food. Lots of rice. They have always eaten well. Everyday. Except for two months between their father’s death and my first day or work. Madam was nice. Gave me an advance. We ate

3 pm. I go back. Work till 8. Come back and use this vessel again.

Rice, a vegetable, pulses and sugar two days a week.

Never asked anyone. Never begged. 7 houses. 11 hours a day. To get rice and salt. At least.

(pause)

The entire day, with all the work, I think. I think of stories.
My daughter’s love my stories. I make them up. About buildings, about parking lots, cars, drawing rooms, bedrooms and everything that they have in the apartments. My younger daughter wants to see an apartment from inside once. The elder daughter wants to own one. They love stories where these things happen to girls from the slum.

Their favourite story is about a flying man. Someone who falls off buildings but comes home with food. They eat and suddenly their house turns to an apartment and from then on they live like rich people with television programming and loneliness as their only problems.

They take very long to eat because of the story. I have to tell a long story because they take longer to eat. I practice my story throughout the day. Try to stretch it so that it lasts.

That’s the only thing my daughters want from me.

My daughters do not understand hunger. They think their stomach is filled by the story. They cry if the story does not coincide with the last bite.

A world where the food and the story do not match does not make sense to them. They eat for the story and do not listen to the story for the food.

(Smiles)

It is beautiful this age. When they believe everything I say.

I know there is no one in the world for them and their dreams will change to dreams of rice and water very soon.

Till then I have to stay alive.

I have to live to tell them stories.

The only challenge is that we have little. I can fill them with less food but it is very hard to fill them with short stories.

“Once a girl ate /”

(The girls put in the rice balls into their mouth. They chew but do not swallow. The mother watches them)

***

2

The eldest daughter gets up the mother sits.

The two girls bring the food out of their mouths and keep it on the plate again. They add a lot of salt to the plate. Start to lick it

I have found a way of making this ball of rice last. Till my mother’s story ends. She believes she is a great storyteller. She doesn’t know that we eat slowly to make our last ball of rice coincide with the last line of her story.

My sister is a baby. When our father fell she thought he was going to fly. Now she thinks, hunger is a game she is winning.

Every night she wakes up to drink water. She drinks a lot of it and does it without making any sound. She thinks we are all grown-ups so we can eat less and sleep well. She thinks an adult is a person who can starve without complaining.

I have seen the government van. It does two rounds with cooked rice twice a day. On that side of the apartments. One day I ran behind it, I was desperate to get rice. I was so desperate that I ran behind it but I was so hungry I couldn’t

(pause. Looks at her mother)

My mother is trying to tell us that we have enough food. She has filled our plate with salt and is telling us stories so that we fill ourselves with salt thinking it is rice.

The worst part is, that she thinks it is working. So every day the rice gets lesser and the salt increases.

My sister thinks it is part of being a grown-up. Last night she even asked for extra salt.

(pause)

My friend who lives on that side, met me behind the lake the other day.

Her mother too works in these apartments like mine. 7 houses. 6 hours in the morning.
6 of those again. 5 hours after dusk.
She is at home now and is not allowed through the gates. Sometimes a madam sneaks her in, in her car. She has to hide in the back seat. If they find out nothing will happen to madam she says. I will be removed from there. Forever
If she goes she risks losing 7 houses. If she doesn’t they might starve before.

A disease has come in an aeroplane. Everywhere everyone is in the same boat as us. We are starving, it is no one’s fault. We are starving like people are everywhere. For the first time, something of importance is happening to us.

I felt guilty for thinking ill of my government. If everywhere it is the same I should not expect it to feed me. Clothe me. Keep me alive for a month. Everywhere in the world, apparently people are starving.

The van passed again and I did not run. I stood with my friend, saluted it and sang the national anthem. Our stomachs rumbled, she fainted in the end, we swallowed our spit thrice in the second stanza to not miss any lines.

When the anthem finished and my friend fainted, I took some water from the lake and splashed it on her face. She opened her eyes and said “don’t worry, everywhere in the world people are fainting” and then she smiled victoriously.

I asked her what was it and she said “for the first time in my life I did something that rich people are doing”

I looked around at the apartments and said “But look the rich people are not “

She slapped me on my head and said “The world is not these few apartments. We are all one in disease”

This morning my friend died. Her mother buried her behind their house. I went and added some mud. Her father is missing since work stopped.
Her mother said he was too ashamed to ask for food. He left one night saying he wants to die of the virus that the rich have brought.

Saying this he gave her two sacks of rice and left.

Her mother did not open them because she thought they would have to return it to someone someday.

My friend died with salt in her mouth. She was found dead on a sack of rice. Apparently, in the end, she tried to open it.

(She looks at her mother)

She is trying to find a short story. A really short story that sounds long. She believes if we listen to a great story for even one bite of food, the story will fill us and the food will distract.

By the end of this, the rich will survive the virus, the poor will die of salt.

Before I die, ill tell her a really short story to tell my sister then on.

“Once a girl ate full stomach

. And died happily of a disease”

(They take the ball of rice and put it in their mouths again to chew)

***

3

The younger sister stands up. The other sister and mother are chewing the food

The other day I received a lunch packet from the government van. I was hungry, I ran behind it. The man stopped the van, looked inside and there was just one packet left. It was his.

He looked at me and smiled. Gave me the packet and left.

I think it is begging to run behind the van. Why should we have to run otherwise

I ate it. Felt very guilty. My mother and sister will win this game too. I was good for two weeks. Stayed hungry and was doing well. At most I drank some water at night to fill my stomach. Felt like killing myself after taking the food.

I thought I’ll jump into the lake and kill myself but then I thought, what if someone saves me. The exertion of drowning, will it leave me more hungry?

I saw my sister with her friend just then. She was standing on the other side and singing the national anthem with her friend. After she left I sang too. It helps. It really does. My hunger reduced. If you love your country it fills your stomach.

Since then I’ve been singing thrice a day. Just before every meal, I leave for a few minutes, stand behind a tree and sing. Now I’m winning. Yesterday our mother gave us three balls of rice. I wasted one and a half.

Yes, I did it. I want to do everything they do in the apartments. Yesterday was my first step.

My sister’s friend died. She is very upset. She is overeating as a result. She has eaten her three balls of rice 9 times yesterday. I think she is begging from the van and eating. She sleeps so well. Every night I wake up out of hunger, they are both fast asleep.

They must be eating. But I.. I will win this well.

I hear finally, finally, we have something that everyone does.

Finally, it is possible to be at one with the world.

As my mother keeps thinking of a story that will coincide with our last ball of rice, I already know of one but keep it to myself

‘ a brave girl once died by touching the rich. She didn’t die of hunger like her father. “

The mother and sister think he flew. When he was falling, I heard his stomach rumble from here.

I’ll eat all the salt I can.

Tonight, ill eat till my mother can end her story

Tomorrow, I will touch the rich.

Soon they will have an extra ball of rice

I have heard, if you die of this disease, they count your death and show it on television.

I will be the first in my family to count. Finally, we would have had something, that the rich do.

(All three of them swallow the rice balls. Long Silence. Lights fade)

(This play was commissioned by Folkteatern, Gothenburg.)

***

Abhishek Majumdar is a playwright, theatre director, teacher and scenographer based out of Bangalore and Abu Dhabi. He is the founder and ex artistic director of Indian Ensemble and Bhasha Centre of Performing Arts. He is also Associate Professor at New York University in Abu Dhabi.

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