By Arunava Sinha
King: The two of you wander about the island of cards restlessly - you swim in the water, climb hills, clear paths through the forests with an axe. Why?
Prince: You people keep sitting up, twisting to the side, turning your backs, rolling on the ground. Why?
King: Such is our custom.
Prince: Such is our desire.
King: That's dangerous. Desire in this land of cards! What do you think, friends?
Rabindranath Tagore was nothing if not a master of timing. When he wrote Tasher Desh (The Land of Cards), apparently a musical for children, in the early 1930s, Adolf Hitler's star was in the ascendance. The parallels between people so regimented that they had been reduced to playing cards — forever moving in rectangular patterns and happy with the resultant lack of chaos — and Hitler's Reich were obvious.
In 2013, channelled by the redoubtable filmmaker Q aka Quashik Mukherjee into disruptive cinema, Tasher Desh suddenly appears vastly topical all over again at India's distinct prospect of soon getting a political dispensation that rules with an iron fist and does not care for diversity.
But it isn't just a case of uncanny similarities, with a little stretch of the imagination, between the story of Tasher Desh and present-day realities. What Tagore does is more interesting: his story doesn't deal with the creation of the Fascist state, but with the unmaking of it at a time when it has blended with everyday existence. You could almost call it the post-Fascist state.
Conventionally, the Fascist dystopia has either a megalomaniac leader or a sinister organisation controlling everything. In Tagore's state, however, even the king is somewhat bewildered - like his subjects, all he knows is the need to adhere to the rules. This is a perceptive prediction of what could ensue when the machine efficiency of the totalitarian engine has taken over - no one remembers the origin of the change, but everyone swears by the system.
How then is such a system to be unmade? That's where the life of the mind comes in. Tasher Desh asserts that creativity, laughter, and purposeless wandering - as opposed to rote, blank faces and a focussed existence — are the ways that human beings can break free of any form of totalitarianism and reassert their identities as thinking creatures. Is all this relevant today? Is it ever irrelevant?
Written in the form of a rather one-dimensional play which is a little too allegorical to make the reality it portrays appear threatening, Tasher Desh clever conflates the notion of free will with breaking out of totalitarianism, be the latter ever so benign. Ultimately, the cards turn back into the human beings they always were simply by allowing their innate desires to overcome the convenience of custom and rules.
Adding to the contemporary relevance of the play - and, even more strongly, its new cinematic version - is the fact that the revolution among the card-people is led by the women. A third idea is thus added on: the historical subjugation and objectification of women - the queen of hearts - runs parallel to the oppressed, if simplified, lives of people in a world where the methods of dictatorship flourish even without a dictator.
Is this revolution at least partly sexual? For Q, it is. For Tagore, hints are as far as he could have gone, such as in this line of dialogue from the queen of the land of cards: "We can also exercise mandatory laws in the ladies' chambers - we'll see who exiles whom." If compulsory sex with husbands is part of the rules by which this society is driven, discretionary sex is a powerful statement of choice for everyone in general and women in particular.
Ironically, choice is also the tool of the market, and it is not incidental that the visiting prince is accompanied by his friend, the trader, who explicitly represents the interest of the market - or, if you like, of capitalism. The trader prefers order, predictability and a stable economic situation to the unshackling and exploration that the prince advocates. Nevertheless, the prince is intent on colonising new lands, and the market cannot but follow him in there. Perhaps inadvertently, Tasher Desh ends up asking which political system is better for a market economy.
Q's Tasher Desh is not, of course, for children, although the play has been performed over and over again by them at community events amongst Bengali-speaking people. Why use children to portray such a serious human condition? Could it be because Tasher Desh is, ultimately, about freedom - and that Tagore wanted the quest for freedom to begin with children?
Arunava Sinha is a translator of classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction into English.