Pankaj Kapur’s Dopehri never ends: Actor discusses publishing his first book, taking Amma Bi's story to the stage

  • Dopheri, previously published in a literary journal and read on stage, begins its second life now as a novella published by HarperCollins.

  • What comes across most strongly in our conversation is that Kapur was a one-draft writer when it comes to Dopehri.

  • The title of the novella is a meditation on how loneliness accompanies afternoon time for so many women.

Two decades ago, actor Pankaj Kapur crafted an entire novella in all of four days. The central character was born the moment he put pen to page: her name would be Amma Bi, and she would live in an old Lucknow haveli. Over the years, it has been published in a literary journal and presented as a theatrical reading, witnessed by thousands (after an initial round of rejections by theatres). Titled Dopehri, it faded into the background as Kapur took on other acting, writing and direction projects. It begins its second life now as a novella published by HarperCollins.

It chronicles Amma Bi's transition from a widow haunted by isolation, with the limited company of a servant called Jumman and her late husband's friend Dr Saxena, to a woman who realises her self-worth and talents and becomes her own person. Amma Bi's recognition of herself as Mumtaz Siddqui (the name given to her after marriage; a sign of her individualism) is made possible because of the serendipitous entry of a young woman boarder into her life, called Sabiha.

Two individuals’ recognition of the novella’s potential was instrumental to its early success: a Kolkata-based friend of Kapur’s who was a writer for Satyajit Ray, who said, ‘This is literature,’ and the then-director of the National School of Drama, Ram Gopal Bajaj, who motivated him to do theatrical readings.

But officially publishing it was not on Pankaj Kapur’s mind. “It was my wife [Supriya Pathak] who found out how to go about this. She found Kanishka Gupta, an agent, who loved it. He took it to various publishing houses and I felt that Harper Collins was nice, warm – and slightly unpretentious. They were grounded, which suited my temperament; I thought I’d pick them over someone who would boast and talk about taking the book places,” he revealed during a conversation at the recently concluded Tata LiteratureLive!

The novella has also been published in English, and five people were employed to translate it; of these, Kapur picked the translation by Rahul Soni because he felt it was closest to the original Hindustani. “I think we have tried to capture the Hindustani-ness in English. It’s an exact translation, but we’ve tried to give it the flavour of the language so that we don’t lose out on the culture, the milieu, the feel… The translation is not alien, it has the warmth of the Hindustani,” he says.

 Pankaj Kapur’s Dopehri never ends: Actor discusses publishing his first book, taking Amma Bis story to the stage

The equation Amma Bi shares with her boarder Sabiha is at the very heart of Dopheri. Sabiha and she develop a bond because they both hail from Jaunpur, and this bond is nurtured because Amma Bi's resourcefulness and dedication help Sabiha finish a work project. I tell Kapur that I see Sabiha as representing an idea (rather than being a character): that people can continue to find life invigorating and meaningful in old age if they are allowed to immerse themselves in endeavours and surround themselves with people who care.

Kapur tells me he created Amma Bi and Sabiha’s relationship to showcase companionship. “I look at Sabiha as an accidental, incidental person who has come into her life. What comes forth greatly is Amma Bi’s compassion, warmth and love, for a companion who has given her more in one month than her son did. She transforms into another person and doesn’t even know that she possesses those abilities which she applies to help Sabiha. In the process, Sabiha makes her realise that she has done something that goes beyond being Amma Bi – beyond just being a relation to her husband, son or family,” he says. In this manner, Sabiha is a catalyst in the plot, but the change in Amma Bi is made possible only because of her own personality, says Kapur.

The haveli seems to be an extension of who Amma Bi is before Sabiha enters her life. The novella filled with images that suggest this:

'The sound of the azan could be heard in the distance, and as night fell the gate saw that Bi had collapsed on her bed with a thud, as if an arch in this old, lonely haveli had fallen and come to rest against one of its pillars.'

“I wrote it as a film, I always write visually. It is so that I know where everything is when I direct the story,” Kapur explains.

Anyone who has been witness to their own grandparents or other seniors become more withdrawn or isolated over time — thereby become less and less like themselves — will see the universality in Amma Bi’s story. And yet, there’s a specificity of context because of where she lives, the kind of life she leads, the social class she belongs to. Why did Kapur decide to set the story in Lucknow? “When I sat down to write, the first words I penned were ‘Amma Bi’. The name is why it went to Lucknow, into that culture, the atmosphere, the people around, the kind of language I used — it just flowed. It was not deliberate at all. In my other writings, there is a certain deliberation that happens; in this one, it just dawned on me,” he explains.

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Though the overarching theme of the story is somber, Kapur manages to inject humour in it, especially through Amma Bi’s interactions with Jumman, the servant. He sees the story — and any story, for that matter — as being a reflection of real life, which “encompasses all shades of emotion.” “I find it very strange that in a certain kind of novel, written about the tragedy of a certain person, that there is no humour — that is not true. Even in life’s worst circumstances, there will be people and things that will make you smile, if not laugh,” he says.

During the writing process Kapur was largely occupied by the act of writing itself, but the passage of time and the publication of the novella has given him the opportunity to reflect on his own craft and Dopehri’s characters. “Amma Bi is limited by her upbringing and the ideas she has of the world, it’s why she is aghast when she learns that Jumman, a servant, is falling in love with Sabiha, who is an educated woman,” he says.

The actor-writer has also been pondering about the culture of paying to be taken care of in one’s old age, away from home, after a visit to a housing complex that offers such services. “I think if it is possible, individuals should continue to live in their own spaces, where they have lived all their lives — unless they are limited by health conditions, of course.”

The novella’s title was Kapur’s first choice, and it is a reference to the time of day when Amma Bi experiences scares in the story. It’s also a meditation on how loneliness accompanies afternoon time for so many women (especially middle-aged and old women). I ask if it is an indicator of where Amma Bi stands in life — the dopeher (afternoon) or metaphorical autumn of her existence. “I wasn’t conscious of the idea of how this is about the ‘afternoon’ of Amma Bi’s life. You’ve caught me!” Kapur confesses.

What comes across most strongly in our conversation is that Kapur was a one-draft writer when it comes to Dopehri. His manuscript has undergone barely any change — save for the editing of one line and the addition of another three. “The previous version featured her in her room where she shows the cheque [earned from the work she did with Sabiha] to her husband’s portrait. I felt that it needs to be bigger, that nature should also interact with Amma Bi and recognise what she’s trying to say. Her act of stepping onto the terrace is almost an announcement to the world: ‘I am my own person now.’”

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Updated Date: Dec 07, 2019 10:10:37 IST