I had twice seen the play staged in India, once as a musical. Reading it fifty years after I first read it, I realized how naïve and unseeing had been the performances. Maybe that is the way many react to the play, including those who put it on the stage. Of course, it is a brief opus about a sick boy’s longing for a royal letter. But it is also much more. It is a parable of the human longing for a real and meaningful life.
The protagonist is Amal, whose very name The Unsullied, is a clue that he is more than an ailing boy. He is the untainted Every Person, you and me, craving for the grand, regal adventure that life is. The story is the drama of his resolute search for the road to his dream defying tenacious odds.
The odds are varied. At one end of the spectrum is his host, the benevolent uncle, who wants to protect him from all risks and therefore all life. Like many a loving but timid parent, he doesn’t want Amal to take any chances, talk to common folk, or venture beyond the restrained indoor life prescribed by his doctor.
At the other end of the spectrum is the local leader, who is petty enough to report the child’s prattle to the royal court, vain enough to feel flattered when he sees the child is respectful, and obsequious enough to be intimidated when he expects a royal visit. Like many leaders, he has a niggling, self-serving bent, but luckily his ill-intended report turns out to be good for Amal.
If these are the odds, Amal counters them with imaginative use of the scant resources he has at hand. He makes friends of whoever enters his limited ambit: different vendors, street boys, a young girl and a friendly gaffer. These are not superficial exchanges. Amal absorbs everything they have to say and then extrapolates the most magical parts of their life or vocation.
As the dairyman hawks his yogurt, Amal talks with him and conjures up his picturesque village next to a river where women in red saris make the yogurt and the interesting towns where he sells it door to door. When other kids go by, he engages them and receives an offer from them to come and play near his window; he can watch them play, though he cannot take part. A young girl who collects flowers and makes garlands to sell is intrigued enough to promise that she would come again to chat – a promise she redeems -- and leaves a flower as a gift. The village gaffer, who has an amusing way of leveling with kids, becomes his best pal and parallels Amal’s endless curiosity with grace and fantasy. Even the tough watchman melts when Amal tells him how he admires the sound of his warning bells.
Amal is so receptive that he quickly builds a bridge and gets even the conniving village leader to relate with him. Amal first listens raptly to his visitors, then he draws them into his tiny universe with interest and charm, and, with whatever material they offer, weaves a make-believe world of color, sound and surpassing beauty. That world has azure skies, indigo mountains, green forests, foaming fountains, purple birds and all the beauty human eyes can behold.
Amal’s eyes are dimming, his torpid body is seeking repose, but the wondrous universe he has singlehandedly created out of the flimsiest stuff stays with him, and offers an unusual vision to the play’s spectator. Feeble though he may seem, Amal has preternatural strength. He overcomes his odds, communes with strangers and ventures into the great unknown: mountains and fountains he has not seen, villages and riversides he has not visited, playmates he hasn’t known.
Our unlikely and unique hero is wan in color, weak in constitution, but valiant in his search for the excitement of life. What he can’t see, he visualizes; what he has never experienced, he imagines; out of that, he builds a dream of what he can do, where he can visit, where he will find genial companions. He makes of strangers, friends; of the unfriendly, confidants; of salespersons, prized interlocutors; of the trivial and ordinary, something spectacular. The post office across from his home becomes a symbol of the world, a postman an emissary of otherworldly marvels.
This hero is Every Person, who has been dealt a bad hand but has the gumption to overcome it by the extraordinary resource that even the weakest can muster: the human will to dream and sprint toward the dream, whatever the odds.