More interesting though is how I came to act in a French play. Professor Satyen Bose, besides being a great physicist, was also an acutely observant man, and it had not escaped his attention that I was regularly abstracting French novels from his library. They were invariably English translations. He accosted me, “If you like French literature so much, why don’t you learn French?” That planted an ambition in my head, and I joined the Alliance Francaise in Kolkata.
It was next door to my office, and I spent hours there beyond my lessons. I quickly found the institution, like some other teaching organizations, somewhat insensitive to students’ interests. I made several suggestions and representations, including to the director, to no avail. The members of the governing board were never seen, let alone found talking to the students – except when they came for parties. I took a radical decision. I stood as a candidate for the Alliance governing body in the next election. A well-known French scholar and his Gallic wife (whom I had marginally assisted in subtitling a Satyajit Ray movie) endorsed me officially.
All hell broke loose. Lady Ranu Mukherjee, who chaired the board, sent word that students are better suited to classes than the governing board. Pahari Sanyal, the popular actor, and Ila Dutt, sister of my admired poet Sudhindranath Datta, both close friends of the chairperson and board members, invited me for lunch and dissuaded me from my foolhardy venture, saying I had no chance of winning the requisite votes. They guessed wrong.
In the election two weeks later, I won the largest number of votes, outrunning all the others by quite a margin. I had simply taken a list of Alliance members and called and talked to practically all of them – which no board member had ever done. Lady Ranu Mukherjee changed her mind, called me the ‘youngest and bravest’ member and ordered champagne bottles to be opened.
That began my long innings at the Alliance Francaise and, when the invitation came to act in a French play about to be staged, I could hardly refuse. The play was Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, in which a small town in France finds its people, one by one, unaccountably turning into rhinos. Some doubt and dither, but they all eventually succumb to the change and become rhinos, until it is a complete tide of transformation – with the sole exception of a drunken, disorderly man who holds on tenuously to his humanity.
Some go along with evil, because like Madame Boeuf they love the perpetrators. She literally rides a rhino. Some like the upright Jean argue vocally against evil, but, when the time comes, find themselves helplessly drawn to it. Some like the housewife complain about the depredations of evil, like the trampling of a pet cat, but then find it advantageous to keep quiet. Bureaucrats like tough Papillon and sensitive Dudar soon realize which side of their bread is buttered and join the big beasts. Some like the firemen, earnest workers all, begin to see the convenience of change and become a crash of rhinos. Even the sweet Daisy repudiates her heart, on the paradoxical premise that her lover does not understand love, for he does not follow the trend and choose to be a rhino. Finally, the entire town folk becomes a huge herd of rhinos, big, strong animals, shedding every vestige of their humanity. The sway of evil is absolute. Only one person, Berenger, a weak man addicted to drinks, from whom we expect the least, decides to be a firm holdout and never become a rhino.
In the play I had the innocent-looking but crypto-destructive role of Logician, a man who uses his specious syllogisms to justify whatever conclusions he finds it convenient to advance at any moment, however perverse his reasons are. I am sure we all know some clever, cultivated people Ionesco would happily identify with that character.