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On The Cyclist: An Introduction
By Balwant Bhaneja









For the past four decades, Vijay Tendulkar has been the most influential dramatist in India. His plays written in Marathi, the principal language of the state of Maharashtra, are continually produced all across the country, and have been translated into other regional languages and English. A lifelong resident of Mumbai, Tendulkar (b.1928) is also a novelist, literary essayist, journalist, television and screenplay writer, and social activist. (1) Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul has called him India's best playwright. (2)

Tendulkar is author of thirty full-length plays, twenty-three one act plays, several of which have become classics of modern Indian theatre. (3) Among his well-known plays are: Shanta! Court chalu ahe (Silence! The Court is in Session, 1967), Sakharam Binder (Sakharam, the Bookbinder, 1972), Kamala (1981), and Kanyadaan (The Gift of a Daughter, 1983). His Ghashiram Kotwal (Ghashiram the Constable, 1972), a musical combining Marathi folk performance and contemporary theatrical techniques, is one of the most performed plays in the world, with over six thousand showings in India and abroad. New York's Indo-American Cultural Council dedicated October 2004 as a tribute to Tendulkar's prodigious literary contributions, presenting in English a wide range of his plays and films.

The Cyclist was intended to be Tendulkar's last play, and perhaps his ultimate comment on himself and the reality surrounding him. In 1991, Tendulkar, in his early sixties, had written 28 full-length plays, his work singularly recognized for its intellectual integrity, innovative form and content. His plays have generally dealt with themes that unravel the exploitation of power and latent violence in human relationships, seeking always a well-deliberated resolution. The desire to write an allegorical play denoting life's journey must have been a tempting one. Despite its numerous productions, The Cyclist has continued to confound its directors and audience. Critics have not been sure whether the play is a metaphor for contemporary Indian reality or an allegory about the journey of life.

As an intended last play (4), The Cyclist is different from Tendulkar's large body of work. It is a skillfully crafted, uninterrupted piece about the adventure of life told through a cyclist's journey. As an experimental playwright, Tendulkar's every play, in its form and structure, is different from the previous one. This complex theme he takes head on, and tackles with a simple form and language -- an episodic structure and naturalistic mot naif dialogue. Life's complexity can perhaps be best understood when told in simple terms. In this, Tendulkar joins other great journey writers such as Homer (The Odyssey), Voltaire (Candide), Ibsen (Peer Gynt), and Beckett (Waiting for Godot).

The Cyclist is not about one but three journeys: geographical, an historical journey of the bicycle, and a psychological exploration. A young man is about to start a "world trip" on his bicycle. There is no specific geographical location in which the play is set, but a place from which he is trying to get away. He dreams of distant lands, oceans and mountains, wanting to see exotic places, meet interesting people.

The geographical journey is at the same time the story of the development of bicycle itself -- the cycle as a symbol of progress, opening new horizons for the society despite all the obstacles placed in its way to stop its advancement. The adventure gets darker and darker as the journey progresses, the Cyclist facing difficult elements both natural and human. It unravels man's dehumanization through a series of encounters which, though often extravagantly comic, tend to become illogical and bizarre as we move deeper into the play.

In journey narratives, the obstacles encountered are generally surmounted; in The Cyclist the process is reversed, the expectation of certainty whimpering into nothingness. It's only in the later part of the Cyclist's trip that we come to find out that this is essentially a metaphysical journey -- a journey of the mind. Buried deep in the play is the grand existential question: "where I came from, where I am going"? -- life's journey in search of elusive truth.

The play generates a train of events manifested on stage through a series of slapstick situations. Tendulkar lets his character Cyclist play straight, whereas those he encounters on the way come in a group as hoodlums, in pairs as the Lords of Earth and Sun, or single as Sage, or Actor. These latter are written in exaggerated manner. Perils of the journey are mixed with uneasy laughter.

Tendulkar has described his plays as about the reality surrounding him: "I write to let my concerns vis-a-vis my reality -- the human conditions as I perceive it." The reality in The Cyclist, however, with its layered journeys, gets elevated to a level transcending geographical and cultural boundaries. For example, all the characters in the play have been consciously given symbolic names. e.g. X,Y, Z. or such titles as Ma, Pa, Lion, Ghost, etc. And even the central protagonist the Cyclist is neutrally called the Main Character.

Tendulkar has said that it is the content of his work that determines the form. He is precise about directions for staging the play. The script points to a minimalist setting -- an exercise bike as the sole prop. The bald patch on the Cyclist's head, which viewers see in the last scene, is to ensure that the play is about an adult and is not mistaken for any children's fantasy. Again, the use of coarse language at the beginning, in a violent crowd scene, reinforces the playwright's intent about the adult nature of the play. Most directions are embedded in the dialogue which in its naturalistic idiom is marked by short sentences, often half finished.

In The Cyclist, unlike most of Tendulkar's other plays, there is no strong female character. Instead, it's a Mermaid (a woman with a fish's torso) who eventually strips the Cyclist to his flesh and bones, having swallowed his wet clothes. Mermaid's seduction of the Cyclist is that of Oedipus, a composite of mother, girlfriend, and an enchantress.

Main Character: Why are you laughing?

Mermaid: Because your clothes are in my stomach!

Main Character: Where? Stom…No, this can't be!

Mermaid: If you got the clothes, you'll run away from me, somewhere far…thinking that I swallowed your clothes (in a guilt-ridden voice)

Main Character: (not believing and with fright) Swallowed them? (a bit pathetically) Ridiculous…I have to go on my travel…the world journey…by cycle..oh, such an old dream of mine…

Mermaid: (in a dreamy voice) I'll guard them for nine months in my womb. Then I'll give birth to a lovely child. A child in your clothes, handsome as you. He'll call you Pa…Pa, Papa, and me…Ma, Ma….

Referring to the pointless search for meaning in his plays, Tendulkar has said, it's a "jungle in which you can always enter, but has no way out." Unlike his other plays, which often have a pall of gloom over them, The Cyclist was written in an upbeat frame of mind. Despite all the travails and troubles that the journey brings, the Cyclist does not give up. As he remarks: "A journey is a journey. It has to be completed. Mine will not be affected by any loss or pain." The Main Character has the will to overcome obstacles. And even when the Cyclist's determination dissipates and the situation is hopeless, his cry for help is rewarded. Pa appears out of nowhere as a shining light with his clichéd advice to get him out of his pickle. The best solution Pa can offer in one Zen-like moment of revelation -- (when everything fails) "Do nothing, sometimes that's all you need to do."

The journey has to be completed even when we don't know its ultimate destination (except one's mortality). There are two options. It could be an open-ended journey to a place different from where one started; or it's a completed journey that culminates with a return home -- to the place one began. In Eastern philosophy, the path is more significant than the destination.

Injured and exhausted, stripped of his clothing, the Cyclist lays naked beside his bicycle in the end. He curls in a womb-like position and falls asleep. It is not clear whether he will be up the next day to continue his adventure.

Tendulkar has declined comment on the play except to say that it speaks for itself. In my correspondence with him (which spans a decade), he made only one remark comparing the situation in India in 1999 to the play: "Life here is as in the Cyclist. It will never change. Each day we ride our old, dilapidated wheel-less cycle and go places. Breath-taking static activity."



(1) Two important sources on Vijay Tendulkar are: Shoma Choudhury and Gita Rajan (eds.), Vijay Tendulkar, New-Delhi: Katha, 2001, and Vijay Tendulkar, Sri Ram Memorial Lecture -- The Play is the Thing, New-Delhi: Sri Ram Centre for Performing Arts, 1997.
(2) Khushwant Singh, "Storm in a Chat Show," The Tribune, March 31, 2001.
(3) For English translations of Vijay Tendulkar's work, see: Vijay Tendulkar (with an Introduction by Samik Bandyopadhay), Collected plays in Translation, New-Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003, and Vijay Tendulkar, Five Plays, Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1992.
(4) A decade later The Cyclist was followed by another Tendulkar play, The Masseur, two novels, and his first play in English, entitiled His Fifth Woman (written for the Lark Theatre in New York as part of the Tendulkar festival).


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