Under Water Scene


A Millennium Festival Project of the British Centre for Literary Translation, University of East Anglia


The time is the end of 1989, after Christmas and the execution of Ceausescu in Rumania, when the fall of communism in Eastern Europe dominates the news. The place is the living-room of a family from West Bengal living in diaspora in Britain. Obhi, a Calcutta professor on his way to America to read a paper, has stopped in Britain to visit old friends. He finds that his host is away in Bombay, and his hostess, Deya, has to be fetched from some mysterious place by Bibi, a family friend and a teacher of Bengali. For a while Obhi is given some sharp entertainment and education by Deya's daughter, Shikha, and her half-German boyfriend, Rudy. Bibi returns with Deya, who comes home from hospital after a hysterectomy. The play is the interaction of these people as the short December afternoon deepens into evening.

They talk about everything under the sun, generating passionate discourses on a diversity of issues - from gender and the environment to language, politics, identity, diaspora, and the cosmos. One small living-room becomes a miniature of the human world, with the stars above and the ocean floor below. As they explore the meaning of existence together, surreal spots of time emerge. A suttee is enacted. Trying to grasp the meaning of some lines by a 20th century Bengali poet, they search for a lost city drowned under the ocean. They remember the street people of Calcutta and the storms and floods of Bangladesh, Deya's ancestral homeland. There is sheer fun too, as when the professor impersonates a Calcutta plumber, and they enact a power cut, which was common in Calcutta at that time.

All the while, Deya is waiting for a private moment when she can ask Obhi an important question. When the moment comes, the two of them chopping apples for a crumble, Obhi's reply is evasive. Deya tries an innocent lyrical ruse to elicit a response, which only makes Obhi want to go out for a walk. When Rudy takes Obhi off to the pub, Deya breaks down and wants to go with them. Bibi gently reminds her that she has returned from hospital only a short while back. The play ends with a return to domestic realities. The men are away; Shikha takes her mother upstairs for a rest; Bibi gets ready to put the crumble in the oven.

Peter Hall says of art: `If it doesn't challenge, provoke or illuminate, it is not fulfilling its function.' Here is art that is committed to fulfilling its function.


Rhoton the plumber