“Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today,” advises the late James Dean on a poster mounted in a hallway at the U.S. consulate in Chennai. As far as I was concerned, his latter point was especially well taken: It was Aug. 14, and I was feeling quite nervous about my first performance in India, which was to take place that evening. For months, starting back in the States, I had been brooding — though perhaps not with the same photogenic impact as Dean himself — about whether my Berkeley-centric monologue Citizen Josh would work for Indian audiences. Now the wait was nearly over, and in a few hours around a thousand Chennai-ites would either watch me in mute horror or respond in a warmer fashion.
My guru-looking stage manager, Bob Webb, and I had been ushered through extensive security by Ratna Mukherjee, who has been working at the consulate for over a quarter century. I have heard people spout various theories about who might be the most powerful person in India (Manmohan Singh, the scholarly prime minister? Sonia Gandhi, the influential widow of the former P.M.?) — but I suspect that it’s Ratna who really runs the country. She knows everyone, has everyone’s phone number, and probably knows where all the bodies are buried (or floating). She’s the fixer: most often, she can be seen back in the corner of the room, hand discreetly covering her mouth as she explains to someone that — no matter what anyone may have told him — he must send a car to pick us up right away. She is also one of the most charming people I have ever met.
In fact, I’d have to say that the consulate staff, as a group, are quite a friendly lot. Ratna’s boss, Ragini Gupta, is another warm, sweet person (her husband also works there) — and, though I met him only briefly (after the performance), Consul General Andrew Simkin struck me as a kind and gentle soul as well. Bob and I were looking through the consulate’s library for a bookcase suitable for our little set, and both of us were impressed by the range of titles — from Jack London to Ishmael Reed. About a month before our visit the consulate had hosted a series of events on gay, lesbian, and transgendered subjects; a sweet intern from the University of Washington told me how amazed and delighted she was, just after arriving there, to be coordinating a reception for a group of transgendered Indians — not how she had pictured life in the Foreign Service! I thought: To all my fellow Berkeleyites who complain about how our tax dollars are spent (war, corporate bailouts, etc.), here was a government institution to warm our progressive hearts (along with, you know, public schools, libraries, hospitals, transportation …).
But I also thought: Yikes! Because the hour of my first performance was approaching, and I still had no real idea how Indian audiences were going to receive it. And that’s when the U.S. consulate’s entire computer system went down. Ragini had just asked me if there was anything else I needed, and I had kind of jokingly responded that it would be cool if I could run through the piece with the consulate’s staff. So she got on the P.A. system and announced that, since there was no work that could be done at the moment, people should feel free to come to the auditorium, where a run-through of Citizen Josh would shortly commence. And that’s how I got to try out the first half of the show for a mixed audience of Indians and Americans — which greatly relaxed me for that evening’s performance.
After the run-through, consulate staffers filled me in on some of the local lingo — often a mixture of Hindu and English (Hinglish) or of Tamil (the official language of the southern state of Tamil Nadu) and English (Tinglish). My favorite such phrase — which I’d already encountered in emails from Ratna — is Kindly do the needful. (Is there a nicer way to ask for something important? I think not.) There’s also prepone, the opposite of “postpone” — as in, Actually, I already have a meeting at 6, so why don’t we prepone it to 5? And What is your good name? — which means, well, “What is your name?” but has a little bit of sugar on top.
A car — arranged by Ratna, of course — took us back to our hotel, where we passed by several truly inspirational signs: WORK IS WORSHIP. LOVE CALLS FOR A RESPONSE OF LOVE. A GOOD THOUGHT IS LIKE FRAGRANCE. I had been casting about for a reference to replace Isadora Duncan (in a joke about how physically graceful my friend Brian Weiner is). Ratna had suggested the famous classical Indian dancer Anita Ratnam — and then immediately dialed a number on her magical cellphone; a few moments later she had arranged for Ratnam and her daughter, who live in Chennai, to attend my performance!
The show that evening seemed to go very well (as did the joke), and afterwards I briefly met the stunning Ms. Ratnam herself. It was with great relief that Bob (who had done an amazing job of getting the show set up) and I returned to the hotel for a brief rest. The next day Ratna took us to the glorious Kapaleeshwarar Temple (you can see my little video here) and I led a storytelling workshop for some very talented theater students and professionals.
And then, just like that, it was time to depart for Kochi — as we began to work our way north. At the airport, Bob and I jokingly — but also sincerely — begged Ratna to join us on our continuing journey. Like a benevolent but weary mother sending her reluctant offspring to their first day at preschool, she just smiled and waved us toward the ticketing counter. Life without Ratna, we knew, would be a challenge; but in all fairness, there were many others coming through Chennai who would need her magical help — doing the needful, firmly yet always kindly — just as much as we had.
[More India-trip blogging to come. Right now I’m in Kolkata, where I’ll be performing at the American Center this evening at 6:30.]