Here’s a little video from a workshop I conducted with theater students at a public university in the southern Indian state of Kerala. They had first served lunch to me and my stage manager, Bob, and had laughed a lot over my inability to pick up their style of eating. You mix the rice, at the center, with all the different sauces and other foods along the perimeter. And you only use your right hand, for the important reason I mentioned in a previous blog entry. In my effort to improve my technique, I’d started muttering “Mix mix, eat eat!” as I smooshed the food. This became a popular chant among the students. At the end of the workshop, as I departed, they all called out, “Mix mix, eat eat!”
Here’s a tiny video teaser from Chennai, the first stop in my current tour of India with Citizen Josh. (Right now I’m in my third city, Bangalore, and about to set off for Mumbai.) My guide is the charming Ratna Mukherjee, of the very hip U.S. Consulate in Chennai, which is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu in the southern part of the country. She is talking about how theater and politics are very much intertwined in these parts.
A journey of 9,000 miles ends with a thousand steps. Or so it seemed, at least, when we arrived last night at the airport in the south Indian city of Chennai. Just off the plane we were greeted with a sign saying, “Seek to perform your duty but lay not claim to its fruits.” As I was trying to absorb this message — not an easy one for me to receive, as I was way behind in submitting a revised version of my monologue Citizen Josh for this India tour — a smiling woman wearing rubber gloves pointed a weird, gun-shaped white device at my forehead and clicked it; it emitted a beam of blue light. Apparently I passed this forehead test (I’m guessing she was checking my temperature, as there is much concern about the recent outbreak of swine flu in India). Somewhat disoriented by this experience, I staggered after the rest of the passengers (all of whom had been forehead-checked as well) into one of several long lines. Eventually I reached the front and gave a form to a man. Then I got in another line, and when I got to the front of that one I gave another form to another man, along with my passport. He handed my passport back to me, but as I started to step away he called me back to hand me a business card I had inadvertently included with my documents — the card was from my seatmate on the plane, a farmer named M. Jayaprakash (“Call me ‘JP’!”) from the very southern tip of India, who had spent part of our trip instructing me on the extensive history and many cultures, religions, and languages of the country I was about to enter, and expressing his polite sympathy that my own country was so relatively young and unvarious. I smiled in apology at the Customs agent; he did not smile back. Well, it was past midnight, and I was just one traveler in an endless line. On to baggage claim, where I watched many suitcases go past that were not mine. At one point, an Indian woman dressed in what appeared to be a religious garment fell down right next to me. Instinctively, I offered her my hand; smiling, she nonetheless pulled back both her hands, refusing my help; and instantly I realized that I had probably committed two gross errors: I had reached out my left hand (which you are not supposed to do here, as — I’ve been told — it is the hand people have traditionally used to wipe themselves after defecating) and I had been about to touch a woman who was not my wife. I felt suitably embarrassed about my dual blunder, exacerbated perhaps by my dismay that I could not at that moment touch my own wife, as she — along with our son — was thousands and thousands of miles away. But there was also something so gracious, so charming, in the way the woman smiled at me — as if she were keen to reassure me that she realized that my insult was based on ignorance and not ill will.
Grace has been greatly in evidence during my stay here (a full day or so). My stage manager, Bob Webb, and I were met at the airport by a woman from the U.S. Consulate (which invited me here in the first place) named Ratna, who had been worried sick about us. For one thing, our passage through Customs had taken longer than she expected (it was now around 2 a.m.); for another, a few hours earlier she had received a garbled message on her cellphone from a “Josh” at a U.S. phone number — at a time when she had assumed I would be well on my way from our stopover in Frankfurt. (Turns out it was from someone else, in New York, with a name like “Josh.”) Like other Indians I’ve spoken with (including JP on the plane), Ratna has this lovely way of shaking her head in a sideways motion, with the chin kind of bouncing in its own rhythm: this gesture seems able to convey a wide range of messages, including “I don’t know,” “Well, that happened!,” “I agree with you,” and “I disagree with you, but oh well.” As we chatted on the car ride in from the airport (she would have to be at work only a few hours later), I felt both my head motions and my American accent to be dismayingly stiff and flat compared to her innate musicality — a slice of wonderbread next to a masala.
After a relatively short car ride through the night-becalmed city (“They turn off the traffic lights after 10 p.m.!” Ratna said cheerfully as our driver boldly wove through various lanes) we were dropped off at the Park Hotel, former site of a famous movie studio (Tamil Nadu, the southern state of which Chennai is the capital, is renowned for its film industry, among many other things) — and it was a relief to step from the steamroom-like heat outdoors (even in the middle of the night) into the blast of air conditioning in the lobby. I checked in, said goodnight to Bob and went into my room — where I fairly instantly fell into very low spirits. Not that I wasn’t thrilled to be here — I was, and am (in fact, I think I’m already in love with this place) — but I just felt so lonely without my wife and son. Fortunately, I was able to reach them for a video chat on Gmail; still, it wasn’t the same as being with them, of course.
The gnawing emptiness remained when I awoke in the morning from a relatively brief sleep. I tried to think about ways to make myself feel less anxious, without much success. It occurred to me that — perhaps like many performers — I often lose a sense of myself when I don’t have my loved ones around to reflect me back at me (if that makes sense). Interestingly, I began to find relief when I glanced at an interview in the Music Issue of The Believer magazine, which I had brought with me (along with a passel of books about India). It was with jazz guitarist Pat Martino, who’d had a brain aneurysm that left him with severe amnesia; since then, he has pieced himself — and his guitar-playing — back together, once again achieving a high level of artistry. In the interview (conducted by Greg Buium), Martino speaks with a kind of poetic poignancy (“On the streets now are certain forms of music that I don’t find compatible with my intentions”). Reading it, I was viscerally reminded that I long to be an artist who can sometimes make an intimate connection with my audiences — and I felt a deep sense of gratitude that I had been given this extraordinary opportunity to try to connect with people here in India. And I thought, Why does it have to be so hard for me to be happy about wonderful things?
My mood lifted even further when I went down to the hotel lobby in the morning and saw Bob already there, chatting with Ratna. Both of them are people who radiate warmth and goodwill — and in their presence I found myself unable to work up a characteristic level of neurotic anxiety. We were driven through daytime traffic that seemed anarchic (the traffic signals were working now, but nobody seemed to notice) to radio station Chennai Live (104.8 FM on the dial), where Bob and I were interviewed (on tape for broadcast later today) by a charming young woman named Kiran Rajani. Kiran had some thoughtful questions for me, which I answered in my typically digressive manner; when I apologized for my lack of linearity, she assured me, “Don’t worry — I’m already editing this in my head!” Anyone who has ever collaborated with me knows that, once I realize I’m in the presence of an expert editor, I feel completely permitted to ramble. I asked Kiran a number of questions myself, mostly about Chennai. She is a proud native Chennai-ite, and briefed me on its history and current situation. I won’t try to repeat what she told me, as I would undoubtedly get many details wrong in the retelling — but here are a couple of things: The main language here is Tamil (spoken by the ethnic group of the same name), which is quite unlike Hindi (the official language of India); to my ears, Tamil sounds particularly exotic, like a waterfall of consonants. Women here tend to be relatively conservative in their mode of dress, as opposed to more Westernized fashions farther north — not necessarily as a sign of being resistant to modernity, but rather as an embrace of the power and beauty of their traditions. And the food is awesome.
This last detail I can confirm from my own experience, as Bob and I both had a “South India” sampler for dinner. (Heaven, even for a secular guy like me.) We were joined by Eric Miller, an expatriate from New York’s East Village who is a storyteller and teacher and shared with us his fascinating work with fishermen and -women who live and work on Chennai’s spectacular coastline along the Bay of Bengal. I asked Eric what had initially drawn him here — and he said it was a traditional Tamil story called The Epic of the Anklet. The heroine of the narrative is named Kannagi. At the start, her husband leaves her for a dancer, and spends all their money in the process; then he returns, and she completely forgives him. (Let me stress, right here, that this is not a coded message describing hanky-panky on my part!) To raise money, they make the long walk together from the coast to the inland city of Madurai, where the husband intends to sell Kannagi’s jeweled anklets (their only possession with much monetary value). Due to a nefarious trickster, the husband is falsely accused of trying to peddle anklets that had been stolen from the queen (which look similar to Kannagi’s), and the king puts him to death. A grieving Kannagi goes to the king and tells him that her husband has been treated unjustly — eventually convincing the king that she is telling the truth. At which point the king, to atone for his carriage of misjustice, dies on the spot.
One thing that struck me from Eric’s retelling of this story is how Kannagi’s actions (with the king, at least) could be seen as an exemplary exercise in citizenship: despite the great gap in social status between her and the ruler, she was not deterred from seeking justice. In a democracy (which affords us much greater power as individuals than the system Kannagi lived under), each of us needs to bring our passionate concerns (with respect, but with firmness as well) to our leaders, and to one another. Indeed, Eric agreed, he had written an article on this very subject for The Hindu, India’s largest English-language newspaper (and a sponsor of the theater festival I’m performing in), titled “In Praise of Citizen Kannagi.” And I thought: Hey — I think I finally have that new opening of Citizen Josh for India!
And I dashed back up here to my room — where I have been able to procrastinate by writing this blog entry. But even though it’s 3:47 a.m. here, my body still thinks it’s 3:17 p.m. (yes, the time difference from California is exactly twelve and a half hours — go figure). So I think I’ll make myself another cup of coffee (I brought some Peet’s with me — you can take the boy out of Berkeley …) and take a stab at the minor script revisions I’ve been promising. I’m even beginning to feel slightly hopeful about my upcoming performances. Who knows? Maybe the blue light that was shined on my noggin has begun to work a transformation, and I will now begin to perform my duty — though, with your permission, I may still reserve the right to lay claim to its fruits, at least up to a point.
A few months ago I received an email from someone at the U.S. Consulate in India, inviting me to submit my solo show Citizen Josh for inclusion in a theater festival there. I was shocked and delighted to get this message, instantly replying that I’d love to apply.
In the succeeding weeks, after I didn’t hear back from them, I figured that my piece was out of the running. But then, about a month ago, they wrote back to say that it was all happening. Not only that, but beyond the original performances as part of the Metro Plus Theater Festival in the city of Chennai, my American hosts would be sponsoring a tour of five other Indian cities as well: Kochi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), and New Delhi. The only thing was this: They wanted me to make the piece shorter (at about 80 minutes, it’s already my shortest show) and somewhat more relevant to contemporary Indian audiences.
Since then, in my usual mode of taking action only as a last resort, I’ve daydreamed fairly constantly about how I’m going to make this brilliant revision of Citizen Josh for India. And as usual, the daydreaming has, startlingly, resulted in nothing that you might call “work product.” So a few days ago I finally began to immerse myself in all things India. I bought several books — novels and nonfiction — with an average length of about 1,500 pages; this despite knowing that I normally read so slowly that getting through even one of them would take me into my dotage. I downloaded several audiobooks, to listen to while walking or working out on the elliptical trainer (ellipticality generally being a promising angle from which to approach new subjects, I’ve found); this was smarter, as I listen much faster than I read, but there remains the simple fact that I depart for India (with my production stage manager on this tour, Bob Webb) on Aug. 10 — leaving me not enough hours even to listen to all that stuff.
Finally, I decided to resort to the time-honored solution practiced by my peasant forebears: I Twittered and I Facebooked. The results were nearly instantaneous — people referred me to friends, family members, and colleagues from India, or in India, who might be willing to advise me on which sections of Citizen Josh should be revised, or deleted, for my audiences over there. That was a couple of days ago. Since then I’ve been emailing people the script, and sometimes (when they’re close) mailing them a DVD of me performing the piece. At the same time I’ve begun delving into one or two of the massive books I bought, and listening to a couple of the audiobooks.
I realize that in part this is the procrastination with which I precede all projects: It’s a shock for me to enter any new phase, much like jumping into a cold lake from a high cliff (something I have never done, actually), and this research handily keeps me away (at least temporarily) from re-addressing the Citizen Josh text — which is what a normal person would do first. But there is, I hope, also a method to my madness — and as I begin (just begin) to enter into an “I’m really going to India!” mindset, I may actually be getting glimmers of how I can wrap my Western head around this particular challenge in adaptation.
Citizen Josh is about democracy — or, more specifically, one rather passive person’s serendipitous journey into political activism. But that story, like all my pieces, is part of a larger narrative: my quest, as the child of communists, to find a way to my own set of beliefs. Where I think I sit ideologically, at 50, is in the camp of the small-“d” democrats. But where do I sit spiritually? My upbringing was, in retrospect, as spiritual as it was political: We believed in a classless, Utopian future, and there was in our rituals a kind of ecstatic faith in both the correctness of our beliefs and the inevitability of our predictions. There was no God (unless you count Marx and his pals), but there were rules that you followed, a discipline you observed, and by keeping along the righteous path you (or your children, at least) would arrive at the Promised Land: a world without exploitation, inequality, pain.
Well, it’s hard to live half a century in this world and not come to the conclusion that Utopia will never happen. It’s even harder, perhaps, not to decide that even if it could happen, you wouldn’t want it to: just to take one reason, frictionlessness is a bad environment in which to create art. But what I can’t shake, from deep in my bio-political DNA, is this: The last shall be first. People who are poor, who suffer, need to get their hands on the levers of power. Not to the exclusion of everyone else, but along with everyone else. That, to me, is a requirement of real democracy, and in the U.S. and India — two enormous “democracies” — it is quite evidently not being met.
All of which you know. But do you know how we can try to get there, on both the political and spiritual levels? If you do, please tell me! But in the meantime, I will act on my suspicion that — in learning as much as I can about how democracy is working (and not) in different cultures from my own — I may be able to find some clues to what I really believe, or want to believe, or should believe.
So I begin my re-approach to Citizen Josh, circling warily around my own story, seeking a vector that will connect me both with my dear audiences in India and with myself. And I realize, as I type these words, that what has been holding me back is, mostly, fear of failure. And I’m thinking, Oh, just that old friend! And I’m begging my old communist gods to forgive me for this latest apostasy. And I’m putting my neurotic shoulder to the wheel.
Which I’m sure is what the U.S. Consulate in India had in mind all along.