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.
Posted: August 12th, 2009 under Citizen Josh, Democracy, India.