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Archive for August, 2009

Kindly Do the Needful

Ratna in front of the theater

Ratna in front of the theater in Chennai

“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 WORSHIPLOVE 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!

Children at the Kapaleeshwarar Temple

Children at the Kapaleeshwarar Temple

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.]

Video: Among the Fishermen of Kochi

In the city of Kochi, along the shore of the Arabian Sea, fishermen are famed for using age-old techniques derived from China (and, I learned, from Portugal as well).  Encouraged by Ragini Gupta of the U.S. Consulate to check out these fellows (despite my exhaustion on that busy day), I headed toward the array of curiously shaped nets and rough-looking wooden piers.  Feeling a bit shy with my little Flip camera, I was lingering at a respectful distance — but one of the fishermen smiled and waved me to come close.  (Only after my short visit with him and his fellows did I realize there would be a price — a very small one, actually! — for the interview.  These few rupees I paid must have been especially welcome, as this turns out to be the lean season for them, fishwise.)

Video: At the Temple with Ratna & Friends

Earlier in this trip (I’m writing to you from Mumbai, the fourth of six cities in this India tour), when we were in Chennai, one of our hosts, Ratna Mukherjee of the U.S. Consulate, woke us relatively early so we could visit the famous Kapaleeshwarar Temple.  Outside there is a vestibule where everyone takes off their shoes before entering; seeing me and Bob Webb, my stage manager, come in, an attendant helpfully pulled out two plastic chairs for us.  (Bob, an accomplished Bhutto dancer, is quite adroit and didn’t need one; I, on the other hand — or foot — was grateful.)  It had just rained — and so, for the one time in our visit to this southern Indian city, the temperature was not swelteringly hot (you can see in the video that it was still overcast).  The damp soil of the temple grounds cheered the soles of my feet.  The mood among the temple-goers was deeply reverential.  The effect of the numerous colorful depictions of gods — many of them stacked up in a dazzling, narrowing column at the temple gates — was to lift the spirits even of this secular Westerner to a rare level of joy (tempered only by a constant yearning for my loved ones from home to be sharing this experience with me).  A group of adorable children darted around playfully as the adults prayed.  The message of this place, as I felt it: and, not or!

Video: Bollywood Dance Styles Through the Decades

This was really fun!  I was conducting a storytelling workshop with a group of theater students in Bangalore — in the lobby of the magnificent Ranga Shankara theater, where I had performed Citizen Josh the night before — and one of the students mentioned that she’d had to give a presentation on the evolution of Bollywood dance styles.  I asked her to demonstrate, and after expressing a bit of shy reluctance she did so — and was eventually joined by many of the others (with all the students singing a musical accompaniment).

Mystery Fruit in Mumbai

Mystery Fruits in MumbaiGreetings from Mumbai, where I am ensonced in my hotel room.  I’ll be performing Citizen Josh this evening at Mumbai University.  (Showtime is 6:30 p.m., for those of you in the area.)

In my room they’ve left these two specimens of a rather testicular-looking fruit.  Can anyone identify them?  Are they safe for consumption?  And will I respect myself in the morning?

Video: Mix Mix, Eat Eat!

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!”

Video: Riding with Ratna

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.

Citizen Kannagi

statue-of-kannagiA 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.