0

Legends of the Hidden Temple

I’ve had this one as a (misspelled) placeholder post for awhile, and in the coming weeks, I hope to go through all the ones like this that I have (and there are quite a few) and update them, so don’t be surprised if you experience some deja vu.

A few weeks ago, I finished a book I randomly selected from a shelf in the library, The Temple Goers, which is the first novel by Indian writer Aatish Taseer.

The back cover blurb is one hundred percent misleading; the event mentioned there doesn’t occur until about the last quarter of the book, and it’s not really the focus of the story. The story centers on the very unlikely friendship between returning Indian expat Aatish Taseer (no relation to the author of the book), and Aakash, a personal trainer who has some…shall we say, interesting hobbies. Aakash takes Aatish under his wing and reintroduces him to Delhi, but to a different Delhi than where the latter grew up. They go from high society parties to sordid sex dens to the eponymous temple, a portion of the book which the author describes in extreme, painstaking detail a ceremony which lasts all night. Other plot complications include Aatish’s relationship with his girlfriend Sanyogita – who’s obviously got a thing for her boyfriend’s new bro – and Sanyogita’s aunt Chamunda, a politician who allows Aatish to live in her apartment while he is in Delhi.

Overall, I would describe it as fair, maybe better than average. Some of the description is long-winded, but other parts are so delicious that I just had to put the book down and sort of fantasize. It’s less the story of Aatish than it is of the city in which he grew up, which looks completely different to him as an adult. As far as genre, it incorporates a but of magical realism, but I’d probably call it gritty neon realism, because the reader kind of feels like they spent the whole book shuffling from one crazy scenario to another, like barhopping in Cancun. The message of neocolonialism – which I didn’t even pick up on until reading some reviews, is really present; as much as the characters want to break down barriers, they are constantly putting each other in categories and on levels. In a society that is post caste-system, The Temple Goers shows that Delhi society just can’t seem to break free of classism, even if it’s not determined by outsiders.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed Taseer’s writing and I’ve already picked his next book up from the library.

2

Picking Up Steam, Giving it Some Gas

Now that prelims are finito, I’m proud to say that my reading for pleasure has started to pick up steam again. I brought way too many books on my trip to Chicago and Baltimore, and I actually finished the first one on the plane ride back to Midway: A Breath of Fresh Air, by Amulya Malladi.

File:A Breath of Fresh Air.jpg

It starts off a little slow, but, like my reading habits, picks up steam shortly in. The book takes place in Ooty, India (which is actually a real place) where Anjali “Anju,” a primary school teacher, lives with her husband Sandeep, a university professor, their son Amar, and his sister Komal. When Anjali’s first husband, army officer Prakash, moves into town with his new wife Indira “Indu,” things get complicated. As Amar becomes more and more ill, Prakash and Anjali must confront the past, and the event that links them all together – the Bhopal gas disaster, which left Anjali with an unraveled marriage and permanent health issues (for her and her future child) as a souvenir.

On the whole, it was a fairly good book and a smooth read, but not terribly deep outside of Anjali and Prakash. Other than Anjali initiating her own divorce with Prakash, nothing really out of the ordinary happened. Their second partners were both pretty wooden, and even their relationships seemed kind of dull. What was actually more interesting to read about, but kind of took second fiddle, was the relationship between Anjali and her Sikh friend Harjot, especially in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s death. That subplot could have used more attention. Overall, the characters were on the conciliatory side, and basically, it proved what I figured from the beginning: Anjali got the short end of the stick by inhaling all that gas, and losing the support of her own parents, and Prakash wasn’t really a jackass, just young and misguided, and he came through for his ex-wife and her son when she needed them, in a big way. The only real risk-taking occurred at the very end, which was very sweet. Overall, I’m on the fence about this one. If you’re into Indian/South Asian fiction, give it a try; if not, it’s not my favorite in the genre so far.

This book review was brought to you

3

On On Theatre

Yes, I know I doubled the preposition, but it’s not what you think.

I recently finished a book called On Theatre by Badal Sircar (which, for some reason, is not on Goodreads, making me doubt it exists, so I may or may not have been reading anything for the past few days). It did not have much in the way of interesting things to tell me until the last few pages.

On pages 148-150, the author talks about several “playmaking” workshops he led among some impoverished residents of various villages, naming two of them as Vishrampura in Gujarat and Rangabelia in West Bengal. Sircar built up to the playmaking exercises after a few days, and his rules were simple: each participant must make a play five minutes in duration, with only ten minutes of preparation. Sircar kicked it off by acting out “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” It took the participants some time to warm up to this idea, but eventually one of them stepped up to narrate a story of his own, and each one followed in turn. Eventually, their confidence grew to create longer plays with more characters, and add props and costumes.

I don’t know why this spoke to me, but it did. Maybe it’s the power of suggestion, or the power of theatre, or some combination thereof.

I think I can definitely work this into an APO workshop.

Oh, and hello to all six continents, after quite some time: North America (Canada, USA, and Trinidad & Tobago), South America (Chile), Europe (UK, Ireland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands), Africa (Kenya), Asia (India and South Korea), and Oceania (Australia and Papua New Guinea).

7

Flip The Script: Girish Karnad, Hayavadana

Well hello there. I’m feeling a little better today, I got some exercise, went to APO meeting, and have almost everything read for tomorrow’s class. I did almost die of smoke inhalation from burning two bags of popcorn this afternoon, though; don’t buy PopSecret 94% Fat Free, folks. The 6% they left out is what makes it, you know, not burn. Two bags in a row consisted of a giant, steaming clump of foul-smelling brown popcorn that stung my eyes and nose so badly that I had to take it straight to the garbage chute, and tonight I cooked rigatoni with mushrooms, zucchini, spinach, and extra garlic to mask it. My apartment smells like garlic now, but come on, other than vampires, who really minds garlic over burnt popcorn.

But, anyway, the play I read last night for class tomorrow is flipping fantastic, so I’ve gotta share it with you all. Join me, once again, in India, for Hayavadanaor Horse Head by Girish Karnad.

Horizontal tricolor flag bearing, from top to bottom, deep saffron, white, and green horizontal bands. In the center of the white band is a navy-blue wheel with 24 spokes.

Basics

Written by Girish Karnad in India in 1972. Originally written and performed in Kannada (the language of Karnataka). Its first production was in via the Madras Players of Madras, India in that same year. Though it is based on a tale from the classical Sanskrit text KathasaritsagaraKarnad also acknowledged German writer Thomas Mann‘s The Transposed Heads as inspiration.

Characters

  • Bhagavata – Acts as a narrator; speaks directly to the audience.
  • Actor I
  • Hayavadana – Half horse, half man.
  • Devadatta – Padmini’s husband and Kapila’s best friend. Described as smart, creative, and artistic, but scrawny.
  • Kapila – Devadatta’s best friend. Described as strong, handsome, and more in tune with physical rather than mental labor.
  • Padmini – Wife to Devadatta.
  • Doll I
  • Doll II
  • Kali – A goddess.
  • Child
  • Actor II

Setting/Plot

We open with a pooja ceremony. Bhagavata announces the play in a presentational style, until he is interrupted by an actor who comes on with Hayavadana, who has the body of a man but the head of a horse. (No, it’s not a joke).

But then we must leave Horse-Head and go to Karnataka, where Devadatta, Kapila, and Padmini live. Both Devadatta and Kapila are interested in the princess Padmini. Devadatta sends a poem to Padmini via Kapila, and even though she is attracted to Kapila physically, ultimately, Devadatta’s poem wins her heart and they get together. While pregnant with Devadatta’s child, Padmini plans a trip to a temple in Ujjain. She initially invites both her husband and his friend. Devadatta balks at taking Kapila along but eventually gives in. Padmini realizes how attractive Kapila is once he climbs a tree and retrieves a flower for her. Devadatta, jealous, goes to a temple to commit suicide and does so by cutting off his head. Kapila finds him, and is so distraught he cuts off his own head. Padmini finds both headless corpses and is about to chop her own head off when the goddess Kali appears, telling Padmini that she can bring both of them back to life by placing their heads back on their bodies – simple enough, right? First, Padmini tells Kali that she doesn’t believe her, to which Kali’s all, “Do you want your husband and his friend back? Then do what I tell you to.” Finally, she does it, but of course she puts the wrong head on the wrong body (in the script, both men wear masks, and she just puts the wrong mask on the wrong man) and when they wake up, everyone’s confused. Ultimately, the new “Devadatta” (Devadatta’s intelligent head on Kapila’s muscular body) wins Padmini, and “Kapila” (…what’s left over) is sent packing.

Padmini and Devadatta are initially happy, they have their children (weird, creepy, doll-children, but children all the same), and now Padmini has her ideal husband and Devadatta has his ideal body. Over time, however, Devadatta becomes out of shape, while Kapila, living in the wild, becomes stronger. (At this point, the actors switch masks again). Once Devadatta discovers Kapila and Padmini together, chaos erupts again. The solution? Devadatta and Kapila must both die. So they kill each other, and then Padmini commits suttee, or widow-burning, and that’s the end of their story.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we learn that Hayavadana the horse-guy (remember him?) is the son of Padmini and Devadatta. Only now, he is all horse, so no more identity crisis. And then he sings,Bhagavata throws away the creepy dolls from before (thank God) and everyone sings.

My Thoughts

How fun and fanciful; shades of Midsummer Night’s Dream and Freaky Friday, only much cooler, with less Lindsay Lohan. I was kind of wondering if the end would indeed be a threesome, and Padmini even suggests it, but I think that it ended appropriately, despite everyone dying. I’m still not sold on the actual horse-man himself, but I get it. This play could really be transformed onstage, especially with some puppetry a la Handspring (the folks behind Ubu and the Truth Commission and War Horse). They’ve already got the giant horse; they could probably swing a few dolls and a giant goddess Kali. Speaking of Kali, I really liked her characterization. Frankly, I thought that Padmini was an idiot from the start, and Kali’s sass just made it funnier, like…hayavadana2

Oh, and yay for another six-continent day! Welcome visitors from North America (Canada, USA, and Jamaica), South America (Brazil and Argentina), Europe (UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Czech Republic), Asia (Qatar, Kuwait, and India), Africa (Rwanda) and Oceania (Australia and Papua New Guinea).


Works Cited:

Karnad, Girish. Hayavadana. New Delhi: Oxford India, 2006.

7

Flip The Script: Rabindranath Tagore, The Post Office

When we last left our hero, it was last Wednesday, and…

I know I’ve been AWOL lately, but this week has been so crazy. So, so, so crazy, trying to keep up with all of you, my internet friends, in addition to the non-online-life thing. Today started with rehearsal at 9 (first one there – oh yeah!) to 1, then a meeting to 1:30, then four bites of lunch and class from 3:30 to 6, then representing APO at the student org fair from 6-7:30, then a failed gym attempt (thanks, random nosebleed and everyone who decides to go to the gym at the last moment), and then Latin dance from 9:30-10:30. I will update this more tomorrow, I promise, but get ready-set for another episode of Flip the Script right about here, with one of my most recent reads (for class, but still a great script that’s already been flipped). Of course, I’m talking about The Post Office by Rabindranath Tagore. Stay tuned.

So, dun-da-dun, it’s back and it’s ready to get flipped. Mostly because, once again, I’m exhausted and can’t think of anything other than school at the moment. It was a relatively light reading week, hence I finished one book and almost another, and this play is still on my mind.

I realize I haven’t been doing much justice to this series, but in an effort to maintain some consistency and a higher-quality post, I’m going to reference back to my Which Way, Big Man? post, and style accordingly.

So here we go, for the first flipped script of 2015: Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office.

Horizontal tricolor flag bearing, from top to bottom, deep saffron, white, and green horizontal bands. In the center of the white band is a navy-blue wheel with 24 spokes.

Basics

Written in India in 1911 by Rabindranath Tagore. Originally written and performed in Bengali and titled Dak Ghar (The Post Office). Its first translation into English was brought to life by W. B. Yeats at London’s Irish Theatre, with Tagore himself in attendance. Other important productions include a French radio production in 1940, translated by Andre Gide and broadcast the night before Paris fell to the Nazis, and a 1942 production in the Warsaw Ghetto by the children of Janusz Korczak’s orphanage, none of whom survived the war.

Characters

  • Madhav Dutta – An older gentleman
  • Amal – A small boy adopted by Madhav
  • Doctor
  • Curdseller
  • Watchman
  • Thakurda/Fakir
  • Village Headman
  • Shudha – A young flower seller
  • Village Boys
  • Raja’s Herald
  • Raja’s Physician (note: not to be confused with Doctor)

Setting/Plot

The play takes place in the home of Madhav Dutta, specifically, in and around the bedroom of his adopted son, Amal. Amal is slowly dying of an incurable disease, and one day, he notices that there is a new post office being built. Through wishful thinking and some prodding, Amal is led to believe that one day he will receive a letter from the Raja. Though Amal is mocked, he keeps believing in a future, either as a pen pal of the Raja or as a postal worker. He prepares for this by interacting with everyone who comes to his window, announcing plans to become a beggar; announcing plans to play outside one day with some boys, to whom he gives all his toys; and asking Shudha, a flower seller, to be his friend and come visit later. The illiterate Amal is led to believe that a blank piece of paper is a personal letter to him from the Raja, much to the chagrin of Madhav. Finally, the Raja’s herald and physician arrive, to announce the arrival of their leader. Though Amal has become progressively weaker as the adults commiserate, he either dies or falls asleep with a smile on his face, not knowing any better. He then gets a visit from Shudha, the flower girl who said she’d return to play with him, bearing flowers.

My Thoughts

For such a teeny, tiny play it certainly packs power. It is not hard to see why a place in crisis like WWII-era France or Poland would understand this piece; it is simple and presents a variety of messages. It is Amal’s journey towards his own death, but there is more than one way to see it. It could be that he sincerely does not know what is going on around him, and that ignorance (or fantasy) is bliss. It could also be that he is accepting his fate, showing it by bequeathing his possessions and saying his last rites, or that he is resisting the slow, inevitable march to death by fantasizing about friends, flower girls, and unfounded futures. It can be seen as a story of hope, or as a story of despair.

Literacy: Wishful Thinking, Delusions of Grandeur, Purposeful Ignorance…?

One of the undervalued plot points is the play’s commentary on literacy. It is not explicitly stated what age Amal is, only the fact that he cannot read. In some cultures, children as young as 4 can read, but there are plenty of adults out there who are either illiterate or functionally illiterate. A blank piece of paper that Amal perceives to be a personalized letter brings him hope. Whether he believes himself or not is the question, but assuming he thought that it said something and not nothing, it does give him enough hope to last for a short while longer. When a person who cannot read is given a written message and not its interpretation, it says whatever the person wishes it to say, giving the element of wish-fulfillment as well as that of hope against hope. Sometimes, when you get that dreaded letter or email, don’t you wish you were illiterate, so you could remain unaffected by it, remain in a state of bliss? Had Amal been able to read, a great deal of his worldview would be turned inside out. I feel like Tagore is saying that society’s lack of literacy is a double-edged sword; it can lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding, but it can also delay, if not obliterate, problems.

Friends and Flower Girls

The protagonist, Amal, exists in a world full of adults, and when he sees other children, he is overcome with joy. He is so happy to see other boys that, against his better judgment, he offers them all his toys, and asks them to come back and play with him to which they say yes. When Shudha comes around, even though he has nothing to give her, he asks her to come back as well. The boys do not come back, yet Shudha does. What I got from this: you can give away everything you have to someone, and they can take it all away, but the person to whom you want to give everything is the one who is the true giver in the relationship. Shudha’s return can also be seen as a hint at the romance and love that will never happen for Amal, if you want to into those undertones, representing children not being born to the children who would be their parents dying as children themselves. I’ve often thought about those high-profile child-murder cases; you gotta wonder, if they hadn’t been killed, who would they grow up to be? Who would they marry, and who would their kids be? I’ll risk sounding cliche, but Shudha’s unwavering faith and sense of duty can be seen as the mark of femininity, or of the “caring woman/goddess,” who never abandons her creations. This can be seen through the last line of the play, which Shudha tells Madhav to relay to Amal when (if) he wakes:

SHUDHA. Tell him, “Shudha has not forgotten you.”

How I’d Flip It

This would be a great play for contemporary young audiences. I could even see it being done in hospital wards, a la Godot in the prison system. For some reason, I see comic book panels and primary colors, or hospital-pastels. It could also be an adorably poignant short film.


Works Cited:

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Post Office. Trans. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

 

3

A Tale of Details

This week has been unusually light on work, so I thought I’d get some decent reading done. That being said, my first finished read of the week is a book I started last week (and should have finished in time for class. Whoops?), The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. As Roy and her book come from India, that makes it an around-the-world challenge book!

Book cover of The God of Small Things, 1997.

One of my first thoughts after reading: this book is not for everyone. If you have a weak stomach, you might not like some of the descriptions nor the subject matter.

I won’t go into too much detail about the plot, but I’ll tell you that though it seems hard to follow, it will make sense once you read the whole book. The God of Small Things takes place in Aymanam, a location now known as a part of Kottayottam in Kerala, a southern state of India, and revolves around a family composed of divorcee Ammu and her twins Rahel and Estha. The timeline continuously jumps around from the 1960s to the 1990s, so the reader makes discoveries along with the characters, who are sometimes unable to see the cause-and-effect pattern. The main incident happens when Ammu’s brother Chacko comes to visit, bringing along his wife Margaret and their daughter Sophie, who is about the same age as the twins. Thirty years later, the family is once again faced with the ghosts that haunt their pasts, as well as an unexpected reunion.

This was Arundhati Roy’s debut as a novelist, and ever since, she’s only written nonfiction. What has been more notable about Roy, however, has been her political activism. In class, we watched a short film about her participation in protesting the creation of a dam that would displace a half million people as well as fail to provide for more irrigation/fresh drinking water. I’m not sure how I feel about Roy; I want to like her, but the film made her come off as pretty militant.

It’s hard to discuss this novel without going into the plot, and since that would give away the ending, suffice it to say that the proof really is in the details.

 

0

The Importance of Storytelling

“Tell me a story.”

No matter what city, country, or culture, children all over the world have always made this imperative statement to someone older than them. To most parents, this is a burden when they’re just trying to get their kid to go to sleep. In traditions without a written language, like some tribes of Africa and Native America, storytelling is a core way to communicate and transmit information from one generation to the next. It can be via a song, a dance, some sort of performance, or just through mere verbal communication. Nonverbal cues help add to the context. The stories told can be wild fanciful fables, parables with lessons, or true stories of ancestors and other family members, dead or living. Some view storytelling as a way to dwell on the past, or make it ridiculous, but it is imperative to listen to that call and to tell the story that you need to tell, that needs to be heard, rather than keeping it bottled up inside you forever.

That’s part of the reason why I started this blog, and I feel like I’m straying from it somewhat. I don’t know if there is a National Storytelling Month, but tomorrow is the first day of October (!!) so I am going to declare it “That’s So Storytelling Month.” I always wanted to make my own holiday, and now I have.

I have so much that I want to release, to share, but since it’s not quite October yet (for a few minutes, anyhow) I’ll just tell about something that happened to me today.

Instead of kabuki class today, we had a guest lecturer come in. She was a dancer of kathak, a traditional dance style from North India. She introduced us to the world of kathak through speech, storytelling, activities, and performing herself. She was also wearing a lovely peacock-blue outfit with several golden anklets around her feet, jingling each time she moved. One of the activities she did was assign different emotions to different people, and the challenge was to display the emotion by performing the action. The action for everyone was the same: picking up (and sometimes putting down) a rose. With a class full of actors, there were some very talented performers. One girl, who I’ll call Eva, was tasked with the emotion of happiness. In her narrative, she stared forward as if she were blind and felt around on the ground for the rose. Once she palmed the rose, she put it to her face and smelled it, giving a giggle of recognition. This story said so my by saying so little. The instructor asked her to imagine the rose as an object of desire or a happy memory, and she performed it again. This time, Eva did the exact same actions, only kept her giggle to a mere smile and some wordless facial expressions, which communicated something entirely different.

Getting up and learning the dance moves was equally impressive. She talked about peacocks, and we did some movements that were reminiscent of the birds, using our hands, fingers, and wrists. I was in the front row, and though I don’t know quite exactly what happened – I was either really getting into the music, or was just shivering a little – but the instructor pointed me out as doing an “excellent peacock.” She had me come up next to her and show everyone what I just did. I didn’t quite remember, but tried to focus the best I could on being a peacock, and it caused a lot of giggles from the class, especially when she said “see how he moves from the chest?”

So maybe there is hope for me after all.

When we were dancing, she taught us a short poem to remember the principles of kathak. It went something like this: “where your hand goes, your wrist goes; where your wrist goes, your eyes go; where your eyes go, your head goes; where your head goes, your heart goes.” This was a nice way to picture the dance, as one of telling a fluid story through the body. I felt very happy, natural, and free doing the kathak movements. It didn’t require as much intense focus as kabuki, and it didn’t require as much skill as ballroom. Kathak allowed the body to flow where it wanted to go in natural movements. Maybe that’s why I excelled at it; after learning the movements, I was able to “tune out” and just let my body enjoy the moment, accept it, all the while committing the dance to memory, making it second nature. I hope to be able to one day study kathak and increase my skills in telling a story non-verbally, and maybe even experience more feelings of pure joy in motion.

She ended the class with a captivating dance that incorporated many emotions, with movements both gentle and stern. There were lots of turns and hand gestures, and at points she seemed to glide through the space, letting her hands lead her wherever they wanted her to go. She looked so free during the dance, especially with the spirals she made with her body and how her costume followed her movements. I was watching in awe and wonder, and it seemed like the dance could go on forever. When it did, however, we went around the room and introduced ourselves to her along with the reason why we chose this class. At my turn, I said that I enjoyed being here not only for the cultural benefit but because I haven’t taken a movement class in years, I enjoy the challenges and the physical activity, and it’s a great way to start off the week. Okay, maybe that last bit was overkill, but I felt my heart grow warmer when she said replied to me, saying, “You were very good. Keep moving.”

Somehow this turned into a post about dancing rather than about storytelling, but I guess one of the best parts about storytelling is getting lost in the story and then coming back to bring it full circle.

But some days, all I need to hear to keep me going, is a story that features me in the starring role.

“Keep moving.” It’s the start of a new story, and hopefully many more stories and positive experiences that can spin off in all directions, like a whirling, twirling, kathak dancer.