Saturday 8 August 2020


I was watching the Korean drama, Romance is a Bonus Book, when, in the penultimate episode, our heroine Kang Dan-i, is horrified to find plagiarised translations of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's epistolary 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. My face resembled hers in that moment, for a different reason. I had only just heard of this novel in the strangest of circumstances.

A week ago, my childhood friend Arzanne sent me tickets to a play. She had already attended it, and it had moved her so much that she wanted to share the experience. And it was an experience... I have watched plays online since quarantine began - Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag for Soho Theatre on Demand, where our donations helped to keep theatre cast and crew afloat during these audience-silent times, and Frankenstein with alternating lead roles between Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller for the National Theatre at Home productions we have been so fortunate to enjoy free for a week each. (Frankenstein's monster also finds The Sorrows of Young Werther in a leather portmanteau... but that wasn't my connection). 

Every Brilliant Thing, a play written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, does not require its audience to be silent. Would it terrify or invigorate you to be part of a play, your own participation fuelling the thing itself? A woman suffers depression. Her husband fetches her little boy to the hospital. That little boy must live, now and always, with the shadow of an unknowable beast stealing his mother from time to time. Macmillan's play has been traveling the globe, and the director/actor use the alchemy of their nation's idiom to alter the words but not the impact or emotion of the original idea. 

In Bangalore, the actor Vivek Madan, used to performing in the round, graciously invited our tiny screen faces into his home. Some of us had already been sent a word or a sentence - a brilliant thing on the list of the little boy who walks through darkness towards manhood, signalling for light with 1) Ice cream 2) Water fights 3) Staying up past your bedtime 4) The colour yellow... which reminded me of Albert Espinosa's memoir The Yellow World, and the yellow benches it inspired for sparking conversation between strangers... on and on to me at 521) Plinth (not the easiest word to wrap one's tongue around mid concentration!)

A thousand brilliant things... 2389) Baby elephant... ten thousand brilliant things... 10,000) Waking up next to someone you love... And somewhere, in the midst of that list, a book appears - the one that has for 250 years touched a raw nerve of how to be young, and filled with desire, and the thing you want not wanting you... and how, with that seeming failure, you exit the world, with violence and the poetry of your grief. The book has been banned for showing the way out, literarily speaking. 

I liked seeing the tall trees wave, friendly and rhythmic, behind Vivek as he moved with expert familiarity around his home, us in his home, known words on his tongue and making space for unknown words on our tongues... Occasionally, he'd call out a number and be met with silence... sometimes a zoom call is a fumble! What is worth living for? Many things. Who gets it right for a child? A counsellor with a sock puppet. Or an idea to record the good thing that lives between our fight or flight stress mechanism. Depression changes the chemistry of the brain of children... so should we lie to our children to protect them? Should we share the nature of the beastly growling lurking thief of happiness and peace of mind? I think it is difficult either way. And with that in mind, QTP, the theatre company producing the play, arranges for a mental health practitioner to join the audience at the end. How loving, how considerate. 

I liked seeing the sky darken behind Vivek, and then turn black. Night had come for him and everyone else watching in India. In my pocket of the world, sunshine streamed through the lilies and rose bush and the white butterfly pranced, keeping her promise to return to me year after year after year. The play was directed by Quasar Thakore-Padamsee, who, not enamoured of attempting an online theatrical experiment, was inspired to take that leap of faith by his fellow producer Nadir Khan, another childhood friend of mine. Nadir and his brother Darab were a brilliant thing when I was a girl growing up in Bombay. Two more brothers to add to mine, two more friends to make life worth living and memories worth holding dear. So many brilliant things, couldn't we just cry thinking about them? But we don't. Because we forget. Or make ourselves forget. Maybe your children could start their lists? And maybe your parents, too. 

Number 7,800,000,000) Us. You and me. 


Sherry Blue Sky said...

Is this you in your cute little cottage? I love it. Your friends sound amazing, and you have the coolest experiences. I loved reading this, but then I always love reading you.

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