Tuesday, January 31, 2006

An Ayurvedic Lunch & Another Review

Well this afternoon my sister, my mother and my aunt G went out together to a restaurant serving authentic "Ayurvedic" meals -- not merely vegetarian, but healthy in that Mystical Eternal India manner (cue sitar music in the background. And curling wisps of incense. And coconut oil. And a tiger or two).

Those of you who know me will realize that this is NOT my scene at all, but I survived, nevertheless. The main pleasures were: taking my Mum out, despite her difficulties walking and the trouble she has managing since she broke her wrist a couple of months ago (it's healing well, but of course is still a worry); taking my Auntie-G out, because she so enjoys the sacred food concept; being in a small restaurant that takes itself SOOOOO seriously, yet in an entirely different direction to the Michelin Guide-wallahs. After all, who can resist a restaurant which has a sales counter out front, at which one can buy small packets labelled "Simple Enema"?

The meal we had was a set menu. We were seated at a table to ourselves in a small air-conditioned room, whose walls had been decorated by a loose lattice-work of bamboo wands (not especially attractive). A fresh banana leaf was spread in front of each of us and of course there was no question of cutlery. We had a personal attendant (so does anyone who orders the set menu) who advised us about the procedure: we would get 28 items in all, small portions of each. We were to eat only in the particular order in which these items were served; we would not be offered water during the meal, and the rice course would come only towards the end.

It began with two slices of banana sprinkled with grated coconut. Immediately following this were five dainty little glasses with, in order: date juice, almond-cashew milk, beetroot-pumpkin juice, mint-buttermilk, red rice congee (gruel??) -- and the tastes ranged from sweet, less sweet, salty, sour and ... umm ... bland.

The next course comprised one portion each of four uncooked items -- salad-y type things of which the banana-stem item was undoubtedly the best -- then four semi-cooked, which I didn't much enjoy coz there was a white-pumpkin item and a beetroot item, but the mound of banana-flower [something] -- the texture of soft dark sand --was quite pleasant. Then four cooked items, plus red rice. Now this red rice wasn't merely sissy-pale red, it was more like MAROON rice, and had a muscular, nutty flavour. A neat touch: it was served with a spoonful of yellow daal, so softened that it looked EXACTLY like the ghee that would NORMALLY be served on rice. And sambar.

All the cooked items were just okay, in my opinion, not because they didn't taste okay but because they weren't my closest friends, veggie-wise (cauliflower's okay, but the various gourd-type things don't appeal). This was followed by another round of liquids, including rasam, a goo I didn't like, plain buttermilk and a sweet payasam (not rice, but the kind I used to call Brown Payasam as a child and that I didn't ever touch -- but I will admit it was quite nice here). And finally, to round it all off, a teaspoon of honey which was deposited into the palms of our hands (!!) -- which we were told quite sternly to lick up in one go, it was part of the whole procedure -- and a "beeda" -- a paan leaf with betel-nut components of unknown identity wrapped inside it, as a digestive.

The important features to note about the meal were that it was wholly grease-free, everything being pretty much steamed (I think) and that there were no "heaty" veggies, such as onion and garlic, and no spices of the cardamom, clove, turmeric brigade. I am pretty sure there were chillies lurking in the savoury green mango relish that was one of the four "uncooked" selections, because it was certainly chilli-hot -- but the rest was refreshingly low-spice, natural flavour -- but maybe I am wrong and it was only fresh pepper combining explosively with the mango (and maybe cilantro? I forget).

I don't think I'd go again -- mainly coz I don't like eating with my fingers and feel queasy about the raw veggies concept -- oh and I NEVER like to feel that I'm doing anything consciously sacred (does everyone notice how close the word "sacred" is to "scared"?) because ... well, this is my blog, and I don't have to justify anything. I don't like it, and that's all. But the little man who watched over us as we ate was very sweet and seemed genuinely concerned that we should follow the proper procedure in order to get the maximum benefit from our meal. His presence -- like that of the whole restaurant -- was a reminder of that entire world of otherness regarding food -- of food as medicine, as ritual, as tradition -- the supreme opposite of food as entertainment, as titillation, as indulgence.

It's not where I'm at (I mean, medicine/ritual/tradition), but I enjoyed entering that world anyway.

Right! And now ... back to theatre:

Harvest/January 30, 2006
By Gwen Orel

In answer to the comment that "no one goes abroad these days," Jaya (Diksha Basu) mutters, "Not whole people, anyway." It's true. In Manjula Padmanabhan's play Harvest, bits of impoverished Indians go to America through voluntary organ donation sponsored by the company InterPlanta. InterPlanta's mordant commercials (the video director is Matt Bockelman) punctuate the scenes and are one of the best elements in a solid show; the happy actors' sincerity, and InterPlanta's little jingle, "We make life worth living," are uncomfortably close to the euphoric promises of Viagra commercials.

Jaya, the wife of organ donor Om (Debargo Sanyal), is the play's moral center, although the action is driven by Om and by Jaya's brother-in-law and lover, Jeetu (Rupak Ginn), a street hustler who says, "I don't mind being bought, but I won't be owned." After Om signs with InterPlanta, guards (who farcically finish each other's sentences) come to the house and take all the family's possessions. They install a hanging white rosette called a "contact module," through which their sponsor, a blond Southern woman named Ginni (hilariously bossy Christianna Nelson), beams her image. She treats them like prospective livestock, and in return sends them a toilet, shower, couch, and television. Ma (Naheed Khan) purchases "video paradiso," which breathes and eats for her as she watches television inside her mind. Act II provides more exposition; though the material is dramatically successful, the play is less powerful when the circumstances are pinned down.

Thanks to Padmanabhan's lyrical language, director Benjamin Mosse's pacing and humor, and a solid cast, Harvest is a fascinating, funny, and frightening glimpse of what happens when we commodify human beings. Although it addresses globalization, the play's issues are universal. As Bruce Springsteen sings, "Everybody has a hungry heart." Keeping body and soul together in the face of images of plenty is a human challenge not limited to the Third World.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Here's a link to the online review at NYTheatre.com -- there's a photograph of the show there -- it looks great, and I am finally breathing easy. Congratulations to the cast and ECA ...

Martin Denton * January 20, 2006
In Harvest, Manjula Padmanabhan's fine play that is currently receiving its NYC premiere at La MaMa, a young man in India takes a job as a professional organ donor. The time is the near future, and a company called Interplanta is recruiting healthy Third World humans to become, essentially, health repositories for wealthy Westerners. Om's client is a woman named Ginni, who pays him and his family top dollar-at least in terms of India's per capita income-to stay fit and ready for the possible day when she will need something from him, say, a kidney, or his skin, or his eyes.

Om's wife, Jaya, is understandably distressed by this new job, not least because of the strain it puts on an already very dysfunctional relationship. For Jaya is in love with, and having an on-again / off-again affair with, Om's younger brother, Jeetu, who supports himself by working as a prostitute. The other member of the household is Ma, Om and Jeetu's mother, a meddlesome lady who thinks that her elder boy (Om) can do no wrong and that the others can do no right (Jaya, for example, is repeatedly referred to as a "slut").

As for the work itself-such as it is-well, that's a round-the-clock regimen controlled 100% by Interplanta, who deliver boxes of food and other necessities as dictated by Ginni (she orders, for example, that a working toilet and shower be installed in Om's one-room, fourth-floor apartment, because she doesn't want her employee mixing with the "disgusting" others who dwell in his building). Om and his family do get to enjoy the spoils of his new high-paying position-in one of the play's most effective scenes, their rise to consumerist luxury is depicted wittily in a series of sight gags-but their lack of freedom eventually gnaws away at them, as does Om's fear that the day is drawing near when some part of his body will be needed by his faraway benefactress-quite possibly a part that he can't do without.

I won't reveal the rest of Padmanabhan's intricately plotted tale, but I will say that Harvest compels from beginning to end, creating a not-so-fanciful futuristic world that's pretty darned scary. Om's occupation starts off as a stark and brilliant symbol of the most invasive kind of First World Colonialism, but the play shifts gears along the way and turns its attention to an even more insidious form of colonization, that of our very humanity by a cultural ethos besotted with technology and comfort. While Om's family's crisis spirals horrifyingly out of control, commercials for Interplanta's latest and greatest products and services are projected on a screen that coincides with the rear wall of their apartment, lulling us (and them, perhaps) into a sense of security that's as malignant as it is false. (These exceedingly well-crafted videos are directed by Matt Bockelman.) Padmanabhan essentially picks up where Orwell left off, crafting a 21st century cautionary tale of enormous resonance.

Benjamin Mosse's production at La MaMa's First Floor Theater is mostly terrific, anchored by a quartet of splendid performances (Debargo Sanyal as Om, Naheed Khan as Ma, Christianna Nelson as Ginni, and Rupak Ginn as Jeetu) and smartly paced and designed (the endlessly escalating "conveniences" delivered to the family by Interplanta take the form here of cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes, and as they stack up toward the ceiling they provide a visual allusion to Ionesco's The Chairs, a neat and relevant absurdist reference point). Diksha Basu is less effective as Jaya, unfortunately, failing to hold our attention or sympathy in Act One, which proves problematic as the play's focus shifts toward her in its second half.

But Harvest is by any measure a significant success, and La MaMa and East Coast Artists are to be congratulated for bringing it to the New York stage. Audiences in search of lively and challenging theatre that looks deeply and candidly at the relations between the world's "haves" and "have-nots" will be well stimulated by this thought-provoking, valuable work.

And the The New York Times review. It's more critical but I'm told the reviewer saw what amounted to a preview, and that the subsequent shows have tightened up considerably. Frankly? Knowing the kinds of things that can go wrong with the play, this sounds like a pretty good show, even on its first night, with barely six weeks of rehearsal (with the year-end in the middle)* and all the technical stuff the show demands. There's a photograph with the review.

*CORRECTION: Benjamin tells me that he and the cast had sixteen days of rehearsal, between six to ten in the evenings. That makes this performance near-miraculous, what with a live GINNI doing the video without feed-back from the stage, all the tech stuff ... that's just ... WOW. I'm impressed.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Harvest, NYC (contd.) and ...

Thanks to Amba, who posted her impressions of NYC's HARVEST at her blog I have an idea of what it was like, from someone unconnected to the production. I feel a mild regret, about not being there but not REALLY sorry coz I am still shuddering from the memory of The Unmentionable over on the West Coast. No doubt I'll get over it in time, but I wonder if perhaps the best way to survive being a playwright is never to see the staged results? I remember acting in a play once, and being told the playwright wouldn't attend the performance because he never sat through his own plays.

Apparently, the chances are dim that productions will appeal to their creators. I was talking to an English playwright in London this December, someone whose plays have been performed by big name actors (I mean, the type whose names even I was familiar with -- I'm not naming them for fear of libel suits) and he didn't have a single good word to say for anyone associated with stage productions. We agreed that the lot of a playwright is a SAAAAAD one. Anyway, this conversation made me feel whole lot better, since I was able to describe The West Coast HorrorShow in thrilling technicolour to him -- and HE UNDERSTOOD WHAT I WAS TALKING ABOUT!! That was so cool. Other people listen to these tales of woe and think that I'm exaggerating (well, not the friends who came to the west coast show with me; they thought I was exaggerating until they witnessed it for themselves), and smile in a "there, there -- it can't possibly have been THAT bad" way. Only the playwright knew from experience the total nastiness of having one's work messed about by others.

Anyway ... I am pleased to report that, according to Amba's report, it sounds like the NYC show was good. I am very grateful to her for bothering to put up that review.

Meanwhile, I am currently in Madras. Got here on Sunday. My niece D is here from Boss Town and we are in the thick of our annual season of struggles with my mom/her grandmom -- nothing we do can EVER match her expectations. So, even though I am 52 and my niece is 32, we STILL spend most of our lives here variously in the dog-house for being lazy/incompetent/poorly dressed/and much, much more besides. *sigh* It's not easy being born.

Oh -- and -- for a short while, I am hiding comments (I may turn em off altogether; haven't decided) and removing my e-address from view. I am pre-empting possible tedium in the form of unwanted mail in a week from now, because a Bombay tabloid is running a feature in which they're going to be excerpting from author-blogs and mine's going to be one of them.

Monday, January 16, 2006


It's time to post these links, I guess. The play is due to open in NYC this week. I won't be there, but I've got all my digits crossed. Here are links to: LaMaMa's site, the New York Times notice and an interview with me in nytheatre.com.

Incidentally ... it just occurred to me that crossing one's fingers is really only useful if one is a believing Christian. Ah well. I'll hope that 8 years in convent schools entitles me to request that a little luck be sanctioned in the direction of the play!

Oh -- and -- here's a link to a page in NYTheatre-Wire which features Suki from Penguin India's 2005 collection of my Bombay strip, DOUBLETALK (there's a link to it on the right). I always get a bit of thrill when I see Suki featured anywhere -- she had such a rough time in her early years, it's kind of sweet to find that she's still capable of holding her own even now, 20 years later. When she chooses, that is ...

Monday, January 09, 2006

Name This Flower, Please!

Many years ago, I came across a gorgeous multi-headed flower that looked to me like a variation on the theme of Spider Lily. However, the owner of the garden in which the plant was growing didn't know its name (when I asked, he said, "Oh ... it's just a big lily!"). Ever since then, I've been VERY keen to know what it is. I kept looking out for it, but didn't see any more. Then I noticed that Delhi's IIC had a few clumps growing there -- and have been meaning to get around to taking pix to post them here. It's been about ... ooo ... two years? Since I first noticed them there? Well, finally, today, the syzygy of lily, me and digital camera occurred. Here are two pictures of the flower (one bunch in bud, and the other in bloom) and if anyone knows the creature's botanical name, I'll be very grateful if they would share it. Of course, I could probably find out from the IIC gardeners too ... but it's more fun this way!