Hitting the Hard Stuff

Which would be chocolate. Jill left yesterday and I’m mopey. The eating of chocolate, for me, isn’t so much the stereotypical devotional female sad-solace; I don’t totally buy the endorphins song-and-dance. (I buy Toblerone or Lindt or Ritzbury in a pinch, har de har har.) What I seek is not neurochemical anaesthesia but the Pavlovian simulacra of same… which is arguably neurochemical as well, given the chem-wired nature of the grey stuff upstairs.

Yeesh, this is some trenchant prose. Apologies.

Right, so I’ll refrain from a nattering breakdown of the chocolate subtypes available in my Kandy-land. I do suspect that this particular face-cram-fest (mocha ganache bar) was motivated equally by the residual bittersweet of Jill’s departure and the unfortunate aftertaste of dinner at Stuart’s house. His host-amma is really a poor cook, though she makes up for it by being an enthusiastic host.

The point (I remind myself) is to say a bit about Jill. Jill loves chocolate and pursues it more avidly than I do. I learned from Jill that when Cargills gots the good stuff (dark), you buy several.

Jill wins the amba yaluwa (mango friend) award for being the voice of sanity during the last ten months. She’s one of those even-keeled types who you’d have to resentfully hate for being so damn together except that their sweet humor precludes envy and deflates pride. She’d also scold me, nicely, for thinking that there are ‘types’ of people; Jill accepts everyone as individuals and takes the time to know people fully and flesh out her understanding of them. She’s even nice to annoying people. She has been my comrade in short-hair, adventurous currying, tsunami, yoga, Jaffna, and sundry other mini-feats and features of life.

In what must be a classic form of intermediate mourning, I am currently taking on her identity. I inherited her excess clothing, household goods, and foodstuffs—some rather precipitously flung at me! You try dodging a bottle of sweet-and-sour sauce at two yards. After taking a few last photos of her with Thami (close friend) and Mia (close dog), and waving til I couldn’t see her through the tinted windows of the downroad-jouncing van, I spent a blithely meditative hour amalgamating her kitchen and wardrobe into mine.

Those readers who know me well shall appreciate the particular form of bliss that these activities offer: putting things into appropriately sized jars, consolidating two half-full canisters of milk-powder, reordering the folded-stacked shirts so that Jill’s polos nestled with mine. I’m not going to need to buy unperishables for a while. I will think of Jill when I help myself to semolina, sugar, skirt, and Cetaphil. If anyone needs a litre of 100% aloe gel, I’ve got it, compliments of Jill.

Trying not to get all sappy here. Just want to remember: the friendship and the meals and that beautiful laugh of yours and your funny accent (“melk,” “nooooi?”) and the clarity and the reality. Safe happy travels; no travails.


tights down: sidling up to a stalk of celery*
Gandhi! the (fascist) musical

Several days later and I'm still laughing about this. I didn't get to Be In the play, after hanging around all Friday at "rehearsal" (i.e., 35 people chilling, stretching, chatting, making up little dances with scarves) until 12.30am. The part for me had previously been cut from the script and the director couldn't find the time to figure out where I might fit in. I am okay with this, considering the incredible ridiculousness of the show: a 4 hour epic musical ghastly/hilarious spectacle.

First let me say that the English script, as I read it, was a realistic play showing the humanity of the many characters (especially Gandhi and his wife but others too) in a multifaceted, not-entirely-valorized light. As in, it's about the real people, not the heroes and villains of political memory. Translated into Sinhala and Tamil and portrayed by a zealous (and overacting) cast-of-thousands, it was a marathon tale of a pitiful/godlike man's struggle to save literally-enchained people from evil colonialists and power-mad Swaraj demagogues. I found it by turns absurd, hysterically funny, and offensive.

The dancers/chorus were always switching off between silly and sillier outfits. They started with tie-dyed bodysuits and knotted waist-scarves, progressed to shiny lamé “peasant rags,” and later showed up in a range of poufy froufrou bridesmaidsy dresses (the women, at least). This was made more strange in that the bridesmaids were performing serious, intense, lamentful traditional dances. There was a whole semi-erotic number with Kasturbai Gandhi (the wife) dancing and moaning in a frilly satin nightgown with eight guys in gold spandex. Also, easily half the men had been decked out with luxuriant mustaches and fakey wigs.

Gandhi is played by the director**, a six-foot-tall, built, pudge-sporting bruiser. (They sort of elided all the fasting bits.) It dawns on me that a major cause of Gandhi’s success could be drawn to the visual semiotics of a wasted, skinny, barely clothed yet immensely brilliant and strong person. Nonviolence doesn’t have the same meaning when you look like you could tear the entire beefy Raj limb-from-limb. When he decides to get rid of Western clothes, he strips from Chaplinesque pinstripes-with-beret-and-elastic-bow-tie to tight little briefs and undershirt, belly flabbing out. Never thought I’d see a stage depiction of Gandhi’s bait’n’tackle!

The racist South African jailer of the early scenes, written as white, was depicted as a black man, i.e, with a Sri Lankan actor in blackface. Classic Jolson blackface, with ‘fro wig and whitened lips. Likewise, the written-as-eloquent Untouchable who shows Gandhi the need for caste solidarity was depicted as a cringing monkeyman. The male chorus appeared as a swarm of loinclothed, drooling, retarded wretches, moaning and picking bugs off each other. I was cringing in my seat.

I should here say that it seemed the Kandy audience loved it, so my sense of aesthetics is perhaps tweaked. I want to direct a play here (show people how much better theatre can be) but made me question whether my work would really be “better” given the sensibilities of Sri Lankans. This show had wailing and screaming like you wouldn’t believe and I wouldn’t direct. The lead actors were intense and melodramatic, which is a good thing when you consider that the biggest problem we often find in amateurs in the States is that they’re undercommitted, can’t make big-enough choices.

Just found out that someone (whom I know indirectly! like I know everyone in this country! yes!) is doing Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends in Colombo at the end of July. Check it out here: http://fefu.blogsome.com/. Must inveigle self. I am so desperate.

All in all, I wanted to apologize to my friends for dragging them to the show. I myself enjoyed it intellectually if not as a piece of quality art. Indi says that the people responsible for this travesty production are probably going to read this, and I say not. I do hope to meet up with Director Mahatma Himself and chat about how I can do another (better) show here. I’m glad, though, that I met the actors—they were really truly wonderful people, whom I hope to see again. Good intentions and free rice packets do not, however, a good play make.

*actual stage directions from the script
**most every play I’ve seen here has the director as a major character. This is something I would never, ever do. Thou canst not direct thyself.


Do you hear the people sing?

This was taken during the all-day insane rehearsal. That's Gandhi, on the left, the 7-foot bruiser dude; in a 'jail' formed of people holding chains around him. (They're 'in jail' too; frequently wailing/screaming "Babaji!" and sobbing sporadically.) On the right we have the shirtless Antagonist, declaring the rightness of terrorism as a path to decolonization and vengeance. Hot stuff!


Look, there she goes—that girl is strange, no question

Sometimes you (I) have to marathonically listen to the complete five-volume Classic Disney set, including approximately 250 brilliant and heart-wrenching tunes excerpted with loving care and discerning taste from Disney’s voluminous history of music production.

You may mock, and would in fact be right to do so, especially if you heard me singing along with “Be Our Guest,” doing all the funny voices myself. Mocking accepted. It would be trite for me to make an apologia for Disney’s many aesthetic and political sins. I do think, though, that the people in charge of producing this stuff are smart and savvy—the bad Disney flicks (um, Hunchback) are the ones where they muzzle the mild-bitchy sass of a Mary Poppins or a Princess Jasmine and rationalize the joyful, sweet absurdity of Pete’s Dragon and “Under the Sea.” Sure, a lot of it is middlebrow, but better that we have intelligent middlebrow art than a vast cultural gap between Care Bears and Lars von Trier. Besides, I’d rather sing along to Bedknobs and Broomsticks than Dancer in the Dark. Bjork irks me.

Listening to the Classic set, one hears amazing political discourses being worked out through time—songs that would never get produced/written now can play alongside songs exemplifying the best in contemporary (well, early 90s) multicultural pacifist mores. In “I Wan’na Be Like You,” a jazzy number from The Jungle Book, Louis Armstrong (!) as a semi-villainous orangutan king sings “you see it’s true/an ape like me/can learn to be/human too.” Shudder. But what comes right after that? “The Mob Song” from Beauty and the Beast, with murderously macho Gaston exhorting terrified villagers to the worst excesses of anti-Beast vigilante violence. The audience fears for Belle, imprisoned in her own cellar lest she ‘betray’ the mob to the (non-human but infinitely sympathetic) castledwellers. Human nature has, far from its earlier celebration, assumed a terrifying aspect, appropriate to fin-de-this-siecle events and values.

It’s those (simple) smarts, along with the earnest moral teachings they try to impart (can you believe they made Newsies? It’s straight from Howard Zinn’s list of “stories Hollywood never tells”) that go some distance towards making up for eye-widening travesties like “The Siamese Cat Song.”

Real life update: found out today that I did not get the UNESCO internship (6 months in Paris, sob) for which I applied. This is probably not a bad thing, as I was going to have to get conversationally fluent in French before going, and all the French I know I learned from Lumiere (the candlestick in Beauty and the Beast) and Jacques (the seafood-lovin’ chef of The Little Mermaid). Though I was looking forward to telling Parisians that I love les poissons les poissons, hee hee hee haw haw haw.


Gandhi’s girlfriend

I’m in a play! Not even on purpose!

Lately missing theatre strongly, and wanting to start/join some kind of group or run a workshop (which is in-planning-process) or direct a show. I even have some scripts picked out. Probably should get cracking. Probably not going to happen, but—

This weekend there’s a production going up in Kandy. That in itself is thrilling as we don’t get much of anything save school shows (cute, but…) and I bought my ticket like a month ago. I was psyched and had made minimal arrangements to meet the director. Then, yesterday, driverfriend Roshan calls me in the middle of the afternoon. Can you give a little help to this teledrama producer lady? he asked me. Sure, I said, confused. He hands the phone to a nice lady named Anoma, who tells me that she’s the director of the trilingual play Gandhi and she needs two foreign guys to be in it. Could I find some, darling? Of course I could try.

Except, damn, I know four foreign (i.e. white) guys in Kandy. Two are busy and two are leery. I meet up with Roshan and Anoma (who is playing Kasturbai, in the grand tradition of ‘all Sri Lankan directors must take large parts in their own plays’) and we discuss foreigner-culling tactics: the Pub? the internet cafes? Halfway through this strategy session she looks appraisingly at my chest and says to Buddhika, assistant director, we’ll have to give her a smaller top because Wiyelani’s will be too big. What?

It seems I am also getting collared into this production. (Jill’s comment: “I’m sure they had to twist your arm real hard.” Indeed, Jill.) I play Mirabehn, the English woman who gave up her comfortable middle-class life to become a zealous devotee of Gandhi’s ashram and his adopted daughter. It is thought that they also wanted each other In That Way, but never went for it given the ideals of the movement. A quick web search shows that she was determined, somewhat psycho, and good-lookin’ in a Gujarati sari. In my Method-trained-actor hat, I love this: “As [Mira] grew older, she learned all about the correct use of saws, hammer, screwdrivers, planes and chisels.” In my director hat, I can’t believe Anoma is adding actors three days before the show. We shall see. I am excited.


Check it out: my illegitimate intellectual child.

It's a paper on dam safety, written in varying proportions by myself and two other authors from the organization doing the project. Basically it says that the state of dam safety oversight in Sri Lanka sucks and we need a) a monitoring agency to hold the big stick and b) many carrots of better funding. I won't claim it's a fascinating read, but if you're in a related field (hazard management, disaster relief, engineering, geology) it would be nice to have comments. Toss 'em on that website.

Saturday was spent at community meetings for this project with my last-minute savior of a Sinhala note-taker, 18-year-old aspiring engineer Buddhika. I felt like I was bringing my kid brother but he did a fabulous job. There is little more exhausting than trying to follow a technical talk in a language you speak minimally. Still, interesting to see how this stuff gets supported at the almost-grassroots level; plus I got a nice free lunch and several rounds of tea'n'cake out of it.

Sunday Jill and I went to Gam Udawa (Digana bus via Kundasale) to Kanthi's house for a pleasantly typical all-day lunch. Kanthi is the ICES librarian of 20+ years; one of the most lovely, funny, and helpful people around. She knows everything. We had lovely food and hung out on her back verandah, saw photos of last November's trip to the US ("It was so cold at Niagara!") where she stayed in Queens for four weeks, traveling on the weekends but otherwise hanging out with a friend (she went into Manhattan twice).

On the bus back from that I got very heartsick about geography and time and people. My sense of 'home' has gone off; it is both and neither here and there. Friends come and go too easily and too hard. I feel unlike myself, in the way I remember myself from my former settings (read: large East Coast city), but not sure that that version is important or worth remaking. It's been a while since my last little spurt of melancholia, so I'm overdue; that doesn't make it a whole lot easier.

Pretty clear to me, also, that some of this feeling is caused by the ongoing evolution of my distance from him, and my new and developing attachment to him. Those are two different people.

Happy 4th of July! The Sunday Times had a ridiculous four-page section on America, with an article by Ambassador "Jenny's Dad" Lunstead (nice guy, cold fish), and a mini-bio of Betsy Ross, and silly ads like "Greetings & Best Wishes to the Government & People of the United States of America, from Ceyline Shipping Ltd." My plans include going to office, meeting Buddhika, taking in a puja at the Pillaiyar Kovil, and drinking some beer at Stuart Strange's house.