One life-sustaining and quiet; the other, a celebration, a blessing and an explosion of taste: I have been lucky; I had both at the London premiere of Akram Khan's Desh at Sadler's Wells.
My strongest, most tender, most gratifying recollections – apart from the piece itself, which has become so much more than the sum of its parts: magical and moving and sprightly – came just after the show: first honey, then water.
So there we were, just after the performance, Polar Bear and I, still a little stunned by it all – Akram’s tour de force of a performance, the completeness of the oneiric world that had unfolded before our eyes – and, for my part, a little dizzy for physical, less enchanting reasons.
There we were, in one of those little inner bubbles of almost-solitude and stillness you sometimes find in a crowd, especially a crowd pouring pell-mell out of a theatre. When suddenly we were submerged in a spate of voices: exuberant, joyous, tearful, nostalgic, generous, in English and Bangla…
There they were, Akram’s mother and father, shining with pride and emotion, and with them, more than a dozen of their relatives and friends, all peers from the Bangladeshi community in London. Mr. and Mrs. Khan introduced me, with much warmth and affection, as "the scriptwriter of the piece, the person who told our stories.” I clutched at Polar Bear, introducing him in turn — we had written the entire Jui narrative in marathon sessions, then finessed and rewritten many of the stories, stories that Akram and I had imagined, together and separately, earlier.
It was a happy, unforgettable blur of introductions, and burbling of questions and comments and reminiscences – precise and knowing and unhesitant and curious in a very familiar way, the way of my parents and brood of uncles and aunts – recognising, and demanding to know more of, the things I had kept subterranean all through the last year and more. All of them, the veiled, determined lady doctor; the spunky, bejewelled teacher; the teary-eyed aunt and the men-folk tagging behind, all fresh with their memories and triumphs and sorrows tumbling willy-nilly from the shelves and safes they are placed in, for the sake of everyday…
How did you know our stories?
These are things I lived through!
You are not Bangla but you know our memories. You are too young to have been there, so how?
(And to Polar Bear) You are not even Asian but you wanted to write about us, thank you. Thank you so much.
Thank you for remembering!
How did you hear of Noor?
How did you know this is how we felt?
Do you speak Bangla? How did you write those things then?
Who told you about the war?
And Bonbibi, how did you know about Bonbibi and Dakkhin Rai?
I had to tell them.
I had to tell them why Bangladesh mattered and what it had meant – even though I am not sure I know, really. Why it was so present all through childhood and early teenage, why it had been an early, inadvertent lesson in self-determination, in the games countries play, in what Arundhati Roy once famously called Big History and Little History – especially in the latter.
Tell them, in quick words, what we had never discussed during the entire year of Desh.
What I had never really evoked, except in the strands and directions certain stories took, insistently, sometimes to Akram’s surprise, like my early clamouring for a political slant to Desh. Because, as the piece progressed, it seemed important not to let my inherited memories impinge on his very natural need to own the stories that he would embody in Desh.
But their colours are there, strands of them, and that is what these people were trying to trace. Cartography again.
When I did tell them, hesitantly, in one sentence, they understood. More than I do, probably. And the response was overwhelming: Tell your father thank you. Thank him for fighting for us.
Achan would be moved, if he heard that. I still haven’t told him. It’s not the sort of thing you mention casually over the phone, across 10,000 kilometres. But I hope to muster up the courage to, next time we are in the same room. To say, Achan, your stories, your worldview from forty years ago, the things you told me, later, after I was born, more when I was 8 and 9 and then, in sober tones, at 12 and 13, when you wanted to teach me how unglamorous war was, and how there were seldom righteous victories, how spurious borders can be, impenetrable and permeable all at once … they matter, they shaped who I am, and they went, quietly, into this piece, it’s the only way I can thank you and say, I think I know what you meant then. Though you won’t remember telling me this so long ago, especially when you may believe in different things today. But the you that you were, the you who made a lot of the me I am, I hope I’ve carried that voice through. And not many viewers will feel that voice, nor the press, but these people – the ones who lived through it all, the ones who are like you in many ways – they did, they felt it, not the words but beliefs and emotions, and it mattered enough to them to trace the voice to its source. And they greet you as a brother.
I don’t know, though, if I will. Sometimes, you just don’t. Tell the most important people in your lives exactly why and how they matter. And how much they have shaped you. Teenage rebellions cast long shadows, stupidly.
But back to the moment: there was a clamour for snapshots and Polar Bear and I found ourselves in the middle of the bustling, celebratory group, two errant husbands with mobile phones/cameras located, and made to photograph us.
Then, these lovely, direct people blessed us, in that time-honoured sub-continental fashion spanning all religions, telling us roundly that we were going to be very famous, that they were sure of it, and that we must never forget they were the first to tell us so!
Just as the dizziness raised its head again, threatening a pretty bad night of pain, I got rescued. And rewarded. By one of my favourite people, someone who had been bombarded across fourteen months with thoughts, ideas, words, doubts and hopes – as bouncing board for all of the above, usually even before they were submitted to the Desh team; someone whose opinion – on dance and writing, and more – matters immensely. “I would give that 10 stars!” And then, life-savingly, prosaically, “Shall we go eat?”
Water. Doubly blessed I am.