The Immigrant Novelist at Work in London
Today’s piece is from guest blogger, Misha Rai
Dear Mum and Dad, something unexpected has happened, I wrote in an email on the second day of June from my desk at the Greenwich house I was sharing with another writer and a theater friend in London this past summer. A few days ago we went to see the Shakespearean play Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe. We were running late as usual. So late, we thought, that we had to run all the way from Waterloo tube station without really stopping until we were ensconced firmly amongst other audience members as groundlings in the Globe’s yard. I think we might even have continued to jog on the spot, just outside the iron wrought black gate facing the Thames river, for the two minutes it took the volunteers to check the validity of our tickets and let us in, because we were afraid that stopping our hurried motion would somehow lead to us missing the frisson of watching a Shakespearean performance begin at the Globe, a kind of magical beginning that seemed to both consume and create co-conspirators of its audience. If Antony and Cleopatra came anywhere close to evoking the maelstrom of emotions the production of Titus Andronicus had created within us, a few weeks ago, we knew we’d go home more than satisfied. The beginning of the latter play had been unexpectedly explosive with makeshift chariots hurling in, from the doors marked exit, carrying actors brandishing real whips that lashed out at any audience member who got in the way as though we were all simply Roman subjects crowding a town square. More than forty percent of that play had been carried out amongst the groundlings, the cheap standing seats that we always buy, with actors bursting upon us from under the stage already full steam in monologue or dialogue, other actors still hiding amongst us in plain sight only to reveal their presence by hissing in our ears—move bitch—to deliver more dialogue pushing us left or right or whichever way suited them, and some others still died amongst us and were pushed off the stage as a storm of black and red confetti hailed down and stayed in our hair long after we had left the theater.
Dad, I wish you had been here to see Titus Andronicus in its blood-splattered glory so we could see the play again through each other’s eyes. I wonder how you would have reacted to our reactions because until that evening, witnessing what has often been considered Shakespeare’s first tragedy, I wouldn’t have believed I could experience both a halcyon haze and an intense thrumming of blood that pounded so hard against my skin that I could barely breathe. And long after the high-octane revenge tragedy, between the Romans and the Goths, had been carried out to a conclusion I stayed in that state whilst the river Thames seemed to flow past me and the jostling crowds on the streets and the tube home thinned and somehow I was back in the house already in my pajamas getting ready to go to bed. All of us seemed to be going through something similar although we didn’t actually speak about what we were feeling that evening or discuss the play until the next day with some lucidity. I wonder Dad, if you with your unquenchable passion for theater and experience with the medium would have also been prey to a similar stupor or would you have cited some previous production, you’d been to, from which something had been borrowed or influenced on the performance we witnessed thus rendering us from whatever state we were in to conduct a critical postmortem.
Anyways, as it turned out the production of Antony and Cleopatra hadn’t started by the time we came through even though seven minutes had lapsed into the performance time. As we edged our way through crevices left by the packed bodies of the other audience members, so we could stand either closer to the stage or avail better viewing positions, all I could think about was how excited I was that we hadn’t missed anything and how much I needed for something to work out the way it was supposed to on that day. I had been having a frustrating few afternoons at the British Library with research for the novel going nowhere. I felt stressed out because we were due to return stateside soon and only a tenth of my research questions seemed to have been answered. Also, I had just discovered, in those days, that I was incapable of moving on to the next chapter or subject area if I was unsatisfied with whatever I was working on in the moment. I know, mum, I know I should try to be more flexible. But I was also in a panic because no matter how meticulously planned the whole month had been—writing in the mornings at the Kahaila Café off Shoreditch in Brick Lane, afternoons spent researching in the reading rooms at the British Library, theater in the evenings (as much of it as I could manage, an obsession for which Dad’s to blame), and bed by 11:30 every night—I was still appallingly behind on the work I was meant to accomplish. (I did set a word limit everyday, dad, but because I only ever seemed to be revising previous work and writing one new paragraph the progress I was making seemed fruitless.) On top of that I was slowly becoming convinced that the fellowship that had enabled me to spend a month in London would have better served someone else who either knew what they were doing or were simply more prolific. Edwidge Danticat’s words, from her essay, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, ricocheted in my head all the time
Some of us think we are accidents of literacy. I do. We think we are people who might not have been able to go to school at all, who might never have learned to read or write. We think we are children of people who have lived in the shadows too long. We sometimes even think that we are like ancient Egyptians, whose gods of death demanded documentation of worthiness and acceptance before allowing them entry into the next world.
I wasn’t meant to be here, I thought. I wasn’t meant to be here. I was only ever meant to become the repeating shadow of a lineage of women who had lived restricted lives with little choice in the matter with more gumption and dignity than I could have managed. Whose only measure of intelligence was ever acknowledged by pointing out the good sense and reticence they displayed in their public dealings where family honour was ruled supreme. And, I am aware mum that some of these women led happy and fulfilled lives. Some even choose that life now. And whilst scholarships to various schools helped me walk away from what I would have been forced to endure, from what I didn’t want, I still feel scraps of confidence made solid beneath my feet scythed a lot of times in the new life I am trying to build. I wasn’t meant to be here, is what I have thought repeatedly. I think everyone thinks that too.
And on that particular day, when I thought all I had to look forward to was Antony and Cleopatra with it’s promise to give my evening a sort of enjoyable and predictable pattern even if the beginning of that pattern was simply the start time of the performance, every file I had ordered in the Asian and African reading rooms had been denied to me. Either they had been transferred to another library or destroyed in a fire or lost in a move or simply lost—no explanation provided. Other than cursing my own incompetence at carrying out research, because my earlier forays into the cyber world of the British Library had taught me that I was not naturally gifted when it came to conjugating the right keywords that opened the doors to the specific recorded history I was looking for, I was also beginning to suspect a conspiracy amongst the establishment and the librarians to keep certain documents away from me. It didn’t matter that I had found other meticulously kept records that condemned the British for their actions in India and in Southeast Asia as a whole or that there were other writers and scholars quite satisfied with the breadth of information provided at the library or that the librarians were always very helpful, I was convinced that there were nefarious reasons for keeping me from reading up on the “question on the safeguarding of the interests of Indian soldiers on field service abroad” or looking at the “request for supply of ghi (ghee) for Indian soldiers in hospital” or rifling through a request for “permission to nurse Indian soldiers during WWI.” I bet the request was denied! I thought, even before wondering who did nurse the Indian soldiers during WWI, who wanted to nurse them, who was in a position to even put in that request and how could I get my hands on this information regardless of the status quo of the files. Sitting in my corner of the Asian and African reading room, in the British Library, that afternoon I had cultivated a very Gollum-like gloom around me, sucking on strands of my hair, seething with indignation, completely ignoring other files that had come up during my search. I clicked to order them more out of irritation than anything else and then didn’t bother to retrieve those files from the help desk. They would still be there tomorrow or the day after that or the day after that because one can hold on to a file for three days if the file has not been examined by the person who ordered it. I was going to send these files back anyways, I thought.
And yes, mum, I am aware of what a waste of time and manpower that was.
A man dressed in contemporary western clothes walked onto the stage and the crowded Globe theatre fell silent. By this time over ten minutes had lapsed, or so it seemed to me, and there was still no sign that the performance would begin anytime soon. Since there was no microphone on stage the man had to begin multiple times finally projecting his voice loudly enough to be heard. He told us that Clive Wood, the actor cast as Antony, would be unable to perform. I don’t remember if he gave a reason for why Clive Wood would be unavailable because my brain had already begun exploding. Of course this would happen! To me! I thought. Because really I was the center of the universe and anything to perpetuate the persecution complex I sometimes harbored. And as you are aware, he continued, the Globe doesn’t have understudies. Right! I thought, stamping my foot on the floor. (I do that from time to time.) Now a murmur ran through the audience—no understudy meant no performance—before settling into a quiet pall. But, he said, but we don’t want you to go home disappointed. Some of you may have travelled a long way to come see this play. So this is what we propose to do. A close friend of mine (at the time I didn’t catch the friend’s name) who was recently been in seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe, earlier this summer, has agreed to step in and perform the role of Antony. He will, though, be reading from a script but we hope you will appreciate what he is doing and support him. And having delivered his message the man hesitated before turning around and striding off the stage.
Before we had time to fully consider what had happened or I could sotto voce begin my complaining the performance began with music infiltrating the air around us and dancing actors the stage. Here is what seems alive in my memory—thunderous applause when the play did begin because unlike me there were many people in the audience gracious enough to accept this change of plans; after all we were still going to get a performance. And then John Light loped onto the stage as Antony in a rather fine brown (leather?) jacket and I screamed. Luckily, the very banshee-like shriek was drowned out by laughter and applause from the audience for some witty dialogue he had delivered. Why the scream? Here is a bit about me that you may have perhaps suspected, mum, dad, but hoped wasn’t true. I am what some people may call a fangirl. And on the days that I would begin to lose steam to follow the schedule I had set out for myself, invariably Fridays and Saturdays, I ended up doing one of two things; lying ramrod stiff under the comforter, pretending to be an Ostrich invisible save for my wriggling feet, trying to erase the memory of all the horridly strung together words and plot points I had worked on during the work week or simply loitering around London. Mostly outside the National Theater or the British Film Institute or the Donmar Warehouse or the Old Vic with the theater friend who was in London looking for a job and go fan girl crazy—facial expressions contorted in silent screams—when we spotted an actor we had been crushing on for months or years as we watched shows on the BBC or the ITV or Channel 4. John Light had been on our list. Beautiful, dark-haired, deep voiced, John Light. Underrated stud Henry Lennox in BBC’s North & South. John Light. Christian in Love in a Cold Climate. John Light. We never spotted him in our travels past the doorsteps of many a theater and so I screamed when he came on stage. But this is not the bit that was so unexpected that I had to write to you about it. Although it was in its own way, wonderfully so. What came after it was the beginning of the unexpected something.
Unlike in Titus Andronicus where the audience had no choice but to become part of the performance because of the way the play was laid out physically in the theater, for this performance of Antony and Cleopatra the audience’s generous complicity was paramount to its success or at least to the play coming off as best as it could because one-half of its leads was missing. One of the two main protagonists, who seemed to be constantly on stage, was using a script to aid his performance often having to pause to find his dialogue or having to improvise (or so it seemed) where lengthy dialogue delivery was concerned all the while trying to act as confidently as he could. The script that occasionally obscured his face as well as the pauses he relied on could have created a barrier of awkward silences between the audience and the actors and would have been a disaster instead with the help of the other actors, especially Eve Best, who was magnificent as Cleopatra, these moments created a wonderful camaraderie between the performers and their audience that electrified the theater. An actor friend of ours who had taken to accompanying us to the theater, and had also performed in a Shakespearean play at the Globe a while ago, told us that traditionally the groundlings would often be in communication with the actors during a performance. Many a repartee would be exchanged as well as running commentary on the success of the various acts in performance. So suddenly it seemed we had been transported back in history, to a time where what seemed like a special occurrence to me had actually been the norm. And in our case a request had been made, to appreciate what the actors were trying to do and support them, which we did and I would like to think we had help channeling the energy of the ghost of audiences that had come before us.
We waited patiently each time John Light lost his place and found it. We clapped encouragingly each time he delivered his dialogue without much delay. We gasped in shock when Eve Best’s Cleopatra took his script away and sashayed around him sexily all the while delivering a salvo of provoking dialogue. Our susurrus of whispered commiseration rose when he looked at us helplessly as his script continued to be held hostage for what seemed an interminably long time. We cheered when Light’s Antony wrested it back from Best’s Cleopatra to answer back her provocation with some of his own (once he found his place in the script, that is). We sighed (audibly) when after sharing a prolonged kiss with Best’s Cleopatra Light’s Antony simply forgot to look for his dialogue and laughed loudly but kindly when he realized he didn’t have any dialogue to deliver after all. During the intermission we looked into the faces of strangers around us that mirrored our own glowing reflections and talked about how wonderful the performances were, how well suited John Light and Eve Best were as Antony and Cleopatra, how Eve Best really shouldn’t have taken John Light’s script from him for that long, how brave John Light was for agreeing to perform, how his nervous yet confident energy was infectious and how the absence of Clive Wood, I thought, had made an evening of passive observation with a monologue in our heads into an act of unexpected communal unity with the best of human traits at display. And when the play finally came to a close the applause that rang out seemed not just for the actors but also for everyone in the audience, to whatever it was within us that was shifting unknowingly through our participation in what I have since called both, a performance of a lifetime and a performance of our own.
The next day when I got to the British Library I went up to the collection desk, in the Asian and African reading room, and gathered the files I had ordered the previous day. This is part of the ritual I have developed. Even before taking off my outer garments to acclimatize my body to the Library’s inner temperature, even before taking two steps at a time to climb up to the reading room, even before looking to see if my favorite seat, under the portrait of some unnamed royalty dressed in green and pearls that reminded me of my grandmother, was vacant I would imagine walking eagerly over to the collection desk and greedily accepting what awaited me hoping that this time as I turned the pages I would simultaneously be ready to decipher and make the necessary connections with the knowledge present in those pages and be worthy of the information I was going to unearth to eventually represent. But it was more than mere ritual that made me walk up to the librarian and present my library card that day. Something had broken through the rigidity I had bound myself in. Never one to manage balance in my life I had, for the duration of this trip, locked myself into a version of partial confinement where unexpected invitations from old school friends were turned down, free concerts were frowned upon, cousins were never called, non-scheduled phone calls were either ignored or abruptly concluded because none of these interactions could possibly contribute to the work I was doing and unbeknownst to me these restrictive acts were also inuring me from living a fully rounded life, a life from which I indirectly drew so much of what I wrote. I had forgotten a golden rule of my writing life: that writing came to me incidentally, it came from places I least expected to find it in, it came from people whose stories I had heard so many times that I found little wonder in them but then found myself fixating on their words or from people whose stories I often misheard, it came from emotions remembered and emotions forgotten only to have them resurface, it came from my family, it came from my friends, it came from loud arguments, it came from a year old copy of the Economist I found in a suitcase mom you sent me, quite simply it came from the world I interacted with. So that day I took the three files the librarian had brought up for me and went to my desk to begin work.
By the end of the day I had made notes from at least six more files, one of which was so tattered that I had to use the tip of my pencil to turn its pages, and two that helped me trace the history of a particular type of dacoit (bandit) and a certain kind of dacoity (banditry) found all over South Asia tracing as far back as 1870. The three files that I had originally ordered, more out of irritation than real zeal for scholarship, had lead me to a treasure trove of other files that helped me create a more coherent origin story for the bamboo stick brandishing dacoits in my novel. In the next week I produced over 43 pages of solid writing for the novel, finished the first draft of a short story and read what came my way in a more open-minded manner. I also made plans to see my friends, went to a jazz concert, called my cousins, and Skyped with the people I had ignored. I wrote a postcard to myself—remember to leave the flat at least once a day and be patient when the family calls—and posted it. In my yellow notebook, under the note—you are failing as a real writer—I wrote—try to keep an open mind. But my epiphany about the importance of a life less rigidly lived and the gifts that come with that, is only part of the reason why I felt I had to write to you mum, dad.
Following the crumbs of dacoit activity all over South Asia I came across an entry, buried amongst the papers of a government clerk in a large provisional town, that makes a passing allusion to a successful businessman in Burma who used to be a schoolteacher in one of the eastern provinces in north India. The reason for his departure from India was listed as private. And then in the margins was written—ran away from home because family expected him to take a third wife since both previous wives had died. Two living sons in India, one from each wife. I must have only looked at those two lines for a few minutes before I remembered the story cousin Neelu tells about your grandfather, dad. She always seems to cackle at the idea that a man would want to run away from marriage regardless of the circumstances. I am not sure what the connection between the dacoits and businessman the clerk mentions is, perhaps he was one of the many they robbed, but I cannot find any other information about him in the few files I have looked at. Dad, do you think this man could be your grandfather? Do you remember any stories about run-ins your grandfather may have had with dacoits? I know that whilst it is very possible dad, that this man may not be your grandfather what are the chances that two men with such similar stories, widowed twice with two sons left behind, may not be the same?
I’m not sure what it means to have found this possible connection with our past or what to do with it other than simply write to you about it and marvel at coming across something that had thus far only existed in the collective storytelling memory of our family but I keep thinking about Danticat’s words—We sometimes even think that we are like ancient Egyptians, whose gods of death demanded documentation of worthiness and acceptance before allowing them entry into the next world—and wonder if this chanced upon information about our possible ancestor coupled with all the other pieces of knowledge and writing that have recently come to me incidentally is an indication that I may finally be able to enter the next world, whatever that world may be, whatever I may make in that world with the words I endeavor to string together in the stories I am desperately trying to tell.
Misha Rai is from Haryana, India. Her fiction has appeared in the Indiana Review. Her nonfiction will appear in the forthcoming issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review. She has been Assistant Fiction Editor for the Mid-American Review. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Fiction at Florida State University. She is in the process of writing her debut novel. At present she serves as Fiction Editor on The Southeast Review.