Many of you must have attended Talatum, the circus adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Tempest. This is the fascinating thing about Shakespeare; four centuries later, his plays still provide creative inspiration in the most unexpected ways.
Having been away from Goa for most of the Serendipity Arts festival, I must confess I didn’t have much of an idea about this production before going to see it, almost directly from the airport. So everything about it, from its staging in a big top tent, to the acrobatics, the sound-and-light show (the actual tempest was really spectacularly depicted) took me quite by surprise.
This quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth has prompted me to delve into his plays more deeply through the year, so I was familiar with the broad outline of The Tempest, aided, I must admit, by the illustrated retelling for children that lies on my son’s bookshelf. He was able to follow the storyline as it unfolded far better than me.
Amazing as the acrobatic displays were, I still felt there could have been more use of the text in the production. Upon returning home, I read the description which was almost a disclaimer: “The text for this production aims to transcend the barriers of language through minimal multi-lingual dialogue and pure visual expression.” Fair enough. But a little more of the Bard’s lines would have enhanced my enjoyment of the play. The microphone failed a few times, and sometimes Prospero’s accent in particular was a little difficult to follow. But I did catch a few lines, and they were like a lifeline, notably “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.” Something about the surreal setting and the way the words floated into our consciousness called to mind the 1980s Eurhythmics smash hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”which I am quite sure was not Tempest-inspired.
There is a connection, albeit a tenuous one, with the New Year. In a critical essay about the play titled “The Day of The Tempest”, John B. Bender discusses the significance of the date the play was first performed in court, 1 November 1611. We know 1 November as All Saints’ Day, of course, but in Shakespeare’s time, it had even more significance than in our times, and was known as Hallowmas: “Hallowmas itself became a solemn day for praising all of the saints –tangible presentments of God’s presence on earth – and for anticipating the Last Judgment. It figures forth a sense of last chances, a sense of endings, for it was the time of the ancient Celtic New Year.”
I learnt later that Talaatum is the Urdu for sea-storm, and for upheaval. And whether we like it or not, following 8 November, the topic of discussion and the subject on everyone’s mind has been the currency crisis and the stress it has caused to people’s lives. I’m terrible for example at remembering PIN numbers for credit cards, and I often mix them up, sometimes to my embarrassment in public places. And the shortage of cash has meant that I am compelled to use the credit card more often. But I know I’m more fortunate than most; so many people I meet every day: posrekars, nustekanns, bhajiwallas, rickshaw-drivers, have had, and are still having it much much worse. They need cash on a daily basis to meet their living expenses and keep their businesses going. These are not terrorists or black marketeers or anti-nationals, but they, like millions of honest hard-working people all over India, have been hit the hardest by this obviously not-fully-thought-through demonetisation caper. Those who sniff at their suffering as “a minor inconvenience” and “media hype” from the comfort of their ivory towers should step down from them and just walk around the block and a few bylanes, talking to strangers they meet to learn the truth.
At Talatum, we were compelled to pay by credit card, as there was a change shortage. And sitting in one of the tiers of the big top amphitheatre, I was taken back to the circuses we went to in our childhood. And it struck me that the upheaval of the last two months is also A Great Indian Circus.
Clowns, jokers, jesters and buffoons a-plenty. Jugglers and acrobats and sleight-of-hand too. Now you see your own hard-earned money, now you don’t. Suddenly overnight it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. What was white is black, then white, black and then white again. You have to account for every last rupee and paisa in your wallet and bank account but political parties don’t have to account for anything. ‘Ordinary’ families have to budget family weddings to fit within 2.5 lakhs (and a very good thing too!) and furnish valid proof of said wedding, but ‘extra-ordinary’ people (politicians, businessmen) can spend 550 crores and everyone whistles and looks the other way. Abracadabra! What ought to be a newsworthy scandal is air-brushed, turned into thin air. China is the enemy for other boycotts, but not for PayTm, whose single largest shareholder is Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
An unprecedented source of hardship in our nation’s history to millions of its people is actually touted as a major triumph. “Wait and see”, we are paternalistically told, as if the electorate has less intelligence than the ruling political class.
Ridiculous medical analogies, to chemotherapy, to radical oncological surgery and labour pains are made, with the common underlying mantra that “you may suffer now, but it’ll be worth it in the end”. For whom is the question. Certainly for everyone invested in the banking industry and digitisation of money; for the rest of us the payoff is far from clear.
Democracy itself has become The Great Indian Circus. We wake up one morning to find ourselves forced to queue up to see a production of a Tempest that we didn’t ask to see, and are not enjoying so much. But if we protest, it is further proof of our lack of patriotism. Somehow the conjuror’s trick (or is it a confidence trick?) can neatly tie in the actual War on Cash to a supposed War on Black Money, Terrorism and Tax Evasion.
But will the evil triumvirate really vanish with the War on Cash? “Wait and See”. If one political analyst in a section of the press is to be believed, there will be no electoral backlash to this demonetisation (as civic municipal elections seem to indicate up north) because the Indian electorate historically votes along religious, caste and other fractious lines, no matter what suffering is dished out to them.
This is why empty displays of patriotism (standing to attention in cinemas for the national anthem) mean nothing as long as there is no empathy from the politicians for the people, the rich for the poor, the haves for the have-nots, the majority for the minority and the disadvantaged and vulnerable, and men for women.
But hope springs eternal, so let us enter the New Year with some optimism, however contrived it might feel right now.
(An edited version of this article was published on 1 January 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)