A shaky Scottish/Norwegian couple has just got out of a shaky auto rikshaw after 40 tense minutes in midnight darkness on the motorway from Jaipur, crammed, maybe almost crushed, between lorries with much heavier load than the auto rickshaw carrying only us and our backpacks in the back (although more than heavy enough for this all at once loveable and intimidating wee vehicle, clearly not created for the purpose of transporting anyone or anything on the motorway from Jaipur among lorries)… We pay Khan, the autorickshaw driver, a few hundred rupees more than required, simply out of gratitude for not getting us killed on the way. Out of confusion, desperation, relief and/or politeness we also take down his number and promise to call him next time we need an autorickshaw around Jaipur. We hurry from Khan’s autorickshaw into Bhanwar’s car, waiting for us at the beginning of a pitch black country road off Ajmer Road. “We were waiting to hear from you”, Bhanwar says. “We would have arranged transport for you from Jaipur”. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
While the young European couple in the back tries to regain balance, strength, speech and smiles, Bhanwar converses reassuringly. “So, you are Norwegian? I have friends in Norway. An Argentinean actually, who married a Norwegian woman. Well, he’s not alive anymore. He was an anthropologist.” As the fear of ending my life on the dark roads of Rajasthan slowly diminishes, I realise that this Argentinean sounds strangely but undoubtingly familiar. Do I know him? No. But I know someone who knows him, or knew him. And for some reason I am certain that this Argentinean that Bhanwar knew is the same Argentinean that my father knew, and played football with for years, and have talked about many times. And it is. There you go. A guy from one country and continent, who has passed away, has suddenly created a bond, a link, between strangers of other countries and continents, in the countryside of Rajasthan. He might have liked the thought of that.
I want to write about Bhanwar and Radhika. How they generously, warmly and unsentimentally shared their views, reflections and knowledge with us, on poverty, education, culture… on India, while understating their own significance when talking about their obviously admirable work in, with and for the poor local community. But Radhika wanted me to write something about what I do, about Bacalao, the small theatre company I run, that started off in London, then travelled to Portugal and Scotland and now has its base with me in Oslo, Norway. She wanted me to mention how I make theatre with “real people, real stories, in real surroundings”.
I finished my Masters degree in theatre directing in 2010 and started Bacalao Performance Company in London in 2011 together with Sofia Marques, a Portuguese actress and Fado singer. The idea was to develop a company focusing on the intimate and personal, in terms of space and in terms of stories, and on mixing together various cultural forms and expressions. The last couple of years I have worked closely with my father who is a writer, and writes scripts with humour and seriousness, based on people’s real experiences.
My most recent project was with and about people who have lost close relatives to suicide. We used a lot of dance as a kind of metaphor on life in this performance. It was this piece that I was discussing with Radhika. I told her about the project and the background for it: that in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Norway, with a population of about 5 million, there are between 5000 and 6000 people that attempt to take their own lives each year. About 500 of these “succeed”. That’s a lot in a small country like ours. But suicide is so loaded with taboo that there has been hardly any discussion around it at all, neither in the media nor in other public arenas. Hence, it’s also difficult to work preventively with this problem, when it’s not being talked about. That’s what we wanted to express with our performance “Sad stuff”; the need to talk about this, suicide, but also more generally about grief and mental health.
And of course this is not just a Norwegian problem. A quick Wikipedia search can tell me that in 2010 the estimated number of Indian suicides were 187 000. There is probably no direct solution to this problem or phenomenon, neither here nor there. But we can talk to each other, listen to each other, look after each other, share our experiences and learn about each other, and try in our own human and fallible ways to support and back each other up. In Norway, maybe because we are so privileged compared to so many others, in terms of having everything that on paper facilitates happy, fulfilled and free lives (money, peace, freedom, education and healthcare for all), that to still not experience the ability to feel happy and fulfilled and free becomes perhaps more shameful and difficult to accept and live with than in certain other places.
When it comes to Indians and their national identity and living with pain and grief, I am obviously not going to attempt to give any form of analysis after a three week trip there. That would be ridiculously arrogant. But I will say, on a different note, that what has perhaps surprised me the most in meeting and talking to Indians, in Old Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan, Goa and Mumbai, is friendliness. Friendliness and humour. Not that I had any reason to expect the opposite, but considering the very difficult circumstances that so many live under, it wouldn’t be completely unreasonable if people didn’t feel the need to bother about being nice and cool to a white, wealthy, ignorant pair of tourists from very far away… But the smiles and friendly banter from almost everyone, from our spontaneous and persistent guide in Old Delhi (calling himself Peter), to the equally persistent autorickshaw drivers in Jaipur (Khan, Salim, and Salim Salim Khan), to the waiter in our beach shack restaurant in Goa (calling himself Denzel), who worked 15 hour shifts and preparing for the season and hence work to finish up, hoping to join a fishing boat for the next few months, to the tourist families at the Gateway of India in Mumbai wanting to take pictures of and with us, making us the attraction at the attraction… Smiles and banter. Everywhere.
That’s a good reason to come back to India.
My only regret about our trip is that I didn’t get to meet any elephants. After listening to Radhika talking about the significance of the elephant and why it is so important to Indians, how it is so big and strong, but still a vegetarian… How it symbolises that you can be strong without it being at the expense of others, without destroying others or the environment on your way… How beautiful!
I have a new-found respect and fascination for elephants. I’ll look them up the next time.
Well. Finally. On behalf of the Scotsman and myself, a massive thank you to Bhanwar and Radhika, for the truly memorable and inspirational stay at Savista! I hope and believe that we will be back one day. And thank you to Eduardo Archetti, the Argentinian, who without knowing it created a connection between a Norwegian, a Scotsman and Indians, in Rajasthan.
Bacalao Performance Company
Tel: 0047 90736886
Our discovery upon meeting with Marianne and Rob on that dark country road, that we shared common bonds across three continents and five nationalities, was heartwarming for many reasons.
For Marianne – as she so vividly describes it – it signaled, above all, refuge and security. Something that appeared to be seriously imperiled when, with the typical confidence of European youth, she and Rob simply assumed that they could do everything on their own in an unknown country, and hopped off their train close to midnight and on to the only person on wheels they could find who agreed to transport them to their destination! Happily, their sense of comfort on meeting us translated, in their subsequent time at Savista, into cultural and intellectual exchange, and the basis for a long-distance friendship.
For us, it brought back poignant memories of our own unforgettable first visit to Norway decades ago (when we could not have been much older than her and Rob). The warmth and openness with which our common (late) friend Eduardo hosted us. The exhilaration of intellectual engagement with the bright young academic colleagues we met in the course of our lecture tour. The eagerness with which all the Norwegians we encountered reached out to us and plied us with questions about India…After all these decades, our association with Norway continues through ties of friendship. That wonderful visit also included long drives through silent forests where we saw no humans for hundreds of miles, beautiful fjords, blue lakes, apple blossoms, quaint medieval towns that retained their history but bustled with modernity, exquisite crystal handicrafts and woollen garments, mindblowing concepts of design…and much more. Above all, a people truly in harmony with their environment and who took pride in keeping it pristine. The encounter made at least one of us wish to be reborn in Scandinavia in the next life! Never mind the risk of becoming a suicide statistic! A problem that Marianne explores in her somber play.
Scandinavia’s suicides have come up for scrutiny more than other countries, also because they happen against the stark contrast of extreme economic security. But if affluence brings suicides, so too does extreme poverty – as the statistics Marianne cites from India show. Mental health is a huge issue almost everywhere in the world today; it all depends on how willing a society is to introspect about it and craft solutions that can deal with it. In India, health and social policies brush it under the carpet. Both, because mental illness is not ‘supposed’ to exist in a country of apparently strong family and kin ties (in the same way that AIDS was never supposed to exist because of Indian society’s cultural emphasis on gender segregation and monogamy); and, because the immediate issues relating to sheer physical survival of huge sections of the population dominate the policy consciousness. Yet, both suicides – and AIDS – are big problems here.
And yet, it is true – as Marianne’s keen observation and openness of spirit were quick to sense- that ordinary Indians are a people given to friendliness and banter and optimism – unmindful of the multitude of problems they may have in their daily lives – and have always been welcoming of and hospitable towards “the other”….
Yes, there is so much food for thought… and sharing.. from communicating across national – and cultural – boundaries.
Like, the fact that the Norwegian national independence day (recently concluded) is celebrated with all the little children of the country taking pride of place, walking in procession through the streets of their cities holding flowers in their hands and cheered on by the grown ups. So different from many other countries which parade their armies and guns on their national day.
Or, that their approach to their own minorities – albeit a tiny proportion of their population, that includes immigrant communities – is to have a full-fledged Ministry to understand and manage this, staffed by highly qualified anthropologists and other knowledgeable experts, rather than only politicians and bureaucrats.
Or, that gender equality is a hard fought and realized ideal in their society, but one that is constantly being interrogated and fine-tuned by both women and men…
Hopefully, the Norway-India dialogues will continue…:) Meanwhile, Marianne has to come back for her elephant experience. Hopefully, she will visit Savista again, for we would love to welcome her back!
P.S. A postscript for the readers of this blog. We felt awful when Marianne told us about their terror on the highway on that night of their arrival. But it was an entirely avoidable trauma, had they been able to access our mail to them offering to arrange a pick-up. Savista arranges for guests to be picked up and dropped off, whatever the hour. For those (like Marianne) who book with us through our travel partners such as Booking.com we write to them immediately upon receiving their booking, and ask if they would like our help in any way. We hope that future guests do not get to go through an ordeal such as Marianne and Rob’s.