Pledging Allegiance

I pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America (and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all) on April 29, 2005. It was my parents’ wedding anniversary, and when I called India to wish them that morning, my mother choked as she gave her blessings, and my father asked me to convey his greetings to the White House.

Since it was a day of new beginnings, I did something I had never done before: I drove myself to downtown Los Angeles, where the naturalization ceremony was being held. As I circled the Convention Center in search of an entrance not blocked by orange cones, I accidentally missed a traffic light. It was a small intersection, unguarded by police officer or red-light camera, and one of my last thoughts as an Indian citizen was “Thank God!” The ticket would have been costly, and I had already paid enough (monetarily and otherwise) over the course of my six-year immigration saga.

I had received my resident alien card (the green card that’s white) in April 2001, and I made the decision to trade it for a US passport five months later, on Monday, September 10. That evening I attended a lecture given by an Indian man who’d migrated to LA thirty years before, and something he said made me realize how much I loved this country. That’s when I decided that when the time came, I would file for US citizenship. I awoke next morning to a grave new world, one in which the love of every American, born or naturalized, would be tried by fire.

9-11

One of the hallmarks of life in a post-9/11 world is the extensive nature of security checks, and by April 29, 2005 I had traveled enough to know that the procedure would be a long one. I was not wrong. It took almost two hours from the time I entered the Convention Center to reach my seat. (This was the second of three ceremonies being held that day, and each would be attended by six thousand new citizens.) As I inched along the serpentine line, after having my person and property searched thoroughly, I was glad that, in one of the many exchanges this day represented, I had traded vanity for comfort by wearing low heels.

At the end of the line I received a packet that included a booklet containing some important American documents (such as the Declaration of Independence), a letter from the President, and my first flag. “I hope it’s not made in China,” I remarked, and the woman in front of me (who was not Chinese) turned around and frowned, to chide me for entertaining such an unpatriotic thought. I grinned back, then heaved an exaggerated sigh when I spotted “Made in USA” printed in microscopic type on the bottommost stripe.

Citizens Booklet

Despite my attempts to memorize every detail of the oath ceremony, most of it went by as a blur and I can remember only three things with clarity. The judge administering the oath told the story about how his mother had migrated to New York from the Eastern Bloc. After chronicling how immigration had changed her life for the better (initial struggles notwithstanding), the judge reminded us about the rights, privileges, and duties we were about to assume, concluding his speech with a statement that made me tear up. “From today America is not just your home,” he said. “It’s your country.”

My other memories are less sublime. The woman who sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” was unable to hit the high note at the end of “the land of the free,” making me wish that “America, the Beautiful,” with its easier tune, had been the national anthem. Second, this being LA, could anything happen without at least one celebrity in the picture?

A soap star’s South African husband was becoming naturalized, and the entire family had been given VIP seats in the front row (while other people’s friends and relatives were relegated to a dim, cordoned-off area at the back). When the ceremony ended, several officials stopped by to congratulate the man and get his wife’s autograph. Since no one was pestering me thus, I gathered my belongings and left the hall waving my new flag.

April 29

After receiving my naturalization certificate, I walked to the terrace overlooking the Staples Center (splashed with a giant Kobe) and was enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the city when I heard the flapping of papers behind me. I turned around to see a woman dressed in red, white, and blue (top hat et al) waving a form at me. She pointed to the Republican and Democrat booths at the other end of the terrace and thrust the voter registration form into my hand, saying very slowly, “Have. You. Reg. Is. Tered. To. Vote?”

At the time I felt sorry for her, thinking she had a speech impediment, but I later realized that she probably thought me one of those new citizens who didn’t know the language very well. (And I must admit, I was still learning American English.) So much as I wanted to keep gazing at Kobe and the San Gabriels, my compassion for the lady moved me to accept the form with a sympathetic smile, but what I did next was inspired by more than compassion for a new compatriot. Having just crossed the Rubicon, I knew I must do my civic duty. Ergo, I went, I registered, I voted.

I voted

When I checked my mailbox last night, I was relieved to find only one piece. Usually my box is filled with flyers and other junk that I then have to make an effort to discard (my building’s dumpster has a very heavy lid). But this wasn’t junk, so I must now make an effort to keep it (with the other paperwork cluttering my desk). I must keep it because it’s a reminder to do one’s civic duty, as all good citizens should.

Ballot

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Assets and Lie-Abilities

After publishing my last post, “Her Greatest Assets,” I imagined a flood of comments from my family, friends, fans, and fellow bloggers, all either commiserating with me on my eardrums or congratulating me on my sanity. Instead, apart from that comment from WordPress telling me what I already knew (that I’d met my posting goal for the week), I received a lone comment from a fellow blogger, who said:

She was honest unlike the other two pretending contestants. Maybe that won her the crown. Being real is being beautiful, isn’t it?

The reference was to a beauty pageant finalist’s response to the question about what she considered to be her greatest assets. The second part of “Her Greatest Assets” had been written in a mostly satirical vein, but I take my fellow blogger’s comment seriously and am therefore responding to it in a post.

Being Real and Being Beautiful
My fellow blogger may be right. The finalist who won the crown was probably being honest, and I’m sorry for not acknowledging that in my post. I also apologize if I gave the impression that I was impressed with the other contestants’ ability to lie. For the record, I was not –but who’s to say whether they had lied or told the truth? I only said I was impressed with their ability not to reveal what they intended to do with their crown, and even that was only conjecture. Maybe the runners-up did not intend to travel and shop on company money or enter Bollywood when their intended reign ended. I cannot remember either contestant and don’t know if one did not in fact end up a diplomat (even if Indo-Pak relations are yet to be mended) and the other a philanthropist (even if India still has so many of the world’s poor). I apologize if I misjudged them, if in jest.

My book, Pioneer Boulevard: Los Angeles Stories, like this blog, has some satirical passages, and I hope that even at my most satirical I will never come across as one who endorses lying, because lie-ability is not an asset in my book. As a fiction writer I cringe whenever someone says that another word for fiction is lie. For me, fiction is the telling of poetic truth – that is, of what could happen even if it didn’t. In Poetics, that masterpiece of literary theory, Aristotle says that the historian relates what actually happened, but the poet (and, let me add, the fiction writer) relates what may (or may have) happened. Reading literature, Coleridge said centuries later, involves the willing suspension of disbelief (which he called “poetic faith”).

“Being real is being beautiful, isn’t it?” asks my fellow blogger. I’m afraid I can’t respond with a wholehearted yes. I understand what he’s getting at, and I like it when a woman feels free to be herself without needing to hide behind masks and pretenses, but my fellow blogger’s (probably rhetorical) question raises an important question for me: “Whose being real is beautiful?” If we’re talking about someone like Mother Teresa being real, then yes, it’s exceptionally beautiful. But Hitler was also being real when he decided that a certain race must be exterminated. He was being true to what he believed, and which of us with any moral, ethical, or common sense could call Hitler’s being real beautiful?

Her Greatest Assets? 
If the third finalist did indeed consider her body and her face to be her greatest assets, then I can admire her honesty. But by the same token, I too was being honest about my response when I heard her response. It may have been Beethoven’s Ninth and not Brahms’s Requiem that floated to my ears from Zubin’s room, but I did cringe and wish she’d said something to indicate that she considered herself a beautiful person as well. And I still feel the same. As a woman I know how important it is for a woman to think of herself as a beautiful person, for as a woman thinks, so she is.

Despite my issues with beauty pageants in general, they are part of contemporary culture and I can accept them as such. I can also accept that they are not meant to be entrance exams for doctoral studies. Beauty pageant contestants are selected primarily for their physical appearance, but any beauty pageant worth its salt will also look for a combination of charm, congeniality, talent, social graces, and yes, even a measure of intelligence. A contestant who makes it to the final three must be able to prove that her understanding of beauty is more than skin-deep.

Vital Statistics
As I said in the last post, I had done a modeling assignment with the contestant who won the title. She did indeed have a nice figure and a pretty face, but I hope no woman, no matter how physically attractive, considers her body and her face to be her greatest assets. But for this we need to agree on the definition of the word asset.

The person who inspired my last post, that former professional athlete who now tells me great stories and gives me great financial advice, would say that assets are those investments that keep growing and yielding dividends. I cannot repeat what he said about an IRA I asked him to roll over. It had been making 0.3%, and what I’d spent on various things related to it was much more than the interest it earned. After he said what I cannot repeat, my advisor invested it in something that is currently yielding 12%. That’s the difference between assets and liabilities.

The truth is, the shapeliest body grows old, and the prettiest face gets wrinkled. Youth is fleeting. Rosy lips and cheeks do come within Time’s bending sickle’s compass, as Shakespeare tells us in Sonnet 116. The body doesn’t last because it wasn’t designed to. One doesn’t need to read Genesis 3:19 (“Dust you are and to dust you will return”) or even believe in God to know this. An atheist like Bernard Shaw said the statistics about death were “very impressive,” because “one out of every one dies.” To consider two things destined for death as one’s greatest assets reveals a lack not merely of brains but of wisdom.

I was being facetious when I concluded that last post by saying the finalist who won the title “knew a thing or two about asset management.” If you want my honest opinion, I believe that whether she was being honest or whether she was only following the advice of her coach, that girl knew nothing about asset management. She may have won the title, and she may have gone on to become a Bollywood star (I don’t follow Bollywood so I don’t know), but I hope she now knows that a woman’s greatest assets are not her body and her face. Only then will I consider her a role model.

Femina Cover

Femina, which has been sponsoring beauty pageants for a long time, is “for the woman of substance.” I hope I’m one, with or without designer clothes and professional makeup.

Her Greatest Assets

I met with my financial advisor yesterday. Even though he’s a former professional athlete, I’m very glad he doesn’t talk about sports when we meet. I’d have required him to do so had he been a cricketer, but he played some American game . . . By the way, cricketer used to be cricketeer once upon a time, and it’s a good thing that word is all but obsolete because the –eer ending sounds negative to my ears. It reminds me of racketeer (which does not mean someone who wields a racket).

I like my financial advisor because he’s full of great financial advice (which I intend to follow someday), and especially because he’s full of great stories. Anyone can dish out great financial advice; great stories only few can tell. Yesterday he was telling me the story of how Magic Johnson became a successful businessman. I could handle the sports illustration because he was teaching me how to make more money (which, as must now be obvious, I need to learn). I listened intently and didn’t respond by saying I’m not Magic Johnson. He’d have seen that as an excuse and all his pro-athlete appetite for a challenge would have risen to the fore and he’d have subjected me to a fourth pep talk. I don’t know about you, but three per session is my personal limit.

After the Magic Johnson story my advisor said something about his own work being “asset management.” In the random way that thoughts are collected (at least, how my thoughts are collected), the term reminded me of an incident that took place back when I was living in Mumbai and paying the bills by modeling.

Sharon Edwards Colaba Causeway

Photo by Madhur Shroff. Jacket by James Ferreira. Femina, September 1993.

In those days I was renting half a room from an elderly Parsi lady who lived in a run-down mansion near Colaba Causeway. We were a merry household of fifteen: the landlady and her brother; two paying guests (the other girl paid her bills by serving air travelers food, drinks, sick bags, and such); a three-member servant family; and the landlady’s eight Poms. I’ll call the landlady Banoo because it’s a good name for an elderly Parsi lady with half a room to let, and her brother I’ll call Zubin because of his love for classical music.

When I had no modeling assignments I often left the run-down mansion for the sake of my eardrums and my sanity. Satellite TV had recently reached India, bringing with it 24/7 Bollywood, and the cacophony of Hindi music combined with traffic noise and the incessant yapping of those eight Poms was enough to drive anyone deaf and mad. My ears haven’t yet recovered, but I’m glad to say I am still completely sane. For this I heartily thank the shopkeepers of Colaba Causeway, where I spent many rupees augmenting my wardrobe and retaining my sanity.

ShantaramI now wish I’d spent some of that money at Leopold Cafe, which attained literary fame with Shantaram. I never went into the restaurant because it was reputed to have a reputation (by which was meant a bad one), but who knows, had I cared less for my reputation I might have seen Gregory David Roberts scribbling notes on a napkin for the novel a Seattle Times reviewer has called “a huge, messy . . . shaggy-dog story.” Banoo, of course, could have written eight of those (but thankfully she never did).

One day, when I was home (which was rare) and the TV was on (which was not), I heard Banoo calling me from drawing room. “Sharonee, you must see this!” (Yes, I am ashamed to admit I did respond to that name during my tenancy in the run-down mansion, but what else can you do when you’re renting half a room? I didn’t want my quarters to be reduced to a quarter. Or worse.)

What Banoo thought I must see turned out to be a beauty pageant, the final segment of which she’d stumbled upon while changing channels after the Hindi movie the servant family had been watching ended (with the usual dances and disclosures, I’m guessing). I walked out of my half of the room just in time to catch the question that would decide which of the three finalists would win the title.

Each finalist was asked a different destiny-changing question. The first two were asked standard beauty pageant questions, like how they would mend Indo-Pak relations and improve the lot of the poor, and both girls gave some conventional response that I now forget. (But I can still remember being impressed that neither girl’s expression revealed what she really intended to do with her crown: be adored, travel and shop on company money, and snag every modeling assignment possible until her reign ended and she could enter Bollywood.) Banoo pretended to gag and six of the Poms began to yap. It’s a wonder I even heard the question the third finalist was asked.

“What would you describe as your two greatest assets?” was the question. And without batting a false eyelash, the third finalist replied, “My body and my face.”

Banoo was too stunned to gag. She merely groaned, tapped both temples with an index finger, and said in a voice of deepest anguish, Any brains?” It was a rhetorical question, but Zubin, who happened to be passing through the drawing room, snorted his reply. He also gave the two of us a look that suggested that we were lacking in the brains department, as demonstrated by our watching such stuff and nonsense. His sister made a face behind his back as he stalked off to his room. “Heartless brute,” she whispered when we heard his door close.

She had a point – but so did he. In fact, even as Brahms’s Requiem floated to our ears from Zubin’s room, I was still cringing. I had once done a modeling assignment with the third finalist, and I couldn’t believe what she’d just said. Not because her body and her face weren’t her greatest assets, but hadn’t the questions on Indo-Pak relations and the lot of the poor been a clue about what the judges were expecting?

Reader, she won the title. One model coordinator later told me he’d had a hunch the contest would be rigged and had congratulated her even before it started. Or maybe the judges were genuinely impressed with her answer. Either way, my financial advisor would have been proud of the beauty queen. Brains or no brains, she certainly knew a thing or two about asset management.

Sharon Edwards Portfolio.jpg

Photo by Denzil Sequeira.

 

Saved from Second Best

This is a true story, and to prove it I can even name the day and date it happened. It was, like today, the day before Easter, but because Easter fell on April 4 in 2010, this story takes place on the 3rd. The backstory, however, begins a whole year before.

One morning in early April 2009, while on medical leave, I received a letter from Warner Bros. informing me that I would be laid off on my mother’s birthday. To be fair, WB didn’t know that June 12 was my mother’s birthday or they might not have been so cruel as to strip me of my proofreader’s title on that day. It would have been kinder to lay me off on the 11th, which would also save them a day’s wages. But sometimes it’s kind to be cruel, so they cruelly laid me off on my mother’s birthday and kindly gave me an extra day’s wages.

Sharon Edwards and Bugs Bunny

A few days before my ties with Bugs Bunny were severed, I had the idea to go to England for a master’s degree. Specifically to Oxford, for a Master of Studies in Victorian lit. (Oxford doesn’t stoop to naming its courses after genres. They simply call the Victorian literature strand the Long Nineteenth Century, long because for Oxonian purposes the Nineteenth spills 14 years into the Twentieth.) If the world wants to know why I chose this course, I chose it because Dickens has long been my favorite novelist and I love the Victorian novel as a genre. (If the world wants to know why I chose Oxford, the world can hazard a guess – and it will be right if it’s an educated guess.)

Preparing for Oxford meant rereading the Dickens canon (and reading Barnaby Rudge for the first time); reading or rereading all the Dickensian criticism I could find; writing two critical essays and a statement of purpose critical to acceptance; and pestering former professors for a recommendation letter. Oh, and there was that minor matter of obtaining my transcripts from India.

If anyone who has read “Crocodile Tears” has wondered whether the transcripts passage is based on my own experience, let me assure you that Pioneer Boulevard is a work of fiction. Credit me with a little imagination, s’il vous plâit, and kindly note that I have described the obtaining of transcripts as a minor matter above. In “Crocodile Tears” I describe it thus:

Obtaining an official transcript ranks among the greatest challenges an Indian student will face in their entire academic career. It is a truth universally acknowledged by the Indian student populace that obtaining a transcript is tougher than obtaining a degree.

So much for my transcripts (which, in the end, I did receive). What I must make a clean breast of is my statement of purpose in which, perhaps as a fiction writer in the making, I included a piece of fiction (also known as stretching the truth). The odds of my having Oxon. after my name were against me because only 60 out of 600-odd applicants are accepted into the MSt, so to make an impression I stretched the truth in my statement with this statement: “I confess to being among those sinners G.K. Chesterton calls ‘the worshippers of Dickens’.”

That is fiction. Much as I adore and admire the author of Bleak House, I worship no man. No, nor woman neither.

Tom Quad Christ Church

I am convinced that Oxford rejected my application because of that piece of fiction. I received the rejection letter the day before Easter 2010. As soon as my hands were steady enough to pick up the phone, I dialed my spiritual mentor’s number, and I am forever grateful that his immense wisdom prompted him to tell me that God was saving me from second best.

Time was when I’d have laughed to hear anyone call Oxford second best, but I wasn’t feeling particularly mirthful that day so I didn’t laugh. I am being facetious, of course. The reason I didn’t laugh is because I saw the truth in my mentor’s statement, and notwithstanding all that Oxford was, I understood that it was second best for me. Then my mentor said something I found harder to accept: “If I were you, I’d keep looking.” This challenged the position I’d held for almost a year, the position being Oxford or nothing.

I might not have begun looking again had I not remembered something suggested by a professor I’d met during my trip to Oxford earlier that year. If I were interested in Dickens, the professor had said, I should consider Leicester University, which is home to the Victorian Studies Centre. So I did something (I forget what) with the Oxford letter and began the Leicester application. The day after it was submitted, I was lolling on my sofa when I had this strange thought: “Oh no. I will be accepted and I want to do creative writing.” I stopped lolling on my sofa, turned on my computer, and asked my search engine to find me “creative writing ma uk.”

And now, dear reader, since I’ve been kind enough to tell you this story, you must be kind enough to answer some questions for me. We’ve known each other exactly three months today so I am sure you’ll be able to answer them without needing to consult your cheat sheet. (But if you do need help, I’d rather you read my older posts instead.)

1. Which program do you think was displayed first in the results?
2. Which course director do you think replied promptly?
3. Which tutor do you think offered me a place?
4. Which offer do you think I accepted?
5. Which course do you think God saved me from second best for?

Keele Shield

Dearest Neeraja

Dearest Neeraja,

Given that this letter will be seen by the world (or as much of the world as reads my blog), my intimate salutation makes me feel vulnerable, but it’s fitting. So much of our friendship has been epistolary, and that’s how I began every letter I wrote to you after you left Pune in Std. VIII. The chattier “Hey Neeraja” of my emails and the salutation-free Facebook messages are more suitable for the age we live in (and for our age), but how I wish I could return to those “Dearest Neeraja” days of yore!

You were the first friend I said goodbye to – or at least, the first I said a proper goodbye to. When I was leaving Lucknow at the age of six, on my last day at school my teacher sent me to the garden tap with my best friend in the middle of class. I didn’t ask for it; it was her idea – perhaps because she knew I needed that goodbye. (Do they make teachers like that anymore?) I still remember what happened by the garden tap. It was one of those taps with a pump, and my friend and I pumped water for each other one last time, as we had done countless times before. I didn’t speak or cry, though I desperately wanted to cry and tell her I would miss her. I can remember how the morning sunshine fell on her white PT shoes but I can’t remember anything else, not even her name.

One of the many reasons I thank God for that goodbye is that it allowed me to meet you. Our goodbye would take place eight years later, in the balcony adjoining the Std. VIII classroom at St. Mary’s. What stands out in my memory all these decades later is how dark the balcony was – it was screened by the tamarind tree whose fruit had given us many a sore throat – and how I wept as I told you I would miss you. Thank you for allowing me to grieve, and thank you for grieving in return. I can still see the pain in your eyes as you stood there quietly until Neeta came to get you. If I didn’t like that sister of yours so much, I might struggle to forgive her for showing up before I was done grieving . . . But then, I wasn’t done grieving for months. Maybe years.

It’s a good thing I didn’t know that day that we would see each other again after twelve years. Our worlds had changed so much by the time we met in Delhi. Uncle was no more, Neeta was married, and you and Aunty were now living near JNU. I’d just finished my MA and was visiting the north before leaving for the US. I spent the night at your place and we talked until 4 AM! Letters are special, but nothing like a face-to-face heart-to-heart chat. I didn’t shed tears when we said our second goodbye (perhaps I was trying to act my age), but I felt the same grief I had felt at 14. The last thing your mom said to me was, “Don’t let another twelve years go by before we see you again.” Sadly, Aunty has passed away, and those twelve years are long gone.

Neeraja, I wish you had never left Pune. I wish we could have finished school and attended college together. I wish we could have been coworkers until I got fired for my writerly ambitions. But looking back on what did happen, I can see the hand of God in your moving to Chandigarh. It was best for your family, and it was instrumental in my growth as a writer. Though I didn’t know it then, all those “Dearest Neeraja” letters were writing practice. Thank you for reading them and for replying so faithfully.

On this, your birthday, I am writing to tell you (and the world) how deeply I appreciate your friendship, and how grateful I am to have you in my life. I’ll close this open letter by wishing you in Majrooh Sultanpuri’s immortal words:“Tum jiyo hazaaron saal, saal ke din ho pachaas hazaar.”

With love,
Sharon

My Favorite Summer Haunt

In the last post I mentioned a performance of Macbeth I’d seen last summer. One collected thought led to another and I found myself remembering a piece I had written years ago and submitted as a homework assignment at Keele in February 2011. Joe Stretch was holding the gun to my head for the first draft of a new story (following the “Pioneer Boulevard” debacle), and I didn’t have time to compose something new for Tim Lustig’s Life Writing class. I couldn’t risk having two guns held to my head. One would be sure to go off.

Even though I can still feel that one muzzle against my left temple, and even though I wish I had written something new for Tim’s class, I’m glad I submitted the old piece because Tim and my classmates suggested some very helpful edits during the workshop. I read the tweaked version at the open mic session that evening (to indulgent applause) and, upon returning to LA later that year, submitted it to Smithsonian for their Last Page humor section. I heard back promptly, and although the editors were kind enough to call my piece an essay, what they had to say was more disappointing than a outright rejection. Smithsonian has discontinued the Last Page! It was always the first page I would turn to as a subscriber.

I am publishing the piece here because my publisher recently told me it deserves to be published. (Incidentally, I have given her permission to go through my emails, so it’s not like she hacked into my account to discover the piece. In general I don’t like people reading my mail, but it’s a trade-off. Constance Brooks said she’ll never read my blog, to allow me my artistic freedom, so I let her read my mail instead. It’s less interesting anyway.)

“I loved it, Sharon!” she gushed (as she only does when talking about my writing). “It’s genius! Like everything you’ve written! I laughed till I cried!

She added that if I didn’t publish it, she’d take a huge cut from my royalties. She does that anyway, but since I don’t want the cut to become huger, if you run into Constance somewhere please don’t tell her my real reason for publishing the piece. The thing is, Thursday draws nigh and I don’t want to receive another friendly reminder from WordPress.

Point Fermin Park

The Play’s the Thing

Every year I watch the plays staged by Shakespeare By The Sea, a nonprofit organization that holds outdoor performances across Los Angeles in summer. One night at my favorite location, Point Fermin Park in San Pedro, as I shivered under two blankets, sipping hot chocolate for added immunity against the chilly ocean breeze, I was taken back to a sweltering April evening in India when, as a second-year undergrad, I received a long-awaited opportunity to coax my classmates onstage.

My English class had been asked to arrange a farewell party for our graduating seniors, and I was responsible for the entertainment. The play’s the thing, I decided, as I set about looking for something that could be condensed into a fifteen-minute skit. It had to be a comedy, because anything else would have made the already melancholic seniors lachrymose, and it must be a famous work, preferably Shakespeare, because I didn’t want the Head of Department to disapprove. Furthermore, the play would have to be heroine-oriented, because I couldn’t think of any boy in our class who might secretly possess histrionic ability. These requirements restricted my choice to The Taming of the Shrew which, two toilsome evenings later, was reduced to a somewhat witty version set in late 20th-century India.

After I’d managed to assemble a cast of seven, the girls outnumbering the boys five to two, I faced the thankless task of assigning the parts. I was mercifully spared the ignominy of reversing the Shakespearean tradition and making the girls play the male characters when the boys agreed to play Petruchio and Baptista. The latter would double as the priest in the wedding scene, and I hoped no one would notice the unexplained absence of the father of the bride. The girls unanimously elected me Katherina and divvied up the less demanding roles of Bianca, the mother, and the two maids who later play wedding guests.

We stumbled through rehearsals for one nightmarish week. Each day saw new improvisations by the actors, and I finally gave up trying to restore my script to its original version – which was, after all, itself a mere adaptation.

If the truth be told, my unabashed license probably made Shakespeare writhe in his distant grave. For instance, the inclusion of Katherina’s mother, who in the opening scene serves her husband chai and urges him to advertise in the matrimonial column of a national newspaper, since all other means of procuring a groom for their daughter have failed. The dauntless Petruchio, who considers himself more than equal to taming the shrew, responds to the ad in person and achieves the feat, to the tune of the latest Bollywood hit, in one brief scene. Katherina’s final speech, so poetically penned by the Bard, was in my play reduced to a meek “Your wish is my command, dear Pet.” Unable to believe his ears, Baptista faints, and the dramatis personae exeunt, carrying him out.

Despite my misgivings, the play went off well enough, with only a few minor slips. Petruchio tripped while making his entry and Bianca let out a giggle, which she tried unsuccessfully to convert into a cough. Halfway through that ill-fated scene, Baptista was beset by an attack of stage fright and repeated the line “But you don’t know my daughter” three times. Later, when he doubled as the priest, he started the wedding ceremony before the groom could arrive, and from under the voluminous folds of her bridal sari, the kneeling Katherina was heard to hiss irreverently, “Wait for Petruchio, stupid.” 

Happily, these faux pas heightened the comic effect, causing some seniors to laugh till they cried, and when we returned onstage for the curtain call I noticed that the Head of Department was smiling indulgently as he applauded. Still, it was nothing to match the ovation Kate and company received when the play ended that night in Point Fermin Park.

Indian bride

My Favorite First Words

At the end of the post on Diderot and The Last Judgment (March 1), I had said that within a worldview such as Diderot’s this life is “the be-all and the end-all.” The phrase comes from the Shakespearean tragedy with my favorite first words uttered by any Shakespearean character, popularly known as The Scottish Play.

Macbeth, Act I, scene 3
Thunder. Enter the three witches
38 lines later . . .
Enter Macbeth and Banquo
MACBETH: So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

Macbeth was the first of the four greatest Shakespearean tragedies I read, but I still get chills when Macbeth first walks onstage and says those opening words, which unconsciously echo what the witches had said in scene 1 (“Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air”). Macbeth is setting himself up – rather, the Playwright is setting him up, and he is letting us know that he is doing this through the device of dramatic irony. (Hamlet’s first words also contain dramatic irony, but we don’t yet know why Claudius is “less than kind” so the first of Hamlet’s many words are a shade less thrilling. And not as chilling.)

What the Playwright doesn’t tell us is whether Macbeth has somehow opened himself up to the forces of darkness before the play begins. My own opinion is that he has, although perhaps unknowingly. I get this from the text. Even before we see him we are told how Macbeth killed a rebel: “he unseam’d him from the nave to the chops, And fix’d his head upon our battlements.” This is a savage way to end someone’s life, even when it’s done in battle. Violence opens a person to the forces of darkness, which is why I believe that Macbeth has made himself the witches’ target.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the witches target Macbeth because they know his tragic flaw (ambition) and what it will lead him to do. The prophecy will tempt him to get the throne by foul means, which will throw Scotland into a bloody civil war, and the forces of evil seek only destruction – of human beings and of nations.

David Garrick Macbeth 1768

David Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard as the Macbeths, 1768

Immediately after his encounter with the witches, Macbeth learns that their first prophecy has been fulfilled: he is informed that he is now the thane of Cawdor. The news prompts him to philosophize on “the imperial theme.” The soliloquy tells us that murder has already entered Macbeth’s thoughts, but the thought of actually murdering Duncan “yet is but fantastical.” Perhaps to drive it from his mind he will say:

If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me
Without my stir.

Macbeth might have become “king hereafter” without resorting to regicide. The king might have died peacefully in his sleep or been killed in battle, but Macbeth wrests the crown by shedding blood because he has:
(i) The tragic flaw of ambition, which won’t let him wait.
(ii) An ambitious wife, who won’t let him wait. (He was rightly called “Bellona’s bridegroom” earlier in the play. Lady M. has all the qualities of the goddess of war.)
(iii) The opportunity. Duncan visits the Macbeths at Inverness and all Macbeth has to do is reach for his dagger and “murder sleep” (a euphemism if ever there was one). Compare this with how hard it is for Hamlet to kill his king.

Incidentally, that’s not because of Hamlet’s inability to act but rather his inability to rush into an act he knows is wrong. When he does kill his king, it will be when he himself has been mortally wounded, and at the king’s behest. It’s one of the many reasons why Hamlet deserves to have flights of angels sing him to his rest, whereas Macbeth’s body is merely dragged away by Macduff (the other big Mac in The Scottish Play).

Charles_Kean_Macbeth_1858

Charles Kean and Mrs. Kean as the Macbeths, 1858

Macbeth’s final words have never thrilled me quite as much as his first, not even when I was nineteen and reading the play for the first time. He has become so deeply entrenched in evil that by the time of his famous exchange with Macduff, I want him to die.

But the last time I saw the play (last summer), the actor playing Macbeth didn’t feel the same. He had been fairly controlled until then but lost all sense of proportion (or is decorum the right word?) when Macduff says he was “from his mother’s womb Untimely ripp’d.” Between “Before my body I throw my warlike shield” and “Lay on, Macduff,” this Macbeth engaged in all manner of vaudeville buffoonery, even dragging himself across the stage to throw one last dagger at his nemesis. Instead of high tragedy this Macbeth ended inches above farce. One almost wished Lady Macbeth back to life, because she had been played to perfection.

Atheists like Diderot would have agreed with what Macbeth says when he is told that his wife is dead, that

All our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. . . .
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more

For anyone who does not believe in the afterlife, this life is the be-all and the end-all, as Macbeth says in that key soliloquy in Act I, scene 7, when he expresses doubts about murdering Duncan. If there were no consequences, and no afterlife to consider, says Macbeth, then he might as well do the deed and do it soon.

But that’s such a prosaic paraphrase of the soliloquy that has two of the most poetic lines in all Shakespeare, the lines that conclude this passage:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all — here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come.