Saturday, May 23, 2009


“Why don’t you smile at the customers?” Tammy asks her. “Smile at them, make them feel welcome, comfortable. Smile, then ask them if you can help them.” Tammy is talking to Hazel, her newest employee, friend of a friend. It had been a favour to hire her, this young, tall, yet sullen looking woman with the black hair that hung in flat sheets on either side of her head. Hazel stares blankly back at Tammy. “OK,” Hazel murmurs. Hazel tries to smile that day. But the action doesn’t come easily. Who cares, she thinks. What do the customers care if she asks them if they need help? If they want something like chocolates they can’t find, or need a brand of cigarettes, then they’ll ask for it, surely. Hazel has a five-year-old child, Jasmine, who waits for her at the end of each long day. When Hazel appears, Jasmine rushes to greet her. At night Hazel dreams of the shop, she dreams of Tammy, unhappy because Hazel doesn’t smile at the customers. But Hazel can’t lose this job. It is all that stands between having to move back in with her parents with Jasmine. At times Hazel dreams of the markets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. She dreams of the Israeli kibbutz they lived on: she dreams that she is, once more, ironing hundreds of pairs of pants in the kibbutz. And she dreams of Federico, tall, violent Federico with his jet black hair and thick black eyebrows, and that powerful, maniacal look in his almost black eyes. Once more, in these dreams, Federico lunges at her, angry, stoned, wanting her to yield, have sex when she is not ready. When she is not, he hits out. She awakes from these dreams, breathless. She smokes at three, four in the morning then, the tip of her cigarette glowing in the greyness. She does not turn on the light, Jasmine sleeps a few metres away in a cordoned off corner of the studio flat they share. Five months later, Hazel is a waitress at a restaurant, The Doughnut. The days are as long, and more tiring, but the money is better, and she is busier than at the sweet shop. Hazel complains to her parents that she never sees the sun. She goes to work and comes home, and by then the day is gone. “I could be working underground,” Hazel complains to her mother. But her mother Evelyn replies: “It’s what you chose. Your father and I warned you not to go after that man, but you did. Now you have a child and your responsibility is to look after that child. Your life is over now, your child is what is important.” Hazel is thirty-five, and does not, obviously, want her life to be over, does not, in fact, feel that her life is over. But there’s nothing now, but the huge relief of waking up without Federico every morning, without the fear, the tiptoeing around a man who could be violent or gentle and sweet, depending on his mood or whether he had smoked grass the night before, or had got high on speed. And the fear that he would discover the places she had stashed their money for the month and spend it on drugs. And then, writing home, begging her parents to send money for food, medicine, rent. She took jobs: once she was a maid to a German woman who had moved to Tel Aviv after the war, another time she tried to work in a supermarket, but Hazel’s Hebrew was too poor for dealing with customers. Federico did not work. He hadn’t worked in years. When the money finished he too wrote to his parents, and they too wired him cash, but they were poorer than Hazel’s parents. She had met the tall, exotic-looking Spaniard at a beach party at the beginning of the seventies. Everyone was stoned at the party, including Hazel. They smoked grass or dropped acid, and lay on the beach and talked of psychedelic colours. Hazel had sold the car her parents had given to her as a wedding present, divorced the man she had married at twenty-one and bought a one-way ticket to Europe. In Spain Hazel had gone to a party at a large house on the beach and met Federico. He was tall and exotic. He spoke English with the rough, yet musical accent of the Spanish. He painted. He spoke six languages fluently. Hazel fell in love, with Spain, with a Spanish man, with the possibility that life could be different. No one who Hazel met through Federico seemed to work. They lived cheaply. That in itself was a type of freedom. She felt the ties of the past unloosening, she felt single again, not divorced, but single. She and Federico moved often, never staying more than a month in one of the beach cottages. They moved crablike along the southern coast. “You need to be free,” Federico would exclaim, “You can’t be free with a job,” he said. Hazel knew she was she was pregnant. Her periods had stopped, and she was gaining weight she couldn’t lose. The flat days stretched out: Federico spent them lying on a mattress. She thought she could feel the presence of the baby around her, watching, waiting. It was going to be a girl; she knew that, and this time she wasn’t going to get rid of it. “Let’s go to South Africa,” Hazel suggested. But it was a disaster. Her parents disapproved of Federico. He wasn’t Jewish for one thing, and he was foreign. Their daughter was pregnant, and not married. It was a scandal. One night her father, Herman, took Federico out. Her parents were talking about forcing her to have an abortion, if they could declare her insane, they could force an abortion on her. At the restaurant lounge Hazel’s father, Herman impressed on Federico that South Africa wasn’t the place for him. He left. Herman paid for the trip, and when Hazel found out she slammed her fist through the glass balcony door. Her father came home to shattered glass, her mother crying hysterically while Hazel sat stoic, unmoved, eyes glazed as though anaesthetised. There, she was given a choice: have an abortion voluntarily, for her own good; or it would be arranged that she would be committed to an insane asylum, and the state would force her to have an abortion anyway. The night before the abortion she had come home after a day out with friends to find two strangers sitting, waiting for her in the lounge of her parents. They carried out the threat. They committed her. In the six weeks she was there she learned to control her temper, to be quiet and acquiescent. The psychiatrist asked her gently if she wanted an abortion. No. When they released her they didn’t tell her parents. She met up with an old friend and fled. How do you measure pain and fear? The rain drummed against the windows of the aeroplane droning on towards Europe. “I’m coming,” she had said over the phone to Federico now in Spain, “do you still want me?” “Yes,” he said. “I’m still pregnant,” she said. The first time he hit her she was six months’ pregnant. She lurched and fell against the wall, knocking her head, her glasses flying across the room. He was contrite, apologetic, gentle after that. He got so angry at life, sometimes, and he just couldn’t control it. His eyes were soft, slightly rimmed with tears; he was sorry; he said he wouldn’t do it again. It happens in increments. The first time there is disbelief, wild, unyielding incomprehension. There is forgiveness. And then there is more forgiveness. It has to be that way. You do not fall out of love so quickly, so easily. Perhaps you never do: love so slick, so illogical. Perhaps you never do: perhaps a part of you will cling, always, to that hope, that illusion. Even when bones have been broken, and eyes have been smashed, and bruises purple into the shape of clenched fists. The illusions shatter, disbelief sets in. Conversation stops after a while. Federico promised he would get a job, and asked his parents for money. They moved back to Spain. They moved into yet another house, this one in the hills surrounding M├ílaga. Hazel gave birth at La Cruz Roja. She wrote to her parents, sending them pictures of their first grandchild. There was a thaw, babies melt hearts. There was guilt. And so, it started, the letters exchanged, the money wired. When Jasmine was eighteen months, Hazel’s mother came to visit. The visit was successful, in its way. There was more money after that: “You should see how they’re living!” Evelyn told Herman. “They live in houses without electricity sometimes! Last year Hazel had to draw water from a well! Can you imagine it Herman? She’s gone and made such a mess of her life; the least we can do is help out with some money. It’s the child I’m thinking of, of course.” Federico could not hold down a job. For a day or two he would get up early, wash dishes at a bar, be a waiter at a restaurant, say he would try and teach at the language school in Fuengirola, but after a day or two he stopped going to work. He was tired; he wouldn’t get up till ten, eleven, noon. Days pass. By the time Jasmine was three, Federico still could not support his family and yet he wanted more children. One day Hazel came home to find him boiling her diaphragm, trying to damage it without her seeing. She eventually married him before they left for Israel. You know when you’re making a mistake. You know when what you’re doing is wrong, but it’s a last ditch effort to save something; begin something else. Years later, she’d say: “But I still thought he would change, might change, away from the domineering influence of his parents, his mother especially. She had mollycoddled him from birth. He was her youngest son, and he couldn’t do anything wrong, I thought he might learn to take responsibility if we went where we were both strangers. I thought he might have a bit of pride then.” On the first kibbutz, he was assigned the job of milking the cows at five in the morning. It lasted a few days. Then they said he could pick fruit instead. It lasted a week. The director of the kibbutz was sorry, but all members had to work, he said, as he told Hazel they had to leave. They moved to a hostel in Tel Aviv. It was a year before they were accepted on another kibbutz, a year in which love died. The days were spent before they had begun. Hazel’s parents still sent money, but it was never enough. The coins piled up on the bookcase seemed like a lot of money to Jasmine, but her mother said they weren’t. Hazel took cleaning jobs, climbing up stepladders to clean chandeliers, washing out stranger’s kitchens. There was no more pretence: he did not look for jobs, When he hit out at night, the neighbours heard the sounds of crashing, thumping. Jasmine mostly slept through, but the times she did not, she awoke to see her father flinging her mother’s head against the walls. The look was resigned, her mother silent as Federico expended his energy. Federico was always contrite, sorry, mortified almost. When he said he’d never do it again, Hazel no longer believed him. But where else could they go? To go back to South Africa meant admitting defeat to her parents, it meant relying on them. They were accepted onto another kibbutz. Once more Federico did not work, but they were lenient here, more willing to understand that Federico was “sick” and couldn’t do an eight-hour day. Instead he went more and more often to the seaside resort of Eilat. Hazel began to suspect he had someone there. Sometimes he stayed away a week at a time, and the freedom was blissful, sweet and refreshing. Hazel hadn’t realised how tightly wired she had become. With Federico around she was tense all the time: she was tense in the morning when she awoke, and she was tense getting ready for her work in the kitchens, telling Jasmine to keep quiet as they dressed. And she was tense at night in bed. If she refused, he burst his way in, and she, silent, so that the child would not be woken. She wrote to her parents. At first they refused. No, they would not send tickets for her and her child. She had got herself into this mess; she could get herself out of it. She sent letters back, longer, more pleading letters. “I’m afraid he’ll try to kill me and Jasmine,” she wrote. “The other day he said when she turns twelve he’ll rape her and force me to watch. What sort of a man would say this?” They sent tickets. Only on the plane did Hazel relax, each passing mile beneath the window the distance growing longer and longer. In the end he signed the divorce papers, relinquishing all custody or visitation rights to see Jasmine when Herman agreed to pay off all of Federico’s debts. Sometimes Hazel and Jasmine go to the swimming pool in the townhouse complex where they move when Jasmine turns six. At The Doughnut Hazel became a manageress. Soon after getting the job as a waitress, she learned how to smile, and was promoted. Smiling mattered; seeming to care about the customers mattered. And then it took over: she cared that the orders were right, that the fat man who ate breakfast at the counter every morning had his bacon crisp, not soggy; and that the two secretaries who ate lunch every day shared dessert and received two spoons or forks for the dessert. It seemed as though the world simultaneously narrowed and opened up as she cared. Life narrowed to a tight focus: she cared about the job, and strove to do as well as she could; the heavy dark blankness filled with kitchen orders, smiles from customers, an offer to become a manageress. There are strict divisions to her day: there are the breakfast regulars, the 10 o’clock housewives who come for cake and tea with friends before going shopping, the lunch time crowd of office workers, the mid-afternoon pensioners. Hazel phones Jasmine in the afternoon, her domestic worker picks the child up from school. It is all so far away so different from the life she led before. Life is strict, ordered, a patchwork of routine. By cutting the day into slices, like a cake, she goes forward in increments, and there are crumbs of vague understanding of the past. (Published in Breaking the Silence: Journeys to Recovery POWA Women’s Writing Competition 2008 Fanele, an imprint of Jacana, 2009)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Spicy blend of personas stirs the emotions

There’s something on the boil at the Market Theatre in the form of Curry Tales, a one-woman show written and performed by Rani Moorthy. Prior to seeing the show, I knew little about the production except that the actress cooks on stage. Sounded rather light and fluffy to me. Well, it is light, in the sense that there are laughs aplenty, but this is no mere parody of a cooking show.

Moorthy has fun with her audience, teasing and cajoling them in an intimate and yet also nonthreatening way. If you’re scared of interactive theatre after having been lampooned by the likes of Mark Banks, put your fear aside. Book a front-row seat, because, yes, Moorthy cooks and you’ll be one of the first to taste the dishes if you’re right up there.

In Curry Tales, Moorthy takes on a number of different personas, cooking up a dish to go with each. The dexterity and the feat of cooking while acting and taking cues from the audience is quite something to watch. “In any one-person show, the audience is the other character,” says Moorthy as I chat to her after having seen the show.

Now resident in London where she first conceived and wrote the show, Moorthy explains how she adapts performances to local mores in each country she plays in. Moorthy is something of a chameleon on stage. She first appears as socialite Mrs Dimple Melwani, a middle-aged New Delhi matriarch who commands the stage with her presence and sassy personality. Ah, this is an actress in her 40s, I thought, but, in the next scene, Moorthy bounds on to the stage as the fiery Trinidadian Rosemary, showing a leg, blasting the man (or men) in her life while stirring a hot curry to feed the audience, and I am reappraising, thinking, no, this is a much younger actress. Moorthy inhabits each character so thoroughly, which is obviously what good acting is about, that you are completely swept away and taken in.

You do chuckle throughout, but there is also an underlying pathos beneath each story. In another sequence, a young Indian woman, Kalvinder, is making curry for her British in-laws.Her husband has forgotten to pick up the mutton, so she is forced to improvise. She hits on the idea of using eggs instead of meat, but while she is chopping and boiling, she tells us about growing up as a barren woman. An Indian woman who cannot have children, reviled by her own mother. This achingly sad sequence goes to the very heart of what constitutes a woman in certain cultures, and how anything that is different from the norm is unacceptable. The heartache this causes in Kalvinder is painful to watch.

But equally moving is the beggar scene in which Moorthy plays a Tamil-speaking beggar, Kali. She doesn’t speak a word of English in this scene, and yet mime, gesture and our own natural human empathy mean we understand every word. The scene ends with the beggar sharing her bowl of curry with the audience. “She hasn’t eaten in two days,” Moorthy says as we discuss this scene, “and yet she gives of her bowl of food. “This just shows that the onus of giving is not one that only the rich can monopolise, it’s a sense of taking power from the act of giving.”

Another powerful scene is that of Mrs Wong, an Indian woman brought up in China and now living in riot-torn Malaysia. She’s chained to her stove by her eldest son, lamenting the fact that she hasn’t learned the words to the national anthem, and recalling a life shaped by emigration. Moorthy is Mrs Wong with a very passable Chinese-inflected accent. Here Moorthy taps directly into her past experiences. Born in Malaysia, she was educated in Singapore, as her parents wanted her to be taught in English. This meant she carried a passport to school every day. Moorthy became a drama lecturer and also hosted a talk show in Singapore. Marrying Briton Arthur Smith meant negotiating a commuter relationship. Deciding to move to England to be with her husband in 1996 at the age of 35 meant starting all over again.

She talks of finding a new voice. “Yet, I think it’s important for artists to leave the artistic homeland, to leave the comfort zone. I didn’t think I would have an audience in Britain.”

Instead, Moorthy had to create another career, cultivate another voice. From this was born a series of plays, including Pooja, which explored ritual in a Hindu woman’s life, Curry Tales, and Shades of Brown, another one-woman show that looks at skin colour and the effect of being perceived as too dark or too light (as in the character of the South African albino). “I invite the audience to look at the discomfort around skin colour, and how we are being prejudiced [by perceptions].”

It’s not a topic that is always openly discussed and Moorthy relates how her own darker skin colour led her family to joke with her not to go out into the sun: the psychological impact of colour. Moorthy has also explored the impact of the Muslim bombings in London in Too Close to Home, a play set in a British Muslim family.

Future projects in the pipeline include further explorations of emigration in writing about gangs of Tamil boys in London who feel disenfranchised in the West as well as a play that looks at feminine energies and what happens when people are taken away from the country of their birth.

Moorthy admits that she is sceptical about nationhood, but “I find it liberating that I am not particularly of any one culture. I can borrow from cultures, telling stories that are human, that people can return too.”

(Published in The Sunday Independent Feb 2008)