Play review

A play in New York tells tales of two women from India that 'need to be told'

In 'Two Women Talking', the actors share memories, laughter, anxieties and their darker encounters with Indian culture.

One rainy fall evening in Brooklyn, two women walk out onto a small stage and stare at the audience. They stand in comfortable silence for several minutes – until the short-haired woman in the blue and white kurta begins to talk.

At her boarding school in Connecticut, she says, three of her suitemates held her down on the bathroom floor, and then proceeded to shave her arms and legs with a razor. They left her cut and bleeding on the tiles. She was 13.

Several members of the audience noticeably gasp.

On stage, the other woman does not react. She watches her fellow presenter, absorbs her words without comment, lets the silence expand.

The two actors are Monsoon Bissell and Benaifer Bhadha. And in Two Women Talking, they are playing roles they have trained for all their lives – themselves.

Piercing stories

For 75 minutes, we watch and listen as they roam across the landscapes of their lives spent in Mumbai, Hartford, London, New York, trading stories in a messy chronology. The stories are often harrowing, jagged with feeling, but the women inhabit them fully, letting the memories subsume them. “I try to hold my mother’s hand, she pulls away, I try to hold my mother’s hand, she pulls away,” Bhadha repeats in a small, bewildered voice, her feet twisting into the pigeon-toed stance of a child.

These stories are not safe for work – or for the drawing room for that matter. There are secrets here, the gut-twisting anxieties and toxic self-loathing that we try not to think about. In one story, Bhadha rages in the bathroom, her hands twisting the roll of flesh at her waist as she shouts “I hate you, I hate you” at her image in the mirror. About to undergo an operation, Bissell begs her doctor: “Can I keep my nipples? I like my nipples.”

Every story cuts deep, all the more potent because it is true. What makes the performance astounding is that it is not a performance – not in the usual sense. This is semi-scripted storytelling, live, improvised every evening. We are watching minimalist theatre, drama pared down to its essence, intimate, unsparingly human. On display are fraught encounters with memory, sparked in the moment. The audience, recast as witnesses, are invited to listen, even if the illicit thrill of eavesdropping on secrets feels uncomfortable. As Bissell explains, “The listening shapes the telling, and the telling shapes the listening.”

Nowadays, distracted by our devices and schedules, we have forgotten how to listen. On stage, the actors revive this lost art. No one rushes to fill pauses in the monologues with advice or opinions. As one speaks, the other listens, never breaking eye contact.

Indian bond

When they talk, their stories shimmer with startling details. The critic James Wood’s phrase, “better noticers of life”, comes to mind. I feel the straight backs of chairs in prissy boarding schools against my neck, smell the camphor in the depths of Bissell’s grandfather’s closet. When Bhadha describes her substance abuse, I feel the dry scrape of the pills in my throat.

Then there is India. The country binds the women together, and it is everywhere. In stories of cosy afternoons spent with tea and steaming samosas in the company of large, loving families, as well as in the darker encounters with a culture, where, as Bissell tells me later, “girls are often told to shut up”. When they stray from culturally expected ways, there is a price to pay in guilt, in strained relationships. When Bissell comes out as a lesbian, her mother shuts her down and turns away, refuses to acknowledge or engage with her daughter’s sexuality.

But, as Bissell says, “These are stories that no one tells, but need to be told.”

Raw connections

Watching these stories spill out, it is easy to believe that Bissell and Bhadha are old friends, performing a comfortable friendship. At one point, Bhadha says, “I have never had a relationship like this.” Watching the women interact, that sentiment is not hard to believe – not even when we learn that they met for the first time only a year ago. By the time they started, under Dan Milne’s sympathetic, unobtrusive direction, to ready the piece for the stage, they had spent weeks in Manhattan coffee shops, telling each other stories.

Even after a year, there are surprises. Twice in the evening, Bissell exclaims: “Benaifer, you never told that story before.”

Like the stories, the relationship comes under scrutiny too. In a particularly tense moment, Bhadha accuses Bissell of hurting her, dismissing her as “not being Indian enough”. In one of the most moving moments of the play, Bissell struggles to apologise, at one point asking Bhadha: “Are you going to help me out here?” When she refuses, Bissell stumbles on alone. We watch the relationship evolve, experience their struggle to accept each other, warts and all.

The yearning to connect fully with another is one we all recognise. Yet the openness with which these actors deal with each other is almost painful.

Still, this is precisely why Two Women Talking succeeds. It urges audiences to reengage with listening. The reactions of the audience, their gasps of shock or laughter affect the telling. The safer the actors feel, the more they are willing to reveal.

What of audiences who might be more judgemental? Who might not approve of family laundry being so publicly aired? Would they ever take this show to India, I ask.

Bhadha concedes it might be difficult, that she is not sure if audiences in India are ready. She has already told the story about how her mother refuses to see the show or even acknowledge her success-even though she lives a few hours away. Bissell is more hopeful: “More than any place else, India needs to have two women who are clearly whole and healed tell stories.”

“There is power in two women talking,” she says.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.