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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

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In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

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Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.