India Currents just celebrated its 25th anniversary with a huge weekend of celebrations that included staging three nights of the play Death in San Francisco in San Jose. 25 years of publishing a monthly magazine is an impressive achievement, and substantial enough that IC going to be included in a traveling Smithsonian exhibit about the Indian-American immigrant experience. In keeping with IC's long-term commitment to the community, all proceeds from the three nights of Death in San Francisco were donated to Narika. A huge thank you to Vandana Kumar, IC publisher, and her dedicated staff for their support!
And what's even better? Death in San Francisco was hilarious and it's running in San Jose at the Theater at San Pedro Square through the 24th of June. The play was written by Sujit Saraf, the co-founder and artistic director of Naatak. The drama starts with Naveen Chandra Gupta dying of a sudden heart attack in San Francisco. A resident of the US for decades with little interest in religious matters during his life, his will reveals his wish to be given a proper Hindu cremation on the beach in San Francisco exactly as he cremated his father in India 30 years ago. Utter chaos ensues as friends and family members attempt to determine exactly what "proper rites and ceremonies" are and how they might be carried out in San Francisco.
The entire play takes place within Gupta's Pacific Heights home with a beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Gupta's rapidly decomposing body as his family and neighbors scramble to get a permit to cremate his body on the beach (they fail), determine which hardware store to purchase supplies for the procession (they come up with four), engage a priest perform proper rituals (who receives an iPod shuffle in return for his services, along with a cow), welcome Gupta's long-estranged brother from India, and decide to cremate the body early in the morning on Baker Beach to avoid nudists. The comedy rests in the tension between Americans attempting to recreate an idealized version of India in a distinctly un-Indian environment and Indians arriving in the States (such as Gupta's brother) absolutely flabbergasted that in a land of riches and electric crematoriums anyone would want to recreate something that's been abandoned years ago by anyone in India with half a brain and modest means.
Despite the appearance of a real live cow on stage (quite impressive!) the play's got a lot going for it. One of my favorite characters was Maaji, the cantankerous mother-in-law of the deceased. She speaks only in Hindi and has the habit of wandering around interjecting "What did he say?!" "What are they doing?!" The priest was ridiculously distracted, friends felt closer to Gupta than his family members, and a very earnest young son does his best to do right by his father with often mystifying and contradictory commandments coming from all sides. The ending of the play did feel a bit abrupt, with some important issues about Gupta and his widow left unresolved. But overall the play was delightful and Naatak is definitely worth checking out during this show as well as future plays.