If there is one thing you must know about Calcutta Bengalis, it’s that we are obsessed with digestion — the process and the many ways in which we can make it better. So when I saw bottles of Aqua Ptychotis, Carmozyme, and the small balls of Jaina Silpa Mandir’s Ajowan Goli — all concoctions of enzymes and harbingers of good digestion that our elders vouch for — sitting on the table of the Public Obscenities set, I knew I was in for a meticulously produced show.
Public Obscenities, a bilingual play in Bangla and English, is written and directed by Shayok Misha Chowdhury. It takes place in the living-cum-dining room of a South Calcutta home where the queer protagonists of the play — Choton (Abrar Haque) and Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell) — are visiting Choton’s aunt (Pishimoni, played by Gargi Mukherjee) and uncle (Pishe, played by Debashis Roy Chowdhury).
The set, as previously mentioned, is a family’s living room, meticulously detailed in its execution. dots, the design collective that produced the set, nails down the smallest detail — the one-page calendar hanging by the fridge, the plastic bottles of mineral water reserved for the American guests, a semi-transparent jar of biscuits, and even the smell of the vegetarian torkari the family eats for lunch, wafting through Soho Rep’s theater. I grew up in South Calcutta, visiting hundreds of these rooms, sitting inside them, and listening to relatives talk in the English-Bangla hybrid the people in Public Obscenities converse in. Mukherjee and Roy Chowdhury don’t overdo the Bengali accent and add an authenticity to their roles, so the way they talk — like my parents — remains different from the American accent but does not get reduced to an Apu-like caricature. “Being seen” doesn’t even come close to what I felt watching the play; it was being seen, heard, smelled, and felt. It was being recognized.
Choton and Raheem are a gay couple who visit Calcutta to work on Choton’s research film that explores sexual vocabularies within Bangla slang. Through the documentary’s making, the couple meet Shou (Tashnuva Anan, who is Bangladesh’s first transgender news anchor) and Sebanti (NaFis) — who are both transcending the binaries of gender in ways that defy the strict definitions of Western queer terminology. Nonbinary sexualities are fairly commonplace within Indian society — we grew up with hijra and kothi communities living very public lives in the peripheries of our society. I find it refreshing that Chowdhury didn’t venture to theorize Shou and Sebanti’s sexuality through terminology framed by Western gender and queer theory. Their in-betweenness is respected and left to exist in all its complexity, untouched by the oversimplification or overburdening of theory.
Chowdhury was born in south India and then moved to Brooklyn, NY by way of Massachusetts. While Pishimoni and Pishe’s world in Calcutta may be familiar to him, it isn’t his to claim. That he doesn’t is probably the biggest strength of the play. His gaze isn’t anthropological and neither is he making judgements. Much like Choton, playwright Chowdhury knows his limitations when looking into a world like Calcutta. He knows he is an outsider who doesn’t know everything; so he witnesses and works extremely hard to present things just the way he sees them, paying attention to the smallest details, substituting gaps in his knowledge and world view with intensive research. He handles the script and the people in it with care, without compromising on anyone’s dignity. Even when the play is contained within the interiority of this one Calcutta home, the outside world is always present, through the distant howling of street dogs (Sound design by Tei Blow) and the calls of street vendors trying to make an early morning sale, as they walk the streets of the city with their wares.
This duty of care is something that gets extended through the bilinguality of the play, as well. In plays that straddle such disparate worlds and languages, it is common to see one gain prominence over the other. But Public Obscenities strives to include everyone in the audience — irrespective of whether they speak Bangla or English or both — as it enters the inner world of the characters. For the first time in my life, I felt like a play was being performed for me and the people who form my inner world. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to whether the play “works” for someone who doesn’t speak Bangla but the laughs and sighs in the diverse audience would have me believe that it does. The actors often repeat themselves in English when they say something in Bangla, and the set makes efficient use of the living room’s TV screen to subtitle a large chunk of the dialog in a very seamless and unobtrusive way.
The idea of image making, record making, and eventually memory and archive making, forms the spine of Public Obscenities. In watching it, as an Indian Bengali immigrant whose family hails from present-day Bangladesh, the play creates an archive of memories that have never seemed important to me in the larger scheme of things. Beyond its very important commentary on the caste and gender politics within middle-class Bengali society, it tells me that my childhood and the memories it has birthed is worth creating art with, in their truest form, without the need to embellish them to fit a critical high brow idea of theater, and without the fetishizing and objectification/othering that most diasporic artists slip into when talking of our pasts.