Backstage at the Akshara Theatre, it felt as though I knew everybody already. Which I did, because I’d written them. That self-possessed girl in the tigress costume was Tawny, short for Mulligatawny; the high-voltage compressed .ZIP file of pure energy was Hulo; the shy soft-spoken girl in brown was secretly Kirri the killer mongoose.
There’s something special for any author about seeing your characters come to life. You cannot be lonely when you’re writing a book, because you’re inside the pages, surrounded by its roars and growls and chirrups. And yet this odd thing that we do, writing down things that never happened except inside your head, is one of the most private of human acts. Except for the readers who write back to you—and many, bless them, do write—you don’t really know if this world that is so vivid for you exists for anyone else.
A clan of cats, their truce with hedge birds and the scurrying creatures we walk past every day, cheels swapping war stories: will they ever be as real to anyone else as they are to you? (In my weaker moments, I like to imagine Lev Tolstoy felt the same way about Mrs Karenina.) Seeing them on stage answers that question with some finality, though what made this really special was the actors, and their director Anasuya Vaidya, who managed to compress the 311 pages of The Wildings into 45 minutes of gleefully exuberant action.
The Akshara Theatre used to be run by Anasuya Vaidya’s parents, Gopal Sharman and Jalabala Vaidya. It’s a small but well-appointed space. The wooden boards of the stage have a mellow patina to them that speaks of years of performances, polish and care. The green room downstairs was plastered with newspaper cuttings from decades of plays and players past.
Back in the day, I had an intense, one-sided love affair with theatre. My acting career was mercifully brief: early stints as a bhajan singer, a village yokel and a tree confirmed my complete and total unsuitability as a thespian, and then I failed at being a butterfly. It is not easy to fail at a role where all you’re supposed to do is flutter on from one side of the stage and flutter off the other, but I managed. Butterflies were supposed to float; I clomped. Besides, I couldn’t tell left from right, and crashed an entire line of fellow butterflies, sending them into the bees.
After a fine performance as an owl—I spent most of my time pretending to sleep on stage, which turned out to be my one great acting skill—I retired from the boards. The small matter of missing talent aside, I knew it wasn’t acting I loved; it was watching actors. I didn’t love being on stage, but I loved being backstage, and that day at the Akshara, with excitable young costumed actors cannoning into my knees, all those memories came back.
Most of the “stages” I remember weren’t proper stages in proper theatres. They were made of rough-planked, cheap kitchen tables, held together by ropes, hope and the odd nail. The curtains were made of white—okay, whiteish—sheets borrowed from some kind-hearted Mashima or the other. As to the wings, the audience and the actors had a pact: they both pretended that these existed. We spent much of our childhood watching improvised performances of everything from Shakespeare to Neil Simon to Rabindranath Tagore where the prompter was usually louder than the rest of the actors, and where the definition of a successful performance was one where the actors didn’t fall through the wide cracks in the creaking, complaining tables.
The Wildings’ cast had some fine performers. The action sequences were a hoot, and they snuck in a joke about the Bigfeet—the humans whose house Mara the kitten lives in, who were turned into journalists in this version of The Wildings. One of them said she was off to interview a minister. “A 200,000 crore scam minister?” asked one Bigfoot. “No, a 400,000 crore scam minister,” said the other Bigfoot. Much joy in the audience.
The cast bounced through their scenes, shifting from dialogue to shake-your-booty dance item numbers. Tawny, Southpaw, Cheel and others strolled on and off like seasoned performers. Some of the youngest members of the cast mixed up their lines, and turned with absolute trust to Anasuya, who filled in the blanks calmly. And at the end of it, I realised that they’d all had immense fun, because that’s what Anasuya wanted them to have, as a director, and that’s what I had secretly hoped they’d have, as the author of the book.
What they brought back to me was something that I get from writing, and yoga, and cooking, and a very few other things: the absolute joy of doing something in the moment, not worrying about whether you’ll get it right or wrong or whether you’ve earned four gold stars or none. That was what those childhood performances at the Puja pandal were all about. You didn’t have to “get it right”. You just had to get up there and enjoy being up there.
“That,” said my husband with some relish as we left, “was one of the best evenings of my life.”
I thought of how often—too often—we define the best anything in terms of medals and prizes and achievements, as though all there is to life is a string of gold stars. I hadn’t consciously put this into words before, but none of my “best evenings” have been the gold star ones. Winning stuff feels good, whether you’re a six-year-old winning a swimming medal or a 72-year-old collecting the Nobel Prize, but my “bests” were made up of different things. The evening light on the hills as you complete a long drive with the person you love most in the world; waking up in Bhutan or Ladakh with the mountains right outside your window; the bits you don’t share in a blogpost because they’re too personal, but they’re lovely, those moments; those long potluck evenings with friends or family that warm your heart when the memory comes back ten years later; moments of quiet meditation, as intense and as rich as the greatest concerts by your favourite musicians; and then there’s watching your characters step out of the pages of your book and on stage.
Behind us, the cast were tossing their masks in the air and posing for post-performance pictures like veteran Theatre Celebrity People. The ones who weren’t hugging each other or trying to see whether you could divide the last potato chip by six so that everyone could have a piece were mobbing their beloved Anasuya Madam. The mongoose and the three villain cats were comparing costumes; parents swarmed through the green room, mingling with the assortment of cats, tigers, cheels and mice.
If Anasuya Vaidya or the Three Adityas or any of the actors and costume makers and general helpers are reading this, as the husband said: that *was* one of the best evenings of my life. Thank you.