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Volume 20

Nomad - Fall 2018


Written by
Jonathan Gil Harris

Jonathan Gil Harris is Professor of English at Ashoka University in India, where he also served as Founding Dean from 2013 to 2017. The past president of the Shakespeare Society of India, he has published many academic books on Shakespeare, early modern culture, and processes of globalisation. Since moving to India, he has developed a deep fascination for Indian cinema, which he has written about in a series of articles for publications such as The Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Indian Express and Outlook. He is also the author of the best-selling The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Healers, Heroes, Courtesans, Charlatans, and Other Foreigners Who Became Indian (Aleph Books, 2014). His most recent book is Masala Shakespeare: How the Bard Became Indian (Aleph, 2018).


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Banjaaras in a Banjar World: Masala’s Partitioned Nomads



I first visited India in the summer of 2001. I’d fallen in love with an Indian; over the course of the next ten years, thanks to annual visits to Delhi and the South, I fell in love with India too, and made the decision to move there permanently. My relationship with the country has been typical of any long-term love affair. India has enchanted me, fed me, afforded me a home, taught me a new language; it has also disagreed with me, infuriated me, made me ill. In loving it, I have had to adapt to its many peccadillos. Especially the masala movie.

In 2002, a decade before I moved to India, I saw Saathiya (Companion). This Rani Mukherji-Vivek Oberoi starrer about lovers who elope, separate, and reunite is in many ways a predictably sentimental potboiler. There are tears galore, as well as scenes of Rani dancing around trees with dupatta held aloft. But what affected me most about this masala film were its songs. These were composed by A. R. Rahman, with lyrics by Gulzar. The lovers, Aditya and Suhani, are from Hindu families in Bombay. But the song that plays during their period of separation, “Mera Yaar Mila De” (Let Me Meet My Friend), is a Sufi ghazal sung in Urdu and Punjabi by the Pakistani qawwal, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. The longing it describes is not just that of the agitated Aditya, desperately seeking Suhani. It is also the longing of a Sufi devotee searching for khuda or God:

 Banjar hai sab banjar hai hum dhoondhne jab firdaus chale

Teri khoj-talaash mein dekh piya, hum kitne kaale kos chale

Banjar hai sab banjar hai

[Seeking heaven, all I see is this wasteland

How many joyless miles must I travel looking for you?

It’s just wilderness all around]

The song has come to speak to me for a variety of reasons. The Urdu/Hindi word banjar means barren. It is homophonically close, though etymologically unrelated, to the word banjaara, which means nomad but is also sometimes applied to a religious – and specifically a Sufi – pilgrim. The term is never invoked explicitly by the “Mera Yaar Mila De” lyrics. But the ghost of the banjaara haunts the song’s banjar. Together but separated, the two words speak to an emotional experience that typifies masala movies. The wrecked self, in a barren landscape, longs for one from whom she has been violently divided. And that longing prompts a nomadism of the heart, a restless movement across borders.

That movement is performed by the song. For “Mera Yaar Mila De” is a remarkable masala concoction: the spiritual compass points of one religious tradition chart a map of the heart for characters from a supposedly different tradition. The tale of two Indian lovers becomes, in masala fashion, a Hindu-Muslim conversation. But the song is more than that. In Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s achingly wistful delivery, the song expresses its longing in a voice from across the border with Pakistan, recalling a painful experience of separation specific to recent subcontinental history. The cultural mix of Hindu and Muslim is thus complemented by an emotional mix of longing and trauma. Even though Saathiya is set in Bombay, and its soundtrack composed by a Tamilian, Gulzar’s lyrics help create a musical golgappa that belongs specifically to North India.

A masala is a concoction that is tasty and spicy; but it is also literally a mixture. The masala movie’s stories mix tragedy with comedy as well as scenes of dialogue with song-and-dance routines. Its lovers too are mixtures, often coming from different communities. And its sources are equally mixed: there is usually no “original” story in a masala movie, as its narrative is a khichdi of other, earlier stories or formulas. These mixtures speak, in indirect ways, to the plurality of India. But as “Mera Yaar Mila De” suggests, they can also speak to the banjaara’s restlessness in a banjar world, a restlessness that presses her to move across division.

(The masala) sensibility is in one way profoundly realist: in its commitment to mixture, it recognises that India too is mixed. But it also speaks of the longing of the banjaara to cross boundaries designed to ward off the threat of mixture, boundaries produced by violence.

On paper there’s very little about the masala movie that reflects the brutal everyday realities of India. The phrase was devised in the 1980s to describe a certain type of formula film that was supposedly a world away from the socially conscious Hindi movies of earlier decades. This new formula film, associated with directors such as Manmohan Desai, was avowedly escapist. Desai has said that he wanted to take his audiences “into a dream world where there is no poverty, where there are no beggars, where fate is kind.” And the masala movie, it must be conceded, has included many truly ghastly films. They are rife with mindless sexism, vacuous dialoguebaazi, and random song-and-dance routines. All depart from the explicit social engagement of a classic 1950s film like Mother India or a 1970s film like Namak Haraam.

Yet in a sense, the masala movie doesn’t really represent a radical break with the Hindi “socials” that preceded it. The distinctively mixed style of the masala movie is, rather, a consummation of an ethos that has been part of onscreen Indian entertainment for decades – an ethos of everything-and-the-kitchen-sink. High seriousness, low screwball comedy, theatrical dialogue, song-and-dance, characters from many communities speaking a mix of languages: all these ingredients distinguish a sensibility that has defined Hindi cinema for decades. Any film that features both dialogue and song, in a language that is not pure because it includes the trace of other tongues, is already infused with a masala sensibility. No matter how sentimental or escapist or convoluted or chaotic it might seem to be, this sensibility is in one way profoundly realist: in its commitment to mixture, it recognises that India too is mixed. But it also speaks of the longing of the banjaara to cross boundaries designed to ward off the threat of mixture, boundaries produced by violence.

One thing we must always remember about any masala concoction: it often contains ingredients that are unpalatable. Think of the golgappa, to which I have compared the effect of “Mera Yaar Mila De.” One first tastes the crispness of the little puri and the chaat masala inside it, before the fierce heat of the mirchi kicks in, followed by the slightly unsavoury odour of the pudina paani and the sweetness of the tamarind.  It took me quite a while to learn how to enjoy a golgappa. The first time I ate one, I gagged. My palate simply couldn’t reconcile the pleasure of tamarind with the recoil induced by the double whammy of sour mint and hot chili pepper. My taste buds had been too conditioned by the single-tasting snacks of western cuisine. But over time I began to enjoy how a golgappa is a mixed-taste experience that unfolds over time. It is an artful combination of ingredients that cause both pleasure and pain. And the pain of the hot mirchi or the sour pudina pani is not entirely superseded by the pleasure of the other ingredients: what is unpalatable remains as a foundation, a memory that sharpens the impact of the snack.

This is as true of masala entertainment as of masala cuisine. It is true of Saathiya. And it is true of Gulzar’s work in particular. His song for Saathiya is about divided lovers. But so many of his classic films are about people – lovers, friends, family members – who have been divided. It is perhaps no surprise that Gulzar is a keen reader of Shakespeare: so many of his plays, even the happiest, are drenched in the pain of separation. Gulzar has twice adapted Shakespeare’s play The Comedy of Errors, a story of divided twins: first Do Dooni Char (1968), a failed musical comedy, and then Angoor (1981), a critically acclaimed and more serious reworking of Shakespeare’s story. A painful experience haunts Gulzar’s conversations with The Comedy of Errors, an experience that also animates his lyrics for “Mera Yaar Mila De.” And that is the trauma of Partition.

So many of Gulzar’s classic films are about people – lovers, friends, family members – who have been divided. It is perhaps no surprise that Gulzar is a keen reader of Shakespeare: so many of his plays, even the happiest, are drenched in the pain of separation.

Born around 1934 in the village of Deena in what is now Pakistani Punjab, the young Sampooran Singh Kalra witnessed first-hand the cataclysmic events of 1947. The trauma he experienced – which included separation from many members of his Sikh family – has never left him. A compilation of Gulzar’s writings on Partition, Footprints on Zero Line, makes clear how the events of 1947 have profoundly affected his understandings of language, culture, politics, and desire. It is striking how much the themes of his writings on Partition haunt Angoor too. As Gulzar writes in the poem that provided the compilation with its title,

I am back at the Zero Line

My shadow whispers from behind me

When you give up this body

Come back to your home

Your birthplace, your motherland.

The poem’s agonised sense of self-division across a border, its recognition of a shadow that lives in another land to which the narrator is intimately connected, evokes the darkness that haunts the otherwise sunny world of Angoor. Despite the film’s comic pratfalls and hilarious misunderstandings, it also expresses a profound longing for reconciliation between what has been painfully separated. But the reconciliation we witness at the film’s end is not a total union: its twins cannot become one. They remain more-than-one as they embrace, as do Hindu and Muslim, Hindi and Urdu.

The trauma of Partition may belong to a different time and place from Shakespeare’s. Yet his numerous plays about separation and the desires that cross social and geographical divisions uncannily anticipate the emotional topography of post-Partition northern India.

I recently went to see Gulzar talk about his latest novel, tellingly titled Two. A profound meditation on the events of 1947, Gulzar wrote it first in an Urdu peppered with Punjabi and Saraiki, and then translated it into English himself. The cover blurb says: “We were one people. One parted. Now we are two.” For all its epigrammatic simplicity, this blurb could also be a synopsis of The Comedy of Errors and Angoor. In one of Two’s most memorable episodes, Gulzar writes about two friends from the same village, teachers Karam Singh Ji and Fazl Ji, who suddenly and accidentally find themselves – much to their bewilderment and pain – on separate sides of the new border. They are told that they belong to separate countries, even as they protest in vain that they are the same. We might call their story “A Tragedy of Errors.” We might also call it “Do Angoor.” Or even “Mera Yaar Mila De.” This tale, like so much of what Gulzar has written in his films, lyrics, and poems without referring explicitly to Partition, recounts the experience of being uprooted, of negotiating a strange new location, of longing for a loved one from whom one has been divided but who remains integral to the more-than-oneness that is the self. In short, the experience of the banjaara in a banjar world.

At the end of his talk, I asked Gulzar in my halting Hindi whether Angoor was, in its own way, a prequel and a sequel to his belated stories of Partition. Gulzar’s reply, after a long pause:  “Haan. Ekdum. I am very happy you got that message from the film.”

But of course, ekdum. The winds of Partition blow like the Loo through Hindi cinema: so many films post-Independence – like Angoor – tell masala versions of Gulzar’s story of Two. Two who are separated but remain emotionally tethered to each other; Two who are one but also always more-than-one in their languages, their loves, their inexhaustible longings. Shakespeare’s plays express related longings in other keys, in other contexts. The trauma of Partition may belong to a different time and place from Shakespeare’s. Yet his numerous plays about separation and the desires that cross social and geographical divisions uncannily anticipate the emotional topography of post-Partition northern India. Successfully working through trauma often entails not looking directly at its blinding source but, rather, tracing its shadows on the wall. Shakespeare’s own versions of the tale of Two have offered North Indians, particularly Punjabis like Gulzar, some post-traumatic succour.

We might do well to remember that Partition is not a one-off event from 1947. It is happening still. The vivisection of India, as Gandhi put it, continues apace. At a time when Indian Muslims are told by Hindutva rabble-rousers that they are anti-nationals who should move to Pakistan; when Muslims and Dalits suspected of trading in and eating beef are lynched without comment or condemnation from the government; when dreams of a Ram Rajya prompt programmes of “ghar wapsi” on the presumption that all non-Hindus – Muslims, Christians, Dalit converts to other religions – should come “back” to a supposedly original and pure Hinduism; when the rapists of a little Muslim girl are supported by Hindu fundamentalist politicians waving Indian flags; we can see how Gulzar’s childhood experiences of Partition continue to have a ghastly afterlife in this culturally composite subcontinent.

Trauma, personal and collective, may be a crucial part of the masala genealogy of both Shakespeare and Hindi cinema.

Yet the masala movie has repeatedly provided Indians – and their neighbours – with a language for busting Partition in all its forms, past and present. And so has Shakespeare. Let me tell one last story of a desi Comedy of Errors. In 2012, I saw an extraordinary performance of the play in a small Delhi theatre by the Rah-e-Sabz company from Kabul. The script had been translated entirely into Dari, and its story adapted to an Afghan scenario (twins separated by a sandstorm, reunited in the bustling back streets of Kabul). The performance was extraordinary, less for its language (which I couldn’t understand) or the staging (which was rudimentary) than for its mixed audience. This consisted almost equally of Anglophone Dilliwalas who were familiar with Shakespeare and Afghan immigrants, both Dari and Pashto-speaking, who were not. What happened that evening can only be described as a hilarious clash, and then blend, of cultures. As the lights dimmed, many of the Anglophone theatre-goers, including me, settled back in our seats for what we thought would be a night of theatre where we would sit quietly and anonymously in the dark. Yet what we got instead was an evening of raucously convivial interruption, courtesy of the Afghans in the audience. They wandered in and out of the performance, talking noisily with each other – and with us. One good-natured older man did the rounds of the rows while the actors performed, shaking the hands of confused and slightly irritated audience members, thanking us for coming, and asking us – in a heavily-accented mixture of broken Hindi and English – whether we were having a good time. Clearly many of us weren’t. As one wag wryly cracked, “Please, this isn’t a shaadi, uncle.”

And of course it wasn’t. Western conventions of theatre audience etiquette demand codes of restraint and polite anonymity that respect other audience members’ personal space. Yet I think the welcoming uncle got something fundamentally right about the play. Because, in a sense, the occasion was a shaadi. After all, a shaadi is never just about two individuals. It is about the joyous coming together of a mixed group who forge new connections across what has been previously separate. And for these exiles from a shattered country talking to the other members of the audience expressed a series of longed-for family connections: with the home from which they have been separated, with other Afghans from whom they have been divided by reason of ethnicity and language and politics, with Indians to whom they are “foreign” yet with whom they share a Mughal cultural genealogy. Those connections across divisions – so uncannily close to the theme of The Comedy of Errors – differed sharply from the Western audience etiquette of polite individuals segregated from each other in the dark. The noisy Afghans helped create that night an audience who were no longer a collection of individuals but, rather, a masala association. Associating across divisions. Associating across partitions. Mera yaar mila de.

And associating across partitions is exactly what Shakespeare’s plays have occasioned, in the golgappas of their mixed emotions, mixed styles, mixed themes, mixed lineages, and mixed audiences. No wonder Gulzar has been a life-long student of Shakespeare. No wonder he has been able to write uncannily moving lyrics for masala Shakespeare films long after Angoor, as is evidenced by his songs for Vishal Bhardwaj’s trilogy of Shakespeare re-imaginings, Maqbool (Macbeth), Omkara (Othello), and Haider (Hamlet). And no wonder Shakespeare continues to provide the makers of Hindi films and their audiences with new ways of lending voice to specifically subcontinental longings. Even now, in an age of increasing segregation inside and outside the mall-multiplex, masala adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays of separation give voice to powerful longings for a world, and for an India, very different from what we are now reckoning with. Trauma, personal and collective, may be a crucial part of the masala genealogy of both Shakespeare and Hindi cinema. But what beautiful songs of Two – what jugalbandis! Each sings as a result.


One of my earliest memories of Shakespeare is a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Mercury Theatre in Auckland in the 1970s. My recollection of the performance is fuzzy, probably because I understood little of what I was seeing and hearing. But I have a vivid memory of the actors resorting to the plummy, emotionless version of English that New Zealand television news-readers had used at a time when “Home News” was still news from Britain. The actor who played the country bumpkin-turned-ass Nick Bottom, David Weatherley, was a brilliant comic actor with a booming voice and a fine sense of timing; London-born and raised, his Home Counties accent represented an aspirational ideal for his fellow cast members. (It later landed him a bit part in the kid’s TV series Power Rangers: Operation Overdrive as Spencer the Butler.) I learned to think of this accent, rather different from my own, as “Shakespearean”.

In 1977, I was cast as Demetrius in a high school production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I dutifully channelled my inner Prince Charles. Little did it matter that, by contorting my Kiwi mouth and larynx into such outlandish shapes, I understood nothing of what I was saying and completely mutilated what Shakespeare had written. I wasn’t alone. The poor actor playing the trickster fairy Puck, for example, repeatedly stumbled over her Queen Elizabeth-inspired accent and transmuted the play’s last lines, “Give me your hands if we be friends” (5.1.397) into the threatening command, “Give me your friends if we be hands.” I don’t recall the audience obliging our hand-full Puck: the production certainly didn’t gain us any friends. Still, we thought we were presenting Great Art as it should be presented.

Of course, we were also bored witless by the experience. Studying Shakespeare had already become for us the secular equivalent of Sunday school (the name in New Zealand for religious studies, or what in Indian schools is dubiously called Moral Science). Which is to say, it was a dreary requirement designed to instill in us neither love nor understanding but, rather, docile subjection.

Against the odds, I became a scholar of Shakespeare. I owe this development, again, to Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1985, I was cast once more – this time in the bit role of Egeus – in a university production of the play, directed by someone at that point widely regarded as the doyen of Auckland theatre. He had a brilliant eye for an onstage tableau, but he was something of a tyrant and had no compunction about being mean to his actors. He was all the more unanswerable because, despite coming from a small New Zealand city, he upbraided us – referring to himself royally as “one” – in a carefully cultivated upper-class English accent that we were encouraged to emulate in our delivery of Shakespeare’s lines.

Lurking beneath the director’s would-be Englishness, however, was a typically 1970s Age-of-Aquarius-type Orientalism. Like many of Auckland’s actors at that time, our director was a practitioner of an obscure Indonesian form of Islam led by a teacher who had renamed him not Ali or Mohammed but the arrestingly English “Raymond”. Something of this Anglicised Orientalism also shaped Raymond’s interpretation of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Taking his cue from a scene in which the fairy queen Titania reminisces about cavorting with her female attendant in the “spiced Indian air” (2.1.109), he asked us, much to our dismay, to do the fairy world in pan-“Asian” style – casting a very talented actor of Indian origin as Puck, and dressing the fairies in Japanese kabuki robes – even as he insisted that we speak Shakespeare’s lines in upper-class English accents.

On the basis of this experience, I was press-ganged into tutoring the undergraduate Shakespeare course at the University of Auckland. I hadn’t thought of studying Shakespeare at all. But it was an assignment that stuck. And not because I came into my classes with any great love for Shakespeare. My theatrical experience of Midsummer Night’s Dream had, if anything, made me a doubter. My partnership with Shakespeare was, rather, an arranged marriage that slowly led first to an appreciation, and then to love.

...Something else that, for me, is distinctively Indian about Midsummer Night’s Dream – something more conducive to masala than any orientalist fantasy of fairies cavorting in the “spiced Indian air”…is the play’s treatment of walls.

In 1987, I moved to the United Kingdom to do my doctoral studies, in which Shakespeare figured prominently. At the time I thought I was returning to the wellspring not only of Shakespeare’s creative intelligence but also my own: when growing up in New Zealand, the vast majority of my cultural reference points – the novels I read, the plays I saw, the television shows I loved, the music I listened to – were English. In retrospect, my desire to connect with English culture was the legacy not just of growing up in a former British colony. It was also a way of plastering over cracks in my sense of self. I am the child of a mixed marriage; my father is a New Zealander with Anglo-Irish and Huguenot Quaker roots, and my mother, born in Poland to Austrian Jewish parents, grew up in Russia, Palestine, and Israel. I had always felt slightly foreign in all the communities that I could lay claim to: I wasn’t Kiwi enough in the schoolyard, and I wasn’t Jewish enough for the Ichud Habonim youth group I belonged to. Englishness became my aspirational horizon. And so, as my plane descended into Heathrow and I saw the green farmlands below me, I muttered to myself, quoting the title of the D. H. Lawrence novel: England, My England.

That fantasy didn’t last long. During my three years in the UK, I felt deeply alienated. Too often I found my supposed difference, and my Kiwi accent in particular, remarked upon by English people keen to put me in my place. I felt even more foreign than I had in my native New Zealand. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my research ended up being about ideas of the foreign in Shakespeare’s culture: not just foreign migrants like myself, or my parents, but also foreign words, foreign ideas, foreign bodies. And I began to see that Shakespeare’s plays were riddled with foreign elements. Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play that had modelled Englishness for me, suddenly became very alien indeed: Shakespeare had patched his play from various sources, including a French romance about fairies who travel to India, a Greek novel based on a Persian tale about a man transformed into an ass, and a Latin poem about star-crossed lovers from Babylon.

This Shakespeare was not a promulgator of the Pure but of the impure, the plural, the mixed. Midsummer Night’s Dream showcased this for me. The comic scenes in the woods bear the trace of tragedy. The tragic narrative of “Pyramus and Thisbe” is the play’s comic set-piece. Theseus describes this play-within-a-play as “tragical mirth” (5.1.53), and asks: “hot ice and wondrous strange snow./  How shall we find the concord of this discord?” (5.1.55-6) But his question applies equally well to Midsummer Night’s Dream as a whole. The play’s committed blending of opposite genres seems to find embodiment most fully in Theseus himself – the action hero who spends the play waiting idly for his own marriage, the rationalist character from antique legend who does not believe in “antic fables” (5.1.3), the protagonist of Athenian epic who presides over a comic plot that culminates with the performance of a tragedy turned into lamentable farce.

The play’s deep commitment to mixture has resonated with my sense of self. But, since my first visit to India in 2001, it has also related to something else that, for me, is distinctively Indian about Midsummer Night’s Dream – something more conducive to masala than any orientalist fantasy of fairies cavorting in the “spiced Indian air.” And that is the play’s treatment of walls. Walls in much of India, whether in the city or in the village, are not always the impermeable dividers that they are in the dreams of Donald Trump or the Wagah Border authorities. They are often thin membranes separating neighbouring families and communities by a matter of centimetres. As such they are easily breached. Sounds carry through them, leaks spill through them, even the smell of cooking can waft through them. Entities supposed to remain divided from each other – languages, stories, communities, lovers – mingle across walls in an overcrowded nation where many people live cheek by jowl.

I began to see how, in its sources as much as its characters, (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is a colloquy of banjaaras who long to overcome the divisions of a banjar world.

“Wall” is also a character in the play-within-a-play of “Pyramus and Thisbe.” This theatrical Wall, played by the feckless Tom Snout, contains a “chink” through which the lovers can communicate:

… I, one Snout by name, present a wall;
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often very secretly.
This loam, this rough-cast and this stone doth show
That I am that same wall; the truth is so:
And this the cranny is, right and sinister,
Through which the fearful lovers are to whisper. (5.1.151-9)

Wall may divide Pyramus and Thisbe. But in Indian fashion, Wall allows a titillating contact between them through his “chink.” Shakespeare draws a great deal of attention to the material properties of the chink. It isn’t just the means by which the lovers can communicate; creating the chink onstage is clearly also an important piece of theatrical business.

How should the chink be staged? In all the productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream that I have seen, the actor playing Snout playing Wall has followed the stage direction we find in most editions of the play: “[WALL holds up fingers]” (5.1.173). But this direction was added to the text only in the eighteenth century, more than 120 years after the play was first performed.  Teaching Midsummer Night’s Dream in the United States during the 1990s, I became increasingly convinced that Snout isn’t meant to perform the chink in the wall with his fingers. Rather, he does so by forming a cranny with his parted legs, “right and sinister” (5.1.158); “sinister,” after all, is Latin for “left.” In other words, the chink or “crannied hole” forms an inverted V between right and left leg, finding its apex in the actor’s groin and backside. Staging the chink this way can make sense of Thisbe’s remark that “My cherry lips have often kiss’d thy stones,/ Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee” (5.1.184-5). It can also make sense of Theseus’s response to Bottom’s cursing (and presumably physical pounding) of Wall’s “stones” (5.1.176) – “the wall, being sensible, methinks should curse again” (5.1.177-8). These are clearly bawdy double entendres.

When Bottom and Thisbe, crouched on either side of Snout, kiss his anal “vile hole” (5.1.194) and punch his testicular “stones,” something extraordinary – something irreducibly masala – happens. It’s not just that, in the play-within-a-play, we can simultaneously see BOTH the antique upper-class Babylonian characters Pyramus and Thisbe speaking words of tragic love through a wall AND the contemporary English rustic actors Bottom and Flute comically mussing Snout’s private parts. It’s also that Wall, ostensibly a solid marker of division, has now been transformed into its polar opposite. It has become an opportunity for congress between people from rival communities who cannot stay divided, despite the will of their patriarchs: “the wall is down that parted their fathers,” says Bottom (5.1.332-3). These words might remind Bollywood music fans of the rousing anthem from the 2004 Amitabh Bachchan/Sanjay Dutt/Akshaye Khanna-starrer Deewar, “Todenge Deewar Hum” (We Will Break Down the Wall). That film is in many ways a bland patriotic thriller about rescuing Indian prisoners from Pakistan. But as its song title suggests, it is also about tearing down the wall between the two countries. South Asian audiences might hear in Bottom’s “the wall is down that parted their fathers” a reminder of that other wall, willed into existence by British colonial architects and desi political “fathers.” And when Demetrius sarcastically calls Wall “the wittiest partition that ever I heard discourse” (5.1.160), that reminder can turn into a bracing echo. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, partition may be part of the scenery – but it also cannot hold. The ghost of Manto’s Toba Tek Singh haunts this Wall.

Even before I moved to India I had begun to recognise in Midsummer Night’s Dream what I hadn’t seen while approaching it through a fog of Queen’s English: its refusal of set genres, its relentless mixture of different poetic and prose styles, its committed yoking of opposites, its willingness to locate English country bumpkins in a classical Athens whose fairies, a combination of ancient Roman and French and Celtic folk spirits, also gallivant in the “spiced air” of India. But after moving to India I began to recognise too how Midsummer Night’s Dream both refuses every kind of partition, metaphorical as much as physical, and paradoxically needs all these partitions to exist in order to be able to break them down. I began to see how Midsummer Night’s Dream sings “Todenge Deewar Hum.” I began to see how, in its sources as much as its characters, it is a colloquy of banjaaras who long to overcome the divisions of a banjar world.

I began, in short, to recognise Shakespeare’s masala.


Jonathan Gil Harris’s most recent book Masala Shakespeare: How the Bard Became Indian (Aleph, 2018) is now available in book stores.




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