We are the world

Ajay Joshi
Saturday, 1 June 2019

An account of seeing the non-touristy side of America and getting inspired by the various  impressive theatre movements that took place across the nation

Ever since I received the much-awaited letter from the Fulbright, confirming my selection to this prestigious fellowship, my excitement knew no bounds. But the journey to US was a real roller-coaster ride. Right from having my e-mail hacked into prior to my departure, which wiped off three years of crucial correspondence, having miscalculated my luggage restrictions and compelled to buy an additional bag at Mumbai airport, to finding that my freshly made bank ATM card showed attempts of withdrawal by someone in Somalia— I went through it all. Thanks to the vigilant bank staffers, I was spared the unpleasantness of my precious dollars being syphoned off and I finally took off. 

On landing at the airport, a pleasant surprise awaited us. We received a letter from the White House, signed by none other than the President of the USA himself, welcoming us scholars to America. The feelings were beyond expression.

At the Rutgers University, where I went to teach my course on theatre, I was introduced to the well-oiled machinery of RIGSA (Rutgers Indian Graduate Students Association) which is a lifeline of the freshers. Run by students, it caters to all needs of the newcomers, instructing them on the dos and don’ts. The collective cultural exchange gives a sense of being a part of a large family.

I slowly settled into the daily routine of teaching, faculty meetings, administrative work and my calendar started filling up. I collaborated with departments of acting, playwriting, costume design, etc, who were interested in Indian theatre. I even gave a demonstration of saree draping in the costume department.

On most weekends, I took a 40-minute train ride from my University in New Brunswick, to take in the glitz and glamour of New York and its theatre. I was also fascinated to be introduced to a local theatre group in East Brunswick called Indian Cultural Society (ICS, est in 1999). It has been doing Hindi theatre for many years, catering to the NRIs. I got involved in one production of Rakta Phera by Mahesh Dattani, conducting post-production interactions, something ICS had never done before. 

Through the four months that I spent in the continent, I got to see theatre beyond Broadway— in the alleys, parking spaces, basements, tunnels which dealt with varied topics and took interesting forms and presentations. 

While there, I was fortunate to receive invites from universities in Oklahoma, Cleveland MS, South bend and U Mass, under a programme of the Fulbright called OTF (Outreach Teaching Fund). 

Apart from lecturing and sharing thoughts on Indian politics, gender, theatre, caste, class etc, I managed to sneak out to catch the back alleys of America too. Many things left a permanent mark on my mind including a visit to the Oklahoma bombing site which snuffed the life of toddlers, a trip to the residence of civil rights activist Medger Evers and getting to know the civil rights movement in Cleveland, a chance to listen to heart-wrenching stories of the wrongful abduction, torture and murder of 14 year old Emmett Till which shook that country, visits to museums which have captured the period of slavery in America, an opportunity to hold a class for students of marginalised communities on the outskirts of New York on ‘Child Labour In India’. Experiencing impressive theatre movements like the Double-Edge theatre in Amherst, The American Players’ theatre in Madison, the Civic Theatre for the marginalised in South Bend, The Que Viva Chicano Park movement in San Diego, the Students rebellion in Delta University with the emergence of their Mascot — the okra, the biography of Sojourn Truth and many more from the backyard — was extremely insightful. 

I also experienced the astonishing Amish and Mennonite settlements who have shunned modernity. They live a simple lifestyle, travelling in horse-driven buggies and eating home grown food. Understanding their life and philosophy was experiential travel at its best. 

Alongside this, I indulged in some nature activities too. I basked in the fall colours of Amherst, soaked in the first snow flurry in South Bend and went apple picking in the orchards of New York.  

Overall, the Fulbright experience was beyond my imagination. I was sucked into the nooks and corners of a different, non-touristy America, into the lives of its people and homes, sharing their joys and sorrows. 

On my return, when I started introspecting, I felt that something within me had transformed. I now feel more sensitive to the issues facing the world, the challenges that are encountered and overcome, the rich legacy and heritage that humanity has been endowed with, to nurture and foster. There may be differences of opinions and varied approaches to problems, but at the bottom of it all is the realisation that we are all a big family, a global family, grappling in our own ways to find the path forward.

(The writer is a Fulbright fellow who will write about his experiences in the US in this series every Sunday)

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