This being at some moments a piece of non-fiction, at others a radio play and at yet others a comic strip in prose, Father, one of its four principal dramatis personae, feels that the title is incomplete without a colon. Othello Sucks, colon, and then an apposite phrase from Shakespeare’s play.
The radio play starts with Younger Daughter at dinner spitting out the title without looking up from reading her mobile phone. No one responds. Othello sucks does not even register with either Mother or Elder Daughter.
Chomp chomp slurp slurp gas. Father is in four minds. He does not want to be distracted from his khichuri with meatballs or his meditations on his indigestion or his plans on what to take in his tiffin tomorrow. Yet not to respond to a cry for help would be churlish; Younger Daughter would then flounce back to her room and slam the door shut so hard on her family that it would once more bring down plaster from the ceiling; in a chain reaction, the trembling of the entire building would in turn trigger the frenzied barking of the three Great Danes in the apartment two floors above.
Thus Father, airily: Well, who doesn’t, in this world?
Prompting from Younger Daughter a torrent: Well, if it’s English, no one in class can follow it. ‘Ay you did wish that I would make her turn. / Sir, she can turn, and turn, and yet go on / And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep; / And she’s obedient; as you say, obedient, / Very obedient –’ The lines sound like gobbledegook so you read the notes and learn that ‘turn’ also means ‘pursue sexual encounters’ and ‘obedient’ also means ‘sexually pliant’. So then the lines make sense but big deal it simply isn’t worth the effort! And the boys go around saying, ‘Miss Miss make me your obedient servant.’ You dig deep for all that meaning and all you come up with is a potato and I have a class test tomorrow on it and I’ll fail and I won’t get an Excellence Award this year!
Noises off of plaster falling while Mother, coldly: How competitive you’ve made them.
And Elder Daughter, in a daze, as though remembering 11 September: I had The Merchant of Venice. In not more than five hundred words, explain which of the gold, silver and lead caskets you find the most screamingly boring. Compared to that, a retarded black guy who sucks is a rock concert.
Whose bright idea is it to subject the children in this day and age and clime and country to Shakespeare? is an issue that Father has raised at several parent–teacher meetings. He’d thought that the school, being a good right-wing south Delhi Punjabi institution, would be receptive but it has turned out to be as deaf as the regulars around the dining table at home. But he has persevered: Shakespeare is not on the Central Board exam syllabus, then why the hell? I mean, do we want them as adults to speak in iambic pentameter when they apply for internships to CNN–IBN? No. Grammatically correct and lucid English, that’s what we want. Think Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.
Indefatigable Mrs Dasgupta the Language Skills Teacher in response suggests that he come and give a talk to the senior classes on ‘Which English Do We Want to Learn? The Relevance of Shakespeare to India in the Twenty-First Century’.
She is renowned, says Elder Daughter, for roping in parents to lessen her own work. She sucks.
At the thought of Father performing in front of her classmates, Younger Daughter stops going to school. No one notices. She also begins to be markedly absent from the dining table. Her three-hour karaoke sessions in the bathroom, however, continue. Father begins reading up for his lecture and is soon an irritable wreck.
For beneath his own babble, he is actually shocked by how dull and dim-witted he finds Othello the personality to be. And pompous. Pompous and dull and dim-witted, because he is black. That is what Shakespeare has made him out to be. How could any reader ignore that?
The bugger is as embarrassing, he tells the bathroom mirror while flossing, as Hurree Jamset Ram Singh. And about as funny. But one is black and the other brown. Same thing. Noble princes both, one beggar merely duskier than the other. Or is it me? Am I just rereading the play at the wrong time and is it meant for younger people of another country?
O thou dull Moor. Am I sure I know exactly what a Moor is? Abebe Bikila isn’t a Moor is he? And Anwar Sadat but not Kenneth Kaunda is that it?
Berbers! Mauretanians! shrieks Younger Daughter in response over the music and through the shut doors of her bathroom and her bedroom. Including Mauritanians!
No one reacts. The cat continues to doze on the tea cosy at the centre of the dining table and Mother to inspect the screen of her laptop and curse the Internet service provider. After a moment, Elder Daughter elaborates with a smirk: There’s a black guy in her class whom I think she has a crush on. That’s how she knows the little that she knows.
Into the conversation at the dining table, enter Cheikh Luigi Fall.
He is seventeen, tall, dark and handsome, one half Mauritanian, a quarter Italian, a quarter Turk. He is perfectly bilingual in Italian and French and claims fluency in Arabic and English. He is popular among his classmates in part because his English is a rich source of amusement for them. They envy him because he is exempt from Hindi and wanders off to the computer lab to surf while their heads ache and rock and reel over Tulsidas and Chhayavaad and Nirala. In a school – and nation – obsessed with cricket, he is terrific at football. To break the ice, the girls ask him what he’s doing with them. He confusedly explains that he’s there because they arrived at the wrong time of year and that after some months he hopes to move to the American school.
He is completely tranquil, as meditative as the Gandhara Buddha, during Othello. Leave alone Shakespeare, he can’t follow a word of Mrs Dasgupta’s English.
Younger Daughter in fact is bemused to learn that for a large, underprivileged section of the globe, Shakespeare is not the first thing that comes to mind on hearing the word Othello. Cheikh, for instance, on grasping that his class devotes one session per week to the play, is puzzled; his brow furrows – rather attractively, thinks Younger Daughter – as he asks: Verdi? Are we going to listen in class to Verdi?
Two days pass before Mother says: Enough is enough. Why have you stopped going to school?
Younger Daughter does not look up from her mobile phone but in the slouch of her shoulders can be detected the crouch of a cornered feline. Her elder sister, smirking out of nervousness, responds on her behalf: There’s been a bit of an Incident.
Exactly how black is Othello, ma’am? Would he be darker than you? is what Lamborghini has asked Mrs Dasgupta right at the beginning of class.
Everyone shuts up. It was so silent, recounts Younger Daughter, that you could hear Lamborghini’s Tag Heuer ticking.
Wow, says Father. I imagine that Bengal’s sable daughter was not amused.
It was horrible, continues Younger Daughter happily. We are studying Othello, said Mrs Dasgupta, because our own society is one of the most racist and skin-conscious in the world. There were tears in her eyes.
He’s horrible too, comments Mother, that Lamborghini. No one in our time would’ve dared to say that to a teacher even in his or her wildest imaginings.
Younger Daughter waves her mother’s time and her imaginings into the chicken curry. She then looks down at her mobile phone for inspiration to compose a case for the defence. He’s been overlooked for Head Boy and he’s sure it’s Mrs Dasgupta’s fault. At the teachers’ council meeting apparently it was she who said that there should be a Head Girl this year because we’ve had a Head Boy three years running.
Aha, exclaims Father, Hell hath no fury like a man overlooked. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m going to say in my lecture. Othello is about Iago. He is unjustly overlooked for promotion and so something snaps in his head. He has to be surrounded by dullards so that he can work his revenge out in a couple of hours. The rest is . . . noise.
No one pays him any attention. The only thing nice about Lamborghini, muses Elder Daughter, is his wealth.
Lamborghini drives one even though he is underage. His family has no Indian car other than a Maruti Esteem that the servants use to go to the market. Younger Daughter’s parents do not know his real name. They don’t care. They become aware that such a being walks and drives on the face of the earth when a huge scarlet head-turning thing scrunches to a stop one evening outside the gates of the house. Younger Daughter, who has the hearing of a canine for things that matter, registers the arrival of the car through the music and the two shut doors, and within eighteen seconds is gliding out through the front door when:
Just where, asks Mother, do you think you’re going wearing those clothes?
Mumble mumble, says Younger Daughter.
Is he playing the chauffeur in a getaway car that he can’t come in to say hello to us?
Embarrassed, scowling and in a foul mood, Younger Daughter exits and re-enters some moments later accompanied by something large. Mumble mumble, says Lamborghini.
The worser welcome! says Father. I have charged thee not to haunt about my doors. In honest plainness thou has heard me say / My daughter is not for thee. And now, in madness, / Being full of supper and distemp’ring draughts, / Upon malicious knavery dost thou come / To start my quiet.
No one speaks. The family members look horrified and Lamborghini frightened. Plaster falls as Younger Daughter, softly moaning in shame at having the parents she has, rushes off to change into something less revealing.
Lamborghini, who at the age of seventeen has made a reservation, is taking Younger Daughter out to dinner at the Taj Machaan.
The nerve. She has to have dinner at home. The maid’s cooked. Carrot and beetroot soup. Full of vitamins. You want to stay too?
Do lunch. Why don’t the two of you do lunch outdoors on a sunny day? Vitamins. Our daughters are petrified of the sun for fear they’ll turn black. You too?
Lamborghini is more pale yellow than fair, a shade that would look rather nice, notes Father, on an expensive car. Mrs Dasgupta’s complexion actually would look even nicer, like an advertisement for Belgian chocolate with 72 per cent cacao in it. Only Cheikh though is thinking of all the chocolate that he can’t find in India as the class holds its collective breath while waiting for Mrs Dasgupta to throw Lamborghini out for saying what he has just said.
She doesn’t have to. Without even mumbling anything, Lamborghini himself stumbles out of the room, down the stairs, across Assembly Quadrangle, out the gates and into the waiting Toyota Lexus. The guards at the gate stop their game of cards to stand up and salute his wealth. They don’t do that for every student.
He hasn’t been back in class since, concludes Younger Daughter impressively.
And so? What does his lack of breeding have to do with your truancy?
Younger Daughter waves her mother’s question into the sprouted moong dal and garlic fry. But that is not the only one left unanswered. No one in school has replied for instance to Lamborghini’s question either. Exactly how black is Othello, ma’am?
It is Cheikh who, surfing the web in the computer lab, returns with the responses of history’s well-known men.
Pretty black, is the answer, and not particularly pretty, for it is not Othello’s stupidity that disturbs Samuel Taylor Coleridge but his blackness. ‘It would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable Negro.’ Ditto Charles Lamb: there is ‘something extremely revolting in the courtship and wedded caresses of Othello and Desdemona’. Neither critic is disturbed by the fundamental assumption of the play that Othello is dumb because he is black.
Nor is Elder Daughter. Desdemona is even dumber, she snorts. I mean, Desdemona really sucks. They’re made for each other, so what’s the problem? No one in fact is sorry to see her strangled. It does improve the play.
It is again Cheikh who points out in class that white audiences being disturbed by Othello’s blackness was – is – will be – a global phenomenon. He quotes Stendhal recounting an incident that occurred in the August of 1822: ‘Last year, the soldier standing guard at the interior of the theatre in Baltimore, seeing Othello who, in the fifth act of the tragedy of that name, was going to kill Desdemona, cried out: “It will never be said that in my presence a damned black would kill a white woman.” At that moment the soldier fired his gun and broke the arm of the actor who played Othello.’
Playing Othello therefore has proved dangerous for some white actors even when they, for a protective shield, have painted themselves blacker than jet.
And exactly how black do they consider Othello to be? Here is Laurence Olivier in his autobiography dated 1986: ‘Black all over my body, Max Factor 2880, then a lighter brown, then Negro No 2, a stronger brown. Brown on black to give a rich mahogany. Then the great trick: that glorious half yard of chiffon with which I polished myself all over until I shone . . . The lips blueberry, the tight curled wig, the white of the eyes whiter than ever, and the black, black sheen that covered my flesh and bones, glistening in the dressing-room lights . . . I am Othello.’
Or Enid Blyton’s Mr Golly. A tragic golliwog given to histrionics and hyperbole, an old black ram, a Barbary horse who, gullible and garrulous, murders an innocent woman and then commits suicide. Well, why not? Even golliwogs have souls. Being black, a lot of soul.
Mrs Dasgupta unfortunately is not impressed with that line of argument. The parents bump into her when they are summoned to school to discuss with the Principal Younger Daughter’s means of transport between home and school and back again. Discussions around the dining table at home, round in shape, it may be added, have revealed that for the past two months, Younger Daughter has been dutifully waving to Father and boarding the school bus in the morning but hopping off it before the first teacher gets on at the next stop; she, however, arrives in school in the Lamborghini well before the bus. It is a comfortable and powerful car and she can unwind in it properly over her morning cigarette.
If she gets thrown out, says Mother, I’m packing up, getting a transfer and taking them with me away from this foul city.
Father doesn’t argue. They prefer to bicker in front of the children, firmly believing that hearing the verbal duels of their parents helps in their mental development, giving them metaphors and turns of phrase that they would otherwise have taken a decade to make their own. Elder Daughter for instance, ever since her second term in nursery, has peppered her exchanges with ‘bootlicker’ and ‘asshole’.
You want to go on ahead, asks Father, hoping against hope, and seduce the Principal while I chat to Madam Ma Kali about my views on the Moor of Venice?
Father is annoyed to learn that Mrs Dasgupta has practically forgotten her invitation to him to talk to the senior classes about Shakespeare.
Oh . . . I didn’t know you were that keen . . . we’ll have to see about a slot . . . Saturday seems possible but I can see the children not being enthused at having to come in on a holiday to listen to your radical views on Othello . . . They love the play, you know.
Suddenly they are surrounded by a dozen noisy children, all at once overwhelmed by the youthfulness of youth. The students are all talking at the same time and squeaking excitedly about nothing of interest to anyone else. They turn out to be Younger Daughter’s classmates on their way to an elocution class in the open air. Mother recognizes some of them. Good morning, Auntie! Hello, Uncle! The elders smile at their youth. It is infectious. One girl, with eyes more sparkling and a manner saucier than those of the others, asks Father: What happened at the Principal’s, Uncle?
Father prepares to mumble a reply but is tongue-tied, suddenly, by how old he feels in their presence. The boys seem so lithe and . . . uncaring of their bodies and the girls so . . . so in bloom that he feels creaky, musty, disjointed, as fragile and yellowed as a page of an unopened classic.
They don’t fortunately need an answer, for just then, the tall North African boy at the back, realizing whose parents they are, greets Mother and Father with: Good morning, Mrs _ and Good morning, Mr _ . His classmates, laughing and shrieking, pounce upon him with quotations from Othello: We don’t say that here, you erring barbarian, we say Auntie and Uncle because all humanity is one hopelessly enormous Hindu joint family!
Villain, adds Father, half recovering, that was most heathenish and most gross.
What you know, you know, sir, responds Cheikh in an accent that – like those of the others – falls far short of that imaginary Shakespearean ideal; a European accent his is – unlike those of the others – of one who has grown up in a world wherein English barely appeared on his radar, who has experienced it en passant as the language of Hollywood and North America. From this time forth I never will speak word.
Amid the laughter, O dear, says Father to himself, for he notes that Cheikh is green-eyed.
In his talk to the students that Mrs Dasgupta has not found the time for, Father has planned to devote some space to the green-eyed monster. For decades he has known Act Three Scene Three – the great temptation scene – by heart, and has recited chunks of it to himself the way his contemporaries sing Kishore Kumar and Blind Faith in the shower. O beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on. To Father, the Othello music is more melodious than the most irrepressibly peppy Hindi film hit or any epochal rock anthem. But the intensity of his love for that euphony is secret because he has always felt it to be freaky, absurd, so out of place as to be an embarrassment. Shakespeare is white and his audience is white, and don’t you forget it. For two centuries he has been used as a whitening agent for the colonial mind – bleaching powder, if you will; read him as white, for the poet of all humanity is fiction and does not exist; black Othello sucks because the Bard behind him is white.
The Principal is fair, affable, huge, hairy. Mother is annoyed that he and Father spend the first quarter-hour chatting about the good old days at St Stephen’s College. That is not what she has taken half a day’s leave from the office for. And then suddenly the googly:
And is your daughter ha ha smoking your brand of cigarette? Wills Navy Cut, wasn’t it?
Ha ha ha, responds Father, not ready to be outdone, I don’t know, we haven’t smoked together yet.
The issue is complicated. Younger Daughter is in the running for Head Girl but they cannot have a Head Girl who smokes.
The issue is simple, argues Father at the dining table. Puff away to death after you’ve left school, what’s the problem?
She can’t stop smoking, slips in Elder Daughter, because Lamborghini has just gifted her an entire carton of Silk Cut as a pre-birthday present. When he kills her, he can then become Head Boy. It is much cooler though to smoke than to be Head Girl.
She doesn’t want to waste the remaining two thousand cigarettes, adds Mother in a tone of ice. Those are your miserly genes.
In India, females who smoke are morally loose, you know that, returns Father to the attack. They smoke, they wear skirts and elope at midnight with some most unsuitable weirdo.
That’s not me, counters Younger Daughter, shrieking, en route to slamming two doors and setting off once more the Great Danes in the building. That’s Desdemona!
With whom all the girls of the class have a problem. They find Act One to be fun because here’s this obviously kinky Venetian chick doing a moonlight flit with some old and ugly ram, some army type. I mean, how freaky is that? To them, the real tragedy of the play is twofold: one, how Desdemona so rapidly descends from kinky chick with a mind of her own to dumb dame, silly and passive and – oof ! – so dull. And then secondly, it is simply dreadful how all those horrible males in the play continually refer to all the females as whores and Shakespeare does fuck all to dispel the impression that Venice has of women. I’faith and zounds, ma’am, but the Bard of Othello is an MCP.
To wind up then, a coda. Or in the words of Iago in Act Three Scene Three, Scan this thing no further, leave it to time.
And to wind up then, one by one the loose ends. Father gets so entangled in the Shakespeare industry, in the critical biographies, the scholarly monographs, textual variations, performance histories, the post-colonial discourses that he never finishes preparing his paper. At the dining table, he is appropriately embarrassed to learn from Younger Daughter that it has been two weeks since the class has finished Othello and moved on to How to Win Friends and Influence People; not surprisingly, the class as one has begun to pine for sweet Desdemona, the blacker devil and honest, honest Iago.
The loose ends continued. Snigdha is chosen Head Girl. She is a horrendous tart, elaborates an outraged Elder Daughter. Younger Daughter smokes thirty cigarettes in two days and stops all other activities except for breathing. This can’t go on forever, says Mother’s SMS to her after two days.
Wait and see, responds Younger Daughter after another two days.
Nirbhaya Bhavah, advises Father, feeling multilingual. No one is sure whom the advice is for.
Leave it to time, says Iago. It is thus a week later that Father, in the car on the way back from work, hits upon the title for a paper that he will never deliver. Othello Sucks, colon, The Pity of It Iago for It Is Your Play. Father is delighted; Shakespeare, however, is obliterated from his head even before he has parked in front of the house. The lights in all the rooms are on and the music so loud that no passer-by fails to glance up at the windows. The Great Danes, more attuned to postmodern rock ’n’ rap, frenziedly bark their disapproval like fans booing at a concert. Father has the impression that the mad woman who owns them has placed before their muzzles the microphone of a public address system.
He cannot immediately place the music. That is not saying very much. At the front door, with some of the wonder of Alexander Fleming examining his blue mould and its penicillin, he says to himself: But it’s opera. He rings the doorbell fourteen times. He searches for his house keys. Italian opera.
Chi è là? Otello?
Father opens the door and is physically engulfed by sound. His eardrums hum and he can actually feel it tingling his skin. He is certain that Younger Daughter has hanged herself out of depression, her lack of vitamins and her love of bloody drama, and Verdi is her way of saying arrivederci. Mother in front of her laptop and Elder Daughter before her iPad are both at the dining table. Father is sure that they are asking Google what to do when a near and dear one hangs herself.
Elder Daughter sees him. She is beaming with joy and mischief. Communication is possible only by means of SMS, email or sign language. She SMSs Father: Guess who gifted her the Verdi CD?
He couldn’t care less. He SMSs back: Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn. How can we stop the music?
Reading his mind, Younger Daughter presses a button in the bathroom. The silence is shocking; it feels like kilos of winter clothing being shed all at once, clouds lifting, like freedom, as though one could stretch one’s limbs again in the warm sun. The dogs, flummoxed, remain open-mouthed and dumb for a whole day.
She wants to know, says Mother, if she can go out for dinner. I’ve said yes but she has to ask you too.
Father feels the presence of Younger Daughter behind him. He turns. He hasn’t seen her for a day and a half. Beneath her bandanna, her face is radiant, almost unrecognizable.
It suits you, that rag on your head.
Cheikh wants to take me out to dinner. We’ve made a reservation. Younger Daughter is blushing with joy.
The bandanna is Cheikh’s first gift, a silk handkerchief, spotted with strawberries; the silk is from Egypt.
Oh, says Father, so what is the plot for the evening? You lose the handkerchief, he goes on and on and on about monumental alabaster and Promethean heat; when you can’t take it any more, Heaven have mercy on me, you moan, then he strangles you?
Your daughter has made arrangements for any eventuality, says Mother in a voice so dry that the cat on the tea cosy twitches her right ear in appreciation.
At least he doesn’t smoke, points out Elder Daughter. And if they have children, their skins will have more melanin to better absorb ultraviolet light.
Sure, go ahead, have fun, says Father. But who’s ‘we’ in ‘made a reservation’?
Lamborghini of course. A threesome. She just loves that car.
Artwork © Noé Sendas, Crystal Girl no 80, 2010, Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery, London