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?