By Sharon Simonson
In the end, Sunita Sen sought simplicity in her existence that being an immigrant denied her. It was too much to digest—the cloying richness of American life on top of nearly 250 years of colonial rule.
The lead character in the 2000 play “Chaos Theory” by American-educated Indian playwright Anuvab Pal, Sen has just been offered a full scholarship to attend Harvard University when the play’s action begins in 1965. It is less than 20 years after India’s independence from Britain. Sen anticipates the intellectual permissiveness of American academia with glee.
“I think I’m looking for something,” she tells her love interest Mukesh “Muk” (then later “Michael”) Singh, in New Delhi in the days before she leaves. “American universities are great—all this freedom, everything open to interpretations that breed other interpretations,” she says.
“Wow! Sounds like you’ll be pretty busy interpreting,” Mukesh replies, at once sarcastic and unwittingly prescient. By the end of the tale 35 years later, Sen has wearied of so many possibilities and is unmoored and without an identity.
The Bay Area’s EnActe Arts and Indian-American producer, director and actress Vinita Sud Belani bring “Chaos Theory” to Cubberly Community Theater in Palo Alto. As Asian-Indian migration to the United States accelerates, particularly to the Bay Area, the play’s exploration of what it means to be an Indian in America resonates.
“I thought … about a story about two immigrants that isn’t about economic survival but intellectual survival,” 39-year-old Pal said in an email interview from Mumbai, where he lives with his wife. He travels to the United States annually to perform and soak up the vibe. “They have these ideas from their colonial upbringing, and they are in their new homeland. Yet, it isn’t really their culture; it’s an Anglicized version of it. So how do they manage? What is authentic? And what is home?
“Also they love each other and can’t say it, so there’s that.”
Pal was raised in Calcutta (like Mukesh). His parents remain there. He attended Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, near Columbus, then moved to New York City. He wrote “Chaos Theory” at age 25, having just departed a romantic relationship and the university. The main characters are academics and intellectuals living in Boston and New York. Their uncomfortable love triangle opens room for comic relief. Pal declines to say how much of the story is autobiographical.
The play has been produced more than 250 times at theaters across New York City as well as in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Toronto, Dubai and India. Belani chose to produce it in Palo Alto after reading about it in “Beyond Bollywood and Broadway: Plays from the South Asian Diaspora.” The 2009 collection of 11 plays from writers in North America, South Africa and the United Kingdom was edited by Neilesh Bose, now at the University of Victoria, Canada, a specialist in modern South Asian history and colonial India.
“I know these characters really, really well,” Belani said. “I grew up in post-colonial chaos in a city founded by the British. I grew up talking about British literature and now I ask myself, ‘Why was I not studying the Indian classics?’ But the more British you were, the better you were, not only in the eyes of the British but in the eyes of other Indians, long after the British had left.”
Founded in 2012, EnActe specializes in the theater of cultural overlap expressed by South Asian and diaspora playwrights treating topics such as history, arts, politics and life experience. Pal and “Chaos Theory” epitomize the conception: a South Asian writer “with an overlay of another culture in (his) voice and the issues (he talks) about,” Belani said. India has the second-largest diaspora of any country on earth with more than 28 million people of India citizenship or heritage living outside the nation’s borders, according to the latest estimates from India’s Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs.
Belani established the non-profit to create an American platform to nurture South Asian performance and technical talent to present theater relevant to today. Many people in the region are already working to bring “pure” Asian and South Asian plays written by Indians, Chinese, Thais and others. “Where are they doing a play about their current lives in the Bay Area? It doesn’t exist,” Belani said.
The actual chaos theory (popularized in the American imagination by the 1993 film “Jurassic Park”) is the mathematics of prediction of dynamic systems, the weather being an oft-cited example. So far, mathematics has failed to predict the long-term behavior of such complex systems reliably.
If Pal can be said to favor a medium, it would have to be plays. He has written seven of them. But alongside them, he has penned four novels, two films and two stand-up comedy specials in which he also performs. They are the hardest, he says. He likes the idea of bringing a new project to the public every year or so and selects the medium based on the nature of the artistic conception. He is working now on a Bollywood film he wrote several years ago that is set at Cambridge University in Cambridge, U.K., but shooting in Glasgow, Scotland.
“That’s what makes (Shakespeare) a great playwright,” Mukesh tells Sunita near the end of “Chaos Theory.”
“His ability to write a good sex scene?” Sunita replies.
“No, to leave it open to many interpretations even after all these years,” Mukesh says.
“Too many interpretations, sir, too many,” Sunita says. “Chaos.
“Tell me, Mukesh, what do you really know?”
“Chaos Theory” By Anuvab Pal
Oct. 9, Oct. 10, Oct. 11
Cubberley Community Theater, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, Calif.
Puneet as Mukesh “Michael” Singh
Vinita Sud Belani as Sunita Sen
Anurag Mairal, as Amit Holkar
Lauren Ackerly as Elizabeth O’Malley, Victoria Henderson
Niranjan Page as Young Mukesh
Jasleen Pelia-Lurzleer as Young Sunita
Eric Scilley as Erik Dakar
Emielyn Das as Shelly Batliwallah
Abhishek Sharma as Viraj Kumar
Emielyn Das, Aalap Desai, live vocals
Director: Vinita Sud Belani
Stage Manager: Pratiksha Shah
Sets: Reshma Dave
Media Designer: David Murakami
Music and Sound: Aalap Desai, Shekhar Hemnani
Costumes and Props: Geeta Rai
Lights: Meghna Singhal
Makeup and Hair: Ruby Walia
Photography: Prabhakar Subrahmanyam
Dramturgy: Geeta Rai, Prabhakar Subrahmanyam
Marketing: Neha Ranavat, Ashvee Kanwar, YuMee Jang, Geetika Jain, Sanjay Sharma