This post is going to seem pointless and meandering. Like a crazy summer bee, it will buzz around, dipping into the graphic arts, whizzing distractedly through what might be called, if one were inclined to be polite about it, a poem, humming alongside a few photographs, and then finally fizzling to a close in a thicket of prose and Shakespearean verse.
However, I assure you, that there is a message in the madness. A purpose to the perambulations. A reason for the rhymes, a goal for the graphics.
I’m sorry. I get absorbed by alliterations at times.
This is an ode to my home, Harlem. I know what you’re thinking. Harlem? She’s going to be shot dead any day! We knew she was crazy, but not so crazy as to live in the Crime Capital of the Universe! She should just cut her losses and leave! To that I say, to borrow a byline from a bordering borough, Brooklyn (that will be the last of the alliterations, I promise),
So just relax, and allow me to take you on a merry romp through psychology, history, literature and more; running through the narrative is a glittering thread that stitches together South India and Harlem.
I will begin with a graphic representation of how people react when I tell them I live in Harlem. This is, loosely speaking, the psychology part.
And now for some history and poetry, all wrapped up as one.
Sit back dear readers, put your feet up,
While through a quick history of the world I gallop,
My story will link together east and west,
With a saga of spices, greed and conquest.
The world in the 1600s was an exciting place,
As European nations embarked on a race
To grab the fabled riches of the East,
Oh, many were the people who fleeced, many were the palms that were greased!
Holland was one of these nations,
That was drawn to the wealth of the Asians,
A tiny country that lies low,
Its power and glory it longed to grow.
Its ships it sent to the Indian coasts
Along the Coromandel and the Malabar it set up its outposts
From there the Dutch traded in textiles and spice,
That they sold for many times the original price.
Many were the Dutchmen who grew rich and fat
From the enormous profits the spice trade begat
But alas the silk merchants of Haarlem came close to a collapse
The cheap prices of India were their death traps.
As matters heated up the Dutch found the competition intense,
As England, Portugal, France, spared no expense
In their race to establish their colonial niches,
From whence they could capture a wealth of riches.
And so, desiring to give themselves an edge,
They believed the sweet words of Henry Hudson who gave them a pledge
That he would find a passage to the Indies via a north-westerly way,
In his ship the Half Moon he set out with no further delay.
Now let me race ahead several years,
While the Dutch expanded their frontiers,
To the island of Manhattan they laid claim,
Under their rule, Nieuw Amsterdam was its name.
Peter Stuyvesant who governed this land,
Proposed a settlement further upland,
Nieuw Haarlem was the name given to this place remote
That people reached by wagon road or boat.
Nieuw Haarlem was fertile and green,
Compared to the filth of lower Manhattan it was expansive and clean
With its vast skies, open spaces and farms,
More and more people started living there, smitten by its charms.
But then the winds of history changed their course,
The English defeated the Dutch by force
New York became Nieuw Amsterdam’s new name,
And Nieuw Haarlem, as Harlem, grew in fame.
Now let me leap over a large span of time,
To when the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were in their prime
In Harlem were built lovely homes of brownstone,
For these, to this day, it is well-known.
The early 20th century saw Harlem full of Italians and Jews
Some of them were brilliant and made the news,
Among them was Richard Rodgers of Sound of Music fame,
Today in Harlem there is an outdoor amphitheater that bears his name.
Then came Marcus Garvey whose mantra was black power and pride,
Now, a park named for him across Fifth Avenue does bestride,
There was the great Harlem Renaissance with its flowering of art,
But then after the Great Depression, alas, things fell apart.
Life everywhere goes through cycles of boom and bust,
Things teeter and wobble but then they adjust,
So it is too with jazzy Harlem,
For its music and culture, beauty and light, it truly is a gem.
So dear readers, that was a history of Harlem in a nutshell,
And you can see how South India fits in well
Into this tapestry that weaves together both my homes new and old,
Both of them beautiful, both as precious as gold.
I have lived in Harlem for nearly two years now and my love and enthusiasm for the place have only grown. Life moves here at a more calm, relaxed pace, compared to the frenetic, stress-filled madness of the Manhattan south of here. People take the time to greet each other and there is a sense of neighborliness and community (something that I discover on a daily basis thanks to Roger). The streets and avenues are broad and there is an impression of abundant space and light that serve to highlight the lovely brownstones all around.
And there is culture! Right behind my building is a park, the Marcus Garvey Park, and right in the middle of that park is an almost-new open-air amphitheater, the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater. And in that amphitheater, for the past two weeks, there has been, every evening, a production by The Classical Theatre of Harlem of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Free, and without any of the hassles or all-night vigils or serpentine ticket-procuring methods of its bigger, bolder, richer, world-famous, more established older sibling, Shakespeare in the Other Park.
This play, one of the most beloved of Shakespeare's comedies, was my introduction to the Bard of Avon, the very first of his plays that I learned, way, way back when I was in the eighth standard in Madras. My teacher, Mrs. Rosario, had suspiciously large flaws in her knowledge of history and geography, but when it came to English literature and Shakespeare, she more than redeemed herself by bringing the play to life and equipping us for life with the keys that unlocked the mysteries of Shakespeare and his often unfathomable conceits.
And so it was with a sense of heightened anticipation and excitement that I went to watch the play a few days back. I had already enjoyed a preview, watching different stages of the play in rehearsals during Roger's nightly walks, and was eager to watch it in one piece, from beginning to end. I would be reliving childhood memories, and I would be watching a unique, Harlem-spiced version of the play: the posters advertising the play promised, "Shakespeare Comes to Harlem, Harlem comes to Shakespeare!"
Oh, the play was such a delight to watch, with the fresh, zesty, zippy and spirited flavors that are so evocative of Harlem. There were colorful costumes, lots of glitter and sparkles and body paint. The beginning of the play was vaguely reminiscent of The Lion King, with rhythmic "African" chanting and drumming, a birnbaum player and sinuous dance movements. And then there was an abrupt switch to the meter and syntax of Shakespeare as the story plunged into the hilariously convoluted twists and turns of love of Titania and Oberon, Hermia and Lysander (who in this production, in a nod to a currently much-talked about issue, same-sex marriage, is Lysandra, a woman!) and Helena and Demetrius. Titania, the Fairy Queen, has a bevy of beautiful spirits who serve her and enchant the audience with their graceful dancing and kaleidoscopic costumes. The play also features a company of actors who are preparing a play for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, played here by a group of comically bumbling fellows dressed in a ragtag assortment of street clothes - a security staffperson's uniform; a baseball hat worn backwards; a rastafarian durag; basketball shorts, slung low. They were loud, rambunctious, full of fun and life, just like Harlem itself.
With its chest-thumping and fist-bumping, its bow to the traditions of Broadway, Gospel, Latino and pan-African music and rhythms, this Harlem-inspired interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream was fresh and funny, unpretentious and spontaneous. Shakespeare's timeless words, born on a sceptered isle some 400 years ago, were reborn a world away as they floated through the warm night borne aloft the lilting cadences of the Caribbean, the rhythmic pulse of Africa, the warm drawl of black America. My pride in Harlem grew and swelled that night.
I will finish with a little-known fact about A Midsummer Night's Dream. It has a connection to India - very likely south India! - in the form of a changeling, a little Indian prince, a character who has no spoken lines, but who has a vital role in setting off the series of events that make up the play . Titania, the Fairy Queen, is besotted with this little Indian boy and never lets him out of her sight, and this enrages her husband, Oberon and ignites his jealousy. In the words of Puck, Oberon's faithful henchman:
For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,
Because that she as her attendant hath
A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king;
She never had so sweet a changeling;
And jealous Oberon would have the child
Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild;
But she perforce withholds the loved boy,
Crowns him with flowers and makes him all her joy.
Titania has her own reasons for her refusal to part with the little boy, whose mother, her friend, died in childbirth:
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip'd by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh'd to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind.
The spiced Indian air! The embarked traders on the flood, the big-bellied sails! India, that exotic treasure chest of spices and gold, that country flowing with milk and honey, loomed large in the imagination of Shakespearean England, from where traders and adventurers were starting to make their way to the land that would become the jewel in their crown. And surely the spiced nights, the ships with the big-bellied sails, must have been in one of the coastal towns of southern India!
Oberon's blind jealousy of the little Indian boy (who in this production was made an African boy!) provokes him into enlisting Puck's help in gathering the magical purple flowers whose juice, squeezed onto the eyes of unsuspecting sleepers, causes them to fall madly in love with the first thing they set eyes upon when they awaken. You can well imagine the confusion and turmoil:
For aught that I could ever read, could ever hear by tale or history, the course of true love never did run smooth.
But of course, it all gets sorted out. And that's it for today, dear readers. I will close with Puck's closing words:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.