Anosh Irani's Bombay Black bares talons of fate

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      When Anosh Irani was a boy in India, he used to feed meat to eagles from his family’s apartment balcony. Speaking in the upstairs lobby of the Granville Island Stage—where his newest play, Bombay Black, runs until March 15—the 33-year-old playwright remembers: “We used to live in a third-floor apartment in Bombay. Once, my mother was cleaning a large piece of meat on the balcony and this huge eagle swooped down and just took it from her hands. After that, my father would stand with me on the balcony and we’d feed all species of meat to the eagles. It was not the most sensible thing to do, but it was like a sport. I loved cricket, but this was even more exciting.” In Bombay Black, offering meat to eagles becomes an image of revenge.

      Irani remembers when the story first began to reveal itself to him. “It started out as an image of a young, beautiful woman performing an erotic dance in an apartment by the sea in Bombay,” he says. “There was a blind man in the shadows and at once I asked myself, ”˜Why is a blind man watching a woman dance?’ And then I felt the eerie presence of a third character, and I realized that it was Padma, the young woman’s mother.”

      Padma became the primary force of vengeance in Bombay Black. “As soon as I knew that Padma had a secret, I knew that I had a play,” Irani recalls. Like the playwright and his father, Padma offers meat to eagles from her balcony. Her secret is that she is scheming to murder her husband and feed him to the birds.

      Bombay Black is a tale of incest. When Apsara, the dancer from the playwright’s first image, was a young child, she was married to a boy named Kamal, although she only remembers that event as a disturbing dream. The first touch of Apsara’s hand blinded Kamal and he shows up as an adult to “watch” her perform because he wants his sight back. By that time, Apsara is dancing for money in a kind of hands-off prostitution, and her mother Padma is pimping for her, using her to lure her husband, who repeatedly raped Apsara when she was little.

      According to its author, Bombay Black is about the futility of retribution. “The person who is seeking revenge may think that they are being very clear, or that justice is being done,” Irani explains, “but actually they are harming themselves.”¦Padma thinks that she is very powerful, but she is drowning in her own venom.” And although she pretends to be seeking repayment for the harm done to Apsara, she really wants to soothe her own agony. “He preferred the daughter to her,” Irani says. “I think that was the deepest humiliation.”

      Padma uses Apsara’s trauma to control her. In an effort to get Apsara to stop seeing Kamal, Padma says, “When you kiss Kamal, you will taste your father’s tongue.” When Apsara tries to escape participation in her mother’s murderous plot, Padma holds meat next to Apsara’s cheek and threatens to let the eagles tear her face off.

      In his lack of bitterness over his blinding, Kamal provides a compassionate alternative to Padma’s rage, and, through Kamal, the imagination is revealed as means through which the mind can mend itself. Early in their adult friendship, he invites her to step onto a building and ride it out to sea with him. Later, he asks her to join him in a magical carriage. “I believe that a story has a power to transform you,” Irani says. “It’s also possible to redream your own story. Kamal says in the play, ”˜Darkness is a blank slate. Draw what you want on it.’ ”

      Bombay Black is being seen here in a production that was first mounted in 2006 by Cahoots Theatre Projects in association with Nightswimming theatre company in Toronto, where it won four Dora Mavor Moore awards, including recognition as outstanding new play. In NOW magazine, critic Karen Pedersen wrote that the show is about “the optimism of love against all odds”. But Apsara is named after a celestial being, a water nymph who dances for the gods, and her last speech reveals something of her divine and dangerously paradoxical nature. When Kamal declares his devotion to her, she replies, “I will step on your red thumping heart, and all that love will ooze like blood, and my mouth will water because that’s what I was born to do.”

      Irani insists that, rather than making a threat, Apsara is being honest about her own changeability—and about the uncertainty of existence. “My plays and novels never have happy endings,” he says. “A spark of hope, in this world, is extremely optimistic.” And he believes that tales should not be tied up too tightly. “The right ending is really not an ending,” he maintains.

      In his mind, the story goes on, and he says that he finds himself wondering what happens to the characters from Bombay Black after the time frame of the play. In his still-active imagination, Padma dies without her rage to feed on. The eagles return to the balcony, but there is no one left to feed them.