by Shefali Rao
My first introduction to Shakespeare was when I was eight years old. I was in Chennai at my grandparents’ place for the summer and I, being the true-blue Bangalore girl that I was, grumbled incessantly about the sultry heat. To escape it, but mostly to put an end to my whining, my cousins carted me along for the ultimate indulgence – a Bollywood flick. The title eludes me now but I recall that it had a convoluted plot, with a hero and a heroine who were not meant to be. I remember one of my older cousins, in the throes of adolescence and all the trials and tribulations that accompanied it, sniffling as tears streamed down her face. Her brother had laughed at her as we exited the cinema hall.
“This one always cries. Give her any Romeo and Juliet-type story and she acts like her own boyfriend has died,” he’d chuckled.
“What is Romeo and Juliet?” I had asked.
My question was lost in the argument that sprung up between the heads above me about whether or not this said boyfriend existed. It was only answered by my grandmother when we returned later that evening, summarized in the briefest of ways because between juggling all of us and cooking dinner, there was no time for knowledge.
“Romeo and Juliet? Greatest love story of all time, written by Shakespeare … you know Shakespeare? No? They teach you nothing at that school of yours. He was the greatest writer of all time,” she told me, every literary figure since the 1600s being tossed away like the skins of the potatoes she was peeling.
And that was my first brush with the man himself.
For a while after that, I only had the briefest of encounters with him. I would occasionally spot him in the dusty stacks of the school library, come across an ad in the newspaper about one of his plays being performed somewhere in the city, or hear a stray reference to one of his works. He flitted in and out of my head, without ever finding a permanent place in it. My mind only had spots for Enid Blyton’s tales of magic and mystery and then as I grew older, Arthur Conan Doyle’s of suspense. Somewhere along the line, it started to become obvious to me that I would have to make him a part of my life soon enough, but I resisted for absolutely as long as I could – in any case, I was never one of those girls who fell in love with the most popular boy in class. Shakespeare was literature’s Prince Charming. But of course, it was drilled into me, time and again, that I would have to, at some point, make space for him in my life.
“Yamini, child, come here. What is your favorite subject in class? Science? Math?” My parents’ friends and acquaintances would ask me.
“English,” I would reply defiantly, “I want to be a writer.”
Their faces would fall and my parents would be prepared to swoop in, as always. “She doesn’t want to study science and it doesn’t really matter to us. We just want her to be happy, really,” they would say, their words precariously hanging on the edges of a liberal outlook. The receivers of this news would be baffled – how could they allow happiness?
“But then … there is law, no?” A thick, awkward silence would follow and the friends’ faces would scrunch up, trying to find a solution in this alternate universe they had been subjected to. “Oh, Shakespeare, is it … she likes Shakespeare.” And their simpering smiles would crease their faces once again, having made peace with this foregone conclusion.
It was only during high school that he moved in with me. We had to study Julius Caesar and so, a glossy little edition – I still remember it was an Oxford Press copy – made its home in my bookshelf. I read it and was bored to death. Brutus was my hero, because he brought the play to a swift end. While most of me struggled with the text, one tiny part was happy with the victory of attaching a concrete reason to a dislike that had had no basis up until that point.
“Why do you hate the guy so much?” Madhav asked me one day. He was a gangly boy from my class who wore large glasses despite his small face. He also happened to live down the road from me, so walking back home from the bus stop had become a routine that we had eased into over the year.
I kicked a stone and tried to find an intellectually stimulating answer.
“Because he’s boring,” I replied.
“You’re boring sometimes,” Madhav said, jumping just in time to avoid the next stone aimed in his direction.
The next year, we had to study Richard III. If there was a play that bored me more than Julius Caesar, it was this. I couldn’t get past the first act. To me, it seemed like a barrage of monologues strung together by a thin thread on which my interest hung quite unsteadily. Mostly, I chose not to read it, until I answered too many questions in class and Madhav sniffed out my ignorance.
“You read the abridged version,” he stated on our walk back.
He looked at me.
“Fine, maybe, yes.”
By this time, we had graduated to hanging out beyond the sole realm of the bus-stop-home route, and he knew me better than anyone else. Our friends teased us on occasion but I was glad that hadn’t deterred him from walking me home every day.
“It’s a pretty cool story Yamini, you should give it a chance,” was his reply.
“What? That a king killed another guy to become king and then everyone dies? Yeah, because I’ve never heard that one before. I mean I get it, okay, I get that his work is universal,” I said, pausing to mimic our often dramatic teacher, “it’s absolutely remarkable how he cuts across time, and space, and boundaries, and everything in between.”
Madhav just smiled, so I went on. “You want to become an engineer! You don’t even have to worry about this. Everyone just expects me to like Shakespeare because I want to study English. It’s unfair.”
“Correction – I have to become an engineer, I don’t necessarily want to. I would gladly study Shakespeare if I could. That’s unfair,” he replied testily.
Madhav’s parents, a genial couple who were generally as relaxed on most matters as my own, were significantly more conservative when it came to careers, and their son had to go down one of the quintessential Indian paths, that was a given. It had been a toss-up between becoming a doctor or an engineer.
“Well … you’re always going on about how you like physics more than biology anyway,” I attempted weakly and just to seal my apology, I linked my arm with his the rest of the way back home.
College happened to us the year after that; in 2003, I went to Bombay to study literature in English and Madhav went to Manipal to study electrical engineering. I was fascinated by the big, beautiful city that had fuelled the stories woven by Vikram Chandra and Rohinton Mistry. Indian writing in English sucked me in like nothing had before and I had no time for Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Mumbai University did, and it had penciled enough sonnets and plays into its syllabus to last its inmates a lifetime.
“Romeo and Juliet is the world’s worst love story,” I told Madhav on the phone one night, curled up on a couch with The Bard in one corner of the pokey little flat I was sharing that year with another girl.
“Why are you whispering? You hating William isn’t a secret. I feel like you might actually be obsessed with him, you know.” We were obviously on a first-name basis with him at this point.
I sighed. “Funny. My roommate is fast asleep.”
“Ah. So why is it the world’s worst love story?” I could hear the amusement in his voice.
“Two teenagers – barely that, Juliet is what, 13? They fall in love and three days later – three days, Madhav – they get married. Then everybody dies because of their silly infatuation. I really don’t think schools should be advocating this rubbish.”
“I think it’s more like five days,” he corrected me.
“Again, how is it that I’m studying him and you’re the fanboy?”
I heard a chuckle. “Meera and you would not get along, Romeo and Juliet is her favourite film of all time.”
I frowned. “Who’s Meera?” I asked. Before he could answer, I added, “And the film isn’t the same thing as the play.”
“Oof, so defensive. She’s this classmate of mine … she’s pretty amazing, you should meet her when you come to Manipal,” he offered.
“Maybe you could come to Bombay first. Why should I come to Manipal?”
There was silence and I could hear the faint sound of an ambulance in the background.
“Do you like her?” I asked childishly, trying unsuccessfully to scratch out a murky stain on the couch.
“No… No. She’s just really nice and that’s all there is to it.”
One month later, they were dating.
I met them back at home during the winter break of 2005. Fortunately for Madhav and unfortunately for me, Meera was a Bangalore girl too. I saw very little of him that December; the first instance he managed to make time for me, he asked if she could tag along as well.
“I need your help figuring out a student loan. Won’t she get bored?” I asked. I had decided I would apply to colleges in the UK the following year, for my Master’s.
Madhav insisted she would be more than happy to help me figure out my options.
We met at the IBA Bank branch near Brigade Road and as we strolled through signs telling us why we needed home loans, car loans, education loans and personal loans, I could see why Madhav had chosen to describe her like that; “really nice” was, in fact, all there was to her. She was pretty and had a tinkling laugh that was directed towards almost anything he said. I found myself hoping that this would turn out to be a trial-and-error situation. However, suddenly in between, she surprised me with, “The famous Yamini … so I finally get to meet Madhav’s best friend.” Back then, I liked to believe I didn’t believe in best friends, but for that one line, I forgave her niceness.
It disappeared soon after, when we met Mr. Ganesh Prasad, the bank’s employee of the month. After the particulars of the loan were discussed, came the much dreaded question.
“Madam, I hope I have answered all your questions. But which course are you going to do? MBA?” came the rehearsed question.
Even medicine, engineering and law were not fashionable by then, with the marketing sharks slicing through the sea of education.
“An MA.” The silence that ensued prodded me along. “In English.”
A haze of uncertainty clouded Ganesh’s face. I waited patiently for it to clear in a scene that had been enacted in this play numerous times before.
Bang on cue, William sauntered onto stage with a flourish.
“Oh, Shakespeare!” exclaimed Ganesh, his discolored teeth forming a wide smile of understanding.
Madhav started laughing and even I had to smile.
“Yes, Shakespeare, but I also study other writers.”
Ganesh didn’t care. “But madam, here you have indicated you want the loan to cover the expenses for a laptop too. For English, madam, surely you do not need a fancy laptop. Get a basic one. Anyway you are only reading, is it not?” he said, his nasal voice heavily coated with a curious blend of sympathy and superiority.
“You’re right, I write my assignments with a quill,” I said, only guaranteeing a snort from Madhav and an uncomfortable smile from his girlfriend.
“I’m going to look at other banks as well,” I said as we exited the building.
“Really? Don’t be stupid. It is what it is. Don’t let William ruin this for you,” teased Madhav. When that elicited no reaction, he added, “Also, you know, I hope Ganesh Prasad has a daughter who goes on to do a BA, not a BSc …”
“Son,” I interjected, trying to hide a grin, “far more traumatizing.”
“Fine, a son. Who studies fine art,” replied Madhav.
“Confused between fine art and philosophy,” I picked up, thoroughly enjoying the future of this imaginary boy. “Oh, maybe he has his heart set on art, but then because of peer pressure – as if – he switches to philosophy. Or English. The perfect trifecta of unmarketable majors. No, wait! He decides to exclusively study Sanskrit.”
We both looked at each other and doubled up with laughter. I’d almost forgotten Meera was there until she quietly ventured into our petty cursing.
“I don’t understand why you guys are making so much fun of him. He only asked if you’re going to read a lot, which is kind of true … isn’t it?”
It was and it wasn’t; in that moment, I had no inclination to enlighten her about it.
I never had to, either. Madhav and Meera broke up shortly after I left India, a little over a year after our trip to the bank. “It’s just not easy to be around her, you know? She’s a little too uptight sometimes,” he said. I did know, never telling him that I had known all along, inexplicably happy and as a result, secretly so. My plans to go abroad, with a loan in hand no doubt, did finally materialize. I chose to go to the University of Leeds to pursue postcolonial literary and cultural studies, and so, left my life at home behind me. My one year away was a refreshing change and when I wasn’t falling in love with Chinua Achebe and Salman Rushdie, I was falling in love with everyone and everything around me coated with the glossy sheen of academia. Of course, I saw William’s face frequently enough – no English department can claim authenticity without at least one poster of The Bard – but my course of study steered clear of him. I had never been closer to Stratford-upon-Avon, and possibly never further away from Shakespeare.
It was a liberating experience to do exactly what I felt like. Now that I had “gone abroad”, my parents’ judge-friends were happy, I was told (“Oh Yamini is in the UK? Very good, very good”), and because I was so susceptible to love, I also became infatuated with a beautiful Australian named Luke. He was in the same program as I was, had gorgeous, curly brown hair and a deep voice that I harbored an almost unhealthy fondness for.
“So what you’re saying is you like his accent,” Madhav said to me over the gurgling static of one of our expensive and in effect, infrequent calls to each other.
I laughed. “He does have a great accent.”
“Don’t waste your love on someone who doesn’t value it,” Madhav said in a mock serious tone.
“Really? That sounds like something straight out of Romeo and Juliet. And he values it, thankyouverymuch,” I replied.
“So you’re saying you love him?” he snickered, a question I dignified with “Whatever.”
There we were, two children who had never really grown up and didn’t really know how to anymore, around each other.
“Ah, don’t worry, I’m sure he values your well-placed affection. And what are you two going to do when you have to come back home?” he asked.
“Who says I am going to come back home?” I retorted.
I wasn’t sure if the static grew louder or if Madhav grew fainter, but I remember the rest of the conversation being swallowed up somewhere in between all that distance.
It was only towards the end of my first semester at Leeds that something strange happened. A discussion cropped up among my classmates about Bollywood, and someone mentioned Maqbool. I had heard of the film by Vishal Bharadwaj, based on Bombay’s underworld, only a few years old at that point. I knew it was a critically acclaimed one, but nothing beyond that. I certainly didn’t know it was based on Macbeth.
“She wouldn’t know. Shakespeare,” Luke had offered by way of explanation on my behalf, when a close circle of friends had asked me about it.
Not even his lilting accent could shake off the surprising annoyance that his dismissive statement had caused. Madhav was the only person who was allowed to judge me about Shakespeare. I downloaded it the very second I got home.
The only thing that surprised me even more than the irritation of Luke’s statement, was how immeasurably moved I was by the film. The weekend after that, I found myself re-reading Macbeth. And then I read it again. And again. And again.
Hamlet and Othello were next on the agenda, followed by various cinematic adaptations of the play. I don’t know if it was Macbeth’s guilt, Hamlet’s indecision, Othello’s jealousy or a combination of all three, but the next semester, when I saw the course offerings, I decided to audit a class on Shakespeare. Of course, I absolutely wouldn’t allow myself to officially enroll in it – I was still clinging on desperately to the childish opinions of my 15-year-old self, and so, I could reconcile with auditing one.
I sat through every class, increasingly making more space in my life for a man who had always been around. Professor Robbins, a wonderfully dramatic woman who taught the course, would meet me after class and ask me, “Have you fallen in love yet?” I smiled, scared to answer that question, scared of committing myself to anything.
And then we read Romeo and Juliet. I remember she laughed when I pointed out, now feeling slightly foolish, that they were far too young and hasty. “You never can decide, though, can you?” she asked me and then, looking at my puzzled frown, she continued, “When it’ll happen! It’s what makes it such a classic,” she said, sighing deeply.
That evening, I called Madhav, cradling a bottle of vodka and a tattered copy of the play in one hand, and the phone in the other.
“The world was right. He’s amazing. He’s pretty fucking universal,” I declared.
“Yamini, if you’re talking about your boyfriend, I’m not even sure I want to know what that means,” Madhav replied, only half-laughing.
“No. William. Keep up,” I said.
“Are you drunk?”
“A little, but that’s not the point. The point is Madhav – the point is – I feel stupid. I watched his films and I cried.”
“He wrote plays, Yamini. Remember?” Madhav gently reminded me.
“The plays. The films. The everything. Maybe I just needed to see them performed? Maybe my issue was with the text? I don’t know, but I love him. Maybe I knew all along and … and still never knew it. Maybe,” I paused for this sudden idea to form, “maybe … I should have become a Shakespearean scholar. I would have been so good at it.”
“Okay, I feel like I don’t know what’s happening, but I do know I want to say I told you so. Come back home so I can laugh at you in person … I miss you.”
As the familiarity of his voice enveloped me, seeping through me, going all the way to my toes, I sat up straighter, my throat suddenly constricted. “Madhav …”
But I couldn’t answer. I could never tell him that through this hazy mix of realization and inebriation, I knew with a forceful certainty just how much I missed him, how easy it was to be with him and how much I wanted to see that smile that I could feel at the other end.
William would have to be enough for now.