I’m in a busy corridor somewhere in a massive office complex, vaguely situated among the carparks of zone 3. Aditi Brennan Kapil is on the phone, probably sitting a quiet room at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. I’ve sent her an email with a list of topics that came to my mind while reading her play The Chronicles of Kalki and I’m wondering if she got it. “YES,” she says animatedly, “you and me are gonna have some BIG conversations.”
There’s one particular scene in The Chronicles of Kalki that I really want to unpack with Aditi. The play tells the story of two nameless teenage girls who in turn are telling the story of their friend, Kalki, to the policeman who initially appears to be investigating her disappearance. Both girls have different memories of the same person and their versions come to light through flashbacks.
In one scene, Kalki, the new girl at school – who can often be “really nice, and then suddenly just… an asshole” – asks her friend whom she’s nicknamed Fresh Meat, if she wants to be “fucked or devoured?” The line comes during a scene of high energy, much confusion and burgeoning sexuality. It’s also sandwiched between accusations and warnings. “I think it would be a valuable insight into your psyche” Kalki pushes, “You want to be fucked or devoured?”
It’s an aggressive question. Confident and challenging, designed to stir things up within the girl to whom she’s talking. Coming from Kalki, an immigrant in a new community, now charging through her fresh surroundings, it’s almost definitely not just about sex. I want to know what the difference is between getting fucked and devoured culturally. Aditi mulls it over.
She grew up mixed-race in Scandinavia – a “brown kid in a blonde world,” as she puts it – before moving to America for university. “Growing up Indian and Bulgarian in Sweden,” she begins, there’s this feeling of displacement and so much wondering. Wondering things like can I call myself Indian? What is my way into that heritage?”
Although raised in an atheist household, it was her father’s somewhat dubious retellings of stories from Hindu mythology that gave Aditi that route into her heritage culture and the idea for Displaced Hindu Gods, the trilogy that The Chronicles of Kalki belongs to. Exploring the stories of Brahman, Shiv and Vishnu, Aditi marches back through their legends to consider what they might mean for different people at different times in their lives.
All of her re-imaginings turn her gods into immigrants. Brahman, the creator god, becomes Brahman/i, an intersex comedian whose personal journey into the world of stand-up includes observations on cultural colonisation. Shiv, based on a God who destroys for the purposes of rebirth, looks at the relationship between a father and daughter selling T-shirts at a gig; while The Chronicles of Kalki, inspired by Vishnu the sustainer, hones in on the ways we survive adolescence in a coming of age story about three girls.
This act of looking back to move forward she tells me, is about the need to re-think our stories as individuals and as collectives. “All humans have to re-mythologise,” she says matter-of-factly, “especially immigrants because we’re not at the roots of these stories anymore. Physically, we’re not there anymore. We have to reinvent who we are in our new context.”
When Kalki, the final reincarnation of Vishnu, arrives in her new context, she’s met by two angsty teenagers, both socially awkward and still figuring themselves out. “I feel like Kalki is on some level a manifestation of what those girls needed at that moment” explains Aditi, “she is sexually confident, fearless, brave and these elements are in those girls, but they’re not fully functioning yet. Womaness gets cleaned up a lot in our cultures but it is all kinds of complex.” Kalki embodies the “dirty, ragged feminism that runs through the play” and Aditi talks about re-thinking this religious, historical realm of feminism as a way for women to reclaim the identities of deities and symbols constructed within centuries of patriarchal authority.
“You know, we are clinical and careful about how we handle deities in a way that doesn’t speak to me. Maybe the gods of a patriarchal society just don’t work for me,” she says, “the idea that a god can be summoned by a sweaty girl getting her period and thinking about running away, THAT works for me.”
Throughout The Chronicles of Kalki, a play about making it through the onslaught of puberty, the process of evolution that Aditi describes, is about survival. “Religion that refuses to evolve runs the risk of becoming obsolete” Aditi concludes, “it’s not so much for me about going back and holding on, it’s about carrying with you what came before as you move forward.”
Considering this, is the fucked or devoured question a warning? “In some ways. I think if you wait around for someone to count your ass, your ass is just going to be colonised. But when I think about being devoured, I think more about the psychological residue of post-colonialism, the idea that we can internalise certain things about ourselves. Now, a fuck, a good fuck, is a meeting of two equals that results in something new.”
Catherine Love’s review of The Chronicles of Kalki.
The Chronicles of Kalki is at the Gate Theatre, London, until the 31st January 2015.