I can be wooed fairly easily. Give me good food and pleasant company, and you’ll already be at the halfway point down the alleyway to my heart. A Brimful of Asha, performed by Ravi and Asha Jain, evidently knows I’m not the only one with a soft spot for these basic comforts. The show is suffused with warmth, both for the audience and within the performers’ exchanges. So that takes care of the ‘pleasant company’ part of the equation. The ‘good food’ bit comes in the form of tray after tray of samosas liberally laced with fennel seeds and folded in crisp pastry.
It’s intended as ‘feel good’ in a genuine way; devoid of cynicism and interested only in transmitting the same message as the graffiti I spotted alongside the tracks outside Paddington Station last week: It’ll all be OK. A part of this positivity comes from the fact that the Jain family story did work out OK. Without bowing entirely to ‘no spoilers please’ pressure, the show discusses and partially re-enacts past events, ones that resolved with a Happily Ever After. And even if they hadn’t, the fact the mother-and-son duo are touring a show around the globe that charmingly and comically examines them makes clear that these are not especially raw wounds.
The basic plot concerns how Ravi’s parents tried to get him to have an arranged marriage. Along with the specifics of Ravi’s experience, the particulars of arranged marriages within their culture are detailed. Two huge binders of data sheets for eligible Indian women are produced, each one bulging with the marriage résumés sent in response to the advert Asha placed in a newspaper seeking a daughter-in-law. I use that term deliberately. A Brimful of Asha makes clear to what degree the attempted arranged marriage is, as they say, a family affair. It is less about finding a soul mate for Ravi, and more about lineage, tradition and culture. This is where the problem is. Ravi doesn’t want to be wooed by an accepted, time honoured formula. He wants more than that.
In some respects, the grounding of the discord between Ravi and his parents in an arranged marriage is insignificant. The major focus here is on intergenerational disagreements and how underneath the bickering is a basic commitment to loving and caring for one another. To this end, there are almost as many one-liners directed at Ravi’s choice of profession (acting), as there are his decision to avoid marrying in the manner his parents wanted.
This is particularly true given that the subject of arranged marriage isn’t really interrogated – perhaps suggesting that the secret to familial harmony is often a mutual commitment ‘not to go there’ with inflammatory topics. I wonder, for instance, if the outcome for Ravi would have been different if he had been a daughter. Asha’s own story states that saying no to an arranged marriage was not an option for her. Likewise, the basic belief underwriting the exchanges, “I only do this because I love you”, comes with a sharp edge. For every situation like Ravi’s where that sentiment is a largely benign one, there are others where it’s used to justify much more acute hurt or violence.
There are also other facets to this story that are brushed up upon but not developed further. One of the most illuminating is the revelation that Ravi and Asha feel equally, but in different ways, exposed to pressures from their two cultures – Indian and Canadian. Both are trying to keep everyone happy, to balance their own desires with the expectations of other people. The decision to opt for compromise and conciliation isn’t easy to argue against, but the anarchist inside me kept wondering what would happen if either of them decided to really opt out of the system, to really just do exactly as they pleased.
Perhaps the reason they don’t is that they love one another. Asha’s constant interjections to Ravi’s story are more in the league of teasing than genuine criticism or nagging. In their eye contact and the way they move around each other, there’s a communication of comfort, familiarity and that basic acceptance of another person’s way of being. Drill into it as a piece of theatre and A Brimful of Asha feels a bit slight. But what it lacks in directness of argument, it makes up for in heart. There’s the savoury snacks, but there’s also a whole lot of sweetness on stage.
A Brimful of Asha was on at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol. Click here for more details.