Coffee, tea or money?

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The bitter dregs of  Chinese Coffee are served with saucy soupçons of hilarity and a thick slice of reflection, says Aditi Saxton

With friends like these Aamir Bashir and Danish Hussain in Chinese Coffee
With friends like these Aamir Bashir and Danish Hussain in Chinese Coffee

IS NOT specifically wanting anything the same as having a diffuse desire for everything? Two friends, both down and out but in different degrees of straitened circumstance get into a spat. Ostensibly about money, their bickering moves in a familiar groove, well-worn as the coat Harvinder flings to the floor in frustration. Harry (Aamir Bashir) is a Punjabi novelist who has passed the age of 44 and has Rs 62 to show for it. He’s owed a considerable if hopelessly incalculable sum by his buddy Yaqub (Danish Husain), a photographer, older, more worldly. Harry is willing to waive the interest, even the principal of the thing, if only Yaqub will offer an assessment of his latest manuscript.

‘If only’ is the idée fixe for both. Floundering in past decisions not to compromise their integral selves, they’ve found their grand stand is a series of far more belittling concessions. As their concatenated lives teeter, Harry longs for Yaqub’s plush past as Yaqub hankers after the promise of Harry’s present.

Harry is done in to desperation, and he’s written almost as caricature — a hypochondriac addicted to tranquilisers that he loses down a drain in his eagerness to get at them, the misfit who can’t even fulfill the fairly limited function of doorman at a chic French restaurant. Bashir plays him as ingénue, a word insipidly bandied in the play but suited (if not genderwise) to his high-cheeked colour, his confused conflation of sciatica with heart disease, his flibbertigibbets of inconsequential detail. If his punctuation in Punjabi is effete, that’s to be expected of any son of the soil with a foot planted in Proust. Yaqub is determined by his posturing. He visibly swells as he delivers damning rants but his eyes have a sibilant slide, signalling an awareness of easy evasions. Even as he urges Harry to squeeze guilt like gold from an ex-girlfriend who has moved onward and upward, he turns his back on his shame at accepting handouts for sexual favours from his own ex. Husain in a droopy dressing gown and shuffling hotel slippers manages all the prepossession of Bogart in a white dinner jacket and shares that sad inevitability of foreseen loss.

Husain and Bashir were slightly miffed they couldn’t smoke when reprising their roles recently. It’s funny since smoking must be the least incendiary bit of Husain’s version of Ira Lewis’ play. Getting the rights to tweak a script set in 1982 Chinatown, Manhattan for present-day India was a tangled scramble. Understandably so, since Chinese Coffee is a poem parading as play, a funereal elegy to creativity on the occasion of its death by Mammon. As Harvinder enters Yaqub’s apartment, the door shuts on the world outside. The dramatic devolution over 80 odd minutes is done by dialogue. A protracted tirade by Yaqub is cut by Harry’s brief, “But you’re describing yourself.” There is much wit in Lewis’ play, but stacked as an edifice of words it scales its own highs, pointing out its agility.

The really revolutionary spark of the play is in its rewrite. When the actors lit cigarettes at the first staging some bodies made the usual noises, a drone of legalese on fire hazards, couched as a sermon on modern society, with a statutory-health-warning finger wag. Husain’s adaptation has a riff on the authenticity of Nihari at Jama Masjid nicely tempered with Delhi-belly jokes. Gags like the one about a certain son-in-law in the news and a vicious skewering of persistent Golf Links via Gurgaon tropes get the giggles. Without those comic cues, the pathos of the play could have been a drone, a cautionary tale on the tolls of the life artistic, a ham handed admonishment on sustained self involvement. Instead it’s light, it singes, it’s smokin’.

Chinese Coffee will be at the Gurgaon Utsav, 2 November

Aditi Saxton is Features Editor, Tehelka.
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