“Life isn’t easy, Chaya … but you have to believe in it.” – Pyassa, by Anusree Roy
Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) opened its remount of Anusree Roy’s Dora award-winning one-woman play Pyaasa in the Backspace last night. Directed by Thomas Morgan Jones and originally produced in 2008 to sold-out houses, the Pyaasa remount is part of TPM’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Play Series, which will feature one remount per season until 2018.
Born into an Untouchable family, 11-year-old Chaya lives with her parents in a leaky tent under a bridge; both parents work cleaning toilets – her mother in people’s homes and her father at the local police station. Longing to go to school, Chaya works on her times tables while her mother paves the path for her future. A higher caste servant in a home where her mother works has a son who runs a tea shop, and Chaya’s mother secures a position for her there: cleaning tea cups in exchange for tea and some food – a move that proves to be life-changing for Chaya.
Roy is spell-binding, shifting adeptly between characters, her posture and facial expressions specific and unmistakable for each character she assumes. Chaya’s mother, bent from work; submissive and ingratiating with higher caste persons, but a feisty fighter for her family and in the long line for the communal water pump. The haughty higher caste servant, clenched and tight-lipped – and wary of being touched even by the shadow of an Untouchable. As Chaya, Roy is a delight; a bubbly, bright and inquisitive tween with an unquenchable thirst (“pyaasa” means “thirsty” in Hindi and “Chaya” means “shadow”) for education as she soaks up all she can from borrowed or second-hand books. And though she’d give anything to go to school, she knows that her family needs her as a household earner – and that employment opportunities are a precarious treasure. So she goes to work at the tea shop. And her life will never be the same.
It was particularly fitting to see Pyaasa on International Women’s Day. The play serves as a stark reminder that, as far as human rights – and women’s rights in particular – have come in some parts of the world, others aren’t so lucky. In Chaya’s case, the oppression is deeply rooted in Hindu society, despite India’s modern-day laws abolishing Untouchability and forbidding discrimination based on caste – and for a young girl in this environment, the situation is all the more dire. The words from Chaya’s mother, noted at the beginning of this post, serve as both powerful advice and understatement, given the extreme, harsh realities of their lives as female Untouchables.
Delight and devastation in the deeply moving, insightful and brutally honest Pyaasa.
Pyaasa runs until March 27 in the TPM Backspace; advanced booking is strongly recommended. You can purchase tix in advance online or by calling the box office: 416-504-7529.
In the meantime, take a look behind the scenes of Pyassa: