“How Yoga Led to Bath Salts: Love, Nudity, and the Deportation of Devyani Khobragade”
By James Moran
On my third trip to India to study yoga I met my future wife while crossing the street. Crossing any road in India is like a game of Frogger gone berserk. You have to look left, right, forward, back, up, down. Even the sidewalk is fair game: a motorcycle, three-wheeled auto-rickshaw, or cow could come barreling at you. I was simultaneously considering how I would cross the street and what I would say to the beautiful woman waiting to cross beside me. When I followed her lead out into the street something amazing happened: she made a remark to me about how dangerous the traffic was. By the time we made it to the median we were in a conversation. The briefest of openings in the flow of traffic presented itself. She sensed I was about to chance crossing. She urged me against it. Then she said, “Now!” and we both crossed safely together. On the other side I figured I should thank the woman who just about saved my life. We introduced ourselves.
The next year and a half involved more drama than a Bollywood movie.
I asked her to marry me over a long distance phone call from the states. The following day I called her and told her that I was selling my car and booking a plane ticket back to India for one week to show her I was serious. After our whirlwind week together she was scheduled to return to her hometown in the South Indian state of Kerala for Christmas. Relatives told her over the phone to expect a surprise. Ambush weddings are not uncommon in India. You return home and your parents introduce you to someone, then ask, “Did you like so-and-so?” “Sure, they’re alright.” “Good. Because tomorrow you’re getting married to them.” Just in case such an ambush wedding lay in wait, she and I devised an escape plan for her. She returned to find no ambush wedding laying in wait. Though her parents did want her to meet a prospective suitor. She refused, saying she wanted to be with James. “James? James? Who’s James?” “The foreigner I’m in love with.” “Foreigner? Foreigner? What foreigner?” “He’s an American.”
Solemnly I wooed her father by email, insisting truthfully that we would never consider getting married without his approval and his blessing. Within two weeks he was a maybe. Within four he wanted to know more about our marriage plans. Within six he and I shared an unbreakable future father-in-law/son-in-law bond. At eight weeks I began making arrangements for 20 of my family members and friends to fly 8,000 miles to India to attend our 1,500 person wedding.
After the wedding I moved to Delhi so that my wife and I could be together while we awaited her visa to come to the U.S. I filled my time with what brought me to India in the first place: practicing and teaching yoga. Then one day while we ventured to the market for mehendi (henna dye applied on women’s hands in beautiful designs that last for weeks) I had an idea for a story. What if an American artist came to India and offered graffiti-style mehendi in the same market next to the mehendi–wallahs? The story quickly grew to novel length in my mind. I dismissed it, telling myself I didn’t have the time. Then a buddy of mine who acts in theater in Mumbai called. “I’ve booked a hall six weeks from now,” he said. “Let’s do a play together. You write it.”
I wrote the play in two weeks. After another two weeks we had the cast of enthusiastic and impressively energetic young Indians. That left us two weeks to rehearse a play about a young American graffiti artist forced to leave the U.S. in haste after a drug transaction goes awry. A brief meeting with a beautiful young woman named India inspires him to choose the subcontinent as a venue for him to pursue his long held dream of becoming a radical performance artist.
This was just after the U.S. deported Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade for paying her Indian maid only $500/month. Her expulsion from the U.S. had sparked a deportation battle between the two countries. This was also just after the Indian Supreme Court ruled homosexuality a crime. In the play the main character’s best friend is gay. So he puts on a satirical play in public in which two gay guys are picking up each other when suddenly a naked zombie on bath salts (played by the lead) jumps out of nowhere and devours their faces. The lead gets arrested and through the course of the play he is eventually deported back to the U.S.
The director chose me to play the lead, and thought that it would be best if I wore underwear in the nude zombie scene.
Maybe he had been correct.
The premiere was moving along swimmingly. The crowd’s laughter followed the comedic set-ups with the all punctuality of a laugh track. Then came the naked zombie scene. After the makeup artist applied zombie makeup to my face, I peaked at the audience through the curtain. The audience consisted of friends of the cast and otherwise hip-looking Indians. I stripped down to my underwear. My fellow cast members helped me pour “sauce” (what they call ketchup in India) into my cupped palms. “Should I go out naked?” I asked them. Many restaurants in India serve a plate called a Thali, which consists of small sampler dishes, some sweet, some sour, some spicy. The array of reactions on my fellow cast members’ faces looked like a Thali, some shocked, some fearful, some cheering me on. With palms full of “sauce” losing the underwear proved difficult. I pulled them off in a way that appeared like I was mooning my fellow cast members. I turned to them one more time, by way of apology, to find a united front of thumbs up just as I heard my cue. I leapt through the curtain naked and onto the back of gay character #1. Smearing ketchup all around I simulated eating his face. Then I tackled gay character #2, who had been picking up on gay character #1, and ate his face off too. Once done, I was supposed to hiss at the audience while exiting the stage at a mad sprint. I tried but, who put that chair there? I dodged it at the last moment and ended up hissing more at the chair than the audience.
The director received lots of complaints. In his words, “India is not ready to digest nudity in theater.” From Mumbai I called my wife in Delhi, where she had to be for work. I explained that I’d streaked the stage naked. “What? What? What?” she repeated a dozen times as if she could not bring herself to believe what she was hearing from me. What I began to hear was, “What if? What if?” What if I had been arrested? What if I had been deported? What if her visa process had been affected? How did I feel having risked what matters most? Terrible.
In the end I wasn’t arrested and deported, acting naked in a play about an American who acts naked in a play and gets arrested and deported. I guess life does not always imitate art. In this case, thank God, because now I’m married (oh yeah!) and my wife is waiting for her visa (oh yeah!) and these are the times of Devyani Khobragade (oh yeah!).
Would it have been worth it to me if even a few audience members came away from the premiere with an expanded sense of what is possible in theater in India? Not really. Would I do it again? Not in India. To play any role in a theater production advocating human rights when those rights are being violated takes bravery, sure. And staying true to a script that risks deportation in the middle of a petty deportation battle between superpowers is punk rock. But, you see, getting married and staying married is a feat that exists on a different level altogether.