To bring alive a character on stage is hard enough, but to bring alive a sense of place far more. A film can be shot on location, here all you have is the stage. And so, Harlesden High Street sets itself up for a challenge – Harlesden, a modest area in London with a large immigrant population, has as big a role to play in this narrative as the people inhabiting it. The play traces a day in the lives of three Pakistani immigrants in Harlesden, each with their stories of finding themselves in this foreign land, and their personal struggles to obliterate that word ‘foreign’.
The play isn’t so much about this day as any other, or even about these specific people than any other. Rehaan, Karim and Karim’s Ammi might as well be Rahim, Kabir and Kabir’s Ammi. Their stories are generic enough to be replaceable by equally interesting stories of another cross-section from the immigrant population. Harlesden High Street isn’t about what makes people unique, it’s about what makes different people the same.
The play has a rather subdued beginning with a conversation between Rehaan and Karim outside their small corner shop. We soon learn that this is the only spot where normal exchange of words takes place - elsewhere is poetic self-reflection. Interestingly, there is never a three-way conversation and few face-to-face exchanges between the characters – most of the play is in soliloquies. It is in these soliloquies that the play and its actors come into their element. The very talented cast (Arundhati Nag, Bikram Ghosh, Sandep Shikhar) get some lovely, funny and poignant lines to speak.
In the director Neel Chaudhuri’s words, the play tells us “stories of broken and fractured lives that endure”. Amidst that high purpose, the play doesn’t forget to linger on the lighter appeals of atmosphere – the crack of dawn, the bustle, the chill, the rumbling of buses and the falling of rain.
The most enduring thing about Harlesden High Street is its writing. The play is largely in free verse. The dialogues hinge on everyday objects, stuff like maps and mufflers, and slowly draw in deeper meanings. A lesser writer might compare rootlessness to the color grey; you marvel here at how the writer inverts such comparisons.
Playwright Abhishek Majumdar clearly has a thing for places – Rizwaan and Lucknow’76 come to mind. There are the other stamps of his presence too – moody lighting, rhythmic dialogue, and abstraction sometimes to the extent of incomprehensibility. If you’re like me, you’ll be in for some "what could that mean?" post-play dissection. Hands up all who understood the blowing air on glass scene?
Then again, it isn’t necessary to get all the details to understand the big picture. Just as it isn’t necessary to be familiar with Harlesden to know that feeling when someone asks "Where are you from?" and you don’t have a one-word answer.