Vishal Sriram Nair heaved a sigh of relief as he stepped into the campus for the first time. Born and brought up in an orthodox, albeit open-minded Malayali family, he had spent most of his childhood and received early education from various parts of Kerala. Now, at the age of eleven, it was his first time out of state, or country.
The whitewashed compound that housed Delia School of Canada was not a magnificent spectacle for most, but to the unassuming eye of Vishal, it was a sight to behold. Having been used to the tattered old buildings with wooden doors and creaky benches, the AC classrooms, desks and the huge concrete courtyard seemed almost a fantasy to him. For the first time, he was thankful for his father’s deputation to Hong Kong.
Initially it was very exciting news for him- the prospect of moving to a different country. As the day began to draw closer however, the excitement was replaced with tension and sadness. He had never stayed apart from either set of his grandparents for more than two months. And with this transfer, God alone knew how long it would be before he could see them again. He had been a bit of a crybaby, a fact for which he was often teased, but in this case, he knew the tears were justified.
They had travelled to the airport as a contingent. He smiled when he thought to himself about that journey again. His parents, sister, himself, maternal grandparents, paternal grandfather (his grandmom was crying and refused to see them off at the airport) and a whole lot of luggage. As the flight was announced, all the women, and Vishal burst into tears. Fortunately, he was young, and looked even younger than his age, so his outburst was met with sympathetic reaction from most of staff, as well as the public around him.
That had been two weeks ago. Vishal still felt sad every time he reminisced, so he diverted his thought to the life that lay ahead of him. His father had offered to accompany him, but he vehemently refused. The last thing he needed was for the other kids to see that. Vishal inquired in his accented English about classroom 5B and soon found his way there. He was greeted by a tall, fair man with curly thinning hair, and a bright smile. He introduced himself as Mr. Kyte. Vishal was given permission to sit anywhere he liked, since he was early, so he sat and waited.
At his school in Kochi, Kerala, it was a shock for himself and classmates when a Tamilian student had enrolled. That was the extent of diversity. However, compared to today, Vishal would soon realize, that would be nothing. Within ten minutes of him having settled into a seat, students began flowing in steadily. He couldn’t distinguish between the various nationalities so he mentally categorized them as Indians, other Asians and Europeans. Crude, he realized, but he had to make do with what he had. A European boy with a scowl on his face came and sat next to Vishal. His glare made Vishal tremble. Others were a lot more forthcoming, however. A couple of Indian boys even came and spoke to him briefly before finding their seats. Pretty soon, the class was settled and Mr. Kyte invited Vishal to the front of the room to introduce him to his peers.
“Hey guys. This Is Vishal from India. He’s new here, and new to Hong Kong, so everyone try and make him feel comfortable, all right?”
The class murmured an affirmative response. Vishal continued to be fascinated by the infrastructure of the brightly lit room with the cold temperature, sparkling floors and an almost glistening whiteboard.
“Is everyone ready for the science test?” Mr. Kyte asked.
Vishal was taken aback. Science was one of his worst subjects- and his least favorite. While he had been reasonably good at both maths and English, he despised science. However, being his first day, he couldn’t afford to be quite so vocal.
“Now, Vishal, I know you’re new here. So, I don’t want you to worry too much about it. Just try it along with everyone else, okay?” Mr. Kyte said while handing out the papers.
Vishal was tense again. As soon as he got the paper, however, his tension evaporated. The test contained the most elementary questions. Those which he had covered in third standard itself. Vishal breezed through the test and was the first one to complete it. Mr. Kyte assumed it was because he knew very little to attempt enough questions, so he just smiled and took the sheet of paper from him. Within half an hour, everyone was through.
The day continued to fascinate Vishal as he realized that one teacher taught all subjects and that studies were given equal priority along with extra-curriculars. By the end of his first day, Vishal had signed up for volleyball and football tryouts, as well as a public speaking course, to deal with his nervousness and his terrible accent. He was also delighted to know that he was one of the best performers on the test that had been taken that morning. He considered it a great start to a new life.
Over the next week or so, Vishal really began to enjoy himself. In his previous school, he was a bit of a loner. His plump physique and asthma condition made him a terrible athlete, and he wasn’t an interesting conversationalist either. Therefore, he had few friends other than his action figures and comic books. Now though, his peers considered him a smart, capable companion. He had many friends from various countries; whether the attention was just forced cordiality due to pressure from the teacher or not, he didn’t care. With all the interesting techniques of learning, and the dynamics of the co-curriculars, time began to fly by.
A month or so after he had joined school, he accompanied a few of his friends to the auditions for the school play. He loved movies even though theatre held no such fascination from him; he went along as he didn’t want to be left out. The Drama Club was one of the school’s most prestigious associations- one which was dominated by high school students (tenth grade or above) and one which regularly fetched prizes at competitions. This year, as usual, they had decided to stage a school play before the last working day prior to the summer holidays. The play they had finalized was Jack and the Beanstalk. The main teacher in charge, Gerald McMullan had co-written a comprehensive 100 plus page draft for the same.
Vishal had been warned by his friends that most of the meatier roles went to the seniors; so he decided to try out for the role of Willy the Weed (one of the various antagonists that had a mere handful of speaking lines). The audition was routine as far as he was concerned, but the jury (consisting of the core members of the Club as well as the teachers in charge) seemed to murmur amongst themselves following his audition; in particular, Vishal noticed a fair boy with blonde hair look pleased and mention something to Mr. McMullan. He was informed by his friends that all roles would be announced over the PA system the next morning during homeroom. Vishal went home, pleased with yet another eventful day, uncaring and almost forgetting about the audition.
The next morning when he reached his class, he seemed to notice Mr. Kyte smile rather mischievously at him. Vishal was a little taken aback, but soon forgot about it after heading to his seat and joining his friends. The day started off with the routine announcements over the PA until it was time for the much-anticipated final casting announcements. Most names went by unnoticed, and the few that were known were cheered on by friends. It went on til the very end, when the principal announced “Jack- Vishal Nair, from Grade V B”.
There was stunned silence for a handful of seconds before Mr. Kyte led the class in applause and all heads turned to look at the rapidly reddening face of Vishal. He was too shocked to react.
“But Mr. Kyte, I didn’t even audition for that role” he mumbled, helplessly. He was overwhelmed by all the unprecedented attention.
Mr. Kyte beamed before making his way towards Vishal’s seat.
“You know, they never select someone so young to be the lead in the school play. This is great for our class. Make us proud!”
“But, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do.”
“Don’t worry too much about that. There are plenty of other students and professors to help you. Just try and enjoy yourself. There will be regular rehearsals though. So, ensure that you set aside most of your other commitments after school.”
“I’m still not too sure, Mr. Kyte.”
“Just go down to the rehearsal today. You must’ve seen Mr. McMullan. He’ll guide you. I can accompany you today, if you like. I’ll oversee art design so I’ll be around; if at all you feel the need to see a familiar face. So just be cool.”
The day passed by in a blurry haze for Vishal who found that he couldn’t concentrate on anything else. When the final bell rang at 3:00, his friends wished him luck and went on their way. They offered to go along with him, but he refused- he was nervous enough. After the last student had filed out, Mr. Kyte shut off the lights and led the way to the auditorium on the ground floor. By the time they reached, it was already buzzing with activity- students had formed into small groups and started chatting amongst themselves. A group of seniors, including the tall blonde boy, whom Vishal would later realize was the core committee, was huddled around Mr. McMullan, receiving primary instructions which were to be given out to all those assembled.
As soon as Vishal entered, Mr. McMullan beckoned him over. He was then introduced to the core committee and to the rest of the students gathered. The reception wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t pleasant either. There were certainly one or two faces that Vishal could pick out which reflected pure dislike (possible displeasure at his selection to be the lead, he thought).
“All right kid, come here. This is the script. I want you to go through it and read all your lines. Obviously, you’ll need to learn them by heart. Probably looks a bit big, but since we’ve got around a couple of months left, I guess you should be along fine. So for now, I want you to just sit somewhere and read your lines. We won’t have much for you to do today, so if you wanna go home, you can. Tomorrow, we’ll pick up from act 1 so make sure that at least those many lines are clear in your head. Any questions?”
Vishal was trembling. He quickly muttered a hushed no before looking down at the bundle of pages which had been handed to him. Gerald McMullan was a sixty year old Canadian with portly features, wispy hair and pinkish skin. He had a gruff voice, perfectly matching his personality and he gave off an aura of someone whose bad side you didn’t dare to get on. If Vishal was nervous earlier, he was petrified now.
He slowly started making his way to the exit with the script in hand, still slightly dazed from the day’s affairs. The tall, handsome boy with blonde hair suddenly ran up to him with a smile on his face.
“Hey. I’m Patrick. I’m President of the Drama Club. Look, I know you’re nervous and that’s obviously understood. Even I was terrified the first time I saw old Maccy over there. That’s what we call McMullan. You’ll catch on soon. So don’t worry, he just tries to scare you so that you take things seriously. You’ll get used to his methods in no time. He’s incredibly fun to work with. And so are we” he finished with a wink.
“In case you need any help, with your lines or whatever, feel free to give me a ring. This is my number. Or you can find me at the court or in here after school. And, just between you and me, not everyone’s too pleased with your selection for the lead, so try not to goof up too much, yeah? I mean, it’s kinda my neck on the line too so… Okay, that’s about it. Good luck then. I’ll see you tomorrow!”
The rest of the day went by rather uneventfully. His parents were thrilled at the news of his selection, and his father, having been an enthusiastic theatre personality himself during his college days, offered all the help he could. Vishal politely turned it down on the pretext that he wanted to try it himself, at least initially. And that wasn’t far from the truth. He had realized, over the course of the day that if he had been selected, above all others, there must have been something that was spotted by the jury. He went to his room, shut the door and stood before the mirror. Then, he opened the script.
It contained plain A4 sized sheets, spiral bound together. Glancing through the index, he realized that there were almost 40 characters in the whole play. He also realized that he had at least two dialogues on every page. This was going to take forever, he thought to himself. He was of course, familiar with the basic premise of the play. However, to add some substance, it had been slightly re-imagined.
Per the story, Jack, a poor boy, goes to the marketplace at his mother’s bidding to sell Lucy, their cow- the family’s only possession. Instead of money however, he accepts an offer of several magic beans from a stranger. His mother admonishes him for his stupidity, but Jack whose curiosity is piqued, plants the beans one by one. Each turn into gigantic beanstalks which take him to different magical lands. There are certain adventures and misadventures until there is a happily ever after ending. By the time he completed the first reading of the entire script, it was around midnight- well past his bedtime. He had only scanned through the script. He had made absolutely no headway with his lines. Extremely nervous about the consequences, he gradually got to sleep telling himself he would wake up early the next morning and work on it.
As it turned out, he didn’t. His parents usually woke him up, and since he hadn’t asked them to do so at an earlier hour, they hadn’t. He was now feeling serious trepidation. He got ready and slowly made his way to school. At homeroom, Mr. Kyte seemed to notice his anxiety. When the situation was explained to him, however, he laughed it off and permitted to give Vishal extra time during school hours to work on his lines. Relieved, Vishal found himself smiling for the first time in hours.
True to his word, Mr. Kyte gave him the last hour off. Vishal took the script and moved to the library to get some much-needed work done. Due to his nervousness and the various distractions of people walking and talking around him however, he was barely able to go through his lines once. It was with very little confidence that Vishal made his way to the auditorium.
Students were once again muttering animatedly, eagerly awaiting their chance to go on stage and impress those around them. Everyone that is, except one person. Vishal fretfully climbed up the steps that took him to the stage area. The scowling face of Gerald McMullan greeted him from the first row. Patrick stood near the curtains, giving a thumbs up and a smile. Several pairs of eyes had followed him on to the stage, just out of curiosity. The first scene was between Jack and his mother. Vishal clearly remembered his lines, but he had a hard time getting the words out of his mouth. It was not due to poor memory, but rather, out of the tension that accompanied a lack of preparation.
“What the heck are you doing, kid?!” Gerald McMullan was up in a flash. If he was scowling earlier, he was totally seething now.
“It’s the first damn act. If you’re gonna mumble your way through the first two minutes, what the hell are you going to do for three whole hours?! Get a grip of yourself and start doing it properly!”
Vishal shivered at the onslaught. But he knew he deserved it. It was acceptable to be nervous, but not like this. Not during the first rehearsal. He mumbled an apology before asking for the script so that he could have a quick glance through it again. It didn’t work. Vishal couldn’t remember any other time in his life when he had ever been more scared. And he was constantly humiliated for it by Mr. McMullan. Finally, around an hour of dreadful rehearsing later, Mr. McMullan gave up. He simply stormed out of the auditorium, livid. Vishal was just as quick to grab his bag and run out of the auditorium-in the opposite direction. The last thing he wanted was for these people to see him with tears streaming down his face.
He went to the furthest corner of the courtyard and sat there hunched, wiping away the tears as quickly as he could. After about ten minutes or so, Patrick made his way over.
“There you are. You all right?”
Vishal continued to sit silently and stare ahead.
“Yeah, well, I think we both know that didn’t go particularly well. But you know it could’ve been worse.”
“What? How could it possibly have been worse than that?!” Vishal didn’t know why he was angry at Patrick.
“See, Maccy is a perfectionist. So he would’ve found a way to criticize you even if you were Jerry Lewis or something. But I was observing. And it was evident that you sorta knew your lines so that’s a good sign.”
“I don’t know, Patrick. I think I should just quit it. I’m sure you guys can find better candidates.”
“Hey, if you’re looking for an inspirational speech to spur you into becoming an Oscar winner, you’re not gonna get it from me.”
Both boys burst out laughing after that remark.
“Listen, Vishal. It’s not gonna change overnight. This isn’t some movie where you have a magical transformation. It’s going to take serious efforts. So, I suggest you tackle it step by step. One, watch tons and tons of movies. See how they deliver dialogues and the expressions that come on their faces when they do. After that, try and speak these lines in front of a mirror, while emulating their way of speaking or expressing. I’m telling you now; it’s going to be a long-drawn process. And if this doesn’t work, we’re going to bring in Al Pacino just to give you some lessons.” He winked, and the smile returned to Vishal’s face.
“I’ll try Patrick. I can’t promise anything. But I will tell you this. I’m going to follow your instructions to the T and put in maximum effort. Even if for nothing else, it’ll be to piss Maccy off.”
“Hahaha. That’s the spirit! I look forward to this.”
As soon as he got home that evening, Vishal hurried through his homework in record time. Then he switched on the PC and started streaming YouTube videos on Jack and the Beanstalk. He ensured that this time he had an eye on the clock, and that by 8 o clock; he shut off his computer, and shifted focus to his script and his dialogues. He stayed at it til midnight.
The next morning, Vishal felt excited about school. He was smiling throughout the day, much to the surprise of his family and friends and to the delight of Mr. Kyte. When the final bell rang, he was one of the first to rush to the auditorium. McMullan greeted him with this indispensable scowl, but he mentioned nothing of the previous day’s mishaps. Vishal took that as a positive sign.
Rehearsal began. It was far from being the perfectly smooth and glitch-free run through that McMullan wanted or Vishal dreamed off, but it was a substantial improvement from the previous day. Vishal was much more confident during his lines, making very few mistakes, and when one of his co-performers did, he even helped her out with it. For the first time, McMullan’s scowl slightly disappeared. At the end of the rehearsal, McMullan came over to Vishal and told him to keep trying. Patrick was beaming and gave Vishal a big pat on the back.
“That was awesome! If Maccy was a normal human being, he’d have smiled. But forget that. You seem like a natural on stage. Keep at it, and you could have some real fun with this. Now go home, take a break, and get back to it. I think this has some serious potential now!”
During the next couple of weeks, rehearsals, lectures and hours seamlessly blended for Vishal who found himself becoming progressively better at what he did. McMullan was considerably less critical and Patrick was buoyant that the production would be a success. Vishal’s confidence was so high that he even began to improvise certain dialogues and mannerisms which were met with grunts of approval from Maccy. It looked like everything was going according to plan and everyone seemed to be in good spirits.
Three days prior to the final performance, after the rehearsal, Patrick approached Vishal, who had become a very good friend by then, and invited him to hang out after school. Vishal however, turned him down as he had to be home since he had some prior family commitments. He had promised his mother he would help her with certain chores that day, and having shirked the duties numerous times earlier, did not dare to incur her wrath again. Patrick smiled and waved off his apology before heading out to his motorcycle. Vishal, meanwhile, packed his bag and headed home.
The next morning, as soon as Vishal reached school, he knew something was wrong. Everyone was giving him furtive glances, almost as if they were afraid to meet his eye. Mr. Kyte was surprisingly late that day, and as soon as he entered, he beckoned Vishal over to his desk.
“How are you holding up, Vishal?”
“I’m okay, Mr. Kyte. You seem worried though. What’s the matter?”
“You mean, you haven’t heard?” Mr. Kyte’s voice had dropped to even more of a whisper now.
“Heard what?” Vishal was now piqued and worried at the same time.
“Well, yesterday, after you guys left following drama rehearsal, Patrick had an accident.”
Vishal was suddenly numb. He remembered turning Patrick down the previous evening.
“Hhhow, how is he Mr. Kyte?”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not particularly good.”
“Please be honest with me. I can handle it.” Vishal was already fighting tears.
“He’s paralyzed from below the waist. I’m so sorry.”
The world seemed to spin around Vishal. He thought of the energetic enigma that was Patrick. Always laughing and smiling and cheering everyone up with his silly antics and impersonations. The one reason he continued to persist and persevere with drama. Tears were rolling uncontrollably down Vishal’s face now.
“I wanna see him, please.”
“Vishal, I don’t think that’s a good idea. He’s not doing too well you see, so…”
“Mr. Kyte, if you won’t take me, I’ll just go on my own.”
Mr. Kyte eventually relented. He took special permission from the Vice Principal for himself and Vishal and they took a cab to the hospital, which was about half an hour away. Not one word was spoken throughout the journey. Once they reached their destination, Mr. Kyte led the way, while Vishal trailed quietly behind him. Maccy stood outside the room. His eyes were red and he wasn’t scowling for a change, Vishal seemed to notice for some reason.
“Hey kid. He’s doing better now. Wants to talk to you. Alone. You up for it?” Maccy asked. His voice was slightly hoarse, but certainly not from shouting.
Vishal briefly nodded before the door was opened for him. He was amazed at how sad Maccy looked. Vishal didn’t think it humanly possible for him to have any expression other than his indispensable scowl. He walked over to the bed to see a mangled mass of plasters and bandages that surely couldn’t have been his handsome friend. A fresh stream of tears erupted from Vishal’s eyes. Amid the numerous cuts and plasters around his face, Patrick still managed his sly smile, but winced immediately.
“Looks like they managed to take away my smile, huh?” Patrick was being his usual, silly self.
“I’m so sorry man. I should have been there with you. I’m so sorry.”
“Look man, if you make me cry, I’m gonna kill you. Maccy’s been out there all day trying, and damn it, I’ve held on so far. So you better stop, before I start and cause some major flooding around here.”
Both managed a slight smile.
“Why is he here though? Maccy, I mean? Was he with you at the time of the accident?”
“Christ no! He’s my guardian. A distant relative, actually. My parents, they’re uhh not together anymore. They’re in Canada. So Maccy here takes care of me.”
Vishal nodded. He didn’t know what to say. He hated trying to cheer people up. That was meant for people like Patrick to do.
“Now look here. There are only a handful of days left to go for the performance, so don’t you dare try and slack off on my account.”
“Patrick, are you crazy? I’m in no mood to act. And just look at Maccy out there. Even I feel sorry for him.”
“Hey. Look at me. Or whatever you can see of me.” Patrick was using humor as usual, but his tone had an uncharacteristic strictness to it. “Under no circumstance whatsoever are you to cancel or even postpone this performance. We’re so close to doing a perfect job. If you screw it up now, I’m gonna come and kick you to death.”
“But Patrick, how? I couldn’t possibly go on stage and focus.”
“Work your magic, kid. You transformed from a lost rookie to a confident actor in almost unbelievable time. I don’t think you need me to tell you how to motivate yourself. If you want to see me happy, you have got to promise me to go through with this. You know what? Call Maccy in as well. I want both of you to promise me.”
Vishal beckoned Mr. McMullan who walked in with a somber expression.
“Listen to me uncle Mac. I was telling Vishal that we need to go through with the performance no matter what. Since I’m not doing anything in particular, my presence won’t be missed. Even if it is, we’ve got plenty of people to do work. So, promise me, both of you, that the show will go on.”
Over the next few days, rehearsals didn’t possess the same levels of energy or enthusiasm that the performers were accustomed to. Vishal seemed distracted and Maccy almost indifferent to the affairs on stage. Within no time, it was the last working day. They would be performing that evening.
As per tradition, the play was held at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre- a venue open to the public. And as usual, it was sold out. Vishal and Maccy reached the venue earliest, but didn’t really prepare themselves until the rest of the cast started arriving. There was then the usual nervous hustling and bustling. Vishal changed into his costume and sat numbly in one corner.
With half an hour to go until the curtain raiser, there was minor chaos. The Drama Club wanted to speak a few words about Patrick as a sort of tribute to him. He was informed of it but had been initially reluctant (“I’m not dead, dammit!”) but had eventually given in. Now however, the sponsors and theatre staff were refusing to let it happen before the performance.
“You cannot do that. It will dampen the mood of the audience. This is supposed to be a happy play. We’ll do the tribute at the end. After the performance.”
“Now look here you little yellow..” Maccy began before he was cut off by various members of staff.
Vishal was equally irate when he was informed about the same. He even threatened to boycott the whole thing until Mr. Kyte backstage reminded him it was for Patrick in the first place. His anger had refused to die down and thus, the first act was a total disaster. Members of the crowd were muttering in disapproval and even Vishal’s parents looked a bit let down. During the break between acts, however, something happened which considerably lifted the mood of everyone in the Club. Patrick arrived.
He was wheelchair bound, with several healing bruises on his face and bandages on his arms, but he was smiling. He requested to speak with Vishal immediately, having known about the events of the first act.
“Hey! What are you doing? You’re spoiling my name man.”
“Those bastards, they..” Vishal began
“Look, I heard what happened. And if you think practically, they’re right. Leave the emotions for the stage. Let’s get practical in life. All right? Now go out there and show me that I didn’t make any mistake in choosing you.”
And that was all it took. When the second act began, the crowd was still a little uneasy following the debacle that was Act I. However, within ten minutes, they were hooked. Vishal began to get into the skin of the character and began to improvise whenever he seemed to forget his lines. Patrick smiled to himself whenever that happened.
Two hours after the performance began, the audience erupted into deafening applause. Everyone, including staff, students, family and other members of the public had smiles on their faces as Vishal Sriram Nair took centre stage for the final bow. He went and hugged Maccy, who seemed stunned initially but eventually reciprocated and then he made his way over to Patrick.
“Looks like you finally made me cry. Excellent man! I’ve got no more words. I couldn’t have done it better myself!”
Vishal beamed. He too was speechless at the unprecedented appreciation he was receiving.
“Hey you know what else? The crowd, since they couldn’t pronounce your name, have come up with a cute little acronym for you. So, allow me to be the first to officially welcome to the world of theatre, VSN”.