What’s it about?
Meaning “small country” or “small homeland” in Bengali, Chotto Desh is a dance performance about its creator Akram Khan's cultural identity as a Bangladeshi-British child growing up in London.
What'd I experience?
The tears come before the show even begins. For the first time in my life in America, I sit in a theatre where the show playing is titled in a language that I for far too long thought made me strange and unlovable.
I read the first page of the playbill intently and my heart becomes heavy at the sight of names like mine, names that come loaded with questions like "where are you from?" and "no, where are you REALLY from?". A little girl and her mother sit next to me, but the theatre goes dark before anyone can look at the person who has just started being referred to as “a young woman” with tears sliding down her cheeks and no tissues in her possession.
The show begins on a bare stage as a man wearing a plain button down shirt and dhoti pants enters. His phone’s calendar is malfunctioning and he is on the phone with customer service. The customer service representative, Jui, tells Akram, the man, that she is speaking to him from Chittagong, Bangladesh and would be happy to help him.
Akram is instantly transported to the summers he spent with his father in Bangladesh. He walks, runs, and jumps through the sounds of people, vehicles, and animals on busy streets that will always be a part of both of us. It is a moment that is both stressful and nostalgic.
Akram is distraught because not only is his phone not working, but this “representative” sounds like a kid. How can a kid all the way in Bangladesh help fix Akram’s phone in London? She just needs his password. What is it? It might be a parent’s name, a childhood nickname, or, perhaps, a childhood superhero?
And with this the real adventure starts as Akram takes me through a childhood that is could be mine save for a few details.
There’s little Akram, a fidgety child, being lovingly scolded by his tired father for never sitting still. The way his father speaks English is the way mine does too. The way his father alternates between calling him by his name and “baba” is the way my dad called me “ma” when I was younger. Even though I know it’s all scripted, the tears start again and soon I’m wiping my nose on my sweater, telling myself that it’s ok if I’m a mess at this children’s show in this children’s theater because the topic of childhood is messy.
It is little Akram’s grandmother, or dadu, who is able to make him sit still by telling him the story of the great Bonbibi and the little boy she saves, goddess of the Sundarban forests. It is a story that I don’t remember ever being told, but mesmerizing projections of trees, animals, and rain along with the grandmother’s voice take me to a forest that I have heard many things about. I’ve stopped crying, but only because I am enchanted. I feel a sense of wonder that I’ve never felt before as Akram touches the trunk of an elephant, climbs trees, and escapes alligators.
Bonbibi - Akram remembers his password. Now what, he asks Jui on the phone. How will you fix my phone?
To this Jui simply - if a little unhelpfully - responds, “You know where you are and what you have to do.”
I don’t know if it’s because I’m about to turn 20 or that I just found out that I’m a Third Culture Kid or that I spoke to my own aging dadu earlier in the day, but I leave the theatre crying. The fall air dries my tears as I call my mother, because I don’t know who else to call. When she asks how the show was, with my throat dry and my heart heavy, I tell her, khub shundor.