— Ravi and Asha Jain. Photo: Erin Brubacher
A BRIMFUL OF ASHA
A Brimful of Asha lightheartedly examines the clash between a Canadian-born son and his Indian immigrant parents over said son’s marital prospects. On stage with Ravi Jain is his actual mother, Asha, who has gone to great lengths (along with Ravi’s offstage dad) to try to arrange a traditional marriage for 27-year-old Ravi with an Indian bride.
Ravi insists he’s a modern, independent adult who needs to know and love a woman before he agrees to marry her. Asha says that’s nonsense; mother knows best. My own Jewish mother would have understood the argument perfectly.
This delightful play about cultural collision and the eternal struggle between mothers and sons comes here from Toronto as part of Ravi Jain’s Why Not Theatre company’s year-long cross-Canada tour. It arrives like a sweet, funny birthday present to its Vancouver co-presenters: the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, celebrating its 10th year, and the Arts Club, celebrating its 50th.
A Brimful of Asha isn’t exactly a play. As you file in, you’re met by mother and son, Asha resplendent in a pink sari. They introduce themselves to you individually, shake your hand, and invite you to help yourself to the samosas piled on top of the centre-stage table. (Unfair: how’s a reviewer to remain objective?) The intimate, informal 90 minutes that follow feel a little like being in their kitchen.
As Asha sits and sips her tea, Ravi animatedly tells us what he and Asha insist is the true story of what happened when unmarried Toronto actor and director Ravi took a trip to India in 2007. They agree that Asha and her husband tried to arrange a marriage for Ravi in India. But that’s about all they agree on.
Asha is not an actor. She’s a housewife (albeit with a Master’s degree) and, as she calls herself, “an abused mother.” Her role is to correct what she considers the misconceptions and distortions Ravi introduces in his version of the story.
For a non-actor she has excellent comic timing. When Ravi says that one of his rules is that he won’t marry just anyone, Asha matter-of-factly responds, “That’s the stupidest rule I ever heard.” Ravi tells us, “Parents always think they know better.” Asha: “They do.” Ba-dum tssshhh!
Her best sting comes just after Ravi describes how he explained to his mother that he would marry a woman of his own choice in his own time, and ended by telling her “I love you.” “Big liar,” Asha quietly declares, cracking everyone up.
Ravi shares with us the things he discovered about Indian culture, particularly its middle-class obsessions with marriage and money. We learn about Bio Data, the thorough files exchanged by anxious parents wanting a proper match for their son or daughter, containing biographical data not only about the prospective bride or groom but about their families as well: education, profession, income, as well as dates and places of birth to make sure their astrological star charts are compatible.
We hear how, when Ravi arrived in India to travel with a buddy, his parents practically stalked him. They followed him there to set up a meeting between Ravi and a woman named Neha, along with her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, both families desperate to finalize a match between their reluctant kids. Because Ravi works in the theatre instead of his father’s business, his economic prospects are suspect. To compensate, Ravi’s parents offer Neha’s family a special deal–they won’t require a dowry. Wow, Ravi jokes, what a great reason to get married: “It’s like zero percent financing!”
The play revolves around the different assumptions and experiences of thoroughly modern, multiculturally integrated Canadian Ravi, and Asha, still deeply invested in her Indian background and, as she says, “stuck between two cultures.” She tells us about her childhood dreams, her arranged marriage to Ravi’s father, her emigration to Toronto and difficult adjustment to Canadian life. Aren’t you sad, Ravi asks her, that you had to give up your dreams by getting married? “When you marry I can go back to my dreams,” she deadpans.
Through it all, Ravi remains remarkably patient with his meddling parents. He’s really a very good boy–and a funny one. He’s like an Indo-Canadian Woody Allen: intellectual, exasperated, a bit of a nebbish. And Asha just sits there, unshakable in her irrefutable maternal logic. Ravi: “How do you know marriage will make me happy?” Asha: “I know it.” Ravi: “How?” Asha: ”Because I’m your mom.”
The novelty and charm of the show flag a little towards the end. Like many one-acts, it takes some padding to feel like a full evening in the theatre. But you’ll surely be won over by its good-natured spin on family and culture.