Culture  One actor, four characters

Letters to my Grandma tells a story of post-partition India

On September 27, Letters to my Grandma, written by Anusree Roy, was performed for the first time by an actor other than Roy herself at the Teesri Duniya Theatre. There are a variety of emotions wrapped up in this particular premiere. Roy was excited to see her work presented to her rather than by her, while actor Sehar Bhojani was both terrified and determined to do this one-actor performance justice. And, without a doubt, she succeeds.

The plot of Letters to my Grandma jumps from protagonist Malobee’s story in Montreal to her grandmother’s life in India, but it also alternates between past and present, vividly retelling a story of the Hindu-Muslim conflicts of post-partition India. Playing a total of four characters – Malobee (an Indian immigrant to Canada), her grandmother, her mother, and a Muslim nurse –- Bhojani jumps back and forth onstage, with only scarves and sound effects to differentiate her characters.

Though the bulk of the play consists of back-and-forth conversations between grandmother and granddaughter, the story takes a turn when Malobee admits to her grandmother that she is dating Mark, a Muslim (unwelcome news for her narrow-minded grandmother). Instantly, a wall comes up between the two women and the communication ends. The two women’s interactions with Muslim characters deepen throughout the play, hinting at a potential for personal growth and acceptance.

Bhojani needed to fully understand the intention of each character’s lines to take on this “amazing challenge” of playing four different roles, she explains. When asked how she was able to keep a clear picture of all her parts, Bhojani replied that she had “sat down with the director and mapped out each [role].” To find the humanity of each of her characters, Bhojani walked around as each and exaggerated every physical movement. The focus needed for this task proved to be even more laborious when considering the story’s non-linear plot. But it was worth it: this tactic of showing only brief scenes of the very different lives of the two women proved to be very effective, leaving the audience wanting more and yet simultaneously satisfying it with heart–wrenching moments.

“For me, the main thing to take away is that change is possible,” says playwright Anusree Roy. Multiple interpretations of the story exist – some in which Malobee’s boyfriend is British, some in which he is Muslim. When asked why Roy had chosen to make her Mark Muslim, she admitted: “This is something like the fourth version [of the play]. I wanted to get it right.” For now, Roy says she has decided to focus on the Muslim/Hindu conflict rather than a British/Hindu one so as to better link the conflicts the characters face in Canada with the ones they face in India. Roy hopes that these conflicts deliver her message.

Similarly, director Lib Spry wanted audience members to be able to reflect on the “decisions we make in life, why we make them, and how they can affect future generations,” she explains. But more than anything, both writer and director wanted people to be moved by the story.

The beauty of Roy’s short play (clocking in at a mere 60 minutes) is that the audience can easily understand and universalize its simple moral. Coupled with a devoted woman portraying the depth, but also the comedic quirks, of each character, this tale made for an exceptional performance.

Letters to my Grandma is running at the Teesri Duniya Theatre at 3819 Calixa-Lavallée through October 13.