A deep dive into the history of what made Pooja Nansi the person she is today.
For poet Pooja Nansi, who was born in India and came to Singapore at the age of one, border crossing has always been a part of her family history. ‘Home’ is a word that always bears considerable weight and complications, and the question “are you Singaporean?” only leads her to consider the complexities of identity and a sense of place, where we ‘belong’.
Using both storytelling techniques and her trademark poetry, Pooja attempts get to the heart of these issues as she unravels her family’s stories and her own hazy childhood memories in one woman show You Are Here. Directed by Edith Podesta, You Are Here opens to reveal that Pooja has actually sustained an injury in real life, hobbling across the stage in crutches. While not ideal, what this does is tell us is how committed she is to ensuring the show goes on, no matter what, determined to be here with us.
Pooja begins with a series of thought-provoking questions – how much can we carry with us? What metaphorical burdens fall on our backs? She reminds us that it is all these unseen details and experiences that make up our lives, things we forget all too easily, before she segues into her own experiences, and begins telling her story.
She flashes back to a time she’s in a taxi, with a typical, no filter, straightforward taxi driver. He asks her what her identity is, talks about how there’s so many Indians living here now, and triggers her to think about some cities you visit, and some you inhabit – which one exactly, becomes home?
A bottle of whiskey on the table is seen, and she delves further back into her family’s past. Going back to her childhood, she recalls how during Patma’s birthday, he would buy shiny, juicy grapes for the whole family. Food is integral to Pooja’s fondest memories, evident as we watch a video depicting the intricate preparation method of roti, one that requires both patience and heart to get just right. It is her mother she recalls making this, while ABBA plays in the background, and it’s a heartwarming memory as we sense how close they are.
Now, young Pooja begins to question her identity – what are friends, and what do they stand for? It’s time to dive into her past, as she figures out just how she got ‘here’, to become who she is today. We return to her in a taxi, an appropriate metaphor for the idea of transition and commuting from one place to the next, as she recalls the conversations she’s had over the years, the money spent, the spaces she’s occupied. When she speaks, her words are both thoughtful and poignant, as she wonders – when do we really die, and what does the future hold?
Fast forward to her current state of being, and she’s been married five years now. She realises how she needs to chart the paths in life, so her own daughter will know and understand her roots, as Pooja excavates and passes these stories down to the next generation.
The taxi once again acts as a catalyst for her next story, asking her about her ancestry. Is she Indian just because she was born there, but spent her entire life in Singapore? But what makes this driver ‘more’ Singaporean, when his own grandparents came from China? Pooja thinks of how her own parents came to Singapore in 1983, recalling her primary school days, learning how something as simple as carrying a tiffin full of masala puri can be a means of othering her, forcing her to shed her roots to fit in.
She proceeds with the story of how her mother and father met, loving and vivid, from their meet-cute to eventual marriage, her father an engineer, her mother a Kathak dancer, moving gracefully in the kitchen with her rolling pin. In learning about how she gave up dancing to have Pooja, we think about how nothing in life is certain, and everything is susceptible to change. The identity we have then, is similarly fluid, something that passes down to Pooja as early on as having to choose her mother tongue in primary school. Just because she’s Indian, does she have to take an Indian language?
Flashing forward to her youth, Pooja describes her party days of yore, and the numerous clubs along Mohamed Sultan Road. In her halcyon days of Madam Wu and Cheeky Monkeys, and the experience of stumbling into a 7-11 to get cheap alcohol and bites, all typical scenes on Friday and Saturday nights.
We’re back in the taxi again, as incidental sounds of the Chinese radio station reading out the week’s winning 4D numbers play in the background. Pooja wonders about the ‘Singaporean way’ of othering those they deem foreign, a little idiosyncrasy that has yet to go away, as people continue to be ‘othered’ by locals thanks to how they look, and the exhausting process of explaining again and again.
“Semoga Bahagia” plays in the background, the official Children’s Day song in Singapore. Celebrated on the first Friday of October since 2011, we think of how Pooja spent her entire childhood in Singapore, this place she’s grown up in, continues to live, and continues to call home. How much can you carry with you from the past, before you start forming your own sense of identity and selfhood? Eventually, your memories and your experiences mix, and form a complex mix of characteristics, as represented by the mosaic of photographs that chart Pooja’s life journey, the letters that were written, and the path that led her to where she is today. These are her roots that she will forever cherish.
Pooja Nansi has always been deeply confessional and honest in her performances, and You Are Here, while raw in its execution, distills these simple anecdotes into a fully-formed history of a woman figuring out who she is. Where we come from and our past is important yes, but more important is the fact that all of that has led to Pooja being here with us, sharing in this sincere, tender moment at the theatre together.
Photo Credit: Ruey Loon
You Are Here played from 22nd April to 2nd May 2021 at Wild Rice @ Funan.