Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Merchants of Chennai

A few days ago, I went to lunch with a former work team of mine. As it happens, the members of the team are all from India, and we chose an Indian restaurant for the occasion. Much of the conversation was light-hearted banter about foods and gardens; of course, being at an Indian restaurant, I could get all the explanations of the southern Indian cuisine being served (I passed on the mango mousse, which I learned isn’t really a dish native to India, anyway).

As we talked, the conversation moved to the education systems. Sreedhar explained to me that, in his school, in all but the Tamil class, only English was allowed in the classroom. Tamil is the native language of Chennai, Sreedhar’s home city. He had gone to a Catholic school there, and related, still apparently with some sense of horror, of how he had had to study The Merchant of Venice for two years. I asked what he remembered of the book, and mostly he remembered the book’s cover sheet, which was in cyan.

Shabbir laughed. “Did you read, The Merchant of Venice, too?” “Yes.” “Same book with the cyan cover sheet?” “Yes.” Shabbir is from Bangalore.

I went around the table. Manoj? “Yes, we read it.” Kumar? “No, but we performed a scene in drama class.” Sri? “We did the whole play is drama.” Javed? “We read it.” Finally, poor Muthu confessed that he hadn’t been forced to read “The Merchant of Venice”: “We read Hamlet.” That doesn’t count!! Swarna? "We read it."

What is it with The Merchant of Venice, anyway? I don’t think I ever read it, though of course I know Shylock’s speech. I don't think many Americans read The Merchant of Venice in high school. How is it, then, that in a random sampling of 8 Indian colleagues, 7 had either read or performed it in their high school years?

Of all of Shakespeare, why that one? Most of the assembled had read no other Shakespeare, just that one play. Except for the two who had performed The Merchant of Venice, none had seen Shakespeare performed, either. They hadn’t even heard of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which is just a couple hours away.

I just looked up this year’s schedule. It includes The Merchant of Venice! I think I’m going to send Sreedhar.

The day after the lunch, I led a meeting. Niran participated by phone; he hadn’t been at the lunch. At one point, while a technical matter was being resolved, I asked, “Niran, when you were in school, did you read The Merchant of Venice?" Manoj chuckled. “Yes, of course,” came the reply.

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