Her daughter Rani has turned 16, and so Chameli is haggling with a customer over the price of what she calls Rani’s “first sale” – the first time she will work as a prostitute.
“This her honour we talking about,” she tells him.
Such ironies abound in “Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan,” a solo show written and performed by Dipti Mehta, who portrays more than a half dozen characters, among them the mother, the daughter, a customer, a priest (who’s also a customer), a pimp, and a princess.
“Honour” looks at the real-life brothels of the Indian city of Mumbai, a world turned upside down. A hjira (transgender) friend of the family can tell Rani that she will be special: “you will not be a whore. You will be a courtesan”….maybe, if she’s lucky, even a mistress.
To the play’s credit, it presents an oppressive system without depicting anybody in it as outright villainous (except perhaps the priest.) Chameli, Rani’s mother, was herself sold into prostitution at age 13 by parents who felt they had to sacrifice her to take care of their other children. Even the pimp, Shyam, is the son of Chameli’s original pimp and, now an orphan, is as much Chameli’s son as Rani’s future flesh-peddler.
“I have known since I was 8,” Rani says,”that one day I will be sold too. It’s not like I have a choice. I wanted to go to medical school, like that was going to ever happen.”
Dipti Mehta, whose day job is as a PhD researcher in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Sloan Kettering, has put together a well-structured and authentic-feeling tale that is witty, graceful and pointed.
But I’m afraid my reaction to “Honour” became much more positive after getting hold of the script. I found much of the play difficult to follow as a stage show. The characters liberally sprinkle their Indian-accented broken English with Hindi words and whole sentences, and, as wonderful a performer as Mehta is, her mimicry is not her strongest skill, making it difficult at times to figure out which character she is playing, much less what exactly they’re saying. The periodic intrusion of the mythic tale of Draupadi, the love-deprived princess (taken from the Hindu epic, “Mahabharata”), told in a voice-over that seemed to have been recorded using the New York City subway sound system, might have proved one confusion too many, were it not that Mehti dances throughout each interlude – and she is a terrific dancer.