In Bay Area, Indian Immigrants Find Community In Theater

Sep 1, 2019
Originally published on September 1, 2019 6:05 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, a few miles from Google and Apple headquarters, there is a wildly popular theater company for techies who are Indian immigrants. They've come to America to find their dreams and discovered that working in tech isn't the only thing that feeds their souls. NPR's Aarti Shahani paid a visit and has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: My first time at the theater company Naatak years back, it felt like oxygen. I was new to the Silicon Valley beat, and large swaths of the place, even in San Francisco, felt like being trapped in the computer science department at Stanford. At Naatak - the Hindi word for drama - I got to see my people, Indian Americans, as the producers of culture - not just sidekicks who code.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Chanting, unintelligible).

SHAHANI: It's Saturday morning in a warehouse in Santa Clara, and dozens of volunteer actors are here for rehearsal. In their spare time, they are data scientists, engineers, bisdathlethes (ph) at tech giants.

SUJIT SARAF: Now, these guys have pretty high rates in their day jobs.

SHAHANI: But you get them for nothing.

SARAF: I get them for nothing. Hopefully, what I give them is more than their salaries, man.

SHAHANI: What Sujit Saraf gives these techies who are building the future is a connection to the past and the present through community. It's what Naatak gives him, too. Saraf founded the theater company with a friend back in 1995. The playwright-novelist-director is a former research scientist at NASA who now runs a software company.

SARAF: See? In spite of all the big talk about this startup changing the world in this way and that startup changing it in the - that other way, much of what we as engineers do is rather mundane.

SHAHANI: At Naatak, Saraf take stories from back home, keeping enough of the original to be authentic, and interpreting, adapting enough to be relevant, to speak to the zeitgeist. His latest play is on Mahatma Gandhi. It was in part inspired by America's current president.

SARAF: In his own way, he was a little bit like Trump.

MARTIN: Which may sound nuts, but what Saraf means is Gandhi, too, was a populist leader, though his brand was compassionate ascetic. While married, Gandhi took a vow of celibacy in his thirties. And he was very explicit about bodily functions in a way that will feel familiar to Indians here and back home. Gandhi ran around the country by train and bullock cart visiting the forgotten villagers.

SARAF: And he told them, clean your bathrooms. He told them how to poop. He told them how to simply poop and be - he was very, very graphic, very, very personal, very, very open, and he looked the part.

SHAHANI: This kind of detail is why Saraf and Naatak drew me in. They're teaching me about a place I feel I should know but got lost in migration. Vikram Ramanarayan, an engineer working on speech science - the kind of tech that goes into Siri and OK Google - has been performing here for four years.

VIKRAM RAMANARAYAN: It's perhaps the closest thing to home away from home. Maybe that's the best way to put it.

SHAHANI: And then there's who you could call the all-purpose white guy.

SCOTT KNASTER: (As character) And how goes your experiment in celibacy?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Gandhi) Carnal desires cannot be suppressed.

SHAHANI: Scott Knaster is playing several roles - mostly British, one South African. He heard of Naatak through a private listserv at Google, where he works. He says being the minority surrounded by mostly brown faces and Hindi has been fascinating.

KNASTER: It's fun and filled with anxiety. And the fun - if the fun outweighs the anxiety, then that's good.

SHAHANI: Sujit Saraf calls himself the Wal-Mart greeter for new arrivals. He's seen thousands of people come through his doors. And that's given him a bit of a take on the immigrant community. It's not the most flattering take.

SARAF: In true American fashion, most Indians who have done well firmly believe they deserved it all. It is a little ridiculous to expect them to think too hard about those who are still on their way up.

SHAHANI: As he says it, I can't help but think his achievement - what may be the largest Indian theater company in America - is proof that immigrants do remember their brothers and sisters.

Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Santa Clara. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.