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The Road Virus Heads North
[The title is stolen from a Stephen King short story (off 999, and then Everything’s Eventual) about painting that comes to life and chases a writer across the country.]

The end of the world will look like an under-construction flyover on the NH25, somewhere on the outskirts of Kanpur. The two ends of the flyover eye each other across a bomb crater. And dust. Dust rises from the road like someone has just dropped a body to the ground. It’s like looking at the world through a continuously shifting scrim. From behind a window, during sunset, the scene has the terrible beauty of the apocalypse.

This was the detail: travel with Rage and One on One to IIT Kanpur. Two shows. Detach from the unit, join Toral Shah in Lucknow and set off on an eight day recce across the north. Lucknow, Delhi, Ludhiana, and Jaipur. Take some photos, make some notes, meet some vendors, cache some venues. The perks of being a lighting designer.

            I’ve been trying to retire from lighting theatre for about as long as I’ve been trying to quit smoking. I refuse to commit to an answer about how either effort is progressing. However, traveling as a technician is the least favourite part of my job. At least in Bombay and in Bangalore, I know what I’m in for. The rest of the country is a vast unknown. Language barriers [“No Hindi numbers, saar, say English”], dodgy equipment and a general sentiment along the lines of “well, there are three guys holding torches, right? So we can open the doors, right?”

            But IIT Kanpur is different. Genuinely. We’d been the year before, Nadir Khan and I, with Rage. It was fucking crazy. Great, considerate, polite volunteer corps. A jaw-dropping campus [they have their own airstrip]. The fastest internet connection in the country. Five thousand-seater auditorium. Outsourced equipment manufactured and maintained in a low-rent asylum. 

            I ended up operating off three lighting desks, occasionally pulling blackouts with the heel of my left foot. And Nadir was juggling lapel mics and equalizers like a man trying to hold off an army with a toothpick. We aged a few years, smoked too many cigarettes, agreed that Noises Off had been a joke compared to this and immediately said ‘yes’ when Rajit called the next year.

             IIT Kanpur isn’t a show. It’s a rite of passage. It’s the theatrical equivalent of whitewater rafting.

            [Come to think of it, I peeled off to Lucknow the year before as well, to join my merry charges on the Tata Aria launch. There’s a pattern here. And that’s… another article.]

            This trip began ominously enough. Post the apocalypse, we drove up to what seemed like a traffic jam at the end of the world. Nadir sprang out of the Scorpio. “I’ll go check it out”. [Solving stuff comes easy to Nadir. Toral once turned to me for help after we’d unpacked wrought iron furniture that looked like Salvador Dali had been at it. I shook my head and said “Nadir”. True story.] He was joined by a Nameless party, recently recovered from a bout of food poisoning. About forty two seconds later, the traffic jam takes off like the cars are at the start-line of a race. Nadir and Nameless are on the median strip, we’re in the left-most lane. The traffic shifts over to the other side of the highway. I spring out of the car and start dialing both numbers. The trekking crew is already five hundred meters behind us, on the NH25. “I’m standing by the side of the road,” I say, “waving my arms like mad.” “I see you,” says Nadir. I turn around and the Scorpio’s gone, unable to stay pulled over in face of the flood of traffic. My phone rings. “Where the hell are you?” asks Anu Menon. 

            Nadir, Nameless and I cross the Ganga on foot, looking over our right shoulders continually as traffic tries to avoid us, walking towards the first stop the driver could find, a few kilometers down the road. We are guided by an increasingly icy Anu Menon. There is a foot over-bridge for pedestrians, of course. We missed it, of course. It’s like the beginning of bloody The Two Towers, I think to myself. All in all, this is a promising start.

            The set-up at IIT Kanpur has an established procedure. Get dinner, go to the venue, draw up a plan, hand it over. The light guys work through the night; rigging, connecting, patching. Head back the next morning. Start focusing. And then watch the whole enterprise slowly start to unravel. Something, somewhere will trip up. One light, a single wire, three non-functional dimmers. This is not a knock on the guys. They are, for the most part, genuine and very hardworking. It’s just Kanpur. It’s ordained.

            This time, the deck had been re-cut before we got to Kanpur. Two new actors in the show. And the fashion show ramp, running from the edge of stage for about twenty feet, into the audience, pre-installed. Alright, then. The same guys from the previous year smiled nervously as I walked into the hall. We got new equipment, they said. Because of last year. Implicit in this statement is the following: we got new equipment because of you. It ties into my general reputation. There’s a story floating around the NCPA that they had to get new lighting boards because I’d destroyed the old ones. Both of them. Alone. And staff in other venues in Bombay will shuffle duty if they hear that I’m scheduled next. It’s a legend of sorts, I suppose.

            The next morning, I focus and program. Nadir sorts out the roster for the rotation of [new!] lapel mics. We argue about the bass output from the speakers. I think the music levels are too loud. He thinks I’m soft in the head. It’s a well-loved routine. Everyone worries about Kunaal Roy Kapur, in and as Anand Tiwari in Load Shedding [the one where he’s on the ladder, spouting Marathi and no, it’s not called Lamppost]. No one worries about KRK’s performance. Everyone worries about him getting up that damned ladder. This is an almost normal morning. We’ve turned Kanpur around.    

            Until the tech. 

Every submaster, halfway through a fade, starts to flicker. Every single one. Which means it will flicker on the way up and on the way down. There is a meeting. Then another one. First with the lighting grunts. Then with the lighting bosses. IITians are standing around anxiously. I’m getting louder. Nadir is offering ritual sacrifices of chickens for the general health of his lapel mics. This has suddenly reverted to par-for-course. We’re suspecting everything. The bomb squad drifts by [as they do before all shows at IIT Kanpur] accompanied by a very friendly German Shepherd. The dog is so friendly that its handler is resigned to people playing with the dog. The vendors are on the phone to Delhi, yelling at the guy they bought the new board from. We’re yelling at the vendors, offering suggestions for other things to yell at the guy in Delhi about. IITians are now wincing. Kanpur, baby.

            This is the pearl, quite literally, that emerges from the phone conversation: if you put more than four lights on a submaster, on a programmable desk, it’s bound to flicker. Tension dissipates immediately because we’re laughing so hard that we can barely stay upright. We shrug it off. We’ll figure a way through. Snap fades, y’all. On every cue. But before we agree to starting the show [or the preamble to the show, which is the ceremonial lighting of the lamp], we gently pull the vendors aside and inform them they’ve been gypped good. Not only is the board Chinese, it’s bad Chinese. It’s like bad Scotch. Nothing under the sun will mess you up that good, and that fast.

            The shows went well, all things considered. IIT Kanpur is a great crowd, the kind of crowd that leaves you feeling like you were part of The Beatles for one night. Until Preetika Chawla got onto stage. The sight of a talented, pretty, young actress in a dress that ends at her knees apparently brings out the tribal in a group of engineers. There was baying I hadn’t heard since I watched Omkara at the Pinky Theatre, next to Andheri [E] Station. The show stopped for thirty seconds, through the [snap] blackout at the end of the transition before Bash began, as the engineers fed the sight of a girl into their systems. She didn’t flinch. Just got on with her job. Down in the lighting pit, we could barely see the stage through the mist of pheromones. The baying necessitated a change of costume before the next show. It didn’t make the slightest fucking difference.

            Meanwhile, starting with the first showing of Bash, lights were exploding like it was gunnery practice. Sharp reports punctuated every other monologue. By the end of the second show, as another crack rang out through the auditorium, accompanied by a flash of blue and the smell of cooked metal, Nadir turned to me. We were both laughing hysterically.
            “What did you lose now?”
            “I don’t fucking know, man.” I waved my hands around weakly. And then we were laughing again.

            The next morning, I hitched a ride to the airport with Anu Menon. While I waited, someone tried to steal non-existent attar out of my bag [again, true story]. Two cups of coffee later, Toral Shah and Vijay Uncle picked me up. 

            And that’s where the real trip through the North began.