Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream traces its inspiration to Mumbai and a striking funeral rite

By Janet Smith (Stir)

The Cultch presents Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream at the Historic Theatre from March 23 to April 2

PARADISE OR THE Impermanence of Ice Cream’s utterly unique exploration of mortality started with a trip to Mumbai—and the completely unplanned sight of one of the most bizarre yet poignant death rituals on earth.

For hundreds of years, the Parsi have put their corpses atop the Towers of Silence to be devoured by vultures.

Writer-actor Jacob Rajan was in Mumbai to research a different project, and when he and his colleague weren’t allowed to check into their hotel, they asked a driver to take them on a little tour. It included a trip up to a viewpoint where, off in the distance, sat the towers.

“Vultures can strip the body to bone in 30 minutes,” Rajan marvels over a Zoom call with Stir. “So it’s actually a very environmentally sound practice; there’s no pollution of the air and it all gets recycled.

“And then it got a little weird. I was so intrigued by this, I did a Google search and then found out this other fact: that the vultures had been disappearing and there was a vulture crisis,” he relates. “So the bodies weren’t being eaten, because the vultures were facing an ecological kind of disaster. And the loss of the vultures was a tangible, real-life mystery. Where have millions of vultures disappeared to? It’s extraordinary, because it’s the fastest mass extinction and I hadn’t heard about it. And then it really made me wonder: Why hadn’t I heard about it? Because if a panda had disappeared, or a polar bear, I’d know.”

Anyone who has caught Rajan’s celebrated Indian Ink company on its visits to The Cultch—The Elephant Wrestler and Mrs. Krishnan’s Party—knows that he wouldn’t take a straight-up documentary approach to that subject matter. The troupe is renowned for artful storytelling, mask work, and physical comedy. Instead, Rajan and company cofounder  Justin Lewis started building a human tale around the birds, the death ritual, and the theme of making the most of the time we have. They also wove in other impressions from India’s largest city, from a tea seller to the metaphorically fleeting ice cream—or kulfi—of the title.

Along the way, Rajan became deeply inspired by the concepts in Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning book Denial of Death.

“It’s this idea that everything we do as human beings—science, religion, finance—is actually, at its core, because we are the only species that knows we’re gonna die,” he explains. “It scares the hell out of us. And we do everything we can to buffer ourselves from that very unpalatable truth.”

Early on, the theatre maker who performs the show realized he needed to somehow share the stage with a vulture. Luckily, puppet designer, builder, and puppeteer Jon Coddington was on hand to create the bird of prey.

“It’s eerily lifelike and he understands every skeletal piece of it,” Rajan says. “He’s made every piece of that thing. So when he makes it live, it’s astonishing.”

Rajan himself takes on an elaborate task: playing seven separate characters, including the central Kutisar. He’s a man who is caught in a limbo between life and death, when he meets a young Parsi woman who may be able to help him find paradise—and figure out if he’s lived a “good” life.

The show employs an elaborate sound design to move between locations, the past and present, and the afterlife.

It becomes a fascinating mix of human ritual, philosophy, and even a bit of science—an aspect that may be in part attributable to the fact that Rajan was a microbiology student before leaping into theatre.

“I’ll be honest with you. I’m the son of Indian immigrant parents. I literally had no idea there was such a thing as a humanities department at university, because I was so blinkered,” he laughs. “You know, there’s been a long line of doctors in the family going back hundreds of years and I was supposed to go down that well-trodden path.”

And though you might not expect it in his piece about extinction, environmental crisis, and mortality, Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream offers plenty of laughter along the way.

“We use humour—we have a serious laugh,” Rajan promises. “We open the audience’s mouths with laughter in order to slip something serious in there. Because our central character is a fool. He’s he’s got all of the flaws of human being. He’s desperately trying to hang on to life—as we all are. And that becomes this absurd thing that is the human condition. It is this absurd thing that we we want to live forever.”