Paradise, Parsi traditions, kulfi, and a vulture come together in comedic Cultch play on humanity’s quest for immortality

By Charlie Smith (Pancouver)

Auckland-based theatre artist Jacob Rajan has done something completely different as a cowriter and performer in an upcoming production at the Cultch. In Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream, he and co-writer and director Justin Lewis explore how seven characters—all played by Rajan—have an “immortality project”.

“It’s funny; it’s absurd,” Rajan tells Pancouver over Zoom. “The play is a comedy—and we get to laugh at it for a while. Of course, presiding over this is a puppet vulture, which is extraordinary.”

However, there’s a serious underlying message. Rajan and Lewis were partially inspired by American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1974 book The Denial of Death.

“Here was a guy saying everything that human beings do—good or bad at its core—is driven by the fact that we are the only species that knows we’re doing to die,” Rajan says. “And we can’t stand it. We are terrified to the core of that.”

Then the actor and playwright rattles off various ways in which humans strive for immortality. He notes that it can be through having children, which will continue a family line indefinitely. It can also come through the accumulation of wealth and material goods, buffering a person from death for as long as possible. Or a sense of immortality can result from religion, which sows the belief in an ever-lasting paradise.

“There are myriad delusions we have as human beings that stop us from dying,” Rajan explains.

Paradise started with vultures

More than 25 years ago, Rajan and Lewis founded Indian Ink Theatre Company, telling universal stories through South Asian characters. Along the way, the company has won many awards, performed in several countries, and reached a total audience of more than a half-million people.

Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream’s central character is an ambitious South Indian chaiwala (tea seller) who moves to Mumbai 30 years ago. There, he meets a Parsi woman and learns about how this tiny community places its dead in a Tower of Silence. There, the corpses are consumed by vultures.

“At some point in the 1990s, the Parsis noticed that the bodies weren’t being eaten,” Rajan says. “Then with that came a quick realization that all the vultures had disappeared.”

Rajan and Lewis learned about this on a trip to Mumbai. They subsequently spent time with Parsis to learn more about this tradition and their culture before co-writing the script.

Rajan points out that India—the world’s largest milk producer—had a symbiotic relationship with vultures for thousands of years. Because vegetarianism is so common in India and cattle are sacred to Hindus, many of  these animals are never eaten by humans. When cattle died, the Indian vultures would descend from the skies to consume the rotting flesh.

That is, until these scavengers started being poisoned en masse by antibiotics used in agriculture.

“It’s literally the fastest mass extinction of all time,” Rajan says. “Within a 10-year period, 99.9 percent of the vultures disappeared.”

Indian Ink founded on love of masks

Parsis are descendants of Persian Zoroastrians who moved to South Asia to escape persecution from Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries. The world’s most famous Parsi was Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, who grew up in Zanzibar.

Meanwhile in Mumbai, this community has enjoyed tremendous success in business, counting industrialist Ratan Tata among its 70,000 members.

The faith’s founder, Zarathustra, emphasized the importance of “good thoughts, good words, good deeds”. Rajan says that the Indian government is pleased by wealthy Parsis’ willingness to fund philanthropic initiatives.

Rajan, who’s not Parsi, was born in Malaysia and moved to New Zealand with his parents as a four-year-old. He has a deep understanding of India as the son of immigrants from the southwestern state of Kerala. He’s furthered that knowledge by visiting India about 10 times, with his longest stay lasting about six months.

Rajan’s family roots go back to small towns near Kochi and Anandapuram. But he says that his relatives now live all over the world.

“I guarantee once I’ll land [in Vancouver], there will be family crawling out of the woodwork,” Rajan quips. “It’s a running joke.”

Kerala has nearly 100 percent literacy and some of the best hospitals in India. He has a microbiology degree and hoped to become a doctor before switching to theatre.

“I’m the first Indian graduate in New Zealand from the national drama school here,” he says.

Rajan’s family is also extraordinarily well-educated, with some attending Harvard and other top schools. His mother has a B.A. in psychology. This reflects the ethos of Kerala.

“You teach a guy, you teach one person,” Rajan says. “You teach a woman, you teach a family. That was sort of the mantra growing up.”

Rajan aims for universal appeal

There’s a strong New Zealand component to Indian Ink. A phrase that describes the country—Number 8 Wire—reflects its ingenuity, resourcefulness, and adaptability.

According to Rajan, Kiwis take ideas from other countries and then “completely pirate them for our own purposes”. They’re not bound by centuries of tradition. Nor is his theatre company.

Moreover, Rajan readily admits that cultural components in Indian Ink plays lend an exoticism to its plays. Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream, for example, offers audiences authentic sounds of Mumbai traffic, a vulture puppet, and a sprinkling of Malayalam dialogue. Then there are the strange teeth that Rajan’s central character wears on-stage.

In fact, Indian Ink was founded on a love of masks. Rajan says that this came more from European than Indian traditions. In addition, he emphasizes that masks and puppetry are close cousins.  Each requires the same sort of imaginative pact with the audience.

He notes that over the years, characters in Indian Ink shows have addressed themes of interest across the globe. They include finding happiness or love or facing one’s own mortality.

“All of these are big questions,” Rajan acknowledges. “They’re not tied to a particular culture. They’re tied to being a human being.

“There’s some delight in finding differences in people,” the actor and playwright continues. “But at the end of the day, it’s really how scarily similar we all are. This is the upshot of most of our plays, if not all of them.”