Opinion & Analysis

Krishnan’s Dairy: A personal reflection

Twenty-five years after its initial showing, Krishnan’s Dairy has returned to the Auckland stage. What does it mean in 2022 for the Kiwi Indian community, and how relevant is it today? Writer Shriya Bhagwat reflects. 

I’d heard about the play Krishnan’s Dairy in the first month I moved to New Zealand, over a decade ago. You would have to have been living under a rock to not have.  It was much talked about and recommended then, performed in New Zealand and overseas.  And it has not wanted in popularity since.

Anyone I knew who’d seen it, raved about it. An Indian uncle had felt overwhelmed when he watched it, and throwing caution to the winds, had unabashedly hugged his wife in the theatre’s lobby afterwards.

Another aunty in the community spoke with such passion about the masks, saying that this was as good as a Kathakali performance she’d seen in Kerala (India). High praise because Kathakali is arguably the most visually distinct, meticulously produced and difficult Indian classical dances to learn, master, and perform.

Attending opening night in Auckland recently, I was cautiously curious and couldn’t give in to excitement completely.

I was curious because of the hype. Consider it for a minute.  An independent play running for 25 years, telling a story set in a humble Wellington dairy. An unsurprising premise yet a stupendously successful show about Indian immigrants.

Being an immigrant, Indian myself, what could be new and fresh for me here that I didn’t already know? Not much, right? Wrong.

Now I wish I’d encountered the plain-speaking Zina earlier in my settling process. Her straightforward declaration of “not liking it here” has the power to validate every homesick Indian.

Still, I was cautious. What if this was the Kiwi butter chicken of theatre?

Alluding to Indian-ness but a sweetened, inoffensive sauce catering to a global (um, western Caucasian) audience? After all, almost all the reviews were by non-Indian folk. It’s tricky to decide when there is ‘cross-over’ work.

I was wrong there as well.

It’s impossible not to be invested in the charming simplicity and truth of Gobi and Zena’s relationship, to not care about them. Theirs is not a well-packaged aspirational love story like those we’re told to want by TV commercials. Rather, devoid of gloss and patina, it is an elusive one.

Everyone needs love. Gobi and Zina are lucky to find it in an ordinary dairy, one of many that dot New Zealand’s neighbourhoods. A love no less grand than the epic love of legendary couple Shah Jahan and Mumtaz of the Taj Mahal fame.

From start to finish, Krishnan’s Dairy is committed to the love story between the two, infusing it with humour, and magic. So, when tragedy strikes, it broke my heart. I might have cried a little.

Jacob Rajan plays all the parts on-stage as he always has in the many iterations through development of the production from his student days. Said out loud, it’s hard to believe it, but he morphs into the characters with such ease that you forget Jacob Rajan the actor altogether. He also gets the accent right. This completely rounds out Gobi and Zina in their authenticity. Rajan may never have lived in India, but you’d never know it from the way Gobi and Zina speak with each other.

At the outset, Rajan invites us to set aside our judgement of arranged marriage. He is the guitar-playing sutradhar (meaning thread-holder in Sanskrit, a puppeteer). In Indian theatre, the sutradhar is a familiar device, thrown in the mix of live performances, the puppeteer making a pact with the audience, holding their hands, guiding them through the landscape of the story.

Rajan makes a return at the very end, but you have to watch the play to know how and why. Speaking after opening night, Rajan said this is possibly the last season of Krishnan’s Dairy.

“I want to stop while I still love it,” he said.

Folks, if this is your last chance to see Gobi and Zina, don’t miss it.  

Go well prepared, though. For while it is tempered with joy, the story can be confronting; to see the realities of working-class Indian immigrants’ life. It was certainly triggering for me.

Today, the Indian community still grapple with the same issues presented in the play. Ask your local dairy owner if they worry about armed burglaries, how often they paint over racist graffiti on their shop walls, or deal with callous rudeness in their shops.

As immigrants, the cost of choice is a few sacrifices. It’s naïve to not know that when you decide to set sail for distant shores. But some things are stolen from you on the way, as Gobi points out: the work hours you will never be paid for and time you will never get back.

Who would have thought that Jacob Rajan’s mask in Krishnan’s Dairy could reveal so much more than it conceals about where we live and who we are?

 - Asia Media Centre