Nine-year-old Homi does not pay attention in class. When his teacher speaks, he focuses on the ceiling fan. Homi isn’t great at conversations either as he is tuned to the sound of a bird on a distant tree when people are talking to him. What’s with Homi is the subject of a play written and directed by Mumbai-based Akarsh Khurana, titled What Planet Are You On? The story of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) told from a child’s perspective is one of the rare instance of theatre dealing with mental health in India. The play, by Khurana’s group, Akvarious Productions, is being staged in cities across India. Excerpts from an interview with Khurana:
What is the significance of the title, What Planet Are You On?
The title does not talk about any planet but what teachers say when a child is not concentrating in class: ‘Hey kid, what planet are you on?’. It means, why are you spacing out.
How do you tackle a neurological disorder as a story for young audiences?
When the play begins, Homi is nine and by the time the play ends, he is 13. The play is about his realisation that he has an issue with concentration which, through a counsellor, he finds out to be ADD. The story deals with how a child reacts to that information and how everybody around him needs to be supportive. Eventually, he learns to live with ADD and be happy. He is surrounded by teachers, counsellors, parents, friends and, towards the end, a girl he is interested in. The play is for children of ages nine and above. It also plays well to adults and we have met people who feel that the play should be seen by parents and teachers. It is not preachy but the message is that people need to be sensitive and aware. These are the two main steps towards having a better life.
Tell us one of the ways we see the inner workings of Homi’s unique mind?
If he is learning about historical figures, Homi imagines them interacting with him. When his history teacher talks to them about Sarojini Naidu, then she plays Sarojini Naidu. His math teacher turns up as the people he talks about. I was clear that I wanted historical figures from India in the play. Homi interacts with Rabindranath Tagore and Aryabhatt along with William Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci.
How does your stage design complement the story about a neurological disorder?
We have built a jungle gym as a set, which depicts many things. Firstly, it is a jungle gym. Secondly, it depicts a child’s brain, the neural network. Homi is the only person who goes inside the jungle gym. The other characters remain out. The jungle gym is like his mind palace. The other furniture on the stage is painted as planets. The jungle gym is painted yellow to depict the solar system as well. Astronomy plays a part in the story and includes a visit to a planetarium.
Your previous plays for children and young adults have been adaptations of writers such as Ruskin Bond and Enid Blyton. What made you create an original script around ADD?
This is the ninth play we have done for children. This time, I wanted to do something that was more contemporary and set in a world that children, who are coming to watch the play, live in. My mother has been a teacher for 35 years and my wife is a psychologist. My wife spoke to me about people who discovered ADD. She told me about French psychiatrist Pierre Pichot, who has published a lot of papers and coined the term ADD. I read up about him and then went online to read a lot of cases of children who have been diagnosed.
Have things changed from the time you were in school?
When I was in school, we didn’t have counsellors or awareness of these issues. It was said that a child had ‘concentration issues’ but nobody could identify it. I have known people who had trouble reading because they were dyslexic but didn’t know this. If we were doing a school play and somebody was making a lot of mistakes reading the script, the response would be, ‘You can’t do this role, we will give it to somebody else’. Nobody bothered to understand why. I think that is the trend that is changing. Teachers and parents need to deal with the issue the right way. We have met a lot of people after the play who said, ‘We were diagnosed but our parents never spoke about it because they were ashamed’. ADD is not something that is taboo.