Tea with Terrorists is the alarming title of Sameena Zehra’s one-woman show and while she does eventually get round to the extraordinary true story of how she once sipped Darjeeling on her porch with a band of armed outlaws, it’s the ramble around her family tree in the preceding hour that really engages.
Zehra, an actress/blues singer and now storyteller/comedian was born in south London but moved to Kashmir as a girl. Now based in London once again, she has paid frequent return visits to the family home, as well as to flashpoints in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka and has woven her experiences into a warmly witty hour of tales about ordinary lives lived in extraordinary places.
She does this primarily through a series of brightly drawn family portraits, taking us around a “bell curve” of her relatives and household, from the people she loves dearly at one end to the “painful” types at the other. There’s her overbearing aunt, a stickler for good manners and social graces, and the hapless maid who makes more mess than she cleans. Best of all is her grandmother, a formidable matriarch with a mysterious locked wardrobe, a head full of superstitions and a nice line in colourful curses (“May your knees fall off!”). We get the full force of these in one anecdote about the day the family home was stormed by armed robbers. As they waved their guns and demanded valuables, she calmly removed her golden bangles one by one, each clattering to the tabletop with an ever more elaborate hex attached. She could be a whole show on her own.
The tale is typical of the show’s mingling of the commonplace with the astonishing, and frequently violent. Everyday stories of chopping onions, petty squabbles and schoolgirl canings are mixed in with terrifying teenage memories of being shot at in her uncle’s jeep, the day her neighbour’s husband was kidnapped – twice – and fiery night-time encounters with insurgents. Softly spoken and dressed down in jeans, a checked shirt and trainers, Zehra gives the same weight to each, calmly building up a gently joshing if troubling picture of the absurdities of modern Indian society - god-fearing pensioners, hapless junior terrorists, half-assimilated Westerners and all. As to what happened when she sat down to tea with terrorists, that comes at the very end. Suffice to say, when the gun-toting rebels knocked at the door, Zehra’s aunt ensured that there were plenty of biscuits to go round.
Touring to the Edinburgh Fringe in August (www.sameenazehra.com)