My earliest memories of me involve play-acting. Like many little girls I would play make-believe with my friends, both imaginary and real – but there was one major difference. I didn’t play teacher-teacher, or be the ‘mummy’ hosting a tea party for her doll. I only played one role – of The Actor. I was never confused about what I would do when I grew up, never worried about where my life would go. God had given me a plan and I was content.
The weekend star
My childhood dreams were fuelled by my encouraging, doting parents and though I’d study through the week, I was allowed to pursue professional theatre during the weekends. In school I was the archetypal nerd, but by the weekend I would blossom into a star. I was loved on stage, supported and believed in. All I can say is that my greatest education happened on those magical weekends.
The plan was working and the dreams were all coming true. After finishing school and in my first year at Stanford University, I was offered three films. Suddenly, I was back home pursuing stage, film and even ads simultaneously. I was working round the clock and travelling all the time. My parents who had hoped that my crazy dreams would die a natural death and that their firstborn would go on to pursue a more stable career like law or medicine understood now that this passion would never cease and chose to join me in my madness. With their support, I felt invincible and even started a theatre company – Balancing Act Productions.
A twist in the tale
However, like every story, there was a twist in my tale too. It came in the form of a horrible illness – acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. I had just travelled back from a show in Hyderabad, directed a show of my own and returned home when suddenly I realised I couldn’t speak. I was slurring and had fever. As the disease is rare, I was misdiagnosed thrice before I was finally taken to a hospital after my motor functions stopped. There, I was told I had 111 plaques in my brain and that I would never be able to walk again. At that single moment, life for me changed forever. Suddenly, I realised that though I had a 12-page resume (all in fine print); life hadn’t told me what to do when faced with the prospect of losing everything I had ever known and lived for. However, I resolved to get off that bed. My parents had not taught me anything about defeat and I was so proud that when I cried they helped me mop up the tears and try again. I can only imagine the amount of worry and pain they must have felt during this time. They never let it show and they never let me feel sorry for myself. I had lived a great life and I was determined to continue.
Also at my side was a wonderful man – Aditya. A lesser man would have cut his losses and left. In a world where divorce is more heard of than marriage, and break-ups are the norm and not the exception; he chose to not only stay with me but alsostand by me. Aditya proposed when I was in hospital and that was just another reason to get me off the bed and on my feet.
Multiple sclerosis is incurable. I got out of hospital in two months, was on steroids for a year. I vowed to make each day count.
Since the illness, my company Balancing Act Productions has grown. We have classes, productions and produce at least one huge play each year. I have also directed several television shows and conceptualised numerous shows and events. I have started writing more plays and have been able to really enjoy my work.
One of my greatest achievements is a play called A Personal War - Stories of the Mumbai Terror Attacks. It’s in a series of monologues of about six people in six different parts of the city on the night of November 26, 2008, when Mumbai was torn apart by a series of terrorist attacks in different parts of the city. After the attacks, I, like several others, was shell shocked. I was angry. I wanted to do something but had no idea what. The play was written after meeting several survivors of the attacks. I wanted to capture what they went through on that fateful night and, more importantly, how they survived. Surviving a night like that puts life in perspective. Some missed their families and vowed to spend more time with them. Some focussed on the fact that they were planners and had never lived in the moment.
Others wanted to just make the most of their lives. I wanted the audience to see and appreciate the value of life. I wanted them to see something positive that came out of something so destructively negative.
The audience did. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, among 55,600 performances, ours was ranked the best free play. At the New York International Fringe Festival, I was awarded best director and three months ago at the Sydney International Fringe Festival, I was awarded best director, best producer, best writer etc etc.
I premiere a new show soon, am writing a television show concept and finishing a film script. I still make weekly trips to the hospital because I have over 45 plaques remaining in my brain. I have good days and bad days. I have had to re-learn everything from learning how to smile, to talking correctly, to walking. But if you didn’t know I was sick, you’d never guess.
I got a second chance at life and when I have my family and Aditya to wake up to every day... I have to keep going. They believed in me. Now it’s my turn to believe in me. And I do.
I wanted the audience to see and appreciate the value of life. I wanted them to see something positive that came out of something so negative! —Divya Palat, actor and theatre director