Just Nine People

“Mr. Sharda is very angry with me,” says my partner Todd. “When I told him that you performed a story yesterday he scolded me for not letting him know beforehand.”

Todd has been taking private Hindi lessons from Mr. Sharda for three years. His teacher, who is 96 years old, knows seven languages (Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, Kiswahili, Gujarati, Punjabi, English, and he used to know Italian but he’s forgotten a lot of it because he’s NINETY SIX) and still teaches from his cozy Toronto apartment.

As much as I would love to see Mr. Sharda in the audience of one of my performances, I know it’s unrealistic. His mobility is limited, and travel is a challenge.

But I suddenly think – wait, what if the storytelling show could come to him? What if I invited another storyteller and we stood in his living room and gave him a private house concert?

Just last week I saw Moyo Mutamba perform for the first time. He told a folktale and held the audience spellbound. I take a deep breath and get in touch with Moyo and to my delight Moyo immediately agrees to come.

But as the day gets closer I’m more and more nervous. What if no one comes? What if it’s awkward and uncomfortable and no one can wait to leave? What if no one claps, what if people sit checking Facebook on their phones not two feet from the performers? I’ve never done a house concert, I have no idea what to expect and I’m terrified that even Mr. Sharda won’t like it.

It’s pouring rain the day of the house concert. Chilly and dreary, and I am late to the subway station where we’re all meeting. I run upstairs and find Todd, and then see Moyo standing waiting with his friend Natalie. I feel a little better. Even if no one else shows up at least Todd and Natalie will be there to watch with Mr. Sharda.

Todd leads us through the pouring rain through ever-narrowing alleyways until he opens a door and we trail him up the carpeted stairs. We take off our shoes at the top of the hallway, then go into the apartment.

A friend of Mr. Sharda’s, a man in his fifties, welcomes us warmly and ushers us into the small living room, where we find Mr. Sharda sitting alone in a comfy chair. My heart sinks. The house concert starts in five minutes and the room is empty.

I feel like such a jerk; I’ve asked a master storyteller to perform for an audience that now totals five whole people.

Mr. Sharda doesn’t look 96, he looks about fifty, and behind him a portrait photo of him in his mid-twenties gazes languidly down. “Now,” he says, beaming at us, “we will go around the circle and everyone will introduce yourselves.”

In the midst of the introductions an artist arrives, then a moment later a social worker, and fast on her heels a Hindi pandit (scholar) with one of his young students.

Mr. Sharda says to Moyo, “And you will start the performance, yes? Yes.”

Moyo shows us the small round instrument in his lap, called an mbira, and says in his gentle voice that he will sing us a song from Zimbabwe called Muroro. A prayer for comfort in the midst of suffering.

The rain sheets against the windows as this motley crew from all parts of the world, ten languages between us (even if you don’t count Mr. Sharda), fall under the spell of Moyo’s voice, weaving around the notes of the mbira.

And suddenly we could be anywhere. In a small village, in a cozy dive bar, part of a crowd of two thousand people in Massey Hall, anywhere – the living room fades away and there’s just Moyo’s voice, soaring.

The nine of us applaud wildly when he finishes, and he has us in stitches with the folktale he tells next which features – among other miracles – master storyteller Moyo making the sounds of birds tweeting underwater using nothing but his voice.

Mr. Sharda turns to me. “And now, Sage tells us a story,” which I do, and then he says to Natalie, “It is your turn.”

Natalie is only here as Moyo’s friend, but she hops up cheerfully. “Can I sing a song, instead?”

Mr. Sharda nods.

She sits next to his chair and he turns to look at her. She begins to sing in Arabic, her pure contralto filling the room, and she and Mr. Sharda – sixty years separating them – gaze into each other’s eyes as she sings.

And I watch and listen, feeling so privileged to be there. Understanding the magic of a house concert, an intimacy that can never be replicated in a theatre, a shared moment between strangers who may never meet again.

I watch Natalie and Mr. Sharda, thinking that even though Mr. Sharda was a teenager on the eve of World War Two, an adult around the time people were buying televisions for the first time, his first memory is of his father coming home from work on a HORSE – even in his long and strange life, he has never experienced anything quite so entrancing as this moment.