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Essay

The Malodorous Mountain: A Contemporary Folklore

By Sayantan Sur

On a bleak wintertide morning in January, our story begins with a black taxi and a somnolent rider. The taxi was racing through a maze of concrete towards the southern part of the city when out of the blue, the silhouette of a towering mountain appeared. With a large flock of wings dancing around its crest, the mountain looked surreal. One would naturally be stupefied to come across this elevation as Delhi is supposed to be flat as a pancake. As we closed in, my initial shock was instantly replaced by a strong sense of revulsion, for the mountain turned out to be a ginormous pile of rubbish. This reeking pile, I would later find out, is infamously known as the mountain of garbage.

The mountain is currently as tall as the majestic Taj Mahal, and would soon outgrow the mausoleum. On blazing summer days, spontaneous fires erupt from the methane released from the dump. Encircling its slope, is a small slum of rag-pickers. The local inhabitants who continually breathe in the putrid air often develop severe respiratory diseases, allergies, and asthma. Discarded tires at the dumpsite accumulate rain-water and transform into a haven for mosquitoes. This dump at Ghazipur was instated in 1984 and was to be closed in 2002 when it had reached its capacity, but evidently, that did not happen. The mountain and its ailing people sum up the out-and-out failure of the capital’s waste management system and its lack of operational efficiency.

On average, Delhi produces 10,000 tonnes of waste per day, and less than half of it gets segregated. About 50% of this waste is composed of organic materials, which for the most part comes from individual households. To treat this heap of organic waste, Delhi has only two operational composting and zero vermi-composting plants. The number of such facilities undoubtedly need to be increased. Although organic wastes account for a large fraction of the total waste, it imposes a lesser threat than other inorganic wastes such as plastic.

Plastic wastes make up just about 10% of the total municipal solid waste in Delhi, despite the current blanket-ban on 50-micron plastics. Three fourth of the household garbages are wrapped in single-use polythene bags, which eventually end up in landfill sites. Delhi currently generates the largest quantity of plastic waste in India, which is truthfully shameful. These plastics are practically impossible to segregate at the landfill sites due to the lack of advanced equipment. The only recycling presently being done is by the rag-pickers, who risk their lives to rummage through the rotten dumps and sell the collected plastics to intermediary dealers.

Other countries, however, have addressed this very problem by using advanced scientific methods. Commercially available sorting machines can easily classify the plastic wastes from other garbages, which uncomplicate the task of recycling. These machines employ basic spectroscopy and x-ray techniques to perform macro-sorting, which is far more efficient than manual sorting. Macro-sorting involves the separation of plastic bottles and containers, while micro-sorting deals with smaller bits, such as chopped plastic flakes. The sink-float technique is one of the major methods used to perform micro-sorting; here the materials are deposited in a water-filled tank and subsequently, the lighter materials start to float while the heavy materials sink. This technique works only when the materials have different densities. The plastic wastes can also be used to fabricate usable products, such as hydrogen and carbon-nanotubes, by using a process called two-step pyrolysis. This process uses Ni-Fe (Nickel and Iron) as a catalyst under extreme temperatures, to produce high yields of hydrogen gas. This thermochemical method is remarkably energy-efficient and can be easily practiced to recycle our plastic wastes.

An alternative way to get rid of plastics is through bioremediation. It involves the usage of different microorganisms, which can consume and degrade certain environmental pollutants. Last year, a paper published in the journal, Environmental Pollution has discovered an entirely new species of plastic-eating bacteria (Ji et al. Env. Pol. 258, 113793; 2020). This bacteria, Mycobacterium neoaurum, is the first known bacteria identified to have the ability to degrade 2,6-DMP (2,6-dimethylphenol), which is a widely used plastic monomer. Consequently, M. neoaurum might prove to be a key candidate for the bioremediation of 2,6-DMP-contaminated areas.

Corresponding to this, another paper published in, Science of the Total Environment has unearthed a plastic-eating super worm in China (Yang et al. Sci Total Environ. 708, 135233; 2020) . The larvae of the worm, Zophobas atratus, was proven to be capable of degrading and mineralizing polystyrene. The worms were shown to survive near about a month on the Styrofoam diet alone. Each super worm was estimated to devour 0.58 mg Styrofoam per day, which is four times more than what mealworms can eat. These new findings can change the currents ways of recycling plastic but we have to bear in mind that these scientific methods can only be used when our waste is properly segregated and disposed of in the first place; if the biological wastes are mixed with inorganic wastes, then they become unusable for future use.

The present-day segregation and sorting happen under extremely hazardous conditions and its effectiveness is reasonably low as only valuable discards are segregated from the dumpsite which guarantees a comparatively greater economic benefit in the recycling market. So, it becomes our duty as civilized citizens to ensure that we sort our household trash at our homes and then only it will have a domino effect on the waste management process.

The mountain of garbage is not only a physical body, but it is a metaphor that can be applied to any city with poor garbage disposal facilities. Luckily for us, the final act is yet to be written, and only time will reveal that story.

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Sayantan Sur is a doctoral fellow at the University of Delhi. He has published numerous scientific articles and has won 2019 AWSAR award for articulating best science story.

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Essay

Potable Water Crisis & the Sunderbans

By Camellia Biswas

Many projected climate change impacts, including sea-level rise, temperature increase, heavy rainfall, drought and cyclone intensity, is increasing yearly flooding, riverbank erosion, salinity intrusion, etc. These pose severe impediments to the socio-economic development of India, especially the coastal areas. The coastal area of India, especially the Bay of Bengal, is located at the tip of the northern Indian Ocean. It is frequently hit by severe cyclonic storms, generating long tidal waves aggravated by the shallow bay.

At least one major tropical cyclone strikes the Eastern/south-eastern coast each year with powerful tidal surges. The Chakraborty et al (2016, 13-19) report states almost 2.3 million people were affected by Cyclone Aila more than a decade ago in May 2009. Many people were stranded in flooded villages. The tidal surge was about 10-13metres in height. It washed away enormous number of households, lives, livestock, crops and all other resources of the affected region. Aila was not a powerful storm, but its heavy incessant rains and storm surges were enough to swamp the mouths of the Ganges in both Bangladesh and India (Biswas 2017).

Some islands in the Bay of Bengal and the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans region were wholly submerged underwater. This catastrophe happened within a brief period, which resulted in people becoming homeless, leaving their assets in the households. A tiny percentage of the affected people could take shelter in the nearby cyclone shelter or schools during the cyclonic event. However, in several discussions, the affected people criticised that most cyclone shelters were built post-Aila and schools had only ground floors, which was anyways inundated. Most people thus took refuge on elevated roads. The extreme flooding also resulted in thousands of people losing access to safe drinking water and exposure to floodwaters containing untreated wastewater, dead animals and fish.

Impacts on water systems and water quality are often not visualised as chronic damage to property or the landscape. And thus, most treatments to these problems are temporary and short-lived. Potable water scarcity is a cumulative problem in the coastal region of India, especially Sundarbans, as it is revolving saline water slowly. Climate-induced disasters like rainfall, cyclone and storm surge, flood etc., are making the situation worse. Coastal people gradually depend on groundwater due to surface water salinity. As a result, groundwater extraction is increasing day by day. For that reason, the shallow aquifer has also been contaminated by salinity intrusion.

I have witnessed the horrific situation of women and children wailing for drinking water and waiting for relief distribution while spending my summer holidays at my native house in Sundarbans. The 14-year-old me then was horrified by the helpless situation of my own people, my kin and kept wondering whether disaster management conditions would be better or worse in due course of time especially when it concerns marginal communities of Dalits and Adivasis.

The memories of Aila keep flashing back to these Sundarban islanders every time they are hit by a cyclone or post-cyclone flood. Some of the stories they shared with me during my doctoral fieldwork made me revisit my Aila memories. As a native researcher, it gave a new stance towards the importance of water beyond its economic value and enhancing communities’ socio-cultural ties. Water, which has often served as an agency to conflict and dispute, during Aila it stimulated the sense of brotherhood and togetherness among the Samsernagar village residents.

Flood Friendship Between India-Bangladesh

Samsernagar is the last village in West Bengal’s Sundarban, bordering Bangladesh by river Kalindi. During Aila, the embankments of Samsernagar broke, resulting in the inundation of the village with the high tide influx from Kalindi. It led to total ruination of the settlement in just a couple of minutes. Samsernagar was submerged in the water, and so were the tube-wells and ponds, which were the only source of drinking water. It is where the villagers from Bangladesh came as harbingers of help.

In the political map, Bangladesh and India are demarcated as two separate nations. However, for people in Samsernagar, their neighboring village will still be the Village Koikhali of Bangladesh. To better understand, I phoned one of my respondent’s relatives who lived on the other side and asked about their experience during Aila regarding the help they provided to the Samsernagar residents. Koikhali residents came to Samsernagar rowing on their boat with barrels of potable water and other essential aids like food, clothes and mats. From several discussion and information interaction, it can be inferred that Samsernagar still recognises their international neighbour’s gesture which didn’t let them die of drinking polluted water. This act showed how, on the one hand, the water acted as a demon to the villagers through flooding and on the other, the barrels of drinking water brought by the neighbouring villages of Bangladesh became a sign of camaraderie and community interest. It went beyond just a mere necessity to live. It showed us how two villages come together, ignoring the human-made international boundary.

The Dilemma of Drinking water Crisis

That this acute drinking water problem can turn into a chronic issue in events like Aila and similar flooding situations is given credence by the fact that underground water also becomes saline due to leaching and seepage. Even after the floodwater recedes, the tube well water remains undrinkable. Sittler (2017), in her study on ‘Floodwater and stormwater can contaminate your water well’ argues that regardless of where storm-water runoff occurs, like floods, it can carry harmful contaminants such as soil, animal waste, salt, pesticides, and oil, potentially impacting drinking water wells and water quality. When discussed these challenges with groundwater experts at Sundarbans, they pointed out that in the Hingalganj Block, where Samsernagar village is situated, many deep tube well weren’t rightly maintained. Excessive contaminant-laden run-off infiltrated these drinking water wells through and assessed that the well casings or caps may not have been completely watertight. Moreover, any potential contaminants into the well can pose at least a short-term risk to water quality and human health.

In 2009, many families in Sundarbans, out of desperation, consumed pond water undergoing some basic filtration, knowing that the pond water stank from carcasses of dead animals. As farmlands remain filled with saline water, paddy yield became meagre the same and following year. Affected people when interviewed spoke of the mismanagement of the state’s relief supply and its lack of providing safe water, on how the local administrations would run some basic filtration like boiling the contaminated water and distributing it. As a result, hundreds of villagers suffered from diarrhea two weeks after drinking contaminated water. According to UNICEF, 28 diarrheal deaths were registered, and over 85,000 cases were reported from the Aila-hit districts of West Bengal.

Water can be considered a symbolic element, a resource, a commercial product, or a service. The interconnections established and the value attributed to water usage serves to build norms and references that influence the decision-making process from individuals to higher levels of social organisation. When considering it a resource for life, its interests and values vary and change across cultures, communities, states, space and time. One may raise an inquiry that spaces like Sundarbans is surrounded by rivers and seas, and that’s presumably the reason why Sundarban locals might not feel impacted by the presence of noble metals in the water.

However, as Sundarban landscape has a mangrove ecosystem, the water quality in and around the area has been found to be of inferior quality (CGWB report, 2014-15). If also, post-Aila most deep wells that were reconstructed at the height of 8-10ft above flood level so that the runoff was less likely to introduce contaminants into these wells, slight amount of saline water still managed to seep into the groundwater. However, it is the persistent presences of high iron and arsenic in the wells within that should raise alarm. So, even though the region is surrounded by water, most of it is toxic. Thus, for the Sundarban islanders, continuous access to safe and potable water is an aspiration that continues a dream for the whole community.

REFERENCES:

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Camellia Biswas is a doctoral candidate at the discipline of Humanities & Social science, IIT Gandhinagar. She is an Inlaks-RS conservation grantee for the year 2021-22. Her research specialises in Environmental anthropology, focusing on human- Nature Interaction in Indian Sundarban under the larger discourse of Climate disaster.

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Essay

Dramatising an Evolving Consciousness: Theatre with Nithari’s Children

Sanjay Kumar gives us a glimpse of how theatre has been used to transcend trauma and create bridges

This essay uses the material of five years of continual theatre workshops conducted from mid 2006 to the present day with young adolescent children, siblings and neighbours of victims of sexual abuse and cannibalism in Nithari, India. My point of entry is that of a practitioner of workshop-based theatre with the activist theatre group, pandies’ theatre (Delhi).

pandies’ theatre, though registered formally in 1993, traces its origins to 1987 when some students and teachers of an undergraduate college in Delhi University decided to move away from the flippant, meaningless plays put up in the name of competitions and festivals by theatre societies of various colleges and take up more meaningful full length plays staged at the commercial auditoriums in more or less half commercial manner. The society performed Lorca, Ngugi, Strindberg, Vicente Lenero, Genet and Brecht in that order. Surviving under the rubric of a college was becoming difficult. Students who had completed their studies wanted to be with us, students from other colleges wanted to join and there was consistent opposition from college authorities regarding the wasted time of the students and the unconventional themes of the performances. pandies’ theatre was born in 1993.

Moving away from a college and a university, with four teachers including the author as the office bearers and an executive committee consisting of ex-students. The initial strength of the group was around thirty members and the active component continues to be so though the total number has grown larger. Begun with a simple agenda of staging plays relevant to our ethos and time, it has evolved as an activist group – left, feminist and atheistic. It started as a proscenium oriented English theatre group but from 1996 turned increasingly activist taking on projects rather than plays. The dominant number of women among the younger members assured a feminist beginning for the group.

As the decade moved and majoritarian communal hatred flourished, pandies moved away from a simple secular outlook to a more definitive atheistic position. Post 2002, following the heart-breaking Gujarat pogrom, the group took a conscious decision to target anti-communal forces and work intensively with young people and these have been the high points of recent years. The group has penetrated more and more into the margins, working specially with under-privileged children from diverse area. Our work, which is now almost totally activist, can be put under three divisions: first, scripting and directing performances (largely adaptations and original scripts) for the proscenium, first staged in a commercial theatre and then used also for Awareness programmes; second, using theatre as a means of generating awareness on diverse issues ranging from feminist theatre to gay rights to child rights and rights of religious minorities and this attempt includes legal and legislative intervention. And the third and at the moment the most focussed area lies in creating theatre with young people with a view to articulating trauma, containing conflict and getting space for marginalised voices in policy formulation.1

For resources the group often looks within. At times the projects are funded, like when the politics of the funding agency agrees with that of pandies’. For instance, the group has worked with the government in the late 90s on HIV awareness and reform in laws against rape and at various times with like-minded NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) on issues of child rights and gender. However, especially in its more radical projects (including the one discussed here), the group is often forced to turn to its own resources, which means money from friends and from the members of the group, including those who are working in the project itself. pandies’ has increasingly felt that whereas funding is required for large-scale work and to bring about social and legal change, incisive shorter projects, that do not derive funding from outside bring an uncompromising radical sharpness to the work and need to feed into agendas of reform and contribute towards policy-making. For its performance-based awareness campaigns and specially its theatre teaching workshops with young people the group prefers to move in where there is some pre-existing infrastructure (as the school Saksham in the example here, or an NGO run camp for displaced children or a state-run reformatory) but is not averse to move in directly where its members perceive a dire need.

Workshop based theatre at Nithari, the focal point of this paper, assumes extreme importance for me and my colleagues at pandies’ as it provides a uniquely sustained and sustainable foray into assessing the viability of performance as a process of social amelioration, even if it is of one kind of workshop based activist performance in one area. As the Chief Facilitator I attempt to graph changes that theatre workshops and performance bring in the consciousness of the participants and facilitators as young, trained facilitators (some in their late teens and most in their twenties) work with the survivors of a traumatic carnage. I proceed further to try and examine wider implications of these changes.

The Carnage and its Context

Nithari was placed on the national centre-stage in December 2006 – January 2007 as, after two years of unceasing complaints from its impoverished residents, the police finally moved in to discover carcasses of fifty-three children from the drains of the posh houses bordering the village. That story of severed limbs and rotting body parts forms one of the most enduring narratives in the written and electronic media in the country.

The carnage is intimately linked with the complex multi- layerity of life in a city like Delhi, the capital of India. The rampant growth of Delhi has forced the national government to extend the city beyond the parameters of Delhi’s administration and create a National Capital Region to divert this growth. At the moment the pan-construct (NCR) includes areas of three states, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, besides Delhi and New Delhi. Coerced proximal living of different classes creates many problems in Delhi itself and these get compounded as one moves to the NCR. Chunks of rural land have been taken over by the state governments for urbanisation – building roads and industries, malls and multiplexes. Pockets of small, old “villages” exist juxtaposed with posh multi-storeyed residential apartments and offices that rank among the most expensive in the country. These old rural spaces survive as the source of menial help – maids, servants, gardeners and fruit and vegetable sellers – for the rich residents around. Many old villages have become slums, the abode of migrant labour that comes here from all parts of the country to improve its lot. The disparity creates palpable tensions. The residents of these poor pockets, specially their children, some of whom have been born here and many have spent most of their lives here, are sensitive to the blatant display of wealth by the rich residents and especially, their children. They are also resentful of the looking up the barrel that this mode of living inevitably entails.

The rich middle class claims its tale of woes. Its voices are hegemonic and define what is the norm and what constitutes aberration:

 “Crime is a big issue, thefts, robberies and murders abound,” they tell us, “These poor children, children of the poor do drugs, they steal and one has to be careful even of one’s cell phone on traffic lights.”

Such narratives seek to obfuscate the many crimes of exploitation and neglect of the poor.

Nithari is a paradigmatic illustration of the anomalies above. An erstwhile village, present slum, in Uttar Pradesh, Nithari, is situated just on the outskirts of Delhi, in the National Capital Region. Its residents are mainly migrant labourers and vendors and it lies in the extremely upmarket township of Noida. The carnage at Nithari, also provides an adequate rupturing of the hegemonic narrative of the middle class; the crime is hideous and inflicted on the poor children by its rich residents.

Mediatisation

Headlines (electronic and written) pursued the discovery of the bodies and all processes that followed (including ours) have had to negotiate with the effects of this mediatisation. The stories of the media followed a perceivable pattern from investigative journalism to sensationalism. The “reporting” started with a fragmented list of possibilities: organ trade, extraction and sale of blood, involvement of a medical syndicate, apathy/ collusion of the police and the administration, trafficking gone awry, perversion and sexual abuse of young boys and girls at the hands of rich, adult exploiters and of course, cannibalism. The place became a focal point and soon media stories highlighted certain causes with the erasure of others. The violence inherent in such hostile class juxtapositions was quickly sidelined, the criminal neglect of the area and its inhabitants including issues of sanitation, health and education totally pushed under the carpet and the apathy of the police and the administration was put on the back burner. The residents of the area; the families and friends of the children who died still yearn for those investigative threads to be pursued. Media stories narrowed and rested on a sensational perversion as a rich man and his servant were netted by the police under the charge of kidnapping, sexually abusing and killing the children. This became real material for headlines. The servant would entice the young with goodies: chow mein and chocolates, the older rich master, a pervert used to rape and sodomize the children and the servant, the real maniac, would chop them and eat them later. The media explored different psychological angles and nightmarish stories of the servant’s confessions – like his preference for the raw livers of children – still appear.2

Moving away from these narratives I will try and re-create the story of survivors; a study of the consciousness of young children aged 7 to 15 at that time, who lost their siblings and friends in the incident and have tried to make sense of their lives. Can these fragmented stories of forced sexualisation, of lost childhood, of questioning the sanctity of the institution of family and of the distrust of protectors constitute an evolving collective consciousness?

Interaction with the Facilitators

A further point of interest for me, Nithari, or rather the charity school Saksham3 there, is also the site of interaction between young trained activists – facilitators of Delhi’s pandies’ theatre and the child-survivors of the place. A core group of about 12 facilitators have been working with about 250 children at Nithari. These are young men and women in their late teens and early twenties, middle class and with some training of conducting theatre workshops and lots of enthusiasm. They too are all invariably in a subversive relationship with the grown-up, norm-defining voices of their class. Many certitudes of middle class existence are being challenged here: the valorisation of family, the sanctity of marriage, the hegemony of adult voices, the efficacy of the education system, middle class notions of success and right wing decadence – the hold of religion and morality on our conduct and behaviour. In tune with the young at Nithari, the facilitators have helped create performances that in their rebelliousness give a lie to much that is valued and valorised in our structures.

This mutual process of learning and teaching spanning five years has used many dimensions of the workshop mode to explore the nuanced connections between performance and affirmative action, ferreting on the way the insidious link between mainstreaming attempts and developmental policies, identifying often the source of victimisation in the hegemonic voices of the mainstream and locating equally often the core of misery in the very space that ostensibly provides relief. This process raises questions: Is performance Cathartic? Does it provide trauma therapy? Or does it look beyond to envision a better future for all? Does it fire radicalism? Or does it mainstream radical thought? Is it a tool to critique policy, especially developmental policy from the marginal perspective? Does it bring in marginalised, radical voices to alter the course of development? Is the workshop-based mode of theatre an articulation of subversive, disagreeing voices? And can it avoid the snares of co-option into the status quo? The questions abound.

Moving on from the first public performance in April 2007 through seven performances till April 2010, I will structure my study on a close study of three performances.

India Habitat Centre – April 2007

Constitution Club (Haq) – January 2009

American Centre – July 2010

Workshop Methodology

In its workshop mode, pandies’ uses two methods, differing primarily on the amount of time spent to cover the various stages. Where there is a time constraint, or where the group works in conflict zones4 or with incarcerated children in reformatories or in NGO run camps, the preference is for intensive five to six day workshops with the volunteers often living on the site and working on a 24 hour format. The various stages of the method given below are covered fast and a performance is created. Working with young people in a marginalized community, on the other hand as in Nithari, the group often slows down the process keeping its visits limited to a couple of times in a month. The stages of the workshop are covered once and a climax is created in terms of a performance when either an occasion exists or an occasion is created. After the first performance, the method becomes more and more centred on self-expression and creation as pandies withdraws and the young work more among themselves analysing and critiquing the processes around them. The more experienced among them assume the role of facilitators for the uninitiated. pandies intervenes intermittently to create and cater for an occasion with a performance. The Nithari story, punctuated with workshops and performances provides a rare enabling narrative highlighting not only the efficacy of theatre to change the world but also exploring which side of the class spectrum needs that change.

Creating a story collective at a workshop being conducted for the children at Nithari. Photo provided by Sanjay Kumar

The Play-workshop consists of an adaptable, flexible methodology. The broad aim consists of putting the sufferers through a process of going inside themselves and creating performances based on their collective experience. The facilitators, after initiating the process recede into an a la carte mode, available on demand.

We begin with exercises – physical and theatrical. These exercises are a part of the repertoire of all theatre groups (narrativising truths and lies, completing broken images, forming images and “machines” – adapted from Augusto Boal, Brecht, Dario Fo and also culled from indigenous Indian traditions5). Physical exercises that make the children focus and help remove preconceived peer formations give way to theatre exercises. Image making provides a good transition. We give the children a word and in ten seconds, using their face and bodies each child has to individually create an image that according to her/him reflects the word. Words are weighted, often in pairs or multiples (father-mother, local politician – bureaucrat, policeman – activist) and the process of introspection has begun. Each child is looking within her/himself interpreting to cull images that correspond to his notion of the word.

Collective image making follows individual exercises. At this point the group is divided into smaller groups. Each group is now given a word/concept more complex than earlier (family, life in Nithari vs. life in Noida, scene in a Noida mall, children of the rich, my village-slum/ how I would like it to be, my society/how I would like it to be, grown-ups, etc.). Each group collectively creates an image/picture corresponding to the concept given. In the image, each child must represent something and the total picture convey the group’s collective view of the concept. The challenge is that everybody watching should be able to guess the word/ concept from the image. The process of collective introspection, of looking into each other’s experience and creating a collective picture has taken place. Image making leads to “machines” – repetitive representations of collective images where sounds and movement are incorporated and communication taken a step higher, however, language is not used as the mode of communication.

Collective introspection is taken a stage further by narrativising. As they get more relaxed, they relate stories from their lives. In workshops that are event/ trauma centred, the participants are encouraged to talk about their experience of that event, otherwise, foregrounding concerns on issues of class exploitation, gender disparity, communalism and casteism, the facilitators give them “topics” to tell narratives from their extended experience. They are playing and at the same time it is real. It is a re-creation, done before a specific audience consisting of the facilitating group, the caregivers (in this case teachers of Saksham) and the rest of the children in the workshop. Each group then proceeds, with the help of one facilitator, to create a narrative that tries to incorporate the experiences of all the members of the group with the proviso that the narrative as a whole should make sense as a story. Each group chooses its leader, writer/ collator and presenter. This narrative, often very sketchy and containing bits of everybody’s story and at the same time not being really anybody’s story, is then played into a theatrical performance.

pandies’ usually prepares small theatrical pieces for each set of workshops. These piece(s) are generally presented after the narrativising session to elicit further discussion and throw theatre ideas at the participants before they prepare their own skits.6 Each group, then, first makes a small skit around the short story they had created earlier. The instructor’s intervention is strictly on demand and the participants work largely by themselves. Using more ideas from the workshop, these plays are built into performances of about twenty to thirty minutes each. Often, specially if the target is a public performance, these performances are tied together for a longer episodic production. But where there is homogeneity of themes, the more challenging mode is to try and create one sequential script combining experiences from all the narratives. The performances are geared to what the children want to tell us. At times they stress messages that they feel we want to hear but oftener they do get charged up and highlight events that have disturbed them and they want us to know.

The Beginnings

After Gujarat pogrom 20027, pandies’ had taken a decision to use the workshop mode of theatre with children of varying regions, classes and religions to mitigate religious bigotry. A special focus was on marginalised children of slums or bastis who are targets of such bigotry. Volunteers of the group reached Saksham, Nithari through a mutual contact in May 2006 the place that continues to be the site of our intervention. Using secular ideals (religion and caste) as the backdrop we started working with the children on different issues.

Using our tried methodology we started with three or four visits a month usually on every Saturday. In keeping with standard practice with the sub-groups, stories were evolving around trafficking of children, problems in education of the girl child, masculine bias in stories of romance and impact of communal riots on children living in urban slums. In the early months it became apparent that children, a handful who had been coming to the school and many more, including the participants’ siblings and friends, had been disappearing for over two years. Reports were being lodged at the police station but the police personnel were dismissive and nobody had imagined the extent of the carnage.

The interaction between the facilitators and the participants was proceeding fine. A bit overawed by these middle class somewhat older youth, the participants were also hugely attracted towards them. And they often used mimicry, humour and undercutting as a way of asserting their equality.

The workshops too were showing more than satisfactory progress. In six months we had completed the process of group making, gone through the crucial stages of making collective images and machines and reached the point where the four created groups were devising their short stories. The four groups working along with their facilitators were moving in different directions. The first group was working out a love story and seeking to make a gender statement through it. The second was focussing on the necessity of educating girls. The third centred on trafficking and sensitive issue of the sale of children of their class. And the fourth taking the issue of Hindus and Muslims living together focussed on existing communal discord and the need for harmony.

The Carnage and Trauma Workshops

Six months down the process and Nithari suddenly became the most often used word in the vocabulary of the NCR. For five weeks after the discovery of the carcasses, the police cordoned off the entire area and nobody was allowed to go there except residents. There was the fact of the carnage and the devastating stories of the media some of whom held the greed and the criminality of the residents as the real reasons of the carnage. The toll on the participants was apparent. When we went to meet them we were met with the most unusual silence. These were extremely expressive children, hard to suppress. They had been struck dumb by the horrible findings and the media stories that followed the revelation of the carnage.

As facilitators we had to get proactive and we started daily workshops dealing with trauma. In these trauma workshops we cajoled them into expressing their hurt, their anger, their opinions – in anecdotes, in fictionalised stories or in silences. Expressing without words worked and they reverted to silent machines, to recapitulate and express what they felt about the carnage and its media reports. As a collective their consciousness reflected confusion and hurt; unable to comprehend what happened they were combating with why it had happened. Borrowing from the rhetoric of those around including their parents, schoolteachers and the many TV channels many took recourse in self-blame as their first vocal expressions:

“The children who died went for chow mein, for sweets and chocolates,” they said, “They were greedy and paid the price for it.”

Clichés like “if one is not greedy then one survives” followed. The repercussions could be felt in many ways. Their parents were locking them in their houses while going out seeing it as the only means of ensuring their safety. Something vital had been lost. The innocent dignity that often characterises children of this class was gone. The event had sexualised them in the ugly forms of child rape, coerced sodomy and cannibalism.

In the trauma workshops, through silent machines, the groups re-enacted what they thought had happened in the house where the children, their siblings and neighbours, were killed. Soon we were also getting oral narratives of children who had escaped abduction and little later, full skits of their perception of the event and its causes. Indifferent exploitation by the rich, hostility of the police and the state administration and insensitivity of the media emerged as the dominant themes.

Is trauma cured, or at least lessened by such a cathartic release? By going back to it and seeing it without the initial fear and shock? In this case, the answer could only be a partial affirmation. Emerging out of a stunned silence was only the beginning of facing trauma. The participants and the facilitators, together with the teachers and parents decided that a public performance was essential. It would restore confidence and self-worth that had been lost in this episode. A performance before the oppressive rich was required, required to present their point of view from the margins before the class responsible in the larger sense for the trauma. Further many harsh things were being “reported” about them, their parents and their dead friends that had to be corrected. There was a fear; the fear of sensationalism – after all they would be seen as Nithari’s children – exotic animals who had the spotlight. But that fear had to be suppressed before larger gain. We all also felt that the sense of guilt had to be eliminated and a collective future envisioned to “moving on” from here.

The facilitators too had to deal with trauma. For people working with them nothing can be more devastating than confusion and hurt on the faces of loving, aspiring children. The facilitators responded to the theatre of the grotesque by passionately furthering the process of performance creation by the participants and by preparing small skits of their own to assert their position and articulate what they had learnt at the workshop.

The First Performance

The first performance in IHC, April 2007. Photo provided by Sanjay Kumar

The first event was at the India Habitat Centre(IHC),8 Delhi in the open amphitheatre on the 9th and 10th of April 2007. The two-hour performance contained samples from the trauma workshops, supportive skits from the facilitators and above all, four episodes from the holistic workshop started earlier, six months before the discovery of the carnage.

Four pieces were from the trauma workshops: An oral narrative by a girl who had escaped abduction, one machine and two skits re-performing the event itself. This section was an illustration of both the Cathartic process and its limitations.

Biases and stereotyping, based on belittling class-based prejudices were repeatedly stressed. For instance, the girl’s narrative besides being a tale of fear and heroism detailing how she had escaped and rescued her younger brother from the men who had tried to kidnap her in a van (one according to her was the servant shown on TV) also recounted that she had been thrown away because she was ugly and a polio victim and the men laughed while throwing her out stating she wasn’t good enough for rape. Further, she had fought for and rescued her brother not only as he was her sibling but also because she felt that her family would have punished her had the boy been lost, after all he was a boy and normal, so more precious than her.

The machine and two skits were re-creations; recapitulated and rehearsed. While re-creating, they were also putting the trauma behind. They covered a gamut of perspectives – official narratives (both police and administration), media stories and the views of grownups in their neighbourhood including their parents. All three had the master and his servant at the centre of the event. The machine focussed on organ trade. The children are killed and cut up by a doctor/ surgeon and kept preserved in the freezer, the police drink with the master. A maid discovers the act, she too is killed, the police are again bribed and they sit as before drinking with the master.

The first skit brought in the involvement of the community in the process of bringing the events to light. Creative with stagecraft, they divided the stage into two parts – one representing the inside of the house and the other the village and everything outside. Inside, the story was again of children being cut for organ trade and outside, the inhabitants are getting upset over the disappearance of the children. They report to the police who are apathetic though not complicit.

The stage division erased, the residents break into the house to discover the cut up bodies. They summon the police with this evidence. And the police move in to arrest the two. The third focussed on sexuality and perversion. The master tells his servant to procure sex workers highlighting his preference for young dark women. The servant finding the task increasingly difficult kidnaps a young girl from the neighbourhood after calling her in to clean the place. The drunken master rapes her, scared of consequences, they together kill her and then cut her up to dispose the body. This becomes a usual process and after cutting the body, the two sit and eat its parts. Anxious residents call in the police but the master bribes them away. Going beyond Catharsis, the participants were providing their position on the rich and powerful. The plays did not make a class difference between the servant and the master, they were both part of the rich reality that both metaphorically and in this case literally, feeds on the children of the poor. The indictment was complete. The Police personnel came across as corrupt, drunkards who thrive off the crimes committed on the poor, one skit did show some hope from them, as they move in to act though it is after the residents’ initiative.

Four plays emerged from the workshops started six months before the discovery of the carnage.

The episode on love and romance was liberally peppered with Bollywood9 songs. It took up the issue of premarital sex and its implications for the boy and the girl. The boy aggressively pursues the girl. They go for a walk in the night, it gets too late and consequently, they spend the night at the house of one of his friends. Delicate in its treatment, the episode did not directly talk of sex but rather of the morning after. On return the girl’s family feels pressured to ask the boy to marry their girl but the boy resolutely refuses. The girl wants to move on but becomes the target of scandals and lewd remarks by lumpens (again Bollywood songs). The girl’s friend asks three important questions: Was there anything wrong in what they did? And if there was something wrong then were they both not equally responsible? Why does society punish the girl alone?

The play about the education of the girl child looked at the whole gamut of problems that make it difficult, despite state policy, to provide free education to girls of working class parents. It was set around a girl child of migrant parents who work from early morning and expect the girl to do the morning household chores. The teachers, though they feel the importance of educating girls, are insensitive. And the Principal chides the parents of the girl, who is not doing well because she reaches school after household work and when three classes are over, to welcome the chance provided by the government and ensure that their daughter avails of it. The insulted parents stop the girl’s going to school. As they get ready to marry her (despite her being under-age) the younger brother stands up for her and tells his parents that he will earn money to educate his sister. He exhorts other brothers to do the same and asserts that till male siblings stand up against it, the practice of gender-discrimination within the family will continue unabated.

The third play had begun as a narrative critiquing trafficking. The facilitators, fed on stories of sex work, trafficking and begging, thought that the children would naturally condemn such an exercise. Even earlier they were shocked that a few children had actually tried to defend the buyer of children. In the workshops following the discovery of the carnage, this feeling became the dominant feeling. Perhaps the participants were expressing their total loss of faith (tenuous that faith is even in other times) in the institution of family and possibly their unfathomable anger against the “protectors” in the family. The facilitator, as is the practice in such cases, allowed the children pursue their own thought. The alcoholic father first pulls the boy out of school and puts him to work but when that does not work he takes him to a nearby town and sells him to two businessmen. The men are actually good for the boy. They make him work in their shop but allow him to study in the evening and at night. Desire took over the plot. The boy goes on to become a doctor and returns to his village. The father, very ill because of his alcoholism, repents his deeds. The boy looks after him, starts a hospital in the village and works there.

The fourth play was a lesson in communal harmony. Good neighbours, a Hindu family and a Muslim family turn foes as the area comes in the throes of communal hatred. The children bring them together again as the Muslim child saves the life of his Hindu friend.

If we proceed to draw some tenuous conclusions from these plays without, to begin with, bringing the facilitators into play, we see that in these months, between January and April, the children had got beyond the need for immediate trauma therapy. The longer skits showed the limitations of the Cathartic process and evidenced their desire to engage with themes that the middle class thinks as its sole preserve: the romance story took the theme of premarital sex, apart from saying that society uses a different gaze while looking at the boy and the girl, the episode showed that the children were equipped to talk about an area usually regarded as beyond them in terms of class and age. They also ridiculed notions of romance of rich kids of their age for basing their fantasies on Bollywood recipes, false in any case and certainly ridiculous for them in their poverty.

The second play having possibly the most clichéd theme was the most radical in its treatment. It showed the limitations of affirmative action when such action is imposed from above and without taking cognisance of the opinions of those for whom it is intended. The state provides free education but what is the state of this free education (the children at this charity school evidence that practically no classes were held in the administration school that lies in their area, classes started after the community, showing awareness of their rights, approached the local authorities and forced them) and the reasons for not sending girls to school are many: family “honour,” girl’s “purity,” somebody else’s property, reluctance to spend on auxiliaries like transport and stationery even when the education is free and above all, the necessity for girls to do household work in the morning before they can be expected to do anything else. No process of education can proceed without negotiating the above and as the play went on to show, when principals and teachers of administration schools chastise or take a condescending attitude towards the parents the end of the process has already taken place.

The plot of the third was the most unsettling as it took on the holy cow of social structures – the family. The anger against parents (often identified not as “my parents” but simply as the institution called “parents”) continues to be phenomenal and is second only to the hatred against the state machinery and the middle class (often seen as a continuum by the children). If parents cannot protect their children do they have the right to have any? And is it not more fortunate to be a slave in a rich household than a legitimate child in an impoverished home? Does not the first give more space and chances of success? And the one on religious harmony assumed special significance because slums are inhabited by people of all religions. In pandies’ experience, all slums in and around Delhi have at least twenty five percent Muslims. The play showed how slum dwellers live in harmony despite religious and caste differences, they are propelled into killing the rich of the other community by the rich of their own community at the outbreak of religious riots. Further, it fore-grounded the child as the point of reconciliation. Children are usually deemed too small for this loot and kill agenda. The bonds between them are far more difficult to break and can constitute the core of ameliorative process.

The workshops had keenly sensitised the facilitators and brought out their insecurities and traumas and their conflicts with the adult world. The skits enacted by them furthered the confrontation aspect of the performance as a whole. On the first day the four young members of the group, still in late teens, projected their own understanding of child rights and its violation by adults. The plot revolved around two single-parent families, one rich and one poor. The two were connected by the minor boy from the poor family who works in the household of the rich. His father, an alcoholic, subjects him to periodic violence and takes his money to buy alcohol. The rich boy, who is older though still in school, has his own travails under his high achiever mother. The two boys strike a friendship, the older boy introduces the young poor to drugs and the two do them together. They are caught by their respective parents with drugs on their person. The play placed the two families on the two sides of the stage.  The mother scolds the son berating him for having failed her. He hits back accusing her of having no time for him between her lover and her career. In an evocative speech he asserts that her relevance in his life is that of an ATM card. On the other side of the stage and the class spectrum, the poor boy accuses the father of the same and also of defining the paradigm of drug abuse in the family asserting that his alcoholism is responsible for the ruin of the family and also the death of his mother. The play ended with visuals of confused parents.

No apology for drug abuse and no valorisation of the single mother who would have been a progressive woman in a usual pandies’ play, there was only an uncompromising critique of the institution of the family.

Had the Nithari experience equipped them to question this institution? On the second day, 8 facilitators all in their early twenties performed their skit. The ludic provided the explorative as the facilitators “played” children of Nithari and took up the drama from the bursting of the news of corpses. The Nithari children are playing, what would “play” constitute in the circumstances? They play various aspects of their lives. They play family but there is no protection for the children, only abuse, violence and exploitation, they play relationships but that’s about sexual perversions, they play police but its about bribery and beating the poor, they play media but its about sensations and career-making and they play the rich but it is about raping and eating the poor young. Emotionally arousing, the skit showed poor childhoods lost at the hands of the uncaring adults. Continuing in unabated waves and actually tying the play together was the recurrent news of the disappearance of children. Children of the poor disappear, will continue to disappear because they are nobody’s children. The facilitators had learnt from the lived experience of the participants.

The exclusively middle class audience showed a lot of warmth to the children and praised their courage but they had come prepared to watch a rousing scandal. The disjunction between the margins and the mainstream stood out in bold relief. The audience looked for anger, for a Cathartic release of angst and almost chided us for not showing more hatred towards the “two killers.” Adhering to theatre as a pressure cooker valve idea, the audience was seeking a purgation of negative emotions. They praised the participants’ courage but that wasn’t the sought for valorisation. The attitude of the media was much worse. Some members of a reputed TV channel had the audacity to ask me change the structure of the performance and have the narrative of girl, who had escaped, at the beginning because he had been asked to shoot that. There were problems: the children, especially during the audience interaction at the end, were a little awkward, they despaired that nothing would improve in spite of their efforts and remnants of self-blame persisted. However, the discomfort generated in the audience and the reviews assured us that we were collectively taking the early steps towards a theatre of class confrontation and the class other, (the middle class specta(c)tor) had been placed as the villain of the performance and asked whether s/he can visualise a better role for her/ himself.

After the first Performance

In workshop theatre the processes that follow from performance are equally dynamic and continue to graph the course of radical growth of the participants and also the facilitators. The intensity of the work done together from the discovery of the carnage to the first performance at IHC secured a lasting emotional bond between pandies’ and Nithari’s children. Many new children joined the workshops as the popularity of the school grew. In keeping with pandies’ methodology we withdrew to let the collective consciousness evolve by itself and let the basic plays of the first set of workshops get nuanced and grow into full length pieces and new plays emerge from the efforts of the participants. The expectation being that the older/ senior children would replicate the steps of the workshop with new participants with minimal guidance from pandies’ members. We would go as a group intermittently when they would have a occasion/ function or when we could arrange a performance for them at the behest of an NGO who could cover expenses and also leave enough for a little treat for our young artists. The weekly workshops became monthly (at times less) discussion sessions for the participants to discuss issues that concerned them often leading to machines and skits on the same issue.

The discussion sessions provided another measure of growth. Sexuality and sexual relationships form an integral part of any workshop involving young participants and facilitators. Nithari, with its sagas of rape and coerced sodomy of children, has had it inscribed from the outset. In a hidebound society like India, sexuality is taboo even for the middle class young and as many of them confess the incidence of abuse in childhood is very high with many blocking it out of their consciousness. The issue is further complicated for the young facilitator whose sex life has often just begun and s/he is boasting about it before peers, and/ or more often hiding it from figures of authority. Nithari discussions, and in-house performances became a revered space between the young facilitators and their younger participants where both could talk unbridled and in confidence, a space that neither side is willing to relinquish in a hurry.

Discussion sessions and ensuing enactments also revolved around local concerns. And these included issues of health and sanitation. At this stage the high points of the workshop are not holistic or climactic but often fragmented. After the Habitat Centre performance they discussed with us the drama around the kidnapping of the Adobe India CEO’s son (which had actually occurred in November 2006, a little before Nithari first hit headlines) who lived a couple of kilometres from the drains where the bodies were found. The boy had been “rescued” by the police in 48 hours. They had heard from their elders that the father had paid a total of Rupees 5 crores10, a lot of which was taken by the police. Their performances raised the questions: Was that the real reason why the police had bungled with the investigations around their companions? Didn’t they feel ashamed when they took their monthly cheques? This issue obviously affects the participants and has recurred in their public performances.

Another interesting performance was around the lynching of an ice cream vendor in the village/ slum. As per reports that we got at the workshop, the man was caught raping a minor, the frustrated wrath of the inhabitants was let loose on the man and he was lynched to death before the police got to the scene. Reaching the workshop while this had just happened in the interiors of the village/ slum, the spectacle that greeted us was of the children avidly licking ice creams. They had taken/ stolen the ice creams from his trolley as he was being lynched. Their teachers were very angry. The accused created a small skit around it. The man was justly reviled for being a child rapist and they defended themselves asserting that he deserved worse than their act and besides they had not actually stolen only taken ice creams from his van with full intention of paying if he recovered! We did not know whether to scold them or smile at their antics. Ethical framing was getting difficult.

An extremely important issue that repeatedly comes up is that of Child Labour11. The impassioned discussions and performances endorse that many affirmative policies of the state would be better if they took cognisance of the sectors that they are aimed at. One of the most interesting enactments on this issue was created around the following event. A young boy, son of an ice cream vendor and one of the brightest in our workshop, used to take his father’s trolley and sell ice creams two hours in the evening while his father (who was vending through the day) took his rickshaw to transport people returning from their offices (Noida had a difficult time in terms of commuting within till the metro was introduced there and rickshaw pullers made a killing during office hours). This brought in extra money for the family, which according to the son (perhaps taking inspiration from the play of girl child education that they had been performing) enabled the family to send his sister to school. The father was arrested under the Child Labour Act and it took six days of negotiations from us (and probably a hefty bribe from the man) to secure his freedom. The child, together with some close friends among the participants created a skit around the incident and many others followed. They all felt that it was not only unfair but also ethically wrong on the part of the state to have such laws. If you cannot provide children the right to education or to play, can you take away work from them too?

Further, if a child studies in an administration school in the morning, a charity school in the afternoon and is doing well in academics (as was the case above), was it correct to measure his family with the same yardstick with which one measured those whose children were sent for work 12 hours a day in factories or in the houses of the rich? And is not the work of children, like the one above, to be lauded as an act that enables the family and keeps the child away from harm (drug abuse and petty crime for instance). The government of the rich needed to think more like the poor. The laws need to be supple and more individual case centric. Many discussions, machines and skits followed on the issue of child labour and the framing of (better) laws on the issue.

The process of inner transformation within the community needed to be juxtaposed with the presentation of their points of view before activists, bureaucrats and politicians – policy makers in general. Intermittently, over this period of time, the children presented developed plays (from their first effort) along with shorter pieces culled from later workshops in spaces/ occasions provided by NGOs and government agencies.

The Second Performance

As another illustration of their growth I focus on one such performance. In January 2009 pandies’ was approached by a prominent Child Rights NGO, Haq, to perform on Child Rights. We felt it the occasion to show case a piece from Nithari. The children did most of the work by themselves with suggestions coming from pandies’ members during the last days of rehearsals. The performance took place at the Constitution Club, a popular, affordable place at the heart of New Delhi on the 29th of January, 2009. The participants had worked on – polished and added to two performances from the Habitat experience (girl child education and trafficking of children episodes) but what was really interesting was a long prologue, almost as long as an episode, that they had added entirely by themselves.

Reverting to the earliest exercises in the workshop, the participants had culled out the convention of the sutradhar, a narrator who is within and outside the plot. The narrator was a journalist. At times she acted as the raisonneur, giving out the perspectives that the play wanted to highlight and at other times she reverted to being a journalist, ridiculed and reviled by the residents. The prologue started with three boys sitting centre up stage – the first had his eyes covered, second his ears and third his mouth. The reference point was obviously the three monkeys of Gandhi (the father of the Indian nation)12. But they are not Gandhi’s monkeys, they represent personnel of the Delhi Police who see nothing, hear nothing and are incapable of opening their mouth to critique or take a position. She has come here to “celebrate” the second “anniversary” of Nithari (it was almost exactly 2 years from the discovery of the carnage). The Prologue was structured around her asking questions from the residents and their answers.

The residents curse the police for not being there when they were required and now just sitting there and ogling women. Anger against the happenings of Nithari finds vent against the house where the killings took place. The children who play around deliberately pelt it with stones aiming to break panes and damage the structure itself. Asked about her feelings two years after the scandal, one young woman turns on the journalist accusing her and her ilk of making their careers out of Nithari but doing nothing for its uplift.

“The camera always points up at the faces of the residents and never down at the faeces on the streets.” She says, “Do you think the lack of sanitation and proper hygiene and education facilities is less important than the corpses found two years ago?”

A young boy who lost his brother in the carnage refers to the Adobe India CEO’s son’s case and declares with a sardonic smile, “Five crores changed hands, my parents do not have so much money, what then is the worth of my life?”

On being questioned about persistent fears, the children tell the journalist that there is no fear in their hearts only rage, rage not only for the alleged killers but for the entire government machinery that sees them as dispensable.

Haq had collected a formidable audience. Activists and developmentalists, bureaucrats and politicos, it included the former Vice President of the country, and members of the national and state (Delhi) parliaments including the son (himself a member of the Delhi parliament) of the Chief Minister of Delhi. The audience was not only powerful but also far more sensitive and importantly, the performers more self-assured. They were asked to sum up their feelings, to assert what they wanted. A keen sharpness had entered the child discourse and any attempt at patronising was ruthlessly snubbed. They talked confidently about state and middle class hypocrisy – how for all the shouting against children working it was people of the same class that employed them and the state did little to catch the real culprits, even when they were caught they were let off after paying bribes; they went on to emphasise that gender discrimination, even the hideous forms of dowry torture and violence against women were actually middle class realities; and they critiqued state policy that had, for all its drum-beating, utterly failed in the battle against poverty. They concluded hoping that their theatre would find its way into influencing policy. The mode of locating the source of trauma in mainstream processes that make policy and generate relief had been taken steps further.

The Third Performance, American Centre, New Delhi

A major occasion presented itself in 2010. The American Centre, which had recently opened its auditorium for staging and screening local plays and cinema (albeit with an American connection) was going “social” and approached pandies’ theatre to do an awareness campaign. We felt it would be a good space to instead of staging a pandies’ production stage a play from Nithari. The performance took place on the 10th of July 2010. Though we did make a small reflexive skit, detailing the experience of some of the facilitators, staged between the two plays of the participants, in this latest exercise pandies’ involvement was less than before. We went there to tell them and start the process, the participants made two large groups and took some suggestions from pandies’ members. They prepared two new plays entirely by themselves and the entire exercise took about one month. Leaving the carnage far behind the participants wanted to work on topical issues that interest them. One group was split, some of them wanted to work on inter-caste issues while others preferred working on the negative role of Khap panchayats13, in the news for killing many young lovers at that point. The other group wanted to look closer on gender issues and say a few harsh things to the rich who have pretensions of being gender sensitive but are actually more jaundiced.

The first group got off the blocks fast and used a central narrative, a filmy story of a lower caste boy falling in love with an upper caste girl. The star-crossed story apart, the play’s canvas was big and included an expose of how deep-rooted are caste biases that even today, after more than sixty years of legal removal of caste privileges, the upper caste continue to spurn the lower castes. It also exposed conniving politicians who think little about murder and riots in fact of nothing except power, money and vote banks. The indictment of the rich powerful was severe and retained the immediacy by being structured around Delhi.

The play started with a cricket match between the upper caste boys and the lower castes. At stake is the right of the lower castes to play cricket in the government run playground (meant for all) and if they win they can play but if they lose they should not be seen even in the area. Despite obvious instances of cheating the lower caste team wins. The match sharpens the hostility of the upper castes.

It is in this background that the lower caste protagonist falls in love with the sister of the boy he had challenged in the cricket match. Love blossoms courtesy Bollywood songs and watching films. They confess their love and decide to make each other life partners.

Counter forces keep building up. First the brother sees his sister eating ice cream with the lower caste and forbids her from meeting him. They catch them again and slap and threaten the boy. Things are getting out of hand for them as the love continues to blossom. An upper caste boy, a friend of the brother, comes up with a devious plan. They will call the Khap panchayat to take up this issue. This would entail a loss of “honour” but that was happening anyway with the sister cavorting with a lower caste and the future could only make it worse. But as the leaders of the Khap panchayats belong to their caste and community they would have the boy and his family thrown out of the village. The panchayat scene brought forth the latent caste hatred of all and the sarpanch14 as per expectation banishes the low caste boy and his family. He relents on the father’s pleas to allow him to have his shop in the village but they must live outside.

The scene shifts to the house of a lady minister, an aspirant for chief ministership (spoofing the Delhi CM). She whiffs the profit to be made out of the caste conflict. Her plan is simple — kill the young couple and put the blame on each other’s families and use lumpens to stoke the caste fire. Use goons to instigate a riot and use the same to political advantage by blaming those in power. A severe campaign in the media would result in power coming to her hands. As she goes ahead, the result is mayhem. As she moves to become CM, her lackeys who had done the dirty work for her and whom now she refuses to reward, expose her before the media before the swearing ceremony. Pelted by shoes by her constituents, she runs away.

The second play used an episodic form. The form was really interesting. It had two narrators, a boy and a girl. Not only do they narrate and comment but also each of the episodes emerges from their consciousness and their hilarious conflicts formed take off points for an engendered analysis. They narrate anecdotes and stories and then “show” them to us. There were four brief stories, all working with the reversal of usual gender stereotypes to make us laugh at our biases.

In the first episode, the girl narrator gives us a deliberate reversal of male centric marital rituals as a girl and her father go to see a boy for her and select the husband who is good with all housework. Peppered with adaptations of Bollywood songs we see the son-in-law and father-in-law fight in a reversal of the classic mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law paradigm. The girl narrator continues with the second narrative. Girls challenge boys to a cricket match, the boys cheat and are about to win, the girls cheat better and win. The boy story teller takes over to provide the “real picture” and begins the story of a girl who becomes a night guard and is then plagued by fears, one by one other girls join her but each is scared about her safety, the male narrator’s fantasy then summons a brave young man to save them. The girl narrator ruptures the fantasy to assert that women do not need any male to protect them and are quite self-sufficient. The last skit focussed on a woman traffic cop who does not take bribes (two reversals here, first most traffic cops are men and second all take bribes) and sets aberrant men right. This bit was again filled with many songs of love as the boys who go around without licenses try to woo her to escape a fine and the lock-up. Peppy and energetic, the effort ended with a song exhorting the audience to support girls and stand by their right to education.

The impact of this performance needs more illustration. For audience we had a core of people from the American Centre, activists, powerful people of the middle class (many who had come because it was the American Centre), a number of regular pandies’ viewers and above all, many working-class parents of the participants. The confidence of the children bordered on arrogance, an arrogance that signified the success of the enterprise.

The performance in true Brechtian mode was entertaining, a lot of laughter, a lot of fun and a lot of critique. The audience appreciated them but any attempt at patronising was put down harshly by the participants. One middle class audience bastion that was being attacked was: “I know better, this is really for the other person.” Questioned repeatedly about the truth of their assertions about gender disparity, the children frankly took a pedestal to talk at their audience. They asserted that their efforts at improving social conditions should not go waste; that their educated middle class audience should stop suppressing their daughters; not be biased against those whom their children loved regardless of class, caste and religion; that the message of social reform can succeed only if it is passed on and they hoped their message would not be forgotten by all once they reached home.

The growth continues. In 2009, the first two students sat for the 12th board examinations and cleared them. Many students at Saksham go to the morning administration school and come here in the evening, the unique experiment succeeds as the older ones go out looking for careers the younger ones take on the task of teaching the new children. Sachin and Soni, our two mascots, the first is good with computers, has cleared the 12th standard and has got a job with a foreign company to operate a complex games machine with computers. Soni is appearing for the 12th and has trained as a nurse/ maid and works in a hospital. They want to be cricketers and lawyers, one bought a motorcycle recently on instalments asserting that he had been seeing the similar bike with one of the facilitators and always wanted one.

Are we taking away their radical marginality and pushing them into bourgeois centrism?

Notions of success are formed by the hegemonic class. The danger is there that as the target group evolves, the desire of moving on, of ceasing to be victims gets tied with mimicking and looking up to the oppressive class other. This was one of the themes of the small pandies’ skit presented between their episodes. It was culling together by 4 facilitators of their feelings and of the discussions that they had had around the impact of Nithari. The core issues were the anomalies of middle class activism and whether the development of a marginalised collectivity (including our “radical” intervention) can avoid the pitfalls of mainstreaming? Is the middle class, the class that hegemonises all the static discourses and value structures, capable of radicalism? Is it a consciousness capable of a self-reflexive critique? The stories of the facilitators were also stories of individual reckoning. For one girl facilitator, an experimenting bisexual who lives her life on her own terms steering clear of any commitments and in a hostile relationship with the concept family, Nithari was a running away, running away to reality, away from the inanities of a meaningless middle class existence. Another confessed that her relationship with her family had been non-existent and these kids with whom she has grown up with over four and half years constitute the only family she has. For both the girls Nithari and its children constitute a created space to learn to express and more importantly to say no to what one finds reprehensible. A boy, an exhibitionist bisexual with kohl-stained eyes and painted nails, who boasts having random sex everywhere confessed to how scared he was when a young adolescent propositioned him. He needs this relationship to be outside the ambit of the sexual and he does not want to take anything from here. A younger facilitator confessed to how concepts of gender sensitivity, child rights and respect for the disabled came alive in Nithari. On stage he shared his experience of “learning” child rights in school and discovering it to be cruel joke when applied to his experience in Nithari.

The facilitators find themselves in threshold politics, first, between the participating protagonists and specta(c)tor villains, and then, being connected to their middle class selves, between the grossness of their class and their sensitivity to these impoverished youth.

Liminality truly characterises the consciousness of the participants as they lie at the hub of four evolving zones: collectively, an awareness of their marginality – their poverty and their migrant situation that keeps them looking up the tunnel and makes them vulnerable, keeping alive the possibility of another “Nithari”; at the same time, a sharp articulate critique of the mainstream, specially of the government, the police, the media and middle class value structures in general; most satisfyingly, the desire to be “activists,” to pursue further the paradigms set by being teachers of younger children at Saksham and facilitators of new participants in their theatre workshops and also, at a more individualistic level to “show them” which includes success in mainstream terms, with the accompanying spectre of co-option into the value structures of the oppressive class other.

Nithari continues to be the site of workshop theatre based ameliorative interaction. In the immediate context of the carnage this interaction worked as trauma relief but in the very actualisation of that therapeutic process, it revealed that such relief was also a safe outlet for accumulated anger of marginality and located the source of trauma in the mainstream discourses that are taking on the task of providing the relief by way of compensation and valorisation. It repeatedly unveils development ideals as mainstreaming processes that have little to do with targets for which they are intended. As the multi-layered liminality above reflects, the process is not linear or evenly paced and problems of the interaction between the margins and the mainstream, from extreme subversion to possible co-option, have surfaced from time to time. The confrontationist theatre that evolves questions established social structures and gives a lie to many “universal” truths of the hegemones of the dominant class.

The process continues. . . .

Notes

1. pandies’ theatre is a Delhi (India) based group. It was registered (under the societies act 1860) in Sept. 1993. The plays, often projects, are directed/ chief facilitated by Sanjay Kumar, and essentially multi-lingual scripts evolve in workshops with major contributions from actors/ activists. Thoroughly researched, they are collated, at times written, by the director in conjunction with Dr. Anand Prakash and Ms. Anuradha Marwah  – creative writers and members of the group. The group performs in the proscenium, does performance based awareness programs in communities, villages, slums, colleges, schools and marketplaces and creates theatre with the marginalised young to enable them to express their views and influence policy.

Proscenium Performances

Adaptations

Macbeth, 1993

Womanscape, 1993 (inspired by short stories of Doris Lessing)

Brecht – The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, 1994

Ibsen – Ghosts, 1994-96

Beautiful Images, 1995-96 (from Simone de Beauvoir – Les Belle Images)

Visitations, 1999

Odet – Waiting For Lefty, 2004

Presentation of original scripts

The Story of Meera – 1995

Call her a Witch – 1996

Mannequins – 1997

She’s MAD – 1997

Veils – 1998

(K)nots – 2000

Cleansing – 2002, presented in July at the CTW – Manchester, 2002

Not Inside Us – 2004

Margins – 2006

Danger Zones – 2007 – 2008

The Curse Conquered – 2008 – 2009

Jab We Elect –Feb 2009

Wed-Lock – June 2009

Sarkari Feminism – September 2010

Awareness Campaigns

These provide fora for discussion on many issues and include capsules directed at legal and social reform.

HIV and sex workers

Rape: social and legal reform

LGBT rights

Rights of incarcerated men and women in Tihar Jail

Child rights

Workshops – Creating theatre with the young to make space for marginalized voices

From its very incipience, pandies has placed primary focus on empowering young people. We conduct workshops – that commence with a play from us and proceed to inspire the target group to create and present a play before their community. These plays focus on issues important for them: gender biases, child rights, communalism, race/caste, HIV, and all kinds of local/ topical matters and also include the sociolegal ambit within which social discrimination takes place and possible modes of rectification.

Areas of work

Delhi and surrounding villages

Haryana and Punjab

Jammu and Kashmir

Rajasthan

Uttarakhand

Karnataka

Orissa

Mumbai

As the Indian polity swung right in the 90s, pandies’ added to its original focus on gender by prioritising an aggressive anti-communal position. Toward the end of 2002, in the hitherto largely peaceful state of Gujarat, thousands of people were killed (official estimate put it at 2,000 but this has been contested by independent reports) in unprecedented acts of violence. The bulk of those who died were Muslims and a large number were women and children. The reports of arson, looting, murder, and rape that came from Gujarat were more horrifying than any such reports since the partition of the country in 1947. Official reports described them as Hindu-Muslim “riots.” Many media reports and the National Human Rights Commission report have contested this, rather seeing the violence as genocide, a kind of “ethnic cleansing” carried out by people of the majority religion with support if not actual sponsoring by the right-wing Gujarat state government. The pogrom broke the hearts of many thinking people in the country. What really roused us was the fact that the same government that had been seen as responsible for this pogrom in the state came back to power with an overwhelming majority, fuelling its campaigns with the “glory” of this violence. It needs to be stated here that, however, in the subsequent national election, the right wing parties were ousted from power.

2. Nithari case: The case proceeds in courts. On the 13th February, 2009 both accused, the master Moninder Pandher and the servant Surender Koli were given the death sentence by the Ghaziabad special Sessions Court (Uttar Pradesh). In September, the Uttar Pradesh High Court acquitted Moninder and upheld the death sentence on Surender. This is with reference to two cases of murder, 12 more are pending against them. The residents of Nithari feel that the master will be let off and more money will change hands. The workshop participants, while seeking punishment for the two, want a different resolution like the house should be donated to the young in Nithari to be converted into a play field for them or held as trust for a school for the young here.

3. Saksham is a charity school in Nithari started in 2002 by Nadira Razak, a bank officer who was upset by the sight of so many children without education in this village/ slum. The school does not charge any fees, it does not get funds from government or foreign donors and keeping a minimal budget survives of the money collected by the trust. Its mode of teaching can simply be called non-formal as it functions in morning and evening shifts and employs older children to teach the younger. It has a count of over 4oo students today.

4. pandies’ has been working in the war-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir for nearly a decade, bringing the young of the conflicting groups – Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims together to have a dialogue through workshop theatre. Among other groups we are also working intensively with jailed juveniles in Delhi’s reformatories and with platform children from all over India in NGO run camps.

5. Both classical and popular India traditions influence our exercises. A depiction of the eight principal rasas: love, pity, anger, disgust, heroism, awe, terror and comedy, for instance takes place along with image making and with the same methodology. The narrativising stage includes the convention of sutradhar (who introduces the story) and also devices used by the bibek of the jatra tradition where it is not so much a narrator as a voice of conscience. Many of these exercises resonate in the performances created by the participants later.

6. Having discussions and eliciting the opinions of the participants is of utmost importance to the process. The facilitators perform, narrate stories, share anecdotes (real or created at the moment) to get the participants to speak. Hesitant to speak about themselves, the participants are encouraged to share their extended experience – what happened to their uncles, cousins or neighbours. Narratives of the self begin in the guise of another till the participant gains confidence to talk about her/ himself in her/ his own voice.

7. Gujarat: Toward the end 2002, in the hitherto largely peaceful state of Gujarat, thousands of people were killed (official estimate put it at 2000 but this has been contested by independent reports) in unprecedented acts of violence. The bulk of those who died were Muslims and a large number were women and children. The reports of arson, looting, murder, and rape that came from Gujarat were more horrifying than any such reports since the partition of the country in 1947. Official reports described them as Hindu-Muslim “riots.” Many media reports and the National Human Rights Commission report have contested this, rather seeing the violence as genocide, a kind of “ethnic cleansing” carried out by people of the majority religion with support if not actual sponsoring by the right-wing Gujarat state government. The pogrom broke the hearts of many thinking people in the country. What really roused us was the fact that the same government that had been seen as responsible for this pogrom came back to power with an overwhelming majority, fuelling its campaigns with the “glory” of this violence.

8. India Habitat Centre: Located in central Delhi, the Centre has emerged as a hub of cultural activity. However, unlike the older auditoriums in the Mandi house area, the Centre remains an almost exclusive abode of the middle class. This suited our purpose, as we wanted the first performance to be before this class.

9. Bombay, now Mumbai, the centre for making Hindi cinema is often referred to as Bollywood. Hindi films and their songs are hugely popular in India and penetrate every aspect of Indian life.

10. It equals about 700,000 GBP. It’s a sum that for the poor child belongs to the world of fantasy but is actually not unreal as ransom for a child of the super rich in India.

11. Child Labour: The government of India has virtually stopped people from employing children under 14 (and those under 16 from hazardous occupation) through three crucial acts:

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act, 2000

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009

Child right activists have really worked for these Acts. But a lot of people that we work with are not happy with these laws and the way they are used by the police. Child Labour Laws is one area where the gap between policy formation and the opinions of those for whom it is intended is huge and workshop theatre repeatedly shows the disjunct between the agenda and its successful implementation.

12. M. K. Gandhi’s notions, flouted by most and critiqued by many, still form an idealistic reference point for many in India. The reference here is to his use of a statuette of three monkeys – one with eyes shut, one with ears shut and the third with mouth shut – to connote that one should not see, hear or speak evil. A very popular symbol, the three monkeys are often used within and outside the conventional meaning framework. Nithari’s children used it to evoke the apathy of the police.

13.Empowered by the government, as part of the decentralising endeavour, the elected panchayat is the basic unit of self-government in rural India. The Khap panchayat traces its power from tradition and comprises village elders and often members of the upper caste. Popular and extremely powerful in the state of Haryana, Khap panchayats exist also in western Uttar Pradesh and eastern Rajasthan. Their origin goes back to ancient India and they were once extremely powerful, losing power before emergence of modern structures of the legislature and the judiciary. Khap refers to a gotra (sub-caste) or clan. These are community groups — usually comprising elderly men from the community — that set the rules in an area comprising one or more villages.

In parts of northern India, particularly among the Jats of Haryana they have re-emerged very powerful seeking an amendment in Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, to ban marriages within the same gotra (sub-caste). They seek to cover not only the parents’ sub-castes but also marriages of those who reside in the same village. They claim that valorised local customs dictate that a boy and a girl belonging to the same gotra or to the same village are brother and sister. Panchayats are traditionally against inter-caste marriages but this movement has been aimed at sub-caste marriages. Khap panchayats were in news in from late 2008 onwards because the deaths of a number of young lovers (often called “honour killings”) of the same caste were attributed to their dictat.

14. The leader of the panchayat (and the Khap panchayat) is called sarpanch.

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(First published in Consciousness, Theatre, Literatures and the Arts 2011, edited by Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

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Sanjay Kumar has been part of the International Residency Programme at the Rockefeller Centre, Bellagio, Italy and an alum of the prestigious, US Government’s IVLP (International Visitors Leadership Program) and is the recipient of Delhi University’s (Vice Chancellor’s) Distinguished Teacher Award in 2009.

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Essay

Where Sands Drift Back in Time…

Shernaz Wadia explores Western Australia

The aquamarine Indian Ocean shimmered to our left on this sunny day along the drive up north from Perth. There was vague comfort in the thought that it connected us to distant India. This picturesque drive would take us to Lancelin, a small town about 129 kms. north of Perth, approximately an hour and half away. Its biggest attractions are the sand dunes and the sand boarding. As we drew closer to the small town, we passed by many small dunes They were so far from the ocean with tracts of shrub-land on both sides and the highway running through the middle that they seemed like freaks of nature.

From here it was another 3-km drive to the dunes. There was a car park at the entrance but we risked our jeep through the flat, stony terrain to park closer to the dunes and went the next bit on foot. The path was narrow. Having left all footwear in the car our bare soles were chafed walking the few meters of pebbly, coarse path to our destination. But voila! We rounded a bend and it seemed that someone had waved a magic wand!

Simply Stunning! Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Snow white, wind-chiselled dunes rose up over silk soft sand that widened in an undulating carpet. The ocean glittered and foamed some distance away below an azure sky dotted with white clouds; and a wide, lush green strip acted as a barrier between the surf and the dunes. The snowy dunes stood lofty. Reaching the top could be quite a task with a sand board in hand as feet kept sinking into the cool sands! With effort, we managed the yielding surface as we climbed up a mound. Caps and hats blew off. Bare headed at the mercy of the cobalt sky, we lumbered up. But once on top, the panorama took our breath away more than the climb!

‘Have A Chat General Store’ on 104 Gingin Road in the town centre, hired out sand boards. Other than boards, there were buggies, quads, 4WD cars and motorcycles to zip up, down and around the dunes.

Sliding down appeared to be a lot of fun for adults and children alike but climbing back up the steep incline took the wind out of many. For those not quite physically fit, (which I wasn’t) this could be very daunting.

Sand Boarding. Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Much as we would have loved to spend more time on the dunes, a merciless wind forced us to pack and leave. It blew sand into our eyes (we had sunglasses on), nose, ears, hair and even inside our well protected cell phones. The battery later had to be removed to blow out the fine grains. It was worth it, nonetheless.

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

From the sand dunes we drove further north on this one day trip. Along the way, most of the vegetation was stunted. But flowering trees dotted the wayside to cheer us en route to the amazing desert of ancient limestone pillars, scattered across approximately 190 hectares, 60 meters above sea level and just a short distance away from the ocean. Coming upon this alien looking place, with its millennia old history, one’s reaction could only be of reverent awe. It was nature — raw and unrefined — a gateway into the unknown.

These limestone formations were within Nambung National Park, near the town of Cervantes. August to October was the best time to visit the Pinnacles. The weather was mild, wattles and wildflowers welcomed us. One could drive right into the desert, along a four-meter loop carefully demarcated with stones. There were delineated parking spaces where one could stop to roam among these pillars and enjoy a richer experience of the astounding landscape. They have been rightly nicknamed “The Rock Stars of the Outback”. These fragile structures demand to be treated with respect. The raw materials that went into forming these pillars were lime-rich sand and ancient sea-shells, but there are three theories regarding their formation and no consensus has been reached so far.

A diminutive view of the vast Pinnacles desert. Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

This millennia-old site, about 60 meters above sea level, evokes veneration. Thousands of the mystifying columns rise above a yellow shifting sand bed. Many of them daunt at 3.5 to 5 meters in height, some with jagged points and others mushroom-like with rounded, hard, calcrete caps that protect the frail formations. It is harder than the limestone below it and so takes longer to erode.

These Pinnacles and their surroundings are a very significant region for the traditional owners of the land, the aboriginal people. The aboriginals who inhabited this region were named the Nyoongar. A river called ‘Nambung’, meaning ‘crooked’, weaves through the region. The Pinnacles are sacred to the local tribe. During the wet season, the Nambung River made a chain of waterholes throughout the park, with the water flowing into the cave systems. These cave waterholes became essential for the survival of the tribe for hundreds of years.

There are many myths surrounding the region, with the local aboriginal people stating the large rock formations were the remains of fossilised ghosts. They were said to be young men who had wandered into the forbidden desert which was sacred and reserved for women. The gods punished them by burying them alive and leaving behind only their standing limestone figures.

It continues treated as a significant region for women, with many women groups gathering together in the desert to do traditional ceremonies, give birth, and camp beneath the stars.

The spectacular desert with its shrubbery is home to many native birds and animals like emus, black-shouldered kite, white-tailed black cockatoos, sand goannas, grey kangaroos, carpet pythons, bobtail lizards and more. Unfortunately we did not spot any of these. A visit to the Pinnacles Desert Discovery Centre, at the edge of the yellow sands gave us an idea of some of these splendid creatures through photos and taxidermy mounts. It also explained the geology of the formations and the cultural and natural heritage values of the area with soundscapes, videos and objects.

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Wandering among these ancient sage-like structures is to expand the margins of oneself and slide into a meditative trance; into a strange beyond. The ego slinks away; only deep awe fills the mind and spirit.

Lake Thetis

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

As we drove back towards Perth, we made one more stop for a tryst with ‘Living Fossils” the modern versions of our Earth’s most ancient life-forms: living marine stromatolites. The lake has a circumference of 1.2 metres, with an easy walking path looping around it. A walk down a gravel path and then up a boardwalk and one reaches the lookout platform which has good, informative and instructive sign posts, like this one.

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke
Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke
Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Lake Thetis is one of the few places on earth where stromatolites or living fossils are to be found. They are built by microbes called cyanobacteria which are similar to the earliest organisms that produced oxygen for subsequent life forms. They have been growing here for about 3500 years. These rocklike formations teem with micro-organisms that are invisible to the human eye but these living communities of varied residents have population densities of 3000 per square metre! Stromatolites are layered, while their microbial cousins Thrombolites, which are also found here, are clotted structures.  

Fragile Stromalites. Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

The stromatolites are our only doorway into the emergence of life way, way, back in cavernous time. A small piece of stromatolite is encoded with biological activity that is thousands of years old. This community is threatened by nutrient enrichment and physical crushing, so visitors are requested to keep off these extraordinary forms.

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Shernaz Wadia regards reading and writing as an inward journey. Her work has been published in various anthologies and e-journals. She sometimes dabbles in short Japanese forms of poetry too.

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Essay

The Birth of Bangladesh & the University of Dhaka

Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University.

In Dhaka University: the Convocation Speeches, a volume compiled with an introduction by Serajul Islam Choudhury in 1988, we read that the university was established by the British as a “splendid imperial compensation” for the Muslims of East Bengal (Choudhury, 26). They had wanted the current rulers of India to make up through it for the loss, they felt, they had suffered because of the reunion of Bengal in 1911. Delivering his inaugural speech as the Chancellor of Dhaka University (DU) in 1923, Lord Lytton had not only made this point but had also expressed the hope that it would soon become “the chief center of Muhammadan learning” in India and would “devote special attention to higher Islamic studies” (26). However, Lytton had ended his speech by urging graduands to conceive of the institution “as an Alma Mater in whose service the Muhammadan and the Hindu can find a common bond of unity” (Choudhury, 29). The subsequent history of the university reveals that while some of its future students would viewed it as a site for cultivating Islamic values and consolidating the Islamic heritage of the part of Bengal in which it was located, others would claimed it as a space where a democratic and secular notion of being Bengalis could be disseminated.

DU started playing a decisive role in Bangladeshi national identity formation almost as soon as the Islamic state of Pakistan was born. It became the center of the movement that would lead to the creation of the country born out of the ashes of East Pakistan in 1971. The key issue here was language and the catalyst was the insistence by the central government of Pakistan that Urdu should be the lingua franca of the country, regardless of the fact that only three percent of Pakistanis actually used it in their everyday lives. For two successive days on 5 and 6 December 1947, teachers and students of the university demonstrated on campus and the streets of Dhaka against the government decision and in favour of Bengali.

The Pakistani government, however, paid no heed to the protests and went ahead with its decision to impose Urdu as the sole official language of the country. In response to this ruling DU students mobilised on 26 February, 1948 to form an “All Party Language Committee of Action.” Not daunted, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan, and identified as the “Father of the Country” by the official media, reiterated publicly while on a visit to Dhaka on the 21st of March that “the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language” (Islam, 224). When he made the same point in addressing the DU Special Convocation on the 22nd of March, Bengali students present at the convocation protested. On March 11, 1950 the Dhaka University Language Action Committee was formed. In essence, the movement that was being spearheaded by university students and that soon spread across East Pakistan, ultimately led to the break-up of Pakistan, a state built entirely on Islamist nationalism.

A direct outcome of the language movement was that the government that had been held responsible for bruising the Bengali consciousness was voted out of power in East Pakistan in 1954. Instead, a short-lived but popular coalition government that was viewed to be pro-Bengali took over up the administration of the province. Students had played a major part in the election and the tradition of student activism in the cause of Bangladeshi nationalism became very noteworthy in national politics from this point onwards.        

In retrospect, we can see the Pakistani period was one which had witnessed a continuous tussle between successive Pakistani regimes wielding state power to curb Bengali rights and impose an Islamist state at the expense of Bengali language and culture and Bengali nationalism. DU teachers and students played a crucial part in the confrontation. It was mostly because of them that the Pakistani state apparatus failed to suppress Bengalis and prevent them from expressing themselves. The campus was at the heart of activity that promoted an awareness of secularism and brandished democracy as a goal to be achieved in national life.

It was to be expected, then, that when the Pakistani state made one last desperate attempt to suppress Bengalis clamouring for full autonomy and democracy on March 26, 1971 they would do so by targeting DU and attempting to mow down Dhaka university faculty members and students ruthlessly. When the Pakistani government decided to postpone the National Assembly meet, where the Awami League had got an absolute majority and where they were in a position to claim self-rule for East Pakistan and dominate Pakistani politics for the first time in that nation’s history, the campus broke out once again in loud protest. On the 7th of March, when the Awami League’s chief, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gave his historic speech claiming full autonomy and threatening to launch an armed movement that would drive away the Pakistanis from East Pakistan forever, DU student leaders were at his side as he spoke in Ramna Park, which borders the university.

What happened on 26 March was nothing less than a calculated bid to blast DU to smithereens, murder student leaders and selected faculty members, and drive out all students from the campus for playing leading roles in the movement against the Pakistani state. The Pakistani Army was nothing short of murderous in attempting to neutralize dissent. Inevitably, DU bore the brunt of their initial fury. Anybody found in the university that night was mowed down and dorms, faculty residences and the DU Teacher’s Club were shot at indiscriminately. The Shaheed Minar was razed to the ground and Bangla Academy was subject to artillery fire. Even university non-teaching staff and cafeteria officials were not spared. Madhu’s canteen – the favorite haunt of student politicians throughout the sixties – was attacked and Madhu – the benign owner of the cafeteria – was murdered. The huge bot tree (banyan) which provided shade under which student leaders delivered speeches and from which they had given the declaration of independence on one of the turbulent March days – was blasted out of existence.

It was clear that the Army had decided that DU was the ultimate symbol of the unacceptable form Bangladeshi national identity formation was assuming. As Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury observes in “Ekattor O Dhaka Visva-Bidyalaya (1971 & DU),” the university ambience encouraged people to not merely dream about freedom and equality but to create an environment where the dream seemed to come close to reality. Also, the University had been consistently a site of resistance in its efforts to impose a theocratic or monolingual state on Bengalis, as on-campus happenings from the time of Jinnah’s 1948 declaration about making Urdu the only state language and the protest movements of the fifties and sixties that culminated in the month-long protests of March 1971 demonstrated. The six-point program proposed by the Awami League for financial and political autonomy had been drafted by DU professors.

In the nine-month liberation war that followed the Pakistani army crackdown on DU and the rest of Bangladesh, the university once again became a microcosm of the country in that almost all of its entire faculty and students fled it. Academic activities came to a standstill and it became a campus bereft of students who had deserted it along with most of their teachers since they were unwilling to kowtow to the Pakistani design to create a quiescent institution run by quislings and were not inclined to impart or acquire education in line with proto-Islamist and/or totalitarian concepts of nationalism. Many students died in the course of the next nine months fighting for liberation or suspected of doing so. When the birth of Bangladesh seemed imminent at the end of the year, the Pakistani Amy and its local collaborators carried out a systematic search of faculty members on, and outside, the campus to murder the ones still around, holding them largely responsible for the breakup of the country they had not been able to prevent from cracking up.

When independence finally came to Bangladesh on December 16, it was fitting that the Pakistani Army would surrender in the open space adjacent to the university known as Ramna Park. The many teachers and students who had been murdered since March 26 as well as the resistance put up by them were later commemorated with structures erected all over the campus, the most prominent of them being the “Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture in front of Kala Bhabhan or the Arts faculty building, the martyrs plaque put up opposite the central mall, and the sculpted figures of the freedom fighters erected in front of the Teachers-Students Centre. December 14 became from then on the day when the DU Liberation War martyrs were to be ceremonially remembered and December 16 the day when DU faculty and staff joined the rest of the country in celebrating Victory Day.

Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture. Courtesy: Creative Commons

(First published in Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibonananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

Categories
Essay

Poetry by George Freek

I LOOK AT DEATH 
(After Li Shangyin)

An icy wind cracks the trees.
Their once colourful leaves
are buried under deep snow.
I’m suddenly gripped by sadness.
Forever men have felt as I do.
With a sharp, swift blade,
it’s as if my guts were removed,
and I feel the hole it’s made.
I take no interest in combing my hair,
or tying my careworn shoes.
I gaze at the moon and the stars.
In that far off world,
they look safe and blessed.
But I know that they, too,
are fragile at best.  
I watch a solitary sparrow
shiver in a leafless tree.
He’s cold. He hasn’t been fed.
I shake my head, ashamed, 
and return to my comfortable bed.

Li Shangyin( 813-858) was a Tang Dynasty poet whose poetry had an imagistic quality. Courtesy: Creative Commons

George Freek’s poetry has recently appeared in The Ottawa Arts Review, Acumen, The Lake, The Whimsical Poet, Triggerfish and Torrid Literature.

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Essay

What’s Novel in a Genre?

                                        

By Indrasish Banerjee                             

  I mostly read commercial fiction and novels the first eight to ten years after I started reading. At that time, I was not familiar with the concept of genres and didn’t know – much less cared – about them. I was taking my first steps into the world of books and reading a new novel and finishing it was all that mattered. A decade or so later, now much more comfortable in the bibliographic world, I started experimenting with other types of books. Freakonomics (2005) by Steven Levitt was my first foray into non- fiction.  Then I experimented with a few more history non-fiction books (history was one of subjects in graduation) mainly by William Dalrymple and Jawaharlal Nehru but also by other writers. Keen on territorial conquests of another kind, I experimented with Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai, RK Narayan and a few works by a few more Indian writers. Further from home, I tried out Charles Dickens (had read some abridged versions of his novels in school), Thomas Hardy, EM Forster and more. I read their novels, short stories and essays whatever I found.

 I had travelled very far from where I had started many years ago, crisscrossing genres. But my idea of what makes a good read had hardly changed. Whether it came to fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or classic, it still revolved around ‘a story well told’. Of course, some characteristics had changed. I had become more patient with slower narratives, more adept at handling complex narratives, more comfortable with narrative calisthenics and more at ease with diverse types of writing. I had also developed an understanding about the basic differences between literary and commercial works. Even so, my idea of a good read had remained resistant to transformative changes, engendering the question in my mind: “Do genres really matter?”

 The answer is both yes and no. Genres help categorise books based on what the reader can expect of them. There are millions and millions of books in the world and just imagine there being no basis to separate one book from another. The reader would have to go from the beginning to end of a book to understand what it was all about or start a journey without knowing what lay ahead. As much as it could be a delightful experience, it would bring in its own challenges. One of them would be to market the book.

Even if we don’t want to overlook the importance of commerce to art, let’s admit that no two things in the world treat each other with as much suspicion. Be that as it may, writers have, from to time, expressed their derision for genre. Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written many genre benders, once said in an interview that genres have no profound literary purpose or any substantial contribution to literature. They are creations of book marketers and their purpose is solely to sell books.

  But is literary genre’s relevance to literature only archival and commercial? Maybe a minor digression will bring in a new perspective.

 In Hindustani music, genre plays a vital role: it adds variety and richness. There are multiple gharanas (schools) in Hindustani music. Their identity is based on their geographical regions (Lucknow gharana, Carnatic gharana) they come from, the distinct musical heritage and ancestry they represent and the musical form they practice. However, the uniqueness of each gharana is determined by the raga it engineers by combining several suras (pitches). There are seven suras (notes) in Hindustani music.

 Film genres contribute to films, of course, in terms of variety but also by creating slots based on audience preferences, social anxieties, aspirations and various other factors which allow filmmakers to address the associated emotions by placing their films in the predefined categories which helps to find a ready audience. Film genres are more fluid than Hindustani music genres. They come and go and also get clubbed creating a hybrid genre where different genres are built into one narrative to appeal to a wider audience.

On the other hand, traditionally, book genres have had rigid boundaries with very minimal or no cross-genre exchanges. In fact, the boundaries have been so rigid that authors of one genre have never shied away from expressing their disdain for their counterparts in another genre. Broadly speaking, the two warring factions have been literary and commercial fiction.  

In The Naive And The Sentimental Novelist (2011), Orhan Pamuk says commercial novels (detective, crime, romance, sci fi novels) lack a ‘centre’ – a profound reflection on the meaning of life – which is integral to literary novels. This absence of a centre in commercial novels makes almost all of them same with nothing substantial separating one genre novel from another except their characters, plot twists and the murderer. This lack of substance makes it important for genre novels to always provide excitement to their readers, he alleges. On the contrary, according to Pamuk, a literary novel is a constant quest for the centre not just for the reader but also for the writer.

 Some writers may not know the centre to start with discovering it while writing the novel as an act of serendipity. Some may structure their plots such as to illuminate the centre.  Tolstoy had to change War and Peace (written in 1869, Translated in 1899) many times to discover its centre. Pamuk informs that Dostoyevsky had suffered epileptic attacks, after writing The Devils (1871-72, translated 1916), when he had realised that he had made a mistake leading to the sudden appearance of a new plan. And he had changed everything radically, Dostoyevsky had claimed.

 Howevee, in The Miraculous Years, Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky’s biographer had said Dostoyevsky was exaggerating. The new plan had indeed changed the novel from a mediocre novel with one dimensional characters to a brilliant political one, but Dostoyevsky hadn’t changed more than forty pages of the 250 pages he had written the previous year. Apparently, it’s the ‘centre’ of the novel the great writer had referred to when he had said he had radically changed it, Pamuk concludes.

  In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh blames this obsession of serious literature with daily humdrum, or the ordinariness of life has traditionally kept it away from dealing with subjects which are not considered ‘serious’ leaving them for the humbler genre fiction. Climactic events like a gale flattening a town or massive rains drowning it were considered too incredulous, not making the cut for nineteenth century literary gravitas.

 Until 19th century the division between fiction and non-fiction was fuzzy. In the 19th century, thanks to Industrial Revolution, there was a profusion of factories – moving workforces from unorganised, ruralized setups to more disciplined and controlled environments.  What followed was people constructing their lives around their workplaces. This transformed rural and agricultural societies into orderly and urbanised ones bringing about a new kind of society which was far more cloistered, sober and unexciting than earlier societies which, being agricultural and rural, were far rougher and exposed to vagaries of life and nature. The colourful stories of pre 19th century couldn’t adequately capture this new reality; it needed a new kind of literary tool. In came the serious fiction or what we call today the literary novel.   

Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740), Shamela by Henry Fielding (1741) and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1760) were the first attempts at literary novel dealing with such solemn themes as social differences, inner conflicts and women’s sexual autonomy. This style of writing travelled far and wide. Among others, it was adopted by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, among the earliest practitioners of the novel in India, digressing from the earlier traditions of storytelling in India, the Jataka tales and so on, informs Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

 Over a period of time, puritanism around contours of literary fiction set in, and it’s difficult to say when the wall between serious and literary fiction collapsed – in fact one can say it never did. But just as literary novels had emerged to accommodate a new kind of reality in 19th century, breaking away from genre fiction, genre benders have accounted for another kind of changing reality which is presenting challenges hitherto unimagined within the conventional boundaries of human life, like the effects of climate change and technological advances like artificial intelligence and machine learning.

  To capture the idiosyncrasies of modern life, many literary writers have flouted the boundary between literary and genre novels by setting their plots in the genre format while retaining the treatment of literary fiction. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000), Christopher Banks, now a private detective in London, sets out to investigate how his parents disappeared from Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War.  The novel is about life’s profundities like memory, nostalgia at its heart, although it’s written like a detective novel. The plot constantly moves from one incident to another keeping the reader waiting for the end, even as it draws a detailed picture of Shanghai society during the war. In Ishiguro’s recent book – Klara And The Sun (published in 2021) – he explores what separates human from robot even after the robot has acquired human-like intelligence. The book has a children’s book like element to it which is its main charm.

  Many writers have experimented with multiplicity of forms, but among the notable books are Kobo Abe’s 1950s novel, Inter Ice Age 4, which starts as a hardwired sci fi but slowly evolves into a political thriller and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) whose plot bifurcates into two in the middle of the novel. There on, in some chapters, the reader is solving literary mysteries while the other chapters are the first chapters from other novels of varied styles.

 The novel like any other art form has survived and moved ahead through adoption from within its various forms or external influences. When a new form arrives as a reaction to a social change or occurrence or an enterprising writer pushing back the boundaries, puritanism sets in to preserve the form in its purest state if it achieves literary acceptance and fame. Novels with magic realism and migration are some examples. When the form outlives its utility or is made obsolete by emerging trends or excessive repetition, it gets subsumed by another form and survives as part of it or slowly dies out. And thus, a new form, a mix of the two or many more, emerges. And the novel lives to fight another day.

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Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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Categories
Essay

The Incongruity of “Perfect” Poems 

Rakibul Hasan Khan discusses Sofiul Azam’s poetry collection Persecution from a postcolonial perspective

Sofiul Azam is one of the most important English language poets from Bangladesh. Persecution (2021) is his fourth poetry collection, which has recently been published by Salmon Poetry (Ireland). His poetry has already appeared in some of the leading poetry or literary journals across the globe, including Prairie Schooner, North Dakota Quarterly, The Ibis Head Review, and Postcolonial Text, to name a few. In Persecution, Azam shows an astonishing poetic talent, offering some wonderful poems on the themes of love, war, and politics, among others. If we read the poems of this volume purely from an artistic viewpoint, we will find most of them as what might be called “perfect” poems, but we may find the same poems somewhat problematic if we read them from certain political perspectives.  

The volume has recently come to me travelling a long distance from its publishing house in Ireland to my present residence in New Zealand. This journey, which began in Bangladesh where Azam lives, has covered three different countries of three continents. Such a transnational breadth is the main motivation for writing in English for many South Asians today, who have internalised English as a language of their own for their creative expression, inherited from their colonial past.

These poets capture the complexity and multiplicity of South Asian life with the common thread that binds them all — the language, English. Their expressions are somehow distinctly South Asian. This fact makes Azam stand apart from many of his counterparts in Bangladesh. Very few English language poets from Bangladesh, especially those who were born and brought up there, write such “perfect” poems in English. But Azam’s perfectly written poems in “native” like English with somewhat Western outlook and a poetic expression deriving from Western literary canon make some poems of Persecution incongruous in the South Asian context. In this essay, I will shed light on this incongruity while exploring some other features of his poetry.    

The most obvious influences on Azam in this collection are Eliot (1888-1965), Auden (1907-1973), and Walcott (1930-2017). Perhaps, among them his true poetic inspiration is Walcott, who is sometimes alleged to be more an English poet  than a Caribbean. This is somewhat true about Azam as well, but his situation is, of course, unlike Walcott. Azam is a self-made poet who has mastered his art of writing poetry in English through reading, overcoming his spatial “limitation” of living his whole life in a Bangla dominant country like Bangladesh where English is no more than a foreign language. Therefore, it would be an injustice not to recognise his extraordinary achievement in mastering the language to write like a ‘native’. But his poetry is not all about language. Azam’s success in Persecution lies in the fact that almost each poem is neatly written, maintaining outstanding poetic and artistic expressions. If the poems were decontextualised from their social, political, cultural, and historical backgrounds, this would be a collection of “perfect” poems. Azam in Persecution is like Walcott – more an English poet than a Bangladeshi! It is, of course, an overstatement, but there are some truths behind this assertion. To illustrate my point, I quote some lines from his poetry:

I tell myself that I can afford to be happy
like a grizzly bear only having to feast on salmon
moving upstream through shallow creeks to lay eggs and die.
I need to act like a hiker does, getting all he needs
On the wild shrubbery dense paths in Yellowstone. 

(“The Capitoline Wolf,” 14-18, pp. 15)

In the quoted lines, no one can doubt the mastery of Azam’s versification. If one is not informed of who is the writer of these lines, it would be hard to imagine these were written by a Bengali (English) poet. Objects and images like “grizzly bear”, “salmon fish”, “hiking” and “Yellowstone” are so foreign in the Bangladeshi or even in South Asian context that they seem to be incongruous in an otherwise perfect poem.  

But Bangladesh is not untraceable in Persecution, particularly in the part entitled “Heat of Interrogations”, where Bangladeshi landscapes reappear time and again through the poet’s nostalgic recollection of his childhood life in his hometown near the Garo Hill. The hill and a backyard pond in his grandparents’ house are the two most frequented places for the poet to escape from the complexities of metropolitan life of Dhaka where he lives. There is a clear undertone of English romantic poetry in the poems of this section. The quoted lines below may clarify my point:

I grew up picnicking in the Garo Hills.
In summer, I saw trees and clustered vines
dance in the wind and get covered with red dust. 

One day we will go there, to see together
the rain falling and washing the dust 
off their green foliage. 

(“Rain,” 28-33, pp. 17)

This superb poem somehow reminds me of Yeats, especially the early Yeats of romantic phase. I quote some lines from “Coming of Age,” another poem from this part, which casts a shadow over a nostalgic recollection of childhood event through the experienced poet’s realisation of its innocent cruelty:

Even as a child, I did atrocities like floating rat pups
in a coconut shell on a pond’s calm water.
I hear their sqeaks though I’m not degaussed
to such evils yet, drifting far from atonement. 

(11-14, pp. 12)

Such memories are the backbone of his poetry. In retrospect, he offers a profound insight into his life, which has a general appeal: “What am I but an accumulation of memories, / each of which is surmounted with unsuccess?” (16-17). It is true that every individual is an accumulation of memories.

This is a prominent feature of Azam’s poetry to attempt to give vent to some sad truths of human lives in general terms, especially in this part of the volume. The following lines from “The Pond at Grandpa’s House” may support my claim:

                       But I
Remain tensed like a hyacinth
Worrying about the lowering water. 

(17-19. pp. 19)  

This “lowering water” perhaps makes all of us tense, humans whose existence is as uncertain as that of a hyacinth and threatened by the drying up of water – the most vital source of existence. It is more so for Azam who does not want to strike his root in any particular place:

                              I don’t ever relish
the singular idea of being rooted in just one spot;
I rather feel like a rhizome branching out new roots
from its nodes, trying out its various potential climates
for the plurality is itself a self-renewing adventure.
Losing faith in those too preachy about the singular,
I prefer to be an unpaired jerk lusting for the plural.
If I say this planet is where I began and my windows
open into the universe, would I be allowed to belong? 

(“Earth and Windows”, 22-30, pp. 30) 

This is an unequivocal statement of Azam’s internationalism or transnationalism, renouncing any specific national identity.

Azam’s preference for a transnational identity is a common choice among many poets and writers of the so-called postcolonial world. It makes them different from the traditional postcolonial poets who usually express their deep desires to be rooted in their lands and cultures. Therefore, Azam’s choice of a transnational identity, against the backdrop of his ancestral home that he often revisits, can be interpreted as the conscious choice of a poet whose writing in an adopted language opens up before him an outstanding opportunity to explore other horizons. But there are scopes for raising questions about the intention of such transnationalism. Is it an opportunity for the poet to make his poetry more presentable to an international audience, since creative writers in English from Bangladesh and South Asia in general inevitably sense the shadow of an international as well as an unknown readership at the back of their minds?

I am aware that I am making a clichéd and contentious claim, and I may even be charged for being a nativist for raising such questions. Therefore, I must clarify my discomfort in coming to terms with the idea of transnationalism, which I think is largely confined to privileged people who can afford to assume multiple identities. This is perhaps a narrow and simplistic view of transnationalism, but it cannot be denied that those who adopt transnational or multinational identities are generally from privileged social positions. However, one particular feature that intrigues me the most is Azam’s romantic recollection of the past often with a profound attachment to nature. It makes him, to me, the last romantic of the post-postmodern age!

Part two of the book, “The Flames of Desire,” also exemplifies his romanticism. It is the spiciest part of this volume, but some of the poems in this part slightly disappoint because they do not fulfil my expectation of capturing the complexities of human relationship that I expect from the twenty-first century love poems. I am quite sure that many readers will differ and I admit that what makes me critical of Azam in this volume is essentially because of our ideological differences; his poetry as a form of art has mostly nothing to do with it. However, an exciting feature of this part is Azam’s experiments with metaphysics. This part brings out the influence of English canonical literature in shaping his poetic sensibility and artistry. On the one hand, the erotic and sensual images that he creates with an abundant use of conceits may remind one of John Donne, on the other, the rendering of the metaphysical elements in a modernist vein will remind one of T.S. Eliot who rejuvenated metaphysics in modernist poetry. The following lines from “Krishna’s Return Home” show evidence of his use of metaphysics:

As I reluctantly walk out of your woolen warmth
far worthier than the promise of a kingship
in heaven, I see washing on the line under the sky
with a few stars peeping like pot-bellied spies
through the curtains of dark clouds. (1-5, pp. 37)

These lines, once again, reflect the impressive craftsmanship of Azam who succeeds in matching the poetic talents of the English poets who influence his poetry.  

The extramarital sexual trysts that Azam accumulates in this part may titillate readers. But while emulating the erotic art of a seventeenth century poet like Donne who is notorious for his misogyny, Azam also falls into the same trap of presenting women as an object of men’s sexual pleasure, without any agency. The poem “Who Doesn’t Want to Make Love to Someone’s Wife?” is a case in point, from which I quote the following lines:

Could I borrow you?
I promise you will be returned unhurt to him
who’ll know nothing of rain’s work on a taro leaf. 

(10-12, pp. 47)     

This wonderful poetic expression is problematic for its gendered undertone. Although it may sound like making a gross interpretation of a love poem, I cannot overlook the fact that the quoted lines’ that show women are men’s possessions and they can be borrowed like any other objects. It sounds like a very offensive idea to me. Similarly, in some other poems, he compares different parts of a female body with fruits to be consumed by men.

The third part of Persecution, “Embers of Disappearance,” contains the most politically conscious and powerful poems. I enjoyed the poems of this part the most, but some of those are, unfortunately, problematic for being Eurocentric in outlook. One example of Azam’s Eurocentrism or a Western attitude is his treatment of wars, which is a recurring theme of this part. Surprisingly, Azam does not look beyond the world wars of the twentieth century to reincarnate the horror of war, assumably because of his politically apolitical and liberal humanistic Western outlook. Here lies the main incongruity of his poetry, at least from my ideological perspective. I think it is incongruous of a twenty-first century Bangladeshi poet to rely so heavily and uncritically on the World Wars to reflect on the horrors of wars, whereas there are so many ongoing and past wars in his part of the world, so many struggles of the oppressed.

Even his so-called transnationalism and lack of belonging to any particular place perhaps do not justify his stand because there are also many poems in this volume that reflect his awareness of place and time. Therefore, his position is curiously ambivalent in relation to his homeland. This kind of ambivalence is often considered to be a quintessential characteristic of the so-called postcolonial poets, but the paradox is that Azam does not seem to be very keen to identify himself as a postcolonial poet.  

Azam’s treatment of wars also indicates the influence of modern English poets on him. The following lines from “Requiem for the Undead” reflect his reminiscence of Eliot’s rendition of the horror of the First World War in “The Wasteland”: “A desert greens with corpses planted as seedlings. / Did dry sands wish to be washed out with blood?” (11-12, pp. 76). In the same poem, Auden’s account of his devastating experience of the Second World War in “The Shield of Achilles” is echoed:

Weary footfalls, the oars knifing the watery flesh.
The dreams that linger are burst-out bubbles
or hollowed-out conches washed on alien shores.
Batons, barbed wares, and the cold greet the future.

(21-24, pp. 76) 

Similarly, in another poem, he echoes the final line of Walcott’s famous poem “A Far Cry from Africa.” Walcott writes “How can I turn from Africa and live?” and Azam writes “How can I write poems and think of beauty alone?” (“Worries at a Hilltop Resort”, 27, pp. 89). Such kind of “intertextualities” are often intentional. They are undoubtably very artistic and evocative expressions, but the problem is neither the intertextuality nor the art, rather the context of the time and place when he wrote these poems. Do I sound like a nationalist now? I would rather call myself a postcolonialist. However, the influence of classic English war poets like Wilfred Owen or Keith Douglas, or the Cold War period’s poet Boris Pasternak, or the holocaust theme of Auschwitz in his poems indicates not only his inclination to present twentieth century modernist themes but also his Western point of view of meditating on his own experiences and perspectives. In this sense, he is a twenty-first century modernist poet from a postcolonial location, although it is not unusual among the Anglophone postcolonial poets to embrace Western modernism as Jahan Ramzani explains in his comprehensive study on such poets in A Transnational Poetics (2009). The irony is that Azam and many others seem to reject the identity of the “postcolonial,” but that identity persists to hang stubbornly around their necks like the dead albatross.

The most ambitious poem of this volume is “Prayers to the God of Jihadists.” In this poem, Azam deals with the issue of Islamic radicalism, which is a pressing concern for the contemporary world, particularly for the West. Azam also writes the poem largely from a Western perspective, which is evident in his use of the word “jihadist” – a popular Western coinage to describe the radical Muslims, and it is sometimes indiscriminately used to label Muslims in general. For many in the West, Islamophobia has ominously led to suspect every Muslim as a potential jihadist, and by writing this poem from their perspective, Azam seems to simplify a complex issue. The poem thus turns out to be a problematic one despite having enormous potentialities to become a great poem.    

Nonetheless, there are many poems or short expressions in Persecution which save Azam from doing injustice to his poetic merit. “Persecution” and “The Photographer” are two such poems. In these poems, Azam offers exemplary political consciousness, being fully aware of his time and place. I quote some lines from “Persecution”:

In the wake of the Confederate flags flying
o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
I know brown won’t ever be de-browned to white. 

I’m a genealogist, cracking the encryption codes
of all those suspicions under my critical lenses.
Oh, don’t let colour and culture make distance between us.

Elsewhere lines of sanity are now increasingly blurred.
Erich said Hear, O Israel! A new Holocaust is raging on.
So between an anvil and a hammer I stammer:

For Jews in Hitler’s war my sad tears drip,
Also for kids bombed out in the Gaza Strip.
Not anti-Semitic but you know Zionists never get it. 

(43-54, pp. 93)  

Whereas the above lines from “Persecution” express Azam’s consciousness of international politics, the “The Photographer” represents his awareness of national politics. In the latter poem, Azam makes a bold statement about political persecutions in Bangladesh. The photographer in the title of the poem alludes to a renowned photographer and political activist in Bangladesh named Shahidul Alam, who was arrested on the ground of sedition during a time of political unrest in 2018. In the following lines from the poem, Azam asserts his support for the photographer, protesting the repressive political regime that restricts freedom of speech:

                         I want caged birds
to sing their dreams out loud so that captors

feel the horror of wings being of no use.
Palmyra palm trees, though rooted,
make wings of their fronds. And only freedom

gets us on the wing. But in this country,
rules from their laboratory rain down on us
clay subjects and wash away what we made

solid with labour. I wonder if they’ll wise up
to the light brewing under darkness.
Those mute photographs will be vocal soon. 

(“The Photographer”, 17-27, pp. 104)

Thus, Azam expresses his solidarity with an artist who fights for freedom of thoughts and expressions through photography. This poem of a national subject matter has an international significance, for nowadays persecutions for dissents are very common everywhere around the world. It also justifies the titling of the volume.   

In fine, I repeat that Persecution is a collection of “perfect” poems. There are some problematic areas in this volume, but those are hardly because of any artistic weakness of the poems; rather, Azam’s ideological position sometimes weakens his political stance. His over cautiousness with form and expression is probably another reason of his political compromise. There is hardly any contemporary issue that he does not deal with in this relatively thin volume. Though I have not mentioned it in my discussion, his ecological consciousness is another highlight of this book. Therefore, I warmly accept this collection, keeping in mind the way the speaker of one of his poems asks his beloved to accept him with all his imperfections:

                        I am not

requesting you to accept me as a gem
you might have lost by mistake on the way,
rather as one humanly rife with imperfections. 

(“Who the Hell Benefit from Denials?,” 51-54, pp. 60)

Rakibul Hasan Khan is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at rakib.hasan82@gmail.com.

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Categories
Essay

A Legacy of Prejudice, Persecution and Plight

Suvrat Arora muses on the impact of a classic that seems coloured with biases. On the other hand, it showcases historic prejudices that should have changed with time, learning from the errors of the past… as humankind should have revered many other historic books…

Literature, especially fiction, can inarguably exist without any caveats unless it endeavours to loosen the rudimentary threads of morality and integrity that constitute the society’s fabric. When works of imagination are ingrained with concrete bigotry and unethicality, they slink into reality and contaminate peoples’ opinions to fuel contemporary predicaments.

For the past four hundred years, Shakespeare’s comical play, The Merchant of Venice, has been widely absorbed — in various the formats like academic readings, stage performances or movie adaptations. While stage performances and movie adaptations might mask and mend the ruthlessness against the play’s Jewish ‘villain’, a scrutiny of the original text reveals Shakespeare’s gruesome treatment of his Jewish characters in the play. 

The plot of this classic narrative follows the titular merchant Antonio who, in order to aid his friend Bassanio, takes a loan from a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, with whom he had had an occasional exchange of invectives. They sign a bond that a failure to repay the loan in time will lead to Shylock cutting a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Bassanio, meanwhile, uses the money to participate in the lottery of caskets that Portia’s father had devised for her marriage. While Bassanio smoothly outdid the long queue of Portia’s suitors to marry her, Antonio’s fate refused to favour him. Antonio’s inability to repay the loan leads to the iconic trial scene. When the trial of the case was up in the Venetian court, Portia disguised herself as a male doctor of law and fought Antonio’s hopeless case. While Shylock was all set to cut a pound of the merchant’s flesh and had simply denied all pleas for mercy, Portia’s witty interpretation of the bond turned the tables — the bond clearly spoke of ‘a pound of flesh’ that Shylock shall get upon untimely return of his money, it did not speak of any blood. So, if Shylock would ‘shed one drop of Christian blood’, he would be subjected to punishment. Further, the court charged Shylock with attempts to seek the life of a Venetian citizen, under which his lands and goods were confiscated, and he was forcibly turned into a Christian — after which there’s no mention of Shylock in the play.

This convoluted plot with escalating tensions leading to the intense climax has continued to drive esteem from literary scholars and global audiences. However, all the applause cannot silence the echoes of prejudice and racial intolerance entrapped within the play. “One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work,” stated the literary critic Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Not only literary brilliances like Bloom but even a naive eye cannot fail to spot these specks of discrimination scattered all over the play.

From the beginning of the play, the characters have perpetually referred Shylock as ‘the jew’, suggesting his religion outdoes his identity or as if he did not belong to a typical class of Venetian citizens. This reference ‘the Jew’ has, at times, been preceded by reproachful modifiers — ‘the currish Jew’, ‘the villain Jew’, ‘the dog Jew’ to name a few. Shylock lending money on interest is another reason he was subjected to hatred as it was considered an ‘unchristian’ way’; this further amplifies the notion of portraying Jews as greedy Christian killers. In the dramatic trial scene, Shylock was gratuitously forced to adopt Christianity. Besides, Shylock’s daughter, during the course of the play, who had eloped with Lorenzo, also turned into a Christian. Two of the significant Jewish characters converting into Christians by the end of the narrative in the guise of a happy ending exclaims out aloud Shakespeare’s religious biases.

The lack of ethical sensibility is not circumscribed to the mistreatment of Jews; it stretches further into other forms of discrimination. When Portia encounters one of her competent suitors, the Prince of Morocco, she bears bitterness towards him owing to his dark complexion. When the Prince of Morocco fails to choose the right casket in the lottery, Portia sighs in relief, saying, ‘Let all of his complexion choose me so’ – clearly symbolizing her disgust for dark colour, which was her mere metric for disregarding the Prince of Morocco.

At this juncture, the flagbearers of sacred Shakespearean literature might defend him, citing that Shakespeare’s intent was to depict the cruelty against the Jew in order to fetch them some sympathy. Yet the lack of explicitness in such depiction and absence of any Pro-Jewish forces combating all the injustice, slaughters to pieces any such counter-argumentation. Although it cannot be denied that the play sheds a dim light on Christian characters’ unjustified deeds, it does not balance out the severe brutalization of the Jews.

Shylock has undoubtedly managed to conquer a sympathetic corner in the hearts of his contemporary readers, but the peculiar language and word choice of the text suggest Shakespeare’s intentions as otherwise. The evident endorsement of prejudice, discrimination constituted upon race and colour, and justification of enforced religious conversion dargs the play’s usage as an academic substance, a mere recreation and even a centre of literary admiration into a huge interrogation — and demands us to contemplate on the complicatedness of the narrative, listening to the howls of its immoralities that reverberate even today. 

Suvrat Arora is a Junior at Thapar University pursuing Computer Engineering. An avid reader and hobbyist critique of literature, he reviews books under the name ‘bookish blurb’ and can frequently be found writing or editing for various society publications within the university.

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Categories
Essay

Renewal

By Jayat Joshi

“…most lawns within
the limits of the municipality
are to be grown
on billiard tables—
fertilized by the organic matter
that is commonly
trapped in pinball machines
when the marbles
sit on their commodes.”
-- Marjorie Hawksworth, Urban Renewal

When my home grew old, its windows started chattering in the wind like teeth. My younger siblings would remember it only as they would a distant grandparent near twilight years. They would remember the impressions of dusted off termite nests looking like brown, dried-up river routes on a map. I was impatient with such memories. I liked to reminisce the angsty drawings I painted at whim in my teenage years on the walls, or scribbles made by my sister when she was five, both of which had gotten layered over with whitewash. In memories younger than mine, home was a description of what it would turn into.

Even neighbours who came to live in houses vacated by older neighbours from my childhood had relatively young memories. There was a real estate dealer who remembered everyone’s homes in terms of what they would fetch when the nearby flyover to the highway was constructed. When he saw someone strolling in the street, he would hint the value he put on their plot with the width of his smile. There were also other people concerned with this make-believe flyover. Some folks whose ancestors had missed out on the land grab of the early years in the city and who had now been compelled to build up from benami land as a collective, and who had now declared this place a small ‘village’ with its own municipal councilor, were preparing to lobby shifting the flyover by a few yards, so it just missed stomping out someone’s house. The optimal outcome was to make the construction cut through a nearby square plot which made everyone suspicious. This patch had a boundary circumscribing it with names of four different owners in white chalk on each side. Benami: under no one’s name. Here, under more than one name.

Most real estate projects in the city had an underbelly that lay bare like a demo surgery for medical freshers, but concealed in plain sight. The underbelly of our home, the surrounding apartments, the real estate broker’s house, and the old and new neighbours’ homes was the settlement along the bottom edges of the area of migrant labourers from faraway states, dragged here on the same wind that entices investment in real estate.

Successive winds had made these populations denser, trickling their living spaces down precarious slopes where land descended into ravines of seasonal rivers. These rivers overflowed with mud and plastic in the monsoon, taking with it a limb or two of these makeshift settlements, like the sea dilutes the durability of a sand castle with every wave. From them, our homes sourced domestic helpers and those who wanted to build more homes sourced their workers. They were the gears of going-on-ness. A well-intentioned administrative servant had, before retiring, laced the margins of the enclave with bamboo plantations. Bamboo roots kept soil steadfast. Bamboo was a mute saviour for informal settlements. Below the bamboo shoots, iron rods jutted into the ground to lay foundations of large infrastructure, like a bed of a thousand arrows from the Mahabharata. The imposing character of Bheeshma breathed his last on a similar bed amid the battlefield. He had the boon of dying only when he willed. 

When my home grew old, the sight outside its windows became weak. The eye could not wander far without colliding into a concrete block, manifestly an apartment structure called either ‘Mountain View’ or ‘Mount View’. Most of the flats in these apartments came in the way of each other’s view. For a couple or more square kilometres, residential complexes grew competing for the remaining thin sliver of sight of the nearby hillock.

Higher-end, dissatisfied customers then began shifting closer to the mountains to catch a better glimpse. Younger memories are not tempered with the punitive side of things. Between widening smiles of brokers and narrowing views of mountains, the remembrance of harrowing disasters is dissolved. In fact, the dissolution is all the more profitable. The aftermath of a natural disaster is a levelled playing field for real estate and repair to begin its game anew. Its anticipation marks the desire for a smarter city, a renewed city, a resilient city, a city that has gone on record trying to be the best version of itself.

Old houses in this city are nails in the imagination of the future. The people who own them refuse to ‘develop’ them—adding a floor, remaking the shape, clubbing two plots, encroaching extra space through a fence, rejigging the drainage, and so on. The view, finally, can be of state-of-the-art high-risers as good as the mountains themselves, often a cause of envy for them because they house more greens, lawns and gardens.

Bamboo, and many species of trees growing on sloping land have a packed network of rhizomes in the soil. These roots ought to tell us something; when the land yawns and shifts, all these interconnected rhizomes cling and stay. For narrow rods that penetrate deep, like flimsy taproots, the slightest tremor will send up magnified vibrations that reinforced concrete may be too rigid to bear. It could move when shaken. Or stand still and fall.

The city bureaucracy is like Mahabharata’s Bheeshma—of lofty character, having trained in the academy not far from here, and unwavering in commitment to the law, the Dharma, the golden rule of do unto others. The Dharma calls for moulding a supercity out of this virgin land, this plot-sized town at the scale of the nation. Uproot these cobweb-like rhizomes from the soil, make some fancy wood-furnished cafés from the barks, provide them with a natural aesthetic, and carpet the remains with rubble and concrete. Chase away the birds and install some ambience music, pigeons can stay, and someone will need to be employed to clean their droppings from the massive glass windows. Someone not from here, preferably — who share no votes here. The visionary gentle people who gave us ‘Mount View’ can give us our own sequestered enclave, replete with trees so our domain is secure at least.

Land title is presumptive in India. No one knows if you do own a plot, if you do, you may have some papers, these may be real or fake. The public record registers a few transfer transactions. The rest is too hard, too long, too complex, too silly. There is no land to give and take. Everything is already transacted. Unless the government seeks to flatten another forest. Land is assembled by real estate, by law, by settlement, by business, by the bureaucrat, minister, broker, resident, worker, shopkeeper, caretaker, priest and peddler. No one knows if someone else owns a plot, yet everyone continues to own more. When my home grew old, many people started pouring in to see if in fact they were the ones who owned it all along. Or if they could. Or if they couldn’t but wanted to. When my home grew old it became a thing to be cross-checked with our older memories, to see if it had been there at all. The second-guessing might prove too much for us.

Jayat Joshi is a researcher of urbanisation, especially the politics of land in India. He is pursuing a Master’s in Development Studies from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.