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Children of the Nithari: Dhaani

Written in Hindustani and translated to English by Kiran Mishra

Kiran Mishra is 22 years old. She was just 7 when she started coming for pandies’ workshops immediately after the Nithari pogrom. A fabulous performer in all senses of the word she has been in all Saksham productions with pandies’, including a lead role in the performance at The American Center, Delhi. She has done her MA in political science. Aspiring to be a teacher, she is currently doing her B.Ed. She also has a senior diploma in Bharatnatyam dance. Central to the teaching programme at Saksham, she started teaching there after high school and currently she is both a teacher and the Co-ordinator at Saksham. She says, “I love to teach these kids specially those who want to get educated but are unable to because of different reasons. I think when we teach one kid, we teach one whole generation.”

Dhaani

I had come to Kota, Rajasthan for some company work but suddenly I had to leave for Delhi for an urgent meeting in office. Train tickets were not available and so I decided to take the inter-state bus to Delhi.

A small box like ticket house had been constructed at the bus stand from where I bought the ticket and boarded the bus to Delhi. The bus was full, people had left their belongings on the seats and not even one seat was without something on it. The next bus was at 4 am, too late. So, I knew there was no choice but to take this one, the last one that night. I entered the driver’s cabin thinking I will ask him where the earliest seat would get vacant. I was surprised that the seat next to the conductor was empty, nobody had noticed it. I quickly occupied that seat.

Settling I realised that the condition of the bus was bad, really bad. But well, I had no choice. Soon the driver started blowing the horn to indicate the bus was ready to leave. Hearing that people rushed to occupy their seats. The bus started moving. It sounded like a bronchitis patient. A girl aged 24-25 came and stood beside me. I started to ignore her, thinking I might be asked to give my seat to her as she was a woman. And as a man, it was only courteous to offer my seat. Without looking at her I could feel her staring at me, she kept doing that for a while and slowly she said, “This seat is mine.” I finally turned to her and raised my head and saw that her face was covered with a dupatta. She repeated, “This seat is mine.”

The bus was moving at a hesitant speed. I kept looking at her, the dupatta slipped a bit and half her face became visible. I could see she was beautiful. Though only her nose and lips were visible, I could estimate her beauty. I was still staring trying to estimate her face when she repeated that that was her seat.

“Now I can’t see how it is your seat when I am sitting in it”? I retorted finally. She continued in a very polite and sweet voice, “Yes this seat is mine since I kept a handkerchief on it and went to the washroom.”

I looked carefully at the seat, and yes there was a hanky, a white hanky, lurking in the corner. Irritated but conceding her point, I took a long breath and stood up to give her the seat. It felt like she grabbed my arm and then she said, “Hey, why are you getting up? Just shift a little and we can both sit together, any way there is no vacant seat in the bus.” And with that, she sat down next to me. I felt slightly embarrassed at the closeness, but she was seated quite comfortably.

The bus was moving slowly, as if protecting itself from the big potholes on the road.

It was November, and the chilly wind was blowing through the broken glass window. But the touch of her body started to thrill me to the core of my being. We sat on the single seat, clinging together lest we fall off the seat. I felt we were merging together. Her dupatta was raised more now, and I could see her whole face. This is what they call an “apsara[1]”. She was unbelievably beautiful, her nose, her eyes and her lips were like rose petals and the teeth like pearls between. Travel with such a beautiful girl was double fun and there I had been cursing the ride and the bus.

Every road bump would propel us in the air and then we would land almost on top of each other. A couple of times we almost fell off but in a second, she would be sitting, fully composed as if nothing had happened. Looking at me, she enquired, “Are you uncomfortable? Are you experiencing any trouble?”

“No, no, not at all,” I said reassuring. She started looking straight into my eyes and asked: “I think you have not recognised me”.

Now it was my turn to be surprised. I looked at her carefully. Her face clicked somewhere. And I was wondering where I had seen this face. She said in a very soft tone, “You have forgotten me.”

She said this in a way that I felt heartbroken and kept staring at her and thinking for some time but could not remember her. Avoiding her, I looked at my wristwatch. It was 10 pm, an hour since we started. She had turned the other way. Angry and upset at my not giving an answer? She was looking outside, and my mind was all in a mess.

Suddenly a word jumped into my mind: “Dhaani.”

I suddenly blurted out: “Dhaani?”

As soon as I said that the glow returned to her face, her eyes were happy, and a beautiful smile floated on her lips. “Too late,” she said, “But at least you have recognised me.”

“Hey, how are you here Dhaani?” I asked.

“Just understand,” she said, “I have come here to this bus only to meet you.”

“So, you have learnt how to joke too,” I remarked. “I still remember how you would get irritated over small things.” She looked at me with imploring eyes. Her eyes were raising questions and the four years she was in my life came across me.

This is about the time I was staying in Delhi to study. I needed money. So, along with studying, I wanted to give tuitions. A friend, who did tuitions, gave me her address and asked me to go to her home. I met Dhaani the first time there. I was giving tuitions to her younger brother in the 8th grade. Both her parents were working and she had done her graduation and was preparing to study further. There was a servant, but he was usually missing. Three of us would be in the house and Dhaani would give me tea and sometimes some breakfast. We became friends and I advised her with her preparations too. I did not realise when Dhaani fell in love with me. Dhaani was not her real name but she wanted me to call her that. Things were going fine but then something happened, and we could not meet again.

Dhaani was from a Rajasthani family. And one day, her maternal uncle arranged a marriage proposal for her and I too reached at the same time. Her family members were talking among themselves, so I went to another room and started teaching her brother. After a while, I was feeling thirsty. As usual I called out to Dhaani by name, and asked her for a glass of water. This created the trouble. Dhaani’s uncle came and glared at me. I could not understand. He roared, “Who did you call Dhaani?”

I pointed at her.

“Do you know the meaning?” he asked.

“No”, I said, “Maybe a nickname.”

Realising I was innocent, her uncle backed off, and the elders explained to me that the word meant “wife” and is used as an intimate address for one’s spouse. I could only stare at Dhaani who had tears in her eyes. Her father told me firmly that my services were not required anymore.

Four years later, I had never thought I would ever meet Dhaani in this rickety old bus in the middle of the dark night. Dhaani was shaking my shoulders, “Where are you lost?”

I blurted a series of questions: “Just remembering the old times. You got married, didn’t you? What does your husband do? Why are you travelling alone?”

She asked me “Did you get married?”

“No,”I answered.

“Why? You should have,” she responded.

We had left the town behind. We were in the jungle. Trees and sand. It was dark, the lights of the bus were weak and the visibility was poor. People were asleep in the bus. Maybe to keep awake, the driver started singing aloud a film song. His voice broke the silence.

I asked her again, “Why are you travelling alone?”

She said with a heavy heart, “I am on a journey that never ends, just one wish to see you and meet you once.”

“What nonsense!” I said, “Please answer my question.”

“You want to know where is my husband? Husband is one a girl like me falls in love with once, I am his Dhaani and never again will anyone settle in my heart. But you will not understand these things.” She took my hand in both her hands, “Swear to me that you will get married and have a family and a home.” With that she got up to leave.

I said, “Where are you going to go in this forest?”

“It’s a forest for you,”she said in a low voice, “For us it is our new home, we’ll never meet again but keep your promise.”

Saying this she got off the moving bus. I was stunned and stopped the driver, “A girl just got off the moving bus and you did not stop for her?”

The driver looked amused, a bit irritated, “Which girl?” he asked.

“The one sitting next to me, the one who I was talking to,” I was almost shouting.

He chuckled, “Near you. You were sitting all by yourself and yes you have been talking loudly to yourself but we get people like you, it doesn’t bother me.”

I craned my neck out of the bus and saw a smiling Dhaani waving to me. I was sweating despite the chill. “Dhaani, why did you do this?” I looked at the handkerchief in the corner, picked it, it had Dhaani written in the corner. Squeezing it tight, I cried. The bumpy potholes could not measure up to the pits in my heart.


[1] nymph

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Children of Nithari: The story of Rajesh

Written in a mix of English and Hindi  by Yogesh Uniyal, translated fully to English by Nirbhay Bhogal

Yogesh Uniyal is now a banking professional, currently working with Kotak Mahindra Bank, and has a Masters in Finance. He joined workshops lead by pandies’ theatre in 2006 and has performed in all the shows put up by the youth associated with Saksham, Nithari, including at the American Center, Delhi in 2010. A consistent performer and singer, he performs with the pandies’ besides doing street plays with Nithari friends and like-minded people on women’s education, cancer, and many other themes.

The Story of Rajesh

Somewhere in this wide, wide world, lived an eighteen-year-old boy (quite sensible and honest) going by the name of Rajesh,  in a small village, where he had a family with his  parents. Since childhood, Rajesh had always liked watching movies. Despite not having a television at home, he would commute a kilometre within their village, to the home of his paternal uncle ( being a good friend of his father’s) to watch movies on that uncle-by-sentiment’s TV. While watching a film at his uncle’s, one day Rajesh made a plan to venture outside their village after finishing his intermediate education. Rajesh had no idea that there was a huge gap, between this real world and the fictional world of movies, almost as if one were Purgatory and the other Heaven.

Rajesh’s Decision to go to Delhi

This is the story of that boy from an underprivileged family who came with big dreams to Delhi – “The City of Hearts, Brimming with Living and Giving” – leaving behind his village, his home, his parents, his everything. Rajesh had come to this city after completing his schooling with a great hope kindled in his heart – a desire to earn buckets of cash. But little did he imagine what he would lose while trying to fulfil that dream.

Living in their village home were Rajesh’s elderly parents. Leaving them behind and coming here wasn’t easy for him. But he left them and moved  nevertheless, for his happiness and theirs, which revolved around his attaining a higher standard of living.

Rajesh’s life in Delhi

He started lodging in a room that he rented in “The City of Hearts, Brimming with Living and Giving, also The Capital of India”. He stumbled wandered around the city for two to three months, looking for a decent job. But he did not get any employment. Then he came across a person who promised to get him a job, in return for Rs 20,000[1].

Rajesh, gathered the money from multiple sources – including some remitted by his parents from the village on his request. He paid the agent an advance of Rs 15,000, and promised to pay the remainder after securing the job.

After waiting for many days, Rajesh secured this job in a company that would pay him Rs 9,000 a month, at a workplace that was 4 kms from his room in the city. This salary certainly sounded small as Rajesh had to pay for his lodgings, food, water…and also send some money home.

Every morning, he would walk to the company where he was employed. And, every evening, he would walk from there to his neighbourhood. He knew that every expense, such as commuting by vehicles in a city like Delhi, wasn’t possible on just Rs 9,000.

He threw himself with all his heart and mind into his nine-hour job. Many times, however, he was made to stay back and work for ten to twelve hours a day. That earned him Rs 70 for every extra hour. He continued to work with dedication. What he didn’t know was that you needed to be street smart to compound your dedication to get a raise in such a place. Even after working so hard, he wasn’t getting the increment or promotion that he was worthy of. He brought this up many times, in conversation with his manager, but the manager would keep evading him on this. After one year, Rajesh decided to leave the company. After quitting his job, he gave job interviews at many other companies, and eventually did get hired. He joined this other company on 1st January 2020.

In the new company, he was paid more than double his last salary, and he was happy that he could manage all his expenses. But his struggle had just started.

For two months, everything was fine. Then, suddenly, a disease called Corona started to fester and spread. Cases of its transmission were quickly increasing in India. Observing this COVID-outbreak, the Central Government declared a lockdown in all of India on 22nd March 2020. Rajesh and all other employees of his company were kicked out of their jobs.

When the fired employees protested, the company said, “Whoever have their own computers can work from home.” But employees who’d been hired only in the past two months, how were they supposed to afford a personal computer? Some of the employees still managed to arrange computers for themselves, and they were re-hired. But what about people like Rajesh?

Eventually, Rajesh too was fired, which was a huge blow for him. He had no means of livelihood. His monthly expenses were piling up, and the spectre of groceries loaned from his regular shops kept looming over him.

After losing his job, Rajesh sat in his room, spending time on the same old TV news channels. But none of these channels gave the truth: about how the pandemic was hurting families like his, how they were living, what was the solution, and what were the safeguards that were being put in place?

Who knows how many families had people like Rajesh, who lost their jobs? What on earth was Rajesh going to do now?

For ten days, Rajesh kept brooding over the job he’d lost. Rajesh asked a neighbouring Uncleji[2], “Would any of the nearby bungalows have need of car-cleaning personnel?” Uncleji was moved to tears by seeing him in such a state. He said to Rajesh, “Why would you…a computer-operating professional…be doing such work?” And he started providing Rajesh food from his own domestic kitchen.

But how long was he supposed to feed Rajesh? Uncleji’s wife would taunt every now and then. This eventually became too much for Rajesh to bear, and he decided once again to clean cars for a living.

Rajesh had been reduced to the condition of one who belonged neither here nor there. And he was worried about his parents. He was managing to arrange two meals’ worth on certain days, and not even one meal’s worth on other days. Some evenings he would line up, for a meal at food stalls, set up by anyone wishing to feed the poor. Other evenings, he would scrape together a meal in other ways. What else was he supposed to do? Borne to the City by Hopes, and Buoying Himself Against the Blows He Received, He Was Still Not Able to Get Enough Food.

A person contracted Corona in the neighbourhood. This cast a spell of fear over all the residents. Now all of them, including Rajesh, were taken to a hospital and tested in isolation. Rajesh tested negative, but he still had to suffer his neighbourhood being barricaded. Now nobody could either go out or come in. This meant Rajesh couldn’t go to clean cars in the morning. He had no means of arranging food for himself. For seven days, he subsisted on water and one meal a day.

He then somehow got permission for resuming cleaning cars for the rich. But back home in his village, his parents both contracted the virus, and they were soon in a critical condition.

Rajesh had no means of going back to his village, which was 700 kilometres away. He didn’t know what to do. He began to recall his old life in the village, when he lived without any tension, amidst the warmth and safety of his home. Whatever presumptions he’d had about Delhi, and big cities in general, were proving to be opposite of what he had hoped and dreamt. All he could think of was going back to living with his parents in the village. He wished to rid himself of his current situation come-what-may.

Initially, he couldn’t come up with a plan, since he didn’t know any route back to his village, even if he started back on foot. Finally, he decided that he would follow the rail track to reach his village. He started on this path, hungry and thirsty.

On the way, some people were handing out food to migrants like Rajesh, who were journeying back home. For two days, Rajesh kept walking like this, surviving on such charitable provisions somewhere or the other, and thus he would store food for breakfast as well at dinner.

One such night, after eating and storing the food for the next meal, he resumed walking along the railway line. That night, he felt very tired, so he lay down on the track. Exhausted, he drifted off to sleep.

That very night, a train passed by on those tracks. And, after that, his eyes never opened.


[1] Indian Currency rupees: $1= Rs76

[2] An elderly gentleman in often referred to as uncleji in North India, ji being an honorific title

Nirbhay Bhogal is a 32-year-old amateur actor, with pandies’ theatre since late 2014, when she first experienced with them an altogether improvisational mode of workshopping a script chosen by the group. She’s currently pursuing a Bachelors in English Literature and hopes to make a career out of translating literary and non-literary works from Hindi into English, and vice versa. She was involved with the tail end of pandies’ workshop theatre at pre-pandemic Saksham school in Nithari and has also co-facilitated Zoom-based workshop theatre with Shakti Shalini’s shelter for women survivors of gender-based violence.

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Children of Nithari: A Will To Be Human

Based on a real life story by Sachin Sharma, translated from Hindustani by Diksha Lamba

Sachin Sharma joined the pandies’ workshops when they started there in 2006 and has been among the most consistent ‘performers’ there. He calls himself a dreamer who harboured a secret desire to be an actor as a child. He found an English word to describe his shyness when he joined the school run by the NGO, Saksham, in 2003 — “introvert”. The support of the two organisations helped him survive the difficult times following the Nithari pogrom. He resolved to not give up on his passion for the arts while doing what was necessary, financially, to aid his family. His family also encouraged and supported his interest in acting and singing. The onset of the pandemic left him unemployed as the company he worked for shut down under economic losses brought on by the lockdowns. He used that time to finish a Masters’ degree in English Literature. He sings Haryanavi songs along with his elder brother and works for a multi-national company at present. He is also pursuing a course in Event Management as that area would combine his passion for acting and entertainment with the capability to earn for the family. 

A Will To Be Human

In this world brimming with desires, humans have high expectations from life. Some look up to others, some to God and some look within to find the human strength and courage to achieve those. All of us do know that in this world full of hopes and desires no one has it all. 

This is a story of the human will to resolve to find happiness and purpose in life despite many hardships. Here we have a boy who was dealt a bad fate, you could say, because of a disease but it was made worse by a human error, yet he refused to accept defeat.

Ankit was born in a small village called Nithari in Uttar Pradesh to a middle class family. In this village, which sat uncomfortably as a necessary evil in the heart of Noida City, children are born with desires higher than the skyscrapers and malls towering on top of their village and desires deeper than the overflowing drains and sewage pipes under their feet. 

The fragrance of freshly made sweets greeted the guests who had visited the family to welcome Ankit into this hardened world. Ankit’s family could not stop smiling and distributed gifts and clothes to near and dear ones. These smiles would be wiped off their faces soon. Small villages like Nithari are treated as necessary evil by the encircling city.  The children born here have as precarious an existence as the village itself. They may or may not find the right kind of medical care at the right time. 

At the height of festivities and celebrations, Ankit’s body started to burn with high fever. He was immediately rushed to Mandiki hospital where the doctor, unfortunately or just out of sheer habit, was not on duty. A compounder (close to quacks with no medical education) gave Ankit the wrong injection in doctor’s absence. Polio preyed upon Ankit’s small body and he lost the use of both his legs. This resulted in a lifelong dependency on crutches. 

The family felt crushed with helplessness. The government’s polio awareness campaign had not yet crossed the residential complex across the street to this village yet. The cramped lanes and the aroma of overflowing drains make it harder for public awareness campaigns to reach such small places. This smallness was not to define who Ankit would become as he grew up. Such is the strength and power of the human desire to live and to live with dignity. 

When Ankit started school, he made many friends. They were supportive and sympathetic about his situation. The thought that he could not jump around and play like other kids in school kept nagging Ankit. He gradually resigned to what fate had in store for him. Something else – that was more powerful – also grew out of his handicap. He started focusing on the talents he did have. His heart and mind took up the challenges life had strewn in his path. 

Even when he was just a child, Ankit had a sharp mind and a keen interest in sports and education. Unable to play with friends, he spent most of his time studying. He earned a postgraduate degree and simultaneously started to work harder on his interest in music.

He made it a point to spare enough time from his hectic coursework to practice music at home with his younger siblings. With a desire to establish himself an artist, he picked up musical instruments like dholak (drums) and harmonium, and started singing. 

He managed to take long strides ahead with his brothers by his side. He made considerable progress day by day and released his first Haryanavi song on YouTube along with his younger brother in 2018. The song received much love and appreciation online. Ankit has never looked back since that day. He carries on singing. Many of his songs are played during wedding festivities and are famous on YouTube.

Ankit’s will power had the courage to change his weakness into his strength. This story is about all those people who find their inner strength when life gets tough. People who accept defeat should take inspiration from Ankit’s story. If you are willing to work hard, it is possible to make a mark in this world. 

This is my elder brother’s story. You can find this name, Titu Sharma Nithariya, on any social media platform today. The boy fought against hopelessness and followed his passion against many odds to start his own company, TSN Records. I write in the hope that, like me, you will find inspiration to dream big even in moments of crisis. My brother has been my inspiration and both of us have decided to contribute to the world of singing. We hope to inspire others through our art.

Diksha Lamba is among the senior members of pandies’, having over 15 years of experience of performing (acting and workshopping) for the group. Coming from a background of studying and teaching English Literature, Diksha is now pursuing Law and teaching a course module of Theatre and Law at NLSIU, Bangalore.  She has been associated with Saksham, Nithari from the time that pandies’ started working there and has a 15 year association with the place and with Sachin.

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Children of Nithari: A Letter to God

Narrative by Tanveer Hussain & translated from Hindustani by Vritika Thareja

Tanveer Hussain decided to not be a burden on his family at a very young age and worked while pursuing his schooling. Now 27 years old, he has worked at many places and worn many hats.  From being a polio awareness volunteer to a teacher at the Saksham NGO (where he attended the charity school and met pandies volunteers), to a typist and an electrician, he is employed as a driver today. He joined pandies’ workshops (as he started visiting the Saksham school) in 2008 and is remembered as a quiet boy who would unleash a fury of talent when asked to perform in workshops or onstage. He first appeared on the American Center stage in 2011 and has since been a consistent performer. He writes short stories and wants to  learn to write fluently in English before he gets married.

A Letter to God

Dear God,

I hope all is well with you. I wonder where your abode is these days. Are you in the hearts of billions of believers or are you residing somewhere in the beautifully carved and crafted buildings made specially in your name? Everyone I meet, claims to be an expert on you and your location, but no one really seems to know. 

Honestly, I did try looking for you under the peepul tree where many residents of my society go to pray every morning, but I had to make do with blissfully smiling photos of you. I even travelled far and wide into the mountains, thinking maybe just maybe I was misdirected. Well, there too, I was met with a bunch of people reciting your stories. Asked around, searched on the internet. Still couldn’t reach you.

Hey, don’t you think this will break my spirit, God? After all, I am devout and finding you is my mission now — even if I have to wage a war against humanity. There are one too many taking place anyway. Not that one more is going to make a difference, right?

Okay, let’s say I do find you and prove your existence. Let’s say I ensure that every last human being living on the face of the Earth bows down to you. Would I be content? Hell, no! I wouldn’t trust their word for it. Faith doesn’t come easy these days, God. Generations need to feel the impact. It’s not a fool’s game.

Well, God, I heard you can see all of us from where you are. How’s the view? Did you see how bribes have travelled from bureaucratic offices to the temples in your name? Asking favours from you has become a fancy affair? So much in the name of ‘faith’! It’s such a cute little word that means nothing to those who preach it these days, I tell you.

But the smart move was just leasing out your name to the religious preachers. Had you given them a real part of your power, I don’t know what all they would have done. I’m sure you have heard the famous saying, “You offer them a hand, they grab your arm.”

Tell me something, under your watch, after the world has been practically forced to offer bounties to you for peace and prosperity, offer you more than the taxes (or sometimes to just evade taxes), why are people getting murdered, raped, assaulted, looted? I run out of words to describe the horrors, really. I have seen people’s lives turning into living hell.

Are you okay with this? Don’t you think it’s outright unfair? People say you are watching everything and that whatever you do is for our good. I mean, we can’t see what’s in their future but apparently you do, right? So, I assume then you knew how horrible would be the future of any rape victim? But I am conflicted. In a rape case in my village, both the victim and the perpetrator suffered.  The girl committed suicide out of living with the ‘shame’ of facing the extremely moral society we live in. And the rapist, the only earning member of his family, was hanged to death. His family is now crippled for money. The government will provide monetary aid to both the families for some time. But, after that? Then how are they supposed to manage? How are the parents of that unfortunate girl supposed to ever find happiness? What about the wife and daughter of the man who was hanged? What did they do to suffer the shame and poverty that they will now? Who will take their responsibility? I thought you kept all of this in mind before you let things happen here on Earth.

Am I mistaken? Are these just stories woven too deep and wide? Maybe you can’t foresee the future. If you could, I am sure you’d put a stop to this madness.

I am convinced now, that it is we who propagate and spice up the wrongs in this society and then criticise others, assuming a moral high ground ourselves. We don’t stop and introspect for once, the impact our words and actions will have on our children, the generation that will grow up to imitate the very same deeds. A generation that can be moulded towards a more inclusive and positive future is executing the hatred we are sowing with our very own hands. Aren’t I right? After all, a knife is a knife – you can either look at it as a weapon of murder or a tool for slicing fruits – it’s a game of perspectives.

Honestly, God, I feel that we have mastered the art of twisting tales to please ourselves. And it’s not like the entire human race is incapable of being up to any good. As long as people like Kailash Satyarthi and Maanjhi the Mountain Man continue to make a difference, there is still hope. From time to time, we have witnessed people who have risen above and against the common belief to prove that walking against the wind and reading against the grain is a possibility. I refuse to believe those who affirm that destiny will always overpower a man’s free will.

God, I have poured my heart out to you. You are so patient, and I, ever so grateful for you. There’s immense power in believing that you are up there, ensuring all of us are safe and sailing smoothly, especially in times like these where covid has wreaked havoc on the entire planet.

You, the taskmaster of it all, have got it all under control.

Or at least I hope so.

Your child,

Tanveer Hussain

Kailash Satyarthi: An internationally acclaimed child rights activist who fights to put an end to child slavery and exploitation

Maanjhi the Mountain Man: Dashrath Manjhi, a labourer from Gehlaur village in Bihar who carved a path 110m long, 9.1m wide and 7.7m deep through a mountain, single handedly using just a hammer and a chisel, to create a route to give his fellow villagers easier access route to hospitals in the city.

Vritika Thareja is an advertising professional who believes that power lies in the hands of those who dare to tell a story. She has been associated with pandies’ theatre since 2015 and facilitates workshops held with other organisations including Shaktishalini Women’s Shelter Home and Saksham, Nithari.

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Children of Nithari: Stranger than Fiction

These are stories written by youngsters from the Nithari village. They transcended childhood trauma and deprivation for many decades. The column starts with a story by Sharad Kumar in Hindustani, translated for us by Grace M Sukanya

Sharad Kumar is a 22-year-old engineer / artist from Nithari, Delhi, currently in the final year of his B. Tech in Information Technology. He has also performed as an actor and singer for various college productions. He has been associated with pandies’ theatre group since 2010. His performance at the American Center, Delhi, with 40 more children from the school Saksham, Nithari, was the audience’s pick. Working with younger children in Nithari, teaching them Physics, Maths and also, how to perform on stage, he hopes to be able to give back to the community he comes from. His desire: quality education and opportunities to children from under-served backgrounds.

Stranger than Fiction

When it had begun, it had seemed it would just be for a short while and would get over quickly. But it had now been three months since the lockdown had been announced.

Mumbai’s streets were so quiet that it seemed the multitudes had been anaesthetised. Only the sound of dogs continued to disrupt the silence of the alleyways. Even the air felt cleaner.

But there was still one pollutant left: the virus. 

The corona warriors worked away at their jobs as though this was the battle of Mahabharat. Excepting a few people, everyone was busy waging a personal war.

On national television, people initially behaved admirably. But now they too showed symptoms of being infected by the virus of television rating points.

Mritunjay, an ordinary hawaldar, took time out of his busy schedule to lay out his gamchha and rest on it, as he did every day, and started knitting a dream from the past — his grandfather’s memories.

He traveled back in time to an era when the British Empire extended to almost all parts of the world.

*

Somewhere far away from the Indian sub-continent, Mritunjay’s grandfather, Dirghayu, was a soldier in the British Indian Army. Due to the circumstances of that time, Dirghayu and his compatriots were beholden to do the British’s bidding, waging war in trenches, pits, and holes for their colonial masters.

Meagre rations, living in squalor with rats, snakes, and other parasites, were all part of their war time trials. Standing every day in the cold water and the wet mud of waterlogged trenches had started taking its toll. With each passing day, Dirghayu’s legs were becoming more painful.

Then, one day the commander’s voice had announced the beginning of war, and everywhere cartridges, canons, and weapons poured forth rivers of blood. Perhaps, because of his name, Dirghayu, meaning the long-lived one, the hawaldar’s ancestor had been blessed with good luck and courage. He survived the enemy gunfire, the terrible living conditions, the horror of warfare, and managed to win the British their victory. The Commander was happy with his performance and decided to send him back to his homeland.

Back in the Indian subcontinent, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had just taken place. General Dyer’s order to fire at point blank range on a peaceful prayer meet had shocked the empire to its core. The cruelty of the British Raj had been increasing since Gandhiji’s successful Champaran Satyagrah. Some political parties had taken to violence and arms, challenging the British to a direct conflict. 

The Spanish Flu too, was at its peak. Millions of people had lost their lives. The death count was rising every day. Some scientists had estimated the death toll at as much as 5% of India’s entire population. 

Economy and communications had collapsed. The rulers, in an attempt to veil their incompetent handling of the pandemic, had busied themselves in passing a variety of bills and ordinances. The only relief forthcoming from them was a lockdown.

The people in the Indian subcontinent were faced with starvation, unemployment, lack of education, and an utter lack of services.

Seeing the country in this state, Dirghayu realised there were three more battles that he had to face: (i) to provide for the comforts and security of his family; (ii) to take precautions against the spread of the Spanish Flu; (iii) and, to continue to work honestly for the British government without compromising his principles.

One day, Dirghayu’s son asks him, “Why is the Spanish Flu known as the Spanish Flu?”

Dirghayu, who has had a little education, and had gleaned some information from the company of the British officers he served, told him: “It is because the Spanish were the first to report it, but people’s mind-set is such that they started calling it the Spanish Flu.”

Then his son suddenly changed the topic and asked him, “Why are you opposed to Gandhiji and the other freedom fighters?”

Dirghayu, shocked, attempted to circumvent the issue by proffering a false excuse: “Gandhiji has gotten the flu, and he must not be allowed to spread it to other people through these huge public gatherings. This is why I am opposed to them. In any case, my priority is the safety of you people. I have to earn money so I can look after you!” 

“So, if you had been there at Jallianwallah Bagh, would you too have fired at the crowd?” 

At this, Dirghayu was upset. He scolded his son, telling him to focus on his studies instead of asking unnecessary questions.

A few months later, however, Dirghayu faced a challenge that could lead to his losing all the three battles of his life simultaneously.

Dirghayu was summoned by the senior officials of the British Army. They told him that they had been informed by their secret services that some university students were involved in a massive conspiracy against the Rowlatt Act passed in 1919 to allow indefinite incarceration without a proper trial.

They gave him two options: He could either give up his post in the army and be dismissed in disgrace, losing his right to a pension, or he could arrest the mastermind of the conspiracy: his own son.  

Keeping his priorities in mind, Dirghayu chose to give up his post in the army even though he knew he would not be able to support his household without that money. Without the army pension, his fight against the Spanish Flu would also slow down, and he would have to face the problems that the many had to face in the subcontinent.

However, he gave his son some money, and managed to send him to a safe place.

He was brought in for questioning by his own colleagues. They cajoled him, coaxed him, threatened him, even tortured him — but he refused to give up his son’s location. Eventually, the authorities gave up and let him go.

After his wife’s death, he was left alone but he has managed to conquer at least two of the battles he had set forth for himself.

Night and day, like a Spanish Flu warrior, he was engaged in helping people, getting them medicines, arranging food for the poor, encouraging the sufferers to live, and helping them out in any way required as he fought against the devastation wrought by the disease.

But perhaps he could not win this last battle. His name had protected him so far, but he met his end at the hands of the Spanish Flu.

*

Suddenly, Mrityunjay was woken up by the voices of his colleagues.

They were asking him: “What are you dreaming? You seem to be lost in your dreams.”

He said: “Perhaps this is not a dream, but the reality. After all these years, things are still exactly the same.”

Glossary & Notes:

Gamchha – a cotton towel

Hawaldar – a police constable

Jallianwallah Bagh massacre: Click here to read.

Champaran Satyagrah: Click here to read.

Rowlatt Act: Click here to read more.

Spanish Flu: Click here to read more.

Grace M Sukanya is a 28-year-old filmmaker based in Delhi, India. She is interested in creating arts-based educational interventions for children that respond to socio-political issues. She has been associated with pandies’ theatre since 2020.

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pandies' corner

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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