It was a raw, blustery morning in late January. A small knot of people could be seen standing near the Buckland Bund, an embankment on the Buriganga river. The river, which swirled and foamed along the edges of the city of Dhaka, was especially turbulent this winter.
All eyes were fixed on a man, a stranger to these parts. He had been sitting cross-legged on the Bund, gazing into the distance day and night, for the past three months, impervious to the cold gusts of wind and spray that rose from the agitated waters below. There was something odd about his appearance. He could be a Bengali, the locals surmised, judging by the shape of his face with its somewhat square jawline, wide nose and high cheekbones. His body was covered with ash but the patches that were visible were as fair as a European’s and his eyes, hooded by dark, heavy lids, a greenish brown. Masses of tawny hair fell in dreadlocks down his sturdy back and shoulders and a matted beard almost touched his navel. A tattoo—a word in some strange language—could be seen on his right arm. He was naked except for the strip of coarse orange cloth that covered his genitals. The men standing around stared at him with unabashed curiosity and exchanged glances. Once in a while someone would fling a question at him. They had been doing so from the first day they saw him sitting on the Bund.
‘Who are you? Why are you here?’ A middle-aged man in a silk lungi and woollen vest asked in a stern voice.
‘Main Bangla nahin jaanta.’ The stranger’s lower lip twisted to the right as he answered in Hindi.
A barrage of questions followed in a Hindi thickly accented with Bengali.
‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Nothing. Just sitting.’
‘That we can see. But why here?’
‘No reason. I just … just came here …’
‘Are you a sannyasi?’
‘Yes. I’m a roaming sadhu.’
‘You look quite young. Must be in your mid-thirties. Am I right?’ The stranger shrugged his heavy shoulders and turned his eyes northwards on a massive structure looming in the distance. It was the zamindar’s mansion locally known as the Rajbari. The zamindars of Bhawal were rich and powerful beyond ordinary landowners and had been dignified by the title of Raja. Their sons were addressed as Kumar, each according to his position in the hierarchy.
The man in the lungi moved aside. Another, an elderly gentleman in a dhuti and shawl, took his place.
‘You are too young to abandon the world. When did you become a sannyasi?’ The old man leaned forward and examined the stranger’s face and head closely. There was a puzzled look in his eyes.
‘I ran away from home in my youth and joined a group of holy men.’
‘How long ago was that?’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘Where did they take you?’
‘To the mountains. I spent many years there.’
The old man nodded. But the answer didn’t seem to satisfy him.
The crowd ebbed, melted and swelled once more. Others took up the interrogation.
‘Do you have parents?’
‘Are you married?’
The man, calm and unruffled all this while, stiffened at this question. As though alerted to some hidden hostility. He had a prominent Adam’s apple which jumped up and down his throat.
‘Um …’ he hesitated, ‘yes … n-no. Yes. I had a wife … once.’
‘You left her too?
‘Why do you keep looking at the Rajbari?’
‘No reason.’ The answer came pat as though he had prepared for the question. ‘There’s nothing else to see …’
The men walked away and stood a little apart. They exchanged meaningful looks and nudged and whispered. Snatches of their conversation came floating through the air.
‘Exactly like the mejo kumar. The same height and build. The same small hands and feet. Even the tiny wart on the lower lid of the right eye. What do you think, Taufique?’ The elderly gentleman turned to the man in the lungi.
‘Yes, indeed, Kashi kaka. I never did believe the story.’
‘You think anyone does?’
‘I don’t know about the family. The subjects certainly don’t. Not one.’
‘The man seems to be about thirty-five or thirty-six. Exactly the age the mejo kumar would have been today. Have you noticed the way he sits? Hunched forward like a bull.’
‘And his complexion! What man other than a royal could be that fair? His body is covered with ashes but I noticed his hands and feet. Particularly the feet. Rough and scaly but shell pink. Like new milk with a drop of vermilion mixed in it.’
‘The colour of his eyes? And the tiny angles sticking out from the tops of his ears? The resemblance is uncanny. The mejo kumar too had …’
‘There are marks on his back and legs. And tiny patches on the scalp in between the dreadlocks. I looked at them closely …’
‘Yes, I noticed them too. The mejo kumar’s body was ridden with syphilis when he was sent to Darjeeling. These must be the scars.’
‘He seemed a bit rattled when I asked if he was married.’
‘He did indeed. He couldn’t decide what to say.’
‘He is the mejo kumar,’ a chorus of voices joined in. ‘The story we have been told is bunkum.’
‘Mark my words, brothers,’ an old man wearing a skull cap observed darkly, ‘this man is pretending to be a sadhu, when he is in fact the mejo kumar – the second prince of the royal family. Now that both his brothers are dead, he is the sole heir of the estate. The real ruler. If I’m proved wrong, I’ll never venture another opinion as long as I live.’ He moved his head solemnly from side to side.
About the Book:
In the winter of 1909, Ramendranarayan Roy, the ailing second prince of the Bhawal zamindari, proceeds to Darjeeling with his wife Bibhavati, brother-in- law Satyendranath and a retinue of officials and servants, after being advised a change of air by his physicians. Three weeks later, a telegram from Satyendranath arrives at the Bhawal estate, carrying news of the prince’s demise and subsequent cremation.
Soon peculiar rumours start circulating around Bhawal and the surrounding town. Some say that the prince was poisoned, while others suspect that his body was taken to the burning ghat but not actually cremated. There are also whispers about an incestuous relationship between Bibhavati and her brother. The story takes a bewildering turn when, twelve years later, a mendicant comes to Bhawal, claiming to be the long-lost prince and the heir to the estate.
With no resolution in sight, matters reach the court, where the so-called prince and some family members face off against Bibhavati and her brother, aided by the British Court of Wards who are keen on maintaining ownership of the zamindari. The breathless legal drama that ensues will culminate in an incredible series of events, permanently altering the course of the estate’s history.
Inspired by the legendary Bhawal sannyasi case and evocative in its recreation of pre-Partition Bengal, The Mendicant Prince is an intriguing tale of dual identity and the inexplicable quirks of fate.
About the Author:
Aruna Chakravarti has been Principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books to her name. Her novels, The Inheritors, Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko and Suralakhsmi Villa, have sold widely and received rave reviews. She is the recipient of the Vaitalik Award, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Sarat Puraskar.
Title: Her Stories –Indian Women Down the Ages —Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens
Author: Deepti Priya Mehrotra
Publisher: Rupa Publications
This is a motivating book and a curious one too. Talking about several women of substance, it goes to jog your memory about their contributions to the respective arenas.
Her Stories–Indian Women Down the Ages- Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens by Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a bold account of the women who have been overlooked and ignored. A political scientist with cross-disciplinary interests, Mehrotra counsels civil society organisations on gender and education issues. Having taught social science at Delhi University and TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), she is the author of pioneering books that include Home Truths: Stories of Single Mothers, A Passion for Freedom: The Story of Kisanin Jaggi Devi, Gulab Bai: The Queen of Nautanki Theatre and more.
Says the book’s blurb: “Some were celebrated, others vilified. While some were casually neglected. Yet, the story of these women lived on Her-Stories is a discussion of women from Indian history whose contributions have been all but forgotten. These were poets, performers, warriors, saints, philosophers, activists and more, yet we hardly remember their courage and contributions. The time has come to bring their history to the fore.
“Their stories describe desperate situations, ingenious strategies and brilliant sparks of feminist consciousness. Rather than accounts of isolated ‘great women’, these stories place at the center the ordinary woman, in all her splendid diversity, multifaceted struggle and achievement. The women profiled were encouraged and supported by others—their achievements represent the aspirations of many in the past and provide inspiration for us in the present.”
Spanning different regions of India, the book presents in chronological order from the second millennium BCE to the mid-nineteenth century India stories of women who have been thinkers, doers, movers and shakers who have subverted hierarchies, brought peace out of chaos and survived despite routine devaluation. Philosopher Sulabha, philanthropist Vishakha, fearless Uppalavanna, wandering bard Auvaiyar, justice maker Leima Laisna, astronomer Khona, mountain queen Didda, radical poet Akkamahadevi, intrepid Sultan Razia, martial artiste Unniyarcha, poet-saint Janabai, Gond Rani Durgavati, historian Gulbadan, cultural ambassador Harkha, pepper queen Abbakka, fakira Jahanara, brave Onake Obavva, Dalit rebel Nangeli, dancer-diplomat Mahlaqa Bai Chanda, lion queen Jindan, Nawab Begum Qudsia, sharpshooter Uda, guerrillera Hazrat Begum and feminist writer Tarabai Shinde.
Writes Mehrotra in the introduction: “Where mainstream histories display yawning gaps, feminist scholarship, and Dalit, subaltern and gender studies have gradually unearthed rich data, and made analytical advances. Some gaps persist, for historical sources are inevitably limited. One needs to sift through document, legend, myth and hagiography, to arrive at the most plausible truth. While remaining true to evidence, through empathy and imagination facts grow wings and characters come alive.”
The book is incontestably a saga of valiant women achievers, dissenters, fighters and advocates who changed the wave of complacent human existence. Igniting the spark of feminist consciousness, it celebrates the stories of women with forgotten glory.
In ‘Didda: Mountain Queen’, she contends: “Didda ruled in Kashmir for 50 years: nearly half of it is as an absolute sovereign. She earned the rare distinction of bringing stability into the fractious kingdom. Didda’s father-in-law, Parvagupta, was a clerk until in 949, he killed King Sangramdeva and grabbed the throne, only to die within a year. His son Kshemagupta took over, and proved as incapable as his young wife, Didda, was capable. Kshemagupta married Didda immediately after assuming power, slyly calculating that her royal lineage would provide legitimacy to his rule. Didda’s father was Simharaja, king of Lohara, and her maternal grandfather was Bhima Shah, powerful ruler of Kabul and Gandhara. Didda was in her mid-20s when she married, later than the usual age of marriage—quite likely because she suffered from a disability.”
Mehrotra reasons about the book: “Critical feminist subaltern historiography asks new questions and makes fresh interpretations. The move away from androcentric elite history breaks down walls, releasing a surging ocean of human beings who have much to tell. Women characters emerge from nooks and crannies; each different, in varied circumstances, yet each laboring against the grain of patriarchy, in some or the other aspect of her life. For centuries, patriarchy has defined and limited, reserved the public sphere for men and assigned subsidiary roles in the private domain to women.”
“Mainstream male-stream-history has colluded with these constructions, naturalizing women as stereotypical daughters, wives, mothers symbols of domesticity, rather than active human being Dalit and working-class women have been, additionally, naturalized as workers whose labor belongs to the elite.”
In about three hundred pages, Mehrotra writes about the injuries without making it an insipid narrative. She captures the drama concealed beneath the surface. If the women she dwells on in the book were not just victims, but makers of history and of literature, philosophy, law, medicine, science, art, architecture, music and religion, Her Stories goes that extra mile to bring out the tale of survival in a system rooted in domination and defeat.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
It was the third time in as many days that she found a small bunch of flowers on her door sill. They were wildflowers — small and pretty. Suhani had no idea who left them there daily. That day as she picked up the bunch, she decided that she would get up early the next day to see who was left the flowers there, that too, so early in the day.
Coming back inside, she placed the flowers into an empty vase. Suhani tightened her shawl around her shoulders. Life had made her unused to such additional niceties. After moving to the mountains, she distanced herself from things associated with her past – flowers, music, reading her favourite poetry and painting. Her past, where she and Sahil had been professors together at the Delhi University. Gradually, as they realised they had feelings for each other, they started living together. They had spent five years with each other in the apartment they shared. It was a beautiful period in her life. It was as if life itself had taken on colours that had been hidden to her till then. They would cook together, watch Iranian films, read and discuss books by Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff, listen to instrumental and world music, go out for long walks and spend hours just enjoying each other’s company.
Back then, she had believed that the most important event of her life had already occurred at thirty-two years of age — her meeting with Sahil. Little did she know that life had a few surprises for her yet…
When his parents came to know about their live-in relationship, they were shocked and angry. After many shouted calls and two fiery visits, they forced him to move back home. A few weeks later, she got the news from the professors’ grapevine that he was getting married to someone whom his parents had chosen, from their caste and their social background. It was as if someone had punched her with all their power — she felt numb all over. She couldn’t take her classes after she had heard the news in the professors’ room. Not a few sly glances directed her way told her that people were aware of their relationship.
Feeling suffocated, and as if a million glances were piercing her heart, she took leave and came home. After staying in a limbo for three days, during which she had received a number of calls from the college, she finally tendered her resignation, handed back the keys to the rented flat, and taking only what she could carry with her, she came to Almora.
Left behind were the precious paintings she and Sahil had started collecting together, their vinyl collection and her lovely rugs and throws, some bought, some crocheted by her in those beautiful winter evenings when they would sit together with a glass of wine each, listening to some beautiful rendition or the other from their record collection. Also left behind were some dreams that had been born within the four walls of their shared existence, and which had died an abrupt death on Sahil’s departure. What she could not leave behind were the million memories she lived through each day.
She was moving like a robot through her hall when a piercing birdcall brought her to the present. She set an alarm for the next day before she forgot. Then she got busy making her simple breakfast and preparing for college. She had been very lucky to find a job at the university at Almora, that too at such a short notice.
Why she had chosen Almora she couldn’t really explain, just that she felt a kinship with the place, having read all of Shivani Ji’s novels. Also, her Nani had belonged to Almora. Although her ancestral house had long since been sold, but still she remembered a carefree childhood spent here every summer. Her childhood memories were full of green hills, kafal and tasty pahadi foods and long walks with Nanaji over the hills. She somehow felt at home here, especially since her parents were no longer living, and she was an only child, like her mother before her. Adrift in the wide world, this familiar city had seemed like a haven, even though she had spent all her school, college and then later, working life, in Delhi. But in the moments when her world had been rocked to the core, Delhi had seemed so cold, like a familiar stranger who you met every day but could not share your joys or sorrows with. Also, she had so many shared memories there with Sahil, the plays they had gone to, the numerous music concerts and recitals, outings to Tibet House, the walks at Qutub and so on. The endless memories chased her wherever she went in Delhi; she felt choked by them. To escape from them, she chose a place that held only happy memories for her – where she had been safe and peaceful, with her entire family around her. But today, she was all alone.
Even being in the midst of the nature she loved so much did not take away her loneliness. The cottage was on top of the hill, looking down on all sides upon tall pine trees, where the chatter of monkeys and bird calls surrounded her day and night. The cottage boasted of a beautiful garden, but she felt that she was not contributing anything to its beauty.
She talked to her colleagues, to some neighbours lower down the hill, but mostly kept to herself. She didn’t feel like a whole person yet, for it still felt that her heart had been ripped away, leaving behind a gaping hole. How then could she interact normally with others, others who had loved ones, who had lives that were filled with family, relatives, love, social events and so much? She, who had nothing to share with anyone. And so, she kept inside her shell — teaching, coming home, cooking, sleeping and then the same routine the next day and the day after. Only when she was teaching did she feel totally in the present, for those few precious moments. The rest of the day was besieged by memories.
Choosing a pale lilac saree, she dressed up quickly, tying up her hair without looking into the mirror. Finishing up by wrapping a dark purple yak wool shawl around her shoulders, she took her books and bag. Locking the door, she quickly descended the slope and went up the road to the university. She wanted this day over quickly, so she could get to tomorrow. After a long time, she had something to look forward to.
She taught all her classes, spoke a little to her colleagues and came back in the afternoon. Changing her clothes, she made herself some tea and went to sit out on the porch, where she had kept a rocking chair that came with the house. From there, she had a view down the hill. She thought,“This is where I could sit tomorrow. But no, whoever it is, might not come if I am visible. I’ll keep a lookout from the kitchen window.” She prepared an early dinner. Another hour and a half was taken up preparing for next days’ lectures. then she eats and sleeps. She decided to get up early the next day with the help of the alarm clock.
As soon as the alarm started ringing the next day, she was up in anticipation. Quickly putting her feet into her warm slippers and wrapping her shawl over her sweater, she went into the kitchen. Setting tea on the boil, she eagerly looked out of the window, the curtain of which was slightly open. In a short while, she saw a little girl with curly hair come up with a small bunch of white flowers. Placing them near the door, she was about to turn and go back when Suhani opened the door and asked her, “Stop! What’s your name?”
The little girl, who at first appeared scared, gained confidence on seeing her and said with a smile, “Sona”. “Why do you bring flowers every day, Sona? That too, all by yourself, so early in the morning?”
“I live just down the hill,” she indicated towards an orphanage that was a little below Suhani’s house, “and I have asked the nuns if I can come here. The nuns take a morning walk and I come part of the way with them.”
Feeling sad on hearing that the pretty little girl lived in an orphanage, she asked, “And why do you bring me flowers?”
“I see you going and coming every day. I like you. I don’t know why I feel like giving you the flowers, I just do,” Sona replied with a beautiful, dimpled smile.
“Would you like to come in for milk and cookies?”
“No”, she said, “Sister Patience would be waiting for me. I need to go!”
“Okay, at least take some cookies!” saying this Suhani rushed in to find a box of chocolate cookies that she had randomly bought, perhaps for this little girl. Grabbing the small box delightedly, she came out, but there was no one outside. “How could she have disappeared so quickly?” thought Suhani, taken aback, but there truly was no one there. Not around the house and not even down the path.
However, gradually this became a morning ritual. Everyday Suhani somehow woke up right before Sona came with her flowers. Sona liked to sit in a particular part of the porch and every day she sat in the same place. She sat there looking out at the flowers that were around the cottage. She answered all the questions Suhani put to her but still seemed to be keeping something back. Usually, she appeared full of cheerful and chattered. Suhani felt some of the ice around her heart melt. The presence of this small being so full of love and sunshine brought her immense peace and comfort. Why, she could not say.
One day she was free a little before time from the college as it was15th August, the Independence Day of the country. After a morning programme, flag hoisting and distribution of sweets, everyone was free to go. Suhani thought of visiting the orphanage. She saw it on her way back home and decided to finally find out more about Sona and went in.
As she approached the office room, she saw a nun sitting inside. She looked in and asked for Sister Patience. “I am she. Please come and have a seat,” she said with a smile. Suhani is anxious about Sona. She asked, “I want to ask about Sona and her parents, if you could tell me please.”
Sister Patience seems a bit taken aback. “How do you know about her?”
Suhani is surprised. “She comes to give me flowers at my house every day. She likes to sit out on the porch looking at the flowers that are all around the cottage. We talk quite a lot.”
Sister Patience takes a deep breath, looks at Suhani and says, “Did you notice anything special about the little girl?” Finding the question strange Suhani says, “Only that she never eats or drinks anything if I offer it. A child of that age is usually quite taken with chocolates, biscuits and sweets.”
Sister Patience seems sad. She takes a deep breath and says, “Sona and her parents were in an accident. It is their house that you have rented. They were in an accident and…”
“And…?”Suhani asks impatiently.
“And everyone died. Sona was very attached to the only home she had known. Maybe she feels safe there. We see her playing in the playground, in the park sometimes. She’s harmless. May God give peace to her soul.”
Suhani did not realise when she had come out of the building and was on the way back. She felt as if her insides are frozen. After that day, she never met Sona again, however early she got up. The flowers are still on her doorstep every day though, without fail.
One thought stayed with her as a result of this experience – that a person can hold onto a person, a place or even things, even when they are no longer there. This just ties us to the past. We could enjoy our memories, even love them, but that doesn’t mean that we keep carrying the weight of the memories that do not allow us to move forward. And life is all about movement.
Suhani held onto the life that was in her memories; Sona was held behind by her attachment to her house. The most poignant thought was – Sona had been a child, but she was a grown up. Sahil had moved on long back, the moment he left her, it was only she that still held on to her memories, living a ghost of a life.
For many days, she thought about this. She came to the conclusion that now she would delve within, and not look outside for peace, love and solace. With this thought, after many days, she finally fell into a deep sleep towards dawn. When she got up the next day, she felt refreshed and relaxed. She could not recall when she had felt this much at ease. Tightening her shawl around her shoulders, she went straight outside to look for the flowers. For the first time in so many days, there were no flowers. And after that, she never did find any flowers on her doorstep.
In Conversation with Shazi Zaman, author of Akbar: A Novel of History, published by Speaking Tiger Books
“I profess the religion of love, and whatever direction
Its steed may take, Love is my religion and my faith.”
— Ibn-i-Arabi (1165-1240), Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman
These lines were written by a mystic from Spain who influenced Emperor Akbar (1542-1605), a ruler who impacted the world with his broad outlook. Based on such ideology as preached by Ibn-i-Arabi more than three hundred years before him, with an urge to transcend differences and unite a world torn by strife, the great Mughal founded his own system of beliefs. He had few followers. But Akbar chose to be secular and not to impose his beliefs on courtiers, many of whom continued to follow the pre-existing religions. He tried to find tolerance in the hearts of practitioners of different faiths so that they would respect each other’s beliefs and live in harmony, allowing him to rule impartially.
Akbar is reported to have said: “We perceive that there are varying customs and beliefs of varying religious paths. For the teachings of the Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis, the Jews and the Christians are all different. But the followers of each religion regard the institutions of their own religion as better than those of any other. Not only so, but they strive to convert the rest to their own way of belief. If these refuse to be converted, they not only despise them, but also regard them for this very reason as their enemies. And this causes me to feel many serious doubts. Wherefore I desire that on appointed days the books of all the religious laws be brought forward, and that the doctors meet together and hold discussions, so that I may hear them, and that each one may determine which is the truest and the mightiest religion.” Of such discussions and ideals was born Akbar’s new faith, Din-i-ilahi.
Was it exactly like this? Were these Akbar’s exact words?
They have been put in perspective by an author and a journalist who has written a novel based on his research on the grand Mughal, Shazi Zaman. He tells us in the interview why he opted to create a man out of Akbar rather than a historical emperor based only on facts. He has even mentioned that Akbar might have been dyslexic in the introduction. But Zaman’s admiration for the character he has recreated for us overflows and floods the reader with enthusiasm for this legendary Mughal. Akbar is depicted as a man who was far ahead of his times. He talked of syncretism and secularism in a world where even factions within the same religion were killing each other.
The novel was first written and published in Hindi in 2017 by the bilingual Zaman, who started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since, worked with several media organisations. Zaman trans created his Hindi novel on Akbar to English to reach out to a broader audience. The whole experience has been a heady one for Zaman as the interview shows but for the reader what is it like? To start with one felt like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, except one was flitting around in the Indian subcontinent of the sixteenth century, with a few incursions to the Middle-East, but mostly within India. Transported to a different age, it takes a while to get one’s bearings. Once that is established, the novel is a compelling read.
The first part deals with Akbar’s developmental years and the second part with his spiritual outlook which helped him create an empire with many colours of people and religions. This is a novel that has been written differently from other historical novels, like Aruna Chakravarti’sJorasanko (2013), for the simple reason that it belongs to a different time and ethos which was farther from our own or Tagore’s times. Akbar has a larger tapestry of people across a broader canvas than Jorasanko and it takes time to grasp the complexities of relationships and interactions. The other recent non-fiction which springs to the mind while reading Akbar is Avik Chanda’sDara Shukoh: The Man Who would be King (2019) about the great grandson of the emperor who lived from 1615-1659. Again, this was a narrative closer to our times and was not a novel, but a creative non-fiction based strongly on history. While Dara’s character painted by Chanda showed weaknesses like an inability to respect the nobility or plan wars, Akbar painted by Zaman is kind but a man of action who ruled and intended to rule well. A leader — one has to remember — is not always the most popular man. Nor was Akbar with his eccentricities and erudition despite his inability to read — the book does tell us why he did not learn to read and how he educated himself. Most of the novel is a work of passion based on extensive research over two decades. As Henry Kissinger had said at a much later date, “The task of the leader is to get their people from where they are to where they have not been.” And the Akbar recreated by Zaman does just that.
Zaman who had been with the ABP (Anand Bazar Patrika) News Network as their Group Editor, was on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. He has worked with Aaj Tak, Zee News, Star News and also with the BBC World Service, London. He has served as the Director, Video Services of the Press Trust of India. Akbar is his third novel. He has authored two novels in Hindi earlier. In Akbar: A Novel of History (2021), Zaman with his journalistic background and his love for literature inherited from his novelist father, Khwaja Badiuzzaman, has done the mammoth task of astutely bringing to life a character who might have been a perfect solution to the leadership crisis that many are facing in the current day.
If you are still wondering how close this novel comes to the Bollywood movie called Jodha Akbar (2008), the major things in common were the grand Mughal’s sense of justice and his ability to tame wild elephants! For a deeper understanding of both the emperor and the book, in this exclusive, Zaman tells us what went into the making of this novel and his journey.
Why did you choose to write of Akbar?
One has to have a bit of Akbar inside oneself to write on him—and to read about him as well. Writing on Akbar was not a conscious decision. By the time I realised that I was going to write a novel of history on Akbar, my sub-conscious was miles ahead. Of course his personality had attributes that appealed to me consciously and sub-consciously, especially his belief in primacy of ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind imitation of tradition) and his ability to question all orthodoxies.
Do you think Akbar is relevant in the current context?
I believe that his message is so ennobling that it transcends the boundaries of space and time. Across ages and across geographies, and within a geography by various groups and communities, his memory has been kept alive.
There was a book a few years ago called Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King. Would you say he would be more relevant for our times than Akbar or is Akbar a better choice?
It is difficult to give them a comparative score. Dara could have been a very worthy successor to Akbar. And his initiatives and writings are really inspiring. Robustness of ideas and your resolve to push them are tested when faced with exigencies of statecraft. Sadly, Dara did not get that chance and Akbar did. I find that Akbar could navigate but sometimes be audacious to the extent that his courtier poet-musician Tansen had to caution, ‘dheere dheere dheere man, dheere hi sab kachhu hoye (Slowly, slowly, slowly, all happens at a slow pace)’.How would Dara have navigated while on throne is an unanswered question in Indian history. Having said this, his defeat in the battle of succession should not undermine the originality of his initiatives.
Why did you choose to write this in a novel form? Dara Shukoh was a non-fiction. Have you introduced fiction into this?
History largely tells us what happened. Most often it does not tell us of the state of mind that brought people to the point where we find them take momentous decisions. I think momentous events or actions are rooted in mental journeys. And these journeys are seldom documented. When Akbar faced a mental crisis—‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ (a strange state) as a contemporary called it— in the summer of 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum, one wants to map what was happening in his mind and what had brought him to that point.
What lay behind the agitation of this man who was one of the mightiest emperors of the world, who had never lost a battle and was at the peak of his power ? Were there some forces testing his patience ? Or as he stood at a place linked to the history of his forefathers, did he wonder about the trauma they had faced ? Or when he dealt a physical blow to a top cleric of yester years, there must have been a mental journey preceding this act. One can try and go into a person’s mind by closely studying his actions and utterances as also that of people and texts that influence him. We all know that people often mean much more than what they choose to say and sometimes, they say one thing and mean the other.
A close examination of this maze can give a glimpse of what was happening inside the great mind. As you try to create a period piece around his state of mind you mine information from all available sources—textual, aural, visual, architectural. For me fidelity to known facts is essential even in historical fiction. But there does come a point when the trail goes cold. Even the best documentary evidence might be insufficient in finding all the pieces of the period piece. For example, we do not know what Akbar was wearing the night he experienced the ‘haalat-i-ajeeb‘ but we have a Mughal miniature in all likelihood of the next morning when Akbar takes an unexpected decision about the great game. Now, it has come down to us that he appeared wearing last night’s clothes. So we know what he was probably wearing at the time he was in ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ of the previous day. Or we do not know the details of the carpet of the room where he lay dying. Nobody recorded that. Thankfully, some details have come down to us of carpets of those times. I have chosen to use them. After exhausting all means of finding the right pieces of this period piece, I have exercised my imagination. So this is fiction very much rooted in history. If I have been able to do what I had intended, you would feel you have read his mind as also feel that you are actually standing backstage in the Akbarian arena.
In the debate I often encounter about the element of history in historical fiction, perhaps we miss a basic point. Most fiction has history in it. Some have history that is known. Some have history that is personal or unique to the author. It is only when known history figures in your work that the issue of reality versus fiction surfaces. Otherwise, this mingling is not questioned.
What was the kind of research you did? How long did it take you to research and write this book? Tell us about its evolution.
The idea had been simmering under the surface since early years. As I have mentioned in my preface, a childhood incident imprinted Akbar on my mind. During my school days, a member of the education department of the government made a surprise inspection and gave a short introduction to Akbar’s life and his relevance to our times. It left a mark. I was especially blessed to have teachers who stoked my interest. I shall be eternally grateful to my teacher Muhammad Amin–Amin Saheb as he was called at St.Stephen’s College (Delhi University) — to have brought history to life in classroom and sessions outside classroom. Amin Saheb taught us Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ , which he said stands not for tolerance or co-existence because even these terms denote some separation. He said, Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ meant harmony. Amin Saheb taught us about Akbar’s desire to build bridges and his respect for diversity. Many like me graduated from the university but never left his class. I feel privileged that for quarter of a century after leaving College I continued to sit at his feet and learn about Akbar. A good teacher teaches and also shows the path to further learning.
My interest in Mughal miniatures took me to various museums within the country and abroad and of course to places like Fatehpur Sikri–a city that Akbar created with a purpose– very often. Over decades I have gathered in my personal collection most of what has been written about Akbar and almost all books published on his art and architecture. I can say that all published Mughal miniatures reside in my study now. So Akbar was a character I had been breathing much before it became the idea of a novel. However, for a period spread over two decades I did consciously try to piece together a story.
How did you create the character of Akbar ?
Akbar was not merely a historical figure. He was also acutely conscious that he was making history. And as a person conscious of this, he left ample footprints.
When you try to get into a person’s mind you piece together all he saw and read (or in case of Akbar, was read to) and experienced; all he interacted with; all he surrounded himself with; all he spoke and wanted to be spoken, read and spread; and all that he created. Foremost, of course, is Akbarnama which was a monumental image building exercise entrusted to a close and trusted courtier, Abul Fazl. Abul Fazl knew what went on in Akbar’s mind. This work is rich in details and is a comprehensive history of Akbar and his forefathers. Akbar also commissioned others who knew his forefathers to write histories that would help Abul Fazl in his work. Akbarnama is an official account. It was vetted by Akbar and tells us how Akbar wanted to be seen by his contemporaries and by future generations. It is extremely useful in giving us the image the emperor aimed to project.
Then there were many others who wrote their histories during his reign. But it is the history called Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh by a disgruntled cleric, Mulla Abdul Qadir Badayuni, which was written secretly that gives us an unofficial perspective. I am grateful to the anonymous author of the historic Rajasthani work, Dalpat Vilas, for giving an informal and unique access into the emperor’s mind. Anybody studying Akbar feels especially grateful for the elaborate atelier —tasveer khana — as it was called — that the emperor established. Paintings made under his direction and patronage give us a vivid picture of what he thought was worth projecting. If you look closely, Mughal miniatures of his time often have a story and even a back story that gives you an indication of the emperor’s mind.
Akbar built at a huge scale and many of his buildings still stand tall and the stones speak even now of why he gave them the shape that he did. Then of course are works related to his ancestors like Baburnama which Akbar was fond of and later, of his son’s Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Akbar’s public contact and communication was prolific. We might well have seen him if we were living in that age. He travelled and interacted widely.
Almost every morning of his half a century long reign he appeared at the balcony so that the subjects could see him. Even those who did not see him felt his presence. Banarsidas, a trader of his time, who also wrote a chronicle, notes the widespread alarm amongst common people when the emperor fell ill. Letters Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar wrote to Uzbek and Persian kings, the emperor of Spain and Portugal, to nobles and others have been handed down to us. His interactions with religious persons find mention in Vaishnavite, Jain and Mahdawi literature. The letters that Jesuits at his court were writing to their superiors are useful for their perspective as also for the ‘unofficial’ details. Then there were personalities Akbar drew to his court who were poets, warriors, administrators and diplomats who were themselves eminent enough to be written about, or were writers themselves. I closely studied them.
Abdur Rahim Khan-i-khanan was like a son to Akbar and wrote poetry that is timeless in its appeal. Tansen, an eminent poet and musician at his court wrote ‘takhat baitho Mahabali ishvar hoye avtar (the mighty Emperor sits on the throne as incarnation of God)’, which is how Akbar would have wanted to be described. Works written on Raja Mansingh like Mancharit and Mancharitra Raso helped me understand a mighty noble, who again was like a son—‘farzand’—to Akbar. Akbar himself is believed to have been a poet and pieces of poetry deemed to be his have come down to us. His memory resonates even now in folk songs.
In terms of material evidence of personal effects, we have an armour of Akbar which was helpful in ascertaining his approximate height. Of course, this was achieved with the help of experts. Not all that one gathered necessarily went into this work but I tried to gather as much as I could so as to know how Akbar lived, ate, slept, worked, played, deliberated, relaxed, fought and thought and what was the world he inhabited, and also what was the kind of world he wanted to inhabit.
I must say that I tried to access original sources in Persian, Sanskrit and other languages with the help of experts, in addition to what I could read myself in English, Hindi and Urdu.
In your introduction you have said Akbar might have been dyslexic or bipolar. Why? What made you think he might have been dyslexic or bipolar? Could it not be that as a child he was not just into books and therefore did not learn to read?
There has been some academic work on some of the issues Akbar faced. I think his behaviour on the full moon night of the year 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum and on occasions before that definitely call for more investigations in that direction, though one is conscious that the emperor himself is not available for close examination. As for dyslexia specifically, one can say that the man loved books. He commissioned and collected them at a huge scale but he did not read them. They were read out to him. Historical sources indicate that he could not read or write. Though I have seen copies of his handwriting, they seem laboured. It would be a fair assumption that he was dyslexic. I think he was a great visual learner. That is why no Mughal emperor before or after had as big a tasveer khana as him.
You have repeated this phrase thrice in the book. ‘Hindus should eat beef, Muslims should eat pork, and if not this, fry a sheep in the pan. If it turns into pork, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it turns into beef, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it becomes pork, Muslims should have it. If it becomes beef, Hindus should have it. A divine miracle would thus happen.’ Why?
More than one account reveal puzzling behaviour and utterances of the emperor. This forced one person to say that this was ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’. Nobody at that time could fully understand his state or his words. I feel that it was reflective of his anguish over religious disputes and religious orthodoxy. An emperor who had never lost a contest was getting impatient. In moments of mental crisis it is possible for a person to say things which have layers of meaning. One has to peep underneath the words to fathom the anguish of a sensitive mind. This was one such utterance.
What is the most endearing quality you found in Akbar? And why?
It is difficult to pinpoint one in a person who embodied numerous qualities. His belief in giving precedence to ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind adherence to tradition). His spirit of enquiry and his desire to provide space for differing thoughts. He believed—“It is my duty to have good understanding with all men. If they walk in the way of God’s will, interference with them would be in itself reprehensible; and if otherwise, they are under the malady of ignorance and deserve my compassion.”
There is an incident mentioned in the book. The Jesuits who came with the intention of converting Akbar finally despaired because he would give them ample space and ample attention but stop short of conversion. So one evening, they came and sought leave since their embassy had failed in its purpose. Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar replied, “…how can you say that the time you have spent with us has been profitless, seeing that formerly the Muslims had so much credit in my land that if any had dared to say that Jesus Christ was the true God, he would straightway have been put to death; whereas you are now able to say this, and to preach the same in all security ?”
You wrote the novel first in Hindi and then trans created it to English. Why? What is the difference between the Hindi and the English versions?
The novel Akbar naturally came to my mind in Hindi, a language the emperor would have been comfortable with had he been alive. Having said this, I am grateful to my publishers, Rajkamal and Speaking Tiger, for initiating the idea of an English version. And I did immediately see the need to take Akbar to a wider audience because the novel has an idiom and language rooted in Hindustan but Akbarian thought and vision have an appeal that is wider than the regions he ruled. So the challenge was to take the text, sub-text and the idiom to an English audience. The challenge was also to make Akbar’s 16th century intelligible to 21st century English-speaking world. I have tried my best with help of editors at Speaking Tiger to make it a work English speakers would be at home with. I am sure they would be able to savour the milieu, the plot and the sensibility of 16th century Hindustan in their preferred language. A good translation should in fact be a trans creation and should read like it has been written in the same language.
You have two novels in Hindi. Do you plan to translate those too to English? Why? Why not write directly in English?
I believe that no thought is completely translatable into words and no words are completely translatable into another set of words. Thus the word transcreation. The first two novels Premgali Ati Sankri (The Narrow Alley of Love) and Jism Jism Ke Log (Various Bodies) have intense conversation between characters which is rooted in their shared understanding of an idiom. Translation is desirable and relatable because stories strike a chord across space but works have texts, sub-text and idiom. The problem and the challenge lies in taking the sub-text and the idiom into another language. That is why trans creation requires a deep understanding of the text, the sub-text and the idiom of the original work as also of the sensibilities of the audience for whom you are trans creating. Having said this, I would be happy to translate the first two novels for an English readership. The theme would strike a chord, the idiom would need some fine work.
Will you shuttle between English and Hindi in the future? Are you planning more books?
Shuttling between Hindi and English is an interesting thought. I am already seized by an idea that came to my mind as an English text. It is germinating. As for more books, I have already sent a Hindi novelet for publication which could be thematically seen as third in series after Premgali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism Ke Log. While telling stories to my children, and making them up as I went along, I created a short novel for children which awaits publication. I am also in the process of writing another novel in the genre of historical fiction.
Thank you for your time.
This is an online interview conducted on behalf of Borderless Journal by Mitali Chakravarty.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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. . . .
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.
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)
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
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
Rights of incarcerated men and women in Tihar Jail
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
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.
(First published in Consciousness, Theatre, Literatures and the Arts 2011, edited by Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Cambridge Scholars Publishing)
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.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
In Conversation with Sanjay Kumar, the founder of Pandies, a socially responsible theatre group
Festivals often involve pageantry where people connect, reach out and have fun through performances. These can range from high class shows in halls to entertaining performances in street corners, individual buskers or theatricals at home. Brecht (1898-1956), often taught in universities, popularised socially responsible epic theatre. Epic theatre connects the players, imbued with welfarism and a sense of social responsibility, to educate the audience, subsequently encouraged to question and move towards altering their present reality to a more egalitarian one. Add to this students who look for more than just academic growth in universities and a young dynamic professor in the 1980s, and the end result is a volunteered ‘institution’ that has blossomed over three decades into a strangely named group – Pandies.
Founded in 1987 by Sanjay Kumar, an academic from Delhi University with residencies in Italy and the United States for the welfare of exploited children, the group evolved into a major voice trying to reach out to all strata of society. Kumar evolved a form of theatre to channelise the energy of students towards creating an awareness for the need to grow by helping the less fortunate. He tells us by the way of introduction: “We have been working with twenty slums or bastis in Delhi, have had interactions with a hundred schools and about twenty-five colleges. A minimum of hundred presentations are held each year. The major issue till 2000 was gender-sensitisation. Each year, pandies’ latches on to a different theme. After performing in the proscenium theatre, it takes adaptations of the same to diverse places. The group also works on issues related to environment. The adaptable, flexible, bilingual (at times multi-lingual) scripts are totally ours. The group is constantly exploring, searching for better modes to get its meaning across. Songs, dances, choreographed sequences are all a part of its repertoire. One of the most successful modes is an extremely interactive discussion at the end where the activist even narrates relevant anecdotes to get its audience to talk. The group has evolved a mega network in and around Delhi consisting of women, HIV activists, environmentalists, school and college teachers and students, progressive women from various communities including slums, victims of rape, attempted murder.” His work has reached across to multiple countries, universities (including Harvard) and has found credence among number of hearts across the East and the West.
The most impressive performance I saw was online with young refugees from Afghanistan and migrant workers in slums. They have worked with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that work with children, sex workers and women, thus educating and learning from them and exposing them to our, more secure world where the maximum need a young student has, is to score well to get into the right university and for their family and friends to travel, to have freedom of speech and better lives. Perhaps, the best way to comprehend this kind of drama is to let Sanjay Kumar take over and introduce the work they are doing, bridging gaps at multiple levels.
Tell us about the inception of pandies’. How old is the group?
The incipience of the group goes back to college really to the year 1987 when we did the first play from Hansraj (a college under Delhi University), though we registered later in 1993, as we broke away. As I got free from MPhil, I decided to start theatre in the college in a way that steers it clear of the festival circuit of doing 25-30 minutes plays and winning small cash awards at various college fests. The College Drama Society was revived in 1987 and under that banner we did six plays, one each a year on the trot: Lorca’s Blood Wedding (1933), Ngugi’s The Trial of DedanKimathi (1974), Strindberg’s The Dream Play (1901), Vicente Lenero’s The Bricklayers(1976), Genet’s The Balcony (1957)and Brecht’s TheCaucasian Chalk Circle (1944). Each was a full-length play of at least 100 minutes.
We were doing plays at a semiprofessional level, all having a run of five to seven days in Delhi’s leading theatre halls. The bookings were being done in the name of the college but from the beginning no money was put forth by the college. The funding was collected by the students from small donations. The group was getting too big for the college. There was a constant targeting from many in the administration and the faculty, accusations of the openly sexual content of the plays, of the insubordinate behaviour of the students, of classes being bunked. And then as the group evolved, there were many students who had graduated but still wanted to be there and as the reputation grew with the choice of plays and quality of production (contemporary reviews read us at par with professional groups), many students from other colleges wanted to join us. Things came to a head with the college administration in 1993. We had already booked at the auditorium in the name of the college and were rehearsing for Macbeth. We decided to launch our own group (the work normally took about six months) and in two months we registered and collected money enough to go under the new banner — Pandies’ theatre. The relationship with structures of the university remains tricky, there are those among the younger teachers and of course students who love us but the old and orthodox are still a bit wary.
Was this theatre started for the needs of the students/ teachers or to create an interest in academic curriculum?
Yes, at that time the syllabus had a totally first world bias (the bias is still there but less), to get in plays that speak to us. They may be first world, but they critique our oppressor — Brecht, Rame, Genet.
What was the gel that bound the group together ? Was it used to satisfy the needs of the students, teachers or society. Can you elaborate?
The first thing was the love of theatre. It’s like a bug, and the heady thing about a collectivism trying its own thing, charting paths not done in college before. And then the activism took over and went way beyond the love. We started pandies’ with a view that our world is not the way we want it. We wanted to make it better for more people. Even the plays from 1987 to 1993 were exploring non-canonical theatre.
The first point of attack was the huge gender bias. We felt we were living in a misogynist, rape friendly society. Series of proscenium plays attacked that. We tied up with the feminist NGO, Shakti Shalini. Our ties go back to 1996, with LGBT movements and women’s movements. Veils had more than hundred shows, theatres, colleges, schools and markets and slums and villages. We were asking for change in rape laws in the country. She’s MAD took stories from women’s organisations about laws of mental illness being consistently used against women to label them mad to take away their property rights, custody of children and provide a veneer over patriarchal violence. Again a play that sought legislative reform was Danger Zones. It explores what happens when you are lesbian and do not have a big wallet or parents to save you — forced marriages, sale into prostitution.
Equally important, in fact more so in later years has been the attack on religious bigotry. Gujarat was a breaking point. We had years of series workshops with impoverished youth in slums exposing the rhetoric of bigotry. We start with the Sikh pogrom of ’85 and go on to dissent against what our society has evolved to under a right wing dispensation, the religious supremacism of our world.
When you work with young boys, drug peddlers and sex workers, aged eight to fourteen, you return home a wreck and in need of therapy. But if you keep that fire alive inside you, you know how to take on the oppressors.
It is about a naked politics. We seek to rouse people from slumber, awaken a critical understanding of the world we live, of the forces that govern us — patriarchy, capitalism and, the tying factor of all oppression — religion.
The need was and remains the need of our times and our ethos.
How did the name evolve? And your group evolve?
It goes back to 1993 and is fully in keeping the with ‘play’ aspect of the group which likes to play with politics with its audience. It emerged from collective decisioning that has been the hallmark of pandies’ functioning. The name is a take ‘off’, ‘away’ from Mangal Pandey and the revolt of 1857. Actually, from the inability of the British to get Indian pronunciations correct. Pandey became Pandy, a hated expletive for the British commanders and continued in their letters even 50 years after the suppression of the revolt. ‘Pandy’ was one who was a part of the British structure, in their employ (Jhansi’s soldiers were not Pandies for instance), earned from them and rose against them. The hatred conveyed by the word was many times higher than in the simple expletives of traitor or the Hindustani ‘gaddaar.’ While it has a historical solidity, it also has a playful aspect just beneath, for many of the young in the group it was also deliciously close to panties and pondies (slang for pornographic literature), the sexual aspects for which the group was falsely castigated while in college, and what we loved to grin and laugh at.
We broke away in 1993, four teachers and about thirty students. Starting as a proscenium English group with an activist leaning in 1993, by 1996 we had turned totally activist. Starting with about thirty-five members (still the core for each project), the group soon acquired more than hundred members (today it has more than that, people go away and many return, even after a decade or fifteen years, to do that “better thing”). A strong presence of young, motivated women gave the group a feminist essence. And seeking overtly to make our ethos better, the group stressed a Left Feminist Atheist core as the law of its work from the very beginning. Activism, simply the overt statement that we are not okay with our world the way it is and seek a systemic change and are willing to do our bit as theatre enthusiasts for it.
Our three primary areas of work are : a. Proscenium: The plays are always activist and many of our own scripts and many adapted, some activist plays (Brecht, Rame and other activist scripts including agit prop) in the original; b. Theatre outside proscenium: What is usually called street theatre, nukkad natak, guerrilla theatre, the group has done actually thousands of performances and c. Workshop theatre: Where activist facilitators create plays with communities, staying with them or visiting them regularly — razor’s edge work has been done with young boy sex workers picked from platforms and housed in shelters, in the cannibalised village of Nithari, in women’s shelters, with refugees and in Kashmir. The process consists of getting ‘stories’ from the margins and creating theatre from them, performed usually by the community members, and at times along with Pandies.
Were you influenced by any theatre/art forms/writers or any external events to evolve your own form?
From the international activist tradition Brecht has been the most solid influence, his mode of showing what is obvious but we refuse to see it. Boal, Franca Rame, Dario Fo. The entire traditions of left swinging realism and alienation. In our own traditions the influence is more subtle, Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) itself and Janam (a more contemporary people’s theatre group). We also borrow from the political and popular traditions of the subcontinent — Dastaan Goi, Jatra, Tamasha and Nautanki to name a few.
What impacts us most is the politics. Theatre is about critique, it’s about my ability to say ‘no’ and my desire to ask ‘why.’ We look back through history, history that tells us nothing can be permanent, that is record of those who stood and fought tyranny and authoritarianism. Gujarat 2002 was difficult and so was Babri Masjid but so was the emergency of 70s and never forget the anti-Sikh pogrom of the mid 80s at the heart of the country where I live.
Yes, and what is happening today, here and all over the globe cries for activist intervention.
What were the kind of content you started with? I heard you even adopted out of Aruna Chakravarti’s novel (Alo’s World?) to make a play. So, what was the content of your plays? Were you scripting your own lines?
We started with adaptations of plays with explicitly activist content which could be made more activist and imposed on our reality. Ibsen’s Ghosts, inspirations from Simon de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing. And post-1996, we were creating more and more from our own scripts, often containing multiple plays tied with thematic thrusts. And again, in times of repression one reverts to adaptations, of those who stood up to the challenge of their times, specially at the doors of gender, religion and class (the three themes of Pandies).
What we did for Aruna was akin to what we have done for other friends of Pandies, fiction writers, create small dramatic enactments based on parts their novels/short stories to go along with the launch and publicity of their works.
Have you moved away from your earlier models? What is your new model?
From proscenium to (while retaining proscenium) community theatre to (while retaining proscenium and community) workshop theatre that was the trajectory of Pandies before the pandemic struck our world.
The pandemic thrust us into a new model of cyber theatre. The group meets every Sunday but with Covid and the lockdown, we all went hibernating for a few months, awestruck by what struck us.
And then we started meeting online. It was amazing, we were able to connect with members in US, in Philippines, in UK and in different parts of India. There was the frigidity of the online mode but the ability to converse with so many people in their respective bubbles was just great. We met every Sunday. And started with storytelling for each other. With around thirty people that process took some Sundays. And then we started thinking of doing online plays using zoom. These were live online, no recording and each ending with a question-and-answer session with our audiences.
What was happening around us, the pandemic, and the equally deadly forays of our right-wing rulers made us look for avante garde activist plays from the past. We turned deliberately to the American tradition (important to let it be known that even the most decadent capitalist center has a solid activist theatre tradition) and did one agit prop and one proto-feminist play. Subterfuge was important and it was also important to say that even in the darkest of hours people have stood up to tyranny and fascism. Clifford Odets’ Till the Day I Die (1935), an anti-Nazi play of the agit prop tradition is aimed as much at Hitler as at McCarthy and relevant against all fascist governments. Broadcast simultaneously on Zoom and Facebook, the play got over 7000 hits. Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928) was the second, a proto feminist play it raised issues of mainstream violence and suppression of ‘other’ voices. We were making quite an impact. Our audience was not confined to people from one city but spread internationally as friends all over the world who had wanted to see our plays (we have travelled and performed abroad twice, once in Manchester with an anti-fascist play — Cleansing in 2002 and in New York in 2012 with Offtrack, based on the lives of young boys ‘rescued’ from platforms in India).
We decided to connect with communities that we work with at least in and around Delhi through zoom. And we discovered the horrors for ourselves. While the rich had actually been ‘worried’ over the lockdown, the poor had taken an unfathomable hit. The incidence of domestic violence was at a peak (lockdown, problems getting ‘booze’, little help from cops and NGOs). Our young friends — now in late 20s, with whom we had been performing since 2006 since the Nithari (slum outside Delhi) pogrom had been thrown out of their meagre jobs, belonging to families of migrant labour — had seen it all and refugees from Afghanistan — in a bad state anyways — were really hit. And they were all artists, performers and storytellers par excellence. So, we decided on a storytelling festival where people from these sectors would narrate their stories in the same cyber format. And we asked our audience to put in some money and that was entirely distributed among the participants. The stories that emerged, personal and fiction derived from personal, were simple exhilarating.
What and how many languages do you use and how do you bridge linguistic gaps?
Language is highly political. We set out as an English group but with Macbeth itself some crucial scenes were being rendered in Hindustani (the opening scene and the porter scene). By 1996, as the group was going totally activist, a multi-language form had evolved. We were still keeping a section of English in the proscenium (had to be translated or made easier in the slums and villages shows) but sections of Hindustani and diverse languages of North India are being introduced. A recent example is an adaptation of Manto’s(1912-1955) stories and writings (Saadat Hasan Manto: Pagaleyan da Sardar), about 60 percent in Punjabi and 40 in English with no other language used (Punglish). We do a lot of translation work, including at times on the spot.
Who does your scripting? How do your scripts evolve?
The original scripts are a collective, collated exercise and emerge after months of workshopping on an issue within the group. Most of the Scripts are written by me or my colleagues from Delhi University, Anuradha Marwah and Anand Prakash.
Who are your crew members and how many team members do you have? How many did you start with?
The total number is above 100. Many leave for a while and return from careers and families. It is strictly volunteer group. The group has tried variously models and the one that works and keeps it activist intent intact is the one where we do not pay ourselves for our time. A project involves a total of about thirty people.
What was the reaction of your colleagues when you started Pandies? Did it find acceptance/ support did you receive from among your colleagues, the academics, and the media?
I would like to add that the reactions from colleagues and academia have been interesting and mixed. Pandies is the first and possibly the only story, of a group tracing its origins in college society theatre and move on without a break to establish not just a national but an international reputation. Even as the model evolved from proscenium alone to in-your-face activism, from seeking and getting funding to putting in your own money and/or collecting it from the audience but never compromising on the political content of what you do. It makes people uncomfortable, especially in the early years, say the first decade — “is this theatre at all?” Today it is seen a story, as an experiment that worked — the sheer survival of the group from 1987 to 2021 and beyond creates a space for admiration. Students spread across this university, over other universities in India and abroad have been the most ardent support system.
The media has been supportive, quite a bit actually. Over the years, the Pandies’ fan club has extended there too. We got some adverse reviews to begin with but more from those from the academia, who were writing in papers and journals, who had problems of simply — I cannot see activist success stories from the university itself.
What has been the impact on the people who are part of the Pandies? What has been the impact on the audience?
When you do political theatre the impact is on all sides of the spectrum. And the best place to measure the success is your own side. The empathy, the killing guilt and the desire to do more manifest in the group members, especially after series of tough workshop theatre evidences the impact.
I saw your play in an on online forum. What exactly made you move towards what you called cyber theatre?
Basically, the pandemic. But it has been a good experience, sheerly in terms of reach and numbers (the first play had 7000+ hits though we never got near that again, also we were ticketing plays after the first). We always crib about the reach of market theatre and how activist theatre falls by the side. The cyber medium actually gives an international access to live theatre. Think the potential is huge.
How would others access these plays?
Amazingly the reach of the smart phone is huge. When we worked with communities, we did send out signals to make available smart phones for our performers and their local audience but discovered that not much was required. The internet does at times pose problems, even for us, there are technical glitches at times but then we have glitches everywhere. And technology, as young techie at Pandies told me, is to be used and not feared. If the audience can suspend disbelief in theatre, what’s a glitch or two on screen.
The potential far outweighs the hurdles.
You had interesting pieces (or rather pieces) evolving out of slums and migrant workers. You had an interesting take on why slums develop. Can you tell us?
The ignored margins of our world. Metropolitan cities, and I speak of Delhi — my abode specifically, attract people from all over. The prospects are great, and it is not untrue, as we have seen in our experiences of performing in so many slums and more importantly creating theatre with those who live there, that life is actually better for most. They earn more, eat better and find better school and health facilities. The trajectory is both simple and awful, many villages around Delhi become abodes for migrants, first on rent and then ownership. These margins are also the blot for the rich and famous who live around there in big bungalows and condominiums. They berate the residents for being thieves and drug peddlers and use them for a supply of menial help, maids, drivers, and the same kind of drugs. Working with them and creating theatre one realises that the grievances from the other side are worse — of exploitations, profiling and being treated worse than animals.
What was the impact of this piece on migrant workers and the theatre you had with Afghan refugees among your audience? Who are the people that constitute your audience? How do they respond to these plays? Do you have collaborations with more universities or theatre groups?
In the preceding decades Pandies has performed in practical every college in Delhi University besides performing in universities all over including IITs (Indian Institute of Technology), TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Jammu, Bangalore and colleges of Rajasthan and Jharkhand. The tie-ups and collaborations are specific project related. Pandies has over the years been very zealous of guarding its artistic and political independence and anything that seeks to compromise that even slightly is not welcome. We have long lasting collaborations with organisations that work in areas we are in — Shakti Shalini (NGO Women’s group), or Saksham in Nithari (NGO running schools for children).
Can you tell us its reach — universities, theatre halls, small screen? How far have you been able to stretch out in thirty years? Tell us about the growth.
Bourgeois theatre rules the world. It’s connected and money generates more money. pandies’ endeavour has been to connect not just at the university levels, not just at national levels but at international levels, evolve collectives that deal with exploitation and oppression at diverse levels.
We perform and do workshops. The group’s reach has been wide. Going on a narrower, sharper course over the last decade to be able to work with the severely marginalised, those who don’t even come on the space of development of the downtrodden.
The nature of our theatre enables us to connect with the underserved and more than 80 percent of the work does not come on the page of the dominant middle class. Performances and presentations all over the country and many abroad use the pandies’ template, Syrian refugees in Greece (2018), Gypsy communities of Ireland (2013), communities in NYC (2012) and nooks and corners of our own country including the Muslim valley of Kashmir where angels fear to tread.
What are your future plans?
As the world opens up, all varieties of work have started again. Workshops with our underserved margins and a full-length proscenium production are both long overdue.
At the same time the cyber experience has taught us the importance of reach, that those who go physically away don’t have to opt out of working for the group.
So yes, we seek a malleable form, a hybrid that combines stage theatre with all its power and is available online live, and the online form too will merge together to the performance which will be more far reaching and accessible. Given the group’s depth we will get there and soon.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
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Unfolding a linguist’s tryst with the Great Andamanese tribe and lost languages
Time moves fast and we move with it, partly carrying the past with us and partly shedding it. Languages evolve. Sometimes, they get left behind. People forget them and with that where they came from. Why would familiarity with our roots or a moribund language be so important? Perhaps, Professor Anvita Abbi, a Padma Shri from India who has done amazing work with the Andamanese uncovering their fast ebbing language and culture, has some answers. She is a linguist who stretches beyond universities to uncover the roots from which mankind evolved and to exhibit to us the need to be in touch with what our ancestors knew. She urges us to accept the varied colours of mankind for a more humane and tolerant outlook.
Abbi has written a number of books on her experiences in Andaman. Reading Voices from the Lost Horizon (2021, Niyogi Books), her recent publication with videos embedded in both the hardcopy and softcopy versions, has been an adventure that transports one back to a civilisation that has its roots in Neolithic times. Unique in form and content, her book not only talks of her trips to Andaman and meeting the indigenous people but also shows how the lores of this culture can teach the civilised a number of things including, basic survival skills. She has summed this up in a recent interview, “When the tsunami came on December 26, 2004, tribes of the Andaman, Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese saved themselves as their knowledge about the tsunami was intact in their language. They interpreted the patterns of waves and sea churning and ran to a safe place.” Shuttling between different continents and time zones, Abbi is as unconventional as is her book. She unfolds her journey towards integrating the past into the present.
You are from a literary family. What made you opt to become a linguist? Did your environment impact you in some way? What kindled your interest in ancient and moribund languages?
Yes, my background exposed me to different writers of my time, and I started writing short stories in Hindi and earned a name for myself very early. My first book of collection of short stories Muthhi Bhar Pahachan (Hindi, A Handful of Recognition) was published on my 20th birthday. I was pursuing my interest in literature along with my first love for Economics. However, my father, the famous poet of Hindi, Shri Bharat Bhushan Agrawal, thought that I was pursuing a wrong profession and forced me (yes, absolutely against my wishes) to join Linguistics at Delhi University at the cost of quitting Delhi School of Economics. Once I started studying Linguistics, I realised I was made for this subject and never looked back. Subsequently, after receiving Ph.D from Cornell University, USA I started teaching Linguistics at the Kansas State University, Manhattan. While there, I realised that a large number of Indian languages especially those spoken by the marginalised communities are under-researched. The question ‘how different or similar are these languages to the known languages of the country’ motivated me to take the major decision of quitting the regular job at the KSU and move to India. I joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1976 and was instrumental in designing and developing the course of Field Methods that took me and my students to remotest corners of India from the Himalayas to the Andaman and Nicobar. My experience in India has been very enriching as I have worked on more than 95 languages of India so far and experienced India at the grass roots. At present, I am working on two languages of the Nicobar Islands.
How long have you been researching on Andaman?
Since late 2000. I wish I was there earlier!
Tell us why you chose Andaman as your arena rather than any other?
There were several reasons that drew me towards working on this language intensively. The topography of the area, the unexplored terrain, its people, and their antiquity and above all scant availability of published material on their language coupled with the fact that my observation in 2003 after conducting a pilot survey of the languages of the Great and Little Andaman that this language seemed to be a class apart from the other two languages of the region — Onge and Jarawa. Unlike Jarawa and Onge, Great Andamanese is a moribund language and breathing its last. I was encouraged by my linguist friends at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany to study and document the language widely, to unearth the vast knowledge base buried in the linguistic structure of Great Andamanese before it is lost to the world. Not only were my results of 2003 later corroborated by geneticists in 2005, but it also gave me assurance and proof beyond doubt that this group of languages forms the sixth language family of India. I was moved by the speedy process of erosion of scientific and cultural treasure that this ancient world had embedded into its language. I had to plunge myself into its structure come what may!
You said that this group of languages was almost pre-Neolithic in age — “a moribund language of the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe, the remnants of the first migration out of Africa 70,000 years ago.” Does it have any similarity to the clipping Khosian languages spoken in Africa or any other African languages?
Not that I know of. We must understand that any similarity, if it existed, would have completely evaporated in so many years especially in a contactless situation. Anyway, we know very little of what human language sounded like 70,000 years ago.
Now a new language has evolved — Great Andamanese — from four languages (Jeru, Khora, Bo, and Sare). How long has Great Andamanese been in use? How did all these languages merge into one?
It is named Great Andamanese because it is spoken in the Great Andaman Island. The original name of the island in the heritage language is marakele and was habited by ten different tribes speaking ten distinct but mutually intelligible languages. I named this language Present-day Great Andamanese (PGA) so as not to empower any one of the four North Great Andadamanese languages of which it is a mixture. Present form of the language has been in use since all the four different tribes, Jeru, Khora, Sare and Bo were moved from the north and rehabited in the Strait Island, 56 nautical miles away from the capital city of Port Blair since early seventies by the government of India. However, the language is closest to Jeru in its grammatical structure.
Do people use Great Andamanese or Hindi? Which languages are commonly used by the local people and why? Is there a historic reason?
Most of them have forgotten their heritage language and speak only Andamanese Hindi. Some of them have a passive knowledge of Bangla. When I reached the island there were ten speakers of the PGA but now only three remain who can speak PGA but prefer not to. Colonisation by mainland Indians exposed the tribe to babu Hindi as well as to the lingua franca Andamanese Hindi existing in the Island. As of today, a few of them are hired by the government in Port Blair and some children go the local schools so that exposure to local Hindi is intensive.
One of the interesting things I noticed in your book was there was a lot of use of ‘potato’ in the stories. Potato was brought into India by the Portuguese. So, how old could these stories be? Or have the colonial invasions altered their myths?
Potatoes that we eat were perhaps imported by Portuguese, but roots of yam and potatoes always grew in our land as all Adivasis have been using their indigenous varieties of potatoes called by different names. Great Andamanese also have more than five varieties of potatoes that they have been consuming since their establishment in the island. These potatoes appear and taste very different from ours. English word ‘potato’ may be considered a generic name for the tuber like products in the current work and bear no resemblance to the modern word ‘potato’.
The Andamanese sing: “O, God, Bilikhu! / We pray to you.” They have burial customs where they burn, bury, feed to the vultures, and throw into the sea. It is like an amalgamation of multiple religious customs. What is the religion the Andamanese actually follow?
This prayer that you quote seems to be a modern version created copying Hindu religious practices that the Andamanese see all around them. ‘Bilikhu’ means spider also and is considered sacred but not equivalent to our concept of ‘God’. They remember Bilikhu before going into the sea for any sea escapade like hunting for big animal such as turtle and dugong. Andamanese do not follow any religion. They believe in their protectors jurwachom who protect them in the sea and in the jungle. They give respect to and remember their ancestors believing that the ancestor’s spirits surround them all the time. What more, the tales in the book convey an intimate relationship between people and birds as a ‘family’. One story, ‘Jiro Mithe’, depicts the origin of birds from the Andamanese people.
As far as the cremation of the dead bodies is concerned, you may have read that I have explained how one of the stories ‘The Tale of Juro the Head Hunter’ informed me that there were four different ways of cremation depending upon the way a person dies. Quoting from the book, these were:
“1. When a person dies of a natural death or in illness, s/he is buried in the earth (‘boa-phong’ meaning ‘hole in the earth’).
“2. When a person dies while hunting/killing, then s/he is put on a platform made on a tree (‘machaan’ in Hindi) and burnt.
“3. When a person dies because of choking on a fishbone, their body is taken to a particular place near Mayabandar in the northern part of the Andaman Islands and left for a month on a tree for vultures to eat. The bones are collected after a month.
“4. When children pass away, they are not buried initially; they are left untouched for a few days, then they are cremated.”
Often the villains and the demons depicted in their stories are cannibalistic. Was cannibalism an aberration for them? Was cannibalism ever accepted by them?
They are not villains or demons. They are people with supernatural powers. The practice of cannibalism existed — so it seems through these stories. However, it was always deplored as being against the survival of humanity. The story mentioned above depicts it very clearly. Nao Jr the key narrator of these stories compared Juro with Hindu goddess Kali saying that both were involved in similar activities. The story and my elicitation process involved in it explains the whole phenomenon of cannibalism that existed in the Great Andamanese community.
How did the colonials and the independence of India impact these people, their culture and language?
The history of present Great Andamanese is a tale of many tales. Outsider-contact has brought diseases, subjugation, sexual assault, and ultimately decimation of the tribal culture, tribal life, and tribal language. It is not new to witness as voice of the most powerful of the land…colonizers, makers of empires, and policy makers silence the voices of the vanquished and marginalized whether by annihilation or assimilation.
For years, Jarawas maintained the isolation and now they regret the interaction with us.
These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their uses, sea life, weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing), nor cowardly, nor violent (they safeguard their folks both women and children from outside intervention) nor fools. They have known the wonders of isolation and that is what they want to maintain. However, we have lost Great Andamanese culture, language and worldview as the process of mainstreaming them started with colonisation first by Britishers and later by Indians. With the result they are nowhere now, neither connected to their roots nor connected to the world that the government offers. Cultural amnesia and loss of their heritage language has affected their cognitive and perceptive powers adversely. The modern generation neither feels connected to the forest and sea life nor to the city life. It’s a lost civilisation bewildered of their present. In this scenario stories and songs of this book may serve as the only priceless heritage of an ancient civilisation of India.
Tell us of about some of your more unique experiences in Andaman.
There are plenty. You have to read the ‘Introduction’ of this book and log on to www.andamanese.net where I describe my experiences and many aspects of Great Andamanese culture. Great Andamanese is a culture that believes in sharing of everything that one has in life yet gives individual freedom to choose. We have misunderstood that this trait of theirs as ‘begging’ since they always demanded to share whatever we eat. Gender equality is worth admiration starting from the prenatal stage as the name of a child is assigned before birth, and both boys and girls are trained in hunting.
While it was sad to read that very few speak the language of the past now and yet a few more cultures are getting eroded, it is also a movement towards integration with the mainstream. What would be the ideal way for this integration so that the languages and cultures do not get eroded and yet they blend with the mainstream? What would be the best way of balancing languages and cultures so that we do not lose our past while embracing the present and moving to the future?
The idea of mainstreaming and merging these tribes into our civilisation is nothing but usurping their rights to their land, forest, water, and way of life. “Development” may kill these tribes. These tribes have amalgamated their life with nature so well that they are aware of secrets of life. Any kind of interference will disturb this harmony. As I always say that Jarawa live a life of opulence where the supplies are in abundance in their forests — much more their demands. However, it is too late now in the context of the Great Andamanese. As I said earlier, they are a lost generation.
The best course to save their language and culture would be to introduce it in the primary schools in Port Blair so that the community feels motivated to retain this. Since the language has already been scripted by our team, reading and writing Great Andamanese is no problem. I have already produced the Grammar and the interactive pictorial talking Dictionary of the language that may make this task simple. One of the members of the tribe by the name of Noe who still remembers the language should be used as a resource before it is too late. Introducing these languages in the school will bring dignity and honour to our heritage language and will help the societies to overcome their inferiority complex.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)
ONE LAST TIME
The world’s melting before my eyes,
Drowning in the ocean of neglect,
Gasping for air one last time,
Till it freezes to death.
Hear! Hear! Hear them cry,
Those innocent lives,
Trying to hold their pieces together,
In the eye of storm one last time.
When will the dawn break?
Shrouded and invisible in the darkest night they ask,
Clinging together, floating and gasping,
To be seen and saved one last time.
Heena Chauhan teaches English Literature at University of Delhi, India. Also, a research scholar, Heena spends most of her time in reading her favourite authors, cooking and skygazing.
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Human beings have always told stories. However, in the course of history, the voices of many groups fell silent, their lives — and their stories-hidden from ‘his’ story. Before the story of women’s writing can be recounted, we have to look at the term itself.
Why are we still using the term Women’s Writing? Do we use the term mens’ writing?
Is the conceptual category of women’s writing a description , a prescription or a ghettoization?
When we say women’s writing, are we marking out women as a group whose gender identity needs to be declared in order to evaluate their writing? Or are we saying that the writing will lead us to a revelation of the gender identity of the writer?
Does it then, or can it then become a reductive activity, an “intellectual measuring of busts and hips”, as feminist and literary critic, Elaine Showalter, writes in one of her essays ?
Or are we making an allowance for them, much in the spirit we view any kind of affirmative action, as a sort of acknowledgement of past wrongs? And reparation of the kind we make towards historically marginalised or oppressed groups?
In a sense, women have always written, albeit in an environment where a large part of their work has been hidden from history, not acknowledged or documented. Another problem is that their writing and its evaluation has not only been framed by, but completely explained away in terms of the gender of the writer, leading to generalisations and gender stereotyping. This is a reductive and circular view where every detail in the text is sought to be explained with reference to the gender of the writer. So the statement that emerges is “she writes like this because she is a woman” or “only a woman can write this or this way” and that too not in a tone of approbation.
The goalpost for the woman writer was set by male critics, often the self-appointed custodians of literary traditions where the gatekeepers were all men. In a sense women writers were being pushed towards adopting the honorary status of men, (the incidence of the male pseudonym) or to forget their femininity and become a frump. Another image was also that of the virago or the “hyena in petticoats”, a form of labelling to undermine strong, strident and opinionated women. Here I am deviating from Showalter’s idea of the ‘feminine’ phase by suggesting that the woman writer of the 18th and 19 th century were actually challenged to forget their femininity.
It was deemed inappropriate for women writers to write about sex and sexuality, as is evident from the discomfort and disquiet around Radhika Santwanam, described in the Introduction to Women Writing in India: 600 BC to Present (2009), edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. Interestingly this censorious attitude to women’s writing was not a historical but a product of relatively recent ideas of gentility and appropriate womanhood enshrined and embedded in Victorian morality, which were appropriated by the newly-emerging middle classes who had received western education.
Sumanta Banerjee in his The Parlour and the Streets (1989) traces the loss of a vivid colourful idiomatic oral language drawing from the popular culture of the streets. As this vigorous colloquial idiom was deemed inappropriate and unfit for literary usage, it did not find any place in the new respectable national literatures in the regional languages that were emerging in the 19th century. So the ‘literary’ got marked off from the colloquial where the baby (women’s literature –oral and written) was literally thrown out along with the bathwater.
Prior to the 19th century, in England , one reads not just Mary Wollstonecraft, but also Aphra Behn, and other signposts to alter an otherwise barren landscape of women’s writing. Here as we probably know already, the anxiety of ‘influence’(pointed out by Harold Bloom) is replaced by the anxiety of authorship, where the woman writer is made to feel orphaned and alienated, a Jane come lately since she has no genealogy or tradition to which she belongs. Thus we see the attempts in many instances, where writers claim their mother’s heritage.
Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983) is a case in point. While the figure of the mother is very important even for male writers, there is a special poignancy in which this relationship is signified in women’s writing. Thus there is Rashsundari Debi’s autobiography, Amar Jiban ( 1876, one of the first autobiographies in Bengali), Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1986) , all autobiographical texts where the mother’s death becomes a moment of unusual poignancy, helping shape the contours of the writing self.
Another problematic issue is obviously the seemingly unified and homogeneous category of ‘women’, which is an imposed unity for a heterogeneous and diverse cross-section of people. So when we refer to ‘women’s writing’ as a category, we have to think whether we are being just or fair in clubbing such a diversity of voices under one rubric or template. What tends to happen is that a diversity of voices tend to get homogenised and flattened out and specific issues are lost or get submerged depending on power dynamics, on factors like access to vectors of power related to race, class, caste, socio-economic status and sexual orientation.
Some of these issues were flagged by women of colour or Afro-American feminists and also by ‘third world’ academicians. They felt that the unmarked category of women, while seemingly inclusive, actually excluded them in fundamental ways. They rejected the term ‘feminism’ and instead replaced it with their coinage, ‘womanism’. They also compared women’s writing to a patchwork quilt, where ever bit is both an individual piece as well as part of a collective and bigger creation and endeavour.
Now what do we see in terms of the situation on the ground of or for the women writer? One is Virginia Woolf’s vignette in ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’( excerpted from A Room of One’s Own, 1929). Nearer home, we have the narrative of how Rashsundari teaches herself to read and write. I would go so far as to say that one of the themes of women’s writing seems to be a thematising of women’s writing itself, their coming to voice, textuality and affiliation, about the pangs of growing up female and about the process of gendering across societies.
However, while these themes and issues maybe crucial to women’s writing , they may not always be framed as belonging to the category of the ‘literary’, according to the rules put in place by its custodians. So even though a lot of novels by women circulated in the marketplace, they are missing in the archive.
Therefore one obvious way of approaching women’s writing is to do so through the non-formal, the informal, the non-canonical, through modes and forms which slip under the radar of the ‘literary’. Thus the memoir, the diary, letters autobiographies or hagiographies, the poetic fragment are also aspects and forms that we need to take into account while discussing women’s writing.
There is a fair amount of material on women and the novel, how women were peculiarly suited to the exigencies of novel writing and consumption, and how they are more shadowy figures when it comes to poetry. If we see the poetry section in the usual courses, we see a handful of poems (in a somewhat tokenistic way), many of them deeply personal, confessional and autobiographical. Some poets like De Souza seem to use irony quite a lot, for example in ‘Marriages are Made’. If we were to isolate stylistic features of women’s poetry as specifically gendered , relatively short verse forms, brevity, tightness of language and syntax, are all evident in women’s poetry and one of the most anthologised female poets, Sylvia Plath, eschews the elaborations of an intricate style and sticks to flat statement, staccato rhythms and colloquial tones. As Dickinson frames it, they “shut me up in prose/because they would have me still.” We can only speculate about the ‘they’ in these lines.
Women’s experience on the stage and as playwrights were also dictated by certain social norms. Women’s visibility on the stage and their occupying the public domain represented a kind of transgression, as is evident both in theatre journals and in the autobiographical writings of actresses like Binodini Dasi, known to generations of Bengali theatre goers as Nati Binodini. The stage raises a question about the ‘proper’ legitimate domain of women, who were viewed as violating the boundaries of morality and respectable and acceptable behaviour.
The story of women’s writing is still in the process of unfolding. From learning to read and write in secret, as showcased in Rashsundari Debi’s autobiography (since literacy in women, it was believed, was a sure precursor to widowhood) because of the taboo on women’s literacy, many women have emerged as powerful voices-and presences-both in the archive and in the marketplace. The hand that supposedly rocked the cradle can also hopefully rock the world, challenge the existing order of things and write a better world into being.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’ in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.
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This feels so dystopian. The world today. The television streaming clippings of people, suddenly thrown out of work and asked to leave, to go back to wherever; just leave. Isolation is the keyword, it seems. Lock yourself in your homes, if you don’t have a home somewhere; in a drain pipe, a hole, a box anywhere. Just leave they have been told. They have been let down by the cities of their dreams, the people they worked for, the world collectively. Can we do anything about it? Nothing! And we hang our heads in shame, in our living rooms.
Panic grips as I learn, in Italy the death toll has crossed ten thousand. I don’t want to know, but the WhatsApp forwards, don’t let me be. I have heard great leaders speak that they have everything under control, the fear on their faces, still visible. I don’t believe them. I look for the latest data on a live update on the virus, my finger going touching the names of the places, I had dreams of visiting.
I live in one of the most affluent cities in the world, we have been blessed with abundance. Food, water, electricity, shelter. our city is being sanitized I hear, and I feel protected. But then fear is not far behind, every time I get to know someone, who is not supposed to have stepped out of the home; is irresponsible.
The truth is, none of us is safe anymore, anywhere. Dubai, New Delhi, New York, Madrid, Rome, Paris; all of them vulnerable, and heartachingly weak in the face of this Pandemic. I try and think of something cheerful and look at a picture of our friends on my phone at the last house party. So, we decide to meet online, the familiar faces smiling back to me from a computer screen. We laugh, chat and raise a toast. It feels like ‘almost normal’. It will be a while till we get to hug them touch them, till then these smiling faces are good enough. I am thankful for them. This will be over soon. This surreal life that we are living in.
Our kids are attending school from their bedrooms, sometimes huddled in their beds; their identities shrunk to initials. Their beloved teachers are just faces attempting to cheer them up while teaching. They struggle to focus on solving that equation, while the pet dog lying at their feet is vying for attention. Dogs and cats are immune to the virus, I am told. You can hug them as much as you can. That for me seems to be the only silver lining.
I share pictures of my cooking with my friends, a beautiful watermelon and feta cheese salad, tossed with balsamic vinegar. I have stocked up well to cook exotic meals so that my family is not bored. I have planned our meals for days in advance, every meal promises to be a surprise, to bring a twinkle in the eye. While I bask and revel in my culinary and ‘disaster management skills’; a friend shares a picture of an old lady walking alone towards home thousands of miles away, since transport has been shut for the Pandemic. More pictures come in of people swarming, towards a place. A place that will be safe for them. Does such a place exist? What do these people know of social distancing? Social distancing is a privilege, for them. I cringe, my stomach churns and I feel terribly uneasy. The privileges I have are the reason, I am devasted by them.
This — I am told is grief. Oh, is it? If this is grief, then it’s good. I am relieved. My greatest fear was that one day I will be sanitized to all these happenings around me. The face of that old woman is going to haunt me. I feel guilty of being blessed with an abundance of food, of shelter, of feeling happy, after chatting with my friends. Since, when has this crept into our lives? Since when has ‘feeling happy’ become loaded with so much of heaviness and helplessness. This is becoming too much, these ramblings in my mind. These are calamities I can do nothing about. I still have to cook, sing, paint, write; do things that make me happy and keep me sane.
Suffering has always been there in this world; even before I was. Every time someone laughed, there has been at least one person somewhere in utter sadness. I grieve for all things lost, for everything that shouldn’t have happened. I have tremendous respect for the health workers, the cleaners, the researchers looking for an antidote. Each one of them, who have risked their lives for mine. And I am not going to just clap, I will do more, I promise. While most of the things look grim; I have hope. Hope for humanity to bounce back. This is a time for great learning, at every moment. We will do our bit in our way when we are ready.
The world has shrunk, we all have come together. There is no superior nation, no superior power anymore. We all have been battered equally; we stand broken. And we will come out of it collectively, till then we have to hold on to each other. Cherish every happy occasion and shed a tear for every death, in every corner of the earth. Because that is the balance, the fulcrum on which this world will keep going. My family back home, are making bread at home to distribute to the stray dogs. They are making sure that the wages are paid to the employees. These small things; are hope personified. I am sure there are many like this amongst us. We just have to find ways. There is a way. There always is. I smile; this time without feeling guilty. I sigh and cup my face with my hands. Someone shrieks, “no don’t touch your face”. I dash towards the rest room, wash my hands, reach out for the sanitizer bottle, and say a prayer!
Rituparna Mahapatra, is writer based in Dubai. She taught English literature at Sambalpur University, Orissa and Delhi University. She worked briefly with Britannica India, and has contributed to many leading newspapers both regional and national. Currently she is editor-at-large UAE, of Kitaab.org; and teaches creative writing in English.