Categories
Essay

Farewell Keri Hulme

Author Keri Hulme (1947-2021) was the first New Zealander to win the prestigious Booker prize for the bone people*. Keith Lyons recalls times he spent in a remote coastal settlement with the humble writer, who remains a divisive enigma.

Okarito, home of Keri Hulme. Courtesy: Creative Commons

“You want to know about anybody? See what books they read, and how they’ve been read…” Keri Hulme

I was in high school when I heard the news that Keri Hulme’s the bone people had won the 1985 Booker Prize, literature’s most prestigious award for a novel in English. At 38 years old, she was the first New Zealander to receive the prize. Hulme became the first author to win with their debut novel. Later, in 2013, Eleanor Catton became the second Kiwi, the youngest winner of the Man Booker Prize, and also holds the record for the longest novel, 832 pages.

The following summer while hitchhiking around the South Island, I visited the small settlement of Okarito on the West Coast, where Keri had built her own house and lived since the 1970s. A converted schoolhouse in the former 1860s gold mining town was the main accommodation available: a youth hostel with bunk beds. I’d been attracted to the area because of the rugged coastline, placid tidal lagoon, mountain views and the elegant white herons which nested in the nearby forest.

Even though I’d struggled through an early edition of the bone people, I wasn’t as enthralled about the book as some of my fellow travellers who occupied bunk beds in the spartan hostel. Several European visitors carried copies of the book, which had been translated into many languages, several with different covers. It seemed that every day I went out walking along the main street of the settlement (population: 13 permanent residents), there would be an earnest woman from Cologne clutching Unter dem Tagmond or a young couple from Aarhus plodding along the road in the hope of finding Keri’s octagonal tower two-story house. Visitors wandered over the sand dunes desiring to encounter the acclaimed pipe-smoking author, beach combing for driftwood or gemstones washed up on the high tide.

There for the scenery and sanctuary of the coast, lagoon and native forest, rather than to spot the world-famous author, I did locate her house further along the settlement’s main road. A sign on the gate read “Unknown cats and dogs will be shot on sight”. The hostel warden Bill Minehan, who lived next door to Keri, told me she didn’t really like the attention or surprise visitors. Some of the other residents, protective of the community’s drawcard, would give wrong directions, so visitors after sightings of the elusive author could be seen pacing up and down the rutted grass airstrip — signposted Okarito International Airport and flying the Okarito Free Republic flag — or sidestepping around sheep grazing on the settlement’s rough golf course.

Often, after rains, Keri’s front yard flooded, creating a moat to protect her from rubberneckers. The Okarito Free Republic flag sometimes fluttered from a flagpole at Keri’s house, along with an alternative New Zealand flag, with a stylised spiral fern frond, made by Austrian painter and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. She moved to Okarito after winning a ballot for a section of land in 1973, building the house herself, lining bookcases with some 6,000 books, and setting up her writing desk with views out to the sea.

Keri was increasingly portrayed as reclusive. Rumours were that she’d spent all her Booker Prize thousands on alcohol from the Whataroa Hotel, some 25 km away. She didn’t like meeting strangers. She was reluctant to give interviews, and very rarely did she allow anyone into her house. She preferred solitude. “A large part of my life is the surge of the sea, listen to the sea, the pulse of the sea,” she once said.

I did catch a glimpse of Keri on my last day when returning a key to Bill — she was wielding a hammer, fixing the side of her house. The sweet aromatic scent of pipe tobacco floated in the humid air. Then I realised it was probably her I’d seen surf-cast fishing while on a long coastal walk towards the lagoon’s outlet into the Tasman Sea.

Bill let slip that Keri was formidable, but not unbeatable, at Scrabble. Having told him I had been at a Catholic boys’ school in Christchurch, and that I was also a writer, he asked if I knew any good high-scoring Scrabble words. I gave him ‘exorcise’ and ‘queazy’.

One of Keri’s favourite Scrabble words, I later found out, was ‘syzygy’, meaning the alignment of three celestial bodies. Three main characters make up ‘the bone people’. Keri said the characters for her book first came into her imagination when she was eighteen years old. After dreaming about a mute child with strange green eyes, she mused over the vision, eventually developing it into the character of the shipwrecked boy Simon Peter, whose life is intertwined with what one critic described as ‘his child-battering stepfather and a virgin feminist’.

The eldest daughter of a carpenter, whose parents came from Lancashire, and a mother who came from Orkney Scots and Māoris, she grew up in my hometown Christchurch. Her father died when she was aged eleven. After leaving school she dropped out of university part way through a law degree. She worked as a tobacco picker, in a woollen mill, delivering mail, cooking fish and chips at a takeaway shop, as a pharmacist’s assistant, a proofreader at a local newspaper, and in television production.

It took her almost two decades to finish the novel. She spent a dozen years trying to find a publisher. All New Zealand’s main publishing houses rejected the manuscript outright or insisted on extensive heavy re-writing before they would consider taking on the book.

In the end, it was published by a small obscure three-woman feminist collective (it was only the second book they produced), and typeset by students at a university newspaper, with an initial print run of just 2,000 copies. The book, which contained numerous typographical errors, was launched at an event at a teacher’s training college.

The year after its humble beginnings, the bone people won the Oscars of world literature, against the odds and against such literary heavyweights as Peter Carey, Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch. The somewhat controversial win showcased writing from New Zealand to an international audience, who would perhaps only be aware of the likes of modernist short story writer Katherine Mansfield or Janet Frame, who explored madness and language.

Hulme’s contribution, blending indigenous myth and Celtic symbology, and set in a distinctly wild coastal New Zealand setting, is described as “an unusual story of love”’  or in the Amazon blurb “a true evocation of loneliness and attempts by deeply flawed people to connect to each other”. The main character of three, part-Māori artist Kerewin is convinced that her solitary life is the only way to face the world. How autobiographical is it, you ask? The more you delve into it, the more you find similarities with the unusual literary star, who increasingly got dubbed “reclusive” by the media because she wished to remain out of the limelight.

Part of the legend around Hulme is about the surprising success of her debut novel. She didn’t fancy her chances of winning the Booker Prize, so was in the US when the awards ceremony was held in London (plumes of cigarette smoke swirled up in the film footage) — she was the only contender not in the audience at London’s Guildhall. When she was called in her Salt Lake City hotel room during the event, she didn’t believe the news down the phone line. “You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?” she said, “Oh, bloody hell.”

She was full of self-doubt. The literary world had a mixed response to her breakout novel. “Set on the harsh South Island beaches of New Zealand, bound in Māori myth and entwined with Christian symbols, Miss Hulme’s provocative novel summons power with words, as a conjurer’s spell,” wrote one New York Times review. “She casts her magic on three fiercely unique characters, but reminds us that we, like them, are ‘nothing more than people’, and that, in a sense, we are all cannibals, compelled to consume the gift of love with demands for perfection’.

Another review in the same publication was more critical. “It’s not so much that the novel offers ‘a taste passing strange’ as the author notes in the preface — interior monologues, disjointed narratives and vulgar language, after all, are hardly news these days. It’s more that the novel is unevenly written, often portentous, and considerably overlong.” The Guardian described the bone people as “a morass of bad, barely comprehensible prose.”

Even one of the Booker Prize judges, Joanna Lumley, was against it being picked as the winner, saying its subject matter was ‘indefensible’. A recent article described the bone people as one of the most divisive novels in Booker Prize history. The four words to sum up the book were violent, disturbing, poetic and striking.

While dismissed by some as unreadable and pretentious, in New Zealand the novel combining reality with dreams was seen as a masterpiece by others with its vision of a society regenerated by the adoption of Māori values and spirituality. For some, it challenged their worldview and sense of place at home in the world. Author Joy Cowley wrote, “Keri Hulme sat in our skulls while she wrote this work . . . she has given us — us.”

Keri said she wanted the novel to harmonise New Zealand’s two major cultural influences, indigenous Māori and European-descendent settlers (she herself shared both heritages). If you were to discover other authors who have explored in new ways what it means to be Māori, look up works by Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera, or for a raw look at the debilitating effect urban life has had on Maori, Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors.

By the time I returned to Okarito the following August holidays to write a story for the Youth Hostel Association, the secluded hamlet had grown in population with the addition of a few more hardy souls and holiday houses, I only saw Keri a few times. One time, after gutting some snapper, she was off to clear the mailbox and collect the newspaper at the highway junction (there was no shop in the township). Another time she was cleaning a gun, bespectacled, and wearing her trademark red bush shirt. Like Hemingway, Keri liked hunting, (she favoured a .22 Ruger rifle among her collection of guns, swords and knives), and often took to the forest in search of deer.

Another time she was assembling poles, screens, nets, waders and buckets for the official start of the white baiting season. My father had worked in marine administration for decades, which included the monitoring of whitebait jetties and official seasons, so I knew a few things about the obsession. “Are the whitebait running yet?” I asked as she made the finishing touches to repairing nets. “Any day now,” she replied, looking expectedly towards the clouds billowing in the west. The season officially started the following day, and she had already checked her favoured locations for a 5am start. Normally a night owl and late riser, even her writing routine was swept aside for the ten weeks of the season when she was out trying to catch the coveted tiny fish. While throughout the year she might be catching rig or kahawai in the surf, netting for flounders in the lagoon, or trying to land salmon or trout in the rivers, her main springtime preoccupation was catching whitebait, the prized juveniles of migratory Southern Hemisphere fish.

I helped Bill load up driftwood onto the back of his vehicle before the rains set in, for use as firewood at the hostel (with a load for Keri too) and found some fool’s gold in quartz rock. Bill confirmed my folly. I gave him some more Scrabble words: Quartzy and Quickly.

That next summer I returned again to ‘The Big O’, hitching on the dusty corrugated gravel road to the coast with its pounding surf, driftwood sculptures and star-filled nights. Just before Christmas, with Bill away, Keri asked me if I could look after things at the hostel and check her place while she visited relatives on the other side of the South Island. The only other person staying medium-term was a German dwarf actor, who joked with me that he was a big man in European television and movies. Before she left, she dropped off a carton of a dozen beer, and some frozen whitebait, silvery eyes glistening through the plastic bag, with advice on how to make a batter for fritters with beer, flour, salt, and fresh parsley growing outside the hostel. “You could spice it up with some chilli pepper,” she said, pointing to a half-full jar of pepper left behind in the communal pantry by a Chilean backpacker.

Later, as we drank beer and watched the sunset from the old wharf, I mentioned to Manfred that even though Keri showed typical West Coast conviviality, we never once talked about writing. We’d talked about the moods of the weather, birdcalls from creatures seldom seen, what remedies protected vegetable gardens from slugs, and strange things which washed up on remote beaches. Having lived in that place for so long, she had plenty of stories about incidents, characters, or her own eccentric foibles. And I think that seeing her as a three-dimensional person (almost ignoring that she was a Booker Prize winner) rather than a 2-D writer made a difference, because it took away the pretensions and the expectations. She was direct, and also had a dry sense of humour. Manfred liked her rugged independent spirit, and kindly nature, not just because she had given us a box of beer. “She is like a good Kiwi bloke, yah?”

However, in the literary world, there was an expectation that a second novel was due. Her debut novel was on track to sell over a million copies. She’d retained the film rights, as its form couldn’t be easily adapted to the big screen. She believed that some stories work best ‘behind human eyes, not in front of them’. Surely she wasn’t going to be a ‘one-hit wonder’ like the band who sang the Macarena, Lee Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger?

She finally announced her second novel, about fishing and death, she finally announced. And it would be called BAIT. She published a second collection of poems in 1992, and two collections of short stories appeared in 1986 and 2005. As for BAIT, it later would be published along with its twinned novel, On the Shadow Side.

She once declared she didn’t believe in writer’s block. “I know about distractions, laziness, daydreaming, stressful events that push writing to the background, and the sheer enjoyment of doing other things for a change … I am a slow, but very, very persistent writer.”

I can’t exactly recall when the last time it was I saw Keri. I just remember seeing her heading out on a fishing trip, along the windswept beach towards the lagoon and its ever-shifting outlet to the sea. She gave me a nod, and gradually faded into the misty greyness of the day and the distance. That night, after sunset at the beach, I witnessed the rare phenomena sometimes seen when the surf glows neon-blue from a bioluminescent algal bloom or plankton. Above it and beyond, the stars twinkled.

A decade ago, after almost forty years at Okarito, Keri left to move to the other coast, where she felt more at home. She had been dismayed by the development with ‘very ugly McMansions’ holiday homes visited by outsiders who would fly in by helicopter or plane. Her council rates were becoming unaffordable. She was also suffering from arthritis in her hips, back and elbows.

A few years ago, I went back to Okarito with a friend, but it felt different without her being there. We both hold the wish to buy her house, mainly in memory and tribute to Keri’s life and work, and also, to inspire our own writing. Though we both admit that Keri has fished all the best words, and woven the most compelling tales.

The much-anticipated second novel was never published, nor was the promised third. She died in late December last year. A family representative said she wasn’t after fame or fortune. “There were stories of her being this literary giant. It wasn’t really something that she discussed. It was never about fame for her, she’s always been a storyteller. It was never about the glitz and glam, she just had stories to share.”

*Please note ‘the bone people’ all lower case is the correct version of her title

 A view over Okarito and its lagoon and beach. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on early morning slow-lane swimming, the perfect cup of masala chai tea, and after-dark tabs of dark chocolate. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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Categories
Interview

Bridge over Troubled Waters

In Conversation with Sanjay Kumar, the founder of Pandies, a socially responsible theatre group

Some members of Pandies, with Sanjay Kumar sitting in the right hand corner.

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.

Sanjay Kumar

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 Dedan Kimathi (1974), Strindberg’s The Dream Play (1901), Vicente Lenero’s The Bricklayers (1976), Genet’s The Balcony (1957)and Brecht’s The Caucasian 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.

Thank you.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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

Categories
Interview

In conversation with Devaki Jain

Devaki Jain: With Permission from Devaki Jain and Speaking Tiger Books

A woman who at eighty-eight brought out her autobiography based on the urgings of among others, Alice Walker, author of  the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Colour Purple , and  Doris Lessing, the Nobel Laureate — only much later. Like Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, her biography is called The Brass Notebook. Does it talk anti-war or feminism or womanism? I am not sure. What it does show is a woman who despite being surrounded by patriarchal norms managed to live her life as she wanted without resorting to schools of ‘isms’ or feeling injured. In the process, she met many great people and tried to bring in changes or reforms.

Devaki Jain, born in 1933,  graduated in economics and philosophy from St Anne’s College, Oxford and is an Honorary Fellow of the college. She is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan (2006) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Westville, Durban, South Africa.

Needless to say the best introduction to her work and her person comes from well-known feminist journalist,  Gloria Steinem: “Your heart and world will be opened by reading The Brass Notebook the intimate and political life of Devaki Jain, a young woman who dares to become independent even as a country of India does. Because she’s also my oldest friend I can tell you there is no one like her, yet only here in her writings have I learned the depth, breadth and universality of adventures.”

The interview probably reinforces her non-conformist outlook. In an age when intellectuals bicker over terminology and social media becomes the fulcrum of our lives, she lives by her convictions. Despite writing an absolutely gripping autobiography, she has revealed only a bit of herself. Through the interview, I tried to entice more but I got only a very brief glimmer. Her autobiography painted a liberal, liberated and open thinker who fearlessly fought her way against patriarchal and colonial mindsets. In this exclusive, I invite you to savour her spirit at a stage in life when most talk mainly of geriatric issues. Devaki Jain for you —

You were a very independent lady for your times. Could you find parallels of women like yourself in diverse cultures?

Women have been revolutionaries, radical thinkers, resistance leaders, dissenters for centuries. There are not many records of this but one of my colleagues found that there were groups of women, for example, in China even as far as the 12th century who were dissenters. Therefore, the knowledge may not have been recorded but striking for independence and striking for justice has been a part of women’s lives for centuries. 

What drove you to be as you were? What made you feel that marriage was not the ultimate aim of all existence in the 1950s and 1960s?

(a)What drives people to do things differently? This is not an easy question to answer, people are born differently with different aspirations and different nervous systems. It is like asking an artist what helped you to be such a brilliant artist. Such questions are not appropriate. 

(b) I think this question is badly framed that I felt that marriage was not the ultimate aim, it was not like that. It was just that I felt there were other things that I wanted to do.

A young Devaki Jain. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

How supportive was your family, especially your father, of your sense of independence?

My father was an enigma, while he wanted to submit to orthodoxy, he was also very respectful of those who wanted to do things differently. So, in a sense, I think he was supportive of my desire for independence. 

You did face some amount of familial sexual harassment. Did it scar you for life? How did you get over the trauma?

My uncle’s sexual assault on me did not scar me for life, there was no particular need to get over the trauma. In a situation of living in cloisters with family bounds there is no space for lifelong traumas.

You spoke of how funding went inadvertently hand in hand with a different kind of colonial outlook. Would you say that is still true?

No, currently I think both the donors and the receivers have understood the difference and respect the difference.

Womanism is a term you have spoken of in your book. How is this different from feminism in your perspective?

I was basically supporting Alice Walker’s definition and I support her perspective. Please refer to my quotation from Alice Walker*.

[*Alice Walker quote from Pg 173-174, The Brass Notebook, Speaking Tiger, 2020: “As long as the world is dominated by racial ideology that places whites above people of colour, the angle of vision of the womanist, coming from a culture of colour, will be of a deeper, more radical penetration. This is only logical. Generally speaking, for instance, white feminists are dealing with the oppression they receive from white men, while women of colour are oppressed by men of colour as well as white men, as well as by many white women. But on the joyful side, which we must insist on honouring, the womanist is, like the creator of the word, intent on connecting with the earth and cosmos, with dance and song. With roundness, thankfulness and joy. Given a fighting chance at living her own life, under oppression that she resists, the womanist has no or few complaints. Her history has been so rough—captured from her home, centuries of enslavement, apartheid, etc—she honours Harriet Tubman by daily choosing freedom over the fetters of any internalized slavery she might find still lurking within herself. Whatever women’s liberation is called, it is about freedom. This she knows. Having said this, I have no problem being called “feminist” or “womanist.” In coining the term, I was simply trying myself to see more clearly what sets women of colour apart in the rainbow that is a world movement of women who have had enough of being second–and third–class citizens of the earth. One day, if earth and our species survive, we will again be called sacred and free. Our proper names.”]

Do you think women’s issues across the world are similar? How should they be dealt with?

It is believed that women’s oppression comes from patriarchy which of course is worldwide. I do not think I can answer the second part of the question – “how should it be dealt with?” — except writing three other books.

With Fidel Castro in Cuba as a member of the South Commission. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

You have spoken of how the South Commission fell through. Can you tell us why? Is this what happens very often?

The South Commission fell apart because of a failure of solidarity between the south countries. It was a political statement to join the South together as an economic platform. When it failed, it failed all that. 

You tried to bring many changes for the welfare of women across India and beyond. Will you tell us a bit about the perceived problems and solutions that we could find?

I do not think I attempted to bring changes for the welfare of women. I think I was basically pointing out the contribution that women made to the economy and how they were being discriminated against. 

What are your future plans, presuming you are going to be a grand dame of 150 years?

I would like to write, write and write.

What would be the advice you would like to give young women living in today’s world?

Follow your dreams and don’t be frightened of orthodoxy. 

Thank you for giving us some of your time.

Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, Devaki Jain, Lakshmi Jain at a reception. With permission of Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger
With Dr Julius Nyere (centre) in Cuba, 1989. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books
With Desmond & Leah Tutu, Pretoria, 1998. with permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

All the photographs are published with thanks to the author, Devaki Jain, and the publisher, Speaking Tiger Books.

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This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

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