I have seen houses
that went dark early
and you heard your footfall on the tile
but I did not know I would come to live in one.
Have you seen houses
where the shadows of evening
started after noon
but did you know you would come to live in one?
EMPATHY FOR HUMANITY
I walk down the lonely street.
A breeze is blowing—
which is welcome in this heat.
I know where I’m going.
A man and a woman
are standing on the sidewalk,
staring at someone
at the end of the block.
In the trees that intersect
at the entrance
a worker and I connect
from a distance;
off the repair truck he climbs down
and his red face nods,
he knows I’m down,
he knows the odds.
I head toward the boulevard.
A whiff of garbage bin
hits me in the nose hard
and it’s good…it’s all good again.
Listening to the music
he wouldn’t know how to put the violins together
how to harmonise their parts
He knows the place
the ensemble came from
but how did they arise from there?
Into it, its refinement
mystifies: he half-gets it
but decides he doesn’t like it
He looks so sad
as only a human can
as only a settled nomad…
OBSERVATIONS (FROM A NOCTURNAL PATIO)
The ivy twists upon
itself on the wrought-iron fence—
Where’s the light come from
shining on the tabletop
amidst these shadows?
The tattoo parlor
is open—the church next door
is closed, I presume.
A very slight breeze
wavers the sunflower
drooping from its own weight.
The toppling buses
are gone—one with a single
passenger shies home.
The shadow of one
on the brick floor—alone at
a table for four.
A shaky table
but it doesn’t bother me
in this mood somehow.
Lighted from within
those windows must have a curious
life only glimpsed.
Living the moment
is a cliché except when
it’s not a cliché.
Takes one to know one—
I judge harshly and smugly
the shadowy depths of the
most romantic night.
The kinds of laughter—
like crocodile tears—hyenas
A shadow-flecked face
rattles on from its mouth like
a worm-eaten hole.
Given half a chance
some people will talk like a
stuck horn or siren.
The lone bicyclist
runs the red light to stay ahead
of the traffic.
are rare but a desired voice
has tones on reserve.
can make one under-appreciate
Hoarse from over-talk—
some persons talk as if they’re
always in a bar.
Houses that are close
to an all-night establishment
always seem sad.
David Francis has produced seven music albums, Always/Far: a chapbook of lyrics and drawings, and Poems from Argentina (Kelsay Books). He has written and directed the films, Village Folksinger (2013) and Memory Journey (2018). He lives in New York City.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Ideally, I would love to start the New Year with laughter and happiness! Then perhaps, the whole year would be dotted with humour …
Laughter clubs often practice laughing for health benefits. I know the pandemic makes both guffawing outdoors or in a group hard but think of the funniest possible thing and, perhaps, you will start laughing. For me what works other than children’s and monkeys’ antics, are my trips to the dentist, especially the trip where I wondered on the fringe benefits of ‘laughing gas’ (as given in the PG Wodehouse novel of the same name), only to be informed that it was used exclusively for young children. For me, an adult, there was only — you have guessed it — the jab that numbs your lip function to lubber. I discovered if I could make light of a dentist drilling by learning from Harry Potter (the spell to get rid of the terrifying boggart, who took the shape of the thing you feared most, was to imagine the funniest thing, focus on the humour in it, and shout ‘Riddikulus’ with a wand pointed at the creature in the form of your worst nightmare), then I could pretty much get rid of most fears.
The other thing I have been wondering for sometime is can one write an editorial that is humorous when the content is serious? I would have wanted to ask that question to many, including Ruskin Bond, who continues as one of my idols. I would love to touch hearts with the humour and the sensitivity that flavours his writing. It is tough to convey a complex thought with the simplicity and elegance of a writer who can be read and understood easily. I think we have a few of them around and I interviewed one. You all probably know him well— Rhys Hughes. I have given the reasons for the interview in lieu of Mr Bond, who continues a distant star beyond the horizon of online interviews. We discussed humour and its role in literature, leaving out completely in the cold, the fictional Mr Bond who answers to the names of James and 007 and has made entertaining films, which can be seen as serious or non-serious.
Another major issue in this world currently is climate change. In keeping with the need for acceptance of this reality, Keith Lyons introduced us to a nature lover, author and adventurer Kenny Peavy, who loved the fictional adventurer called Indiana Jones and has been working towards living in harmony with nature. He moved to Indonesia from America and is trying to raise awareness. You can find much, though not elephants, in the interview that encompasses the story of a man who cycled across a continent on a bike made of bamboo. However, you can find some writing on a king who acquired the skill to ride and tame elephants in our book excerpt from Shazi Zaman’sAkbar: A Novel of History. The excerpt does not showcase his elephant taming skills as did the Bollywood blockbuster Jodha Akbar but is focussed on bringing out the syncretism in the Mughal monarch’s outlook which made him seek out exponents of other religions. Sangita Swechcha’s and Andrée Roby’s anthology, A Glimpse Into My Country, with excerpts of short stories from Nepal and Zimbabwe, like Kenny Peavy, cycle across multiple borders as does our fiction. We feature stories from within and without the continent with Fazal Baloch recombining a couple of folklores from Balochistan to a single tale. Fiction from young writers highlight compassion and a varied perspective. Steve Ogah has a story from Nigeria which almost rings with overtones of Alex Haley’s Roots. Sohana Manzoor has given us a poignant narrative with an inspiring twist at the end, an absolute antithesis of the humorous one she rolled out for us last month. Candice Louisa Daquin has also given us an exceptional short fiction along with her column where she discusses the changing face of families in the current context.
While Daquin’s focus is mainly towards the West, we have an essay from Sanjay Kumar on families that live in the greyer zones of big cities, children from an outcropping called Nithari in Delhi, where they or theirs suffered neglect, abuse, carnage and cannibalism in their formative years. Introducing the impacted children, Kumar explains how they transcended the wounds that lacerated their lives. This piece is a precursor to a column called ‘Children of Nithari’. Starting February, the abuse victims will give us a story a month which will be translated by young volunteers from pandies’, an activist theatre group founded by Kumar, and published in Borderless. Another article from Balochistan reflects on the lack of literacy and efforts to bring children into the folds of schooling. Pakistan ranked 99th out of 132 countries on the literacy survey in 2021. We are privileged to be the voice of the unheard.
Two essays that ring of concerns raised in the Kenny Peavy interview are to do with climate crisis in the Sunderbans and waste disposal in Delhi. Both of these are written by researchers who are working on these issues.
We have travel pieces from Australia – one is a sailing adventure by Meredith Stephens and the other is about a trip to the Sand Dunes of Western Australia by Shernaz Wadia. Ravi Shankar has also taken us through winters from the Everest to New York with his globe-trotting non-fiction. Penny Wilkes takes us on a flight of creativity with beautiful photography.
We have a stellar layout of translations. Professor Fakrul Alam translated another poem by Jibananada Das and Borderless is honoured to publish it to the world for the first time. We have a translation from Korea and another of a Brahmo hymn, Aji Shubho Dine, by Tagore, which is sung often during festivals. The icing in our Tagore section in this issue is Ratnottama Sengupta’s translation of the Kobiguru’s ‘Two Birds’ (Khanchar Pakhi Chhilo) along with a musing which reflects on the perspectives of the two contemporaries, Tagore and Saratchandra. She has also translated a well-known Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Dutt wrote just before the advent of Tagore and had an interesting past which has been vividly depicted by Sunil Gangopadhyay in Those Days (Sei Somoy in Bengali), a novel that has been translated by Aruna Chakravarti. Bhaskar Parichha has given us a tribute on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Fakir Mohan Senapati, who, he claims, has the same standing in Odia literature as Tagore in Bengali or Premchand in Hindi.
Parichha has also reviewed Amit Ranjan’sJohn Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee. It looks like an interesting read where an immigrant Australian came supported Rani of Jhansi in India. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Selma Carvalho’s Sisterhood of Swans, again a story of migrants and their lives. The theme seems to echo among the books that have been reviewed this time, including Gracy Samjetsabam’s take on Anuradha Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years, a story about a German immigrant to India in the twentieth century. Meenakshi Malhotra’s review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885) highlights the views of a traveller rather than an immigrant as the lady did return home after a ten-year sojourn in Britain. As Meenakshi contends, “The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies…”
I was supposed to try my hand at a humorous editorial, but I realise that is tough when the ground is small. For humour, we need rolling acres where we can etch out each detail till it cannot be milked further for laughter. But I promise you I will keep trying to please the readers till one evolves to write like Ruskin Bond.
I would like to thank my fabulous team who even if not actively contributing to content are always at hand to advise and help. I would especially want to thank both Sohana Manzoor and Sybil for their fantastic artwork, which is as wonderful as their writings. I would like to give heartfelt thanks to all the contributors who have made this journal possible and each reader who comes back to our journal for more every month. Some of the pieces remain unmentioned adding to the mystery of the content, just like, Christmas gifts which need to be unwrapped and continue a reality even in January in some parts of the world – the Russians celebrate on January 7th and the Spaniards extend their festivities to January 6th.
Do take a look at this month’s edition for not just the stories mentioned here but for more.
I wish you all a wonderful New Year filled with laughter.
P. Ravi Shankar shuttles through winters from Everest to New York to Keralato Arubain the Caribbean
My friend and colleague was turning blue. The cold wind hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. We both had on all the warm clothes we could bring. I had on me a woollen blazer, a full sleeve sweater, my shirt, a half sleeve sweater, and underneath it a thermal. The freezing wind cut through these layers like the proverbial knife through butter. I was beginning to lose sensation on my nose and extremities. We were in freezing weather for less than a minute crossing the road to where the car was parked. We were inadequately dressed for a February morning in New York city. A nor’easter had hit a day before and the temperature was below minus 24 degrees Celsius. The news channels mentioned it was the coldest day in over two decades. Luckily for us, the car was heated, and the seats could also be warmed. We slowly thawed after the flash freeze.
We had flown from sunny Aruba (Dutch Caribbean) the previous day. Miami had perfect weather, but New York was freezing. Manhattan is full of skyscrapers. There is no direct rail line from the airport to Manhattan. New York has a decent public transport infrastructure but no airport metro. The city’s infrastructure does need some serious investment on upgrade and maintenance. The hotel room was warm and toasty. Outside, it was snowing. I saw the homeless on the freezing sidewalks trying to shelter from the bitter cold. Poverty amid opulent wealth.
I have mostly lived in warm places where your major concern is staying cool in the humid heat. In Kerala, in the south of India, a mundu or a lungi wrapped around the waist was the common male attire. The mercury in most areas never goes below 20 degrees Celsius. In New York during winter, the major concern was staying warm. Suddenly, common English expressions began to make sense. Warm welcome, warm greetings make sense when you are coming in from a freezing weather. When you are all hot and sweaty, the warmth seems unwelcome. Also, the European style of dressing was designed to minimise heat loss. Socks, hats, gloves, coats, tie, scarf. The buildings all had double doors to keep out the cold and keep in the warmth. Central heating kept the inside warm.
Keeping warm is expensive. I did some rough calculation and worked out that I would have to spend USD 1500 on winter clothing and over USD 250 monthly on heating bills. The tempo and rhythm of life changes in the northern latitudes with the change of seasons. Winters mean short days and time spent mostly indoors. The wily COVID virus is capitalising fully on this human behaviour. Summers translate to warm temperatures and long days. With global climate change, the highs in summer and the lows in winter are becoming extreme.
On another occasion I was strolling by the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago enjoying the early morning view. There were gardens and walking paths by the shoreline. Suddenly a cold wind blew across the lake from Canada. Despite all the winter clothing I donned, I was frozen. In cold weather, it is important to have a waterproof and wind proof outer shell. These are expensive however, and as occasional visitors to cold climates, we were unwilling to invest in such clothing. Upstate New York is even colder than New York city, and Rochester is said to be among the snowiest cities in America.
New York city is relatively well-prepared for snowy weather with double doors, central heating, winter clothing and snow ploughs. So is Chicago. Some of the southern cities in the US also experience snowy weather due to climate change and are not prepared for occasional winter storms. The plains of northern India experience cold weather from December to March. A thick layer of smog blankets the plains. Trains and planes are delayed, and driving could become hazardous. Air pollution rises and the air becomes dangerous to breathe. The sun succeeds in clearing the fog only after ten in the morning. Kathmandu in Nepal also experience fog and increased pollution during winter. Pokhara is a Nepalese city without fog in winters. I have often wondered why. With beautiful views of the Annapurna range, winter mornings in Pokhara are occasions to be savoured. In these places there is no central heating. Quilts are widely used. I enjoy the quilt which slowly warms you up using your own body heat.
In the mountains of Nepal, external heating devices are common. In the Everest region, there is the yak dung burning cast iron stove in dining rooms. In the Annapurna region north of Pokhara, wood burning stoves are common. In Thak Khola, charcoal burning stoves under the table are used. The bedrooms, however, are unheated and freezing. I had stayed in Lobuche in the Everest region, at around 4900 m for over a month for a research project and the nights were freezing. The water bottle used to freeze. If you wanted something to not freeze, you kept it beside you on the bed inside the quilt.
Watching snow fall is relaxing. The snowflakes glide down and blanket the trees and the ground in white. The cold reduces a bit. Rain is more noisy and violent and often accompanied by thunder and lightning. Walking on snow is difficult. Soon the snow melts during the day and refreezes again at night and turns into ice. Ice is extremely slippery and dangerous to walk on. Snow is a rare treat for persons from tropical climates. However, living in snow covered regions is challenging.
Near the equator the climate is constant throughout the year. The rains cool down the atmosphere, but the hours of sunlight do not vary much. Life is not influenced by the seasons. The further north or south you go from the equator, seasons begin to colour your life. Summer brings long days, sometimes extreme heat and more time spent outdoors. Winter brings longer nights, snow, and more time indoors. In both New York and Chicago, in winter, the trees were totally bare, bereft of leaves. I could not believe they were still alive. With the coming of spring the green twigs would sprout again and the cycle of life resumes. The writing of poets and authors from temperate countries about the dreariness of winter and the warmth of spring and summer began to make sense to me — a person from and living in the tropics.
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
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.)
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Juan Pablo Mobili was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and adopted by New York, a long time ago. His poems have appeared in First Literary Review-East, The Poetry Distillery, Anti-Heroin Chic, Red Planet Magazine; or are forthcoming from Spirit Fire Review, Mason Street, The Red Wheelbarrow Review, and The Journal of American Poetry. In addition, he co-wrote a chapbook of poems in collaboration with Madalasa Mobili, “Three Unknown Poets,” published by Seranam Press.
The other morning, walking at the edge of a local park, I caught sight of a beautiful red cardinal, the first bird I ever saw some 63 years ago.
Actually, to make that sentence accurate, I should probably have put either “first” or “ever saw” in quotation marks. After all, I was already 12 years old and, even as a city boy, I had seen plenty of birds. If nothing else, New York, where I grew up, is a city of pigeons (birds which, by the way, know nothing about “social distancing”).
Nonetheless, in a different sense, at age 12 I saw (was struck by, stunned by, awed by) that bright red bird. I was visiting a friend in Connecticut and, miraculously enough, though it was 1956, his parents had a bird identification book of some kind in their house. When I leafed through it, I came across the very bird I had seen, read about it, and on going home wrote a tiny essay about the experience for my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Casey (one of those inspirational figures you never forget, just as I’ll never forget that bird). I still have what I wrote stuffed away amid ancient papers somewhere in the top of my bedroom closet.
Six decades later, in this grim coronavirus March of 2020, with my city essentially in lockdown and myself in something like self-isolation, I have to admit that I feel a little embarrassed writing about that bird. In fact, I feel as if I should apologize for doing so. After all, who can doubt that we’re now in a Covid-19 world from hell, in a country being run (into the ground) by the president from hell, on the planet that he and his cronies are remarkably intent on burning to hell.
It was no mistake, for instance, that, when Donald Trump finally turned his mind to the coming pandemic (rather than denying it) as the economy he had been bragging about for the previous three years began to crash, one of the first groups he genuinely worried about didn’t include you or me or even his base. It was America’s fossil-fuel industry. As global transportation ground down amid coronavirus panic and a wild oil price war between the Saudis and the Russians, those companies were being clobbered. And so he quickly reached out to them with both empathy and money — promising to buy tons of extra crude oil for the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve (“We’re going to fill it right to the top”) — unavailable to so many other endangered Americans. At that moment he made it perfectly clear that, in an unfolding crisis of the first order, all of us remain in a world run by arsonists led by the president of the United States.
So, a cardinal? Really? That’s what I want to focus on in a world which, as it grows hotter by the year, will only be ever more susceptible to pandemics, not to speak of staggering fires, flooding, extreme storms, and god knows what else. Honestly, given a country of closed schools, self-isolating adults, and the sick and the dying, ona planet that seems to be cracking open, in a country which, until recently, couldn’t test as many people for Covid-19 in a couple of months as South Korea could in — yes, this is not a misprint — a day, where’s my sense of proportion?
A Secret Life
Still, if you can, bear with me for a moment, I think there’s a connection, even if anything but obvious, between our troubled world and that flaming bird I first saw so long ago. Let me start this way: believe it or not, birds were undoubtedly the greatest secret of my teenage years.
On spring weekends, my best friend and I would regularly head for Central Park, that magnificent patch of green at the center of Manhattan Island. That was the moment when the spectacular annual bird migration would be at its height and the park one of the few obvious places in a vast urban landscape for birds to alight. Sharing his uncle’s clunky old binoculars, my friend and I would wander alone there (having told no one, including our families, what we were doing).
We were on the lookout for exotic birds of every sort on their journeys north. Of course, for us then they were almost all exotic. There were brilliant scarlet tanagers with glossy black wings, chestnut-and-black orchard orioles (birds I wouldn’t see again for decades), as well as the more common, even more vivid Baltimore orioles. And of course there were all the warblers, those tiny, flitting, singing creatures of just about every color and design: American redstarts, blackburnians, black-and-whites, black-throated blues, blue-wingeds, chestnut-sideds, common yellowthroats, magnolias, prairies, palms, yellows.
And here was the secret key to our secret pastime: the old birders. Mind you, when I say “old,” I mean perhaps my age now or even significantly younger. They would, for instance, be sitting on benches by Belvedere Castle overlooking Belvedere Lake (in reality, a pond), watching those very birds. They were remarkably patient, not to say amused (or perhaps amazed) by the two teenaged boys so eager to watch with them and learn from them. They were generous with their binoculars, quick to identify birds we otherwise would never have known or perhaps even noticed, and happy to offer lessons from their bird books (and their own years of experience).
And, for me at least, those birds were indeed a wonder. They were genuine beauties of this planet and in some odd way my friend and I grasped that deeply. In fact, ever since we’ve grown up — though this year may prove to be the self-isolating exception — we’ve always tried to meet again in that park as May began for one more look at, one more moment immersed in, the deep and moving winged beauty of this planet of ours.
Of course, in the 1950s, all of this was our deepest secret for the most obvious of reasons (at least then). If you were a boy and admitted that you actually wanted to look at birds — I’m not sure the phrase “bird watch” was even in use at the time — god knows what your peers would have said about you. They would — we had no doubt of this — have simply drummed us out of the corps of boys. (That any of them might then have had their own set of secret fascinations would never, of course, have crossed our minds.) All you have to do to conjure up the mood of that moment is to imagine our president back then and the kind of mockery to which he would certainly have subjected boys who looked at birds!
Now, so many decades later, in another America in which the coronavirus has already reached pandemic proportions (potentially threatening staggering losses, especially among old folks like me), in which the stock market is already tanking, in which a great recession-cum-depression could be on the horizon, and our future FDR — that is, the president who helped us out of the last Great Depression in the 1930s — could an over-the-hill 77-year-old former vice president, it seems odd indeed to write about beautiful birds from another earthly moment. But maybe that’s the point.
Think about it this way: as last year ended, Science magazine reported that, in North America, there were three billion fewer birds than in 1970; in other words, almost one out of every three birds on this continent is now gone. As Carl Zimmer of the New York Timesput it, “The skies are emptying out.” Among them, warblers have taken one of the heaviest hits — there are an estimated 617 million fewer of them — as well as birds more generally that migrate up the East Coast (and so have a shot at landing in Central Park). Many are the causes, including habitat loss, pesticides, and even feral cats, but climate change is undoubtedly a factor as well. The authors of the Audubon Society’s most recent national report, for instance, suggest that, “if Earth continues to warm according to current trends — rising 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 — more than two-thirds of North America’s bird species will be vulnerable to extinction due to range loss.”
Extinction. Take that word in. They’ll be gone. No more. Fini.
That, by the way, is a global, not just a North American, reality, and such apocalyptic possibilities are hardly restricted to birds. Insects, for instance, are experiencing their own Armageddon and while — monarch butterflies (down 90% in the U.S. in the last 20 years) aside — we humans don’t tend to think of them as beauties, they are, among other things, key pollinators and crucial to food chains everywhere.
Or think about it this way: on Monday, March 8th, in my hometown, New York City, it was 68 degrees and that was nothing. After all, on February 19th, in Central Park, the temperature had hit a record-breaking 78 degrees in the heart of winter, not just the highest for that day on record but for the month of February, historically speaking. At the time, we were passing through a “winter” in which essentially no snow had fallen. And that should have surprised no one. After all, January had started the year with a bang globally as the hottest January on record, which again should have surprised no one, since the last five years have been the warmest ever recorded on this planet (ditto the last 10 years and 19 of the last 20 years). Oh, and 2020 already has a 50% chance of being the warmest year yet.
And by the way, soon after that 68-degree day, in our parks I began to notice the first crocuses and daffodils pushing through the soil and blooming. It was little short of remarkable and, in truth, would all have been beautiful, not to say glorious — the weather, the flowers, the sense of ease and comfort, the springiness of everything — if you didn’t know just what such “beauty” actually meant on a planet potentially heating to pandemic proportions.
How sad when even what’s still truly beautiful on this globe of ours increasingly tells a story that couldn’t be grimmer. So, think of this as my in-memoriam essay about the planet I thought I grew up on and the birds I thought I knew. Consider it a kind of epitaph-in-advance for a world that, if the rest of us can’t get ourselves together, if we can’t rid ourselves of arsonists like Donald Trump and his crew or those fossil-fueled CEOs that he loves so much, may all-too-soon seem unrecognizable.
In the meantime, consider me — semi-locked in my apartment — to be, in my own fashion, in mourning. Not for myself, mind you, though I’m almost 76 and my years on this planet are bound to be limited, but for those I’ll be leaving behind, my children and grandchildren in particular. This just wasn’t the world I ever wanted them to inherit.
In truth, in this coronaviral moment of ours, our world is being transformed before our eyes into one of missing beauties. Given my teenage years, I want to leave my grandchildren the pleasure of entering Central Park in some distant May, long after I’m gone, and still seeing the brilliant colors of a scarlet tanager. That’s my hope, despite everything.