Sunday, June 10, 2012

Making of a Play - A tyrst with destiny

Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi ji were sitting and discussing on a mattress in the living room. Gandhi was spinning on his charkha, the spinning wheel.

I thought I was hallucinating. I was sitting in the corner of the living room of a person that I had never met before. More precisely, at that time, I didn't know whose house was it. It was evening when I had arrived in Washington DC and the actors were already rehearsing.

I knew that it was only a play. Yet, for some moments, I had been transported to a room in India, where Gandhi and Jawaharlal must have sat together more than eighty years ago.

That morning, I had left home in Bologna (Italy), more than 15 hours earlier. From the Dulles international airport, we had come straight to the rehearsal. The play is called "A tryst with destiny". It is about the people involved in events leading to independence and partition of India. It is written and directed by my younger sister, and I had gone to US especially to watch it.

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I was intrigued by Jinnah. The suave, impassioned man played with raw intensity by Subhojit during the rehearsal. Why had he joined the All India Muslim League, when he was a member of congress party? At that time, in 1913, his views were nationalist and about Hindu-Muslim unity? Few years later he had even married a Parsi girl.

A Tryst with Destiny, a play by Amita Deepak

Suddenly I remembered the time when Altaf Tyrewala had come to a literary meeting in Turin, a couple of years ago. Altaf, a writer from Mumbai, didn't see himself in religious terms, but during the meeting he was presented as the "Muslim writer" by the organisers. Often others decide to underline our religious identities, for whatever reasons. When it happens again and again, perhaps it changes the way we look at ourselves?

Had something like that happened to Jinnah? Or, was it a quest for power, an understanding that "minority politics" could give him greater role? Or a combination of both?

I don't know much about Jinnah. He was not a welcome figure in our family discussions, because of the friends, lands and homes they had been forced to leave in Pakistan during partition.

"Subodh, how does it feel to play Jinnah?" I had asked Subhojit.

Everybody calls him Subodh. He is a research scientist, a Bengali from Mumbai, with music as his passion.

"Actually Amita wanted someone older to play Jinnah", Subhojit smiled, "but she couldn't find someone who was old and slim, and I got lucky that way. Initially it was a big challenge. I knew about Gandhi and Nehru, but I had no clue about Jinnah. In India, we learned that Jinnah was president of Muslim League and that he wanted Pakistan, but we didn't really study about him as a person. So to prepare for this role, I read a lot about him."

"By that time, we had started doing the play but I was not really feeling the role. Then I talked with my Pakistani friends to understand how they saw him. That changed how I saw him! When I could put myself in their shoes and see him from their eyes, it changed my understanding. After that, when I spoke my dialogues and I spoke about Muslims, I changed 'the Muslims' to 'us Muslims'. It became 'us', 'we' and 'I', then I felt the character", he continued.

***
Manoj Singh, a shy and gentle looking person, has a triple role in the play - he plays Motilal, Baba Saheb Ambedkar and Jinnah's Hindu servant. It was his scene as Ambedkar, where he asks Gandhi ji to break the fast, that spiked my interest.

Dalit leaders did not like the word "harijan" that Gandhi ji had proposed for them. How did Ambedkar feel about the word "harijan", I suddenly wondered.

Gandhi ji was sitting on the mattress in the centre of the room, spinning his charkha while Ambedkar was pacing around. I could understand Gandhi's view when he said "Hinduism has a remedy for this evil of untouchability. Hinduism can reform itself, caste system is not about that, Hinduism is an open religion and can transform....". That is the way we often think.

However, Ambedkar was impatient and scathing, "Please don’t lecture me on the glory of Hinduism . You were not born an untouchable in this country. You don’t understand what it is to live life as an untouchable."

Natwar Gandhi, who played Gandhi, imbued him with an air of vulnerability and disarming innocence, "That is why I pray that I am born as an untouchable in my next life."

"No Gandhi ji, we don’t want this problem going into our next lives. We need to end it in our present life times. I am here to discuss the issue of separate electorates for untouchables as agreed by the British", Manoj's Ambedkar was resigned and a little resentful, "I want you to end the fast. This is emotional and political blackmail on your part. If you die, caste Hindus will kill every untouchable in this country, the very people you consider so dear, your harijans."

What word did Baba Saheb use in his head when he thought about his fellow persons from the "low" castes? Harijan? Untouchables in English or Acchuts in Hindi or did he use a Marathi term?

During my time in the school, our history books in India talked about kings and queens of England but they didn't explain the different roles and positions of persons involved in our freedom struggle. Today it is much worse in India. Today talking about our history is treated like some dangerous perversion that must struggle continuously with political and popular censorships!

A Tryst with Destiny, a play by Amita Deepak

***

Two hours before the show was supposed to start, all preparations were done and the actors went to the green rooms to get ready.

Looking at persons putting on their costumes and getting their make up done was equally fascinating. Deepti Rattan, the production in charge, ran around doing hundred things.

"During my growing up years, I had no knowledge about plays and theater", Deepti explained, "but when I was in college, I met Sushil during a play competition. He was very involved in theater. We started going out together and I became interested in plays." After coming to USA, for many years, Sushil had become busy in his work as a gastroentrologist, and they were not very active in theater. Then one year ago, they had shifted home from Philadelphia and theater had come back into their lives.

Rita was doing the make-up. Putting the foundation and the eyeliners. Accentuating features so that actors' expressions were easier to make out for the audience. Even if Natwar is not thin like Gandhi ji was, still he did look very much like Gandhi ji. Next to him, Subhojit traced dark lines on his neck and face. It did make his face look thinner and more like Jinnah's.

A Tryst with Destiny, a play by Amita Deepak

Deepti, Reshma and Sangeeta struggled with Malviya's turban, wrapping and unwrapping it, many times before finding the turn that satisfied him.

Manoj has his hairs dusted with white and a white moustache, transformed into Motilal Nehru. But it was Krish who really surprised me. He looked so much like Jawaharlal Nehru!

A Tryst with Destiny, a play by Amita Deepak

***

Then it was the time for me to take my seat among the spectators. The theater quickly filled up. The theater staff was amazed. They had not had a houseful like this for some time. Among the audience there was the mayor of DC, who had come especially for Natwar, playing Gandhi.

Scenes of the play are mostly short pieces, presenting a collage of events, passing from one event to another, from one set of persons to others, with three central characters - Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah. In the play, the historical video clips connect the scenes and the point where a video clip stops, is the starting point of the next scene.

During the interval, people were a little cautious and guarded with their comments. There had been some good moments in the play, with occasional exchanges eliciting laughter. However, I think that, the first half of the play had not touched any deep emotions in the audience.

The second half of the play had much more life and passion. Almost from the first scene I could sense the excitement and engagement of the audience around me. The concluding moments of the play with the anger and frustration of Jinnah asking for a separate homeland for the Muslims, the shouting and crying Nehru justifying his decision to accept the partition of India and passionate plea of Azad for not dividing India, were truly magical.

During the rehearsal the evening before, this part had not been very convincing. During the play, Sushil as Azad, brought a lump to my throat with his helpless anger, "And what is the hurry for freedom, this divided freedom? Who decided we should be free on 15th August 1947 anyway? Mr. Radcliffe, Mountbatten? And who agreed? You? Sardar Patel on behalf of Congress? Gandhi ji?"

It was a crescendo. The last scene with parts of independence speeches made by Jinnah and Nehru, and with the wonderful voice of Sajeev singing "Vaishnav Jan to", had the audience give a rousing applause for the play.

The evening had concluded with a discussion that saw two South Asia experts, Teresita C. Schaffer and Walter Anderson, sharing their views about the play and that period of history. Both of them agreed that the play had caught the spirit of those troubled times and presented the events and persons in their complexity, rather than simplifying them to give facile answers about the partition of India and Pakistan.

A Tryst with Destiny, a play by Amita Deepak

***

Even after more than 60 years, the events around the end of the British India are able to provoke heated debates and anguished discussions. Today, often these discussions take place without a real knowledge of pre-independence era and its events. Rather, these discussions are shaped by deformed versions of our histories taught in the school books and by the events of the past decades such as the wars between India and Pakistan along with nationalistic jingoism.

During the discussions after the play, Altaf Kabeer, had raised up the issue of representations of the partition events by Indians exclusively in tragic terms with use of words like holocaust while for persons like him, it is an event linked to the birth of his country, Pakistan.

I think that Kabeer is right. It does not matter, how objective and neutral we try to be in these discussions. In the end, for most Indians, this part of our history is about death and suffering of so many, coupled with mutilation of our country. On the other hand, across the border, the stories of death and suffering are a means to a noble end, they are linked to birth of their country. This basic difference in the perspectives cannot be erased.

The morning after the play, I and Amita were walking back from a visit to the Potomac falls, when we were stopped by a young woman. She was Shabnam and she had been at the play with her father. They were from Pakistan. "When we had gone to the play, we didn't know what to expect but actually the play presented the different sides in a balanced way. I had not much idea about the events that had led to the birth of Pakistan, so it was learning for me. My father also appreciated the play", she had said.

I think that was great praise for "A tryst with destiny", that a play could give us a greater understanding about a moment of our history.

In the introductory booklet prepared for the play, Amita had explained, "As a psychiatrist, I help people make sense of their history and how it impacts their present. I deeply believe that we as humans carry not only our individual history but also our social, political and cultural histories, the history of our communities and nationalities in us."

The play was a way to look back with sympathy and understanding. Without our minds and eyes clouded by mists of anger. If we can understand our past, may be we can build a better future for us.

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A more extended version of this article is available on Kalpana.it.

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