I am very skeptical about testimonial-based works of art, particularly performances. I haven’t seen or read many testimonial-based plays or ‘verbatim’ shows that haven’t left me squirming and cringing in their wake — usually because they are melodramatic, over-acted, full of unmitigated angst and hardly ever provide any real interpretation or analysis. Lately, I have been personally struggling with a larger conflict internally: that of ‘telling the story’. I too have worked with creating theatre out of real-life narratives, exposing hidden narratives or telling stories we feel otherwise go untold. I have seen several other performances in Sri Lanka which have had this specific aim; I have read books and seen photographic exhibitions particularly in relation to Sri Lanka’s disturbing recent past. When I read Frances Harrison’s book on the final phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, Still Counting the Dead, I came out of it angry and frustrated. It was just page after page of the graphic description of violence and carnage. I get it. People have endured things that you and I could not even imagine if we tried. But going into the first chapter of that book, I already knew the facts. I perhaps knew the facts better than the book pointed out. I had heard the stories from the mouths of the very people who had lived through these things. And so came the burning question: ‘What then?’. What then are you making of this? What then are you saying? What then are you telling me about the actual problem at hand? I have been unable to ‘see the point’ in what so many of us are attempting to do — with writing and with performing. What purpose does it actually serve in the lives of the people who are the subjects of our work? What good does it do for them? Further, what are we distilling, analysing, learning from it? When our work is not actually accessible to or being consumed by the people who don’t believe such narratives exist, aren’t we just preaching to the choir? When will we be able to move beyond the graphic descriptions of violence and carnage?
I went to last night’s performance of ‘Nirbhaya: The Play‘ in Bangalore. I was, as I said, skeptical. ‘Nirbhaya’ had been developed in response to the brutal gang-rape of a young woman in Delhi, in December 2012 (as we all listened and watched, nerves-wracked, the world over, she died 13 days later, aged 23). The show was developed and performed by four women (two actors, two not) who were victims of sexual violence, and another woman and man who are effectively there to play the young woman Nirbhaya and her male friend, but also contribute in smaller roles to the ensemble. The show comprised of a retelling of each of their own stories, and then finally, a take on what happened on that bus on that night when that young woman boarded it, never to get off it, as she must have well expected. I was skeptical because sexual violence, harassment and abuse is very, very complicated — not just to me, I know, but in general.
Predictably, as the show begins, it is over-acted, full of melodramatic angst and Vagina Monoluges-type ‘outrage’. From the first word spoken, the bar is set to hair-tearing hysteria: there is no progression to get there over the next couple of hours, when we open, we’re already there. The language of the writing is high-flown and never eases properly into the action, which is contrived and jarring. There is no real story-telling, only the telling, in fraught voices. The action is unbearably slow, attempting to be deliberate but just ending up heavy-handed, and has no dynamism or brevity. I find myself squirming and cringing even before I had expected, rolling my eyes in frustration and kicking myself a little bit each time for having come with any expectations. And then, the stories start.
The first woman tells us about being repeatedly sexually abused as a child by a close family friend, a man she called ‘Uncle’ and had trusted and looked up to. The second tells us about being molested and abused as a child by the ‘house-boy’ and about how all the adults in her life, her parents included, knew and did nothing. The third tells us about how she was a ‘dowry-wife’, and then was doused in kerosene and set on fire by her husband, who later escaped with his family, stealing from her their only child, who she has never seen since. Finally, the fourth woman, covered in beautiful tattoos, tells us about how rocked and rolled through life, giving all the nay-saying adults in her childhood and adolescence the middle-finger, doing things her way, losing her virginity young, experimenting with sex; people wanted her to be a girl, a lady, the proper way, and to them she said, “Fuck that shit”, and she went from Bombay to live in the USA for years, and then one Christmas Eve was gang-raped near a dumpster in Chicago. Each woman, through her own story, talks about growing up in India: getting groped on the bus every day, getting told you’re a slut for wearing short skirts, becoming a part of an unbreakable and interminable silence.
When the stories come pouring forth, an amazing thing happens: I am incredibly, powerfully moved, shaken, sobbing, angry. I come unraveled, I come undone. I want to scream, I want to run onstage, I want to run away and never look back. All the fatigue and exhaustion of my every day begins to crush me beneath its weight: every time I had ever had to think of what I should wear that morning, considering where I was going that day. Every night I had opted to stay over at someone’s house because I didn’t want go home alone late at night, though I desperately longed to be in my own bed. Every time I had been groped or wanked off on, on a bus. Every time I had feared a man was following me. Every time I had seen the way a taxi-driver kept looking at me in the rear-view mirror. Every time someone I knew and trusted had made me feel uncomfortable and scared. Every time I had kept my mouth shut, crossed the road, averted my gaze, taken off shorts and put on trousers before stepping out of the house, called a taxi, convinced a friend to go with me, left in a hurry, felt ashamed and guilty, asked myself if I had done something to invite it, had I in any way given out the wrong signals?, made light out of the situation. ‘The girl who died that day’ one of the women says,’was also me’. And she was also me.
It’s simple: human stories are a powerful thing, and ‘Nirbhaya’ rides on the strength of these stories, told to you by the women who have lived through the incidents. The stories become your stories, the stories of someone you know, and that inevitable connection you draw is the thing that makes this what it is. It is not particularly well-directed or written, it does not attempt any deeper analysis or reflection, but there is the simple truth that when people are baring their souls to you, you can’t look away. Especially not when you know: that could be you.
I’m not sure that ‘Nirbhaya’ is the radical social movement it is claiming to be, but it was clear to see it had a profound impact on anyone who watched it — young and old, man and woman, children, parents, friends, lovers. And while I have a serious problem with the term ‘Nirbhaya’ itself — ‘fearless’ — when I left the theatre last night, the fear had dissipated — not left me entirely, not vanished to be replaced by courage or strength, but just evaporated into thin air. I won’t live in fear, in constant suspicion, looking over my shoulder and mistrusting every man I meet. I won’t over-think every outfit. I will not cross the road to avoid him. I will not avert my gaze. I won’t cover up my body just because it makes someone else more comfortable or because maybe, just maybe I will get stared at less; it’s just my body, you can deal with it.
When will we be able to move beyond the graphic descriptions of violence and carnage? When will we start to truly reflect, examine, reveal? Right now, we’re just reeling, unable to see beyond the confusion and anger, the violence and carnage. But maybe anger and confusion, the remembrance of violence and carnage, has its place too, in moving on, in moving forward.