I noticed my mother had started to cry softly when we went to see Gurinder Chadha’s Partition era film The Viceroy’s House (2017). “Always, there is violence against women’s bodies,” she said, as if trying to make sense of the senseless. A line from the poetry of Punjabi poet Amrita Preetam came to her:
Ik roi si thee Punjab di, tun likh likh maare vain,
Aj lakhan dheean rondian tainu Waris Shah nu kahen.
Once a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote on her behalf
Today millions of daughter are crying out to you, Waris Shah!
Today, as I waited for The Parting to begin, I thumbed through the brochure: “Telling the history of the people, and not of the politicians: this was our mantra for the play… Our stories ask questions that lie at the fault lines of Partition: Why did this happen? How did we turn on our neighbors? Can this ever happen again? Today, with Partition a forgotten memory for most people, such questions remain unasked and unanswered at our peril.”
The story that spoke to me most directly was The Tale of Veerji and Kuljot. Anurag Wadehra’s story questions the notions of honor and sacrifice during the Partition. This notion of honor killings still exists in cases of sati and recent filmic representations of jauhar in Bollywood.
Limb Fitter Ghulam Ali of the British army was another example of the life wasted trying to navigate the bureaucratic maze of the enemy nations. Chinmaya Vaidya’s pleading and supplicatory body language in the face of bureaucratic callousness was deeply moving.
The show stealer, as expected, was the inimitable Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, who is surely a treasure of the bay area. Shaikh seems to inspire something akin to reverence among students and colleagues. Her Zainab is infused with deep pathos, a Muslim woman for whom the Abducted Persons Recovery & Restoration Bill created fresh heartache. Her dazzling kathak performances took me back to her role of Mehrunissa in The Twentieth Wife. The stories of heart connections across enemy lines are especially sharp. Boota is played competently by Chanpreet Singh, whose previous role as Toba Tek Singh in the play of the same name required him to utter gibberish in Manto’s satire to pillory the madness of post-Partition.
How does one create community? A community is an idea, a sense of connection. Going to Hammer theater on Friday, I found some in the Bay Area’s close-knit theater community. It is surely a credit to Vinita Sud Belani of enActe Theater, that so many organizations came together in this multi-starrer event. It’s like the ensemble casts of 1970s Bollywood. Or like Cheers, a place where everyone knows your name.
There, in one corner of the stage, was Ranjita Chakravarty, lending gravitas and strong acting to her sutradhar role of Mamta with the superbly acted young Asha. Chakravarty’s weighty role had the same gravitas of a wise woman who sees the flaws of the world rather too clearly, similar to one she played in Sujit Saraf’s Vrindaavan some years ago.
Over there, Ravi Chopra, a retired General and a Partition survivor, a familiar face and a Jollywood dancer.
And is that Mira Kapoor Wadehra, all smiles after her kathak performance? Last summer, she was collecting books to send to Africa. Her parents beam as they pose with her for pictures. As citizen historians for the Partition Archives, Anurag Wadehra and Reena Kapoor have been documenting the answer to the following question for several years: What happened to people during the Partition? I had tagged along with Reena for an interview, and listened to a story by a chatty octagenarian who related tales of lives disrupted during mass migrations. And years before that, Borrowed Fire, a slow, meditative film by Anurag Wadehra and Salil Singh about the decline of shadow puppets in Kerela had left me with the sense of loss of authentic artisanal and folk culture traditions even before the Age of Social Media arrived in full force.
I continued to see people I knew. There was Dilip Ratnam, who had always cracked me up whenever we met during piano recitals. He pointed out how our kids paused to glance back and make sure that the parents were clapping. So to see him playing a bumbling Maharashtra police cop in Muavzay, based on Bhisham Sahni’s satire was like sharing the same laughs with just more people. Muavzay was directed by Harish Agastya and was about religious riots in India that have recurred with numbing regularity, and again the satire was aimed at the religious divides and bearing witness to untold suffering and atrocities.
Yes, this is what community feels like. There has been a collective trauma to this community, and the only reason to bring up old wounds is so we can heal.
Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.