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How safe was my valley
Two young playwrights recreate the landscape of strife-torn Kashmir on the Delhi stage.
A clay pot sits on a slow fire that cooks the family meal. But one never sees Zooni eat with her daughters, the only family members left in the house. For, the story is not one of home and hearth. And a few empty bottles of mineral water that hang from a barbed wire give away the violent subtext of a play that unravels within the wooden arches of cozy domesticity.
Arshad Mushtaq's Aalav (The Calling ), staged in Delhi as part of the National School of Drama's (NSD) 15th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, is the narrative of loss. An adaptation of John Millington Synge's one-act tragedy, Riders to the Sea, the play borrows from the Irish original the bare bones of the story and the grief of a people, often intellectualised and barely understood in the human rights discourse that describes them as "victims of violence". "Every family I know has lost someone they love - a father, a young brother - in the war for azaadi. I'm trying to bring their tragedies into the big city, so that we make an effort to feel them, " says the director, who formed the group Theatre for Kashmir in 2011.
While Aalav is the story of Zooni, who has lost her husband and two sons to the sea, and fears that her surviving sons will meet a similar fate, it is also the dramatisation of a dark foreboding that looms over all Kashmiri families. The play delves into the narrative of women in the conflict-riddled valley whose fear of losing a loved one resonates in the incessant gunfire and bombings. "Bunkers have become landmarks in neighbourhoods, " says Mushtaq. "And peace is only a cosmetic change. Because it's easy to claim that peace has returned to the valley when one is constantly living under curfew. "
A traumatised landscape also finds its way into the imagery of the play. Like a tree with newspapers hanging from its branches instead of leaves. Emblematic of lives stripped bare of beauty, that are merely fodder for news, the tree is silent witness to Zooni's tragedy - a bundle of clothes is brought to her, confirming the death of another son. Fittingly, the lanterns that light her home do not shine brightly enough and the photo frames are empty - perhaps in anticipation of photographs of the deceased that will soon fill them.
Everyday life and the threat of violence it brings in its wake form the seething core of every play that Mushtaq has written or adapted. In 2004, while he was working on Su Yee, an adaptation of Waiting for Godot, he witnessed a young boy being dragged out of an army vehicle. "They banged his head on a poster that hung from a pole, " recalls the director. "And the poster dripped with blood. " The image stayed with him and was recreated for Su Yee, which had an electric pole on the stage, with a blood-soaked phiran fluttering from it.
Images of a ravaged Kashmir also articulate a yearning for peace in another performance that is part of the theatre festival's offering of plays. Mohammad Muzamil Hayat Bhawani's The Country Without a Post Office, an NSD diploma production, is an adaptation of a poem written by Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali. A patchwork of images (and a slick multimedia presentation ) attempt to capture a decade of militancy in the valley. Unopened letters are strewn across the stage and waft onto it during the performance, in a rendition of the poet's words: "His fingerprints cancel blank stamps in that archive for letters with doomed addresses, each house buried or empty. Empty? Because so many fled, ran away..."
The play draws its central conceit - piles of unopened letters - from a few months in the valley when no mail was delivered and the post office was inundated with letters. It does, however, veer away from the poetic narrative to tell the tale of a youthful innocence decapitated by insurgency.
The director recreates his own idyllic childhood in a small tehsil called Doru. "We used to come home from school, rush through homework, have a cup of tea and run out, " he recalls. In the play, school children sing a popular nazm by Urdu poet Allama Iqbal: Lab pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri, Zindagi shamma ki surat ho khudaya meri, (A prayer reaches my lips, as my deep wish, O Khuda, let my life shine brightly like a flame. ) This is followed by an equally sincere rendition of the Indian National Anthem. A highly improbable addition, even for an audience willing to suspend its disbelief for the length of the play, but the director insists, "There was a time when we used to sing the anthem in our morning assemblies. "
A time long gone, as the icy blue landscape is soon tinged with scarlet, and students turn to militancy. And like Aalav, the narrative of The Country Without a Post Office is aflame with the director's own experiences of life in the valley. A scene in the play, in which a student receives a letter inviting him for an interview in the big city, is autobiographical. The student, who can't read Hindi, as all the Kashmiri Pandits have fled from the valley and there are no Hindi teachers left in the local schools, approaches a soldier, stationed with a gun in a nearby bunker. The young director recalls receiving a letter from NSD, requesting him to rehearse a set of dialogues in preparation for his admission test at the school: "I couldn't read the letter. But there was an army camp nearby. So I went there and sat down with a fauji who rehearsed the dialogues with me. "
A deep melancholy pervades the narrative of both plays - for those who died, for those who had to run away and for those who chose to kill. But for those who call themselves Kashmiri, stories of a beloved homeland tumble out with the ardour of one who has lived to tell the tale.
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