THE MANY COSTS OF CONFLICT
There are certain conversations that usually remain unresolved, specially when dealing with the kind of polarities that make up the brutal narrative of latter-day Kashmir. The answers are always obfuscated. There is that imminent choosing of sides that is considered to be in order. This is something that a new play appears to carefully sidestep (at first), dealing instead with the emotional toll of living in a war-zone—where war is waged in the name of peacekeeping—and what we have all lost in the process, if indeed there can be a ‘we’, either in terms of a nation, or in kinship of a universal kind. Abhishek Majumdar’s play The Djinns of Eidgah, which opened in Mumbai as part of the ongoing Writer’s Bloc Festival, delves into the human condition masterfully, and his powerful writing is beautifully realised on stage by its director, Richard Twyman.
Rajit Kapur (right) and Ali Fazal play father and son
The skilled actor, Rajit Kapur, is at hand as the play’s conscience-keeper, and draws out the nuances of each role he is called upon to inhabit as the conflicted protagonist, Dr Beg. At first, he is the dispassionate observer of the political climate who believes in dialogue with ‘the Indians’, and whose efforts at mediation are almost like a crossing of picket lines, where the picket could very well be a procession of stone-pelting azaadi demonstrators (like those who burst into national prominence in 2010 with a flurry of newspaper headlines and viral videos). Later he is the child psychiatrist with a personal stake in the case of the young Kashmiri girl, Ashrafi (portrayed persuasively by Faezeh Jalali), whose arrested development may have been brought about by the post-traumatic stress suffered when she witnesses the violent death of her father in an ambush she has no real memory of. As he is indelibly drawn into her piquant world, Mr Kapur affects a journey of heart-rending catharsis, given that the doctor himself has lost his son to militancy, and every day is spent in unspoken penance because he feels somehow complicit in his son’s fate.
When the doctor assumes the mantle of a raconteur, whether in his dealings with Ashrafi or in his memories of his son Junaid (played with tender warmth by Ali Fazal), it allows the director to stage some of the play’s more stirring set-pieces. The play effectively draws upon the legend of Amir Hamza, a valiant heroic figure from a medieval-era Islamic epic, who delivers his people from the forces of oppression. In the 90s, when Kashmir was in the throes of full-blown militancy, the rhetoric of a freedom struggle had started rearing its head. Although Amir Hamza may have been a compelling paragon to emulate, Junaid, the militant, is an anti-hero more than anything, and meets a grisly end. In his later visitations to his father as a ghost, he is an in-between soul—a djinn—with half his face painted like a living corpse, the other half still redolent of a spirited young man, reveling in a playful dastan-goi session with his father. It is a duality that is a chilling reminder of a generation lost to conflict.
Ashrafi and her brother Bilal, are also enraptured by the same fantasies, applying the fables to their own lives just as much. However, as children born into the conflict, the magical tales do not necessarily spur them into a burst of idealism, and instead work as escapist yarn that numbs the violence that is such a habitual part of their lives. Ashrafi clings on to a rag-doll she calls Hafiz, almost like it were an imaginary friend serving time as her own special djinn, whispering secrets into her ears. In another evocative scene, Dr Beg brings Ashrafi an assortment of toys, that they spread out on a giant bed-sheet, and they play a game in which each article stands in for things they hold dear. It is almost as if they are looking down upon a miniature world from atop a magic carpet. The play’s economy of expression, and it’s pared-down use of borrowed fantasy makes for compelling viewing.
Karan Pandit as Bilal takes to stone-pelting in a pivotal scene
Ms Jalali is more a savant than a teenager moored in perpetual preadolescence, and allows her character a wryness of delivery that supplements the politics of the piece, and captures well the gumption of her generation. Her entreating eyes are a kind of pivot to the proceedings, as if every aspect of the unfolding tale hinges upon her stare—what she sees, what she has seen, and what those eyes seem to understand. The actor is an indelible presence on stage, very rarely cloying, and is ably supported by Karan Pandit, who plays Bilal, a budding football player eager to be spotted by a talent scout at a football trial, that could be a ticket to a football club in South America (a premise shared with Ashvin Kumar’s 2010 documentary, Inshallah Football). Bilal is looking to escape but he secretly fears he may be tied down forever to the destiny of his land, and this is borne out by the play’s denouement. A pair of football shoes, that he shares with another team player, sets up the play’s most harrowing scene, in which the siblings decide to search for them (in the dead of night) in a warehouse that provides sanctuary to the bodies of protestors who have been decimated in an army action, imagined or otherwise.
The play is strongly visual (like pages from a graphic novel), and the set design, although sparse, aids this vividness. The stage is sectioned by a curtain of hanging threads, behind which characters peer into the distance, or remember memories, dreams or surreal fantasies. The floor of the stage is strewn with frosted cellophane cut into small pieces, which could be flakes of snow, and when the wailing of the wind (in what is an effective use of sound) lets in a cold draught of air as it were, we get a sense of the valley’s permanent winter (in both real and figurative terms). Or they could be shards of glass like the political minefield the valley is, or, caught in the cold bluish light, the floor reminds us of the fleece of Amir Hamza’s mystical steed, and the flights of fancy that make for such an absorbing parallel narrative. Whether in the approaching of a procession, that in its din and churning, carries subversion under its cloak, and in the wafting strains of an azaan (in stereo sound, regrettably) and yet again, in the remonstrations of imagined ulemas in their pulpits in a giant open-air mosque, or the eidgah, wherein lie the djinns of Kashmir, the sound complements the tone and texture of the play.
A stone-pelter is the enduring iconic image of recent events in Kashmir
What takes away from it, is that The Djinns of Eidgah deals with those stories from the valley that appear to be the most easily translatable. A stone-pelter is the iconic image thrown up by recent events, and a nurse at Dr Beg’s clinic (an effective Meher Acharia-Dar) attests to the power and facile pride afforded by a stone in her hand, poised to a heroic trajectory. The crest of the state’s oppression is borne by an ignorant and radical Hindu soldier (Neil Bhoopalam in good form) in whose depiction are the only broad strokes employed, not any differently from the ‘othering’ of a certain kind of India that several plays in the festival have indulged in.
This particular production aspires to an international run, perhaps. It is a play that covers, despite the specificity of its location, some cross-cultural domain, helmed by a director who self-confessedly knew little of the Kashmir conflict before taking the project up, and structures it like any well-meaning British production in which Palestine, or Iraq, or Lebanon or Kashmir can all be treated, artistically, in a similar vein. Playing to a bourgeois audience in a festival partial to English language theatre, the only thing betrayed is a mindset that seems to kowtow to a liberal agenda more than anything, where freedom is a wonderful notion to be played with. Not conciliation or a political process, not rebuilding or succor but breaking away.
The players have been correctly identified but whether this veritable epic covers the ground that is afforded by its tantalizing premise remains a moot question. Ultimately it is a triumph that doesn’t upend the political arguments (maybe those answers aren’t so easily forthcoming nor lend themselves to visceral theatre) but still brings us heartbreakingly close to the enduring human costs. That is the prerogative of the writer, of course. We can still watch the play for what it is and come away chastened. Some of us will think about the giant unsettled simmering cauldron that Kashmir is. For its beauty, for its overarching melancholia, for the astuteness of its rhetoric, this production is one of the best plays of recent times.✑
Clockwise from top left:
Poster for Rage Productions’ The Djinns of Eidgah | Poster for Ashvin Kumar’s Inshallah Football | A scene from the film, Inshallah Football, with young footballer Basharat Baba (right) | A dastan-goi session with Mahmood Farooqui (right) & Danish Husain | Book cover for Amir Hamza by mrizvi | Playwright Abhishek Majumdar
This review was originally featured in the Mumbai Theatre Guide