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A Peaceful Response

Chitra Parayath

By Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Speak, your lips are free.
Speak, it is your own tongue.
Speak, it is your own body.
Speak, your life is still yours.

With these words, a powerful reading by six women, responding to the recent communal violence in Gujarat begins. Jointly organized by the South Asian American Arts and Theatre, the Wellesley Association for South Asian Cultures and Harvard South Asian Associations, the event was staged in Wellesley College on April 6.

And speak they do. The words this afternoon, however, are anything but peaceful as six young women narrate descriptions of the events, and also read from related work by South Asian authors. The stage is stark, dark, illuminated by a overhead lamps turned off and on. Shrouded in semi-darkness they solemnly speak of unspeakable horrors wrought on a people, a region, the world.

Jewett Hall, Wellesley College is fairly small and fills up quickly. As the women start speaking there is an eerie silence. Background sound effects play the mournful shehnai, the hubbub of mobs, guns firing, lone dogs baying in the dark. Barely audible gasps, sometimes, from the audience. In chilling detail they read from works about the recent violence, and about other communal catastrophes. Reading from Salman Rushdie's noted piece in the Guardian in March 2002, from Saramesh Basu's Aadab, from Harsh Mandars's article "Cry, Beloved Country", in the South Asian Citizen's web page (March 2002) describing the indescribable brutality that seems to have become common place in Gujurat, from Hasan Manto's play "Toba Tek Singh" about the lunacy of partition, punctuated by verses from Faiz Ahmed Faiz's powerful revolutionary poetry. They seek to strike a chord, maybe a discordant one, but it seems to have struck all hearts. Almost every one in the hall is moved, silent and lost. The imagery is often too disturbing, too distressing. It is obvious that these women feel deeply about the issues they speak of.

I talk to Xan Chacko, one of the readers, during intermission, and am moved by her passion. An undergraduate at Wellesley, Chacko has been in the area only since September 2001. "It is shocking and disturbing to hear and read of all this happening in India. Why are Indians here not speaking out against the atrocities?", she asks. "Other than mild statements condemning the violence, nothing is being said. We wanted to speak, to bring to everyone's notice how we felt. And how many Indians around the world must feel. Here in this country we all, Hindus, Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, we all get along so well, why is there so much division in our country?"

"Our group feels very strongly about these issues. During practice, eyes would well up and we would get all choked reading accounts of the violence. Women and children being burnt alive, of houses and neighborhoods being destroyed." Besides Xan, the readers included: Faatin Chaudhary, Tara Deshpande Tennebaum, Lina Ghosh, Gargi Mukherjee and Ms. Chatterjee. The reading, titled "Tears Apart" was conceived and directed by Sudipto Chatterjee.

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, 'cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.

After a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the Gujarat violence, the program continues with Grave Affairs, a play by John Mathew.

Krishnan Namboodiri Subrahmanian, a very believable Kuttappan Nair (cemetery-keeper), evokes appreciative chuckles from the audience with his portrayal of the common man caught between forces unleashed by hot headed religious fanatics. Rupak Bhattacharya makes a powerful impact on the audience as the fiery tempered butcher (a stereotyped) Ahmed Koya. Ably supporting these two are rest of the cast. Joseph Olapally as the Christian priest and Shankar Duraiswamy as the Mullah play the older, more pragmatic representatives of their faiths proficiently. Anna Kurien as the inquisitive girl who digs up the trouble, and Naresh Ramarajan as the Christian counterpart to the fiery Koya turn in good performances as well.

John Mathew's writing is sharp and crisp, and captures the cadences of Kerala speech very well. A creditable job, given that the dialogue is in English with the occasional Malayalam exclamations, Mathew produces an Arundhati Roy-like language masala. His direction keeps the action moving at a fast clip. Despite some weaknesses in plot development, the short play is a real treat in the end. We have a feeling we'll all be hearing a lot about the young talents on display here, in the days to come.

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Grave Affairs

John Mathew and friends

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