RIZWAN, a play produced and directed by Syed Jamil Ahmed was publicly shown at Shilpakala Academy from the 2nd to 10th September 2017. It uses as its plot the story of a narrative poem by the American-Kashmiri poet Aga Shahid Ali, ‘The Country without a Post Office’ (1997). The setting is war-torn Kashmir which rebelled against Indian rule. In 1990 alone, hundreds of gruesome deaths, mass rapes and arson took place. By reason of the political turmoil that year, no mail arrived in Kashmir for seven months, which is the basis for the title of the poem after which the play has been adapted. The basic story-line revolves around an aristocratic family of Kashmir: a grandfather, his son and daughter-in-law and their three children, Fatema, Farhad and Rizwan, of whom Rizwan is the youngest and about ten years younger to Fatema.
The main protagonists of the story are the brother and sister, Rizwan and Fatema. They have a powerful soul connection by reason of which they meet each other many times, even in the after-life. Indeed the soul connection suggests an unusual and rare degree of psychological intimacy, which makes Fatema cry out to Rizwan after her own death, ‘If you had been mine, totally, what would have been impossible on Earth?’
The main narrator is Fatema, or her soul, after she has departed for the hereafter. She tells the story of the family: the difficult labour of her mother at the time of Rizwan’s birth, and how, because he took so much time coming from paradise to the earth, the paternal grandfather chose to name him Rizwan, by the name of the spirit who guards the gates of paradise. There was joyful excitement at the time of Rizwan’s birth, and the grandfather was examining the abundant clusters of flowers in his garden, thinking how to name the child; however, Rizwan’s father was killed the same winter afternoon that the baby was born, when a stray bullet hit him in the eye through the open window of a moving train, as he was journeying home to see the new-born, consequently, he never saw his child. Fatema was a ten year old child when Rizwan was born, but when she grew into a young woman, a soldier from the invading army raped her, and then razed her with bullets, the fact of her rape was told by Fatema to her brother Rizwan and her father after she dies. Rizwan grows up into a lusty, vigorous young man who can equally ride on earth, fly in the air and swim in the sea, consequently he is sometimes referred to as the King; in the end, it is only his ageing grandfather who is left alive, and his mother. When these too die, Rizwan is left very alone, he hides their bodies in the house and refuses to bury them, as a result of which members of law enforcement think Rizwan has killed these members of his family. Rizwan is therefore taken away, tortured and then killed. Thus the story of this family terminates, with three members the family suffering unnatural death.
The producer and director of the play adapt the story in a manner as to make it universally applicable, while keeping the storyline intact. Through the occasional use of the Chakma language there is reference to the people’s resistance against military invasion and settler encroachment in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The struggle of the people of Kashmir also reminds the Bangladesh audience of the liberation war that took place in the not too distant past.
Improvisation, technique, props and production style
THE story is told in a non-linear, cyclical form. The scene opens with the ghost-like march of disembodied souls, and it ends in the same manner. Even though there is a single narrator, Fatema, events and occurrences in the story only come up to the surface here and there, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that must be assembled only after connecting them together. Thus in Scene II, Rizwan is suffering the agonies of a being in torture when Fatema comes to comfort him, it is only subsequently that we realise that both are disembodied souls, and that Rizwan is suffering the pangs of conscience in not having been able to protect a beloved sister from being violated and killed by the invader. The facilities offered by the Experimental Hall of Shilpakala Academy are taken full advantage of: the scenes shift between three dimensions, the worldly dimension of material reality at eye level; the upper dimension where disembodied souls meet, shown through the playing out of scenes by characters suspended on platforms above eye-level; and the nether dimension of the lake through which the boat comes to ferry the soul to the other side after it has departed from the world.
The audience participates thoroughly in the entire curtain-less and exposed schemata where living corpses pass within feet and inches and sound and fog envelop the watchers. One scene changes into another seamlessly and effortlessly, with the help of light and sound and the use of very different costumes and behaviour exhibited by the same characters that entirely change the environment, and the use of different planes indicates differing levels of existence. Thus for example, Scene II where the souls of the brother and sister meet in agony in the upper regions is a total contrast to Scene III, when members of the protagonists’ family are running about in a garden smelling flowers and expecting the little baby to come any moment. That moment too is fraught with tension, but this tension is very different from the unworldly tension of the former scene. Colourful costumes and flowers, shouts of tense excitement and expectation, and the very different white light contribute to the sharpness of the contrast of the two different realities. The use of suspended platforms, the use of regular and rope ladders by male and female actors equally, and the high degree of activity and physical suppleness demanded by most of the scenes indicate the training of the producer/director in Western theatre and its influence on the play, it can be said that in this sense at least ‘Rizwan’ marks a departure from theatre in its existing form in Bangladesh.
Use of props and innovative techniques
VARIOUS props and innovative techniques are used to convey certain meanings. Rag dolls that indicate the playthings of children like Fatema and her other playmates when they are joyfully running about and playing in the garden of the house in Scene III, are used once again in Scene XII, to indicate the attachment to our close ones and to the markers of worldly existence that we hold on to, and that we are unwilling to let go of, even in death. Thus even when all members of his family are dead, Rizwan holds onto them, and to the dolls, a remarkable scene that indicates his effort to hold onto the material things that gave meaning to his existence on earth. Rope ladders are used for practical purposes, but also to indicate the movement of characters between the dimensions.
The enormity of important incidents in the life of the characters is emphasised by the technique of repetition and relevant imagery, invoked orally and visually, two prominent examples of which are the death of Rizwan’s father by a stray bullet and the rape and murder of Fatema.
Thus in Scene VI, coolies are seen hustling and bustling about, shouting for work or running about with workloads. Even without a single engine visible, clearly this is a railway station. Then Fatema, from another dimension, tells the story of how her dear father died. Fatema narrates that a stray bullet from the open window of the train hit his eye, he thought it was a speck of dust and tried to brush it off with the back of his hand, so light was the sensation in the first nanosecond. But it was a bullet that passed through the back of his dead, and he was dead without much realisation or sensation. Death is therefore casual and life is cheap. The way Fatema narrates the incident, saying how the speck of dust turned an entire man to dust, helps to create a sharp contrast between the apparent casualness of the stray bullet coming in through the window and its tremendous significance in actuality in the lives of all characters who lost the beloved head of their family.
The rape of Fatema is depicted with very strong imagery suggestive of the trauma of the incident. Three females are seen to bend on the floor on hands and feet, forming a bridge with their backs. Thereafter three adult men pass through the tunnel formed by their bodies, quickly passing through to the other side. This is a visualisation of the act of penetration, and this performance is repeated a few times to show the continuing memory of the trauma in the mind of Fatema, even when she passes to soul level.
The use of the trio in the play
THE play uses the technique of the trio, or three actors representing the same character in the same act, to create effect. Thus the trio is used when three mothers are seen carrying three new-born babies, viz Rizwan. The scene depicting the rape of Fatema is truly effective where three men go through three women: one can almost palpably feel the pain in the act of penetration! The trio is used more expansively and creatively in Scene X, when the time has come for the grandfather to leave this world. Here, three old men are seen conversing with each other, arguing with each other and ridiculing each other to prove the correctness of their own viewpoint. Thus three different mindsets or soul-aspects of the character are used to show the conflict in the mind of the old man and his inner struggle over his attachment to this world and Rizwan.
Continuous engagement with the after-life reality
IN A context where sudden death and loss is the norm, it is difficult to base one’s consciousness too much on the living alone, since that line of existence is broken in too many places. In order to ensure a continuity of consciousness, so that death does not too chaotic a disengagement with the known world, there is a process of continuous engagement with after-life Reality. The walls separating the life of worldly existence from after-life reality are thin and porous, and one reality often mixes and mingles with the other. In fact, most of the scenes depict existence in after-life reality. Postal services may have been discontinued, but their place is taken up by the Boatman- Mailman, who dispatches letters between dead souls and the living. Then there is the plane where disembodied souls meet, either after the death of both, or in a dream where one of them is alive, shown by the suspended platform above the heads of the audience. There is also the nether world where the boatman comes to ferry souls that are newly departed to the Other Side, to the Other Bank. There is the Lake, a kind of pool for departed souls in the after-life. In a context where life is cheap and death comes frequently and without warning, and where family members are often dying, so that it is a privilege to die from a natural death, it is understandable that so much activity should take place at soul level.
Philosophy, beliefs and concepts used in the play
THERE is a certain philosophy or philosophies of life, living and death that run throughout the play. There is the belief in the reality of after-life and the existence of the being at soul level after he has departed from his body. The entire play is grounded on this belief, since the main narrator, Fatema, is only a disembodied soul. Certain concepts or entities have also been invented in the play to support its philosophy and message. Thus there is the Mailman-Boatman who carries messages between the living and the dead, so that they can communicate. When a person leaves, the soul of an elderly guardian relative comes to take him or her away in a boat. ‘Nothing is ever lost,’ the father says, ‘Rizwan’s letters or Rizwan.’ There is the lake, shrouded in the billowy blue fog of mystery, on the other side of which the freshly departed soul is ferried. All these concepts support the belief in eternity or in an after-life.
At the same time there is a quest for truth for man does not have answers to all questions, especially the mystery of life and death. Rizwan asks his mother the question: ‘Where do we come from, Mother, when we are born: from the Air, the Earth, or the Sea?’ Thus the entire play is a narrative with a philosophy of life, death, truth, and meaning, but put with questions and an open mind.
The psychological importance of belief in eternity
WHAT is important to realise is that it is this belief in eternity or existence at soul-level after death that forms the sole consolation for the gruesome reality of an invaded people facing uncertainty at every step-daily losses and casualties, violation of honour, loss of limb, and loss of near and dear ones. The invader is too powerful and it is an unequal fight. The body of Fatema is the body of Kashmir: plundered, raped and razed with bullets; yet she exists in some other Reality and manages to tell her story. She bled to death; she froze on the cold hillside. ‘You may take our Earth, you may take our Air, but you cannot take the lake that nourishes our souls.’ Thus you cannot take our essence.
‘Paradise is here, if there is any Paradise on Earth it is right here in this land’ is a slogan that is repeated again and again. This is the love for the beauteous motherland, a motherland that has been turned to hell by the acts of the invader. It is also a voice of protest, and this voice carries within itself the people’s pride of their land, the fact that they had no need to aspire to any paradise since they were already living in it. ‘Whatever happens,’ Rizwan says to his mother, ‘this Valley will remain.’
By reason of the fact that it is an unequal fight between the people of Kashmir and the invader, the terms of the fight are also different, like the contest between David and Goliath. Thus, even after being raped and murdered, Fatema laughs out loud that she has already taken her revenge. The soldier raped her once, but she raped him thrice. He never realised that what he saw as a whole young woman was actually a composite of three women, a dead woman on the outside, a dead woman on the inside, and she, Fatema in the middle. This appears to be an eerie enough concept shrouded in the mystique of the spiritual reality. Perhaps it is not easily comprehensible, but what is comprehensible is that, alongside terrible tragedy and desperation, there is a resistance. Perhaps part of the resistance is also the reference to the wife of the soldier dying during labour while he was absent, which is also some kind of revenge that Fatema witnessed as the hand of karma. There is also the suggestion of the debasement of the rapist, a man who actually rapes an elder sister, when Fatema says: ‘He must have been barely 19, and was so good-looking, quite like my (brother) Rizwan!’ In these subtle ways, the psychological resistance of the people has been shown.
The philosophical doubt
THE Lake is a kind of pool for departed souls, a body in the after-life that nourishes departed souls. But what happens if there is no eternity? What if the lake is dried, the lake that keeps souls alive? Tortured by the reality of continuous loss of loved ones, these doubts emerge in the questioning mind of Rizwan and he puts these questions before his mother. In answer, he gets a slap on the face. The slap is token of the fact that such there is no place for such questions because then, there is no hope at all, no place left for the people’s resistance, for the belief that, ‘They may take our air, our sea, our skies, but they cannot take our lake- the lake is eternal.’
The political consciousness of Rizwan
RIZWAN was shown to the public in the wake of the Eid-ul-Azha holidays, and in the leaflet introducing the play, there is mention of the socio-cultural festivities that surround Eid, and the desire to contribute to public enjoyment through this play. The words ‘salam-alaikum’ are used as a chorus, when the souls are waking-up. Farsi or Persian words are often used: after all it is the struggle of the Muslims of Kashmir. Religion as the identity of a certain group is clearly visible here. On the other hand, the producer-director is producing his work for a society where progressive members have been fashionably distancing themselves from an Islamic identity for some forty-five odd years, perhaps even more; where the use of the Islamic greeting is often questioned and met with raised eyebrows, specially the theatre-culture in Bangladesh being particularly sensitive to the usage of Islamic elements. Further, he is working in the broader context of a world reality where Islamophobia is fast becoming the norm, a stance which has a strong influence on progressive Muslims who subconsciously like to distance themselves from an Islamic identity, as something parochial and obsolete, and dangerous for the image of the cosmopolitan Muslim. The use of the struggle of the Muslims of Kashmir as the plot of the play, the use of Islamic words and an Islamic setting is deliberately done to tip the scales of sympathy in favour of a people who are now the victims of worldwide discrimination and oppression on the basis of the group identity of religion.
Sadia Arman is a lawyer and a poet who sometimes writes on aesthetics, art and theatre.