August Issue 2015

By | Theatre | Published 2 years ago

“You people will not even be able to arrange a coffin for me,’ my father would say when angry with us, his children. We would take it lightly and shrug it off, but this is what actually happened. At the time of Partition, when we were fleeing to Pakistan from Allahpur, district Ambala, he fell off the train and died on the spot. We could only place a shroud over his corpse and had to leave the body along the railway line. No coffin, no burial,” said the old man from Chakwal, as he sat down with us to share his memories of the world’s greatest diaspora.

This was one of the many interviews of Partition survivors by Theatre Wallay, an Islamabad-based theatre group conducting the project ‘Voices of Partition.’ The group worked in collaboration with Ithaca College, New York, and the project consisted of different phases.

The old  man had agreed to talk only after a long pursuit. In the beginning he refused to say anything. Then he claimed he didn’t remember anything. But his family was insistent that he talk about Partition because, they said, he knew many interesting things. “Finally, Rabia and I managed to interview him. By then we had met him quite a few times, and developed a bond with him. He was fond of old Bollywood movies, so we gifted him DVDs of old Indian classics and discussed these films, songs and actors with him. Then, one day he asked us to come for the interview,” recounted Safeerullah, one of the artists from the group, Theatre Wallay. This was part of the group’s stated purpose: seeking to recreate the oral history of the subcontinent’s Partition through theatre.

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Safeerullah continued, “The old man recollected his memories, saying, ‘I had no idea about what was to be my destination in the newly created Pakistan, so I chose to stay on the train till the last railway station – Chakwal. It was there that I got off the train. And during the terrible events leading up to and during the journey, I was separated from my family, including my wife. I managed to locate her after a painful search of two years from a remote village near Multan and brought her to Chakwal.”

The old man’s retrospections were heart-rending, but he had managed to eke out some joy from life. “‘Life was, and is, really tough. But Bollywood movies and songs make it livable,’ he said,” recalls Safeerullah.

In the first phase of the Theatre Wallay project, members of the group were trained by Kathleen Mulligan and Sarah Hebert-Johnson, teachers at Ithaca College, using the techniques usually incorporated by the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed.’ The training also included some tips on creative writing.

The second phase of the project included collaboration with assorted universities. Students from various departments of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad, COMSATS, NCA and FC College, Lahore worked with Theatre Wallay in this phase, receiving training in theatre skills and creative writing, and being enlisted to collect stories about Partition. They were also trained to write monologues based on the stories they collected.

Furthermore, Theatre Wallay not only equipped them with theatre and creative writing skills, but also supported the students as they showcased theatrical readings of the monologues they had written in the course of the workshops they participated in. All this while the Theatre Wallay team continued seeking out survivors and interviewing them. Eventually, people from Chakwal, Islamabad, Rawat, Gojra, Chiniot, Wazirabad, Multan and Lahore were interviewed in this regard.

Their stories made for fascinating reading. Zohra Bano recalled the days villagers from her town, Sohni Pat in India, lived under the omnipresent shadow of fear. Situated on relatively high ground, she said, Sohni Pat provided a bird’s eye view of the villages and towns below. And, all too often, it was a terrifying sight: fires and rising smoke everywhere. “One day the women and girls of our village were asked to gather round the village well. We were told that in the event our men were killed, we should jump into the well to save ourselves from the enemy mobs,” Bano remembered. Fortunately, the men survived, but it took several months for them to arrange to move with their families to Pakistan.

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A resident of Shah Alami, Lahore, hearkened back to his childhood, when he and his friends, he said, preferred to buy groceries from a Hindu grocer rather than the many Muslim merchants in the area, even though his shop was located at quite a distance. “We went there because he always threw in some goodies, like sweets or dry fruit, for free,” he recalled.

He also remembered how a Hindu businessman offered the Hindus in his area weapons to ‘protect’ them from the Muslim mobs. “Ironically, however, before anything happened between Muslims and Hindus, the latter had a clash with some Englishmen, during which one of them was killed. Infuriated by this, the English then supplied arms to the Muslim mobs, who proceeded to kill many Hindus and forced others to flee,” he stated.

While Theatre Wallay group members, Salman Haider, Safeerullah Khan and Ammar Khalid, did the documentation, administration and research respectively for the project, in the next phase Kathleen Mulligan and David Studwell – the latter also from Ithaca – joined this effort and started working on knitting the monologues into a script. After weaving them together using various standpoint (acting school) techniques, rehearsals for the play began in earnest. Written by 13 people collectively, the production was staged in Islamabad and Lahore. Fizza Hassan from Theatre Wallay co-produced it, along with Kathleen Mulligan, David Studwell was the director.

Said Salman Haider, another Theatre Wallay member, “The contrast in the interviewees’ attitudes was fascinating. Some were really eager to share their stories. One of the female interviewees said, ‘I waited for 60 years for someone to come and ask me what happened during those days.’ Then there was that old man from Chakwal who refused to talk, and agreed only after much cajoling.”

He added, “But there were commonalities too. Every interviewee invariably compared the horrors of Partition, its terrible atrocities, with current times and questioned what we had made of the country we got after such pain. However, these reflections were not included in the play.”

The play presents Partition stories in different acts by splitting the timeline: before Partition, during Partition and after the event. It portrays how attitudes of people changed towards each other due to the charged political environment, and how much of that sad change occurred as an aftermath of the religious debate around the political conflict leading to Partition.

One act in the play depicts a girls’ school, where students get into fights over religious disputes that increasingly erupt as the Partition of India draws closer. Finally the government is compelled to appoint a Christian headmistress at the school, so that both Hindus and Muslims can be placated.

The beautiful theatrical performance titled Dagh Dagh Ujala (‘The Stained Dawn’ – a Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem on Partition) was a soulful, stirring recreation of the huge human tragedy that accompanied the birth of our nation. Staged in Islamabad and Lahore, it introduced a new generation to that era and event.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order