(This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Praxis Englisch, a magazine for Germans learning English. It was commissioned by the wonderful Matthew Douglas, editor of the ‘Special Features’ section, who lives in Canada. I wrote it after watching the play in April 2017.)
Recently, I watched a play called Barff, which took its title from the word for snow shared by Persian, Urdu and Hindi. The play was set in Kashmir, a geopolitical hotspot that lies at the heart of the conflict between India and Pakistan, and has been the site of terrible human rights violations for several decades. Though I was seated at the cosy Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, faraway from the Kashmir valley, I felt transported to scene of action thanks to the excellent writing, skilful direction and competent acting — all by a multi-talented man named Saurabh Shukla.
What I found special about the play was its reliance on hint and metaphor rather than realism or spectacle. It managed to keep me riveted till the very end of a two-hour performance revolving around an unsuspecting urban doctor entangled in a web of make-believe spun by a taxi driver and his wife. At first, I found the humour uncomfortable because the laughter came from conversations about mental illness. It only struck me later that it was intended to be macabre so as to unsettle assumptions about what constitutes normal, and the exact opposite of it.
The play offered some wise reflections on the nature of home, and the sense of loyalty it inspires in people who refuse to leave even when survival itself becomes dangerous. In a way, the play spoke not only for the people of Kashmir but also for the people of Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine and Tibet who hold on to the vestiges of familiarity in an increasingly insecure atmosphere.
The audience was told that the taxi driver’s wife lost her baby to an unfortunate miscarriage that not only broke her heart but also wrecked her mental health. Her hope was kept alive by a Chinese-made doll that she imagined to be her own human child. Her husband encouraged the illusion since that was the only way he could ensure some semblance of order in their chaotic existence. He loved her, and could not bear to see her suffer.
Though the play did not offer any explicit political commentary on the current situation in Kashmir, it was easy to extrapolate from the events unfolding between the characters, and see how they drew attention to the trauma undergone by Kashmiri women whose children have been snatched away by security forces under the pretext of interrogation. These forced disappearances have been widely documented but no government has taken adequate steps to restore these missing people to their families. Many of them are said to have been killed.
Like the driver’s wife, countless mothers in Kashmir continue to thrive on slivers of hope. They find refuge in talking to the souls of their dead ancestors. They wait for the day when their sons will come back, and this wait alone gives them a reason to go on living. Why is it wrong to think of a doll as a living, breathing infant when one can imbue stone idols with the power to grant wishes? This is what the play expected its audience to contemplate, for every claim to truth is dependent on a belief system. Why are some people called crazy, and others sane, when both are merely holding on to a version they believe to be true?