A play, which is being rehearsed at the Royal Court Theatre in London, has spawned a hashtag by Tibetan protesters and put the playwright, Abhishek Majumdar, in a tight spot. Pah-La, meaning father in Tibetan, revolves around the self-immolation of a young Buddhist nun, Deshar, as an unprecedented act of protest. Though the events in the story take place a few months before the first recorded case of self-immolation in 2009, Pah-La is based on real-life incidents, stories and people surrounding a violent revolution in Tibet in 2008. Deshar is based on a young nun who is rumoured to have disappeared. Directed by Debbie Hannan, the play, set to open on April 3, will run at the Royal Court Theatre till April 27. In the play, Jia, the wife of a Chinese commander in Lhasa, says about Deshar: “Tell that girl, she has changed Tibet forever.”
Bengaluru-based Majumdar, an alumnus of the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar, and the London International School of Performing Arts, excels at drawing out human narrative amid conflicts, whether political — Afterlife of Birds (2013), about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) women’s cadre and false encounters of young Muslim boys — or personal, as in Kaumudi (2014-15), about an estranged father-son duo, who are theatre actors in Allahabad, set in the 1960s. “As a writer, I feel that there are things in the world that need to be questioned and defended. I believe that a writer should have only powerful enemies and weak friends,” says the 30-something playwright. Excerpts:
You have made a trilogy of plays around the trouble in Kashmir — Rizwaan (2012), Djinns of Eidgah (2013) and Gasha (2013-14). What made you turn your attention to the Tibetan movement for independence?
I was exposed to violence quite extensively during the time I was working in Kashmir for the plays. A question that came to me was, ‘What is the future of non-violence as a revolutionary mechanism?’ In the last century, there were several examples of non-violent methods of revolution, whether it was by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, or Nelson Mandela. That idea, despite its significant success, seems to have completely disappeared. In this century, we’ve seen that revolutions have, more or less, stuck to violent means. I began looking at the Tibetan movement as the last big bastion of non-violence and what it means for it to succeed or fail, not only for the Tibetans but also for the rest of the world. Tenzin Tsundue’s Kora (2002) and Pankaj Mishra’s End of Suffering (2004) were big influences. The Kashmir trilogy started with Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, Country Without a Post Office. The Tibet project also started with books.
How did you go about investigating the realities of Tibet?
I started my research with Tibetans in exile in 2013. I talked to a lot of people and read enormously. I also managed to get into Chinese chat sites that were in English and had many members from the Chinese community in Tibet. These chat sites are interesting because you start knowing something about a culture. What became clear to me was that something big had happened in 2008 in Lhasa. The Chinese press had reported violence by the Tibetans. In the Tibetan press, it was reported that there was no violence by the Tibetans. The monks, who were enraged and breaking down things, were actually Chinese soldiers in disguise. Neither of those seemed to be accurate. That led me to find out about prison equipment that China had imported around 2008. I thought that if they had imported prison equipment, something big had happened.
Then, I found out that polygraph machines, made in Hong Kong, had been imported too. I got in touch with people in Hong Kong police who gave me details of these polygraph machines. That’s when I was interested very concretely in what had happened in 2008. There is a very interesting paradox. If you look at Tibetan Buddhism, the key word is liberation. In Chinese communism, the key word is still liberation, as in the People’s Liberation Army, but we are talking about two different ideas of liberation. Similarly, a Buddhist monk or nun in a monastery is basically arguing the nature of truth. And here is the whole regime which imports polygraph machines. How do these sit together? That became my search.
How was your experience of travelling through China and Tibet?
In 2014-15, my wife and I went to Beijing and Lhasa. We also went to Shigatse from where most Tibetans, before 2008, used to start the walk towards the Himalayas to come to India. There was a guard with us, given by the Chinese, who would stay with us till 8 pm, and I would start work after that. I met lots of people, both Tibetans and Chinese, who were in Lhasa in 2008, served as prison guards or were prisoners, people who had something to do with the administration of Tibet as well as university professors who were working on the subject of Tibet. I befriended some people and managed to get into two prisons. This is out of bounds of official journalism.
A lot of people took the risk to be able to tell their stories. What came across is a picture of enormous violence on various sides. People don’t represent an ideology when they’re rioting, it is just violence.
Last year, Pah-La was dropped by the Royal Court because the theatre was concerned about jeopardising another project in China. It subsequently apologised to the Tibetan community and the play will be staged now. Has there been any personal pressure on you to withdraw the play?
My mails are under surveillance. I have also been offered a lot of money to sell the play to a Chinese theatre and give up my licence. I have been offered a lot of money to stop it from being staged. I was also offered money to make three important changes in the play. All of which I refused, obviously. A lot of information I have is illegal in China. If I enter China, they will put me in jail. There are separate buses for tourists. You can stay for a month in Tibet and not meet any Tibetans.
The play also irked the Tibetans because there was no Tibetan in the cast. Do you think a play about a community should be enacted by its own people?
I don’t think this is true for every community but if you are talking about Dalit politics then it must have Dalit actors. We are talking about a society that is underrepresented. If this is the politics of the play, then the production should match the politics. There are productions that can be about these communities in places it is not possible to cast them. Tomorrow, if the play is presented in Spanish in Mexico, will it be possible to cast Tibetans? How many Tibetans will be there? The issue between the Tibetan community and the Royal Court has been resolved. The Royal Court leadership had issued a public apology.
Will you also direct Pah-La?
I’m going to do a production in New York in 2020 or 2021, and then a Tibetan play in Dharamshala. The first half of my production in New York is outdoor, when it’s set in Lhasa, and the second half is indoor, when it’s set in prison.
What are you working on next?
A play I am working on now can upset a lot of people. In the Quran, there are two terms — Zahir, meaning the apparent, and Batin, the inner meaning. The play is called Batin. I have been researching on the Quran. It looks at two nights between the Prophet’s death and burial. The play makes a case against Islamophobia.
Your play, Djinns of Eidgah, which you revived in English last month, was stopped by a mob in Jaipur. What is the future of the play?
When Queen Victoria took over as the empress of India in 1876 from the East India Company, one of the first laws that the British administration passed was not to do with military or tax but to stop performances of plays. Particularly, the Bangla play, Neel Darpan, which was based on the conditions of workers in the British Indigo plantations. This draconian law was taken away by the British but we kept it and used it against Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder (1972), for instance. That makes me ashamed of my society. That was 1876 and this is 2019. Djinns of Eidgah will happen. We have shown at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai and we will continue to have more shows.