Theatre director Abhishek Majumdar has frequently visited conflict zones — Kashmir, before scripting Djinns of Eidgah, a play as cold and harsh as the landscape it is set in; and Tibet, whose roiling sentiments of liberation and protests are captured in Pah-La — but he has never before stood before an old woman who wanted to spit on his face.
All she needed was “one ration kit, just one”. “I kept saying, ‘Ajji (grandmother in Kannada) I can’t give you because somebody else whose name is there on my list and who is standing in a queue needs it. I promise I will come back for you,’” says Majumdar. “Then, I saw that she was so livid at my refusal that she had made a ball of phlegm in her mouth and, any moment, she was going to spit at me. When it reached the tip of her mouth, at that fraction of a second, she realised that she should not do it. She stopped. It was very riveting for me because we were looking at each other. If I think about it, sociologically, she had all the reason to spit at someone like me who couldn’t give her food,” he adds.
The reason Majumdar didn’t have food for the old woman was that nobody knew she or the slum, where she lived in Bengaluru, even existed. The team had gone with a truck to give ration to 100 homes nearby when they saw people emerging from behind a clump of coconut trees asking for food. “It turned out that there was a huge slum there and even the policeman accompanying us did not know this though it was his beat and he visited the area twice a day,” says Majumdar, one of India’s most powerful storytellers of contemporary sociopolitical realities.
Majumdar, whose play Gasha, about a Kashmiri Pandit boy and a Kashmiri Muslim boy, won three awards at META in 2013, was drawn into relief work after he and a friend, Sharoon Sunny, stepped out seven days after the lockdown to give rations to three families of students of a free school the latter runs. Immediately, 25 people approached him and then 400. “It turned out—and I have lived in this neighbourhood for 11 years – that I haven’t known there were so many labour camps in east Bengaluru,” says Majumdar. He cannot recognise a familiar city. It is pricked with hidden holes; people it had swallowed are being disgorged from its bowels and the cracks are showing up in its gleaming construction. “On my regular route — my house to the office or to my daughter’s school — you can hardly see a slum or a labour camp. This says something about how cities are built. It has taken a pandemic for me to be certain that, if we have a view from the sky, Bengaluru is essentially a labour camp with a few apartments. The picture I had was quite the opposite,” he adds.
Today, Majumdar and a team of volunteers are catering to more than 8,000 families that span slums, women’s organisations and old-age homes in Bengaluru, a tribal community close to Coimbatore and villages in the Sundarbans. A standard kit has 5 kg rice, 3 kg wheat flour, 1 kg toor dal, 1 kg masoor dal, coriander powder, haldi powder, ginger powder, 1-litre oil, I Nirma and 2 Lifebuoy soaps, and 1 kg each of sugar and salt. They work with other social groups such as Gubacchi as well as political parties across the board and various institutions. Most people in these labour camps are daily wage labourers, domestic help, security guards and housekeeping staff who worked in malls and IT parks. They had jobs that were lost and they know they wouldn’t get another one so the desperation has been growing.
“I have noticed that many theatre people are involved in relief work, such as Amitesh Grover and Anurupa Roy in Delhi. I have come to the conclusion that there is some commonality in the skills required to make theatre and do relief work. The first thing is that, in both cases, you are operating on limited resources and optimising through collaborations. The second thing is that you are always trying to convince people that funding is a good thing to do for the world in general though it is not profitable. I have found that raising money for food security is much easier than raising money for the theatre,” says Majumdar.
As he goes door to door making lists of the people in each house and checking their identity cards, Majumdar could be researching for Djinns of Eidgah, where lives of stones throwers and security personnel intersect. The play was performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2019. “As an artist, our job is to convert a landscape into a portrait. We narrow a broad big picture to specific people. I ask myself, ‘What is the story to this person? What does that person do?’ It is never unidimensional. Nobody is just a stone thrower or a migrant labourer. In the beginning of the lockdown, people would hesitate to ask for food because they were all breadwinners of their houses. On the other hand, I have started to realise that they get angry with us because we are the face of everything wrong with them. For them, we are the BJP, JDS and every other party because we are the guys who have come with the food truck,” he says.
At one time, he visited a home of two women who claimed to be mother and daughter though, according to the police, this was false as the addresses on their Aadhaar cards were different. “A few days later, the daughter called and said, ‘When I get my first salary, I will come and give your ration back to you. And, I will do it personally rather than ask you to go and pick it up from somewhere as we were made to do. We have that much manners.” The next day, her mother called and apologised. She said, “My daughter is not used to taking food. She is very angry because she has always earned a living.” “The mother added, ‘In my house, there is a TV. My daughter wanted me to sell the TV. I didn’t sell it. Don’t think that, because I have the TV, I am rich. I genuinely needed the food,’” says Majumdar. The woman ended the call by asking Majumdar to teach his daughter “proper Kannada. Not like yours”. That evening, Majumdar told the policeman, “You were wrong. They are mother and daughter. Aadhaar cards don’t tell you anything. The two conversations made it clear how we pick up language and ways of speaking from one generation to another,’” he says.
What surprises him about the changing landscape are not the threats of violence and incompetent politicians who he encounters — he has faced both while making political theatre—but the deep divide at the grassroots. “We have had men from Odisha saying, they don’t want to share rice with Bengali guys. Some people from Darjeeling have complained about a group from Mizoram getting more relief material. Raichur people complain about people from Bidar. This division is unbelievable and baffling. More than once, I have had to tell them, ‘’You know where you are, don’t you? You are sitting in Karnataka, in the middle of a pandemic,’” he says. “At the lowest level of the economic activity, we have created a system where you have to rely on your own tribe or community to take care of you because there is no other system to do so,” adds Majumdar.
As the lockdown ends, he is concerned about a 30-year-old woman from Kandhamal in Odisha, who speaks an ancient tribal language that nobody else in the city does. How did she come to the city? Maybe she was trafficked or came of her own will with some people but nobody is sure. “She was shunted from one place to another and finally found by the authorities and put in a hospital because she had to be checked for COVID-19. Her report said she has no symptoms right now, could be asymptomatic and COVID 19 cannot be ruled out. In the hospital, she was treated badly and somebody broke her phone. Imagine, the phone was her one connection to her world and somebody saw it fit to break it. Schemes have been announced for people affected by lockdown. I wonder, ‘What’s in it for her?’” says Majumdar.
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