Making of the Tryst: Notes from my diary Sunil Deepak, 10 June 2012

21 April, 2012

Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi ji were sitting on a mattress in the living room. Gandhi was spinning on his charkha, the spinning wheel.

"I have said before, we need to focus on spread of khadi, untouchability issues, and Hindu Muslim unity and then may be we will have the political field to be indulged in", Gandhi ji said.

Jawaharlal raised his eyebrows, but his voice was soft with a hint of laughter, "If we wait for freedom until khadi becomes universal we shall have to wait till the next century. Your khadi work is completely divorced from politics." Khadi was the handspun cloth that Gandhi ji loved so much.

Gandhi ji looked up from his wheel spinning, "You have become too enamoured by the western ideas . We have nothing to learn from the west."

They continued to discuss. And, Jawaharlal's voice rose a little, "Bapu, question is of means to that true freedom and equality. A village is backwards intellectually and culturally, no progress can be made from a backward environment."

The cotton thread had broken and Gandhi ji peered at the spindle, "We must bring in the talent and goodwill of the privileged class to the villages."

Jawaharlal finally lost control, "Don’t tell me about the privileged class and what they bring. I was born in it. Our communist friends call me the 'Petty Bourgeois'. Without industrialization we cannot create wealth and without wealth we cannot uplift our masses or bring about Hindu-Muslim unity. Just sitting and spinning is a romantic idea...", he paused, aware that he had crossed a line, and his face became contrite, "I must stop, Perhaps I have said too much. I hope you will forgive me, Bapu."

Gandhi ji smiled. A self-satisfied smile. As if he knew that Jawaharlal was going to loose self-control and had deliberately provoked it. He raised up his hand and put it on Jawaharlal's shoulder.

Tryst with Destiny

"Sorry would you like some tea", Sangeeta whispered to me. I nodded to her and turned back to Gandhi and Nehru.

I thought I was hallucinating. I was sitting in the corner of the living room of a person that I had never met before. More precisely, at that time, I didn't know whose house was it. It was evening when I had arrived in DC and the actors were already rehearsing.

I knew that it was only a play. Yet, for some moments, I had been transported to a room in India, where Gandhi and Jawaharlal must have sat together more than eighty years ago.

That morning, I had left home in Bologna (Italy), more than 15 hours earlier. From the Dulles international airport, we had come straight to the rehearsal. The play is called "A tryst with destiny". It is about the people involved in events leading to independence and partition of India. It is written and directed by my younger sister, and I had gone to US especially to watch it.

Sangeeta came back with my tea. She has big expressive eyes. "I am an actress for the past thirty years, doing plays ever since my college days", she had explained.

But Sangeeta does not have any role to play in Tryst, which is an all male play. The women involved in the play - Amita, Dipti, Rita, Sangeeta, Reshma - they are all behind the scenes. Directing, preparing costumes, doing make up, organising hundred thousand small things needed for a play and doing other odd jobs such as making tea for guests like me.

Why there were no women in the play? Someone had asked this question in the theater, during the discussions. Amita, the writer and director of the play had explained, "While writing the play, I wanted very much to have at least one woman in it. I went through a lot of historical papers and books, searching for one. I didn't find any woman who had played an active role in the issues of this play. Believe me, I tried really hard."

The play includes two American actors as well. Michael Gilmore plays lord Wavell and Timothy Wolf is lord Mountbatten. All other actors are first generation Indian immigrants.

***

After the rehearsal, that first night, while I had struggled with my jet lag to find some sleep, I had wondered about the relationship between Jawaharlal, his father Moti Lal, and Gandhi ji, whom he called 'Bapu' (father) with affection.

Some sons are rebels. They don't want to follow the footsteps of their fathers, preferring to mark their own routes in life. Jawaharlal was not one of those. He had studied law like his father. And he had joined the independence struggle and congress, just like his father. Apparently he had a good relationship with his father. So what psychological need he had to look for another father figure, like Gandhi?

However, I was even more intrigued by Jinnah. The suave, impassioned man played with raw intensity by Subhojit during the rehearsal. Why had he joined the All India Muslim League, when he was a member of congress party? At that time, in 1913, his views were nationalist and about Hindu-Muslim unity? Few years later he had even married a Parsi girl.

Tryst with Destiny

Suddenly I remembered the time when Altaf Tyrewala had come to a literary meeting in Turin, a couple of years ago. Altaf, a writer from Mumbai, didn't see himself in religious terms, but during the meeting he was presented as the "Muslim writer" by the organisers. Often others decide to underline our religious identities, for whatever reasons. When it happens again and again, perhaps it changes the way we look at ourselves?

Had something like that happened to Jinnah? Or, was it a quest for power, an understanding that "minority politics" could give him greater role? Or a combination of both?

I don't know much about Jinnah. He was not a welcome figure in our family discussions, because of the friends, lands and homes they had been forced to leave in Pakistan during partition.

"Subodh, how does it feel to play Jinnah?" I had asked Subhojit.

Everybody calls him Subodh. He is a research scientist, a Bengali from Mumbai, with music as his passion.

"Actually Amita wanted someone older to play Jinnah", Subhojit smiled, "but she couldn't find someone who was old and slim, and I got lucky that way. Initially it was a big challenge. I knew about Gandhi and Nehru, but I had no clue about Jinnah. In India, we learned that Jinnah was president of Muslim League and that he wanted Pakistan, but we didn't really study about him as a person. So to prepare for this role, I read a lot about him."

"By that time, we had started doing the play but I was not really feeling the role. Then I talked with my Pakistani friends to understand how they saw him. That changed how I saw him! When I could put myself in their shoes and see him from their eyes, it changed my understanding. After that, when I spoke my dialogues and I spoke about Muslims, I changed 'the Muslims' to 'us Muslims'. It became 'us', 'we' and 'I', then I felt the character", he continued.

During the rehearsal, Jinnah was arguing with Maulana Azad, an Islamic theologian and congress leader. Azad had pleaded passionately, "As the president of national congress party and as a Muslim, I will not let any fantasy or scheming to separate, divide and break this country apart."

But that evening Azad had not convinced me. Often, he was forgetting his lines. Finally I had fallen asleep thinking of them, Azad and Jinnah.

***

27 April, 2012

We were at the final rehearsal on Friday, the day before the play. The rehearsal was once again at the house of Krishna Subhrahmanya, who played Nehru. Their porch had a wooden floor, that was still wet from the rain earlier in the day.

This time, I had found a place to sit near the kitchen. It was not a happy choice for watching the rehearsal. The first time at the rehearsal, I had been sitting in a corner, far away from the kitchen. Then I had had a full immersion in history, an intimate view of actors as they had changed and become the roles they were playing.

Tryst with Destiny

This time, I could hear them talking and laughing in kitchen while they drank tea, or talked on their mobile phones, waiting for their parts to come. This time, I was not an unseen ghost, eavesdropping to the discussions between Nehru and Gandhi. Instead, I was a stranger sitting in the house of someone, in a suburb of Washington DC.

Over the past few days, I had continued to talk about the play with Amita. Thus, the persons I had met on my first hallucinating evening, and the roles they were playing, were more familiar to me. This time, there were some new faces as well, those who had not come for the previous rehearsal.

Manoj Singh, a shy and gentle looking person, has a triple role in the play - he plays Motilal, Baba Saheb Ambedkar and Jinnah's Hindu servant. It was his scene as Ambedkar, where he asks Gandhi ji to break the fast, that spiked my interest.

Dalit leaders did not like the word "harijan" that Gandhi ji had proposed for them. How did Ambedkar feel about the word "harijan", I suddenly wondered.

Gandhi ji was sitting on the mattress in the centre of the room, spinning his charkha while Ambedkar was pacing around. I could understand Gandhi's view when he said "Hinduism has a remedy for this evil of untouchability. Hinduism can reform itself, caste system is not about that, Hinduism is an open religion and can transform....". That is the way we often think.

However, Ambedkar was impatient and scathing, "Please don’t lecture me on the glory of Hinduism . You were not born an untouchable in this country. You don’t understand what it is to live life as an untouchable."

Natwar Gandhi, who played Gandhi, imbued him with an air of vulnerability and disarming innocence, "That is why I pray that I am born as an untouchable in my next life."

"No Gandhi ji, we don’t want this problem going into our next lives. We need to end it in our present life times. I am here to discuss the issue of separate electorates for untouchables as agreed by the British", Manoj's Ambedkar was resigned and a little resentful, "I want you to end the fast. This is emotional and political blackmail on your part. If you die, caste Hindus will kill every untouchable in this country, the very people you consider so dear, your harijans."

What word did Baba Saheb use in his head when he thought about his fellow persons from the "low" castes? Harijan? Untouchables in English or Acchuts in Hindi or did he use a Marathi term?

During my time in the school, our history books in India talked about kings and queens of England but they didn't explain the different roles and positions of persons involved in our freedom struggle. Today it is much worse in India. Today talking about our history is treated like some dangerous perversion that must struggle continuously with political and popular censorships! I think that it must be even tougher to do that in Pakistan.

Manoj comes from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. He is in IT and also passionate about theater, films and arts. About his interactions with Gandhi ji in the play, he said, "Natwar is very passionate about Gandhi and it was his lifelong wish to do something related to Gandhi. Surprisingly, even I for a long time, had that wish about Ambedkar. Everybody said that I looked like him and should play that role. He played a big role in Indian history. My parents had an intercaste marriage and I never believed in caste system. I wanted to play him as he was fighting against the caste system."

And how does it feel to play Gandhi ji? and how do you understand Gandhi, not just the iconic figure presented as a demigod, but as a human being?

In my opinion, Gandhi is the most important part in the Tryst, not because of his dialogues or scenes, but for the kind of figure he represents. Thus, I felt that if the person playing Gandhi did not convince, all other characters, it did not matter how good they were, will be diminished.

Natwar Gandhi who plays Mahatma Gandhi, is the chief financial officer of Washington DC, a kind of finance minister. S omehow in my mind, finance and spirituality are on two opposite extremes, so I had some doubts if he will be able to represent the personality of Gandhi ji.

However, when Natwar told me that he writes poetry in Gujarati and has published some books, I could see that my ideas of distances between finance and spirituality were misplaced. He said, "As a young boy I had read the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. Since then I was hooked on him. I consider him to be the greatest human being since Jesus Christ."

Tryst with Destiny

"So how did you like the rehearsal today", Amita had asked me while we were going to her home later that evening.

That evening had been a bit confusing. Actors had seemed busy in other things and kept on forgetting their dialogues. The play was going to happen the next day. So I was not sure what to expect from them for play.

However, I had not shared any of my worries with her, and had instead talked about the distractions of sitting near the kitchen door.

The best part of the evening had been Sajeev Anand, I had told her. Sajeev has a wonderful voice. His rendering of "vaishnav jan to" was goose-bumps-raisingly good.

***

28 April, 2012

Finally it was the day of the play.

We had reached Lansdown theater in downtown Washington DC, not far from the White House, early in the morning. Paresh had come with us. He and Amita immediately started working on the lights. Paresh is the "lights guy" in the team. He is from Bombay, a pilot working with federal aviation, when he is not involved with stage.

"I have been doing theater since school in Bandra. In this play I was supposed to do only the lights. However the person who was supposed to play Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, backed off for health reasons, so I took that role also. When we had done the play in Houston, I had also played the role of Jinnah's servant. So for me, the challenge is to sit in the booth controlling the lights, run to the stage for my part, rush back for the lights!" Paresh had explained laughingly.

The production team took notes about the props for the different scenes and marked the precise positions of furniture on the stage, to ensure that they could be lighted properly during the play.

By the time, the lightings were decided, other actors had started trickling in. After the lights, detailed planning of each scene was done - who would enter from where, stop at which points, turn where, etc. Everything had to be synchronized with some historical video footage that linked and introduced scenes and characters.

Backstage, a small corridor with a shrine to Elvis Presley led to the green rooms. I had never seen how a professional theater actually worked, except in films. So it was fascinating to see how the traditional skills of theater meshed with the modern technology to ensure that audience can get the experience that the director has planned.

Tryst with Destiny

Two hours before the show as supposed to start, all preparations were done and the actors went to the green rooms to get ready.

Looking at persons putting on their costumes and getting their make up done was equally fascinating. Deepti Rattan, the production in charge, ran around doing hundred things.

"During my growing up years, I had no knowledge about plays and theater", Deepti explained, "but when I was in college, I met Sushil during a play competition. He was very involved in theater. We started going out together and I became interested in plays."

After coming to USA, for many years, Sushil had become busy in his work as a gastroentrologist, and they were not very active in theater. Then one year ago, they had shifted home from Philadelphia and theater had come back into their lives.

Rita was doing the make-up. Putting the foundation and the eyeliners. Accentuating features so that actors' expressions were easier to make out for the audience. Even if Natwar is not thin like Gandhi ji was, still he did look very much like Gandhi ji. Next to him, Subhojit traced dark lines on his neck and face. It did make his face look thinner and more like Jinnah's.

Tryst with Destiny

Deepti, Reshma and Sangeeta struggled with Malviya's turban, wrapping and unwrapping it, many times before finding the turn that satisfied him.

Tryst with Destiny

Manoj has his hairs dusted with white and a white moustache, transformed into Motilal Nehru. But it was Krish who really surprised me. He looked so much like Jawaharlal Nehru!

Tryst with Destiny

Then it was the time for me to take my seat among the spectators. The theater quickly filled up. The theater staff was amazed. They had not had a houseful like this for some time. Among the audience there was the mayor of DC, who had come especially for Natwar.

Five minutes into the play, the first video clip did not come on. The actors on the stage seemed slightly surprised but then continued with the play. What could have happened? I could imagine the tension backstage. Whatever problem they had, it was soon resolved and the next clip came out perfectly.

The video clips play an important role in the play. They underline the fact that the play is about historical persons and events. Most dialogues of the play are lines from actual letters and autobiographies. The two hours' long play covers a period of about twenty-five years, and includes persons about whom even most Indians and Pakistanis today have no clues. In this context, the historical video-footage explains the issues and sets up the stage.

Scenes of the play are mostly short pieces, presenting a collage of events, passing from one event to another, from one set of persons to others, with three central characters - Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah. In the play, the video clips connect the scenes and the point where a video clip stops, is the starting point of the next scene.

Thus the play required careful coordination between actors and the video clips and for most parts, this worked well that evening.

***

During the interval, people were a little cautious and guarded with their comments. There had been some good moments in the play, with occasional exchanges eliciting laughter. However, I think that, the first half of the play had not touched any deep emotions in the audience.

The second half of the play had much more life and passion. Almost from the first scene I could sense the excitement and engagement of the audience around me. The concluding moments of the play with the anger and frustration of Jinnah asking for a separate homeland for the Muslims, the shouting and crying Nehru justifying his decision to accept the partition of India and passionate plea of Azad for not dividing India, were truly magical.

During the rehearsal the evening before, this part had not been very convincing. During the play, Sushil as Azad, brought a lump to my throat with his helpless anger, "And what is the hurry for freedom, this divided freedom? Who decided we should be free on 15th August 1947 anyway? Mr. Radcliffe, Mountbatten? And who agreed? You? Sardar Patel on behalf of Congress? Gandhi ji?"

It was a crescendo. The last scene with parts of independence speeches made by Jinnah and Nehru, and with the wonderful voice of Sajeev singing "Vaishnav Jan to", had the audience give a rousing applause for the play.

The evening had concluded with a discussion that saw two South Asia experts, Teresita C. Schaffer and Walter Anderson, sharing their views about the play and that period of history. Both of them agreed that the play had caught the spirit of those troubled times and presented the events and persons in their complexity, rather than simplifying them to give facile answers about the partition of India and Pakistan.

Tryst with Destiny

***

29 April, 2012

Even after more than 60 years, the events around the end of the British India are able to provoke heated debates and anguished discussions. Today, often these discussions take place without a real knowledge of pre-independence era and its events. Rather, these discussions are shaped by deformed versions of our histories taught in the school books and by the events of the past decades such as the wars between India and Pakistan along with nationalistic jingoism.

During the discussions after the play, Altaf Kabeer, had raised up the issue of representations of the partition events by Indians exclusively in tragic terms with use of words like holocaust while for persons like him, it is an event linked to the birth of his country, Pakistan.

I think that Kabeer is right. It does not matter, how objective and neutral we try to be in these discussions. In the end, for most Indians, this part of our history is about death and suffering of so many, coupled with mutilation of our country. On the other hand, across the border, the stories of death and suffering are a means to a noble end, they are linked to birth of their country. This basic difference in the perspectives cannot be erased.

The morning after the play, I and Amita were walking back from a visit to the Potomac falls, when we were stopped by a young woman. She was Shabnam and she had been at the play with her father. They were from Pakistan. "When we had gone to the play, we didn't know what to expect but actually the play presented the different sides in a balanced way. I had not much idea about the events that had led to the birth of Pakistan, so it was learning for me. My father also appreciated the play", she had said.

I think that is a great praise for "A tryst with destiny", that it can give us a greater understanding about a moment of our history.

In the introductory booklet prepared for the play, Amita had explained, "As a psychiatrist, I help people make sense of their history and how it impacts their present. I deeply believe that we as humans carry not only our individual history but also our social, political and cultural histories, the history of our communities and nationalities in us."

The play was a way to look back with sympathy and understanding. Without our minds and eyes clouded by mists of anger. If we can understand our past, may be we can build a better future for us.

***

Another article on Tryst - Other articles by Sunil Deepak

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You can also check the full index of "Arts" on Kalapana for more articles: Arts Index