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Madeeha Gauhar and Sheema Kermani barred them from staging their plays in India

Frightened by the mirror

by Jawed Naqvi, 15 January 2009

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Dawn

BEFORE unidentified functionaries of the state barred them from staging their plays in India this week, Madeeha Gauhar and Sheema Kermani were facing the wrath of cultural vigilantes in their respective backyards in Pakistan.

Their torment was not unusual. Three Booker Prize winners from India — Aravind Adiga, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai — have found themselves in a similar quandary with their own zealots, including those claiming literary pretence. Is it because writers and activists hold a mirror to realities we refuse to acknowledge?

As an Indian reviewer observed recently, the bitter, unrelenting criticism towards Adiga’s The White Tiger in his country after the Booker triumph had a familiar ring to it. Earlier, Roy’s book, The God of Small Things, met with an equally hostile reception from the Indian literary establishment as well as the political class she targeted in her book.

“And the murmurs about betrayal began as soon as Kiran Desai beat her formidable peers in the shortlist to grab the big one with The Inheritance of Loss, just a couple of years ago,” wrote Vijay Nair in The Hindu. An admixture of professional peevishness and cultural narrow-mindedness can be disastrously potent. It matters little to the vigilantes that in little over a decade, three Indians have prevailed over the Booker competition.

How did Adiga rub his critics the wrong way? The White Tiger deals with India’s class and caste divide. It draws its protagonist from an impoverished family of rickshaw pullers who were in the business of making sweetmeats before fate intervened. How this change in family fortunes happened is explained thus to the reader:

“See, this country, in its days of greatness, when it was the richest nation on earth, was like a zoo. A clean, well-kept, orderly zoo. Everyone in his place, everyone happy. Goldsmiths here. Cowherds here. Landlords there. The man called a Halwai made sweets. The man called a cowherd tended cows. The untouchable cleaned faeces … To sum up — in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat or get eaten up.”

Indian audiences have welcomed Sheema Kermani in the past. One of her plays — Those Who Have Not Seen Lahore Have Not Lived — received a standing ovation even this week when she was allowed to stage it at Delhi’s National School of Drama albeit amid heavy police protection. Then someone told her she couldn’t take the troupe to Lucknow. It would be a security hazard. The warning had no basis.

The play was written by Indian playwright and leftwing activist Asghar Wajahat and staged countless times across India by Habib Tanvir. If anything the play is a sharp critique of the absurdity of the communal partition of India. There would be fewer surprises were it banned in Pakistan because it implicitly questions the validity of the religious fault lines that eventually justified the quest for Pakistan. But then the play was not allowed to be staged in Lucknow, and that is the point to ponder. There is something about Sheema Kermani’s theatre that appears to threaten the establishments in India and Pakistan alike.

India’s cultural czars have eagerly encouraged the stereotype about the hold religious groups have on life across the border. Madeeha Gauhar has defied the easy perception and her plays had been well received in India. She is credited with fighting the pro-Taliban establishment as recently as during the Musharraf regime. Her controversial play Burqavaganza riled rightwing Muslim politicians who brought a censure motion against it in the National Assembly.

Burqavaganza was a satirical play, which used the veil as a metaphor for double standards and cover-ups in society. The play showed all characters (men and women) wearing burqas, including politicians, terrorist leaders and policemen. Issues addressed included gender discrimination, religious extremism, terrorism, love marriage and media programmes promoting intolerance. It had been made very clear in the brochure of the play and before and after the play that the theme of the play was not critical of any one’s religious beliefs or dress preference, but about hypocrisy and double standards and the feudal mindset. The audience in Pakistan loved the play and it got very good press reviews. The play had been staged in collaboration with the Lahore Arts Council. It was again staged at the Panjpani Indo-Pak Theatre Festival at Arts Council in Lahore.

There was a time when cultural exiles from Pakistan would find sanctuary in India. Pakistan’s progressive poet Fahmida Riaz lived in Delhi for months to escape Gen Ziaul Haq’s stifling religious rule. Journalist Salamat Ali had found refuge in Delhi at about the same time. Madeeha Gauhar was as good a candidate as any to be applauded in India for her fight against religious bigotry. Therefore it didn’t make any sense to know that she was told by the National School of Drama not to come to Delhi.

Gauhar had sought to expose how Gen Musharraf despite his religiously moderate profile was weak-kneed and apologetic before her pro-Taliban critics. In her petition against the harassment by the mullahs, Gauhar had slammed the regime for its inaction over the Jamia Hafsa stand-off, “Islami Jamiat attacks in Punjab University and moral policing in the NWFP” that had not only damaged the government’s credibility and ability to establish its writ, but had emboldened the fanatics to spread their tentacles. “The government has totally failed to punish those who are challenging its writ and intimidating students and artists. It has also miserably failed to protect those are being intimidated and attacked by the pro-Taliban elements,” she wrote.

Today the boot is on the other foot. Indian vigilantes could make the Taliban look like school kids. “American pop icon Paris Hilton corrupts Indian minds,” wrote the Wall Street Journal quoting unnamed mandarins of Indian culture. So they had barred television channels in India from airing Ms Hilton’s new music video, Stars Are Blind. It was yet another example of the censorship fever sweeping the country.

But why has a supposedly moderate government in Delhi agreed to give rightwing vigilantes the authority to decide what was culturally acceptable or what wasn’t? Does Madeeha Gauhar’s critique of her government — that it was weak-kneed and vulnerable before religious bigots — apply equally to the Indian establishment? Or could it be that independent writers and cultural activists on both sides of the border pose an equal threat to their establishments and also the one on the other side of the border, simply because they mirror an unpleasant reality for both.