“I CAN see the double standard here,” Shabana Azmi snapped. “Muslims say they are proud to be Muslim, Christians say they are proud to be Christian, Sikhs say they are proud to be Sikh, and Hindus say they are proud to be … secular.”
Alright, Shabana Azmi didn’t really say it. Not as Shabana Azmi: she was on stage in New York’s New School University auditorium, reading lines I wrote in my novel Riot, which had been adapted for the occasion by the American director Michael Johnson-Chase. And she was playing the angry Hindutva chauvinist Ram Charan Gupta, a character as far removed from Shabana Azmi’s own perceptions of communal realities in India as, say, Shri Ashok Singhal might have been.
But that was the whole point of the event. Its principal organiser, the Indo-American Arts Council’s tireless Aroon Shivdasani (who despite her name is a woman, and a feisty dynamo of a woman at that) wanted to create a piece of literary theatre that went to the heart of the communal divide of our times. She saw in my novel Riot an opportunity to give voice to the different viewpoints articulated by the characters in the book (who are caught up in a riot in the fictional Uttar Pradesh town of Zalilgarh during the Ram Sila Poojan agitation of 1989), in order to set the stage for a discussion of communal issues in India and the recent tragic violence in Gujarat in particular. So the novel was adapted to a staged reading for four characters, whose contending views — of the Hindu-Muslim divide in India, the merits of the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute and the nature of the Indian nationhood to which all of us lay claim — would play off each other dramatically. Shabana Azmi agreed to lend her considerable prestige as actress, activist and parliamentarian to the event. So did the wonderful thespian and culinary celebrity Madhur Jaffrey (who took on the part of the liberal Muslim historian Mohammed Sarwar) and the pugnaciously articulate Wall Street Journal editorialist Tunku Varadarajan (who played his fictional fellow-Tamil Brahmin, the novel’s District Magistrate V. Lakshman). I added my own voice to the list, reading the part of the hard-drinking, hard-swearing Sikh police officer, Gurinder Singh, whose family had suffered in the 1984 Delhi riots but who still affirmed a vision for himself in building a pluralist India from which no group would feel excluded.
For any author to hear his words read aloud by actors of this calibre, who are eminent personalities in their own right, would be extraordinarily thrilling; but it was even more humbling to see their commitment to dialogue and diversity as the hallmark of the India they all cherished. Shabana lost her father, the magnificent poet Kaifi Azmi, the week before the event but came to New York anyway, shrugging off jetlag and grief to attend every rehearsal like the consummate professional she is. To share the experience with her was a real privilege.
And it was made more so by the antics of a fringe group of Hindutva agitators, calling themselves alternately the “Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh” and (a nice Orwellian touch, this) “Indian-Americans for Truth and Fairness in the Media”, which embarked on a hate campaign against Shabana and, incidentally, myself in the weeks leading up to the reading. But their attempts to stir up hostility to the event, by a hysterical, and somewhat indiscriminate, series of e-mails asking people to protest outside the hall (one of which I even received myself!) backfired; it simply prompted a number of secular Indians to organise a counter-demonstration. So while the four of us declaimed to a full house of 500, a noisier scene took place outside the auditorium. Since I was on stage, let me take the liberty of quoting from an account circulated on behalf of a coalition of anti-communal and Left groups in New York by someone who participated in the rally: “The IATF group was a motley group of 20 (all middle-aged men) who … had posters that screamed Shabana is a Traitor, a Communist, a Fascist, a supporter of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Their demonstration was a personal attack on Shabana. It failed miserably because [American] passers-by were clueless and wondering who the hell is Shabana? Our rally was 60 people strong, a colourful group, old/young, men/women, with wonderful posters …. We were penned in by the police, a few feet from each other on the same side of the sidewalk …. We effectively howled and shouted the [IATF] down. Their only slogan was Go Back Shabana! We had a range of slogans in Hindi and English and out-performed them completely. After a while, their frustration was clearly evident. They stopped their sloganeering, and started showing us the finger and other vulgar gestures, and finally turned their backs on us.”
The problem is precisely with those who would turn their backs o
Source: The Hindu