This one word pretty much encapsulates the universal response to a person’s pain and tears. It is the solace offered by a mother, a friend, or a lover. Stop crying, we are told, shhh, stop talking, embrace the silence and the pain will pass. Those who go silent know that it never does. Memories fade, scars dull, but pain lives on, shape-shifting into monsters and demons as it grows. It is to express this pain, to let go, that we have elaborate funerals, elegies and mournings. The world understands and supports us when we vent and mourn for a loved one who is no more. Sadly, it doesn’t allow us to do the same when a part of us dies. We are expected to focus on the whole that is still alive, be grateful, pull our socks up, or in this case, our ripped underwear, and move on. We do not talk about sexual abuse, in families, schools, societies or offices. We bury the memories if they are ours, and bury the confession if it’s been shared by another. In other words, harsh as it sounds, we nurture abusers, we protect rapists and we punish the survivors.
Following the brutal rape of a Delhi girl in a bus in December 2012 and the outcry that followed her tragic death, five Indian women, unknown to each other, relived their own traumas of being sexually assaulted. These women wept for they felt complicit to this heinous crime simply because they hadn’t spoken up against theirs. They ached to be able to do something to stop this violence, the brutal violation of the body, the indelible scarring of the mind and the numbing of the spirit forever. Fighting for her life, Nirbhaya found the strength to testify against her attackers, before she succumbed to her injuries. As Nirbhaya’s voice faded away, five other Nirbhayas found theirs, and cried out in unison.
For the last few weeks, these five women have been re-enacting and reliving Nirbhaya’s agony, on stage across the country (and the UK before that) in a play directed by South African playwright Yael Farber. Poorna Jagannath, Sapna Bhavnani, Priyanka Bose, Rukhshar Kabir, and Sneha Jawale shrug off anonymity, break their silence and bare their pain to the world, in an attempt to encourage survivors of abuse to shed their veils of denial, shame, guilt, fear and fury. And, at the same time, they urge society to drop our veils of indifference, judgment and recrimination. Known for her sensitive portrayal of testimonial theatre on issues such as apartheid, Farber skilfully weaves each protagonist’s real-life story into the ripped edges of Nirbhaya’s gruesome tale, performed hauntingly by British-Indian actor Japjit Kaur.
Each of these five grim but poignant testimonials are delivered via stark monologues by the respective protagonists, while the only male actor in the crew, Ankur Vikal plays the antagonist in each. The play is a searing piece of work, artfully scripted and directed. Farber believes that theatre’s true and original intent is to show us to ourselves in our rawest form, in order to forge a healthier society.
She uses the Nirbhaya atrocity as a springboard to begin a conversation about sexual abuse and gender-based violence in society. While all the actors are Indian, their personal abuse took place in different parts of the world. Which simply highlights the rampancy of a crime that rears its ugly head in shanties and slums just as much as penthouses and mansions. It seeps through every strata, age and income group, class and religion.
“While growing up in Delhi, every single morning on my way to school, I’d step out of my body as I stepped into a DTC bus. For the next hour my body wasn’t mine, it belonged to everyone on that bus, to touch, to grope, to maul, pinch and stroke. Tuning out was the only way I knew as a child, to deal with what happened day after day, for years,” confesses Poorna, to an overwhelmed audience. This, in the wake of being sexually abused as a child, had numbed out a part of her, a part that stirred to life when Nirbhaya screamed for help. As the streets of India rose in fury and outrage, she knew it was time. She contacted Yael, and together they created a platform where survivors could shed their shame and break their silence.
“The mind shuts out what you want it to,” shrugs Sapna, stoically narrating a gang rape on a snow-covered street of Chicago. It was breaking the silence to herself that this feisty woman found more challenging than the gruesome ordeal she went through. “It’s taken me 20 years to admit to myself that I was gang raped. I’ve spent half my life calling it everything else, but that.”
Priyanka, repeatedly abused as a child, along with her little brother, shares her story with the blistering wrath of a child who’s been done a grave injustice. It’s the dismissal and indifference of her parents that cuts like a knife, and draws sobs from the audience. Now a mother, Priyanka breaks her silence so that her child, and ours, can grow up in a world where children are spared such savagery.
Sneha is a scarred but proud survivor of a vicious dowry-burning. She shares her gut-wrenching story in the hope that the play will help her connect with the child who was snatched away by her in-laws, after setting her ablaze 20 years ago. “He will not recognise me today, my face is burned and scarred. But, maybe, the sound of my voice…,” she trails off hopefully.
Rukhshar has survived an abusive father and an abusive husband. Eventually disowned by both, she was told to pick one of her children and disappear forever. She picked her daughter, knowing what the girl had in store if she stayed on in that home. The same daughter sits in the audience, unknown to Rukhshar, watching her mother grieve in public.
After the performance, the audience is invited to share — thoughts, reactions, personal experiences, even questions. Amongst the many who share is Rukhshar’s daughter. She confesses to her mother in front of the 200-odd people in the audience that she has been repeatedly sexually abused by her uncle, while her mother has been preoccupied with the struggle to make a living. “I didn’t want to burden you with any more stress, ma, so I just couldn’t tell you,” the girl weeps.
In the same session, a man in the audience admitted that he has always resented seats being reserved for women in buses and trains. “Now, I feel ashamed that we have to draw up physical boundaries in order to keep women safe from groping hands,” he concluded. Another male confession was that the proximity and extent of sexual abuse had for him, only just hit home. That it flourished in his own circles too, and wasn’t restricted to anonymous unfortunate people who did not have the benefit of education, was a huge awakening for him.
For those who are moved for personal reasons and needed a private listening ear, or those who want to reach out and lend a helping hand, a variety of different NGOs greet you as you file out of the auditorium. Fliers with credentials and contact information are being handed out to those who express interest. You leave drained, but moved, marvelling at the sheer resilience of the human spirit.
Tears, applause, raw emotion — Nirbhaya, the play, is a great interactive drama. Albeit, one that does not end once the curtain falls. What we have here is art being used beyond entertainment, to skilfully push people out of their comfort zone, and engage them in dialogues that should have started a long time ago. Dialogues that begin literally the second the curtain comes down, because that is how urgent the issue is. And the dialogues don’t stop there. Team Nirbhaya is attempting to institute a panel of experts in every city they perform in. This panel, comprising human rights workers, lawyers, press, celebrities, doctors and NGOs will study the statistics and policy on sexual violence in their respective cities, and blueprint a way forward. To create communities that become havens for survivors not offenders.
The Telegraph in London called Nirbhaya “the most powerful piece of theatre you will ever see” after it premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year. Amnesty International awarded it the Freedom of Expression Award, while The Herald gave it the Angel Award for outstanding new play. But, the only award this team seems to pursue is the criminalisation of sexual violence and transference of dishonor from the survivor to the perpetrator. This, without doubt, would be a far more fitting tribute to a fallen soldier who died in battle. She could have been your sister, your mother, your daughter. She could have been you. It’s time to shatter that sound barrier and end the silence.