The curtain rises to reveal the interiors of a bus. Four men sit slumped in their seats, as a couple enters. The door slams shut even before the bus speeds off. What follows is the dramatisation of the savagery that was inflicted on Nirbhaya, a young Delhi professional, and her male friend on the night of December 16, 2012. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s just as difficult to look away.
The unravelling threads of Nirbhaya’s life are then picked up one at a time, by five women who dare to bare – their scars, their grief and their stories. In short stark monologues, each one breaks her silence. Poorna Jagannathan (formerly seen in Delhi Belly) – who is also the producer of the play – shares her pain at being repeatedly molested by a trusted adult, and then being mauled and groped for years, in Delhi buses while going to school. “For that one hour,” she whispers, “my body isn’t mine. It belongs to everyone on that bus, to do with it as they please. I step out of my body. It’s the only way the child in me knows to survive.” Every woman in the auditorium knows what this feels like, and identifies with her helplessness.
Priyanka Bose (who made an impact in Gulaab Gang) unleashes her furious inner child, still raging at her parents for dismissing the recurring sexual abuse by male domestics. She wipes away angry tears, knowing she’s speaking up to ensure that her child and every other child out there can grow up without being preyed upon in their very own homes.
Sapna Bhavnani, feisty celebrity hairstylist, steps up and confesses to how hard it’s been for her to break the silence to herself. Gang-raped at the age of 20 on a cold Chicago street and tossed into a dumpster, she has never quite been able to confront what happened that night. Her body is now so heavily inked with tattoos that it is hard to find a patch of clear skin. As she watches Nirbhaya fighting for her life, it dawns on Sapna that she’s hiding her wounds behind her tattoos. Twenty years after it happens, she finally musters up the nerve to say the words aloud to herself and let them sink in. “I was gang-raped,” she repeats now on stage, and shares her grim story.
Hiding her scars is not even an option for Sneha Jawale. A dowryburning survivor, her disfigured face makes words unnecessary in her story. Yet speak she does, and relives her ordeal on stage, hoping to reunite with the son that was snatched away by her perpetrators, her in-laws, after setting her ablaze.
The final testimony comes from the exquisite Rukhshar Kabir, a waif-like creature, whose pain breaks through the gentle, calm exterior – a product of a violent and abusive childhood followed by a marriage many shades worse. Before being thrown out on the streets, she was made to pick one of her two children to take with her. She now shares the agony of a desolate mother who flees with her female child, hoping that the male she has left behind will at least be spared the gender-based abuse that seems to shroud the women in that family.
Ankur Vikal, the sole male cast member, plays the male antagonist to each one of the protagonists, masterfully personifying every misogynistic, violent and nauseatingly brutal crime that has been inflicted on these women, and countless others, for centuries. Nirbhaya, the muse, is played hauntingly by British-Indian actor Japjit Kaur.
Status quo is never a good thing. It smacks of inertia, reeks of resignation and spells stagnation – especially if it has remained unchallenged for centuries. Gender abuse and sexual violence is one such issue that has been lulled to sleep in patriarchal societies all over the world. Every now and then there is a loud blip on the graph, but just for an insignificant nano-second, and then it is back to slumber land. The year 2012-13 has been one of those blips on the Indian graph, triggered by the brutal rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ in Delhi, followed by the Goa Thinkfest debacle. The strident public response to both these is what has enabled the media spotlight to remain trained on the rampantly recurring instances of sexual abuse throughout the country.
So, as you watch Nirbhaya, you rise to your feet, applauding these women, their courage and resilience, not realising that the evening of breaking silences has not quite ended. In fact, it has just begun. Hands shoot up everywhere in the audience. A comfortable shawl of intimacy seems to envelop every person in the theatre, and people begin sharing. We hear reactions to what they have seen; confessions about distorted perceptions that have now got corrected, promises and pledges to reach out to survivors with support and empathy, and finally, the stories – theirs or their loved ones.
That’s when it dawns on you what this play is all about. It’s about awakening a Nirbhaya in every survivor of sexual violence, in this country and beyond. It’s about keeping that flame of righteous indignation that spilled on to the streets in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident, alive and burning. It’s about pushing for justice and social change in a society that is plagued by inertia, resignation, even regression. And no one could do a better job of cameo-ing social injustices on stage than South African director Yael Farber, a testimonial-theatre veteran, known for her sensitive but strident portrayal of issues like Apartheid.
When Nirbhaya fell so tragically, she set off a wave of seismic reactions, and the dominos continue to topple, after every show, in every city, across the world. Walls come down, barriers are broken, voices that have remained muzzled for decades break free, tormenting secrets are told and hearts unburdened, denial is shrugged off and hurt validated. Most importantly, loss is mourned and life embraced. All this, in what Team Nirbhaya calls ‘The Aftercare’: forty -five minutes of free-range audience participation, with members of the cast taking questions and soliciting sharing. A very thoughtful gesture is the presence of NGOs on discreet little counters outside the auditorium. Should anyone in the audience feel the need for professional intervention, for themselves or someone else who may need help, one can just pick up a card with contact details, and follow up later, in privacy. In every city where Nirbhaya is staged, the team hands over the baton to a panel of experts – social workers, lawyers, human rights activists, celebrities, doctors and counsellors, who will examine the city’s sexual violence and abuse trends and history, and blue-print a way forward. The wheels of change are whirring into motion.
The Fringe Festival in Edinburgh greeted this powerful piece of theatre with a standing ovation every single day. Nirbhaya has now become the girl who could not be silenced even by death.