It’s been one of those weekends again when the different inputs received leave such overwhelming residues in the mind that they shout out to be given expression to and the mind refuses to calm down until the screaming emotions are lined up in disciplined rows and forced to wait their turn to speak out.
For Sanjay Kumar and his band of youngsters , theatre is obviously a passion that is not easily worn down. They have been friends of the children at the informal school,”Saksham” for a while now and the senior kids get invited to all their plays that are staged in Delhi. Accompanying them and sharing their excitement is an experience in itself, although for most of the time, one has to take on the role of cluck-clucking mother hen with her brood of chicks. Thankfully they are a bunch of sweet kids and not over-boisterous. So we reached the venue without too many hassles , if one ignores the tension that prevailed till they stepped out of the metro in an intact group.
The play this time titled, “Off Track”, was focused on the children who end up on the Railway platforms , far away from their earlier familiar surroundings. I was going to add the pre-fix”secure” to “surroundings” , but then stopped short, as bits and pieces of the play kept peeping out to prompt me that the very fact that these kids had run away was a loud declaration of the emotional insecurity that had taken hold of their tender lives, forcing them to flee.
For the past four years,Sanjay and his theatre group , “The Pandies”,have been been holding workshops with the “rescued” children. As is their way, they got the children of the reform homes to weave scripts out of fragments of their own ruptured lives and act them out. I catch myself again now, pausing before finishing the preceding sentence. I was going to say “play-act” and then realized that that expression would’ve been a huge contradiction in terms in a convoluted way, as were their lives.
The play we watched at Shri Ram Centre on Saturday evening , was a replay of the skits that the real “rescued “children enacted during the workshops.
It was raw. It was compelling and it hit you below the belt, more so because the traumatic experiences revealed themselves through the veneer of innocence of the childhood that was still hanging on almost desperately like a shimmering lining to the dark desolate cloud that their lives had become. The giggles and the tomfoolery that interspersed the dark narrative,hurt more because of that.
We see them all over the place, in the trains we travel,picking up used bottles and the left –over breakfast packets, sweeping clean the floors of the compartments with a dirty rag, a job that they get to do, instead of the salaried staff who are required to do it, for a handful of coins that some of the passengers feel inclined to hand out, Sometimes the permission to loiter in the trains is granted to them by the staff, in return for a favour of an obnoxious kind. They are so ubiquitous a group, that we become used to them and they stop imposing on our sensibilities . I guess that our indifference is a kind of shield that we develop because we cannot afford to have that kind of stark intrusion disturbing the placidity of our cocooned existences.
As each narrative unwound itself on the stage, the audience was also left wondering…would these young girls and boys , most of them from affluent homes, acting out the lives of those kids who had gone “Off Track”, ever be able to streamline their emotional experiences to fit into the orderliness of what was expected of them by their parents and peers? Would the experiences of their interactions ever stop haunting them? A play can be a cathartic experience , as is writing or a painting or a strain of music. True…but only so much.The rest is bound to be pushed down forcefully to lie simmering somewhere deep down.
What makes these kids run away?…Many a time it was the transgressions of the adults around them, ike this one tormenting instance of the adolescent boy who had been wheedled into sex by an aunt and the imminent exposure had filled him with so much dread that he just had to get away. And the other story of a boy who was doing consistently badly at school and who was consistently being sent for tuitions to a particular teacher from whom the boy consistently kept staying away. Nobody bothered to look further or find fault with anyone, other than the poor tormented kid who ultimately chose what he deemed was an escape and landed up on a railway platform. Some got lured by those already on the streets with the prospect of quick money procured by selling drugs and satiating perverted appetites of the grown-up world.
When you are told that these lost teenagers can nick a “customer” in the crotch with a sharp small knife in the course of delivering services in a car parked in a dark corner and run away with his stuffed wallet, you are left with a new perspective on the definition of street-smartness and because one part of you secretly applauds that act of defiance, you simultaneously have the experience of a blurred horizon where “right “ and “wrong” merge into a colloidal complex.
In between impromptu games on the platform on a lazy evening, the kids joke at the ways of the “honourable” adult world and how they had learnt to bargain and demand a price for the different kinds of pleasures that they could provide.One cringed at the language and the brazenness, but as the Director of the play explained at the end of the performance , the version played out was actually sugar-coated.
This theatre group has a tradition of engaging the audience at the end of each performance, asking for responses, reactions and questions and criticism. Most, I figured, were too numb to speak , but all those who did, unananimously praised the performances. But many questioned the air of negativity that hung as a cloud . Many wondered if all reform institutions were as bad as depicted in the play (many children choose to run away again and return to their former lives on the platform because the shelters were no better).Some even felt that a play such as this would put off those who were otherwise inclined and mentally preparing themselves to pitch in with the efforts of some group or another .
Wouldn’t all of that be our excuses to look the other way? Why do we shy away from seeing the truth of these shattered lives, most of which may never get pieced together again? Why can’t we admit to ourselves that we are weak, that we cannot handle the emotional overspill that such close encounters would produce? Why can’t we acknowledge that we are adept at shifting the onus , always to somebody else? Let’s face it we all love running away.