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Delhi Montage: Women, Home and the House

qutub-minar-new-delhi.jpg.pagespeed.ce.Q9njQ1EccnThe Times of India had the following as its headline on March 9, 2010:

“These men win battle, will they win war?”

The news referred to the Indian government’s bid to pass the bill which sought to amend the Constitution and reserve 33% seats in all legislatures for women, and the occasion was the 100th International Women’s Day. There were apprehensions within Congress, too, that reserving seats for women might hurt Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha. But the real obstacle was the strong opposition led by Mulayalam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav, who chose unparliamentarily tactics to prevent the ballot they would surely lose. It was at these men the headline was targeted. At the end, the government dallied and put off the bill for the day.

* * *

Aarohan-Gurukul’s 11-member team had arrived in New Delhi the day before to participate in the South Asian Women’s Theatre Festival organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.  Karan Singh, ICCR president, in his message to the Festival, wrote that it was a unique concept as it focused exclusively on women’s issues and would bring together theatre groups from all the South Asian countries. Six theatre groups from India and one group each from the countries Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka were to perform plays on women’s issues during the week-long Festival.

Theatre and Television Associates, New Delhi, performed its celebrated play Nati Binodini, the inaugural performance of the festival. The play is based on Aamar Katha, an autobiography of the prostitute-turned actress, Binodini. The performance is remarkable for the way it vividly portrays Binodini’s courage to come to the public life and assert her independence and identity. Dithering between images of herself as a ‘saint’ and a ‘sinner’, Binodini recollects her past in the process of recording it in her diary. Her memories collapse one upon another, intermingling her life and art, and making them indivisible in her consciousness. The play ascends to the summit of realization as Jayanta Das, enacting veteran Bengali director Girish Ghosh, instructs Binodini “not to be a prostitute but to act like a prostitute.” He asks her to be two persons in one, as in a number of meditation techniques: one who is acting and the other who is carefully watching the actor. Binodini was, thus, soon seen to be enacting the two roles skillfully at the same time.

Aarohan-Gurukul was to perform Putaliko Ghar (a Nepali translation of Ibsen’s celebrated play, A Doll’s House) at Shri Ram Centre in the evening of March 9. We were in the street outside the theatre, a bit worried about the number of audience that would come to see the play. It was obvious to be anxious. Colombo Colombo, the performance of the Sri Lankan troupe Theatre Plus the day before, in spite of having a very interesting storyline and innovative theatrical concepts, had a very small audience. We were sipping tea in the street, when we heard some young girls speaking in Nepali. Determined not to leave any stones unturned in our attempt to assemble a large audience, we approached them, introduced ourselves and invited them to see the play. The girls, along with hundreds of other Nepali students in Delhi, were doing a course of Chartered Accountancy. They asked us about the timing of the play. We told them that the play would be performed from 8.30 till 10 p.m. in the evening. Though the girls readily accepted to come, I had very little hope that they would really come to see the play that late. To our pleasant surprise, they not only came but also brought nearly fifty friends with them who, in fact, formed the major bulk of the audience that evening.

*  * *

I teach at a girl’s college in Kathmandu. As a teacher of literature, whenever there is a new play at Gurukul, I invite them to see it. The first thing they ask me about the play is its timing. I let them know that the play begins usually at 5:30 p.m. and ends at 7:00 p.m. Even the girls doing their Masters appear to be taken aback and exclaim, “How can you expect us to come that late? Our parents will kill us!”

They are the same girls. For those who live in Kathmandu, 5:30 p.m. is too late to go out. For those who live in Delhi, 10 p.m. is not too late yet. It was not so easy to answer the question what made these young girls in Delhi feel so comfortable and secure at this hour away from their homes, whereas the same girls would find it near impossible to step out of home after sunset: The security? The load shedding? Our social structure? Or, was it the result of the very fact that they were away from their place, and there was no one back home to ‘kill them’ for coming so late?

* * *

putaliko-ghar.jpgIbsen’s Nora leaves her house late at night. Helmer, Nora’s husband, even asks her to wait till the next day, though she straightaway denies the proposal and claims that she can’t spend the night in a strange man’s house; that is what he has become for her now. Nepali Nora leaves her house usually around 7 p.m. in the evening. Interestingly, in India, she left her house around 10.15 p.m.

Sunil Pokharel has given his own interpretation to A Dolls’s House. The Nepali version of the play doesn’t end, as devised by Ibsen, with the slamming of the door by Nora. Instead, Nisha Sharma, the celebrated Nepali Nora, leaves the door of her house open as she steps out, and is found sitting outside somewhere, at some crossroads of life, probably in a dilemma not knowing what to do ahead and where to go. An interesting thing happened at Shri Ram Centre. Nora left her house and was sitting outside in the lobby with her heavy bag. Someone approached to her and said: “Noraji, you have already left the house. But could I give you a lift if you are going somewhere?”

Should it have been yet another man offering Nora a lift? I asked myself.

* * *

Thus Nora left her home. Coincidentally, it was the same day the historic bill for the 33% reservations for women in Parliament and assemblies was passed by the parliament of India, the Lok Sabha. The men who had won the battle ultimately lost the war.

The headline of The Times of India next day read:

“Women Go from Home to House.”

Lalu Prasad Yadav, as usual, brushed aside the historical move as anything else. He asked a plain question with deeper implications: “What difference does that make after all? Do you think Rawadi Devi [his wife] will vote for anything else other than what I ask her for?”

In Nepal, we already have 33% women in the Constituent Assembly for quite some time. We also have 33% women in civil service, and will have them in the same ratio elsewhere gradually. But a question keeps on nagging me: Are we sure we are sending even 33% of our girls to our colleges and universities, and making them capable of undertaking those responsibilities?

In the final scene of A Doll’s House, Helmer asks Nora if there are any chances of her returning home. She answers, “Then the miracle of miracles would have to happen.”

I still have one more question unanswered: Once in the ‘house,’are our women back at ‘home’, too? Or, should we also wait for ‘a miracle of miracles’ for them to be at both the places?

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