Nirbhaya opened the door for survivors of gender-based violence to speak out.
The tragedy of the ruthless gang-rape of an unnamed young paramedical student in the winter of 2012 in South Delhi became a deeply personal tragedy for millions of people around the world. We suffered intensely because of her cruel brutalisation and senseless passing. It is hard to explain why her tragedy became the final crack in a dam which burst, releasing torrents of long-suppressed rage and pain.
The savagery, violation and humiliation in public spaces, at work and in the intimacy of their homes — which girls and women are routinely compelled to live with — suddenly, in that one moment, became too much to bear.
In an extraordinary piece of testimonial theatre, Yael Farber recreates this moment of collective wrath and compassion which touched us all. Watching Nirbhaya: Breaking the Silence in Delhi, barely a few kilometres from where the young woman bravely but hopelessly battled her attackers, was harrowing. There were moments when my soul flinched: I was forced to turn my eyes away from the stage. But for the most part I was riveted and, throughout, deeply affected.
This theatre memorial took seed when Mumbai actress Poorna Jagannathan reached out to South African playwright Yael Farber through Facebook to persuade her to write a play on the iconic Delhi gang-rape. “Women are ready to speak here in India in the wake of her death,” she said. “It has broken the banks of what is tolerable. The silence is coming apart and we yearn to speak. Come and make a new work that enables us to do that.”
Farber and Jagannathan then sought out actresses who themselves had survived sexual abuse and were willing to speak out about this on stage. Jagannathan leads this medley of personal testimonies with a soul-numbing account of her abuse by an uncle through her childhood. A spirited Priyanka Bose recounts angrily stories of the many men who abused her as she grew up. Both tried to reach out to their parents, but every time their elders looked away, refusing to help, failing to protect them when they needed them most.
Sapna Bhavnani, hair-stylist, recalls her gut-churning gang-rape by four men on the streets of faraway Chicago, a cold and sobering reminder that women are not safe anywhere. They force her to have oral sex with them one by one at the point of a gun.
But for me the most moving passage of the play was the testimony of Sneha Juwale, a traditional Maharashtrian bride who was cruelly burned for dowry. Battered repeatedly because her parents fail to give gifts and money to them in the early months of her marriage, the only brief but partial respite she enjoys is when she is pregnant with her son. Even then her drunken husband beats her, taking care only to spare her stomach from his blows. The little boy she gives birth to alone fills her life with joy. But a little more than two years later, her husband in a moment of blind alcoholic rage, douses her with the kerosene she was using to clean her paint brushes, and lights her with a match. Sobered by her screams, he puts out the fire and saves her life, but leaves her face and body permanently defaced. His version to the neighbours and police is that she set herself on fire.
In hospital, when her little son visits her a month later she is terrified that he will be repelled by her burnt face. But the boy tells her that she looks beautiful, that her skin has turned pink and soft like a baby’s. She fights to survive for him, but her husband and his parents abandon her and snatch away her son away from her forever. She does not know where they are. Even if she chances upon meeting her grown son today, they will not recognise each other. But, with her burnt face, she proudly confronts and engages the world.
At the end of each theatre performance, the actors invite the audience to stay on and talk. They ask how many women in the audience have faced violence during their lives; and a thicket of raised hands crowd the auditorium each time. Women weep, sharing stories of how they have been violated, assaulted and betrayed. Sometimes women say that this is the first occasion in their lives that they have spoken out in words of wounds their souls bear, speaking of secrets they had kept hidden too long from the world. By breaking their silences, they find a kind of release, and the beginning of healing.
Watching this searing testimonial play, I thought of many other women who could have stood on the same stage. Homeless women, raped on city streets night after night, year after year. One hundred women of Kunan Poshpora in Kashmir who await justice 20 years after soldiers mercilessly raped them in front of their terrified children. Thousands of women raped in communal and caste conflagrations, their bodies battlefields for hate wars. Childhoods stolen in brothels. Girls killed in wombs. Women raped by husbands, fathers, uncles, employers, friends.
A billion stories of a billion battered women from around the world.