We Dilliwallas often surprise ourselves, most recently during the National School of Drama (NSD) theatre festival.

In the mild winter sun, last Thursday afternoon, the repertory company of Karachi’s National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) was preparing for its show. They were to stage a play called "Mantorama"- based on the life of writer Saadat Hassan Manto- at Kamani Auditorium opposite the towering Doordarshan Bhawan on Copernicus Marg in Central Delhi.

Manto is a revered figure, especially in this part of the world. His powerful short stories brought out the indescribable pain of partition- a tragedy that left an indelible impact on the psyche of this city. The previous year saw a barrage of plays on Manto, to mark his centenary, and some of the best ones made it to Bharat Rang Mahotsav- NSD’s annual festival. These included "Mantorama" and "Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh?" (Who is this Audacious One?) by Lahore’s Ajoka Theatre.

At around 2 p.m. there rose a din of whispers at the NSD in Bahawalpur House- which faces Doordarshan’s rear gate. PRO A. K. Baruah got a call from the director’s office to notify the press that the Pakistani plays had been cancelled. The technical staff were told to go help pack up at Kamani. The troupes were shocked.

Some of their cast members were in the lawns and the food hub chatting with members of Amritsar’s Manch-Rangmanch and the NSD repertory company- who were also performing plays based on Manto. Karachi, Lahore, Amritsar, Delhi- their emotional distances had collapsed under masala chai and kebabs. When the news trickled in, many of them broke down in tears. They were all dressed up and had nowhere to go. Delhi was a cold and punishing city.

In the aftermath of the murder and mutilation of two Indian soldiers in Kashmir, allegedly by the Pakistan Army, Pakistani players in the Hockey India League were sent home. The previous day, January 16, Ajoka Theatre was sent packing from the NSD parallel festival in Jaipur- as the police felt it was unsafe to let them perform.

NSD’s chairperson Amal Allana said the security advisory against staging the plays in Delhi came from the culture ministry. The following day NSD Director Anuradha Kapur told this reporter that the notice was from the Delhi Police- whose spokesperson denied any notice being sent. A joint secretary of the culture ministry clarified that it wasn’t their job to issue security advisories. While the buck was passed, Pakistani dramatists watched rehearsals of Indian plays on Manto, with envy, frustration and longing for the stage.

Delhi is an impatient and aggressive city. The rage against the beheading a soldier from nearby Mathura has raised tempers here, perhaps like nowhere else in the country. The gang-rape of a 23-year old student and now this- raw nerve after raw nerve of the city was being plucked. It was taken for granted that this city would offer no quarter to any peacenik, let alone a couple of Pakistani troupes.

Yet, the first knock of dissent was soon heard at Studio Safdar in Shadipur- a hub of puppeteers, magicians and street artistes in West Delhi. Eminent dramatist Sudhanva Deshpande, a member of the CPI(M), hosted NAPA’s Ali Kazmi for a public discussion there on the evening of January 18- the day the news of the cancellations broke. By 10 that night, theatre director Arvind Gaur, journalist-activist Shahnawaz Malik, Sandeep Singh from the Far-Left All India Students’ Association and a few others started a campaign to stage at least one of the Pakistani plays.

NAPA had left India, but Ajoka was still here. Its director Madeeha Gauhar is no stranger to this country as she has been performing here for over 25 years, through the crests and troughs of the peace process between the embittered neighbours. Young women and men stayed up through the night- from the hostel rooms of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to the barsaatis (terrace tenements) in Bhogal- feverishly networking on Facebook and calling up any one remotely left-leaning or inclined towards the arts.

By morning, the texts started streaming in. There would be two shows- without advertising or tickets, in order to avoid wasting time getting government clearances. The venues were the Akshara Theatre beside Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, and JNU’s Convention Centre. By sunset, a section of the crowd began to shift from Mandi House- the drama hub of the city where the NSD and other theatres are located- to Baba Kharak Singh Marg.

The rosewood and teak Akshara Theatre was surrounded by black-kurta clad volunteers of Gaur’s Asmita Theatre- in theatrical defiance of anyone who might attempt to disrupt the show. Akshara itself is a monument of defiance and, since 1976, has been fighting against eviction. The show was packed, with the audience crowding even the aisle and the edge of the stage. Ajoka performed without its props or sets, in a space one-fourth of Kamani’s, for a full two hours in pure Urdu. Not a soul left the hall as, despite the handicaps, the play was hard hitting and emotionally exhausting.

At the end of the show, people stood up and congratulated the troupe. Many said that they would have had to hang their heads in shame if the play had not been staged. Madeeha was in tears. Her actors were too. It was surreal. Pakistanis- often painted as terrorists- were crying along with Indians, in a moment most human. This took place beside a hospital, where a little over a year ago, this reporter was surrounded by bleeding and horribly bruised victims of an explosion outside the Delhi High Court- also blamed on Pakistan inspired insurgents.

Later that night at JNU, it was expected the ultra nationalist Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) would disrupt the play. Cadres, from all communist student organisations had filled the hall, just in case a clash broke out. The ABVP boys began passing snide remarks on Pakistan before the play could begin. But once it started they fell silent. Shahid Nadeem’s script lashed out at all the dramatis personae of the long '40s and ‘50s- the Muslim League, Nehru and even the communists.

On Sunday morning the fog had lifted. The skies were blue and the first buds of spring flowers had appeared on the manicured patches of Chanakyapuri’s Diplomatic Enclave.

Delhi is a warm city. It’s probably the only city where a chaiwallah will let you have tea, knowing fully well that you are broke. If you’re polite, he may even offer you a mattri (savoury fried biscuit).