Swara sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf. Preoccupied with her thoughts, she did not notice that I had reached her table.
As I sat next to her in the Starbucks Cafe adjacent to the INOX theatre at Nariman Point, Swara kept fiddling with the knife lying under her scarf. “What’s the knife for?” I asked.
“Oh! It is a very important prop in the short play that we are putting up at the NCPA next week,” she said.
“I presumed so, however, the red stains on it look quite authentic. What’s the play about?” I asked.
“Though I have signed a non-disclosure agreement with the Production House, I can always trust my childhood pal. I play the role of a girl called Prerana. You might find some similarities between the play’s story line and some recent cases but I would like to assure you that it is quite an original,” said Swara.
“I will be greatly pleased if you could cut down on the disclaimers and tell me the story of the play. While we are at it, let me also tell you that I am in no particular hurry today so you might as well narrate the play to me in detail if you would like doing so,” I said.
“Sounds great, in that case let me do my dialogues in front of you, it will be a good rehearsal opportunity for me. Barring my dialogues I will manage the story’s progression through linear narration. As I said, my character is called Prerana and she lives with her parents and an elder brother in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. When the curtains rise the spotlight focuses on me as I stand on the left wing of the Stage wearing a black burqa. I speak to the audience: Today I am going to tell you about my tale of love which goes through fiery trials and tribulations of mistrust, hatred, inhumanity and death. Actually it is not a tale that has mushy Bollywood moments of love. It is actually a gruesome story of love.”
Lights fade and spotlight focuses on centre-stage where a band of boys and girls come on the Stage and perform on a song that is against the spirit of love. They sing satirical lines on politicians and make spoofs of leaders who preach divisive politics. In the meanwhile I have a change of costumes and make an entry in a vivacious avatar with a Raakhi and pooja thaali in my hands.
“What gift have you got for me this Raksha Bandhan bhaiyya? It better be a good one, last year you had managed to get away by gifting me a salwar-kameez piece,” I ask my brother Rahul.
Rahul playfully shows me a small gift making me believe that it contains something really precious. Sibling banter continues till our father makes his entry on the Stage and admonishes us saying that we are grown-ups and should behave accordingly instead of spending hours together in mindless banter. I make an exit from the Stage and my mother gets food for my brother and father while they discuss local politics and developments in the community. My father makes a comment on how the caste and community dynamics were altering in the area. He mentions about love jehaad and says that it is absolutely unacceptable to him that Hindu girls are getting converted and marrying Muslim boys. He says it is a ploy by the Maulvis to diminish the number of Hindus in the country and these boys are specially trained to seduce naïve Hindu girls to trap them into conversion and marriage. The spotlight on the stage again shifts to the left wing and focuses on me and I am shown sitting on a chair reminiscing my recent past.
“Wow! They were such beautiful days. I had first seen him on the first day of our History class in college; Ejaaz was so handsome that my friends and I could hardly keep our eyes off him. He spoke chaste Urdu and Hindi which added to his magnetic personality. However, our first meeting wasn’t exactly a pleasant one. We were supposed to take part in an inter-college cultural contest. It was a group of 6 people, three boys and three girls and we had to sing a song. Ejaaz had commented on my talaffus (pronunciation) urging me to pronounce some Urdu words from the epiglottis. It was so humiliating. I had won so many song contests in my school days and here Ejaaz was trying to teach me how to pronounce. I was completely aghast and did not obey his orders and the outcome was that he decided to change the song. I was amazed at the talent of this young, good-looking poet who composed a song without a single Urdu word so that I did not run the chance of making an error. Though I really admired what he did, that day itself I had decided to learn the language that has the world’s best phonetics and most amazing poetry. I fell in love with Urdu and also with the person who had questioned my knowledge of the language. Slowly but steadily I fell in love with Ejaaz.”
Time passes by; Rahul gets involved in active politics and joins a fringe group with the objective of saving innocent Hindu girls. My father carries on with his mundane life and keeps complaining about inter-community alliances which he considers to be the biggest problem plaguing the country in today’s time. He has a number of fiery consultations on the topic with members of his own community and they plan stern action against all young boys and girls who dare to disrespect their advice. Though being completely aware of the situation that is brewing not only in our vicinity but the entire district, I am unable to stop myself from loving Ejaaz. I re-enter the stage and the spotlight shifts to the right wing where Ejaaz and I are sitting.
“But you know Prerana that our relationship will never be accepted by your family members. It is a precarious situation. Though I love you a lot, I would rather die than be termed a love jehaadi. I think it is in our best interest that we break up to avoid any unpleasant outcome,” says Ejaaz.
We are sitting in the municipal park of Muzaffarnagar and there are a lot of people around us but despite their presence, I start sobbing. To console me, Ejaaz puts his arm around my shoulders when suddenly out of nowhere around eight-ten boys appear with hockey sticks and cricket bats and without any warning start thrashing Ejaaz. I then notice my own brother amongst those goons and plead with him to leave Ejaaz.
“No, bhaiyya, no, he hasn’t done anything wrong. It was me who fell in love with him. Please leave him. Don’t hurt him, please don’t hurt him,” Swara in her dramatic avatar started howling as I kept looking at her. The attendants at Starbucks turned and started looking at what was happening on our table.
“Okay, I get it that you have evolved into a good actress and I congratulate you for your talent for method acting. It really looks like you have got into the skin of Prerana’s character so let’s cut the drama out and you just tell me the story. Also what’s with the important prop, the blood stained knife? ” I said.
Swara’s face fell as she was really enjoying enacting the play. Snubbed by me, Swara, however, continued the story about her play without the dramatic emotions.
Prerana’s brother Rahul and the goons beat up Ejaaz brutally and leave him at the park. Rahul drags her home, locks her up and discusses the matter with their father. He says that they need to keep a watch on Prerana to ensure that nothing untoward happens. Rahul tells him that he would talk to Prerana as her actions may create problems for everyone in the family. After all he has a fledgling political career and his own sister could not jeopardize it through her actions. Their father listens to what Rahul says but looks unconvinced as he is a man for whom his honour means everything.
Two days later Prerana decides to meet Ejaaz, drapes herself in a burqa to conceal her identity and attempts exiting from the house when she confronts her father who makes fanatical statements about the superiority of his race and in a fit of rage stabs her with a knife. His daughter collapses on the floor; however, there is no repentance in him. He calls upon Rahul to help him get rid of Prerana’s lifeless body, who is horrified to see his sister lying in a pool of blood. In a state of indecisiveness he, however, helps his father carry the body out of home.
Post the murder, Rahul starts getting recurring dreams of the entire episode. The dream sequence is created and enhanced on the Stage with the help of audio-visuals. He repeatedly sees the knife with which Prerana was murdered. Rahul starts mistrusting his father and metamorphoses into some kind of a maniac while on the other hand his father continues to propagate his fascist theories. The disturbing visuals of the knife become frequent pushing Rahul on the verge of insanity. His transformation from a young man who believed in his father’s theories to a person who is unable to accept the murder of his sister in cold blood by his own father can be summarized in a sentence: When love is silenced by hatred all you get is despicable emotions.
In his insanity Rahul sees the floor of their house covered with Prerana’s blood, he unsuccessfully tries to mop the floor clean and wipe off the stains from the knife with which his sister was stabbed. He hears Prerana’s voice that their father needs to be killed else he might one day kill Rahul too if he dares to love someone. The symbol of inhumanity, hatred, crime needs to be eliminated… Rahul gets enraged and picks up the blood-stained knife and after a one-minute pause the audience hears scuffling sounds, strangulated grunts and a final shriek of the father.
In the last scene, I come on the stage and take off the burqa revealing my Rakhi-costume while the famous song from Raj Kapoor’s film plays in the background: Kehtaa hai Joker saara zamaana, aadhi haqeeqat aadha fasaanaa, chashma utaaro phir dekho yaaron, duniya wahi hai chehra puraana (Listen to me as I tell you a tale which is half fact and half fiction. If you change the prism of your world view you will know that it is an unchanged world with the same old characters).
Swara stopped her narration and looked at me for my feedback.
“When is the play opening?” I asked her.
“Next Tuesday,” Swara replied.
“I will be obliged if you could tell your team to block two tickets for me. I will surely pay and pick them up from the Box Office.”