Write only about what you know

22-01 2010

Report from the Womens Dramatists World  Conference in Mumbai, November 2009

by Anna Simberg , director of Labben, the Swedish speaking dramatists guild in Finland.

I received an email in March 2009. It was from Margaret Skantze in Sweden. "I'm part of a network called Women Playwrights International. It's been around since 1988, when it was launched on the initiative of a group of women at Columbia University in New York. One of the network's main purposes is to organise a major conference every three years where contemporary women's drama from around the world is presented. The conferences have been held in New York, Toronto, Adelaide, Galway, Athens/Delphi, Manila, and Jakarta/Bali. And now the turn has come for Mumbai in India, where the Conference will be held in November 1-7, 2009."

I found WPI's website and read more. The theme of the conference was freedom and tolerance, with several sub-themes, including humour. It sounded tempting, but Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is far away in India - would I dare to go? Since I had long wondered how women think in countries where women's situation is far more suppressed than here, whether they write plays or make theatre, I signed up in September after a period of hesitation. I booked my travel and hotel and applied for grants from the Arts Council of Finland and the Finnish Dramatists' Union, which together covered my expenses. I started to take the necessary vaccinations, read guide books about Mumbai, searched for clothes suitable for the 35 degree heat and found hardly anything, and then sprained my foot, limping off to Mumbai with bandages and a cane to support me on the way.
My hotel is located near the airport in Santacruz, three kilometres from Bombay University where the conference is held. Before I sprained my foot, I had thought that I would walk there every morning, but then I zoomed in on Google's satellite view and reconsidered. The large empty spaces that I had assumed to be green parks turned out on a closer inspection to be a jumbled cluster of small and closely spaced metal roofs. Slum, the whole way between the hotel and the campus!

India at last! I go out on the first morning to look around. Cars, buses and rickshaws are running back and forth at full speed, honking noisily. I walk along the exhaust fume stinking streets that are surrounded by stalls and slum settlements. There is a smell of sandalwood and the stink of garbage, people are sleeping along the roadside, like wild dogs dozing away in the sun. Women take care of their children and prepare food halfway on the street, while a stray goat chews some waste. Children play, run errands, pull the goat's tail. Rickshaw drivers park their vehicles on the roadside and go into the slums to take a break and drink chai. It is hot, colourful and extremely exciting.

Dwellings in the slum look like the huts that we built as children, about three times three metres in size, sometimes two on top of one another if they are made of solid material. Into the huge slums go narrow winding paths between the huts, and people are on the move everywhere. What happens there, inside? I find the answer in a newspaper and from the dramatists. According to the morning newspaper DNA, Daily News and Analysis, fertility rate there is 1.9 compared to the 1.4 among the rest of the population, there are 750 women for every 1000 men, one in four women is a victim of domestic violence, and an average of 81 people share one toilet.
I dare not go into the slum, and take care to keep myself out of there. But I am certainly fascinated. I go to the conference with a rickshaw because of the foot, yet I cannot stop staring.

The host of the conference is the Arts Academy at Bombay University together with Stree Mukti Sanghatana, an organisation for women's liberation. The Academy's around 30 students participate as actors in the readings, and are available everywhere together with Stree Mukti Sanghatan's women. We are altogether 280 delegates, 200 of which come from India. The rest are from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, China, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, Holland, France, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Finland. At first it feels like the whole world is there, but as the week progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Africa is missing completely, as are South and Central America, the Arab world, Eastern Europe and theatre countries important to us, like Germany, Russia and the Baltic countries.
Already during the opening ceremony I realise how important this conference is for all those who are present. One defines freedom and tolerance as the ability to do what you want without hurting others. For a playwright, it means freedom to think and write. This has not been possible for Indian women for very long. Professor Waman Kendre explains that female narration had a long tradition in India as long as it was verbal, but it was interrupted when stories began to be written down, because women in India seldom learnt to read and write. I feel in the auditorium a strong reaction of both grief and the desire for revenge, now that it is finally possible to write and perform. We are told again and again that the foreign delegates' presence is an encouragement for the Indian dramatists; that we who come from countries where women's status is different than in South Asia are needed there as strong, encouraging role models. It is not only about realising oneself artistically, but about the opportunity to speak with a voice that is rarely heard outside the house. Dramatists at the conference are regarded as political activists in their countries because they all write, and even more so because they write about the lives of women. The right to education, arranged marriages, daughters sold into prostitution, and to be able to walk in peace on the streets are themes that are perceived as political provocation in countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, not to mention Afghanistan.
Also the texts of foreign delegates whose lectures I have the time to participate in, tackle political issues such as racial discrimination, homeless children, adoption, environmentalism, prostitution, rape and the judicial system, homosexuality, lack of interest in the female perspective in research, and exploitation in tourism.

The program is packed and I have time to hear four interesting lectures, fifteen readings of plays, five panel discussions, as well as participate in a writers' workshop, see thirteen performances, and attend the long and cordial opening and closing ceremonies. We eat lots of good Indian food and talk with each other and the theatre students. Sometimes the delegates' politeness is tested. It was possible to stay awake through two performances a day in Hindi or Marathi, the languages of the state of Maharasthra where Mumbai is located, but most of us skipped the third one in order not to risk falling asleep.
Performances of traditional Indian dance were however held in high regard. Traditional Maharasthra Folk Dance and Music Performance becomes a huge favourite and contains a genuine stand-up show in Marathi. An elderly woman dances and sings about women's lives and hardships, and the audience screams with laughter. Without understanding a word, it is extremely enjoyable to see an older woman as a supreme master of comic finesse in both her elusive movements and lyrics. Afterwards, I hear that she sang that throughout our lives we stress out ourselves with hands full of chores. We are mean and selfish and only think about ourselves and those closest to us. Only at the age of 90 are we ready to share. But then we have nothing left, the children have taken everything, except for our old worn-out body. And that is good, she sings, because it is possible to give away and the parts can give new life to many.

Almost every day something about the Bombay slum makes it to the front page of the newspaper. One of the most startling figures that I read is that half of Mumbai's population lives in the slums. Not surprisingly, poverty is high and the literacy rate low. This year, there is a big problem with water supplies in Mumbai, as the water from freshwater reservoirs is not enough and water use must be reduced by 11% per person until July. In the slums, one out of six households have access to running water, so at least it is not there that water is being wasted.
During one workshop I work with one of the Indian dramatists, and she talks about a play which she wrote in collaboration with some illiterate women from the slums. The play deals with the struggle of a group of mothers to get water for their children. Every day they go about the neighbourhoods hoping to buy water. Usually, they are denied. One woman agrees to sell them water, but asks such a high price that the mother cannot buy what they need. The playwright is unsure how she ought to finish the play. In the last scene, the three mothers are sitting together in an open area in the middle of the slums with their empty water containers, not knowing what to do. The only thing that they can do is hope for rain. The children gather around them. One of the children says: "My mom, she's just like that."
After one of the readings, a minor quarrel breaks out. The Asian dramatists are annoyed by the fact that westerners see them as victims. They don't consider themselves as victims. Sure, they have problems, but they are able to manage them, and they will eventually be resolved. They are also doing well. And they have self-respect. They do not want anyone's sympathy. They want to write their stories themselves, tell about their own reality, through their own eyes. Even Slumdog Millionaire annoys them, admittedly written by an Indian, but directed by a Brit.
I wonder if they would like the fact that I write about the slums like I do. But of course I also see the joy of children playing, and mothers' love as they look after their children. I see men in freshly ironed clean clothes go to work. They seem nice, and radiate self-respect.

Between the conferences there is a Management Committee consisting of 4 to 5 people, as well as the organisers of previous and next conferences. A new committee was elected now too, made up of highly qualified women from Canada, Philippines, USA, Norway and South Africa, as well as Joyti Mhapsekar from Stree Mukti Sanghatana and a representative from Sweden, who will also be the next organiser. The Swedish National Theatre is the main host, and they hope to get help from Norway and Finland. The contacts that we have made continue to live on the website. If anyone needs support, it can be had through the network. Rarely in life have I been so warmly received by so many, and I wonder how we, the quite reserved Nordic people, will be able to receive foreign delegates in a way that makes them feel truly welcome. Do we speared out the red carpet for them and ask "Where do you belong, madam?"
It has now been raining for two days, and the newspaper says that people in Mumbai are cheering. I can see all the containers that are out there on the streets, collecting drinking water. There's enough now to do the laundry, wash dishes and drink. On the flight home, I see Slumdog Millionaire for the second time, and realise only now that the slum from which the main character comes was exactly my slum, Mumbai, Santacruz, right next to the airport!

This conference has given me something to think about. Is it at all possible to write with compassion, or will it always come out wrong? Am I looking for dramatical points in their suffering, do I revel in their misery? Yes, I do. And the old truth has become even clearer: write only about what you know. Everyone should tell their story and must be heard as a representative of just their particular special piece of reality. This is the story of a paleface who went out into the world to find out how others think, and who learns that what's most important is to be heard.