by Karthik Inzamam Prasad
On the eighth of September, the Public Law and Policy Discussion Group invited Ms. Salima Raza for a dramatic reading of Parmeshwar Singh, a book by Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi which explores the bonds of love between a Sikh peasant and a young Muslim boy, in a time of bereavement and conflict – the Partition. Present for the reading were various faculty like Professor M.P Singh and Dr. Anup Surendranath, with the room packed with (mostly) interested students.
Ms. Salima Raza was then introduced to the audience. A woman with a commanding presence , Ms. Raza has been a Theatre actor, a radio artiste, and a TV actor, besides being a director and compere in Delhi for over 50 years. Recipient of many citations and Best Actor Awards, she has performed all over India and abroad and is currently involved in promoting meaningful theatre. A few words were spoken about the partition, and how writers on both sides of the border eventually wrote about the tragedies after the dust had settled.
Silence set in, and as the audience waited for the reading to begin, haunting strains of classical music began to play, setting the mood for the evening. Ms. Raza began to read, and the story began. The story followed the story of a young Muslim boy, Akhtar, who gets separated from his mother during the partition. The boy is soon found by the story’s other central character, a Sikh man called Parmeshwar Singh. Parmeshwar proceeds to save the boy from an unruly mob, eventually adopting the boy as his own, against the initial reluctance of his wife. Forced to make the boy adopt the ways of the Sikh to survive, Parmeshwar’s character is in contrast to the people around him. He encourages Akhtar to recite his lines from the Quran, fights to protect Akhtar’s identity as a Muslim and goes to great lengths to take the boy back to his mother, regardless of how close he is to the boy. The story ends on a sad note, with Parmeshwar’s efforts going to waste , and the innocent cries of a young boy ringing out loud in the face of unsympathetic coldness.
Ms. Raza’s performance was an experience to remember. Whether expressing the childish fascination for a butterfly to be chased, or the unconscious cruelty of an unruly mob , her voice never failed hold us in thrall. It was a performance to behold, with Ms. Raza seamlessly switching between Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi as easily as she flowed from one character to the next with unnatural ease. Powerful and commanding at one time, and quivering in fear the next, Ms. Raza’s skill had to be heard to be believed. To a listener such as this reporter, whose knowledge of the languages being spoken was poor, the emotions were carried with such force and vigour, that one was never at a loss to what was happening .
After the performance came to an end, an interactive session was held. Students shared their questions, opinions and stories with Ms. Raza, as she tapped into her extensive experience and knowledge to enlighten us. A wide range of topics came up, from the role of the state in hate propaganda between India and Pakistan, to the possibility of unification of the two nations. The event then came to an end with a token of appreciation being given to Ms. Raza on behalf of the Univeristy.
While talking to Malavika Parthasarathy, a member of the Public Law and Policy Discussion Group, regarding how the event took shape, she spoke of how the idea sprung around the time of Independence Day half a month ago. Amidst all the jingoistic celebrations, she said, it seemed odd that an event of such monumental tragedy such as the Partition not be recalled and discussed. The group decided that having a narrative would have a better impact on students rather than having a lecture on the subject. In later conversation for Glasnost, when asked to comment on her interactions with the students for, Ms. Raza explained on how she welcomed each opportunity to help expose young minds to events such as these. ‘Fruitful’ was the term she used, to describe the event, and was happy with how the students responded with passion and curiosity.