Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Uncategorized

A Punchi Problem

Dr. Rohan Edirisinghe, in a recent paper he compiled quoted G.K. Chesterton in ‘The Point of a Pin’ – it isn’t that they don’t see the solution, it’s that they can’t see the problem. This line echoed in my head for all the nights that I sat on stage observing the audience during Ruwanthie De Chickera’s ‘Forum at the Punchi’ last week.

For the unitiated forum theatre is a dramatic genre which compels the audience to involve themselves in the action on stage, suggesting methods in which the plot and characters can develop. Ideally, the play begins with what is known as a ‘stem’ scene, which leads the characters upto a point of crisis, which the audience is then presented with. This is the crisis that audiences will attempt – through the subsequent scenes – to understand and resolve. The characters that act out their parts will take the audience suggestions within the parameters of their characters and no dues ex machinaic solutions can be entered into. The idea behind forum theatre is to bring particular issues to the attention of the public, and through their reactions and the actors’ response to their suggestions to impress upon the audiences the nuances of, and the obstacles to solving, the problem.

For her five nights of forum Ruwanthie chose the topics of Domestic Violence focussing particularly on marital rape, and the Ethnic Conflict. I shall confine my comments to the problem of the ethnic conflict which was performed on three out of the five nights, as it is of particular relevance here.

The stem scene is essentially this. Anushka, the daughter of Tamil couple Ruth and Mohan comes home with her best friend Amali. As it turns out Anushka has been too upset to go for her classes because she has been harassed by the neighbourhood boys at the top of her road. This form of harassment we learn through the dialogue, has been systematic and today had been stepped up a gear with the boys forming a mock checkpoint and attempting to ‘check’ Anushka’s bag. The perturbed Anushka fights them off but can stand it no longer. She brings her problem to her mother and father. Mohan, her father, is of Jaffna Tamil descent and moved recently to a predominantly Sinhala neighbourhood into a house that had remained abandoned for some time. With this move the neighbourhood boys were deprived of what had become their playground. Some teething trouble with them had previously been warded off by Charith, Mohan’s friend from University days and the father of Amali. Charith and Mohan’s friendship dates back to pre 1983 days when they were campus mates.

Confronted with his daughter’s immediate problem, Mohan refuses his wife and child’s entreaties to go back to Charith for a solution. Mohan realises now that this is not a matter of playgrounds and cricket balls, but this racial undertone to the boy’s harassment is far more sinister than just ordinary eve-teasing. Mohan stubbornly refuses to deal with the boys and even more stubbornly refuses to bring the issue to Charith’s notice, despite Anushka’s and Ruth’s efforts to compel him to do so. As far as he is concerned the way to deal with the problem is not to deal with it.

The conundrum for the audience then, is how must this matter be resolved? The responses over the two nights I attended were interesting.

For many, in an audience where Sri Lankan Tamils were a minority, Mohan’s predicament was almost impossible to understand. On one extreme there was the expat who didn’t understand why Charith was different from Mohan. Duh – said the facilitator – one’s Sinhala, one’s Tamil. Ironically, a large number of expatriates in this country who are seen at the theatre are (yes, I am generalising) involved in some aspect of conflict resolution work. That they are so culturally insensitive to the details is slightly worrying. Many suggestions from non – Sri Lankans seemed to focus on the personal issues Mohan had – paranoia, et al. However, they were often given in the abstract without an understanding of why his archive renders such paranoia necessary. This understanding must be cultivated, for the peace efforts to have any credibility.

Many Sri Lankans too, their ethnic origins untraceable, thought Mohan was far too paranoid in the way he approached the suggested solutions of talking to the boys himself, or letting Charith sort out his problems. Many of the scenes suggested by the audience were aimed at getting inside the head of Mohan and figuring out why, oh why, he can’t simply just do what has to be done.

Many audience members could not for the life of them understand the issues that Mohan, a Sri Lankan Tamil, living in Colombo faced. As one Tamil audience member pointed out, Mohan’s problems were being trivialised by his friend Charith, who failed to appreciate Mohan’s gender emasculation, and also by the audience who wondered why Mohan was so paranoid. Despite Mohan articulating the fact that he had been detained and harassed by police previously, the audience continued suggesting that police help be sought, clearly underestimating the fear and intimidation felt by the Tamil community in dealing with almost wholly Sinhala speaking law enforcement authorities. Mohan in one instance refers to them as ‘your cops’ while speaking to Charith during a scene.

One hilarious audience member also asked for a scene in which Mohan is spoken to, and is ‘convinced to join the good side’. After I had reattached my upper and lower jaws I continued to be amazed at the complete and utter lack of empathy for the Tamil worldview. The ease with which the member of the audience (he may be an isolated case, but I doubt it) equated Sinhala with good and by implication Tamil with evil, rang of George Bushian rhetoric. The responses of the audience and the frequency of scenes via which the audience wanted to explore the Mysterious Mind of Mohan (he’s a Tamil you see…they must think different) showed only one thing. That the dichotomy (or trichotomy if you will) of the races in cosmopolitan Colombo is as strong, or stronger, than it has ever been. There exists an absolute lack of comprehension on the part of the Sinhalese, and this is met by a rock solid layer of mistrust on the part of the Tamils. Whereas trust is necessarily something that must be won, comprehension is something that can be forcefed.

Unfortunately however, an audience member’s suggestion that we examine the reasons as to why the boys act in this manner was explored only superficially. It appeared, from the scene that was enacted between Charith and the boys, that the propaganda which commands citizens to be ‘vigilant’ and ‘alert’ and treat everything with suspicion is a doubled edged sword. While it does prevent disasters in the nature of the Mt. Lavinia Bus Bomb, it also paints a significant part of this country’s populace in orange and black stripes. And I would assume that the latter is far more widespread than the former.
As it turns out, Mohan wants to send his daughter abroad so that she does not have to ‘suffer the indignities’ he has had to suffer. Strangely though, he remains patriotic finding a sense of home even amidst the trauma of day to day life.

A Tamil member of the audience with whom I spoke after the production summed it up effectively. “I had no idea Colombo audiences were so dense”, she said, after sitting silently through the performance. When asked why she didn’t speak up, she said it was for the same reason Mohan didn’t take control. “When 90% think like this what’s the point?” she asked. And I was at a loss to answer her.

Forum at the Punchi was designed to raise awareness. It achieved its objectives. However, what it startlingly revealed was just how much more awareness needs to be raised and how soon it has to be done.