Image courtesy Mind Adventures Theatre Company

We may applaud Mind Adventures’ Paraya for many things. We may celebrate it for its visual mastery, its bold dialogue and the intensity and physicality in the acting. We may perhaps hail the innovation in its mode of presentation as brilliant. We may even call the message it offers fearless; the ‘moral behind the story’ thought provoking and relevant to our times. Yet our appreciation—particularly of the message—is at risk of remaining in the safe quarters of the ‘abstract’ as opposed to the ‘applied’. Such abstract appreciation misleads us into believing that Paraya is an indictment on state and society—‘the others’—rather than on ‘us’.

As a member of the audience, I found the performance profoundly disturbing. I use the word ‘audience’ cautiously, as we were more than spectators. Perhaps ‘participants’ is more appropriate. And there lies the importance of Paraya. It was the complicity of the viewer that made the production powerful. We were present in each scene, absorbing the emotions, sometimes interacting with the characters, and often passively participating in the oppression. There was no stage to separate us and hide our collusion. Some may feel the raincoats and surgical masks that participants were required to wear were slightly gimmicky. Yet the anonymity it compelled us to embrace only heightened the experience.

The characters in Paraya appeared to exist in an alternative reality. In this reality, the state controls its citizens through the administration of a compliance-inducing drug – Upekka. The ‘equilibrium’ attained through the drug is also enforced by the state through a network of sentinels and informants. The story’s conspiracy unravels as one citizen proclaims publicly that he is immune to the drug and declares his intention to liberate others from the state’s programme. The story clearly draws inspiration from popular literature. Usually, we may be forgiven for failing to draw direct parallels between those literary sources and our own predicament. And yet, Paraya doesn’t offer us that luxury.

During the opening scene, one of the characters, Madhavi, makes an earnest bid for the prize for best oratorical skills at the Silver Jubilee Celebration of the nation’s independence. The topic is ‘Why I love My Country’. Her reference to the media as dependable and accurate because it is state-controlled drew the odd chuckle from the audience. The parallel was obvious. Another (perhaps less obvious) parallel that emerged from the scene was the state’s monopoly over the definition of patriotism. The bells were now ringing frantically in my head.

The story was performed thrice in order to permit participants to follow certain characters and piece together the world they were immersed in. I followed three out of the ten characters (my observations are therefore coloured by the characters I chose to follow). First, I followed Rajiv, a deeply troubled youth experiencing what appeared to be symptoms of withdrawal syndrome, as the drug’s effect on him had worn off. The climax of his story was his brutal torture by a state interrogator in an attempt to gather information about the conspiracy. Next, I followed Mallika, a dissident and former sentinel now moonlighting as a sex worker. Hers was a story of tragic exploitation, not only by state oppressors, but also by those within the liberation struggle. Her story also ends brutally, as she too is captured and tortured by interrogators. Finally, I chose to follow Dr. Tyronne, the scientist responsible for designing the drug and brainwashing female sentinels into serving the state. The character’s duplicity was fascinating. He was a government apologist masquerading as a dignified practitioner. He was also a sexual deviant abusing his power over his patients. Most striking was his tragic isolation from reality, starkly revealed by his delusional relationship with a mannequin he kept hidden in a closet. He too falls out of favour and is condemned by the regime. Amidst the disarray, I also observed the steady disintegration of the state’s programme of control. Frenzied conversations between the Special Envoy (a high-ranking state official) and her mutinous subordinates alluded to other inescapable truths: that the oppressors inevitably fear the oppressed; that an oppressive system needs the drug to sustain itself.

Each of these characters succeed in shedding light into their world; a world of conformity, brutality, duplicity and paranoia. It is also a world sustained by the complicity of ordinary people. Most frighteningly, we, the nameless participants in the production, played the role of ordinary people. And through the roles we played, the line between the world of Paraya and our own was permanently blurred.

We were made to behave as if we too were on the drug.

The triumph of Paraya was its ability to immerse us in the milieu and expose us for our complicity. The natural reaction to the production—exalting it in the abstract as a brilliant political critique—may in fact betray us further. A few may draw parallels that are more than cosmetic. To those few, Paraya remains not a mere critique of the state, but a critique of our collective apathy—our willingness to tolerate impunity.

The story of Paraya does not end when the lights go out and the apprehensive applause begins. It continues today with our every act of blind compliance. And yet, in a strange way, the story reminds us of the power we potentially wield over oppressive systems—power that such systems genuinely fear. For this reason alone, Paraya must be made accessible to a wider audience and should be performed in other parts of the country. We are all under the influence of the drug, and this production is a small but important antidote.