Abhishek Majumdar’s new play Pah-La is on stage at the Royal Court in April 2019.
Q: Can you tell us how you began work on Pah-La?
In 2014, after working on my Kashmir trilogy, I was intrigued by the thought that although in the last century the world had seen several successful non-violent revolutions, more recent movements have all been violent struggles. I proposed this study of non-violence and its future to the International Department at the Royal Court Theatre and they were immediately interested. The Tibetan movement, historically, is an exception to this. It has a glorious history of being non-violent, in the face of great adversity and oppression. Tibetans in Tibet have suffered enormous oppression and yet by and large in our common understanding of the struggle, it has never been violent. This thought and conversation with several Tibetan friends in India, led me to want to get closer and deeper into this story in order to ask ourselves what keeps this Tibetan Struggle non-violent, is it viable in the long run and what do we lose as human beings in general if non-violence ceases to be a model for the rest of the world? I was also very moved by the poetry of Tibetan poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue, whose book ‘ Kora’ was gifted to me by a dear friend. Tsundue’s words were very important through the process of writing this work .
Q: What kind of research did the production involve?
My time was spent studying a wide range of material and interviewing many people across the spectrum. More than hundred interviews were conducted with Tibetans across India, London and New York, especially with those in Mcleodgang and Dharmashala. Interviews were also conducted through online forums of Chinese workers, academics and Tibetans living in Mainland China.
It became clear that I would need to get into Tibet and that, because of my background as a writer, it would not be easy to get the permissions and visas to do this. At this stage The Foundation of Universal Responsibility of HH the Dalai Lama were kind enough to support this research with a grant, they supported me writing the play without any questions about the angle I would take. The absolute independence to the writer was very important to them.
Q: What made you decide to focus on events in Lhasa (the Tibetan regional capital) in 2008?
Through research, it became more and more clear that the 2008 unrest in Lhasa would form the centre of the play. There are of course always two versions of what has happened in Tibet, coming from Chinese media and Tibetan or Western media; but what was certain was that the form of resistance against the Chinese in 2008 was different from what had happened before.
My conversations through multiple Tibetan sources started to suggest that, although the first officially recorded self-immolation was in 2009, a nun and a lay person attempted self-immolation before the unrest in 2008. This human story interested me as well as the fact that in Tibet there was the violent and the non-violent alongside each other at exactly the same point.
Getting into Tibet and researching this play inherently meant that one would be breaking the law. I would have to write my notes, only when essential in Bangla / Hindi (as opposed to in English which is how I generally write my diary) and I would also need to learn many of the names, numbers, locations, answers and destroy the paper after learning them.
Before my wife Pallavi and I left to do my research in Tibet I made a hand drawn map of Lhasa, which marked areas I would need to explore, ethnic divisions of Tibetans, of Chinese and also economic divisions and details of possible routes to get out of Tibet through Shigatse. To reach Tibet, we first traveled to Beijing.
Q: What did you discover on the journey you began in Beijing?
In Beijing we were assigned a guide by Chinese authorities who would be with us through the day. She dropped us back at our hotel at about 8pm and after that I started my work and meetings.
We have to remember that Beijing is a city of immigrants. There are many people in Beijing who have come from Tibet and many who are on their way to Tibet and are always actively weighing the numerous government perks that are given out to people to go and live in Tibet. Beijing also has many scholars who actively study Tibetan geo politics.
Despite careful planning, at one stage I sensed that we were in danger. I got to know abruptly one morning from the guide that our tickets on the Beijing Lhasa Express had been removed. I called my travel agent in India and he said that he had no idea and he was going to try and fix it. I realized that two nights ago, I had potentially made a mistake. I had been to a meeting which turned hostile and although I tried to contain it, I could tell that the lady who was answering me was very upset with my Tibet questions around 2008. She had served in the Police in Lhasa. I had sensed that she would potentially call me out, and I suspect till today that she was responsible for stopping our trip to Lhasa.
I called my agent and we got on to flights to Xining, which is in the border of Tibet and China. At Xining we met another guide who was set up by our agent, a dynamic Muslim man who knew exactly what I was here for. He was sympathetic, I think, to the cause, and also this was his job. We bribed our way on to the Beijing Lhasa express (most of my grant went to bribing people in China!) and we were en route to Lhasa.
Q: What was your experience in Lhasa like?
I think the key thing about Lhasa is that all the research that happened with Tibetans through my contacts happened in houses and the back lanes and in private. What became very clear talking to Tibetans, young people, people who were in school in 2008, was how traumatic those events were. For poorer Tibetans and for poorer Han people, because nobody imagined it would get that violent. At first innocent Chinese or Tibetan people were not attacked, but after two or three days there were incidents of indiscriminate attacks and the Chinese crackdown was very severe. The indiscriminate attacks were things like young people burning old people or a school getting attacked by mobs, not by freedom fighters. So there’s a point at which, like every other revolution, there were many kinds of people in the revolution. There was the revolutionary who was doing the uprising and there was also the person who was the mob; there was the anti-social element; there was the nationalist; there was the soldier. It didn’t just exist between the Tibetans and the Chinese, it becomes about different kinds of people. That’s where the logic of the non-violence fails. This was more complex than the logic of that is Tibetan Buddhist fighting the Chinese oppressor.
After some time in Lhasa we went to Shigatse, through various rural areas, to find out the route from there across the mountains into India. And again what I heard many times was that the unrest in 2008 was quelled very harshly by the Chinese and after that the oppression had increased. And again I heard stories of attempted self-immolation in the lead up to the events of 2008, specifically about two people who tried to self-immolate before the unrest, but it wasn’t confirmed.
What I came back with was a lot of stories about 2008, from the perspective of Tibetans, those working in the police, from the perspective of monks and nuns, of Chinese people working in Tibet. These conversations were very dangerous because these conversations were not allowed.
Q: Can I ask about the work you went on to do with the Tibetan community in exile in India?
Before I went to Tibet I’d interviewed lots of people in exile. I did some workshops with actors in the Tibetan Transit School who had escaped from Tibet, and Richard Twyman (who at that time worked at the Royal Court) and I ran two workshops in Dharmashala in India, where the Tibetan Government in exile is based, with Tibet Theatre led by Lhakpa Lamluk. By this time I’d written the first couple of drafts of Pah-La. These workshops were about trying to find the form of the play and define details. A lot of the physical world had to be found by working with people in exile, discussing what was inconsistent in the story. In the Tibetan story everything is so connected to propaganda, everything has these two sides. It determines the truth value of what is being said.
After the workshops I sent this draft to the office of HH the Dalai Lama, through his foundation. His ministers had read the play and they informed him about its contents and I was invited to a three day lecture by HH the Dalai Lama, followed by a conversation between the two of us about the play. We had an hour long discussion on various issues relating to 2008, to self-immolation, to Buddhism and the question of what is suicide. We had a conversation about China and Tibet and the future of the institution of the Dalai Lama. He asked me what I found when I went to Lhasa and about the reports of self-immolation before the unrest. Whether that’s something that happened or not we don’t know for sure.
Q: What for you was the key thing you learnt from that conversation with HH the Dalai Lama?
That the Tibetan struggle is only important if people continue to be non-violent without him. For its own sake. If people are being Buddhist because of him then there’s no meaning. The other key thing is that Buddhism isn’t really about whether they get independence right now or not, it is about having a system of revolution which will finally make the independence worth it. They are trying to instigate a revolution which does not have violence embedded inside it and so it’s important for the world at large to understand that this is a very hard road to walk. The difficulty of that is what the play explores. There is no one kind of Tibetan. At an individual level everyone is different. I don’t think we’ve created a space where we’ve made non-violence any easier. And the 2008 unrest should be a very good warning to the world. It is inherently lethal to make people who believe in non-violence violent. To push them to a corner where the non-violent becomes violent.
Q: Your first play here, The Djinns of Eidgah, dealt with a similarly contentious subject matter in terms of Kashmir and I know you’ve just had a difficult experience with a production of the play in India. What draws you to telling these stories?
The two plays are contentious in very different ways. For me, the role of theatre, and culture more widely, is to move the conversation forward. There is a narrative of protest, there is a narrative of oppression and the role of playwrights is to bring the multitude of voices on the ground to the forefront. There are not just two sides but many many sides – the freedom struggle is also a class struggle, is also a gender struggle, is also a religious struggle, is also a nationalist struggle. The responsibility of a play is not to allow just one narrative to exist in isolation, which is why the work becomes contentious.
The recent experience in India was the police and one of the right wing Hindutva groups shutting down a production of The Djinns of Eidgah without watching the play. It’s interesting that the law with which I was threatened by the authorities was in fact an old piece of colonial legislation. The first law that Queen Victoria passed when the British took control of India, an Act of theatre censorship.
If they had seen the play it wouldn’t have been contentious but there had recently been a bomb blast in Kashmir, and suddenly it became taboo to talk about Kashmir and share a multitude of voices. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on a binary narrative and just have two sides, especially for authorities. Theatre, has a responsibility to contest that.
To find out more about Pah-La including booking tickets click here.