Yael Farber: “I find it very deadening not to be engaging with things that are difficult or emotional”

An interview with the director of <em>Nirbhaya</em>, a new play about the Delhi rape case that shocked the world.

I was in Barcelona when I heard Jyoti had died. I didn’t know her name then but I knew she was a young woman like myself and my friends, and that her death highlighted a need for change.

On 16 December Jyoti Singh Pandey boarded a bus in Delhi with a male friend, Awindra Pandey. What happened next is etched into public consciousness. The driver and his five companions beat Awindra unconscious then took turns to rape Jyoti on the floor of the bus as it circled the streets. When she fought back they raped her with an iron rod which destroyed 90 per cent of her intestine. They then threw the couple from the bus and attempted to drive over them, before disappearing into the Delhi night.

The news was broadcast and people prayed for Jyoti’s recovery. Not knowing her name they lit candles for a girl they called Nirbhaya, the Marathi word for Fearless. Nirbhaya has now become a familiar name for a young woman who fought to live, but who eventually died, a beautiful, intelligent girl who has in death become a potent symbol for change.

When I heard that writer and director Yael Farber, moved by the incident, was creating a play around it, I felt this was to be an important production and wanted to hear more about the ideas behind it, so I met with Farber in a small Edinburgh cafe to discuss her show.

After seeing Nirbhaya I am somewhat in awe of her. I left the auditorium feeling completely drained yet absolutely alive. Jyoti’s story is a framing device; in between Jyoti boarding the bus and getting attacked five other women tell their stories of rape, violence and abuse. The testimonies glisten, these women hold nothing back.

Although Farber felt strongly about the case the idea to create the play originated from one of the actors. “There’s an actress in Mumbai who was one of the performers, Poorna Jagannathan. She contacted me on Facebook because she had seen my work and said ‘Women are ready to speak here, will you come and make it work?’ and of course that was an amazing invitation and I said yes.

“It was very quick to do the work for this year but we just felt this time next year this story would have passed back into the tide of indifference. This young woman died and if her life were not to be in vain we have to carry forward what it evoked on the streets.“

Farber is keen to see attitudes towards women change, and she hopes Nirbhaya will be part of a larger process of breaking the silence. “We didn’t want to just tell the story about Jyoti because to do that is to suggest it’s an anomaly in some way. What we wanted to do was show that this sits inside a larger frame, a wider tapestry of an endemic violence against women. We felt that by bringing personal testimony it provokes this civic gesture which

is that these five women get up every day and break their silence in front of witnesses as a way of saying ‘this is the only way forward, if we begin to speak, we begin to take apart this idea that we should carry the shame’ because we live in silence when there is a currency of shame and when you start to speak you are.”

I ask Farber about the creation of Nirbhaya and she tells me how closely she worked with the actors . “It’s testimonial theatre which is different to verbatim [in that] it requires the engagement of a playwright, and that was my role. I gathered their testimonies and did a lot of research and interviews and group sessions with them but then I, I would go away and craft and find the words and trajectory to condense it, each piece could only be possibly ten minutes.”

Something I found poignant in Nirbhaya was a child’s yellow dress which was handed to Poorna by Japjit Kaur, playing Jyoti. “Theatre is about evoking memory, thoughts, sensuous responses to things and sensory responses to things,” says Farber. “If she just told us she was a child and [the abuse] happened then we will hear it but if we see a little yellow dress we will understand it and we will remember what it was like, to wear your favourite yellow dress and you know just to evoke that image inside us because we want to bring the audience on a journey with us. With each story Jyoti hands [the actor] their object, in other words saying ‘remember yourself, speak about this, tell your story, bring your testimony.’”

I mention the recent case of a thirteen-year-old abuse victim being labelled ‘predatory’. Farber frowns and shakes her head. “Extraordinary, but yet it’s appalling but not extraordinary, this kind of stuff happens all the time and I, think across the world in different ways, we, we create some kind of diversion from these, and we have to find ways to break the silence.”

It is apparent in Nirbhaya that as well as seeing the injustice in the world (she has previously written about apartheid) Farber also sees beauty – the performers speak about Delhi as ‘a city where god runs in the wires’ and the way Farber speaks has a flow and rhythm akin to poetry.

“There’s such brutality and difficulty, but there’s such beauty as well,” she says. “The sacred and the profane live alongside each other, so inside all that difficulty and pain, there is immense, very profound sense of spirituality and divinity.”

Was it not difficult for her, though, writing about such an intense and horrible subject matter?

“I find this kind of work very fulfilling, so for me difficulty is part of it. Of course it’s difficult, of course it’s emotional but I’m grateful for those things,” she says. “I find it very deadening not to be engaging with things that are difficult or emotional. It’s not easy, but it’s my work and it’s where I draw my purpose from. For me, difficulty is part of all the work I do. I trust if something is difficult because it’s usually worth it.”

A performance of Nirbhaya. Photo: William Burdett-Coutts
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage