By Fizza HasanArtistic Director, Theatre Wallay
It was early 2015, and small groups of us were traipsing all over the Punjab looking for Partition survivors to interview for a big theatre project we were working on. My friend Ammar Khalid and I happened to be in Lahore where we had identified a few people and had set up meetings. One of these people was my chacha, Dr. Mehdi Hasan. When we turned up at his place, it was to discover that he had had to go somewhere urgently. So I called him up the next day to reschedule.
“Why do you want to interview me?” he asked. “I don’t have half as many stories as some others. Why don’t you go to my friend I. A. Rehman instead? He has tales to tell.”
He gave me the gentleman’s phone number and said he would let him know I was going to call.
Mr. I.A. Rehman didn’t sound too keen when I called him up, but he couldn’t refuse his friend, and I was learning to be something that didn’t come naturally to me – pushy.
So the next morning, Ammar and I found our way to the HRCP office in Garden Town. At this point in time, I didn’t know anything about Mr. Rehman or about his work; I had often heard his name and was vaguely familiar with the work of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, but I had no idea what a giant I was going to meet.
The front of the office building was disappointing; it looked small and run down. The interior was an absolute disaster. Piles of half-broken furniture, rooms badly in need of repair, exposed wiring, mountains of old papers and dusty box files leaning against the bland almost white walls. We were led to Mr. Rehman’s office. He was sitting behind a large desk that looked like the aftermath of a war. The rest of the room looked just like the rest of the office; he looked like a small goblin in the middle of a sea of old papers.
We introduced ourselves and set up our tripod and camera and took out our voice recorders – all brand new equipment that made us feel very important and official. (It was the first time our group, Theatre Wallay, had received a grant and had money to invest in any kind of equipment, so we felt very special!) Mr. Rehman eyed us warily, and we could tell he wasn’t too happy with our presence. He mumbled a few times that he really didn’t have any stories to tell us and that we were wasting our time.
In our experiences of interviewing Partition survivors, we found most of our interviewees very keen to tell their stories- they had been waiting for decades for someone to want to hear them. Mr. Rehman was the opposite. As we started asking him the first very simple questions, we saw his face shutting down. His body became stiff and wooden, and he answered in little more than monosyllables.
We tried different tactics for half an hour, but to no avail; all we managed to gather were a few banalities of time and place. My chacha, his close friend, had told me he had tales to tell, but this man kept repeating that nothing happened to him at the time of Partition, he didn’t see or experience anything worth talking about.
Ammar caught my eye, and we decided to admit defeat. We thanked Mr. Rehman for his time, and took down our camera and packed it. We turned off our voice recorders and started to get up.
And then the dam burst. Ignoring our thanks and our goodbyes, Mr. Rehman began to talk like a man hypnotised, his eyes glazed, his voice a monotonous drone, as if the words were coming out of him of their own accord. Ammar and I looked at each other, and I turned on my voice recorder in my lap.
He talked for about forty minutes, almost without stopping for breath; his posture didn’t change, his eyes didn’t shift focus from the wall they were fixed on, he didn’t acknowledge our presence. The pain, the agony and the torment of his story seemed to be torn out of him, and he seemed powerless to stop the flow. Ammar and I listened, spellbound, unable to breathe for fear of disrupting the tale and causing some sort of harm.
We came out dazed, not just by the experiences we had heard about, but also because of the obvious trauma that those experiences were still able to exert on an old man, and the powerful hold that painful memories still had on him. We were shaken to the core.
Needless to say, the tale he recounted featured in the play we wrote and performed, “Dagh Dagh Ujala”. He became known to all of us, even those who hadn’t met him as “taash man”, “the card player”.
By the design of fate, he came to watch the play. The world works in mysterious ways, they say, and I am starting to be convinced of this. Theatre Wallay has always had trouble with government owned performance venues, as they consider the content of our plays to be subversive. No surprises there – the truth has never been welcome in this country, and historical truth least of all. All government and semi-government cultural entities refused us their halls. We were at a loss – we had to perform in Islamabad and Lahore, but where? For Lahore, someone suggested the HRCP hall.
“They have a hall?” I was amazed. “Where?”
Apparently, the façade of their office was very deceptive; it looked small, but the office runs deep, and has an auditorium with a seating capacity of about three hundred. So we got in touch with Mr. I. A. Rehman once again. The HRCP came through for us, and Mr. Rehman did us the honour of watching our play. He slipped in unannounced, in the dark, for one of the performances, and slipped out again before the lights came on at the end. It was only a couple of years later, upon meeting the actor, Safeer Ullah Khan, who had played his character in the play, that he acknowledged he had seen it.
This was the beginning of our relationship with Mr. Rehman and with the HRCP. Whenever we had a “difficult” play to perform in Lahore, the HRCP opened its doors for us, even though they had stopped renting out their hall to others. I like to think that this was Mr. Rehman’s stamp of approval on the work that we do, his acknowledgment of the fact that our theatre was promoting reflection and values that he and the HRCP stood for.
The last time we performed at the HRCP premises, I met Mr. Rehman half an hour before the performance. He had just come back from a trip and was exhausted and looked old and frail. I invited him to the show. He said he wouldn’t be able to come, as he was too tired. But he came. And he wrote about it. This was, for me, one of the highlights of my theatre career, that a man of his stature should write about the work of my group!
In his article (The Right to Public Spaces, Dawn: Apr 26, 2018), he said “a sizeable Lahore audience was treated to a scintillating performance by Theatre Wallay, a group of Islamabad-based theatre enthusiasts who have been looking at contemporary reality. The theme was dwindling access to public spaces. In a 60-minute programme, only a few instances of encroachment on the people’s right of access to public spaces could be discussed, but that was sufficient to set the citizens thinking about the erosion of their freedoms.”
Today, the tables are turned. Today I write about him, with reverence, with respect and in recognition of his extraordinary services to his country and his people. I acknowledge that he started something that we have a responsibility to continue. And I pledge to continue to fight for the things he stood for, in any way that I can, and most particularly through the theatre that he appreciated.
His memory and his legacy will sustain us in the days ahead. But as for him, I hope that he has been reunited with the loved ones about whose lives he speculated on a hand of cards while he waited for news, some news, of them while the world burned around him.