Hidden Fires by Rashi Bunny /Time Out Mumbai

In 1984, the anti-Sikh riots flared up just as Arvind Gaur had finished his high school exams. He watched houses being burnt and looted. He watched a dear Sikh friend who was hiding in his house cut off his hair to save himself from the attentions of a mob. In relief camps, Gaur and fellow volunteers witnessed the grief of hundreds of Sikhs who had lost their homes and families. Eight years later, Gaur found himself in Muzaffarpur for a friend’s wedding just after the Babri Masjid was demolished. A mob outside was raging against the demolition and he was struck by the incongruity of a celebration taking place in the midst of mayhem. “The violence that I’ve seen still tortures me,” said the Delhi-based director. “We need to keep those memories alive so as not to repeat our mistakes.” Gaur kept his memories fresh by directing Manjula Padmanabhan’s Hidden Fires, written as a reaction to the pogrom that took place in Gujarat in 2003. After premiering in Mumbai in 2004, Hidden Fires returns to re-ignite the horrors of communal violence.
The play’s sole performer, Rashi Bunny, was initially reluctant to do the play, fearing that it would force her think about uncomfortable issues. “I come from a protected background,” the 32-year-old actress explained. When Bunny decided to go ahead with the play, she found it “very deep”and written in a way that “you could save yourself from being hit if you were less sensitive”. Not surprised, Bunny discovered she had a weak stomach for issues capable of rousing strong emotions. “I was sick for two days,” she said. “I just couldn’t handle it. It hit me.”
Gaur stages three of the five monologues that make up Hidden Fires. In the title piece, Bunny plays a woman whose husband enjoyed incinerating Muslim homes during the Gujarat riots. She describes the heady sensation of destruction and justifies her husband’s actions by drawing parallels with the animal kingdom, where only the fittest survive. After a chilling preamble, she talks about the deception of her community, which turned on her and destroyed her home. “The piece tells you to look inside yourself and examine what you’re doing before the violence eats you up,” Gaur pointed out.
The piece that had both Bunny and Gaur wet-eyed with emotion was the final one, Invocations, which features Bunny lamenting the fact that there are no monuments in memory of the deaths of ordinary folk. Soldiers who die in war are said to be martyred, but citizens killed in religious and ethnic struggles are mere statistics. She reads out a list of names she picks out at random from a telephone directory to ascribe identities to the dead. “She talks about the north-east, Kashmir, violence that’s happening all over the world in the name of religion, language. She talks about Sri Lanka, Uganda, what America’s doing to the rest of the world, Pakistan, Chile,” Gaur said. “Newspaper report four people dead, five people dead. They don’t report names. There are monuments for those killed in Germany [during World War II], so that the same thing doesn’t happen again. If we remember what has happened, it’s tough to repeat what happened.” Don’t let the memory of the exhausting litany of names in Jayant Kripalani’s underwhelming production of Hidden Fires last year stop you from buying a ticket. The list of names is brief, Gaur assured us, and symbolic in what is an appeal for peace.
Fittingly the stage is strewn with old, crumpled newspapers. They indicate our tendency to forget news and serve as “a metaphor for how life becomes after having lived through riots”, Gaur said. In the second piece, Know the Truth, the papers become symbolic of the media’s manipulation of news. Bunny plays a chatty, mini-skirted news anchor who dismisses anxious callers phoning in with news of riots. When someone reports bombs exploding in the city, she jokes they must be Diwali crackers. “She’s very pretentious,” Bunny said. “And a bit unnerving.”
Hidden Fires has travelled all over the country and has, Gaur thinks, managed to get under the skin of its audiences. In Chennai, for instance, the local police filmed a special performance Bunny did for them. The recording is now played in police training programmes aimed at making officers more sensitive. In the process, Bunny found herself losing her tendency to ignore gory news. “I became so sensitive, whatever I spoke came from the core of my being,” she said.