Light in the Village
I think of a woman I met in a village. 6 hours east of Calcutta. She was the health worker. She showed me the one cranky hand pump which was the only source of drinking water for forty families. It was inadequate; but the other pump had been broken for a year and there was no-one able to repair it. There was no sanitation in the village. Its pond was fed by an open drain. The surface of the water was covered with slime. She told me it was the villagers' only other source of water. They had to use it to wash their clothes, to wash their cooking utensils, and to wash themselves. They used it for drinking, too; most knew they should boil it, but fuel was scarce.
There was no electricity. There was no school. The few students who attended school in the neighbouring village faced great difficulty: their labour was needed by their families. Also because there was no electricity, and therefore no light, they could not study at night.
There was no road. The village was reached by a deeply rutted track impassable in the rainy season.
Most of the villagers own no land; they work as day labourers for the local landlords, when there is work. Otherwise they scrape a living as best they can. The daily wage is around 17 rupees: 50 pence.
In December, it was harvest time. Everyone was out in the fields; only the older women and the children remain. After the harvest, the rats go out to the fields to feast on the left-over grains: the village boys were out hunting the rats. I saw them as I passed. If they catch one, they roast it this evening.
They need the protein: many children in the village suffer from deficiency.
The health worker and her colleagues explain that the women in the village want to improve the situation. They want to work: they want regular employment. They have skills. She shows me exquisite embroidery. But they cannot sell it. They cannot sell it in the village because everyone can do it, no-one values it or has any need to buy it. They cannot sell it outside the village because they are so cut off, communications are so bad, they have no means of finding anyone who will buy it.
Besides, their husbands treat them as chattels and are reluctant to allow them to engage in independent work. The Hindu wives suffer because their husbands often mistreat them to try to extract more dowry from their families; the Muslim wives suffer because their husbands have the right to remarry, as many as five wives at a time, and the right to divorce at will. A divorced wife is often destitute: rejected by husband and family, and left to fend for herself. Often with young children.
My guide distributes the few government health supplies. She inspects the young children of the village: to make sure their clothes are are washed, their hair is free of lice. To keep a check on their basic state of health. She runs classes for the children, and classes for the mothers, too. She wants her health centre to be a source of light in the village; and she wants it to be a source of inspiration to others. The government has sent her some women from Bihar so she can train them and they can do the same for their villages when they return.
She shows me her health centre. It is a tiny hut. The floor is made of mud. There is one child's desk and a scrap of blackboard in the corner. There is nothing else.
Everyone gathers round. The Bihari women speak. They tell me that they want to make things better, they want to do all they can, but it is very hard. They feel helpless and afraid. They are so very far from home. What advice can I give them?
What should I tell them?
Should I tell them that while their children suffer disease because they have not enough to eat ours are ill because they eat too much? Should I tell them that while their villages are trapped in poverty because they have no road, our towns and villages are being choked and poisoned because they have too many roads?
Should I tell them that we don't even care enough to give our own children decent schooling. That we have expended limitless millions to wage a war. A war not for justice, not for the world's children, but to try to safeguard the West's cheap oil supplies.
I want to have written something that would answer them. And that would speak also to our own overwhelming sense of helplessness and guilt.
But would not simply reflect anger or despair. Despair is a luxury we cannot afford; to spread it seems to me a kind of crime.
It is also an inaccurate response; there is injustice and cruelty in our world, but also courage, dedication, and a profoundly moving kind of solidarity. There is also, in India and in Bangladesh, an immensely ancient and yet vibrant culture that has much to teach us.
And I want the play to reflect and to celebrate the multi-racialism of our own society. I want to take the audience on a journey: a journey through laughter and anger and anger and grief. That will involve the audience on every level: theatrically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and sexually.
4 weeks rehearsal and 36 drafts later, I still don't know if I've succeeded. In the end that's not my business. But I want to dedicate it to those women. Those women in the empty room. The light of the village.