Rahul Varma– Playwright

What made you want to become a writer?
I was born in India and came to Canada in 1976. In 1981, I co-founded a theatre company called Teesri Duniya Theatre (www.teesriduniya.com). My playwriting is linked to this company. There was complete absence of cultural diversity in Canadian theatre. With few exceptions, everything I saw on the stage or cinema screen was Euro-centric re-imposing the Anglo-French dominance without a serious scrutiny. First Nation communities, the original inhabitants of this land were completely ignored. Whenever ethno-cultural minorities were shown on the stage they were trivialized, exoticized and stereotyped.  I became playwright (a) in reaction to what was absent in theatre, (b) to give voice to ordinary people, reflect cultural diversity on the stage, and (c) to make literary contribution to the field by writing with political consciousness

Was the journey difficult?

It was and continues to be a challenging journey.  Writing about marginalized, under/misrepresented communities, writing about social justice with political consciousness, writing in a cultural milieu that is predominantly euro-centric, hierarchical as well as writing against the stream of plays that avoided critical themes and promoted otherness  – was an uphill journey. In addition, English is not my mother tongue – it is language of my adulthood. Writing in a language other than my mother tongue posed other challenges. But at the same time it has been a good journey because it has allowed me to offer an alternate viewpoint, give me a chance to dialogue with peers and colleagues, and challenge the status-quo.  It has been a difficult journey but also an enjoyable one. After all, we reach our destination only if the journey teaches you lessons of traveling the path.

What are themes and topics you like to tackle in your books?

Social justice and human condition has been the common theme that I’m dedicated to. Cultural complexities, racism, power-relationship, peace, human-rights, environment, women’s issues, gendered violence are some of the themes I have tackled in my plays.  While personal experience is essential condition in writing, I am not interested in writing about self-discovery and self-awareness.  To much of me, me, and me doesn’t interest me.

What inspired your play Bhopal?

The play Bhopal is about one of the world’s worst industrial disaster that occurred at the Union Carbide pesticide plant, located in the city of Bhopal, India. The play derives its title from the city’s name.

On the night of December 3, 1984, the American multinational Union Carbide exploded, engulfing entire city in a billow of deadly poisonous fumes. Small children fell like flies, men and women vainly scurried for safety like wounded animals, only to collapse, breathless and blinded by the gas. By morning, the death toll was over 500, by sunset, 2,500. By the following day, numbers didn’t matter — Bhopal had become the largest peace-time gas chamber in history. Over 25,000 people have died to date and counting.

Incongruously, I first learnt about this disastrous explosion on the TV screen in Montreal Canada which had become my home since 1976. The next day, newspapers brought images of mass destruction of lives in Bhopal. Land was littered with dead bodies and bodies gripped in pain. These horrifying images of destruction relayed directly into our drawing rooms by TV, on the one hand hugely disturbed me, and on the other hand raised the question “why did this had to happen”, and therefore “how do I respond?” The quest for response was precipitated by the image of a child named Zarina, which I saw in a hurriedly made documentary film called Bhopal: Beyond Genocide by Tapan Bose and Suhasini Mulay. The film traced 18 days short life of Zarina, who was one of thousands of babies born after the explosion. The film showed the heart-wrenching body of Zarina – her heaving ribcage and her collapsed heart that could be seen through the lesion on her melting skin.  Her autopsy report said, “Poisoned in her mother’s womb”.  I asked myself if Zarina had lived to tell, how will she describe her pain? Well, she didn’t live and at 18 days, she was too young to say anything. What could have been said, then, became my creative response culminating in the form a play Bhopal later translated into Hindi as Zahreeli Hawa by iconic Late Habib Tanvir.

Although the play is based on real incident, it is not a documentary play. The play fictionalizes the events and attempts to reach the truth behind such incidents.
For those of us who don’t live in India, what happened in Bhopal?
To understand Bhopal disaster, one needs to trace down the roots of Multinational Corporation called Union Carbide in India.

Union Carbide came to India in 1905 while the country was still under British rule. The company was best known for the manufacture of the Eveready battery. By the mid-60s the company had moved into agrochemicals, and by the mid-70s it had become one of India’s largest manufacturers of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Production of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, were part of a massive effort during the 1970s and ’80s known as the Green Revolution. This term described a movement that aimed to increase food yields through the use of new strains of food crops, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization. The Green Revolution promised to harness the power of science, technology and industrial development to tackle hunger in the developing or Majority World. Unfortunately, the promises of the Green Revolution were never realized.

For example, even though the Green Revolution increased wheat and rice yields, nearly 5,000 children die each day of malnutrition. One-third of India’s 1 billion people are poverty-stricken, and can’t afford to buy the “surplus” food the Green Revolution promised. Green Revolution made even those farmers who could afford the growth, dependent on foreign technology, chemical products, and machinery.

Worse still, the technology that was used at the Indian plant was inferior to the one used in the western countries. And the chemicals that were manufactured in India were banned in North America and Europe because of their hazardous nature.  This was well known to the Union Carbide and the company covered up the ill-effects of its poisonous gases and deadly discharges that were leaking into the community. Nearby residents were experiencing diseases unknown to medical science, and animals near the company drainage pipe were dying. When animals were found dead near the pipe, the company responded with cash. It paid compensation to the animal owners in order to buy their silence. While the company succeeded in silencing the villagers, poisonous chemicals continued to make its way into the bloodstreams of the neighboring people, with tragic effects. Women gave birth to deformed babies and infant mortality rose to alarming levels.
Not only the plant was sub-standard, it was unsafely managed, which culminated in the form of the explosion resulting in 25,000 dead to date and leaving thousands more disabled or injured.
Has there been any justice as far as you know?
In the aftermath of the explosion, the Union Carbide site has never been properly cleaned up. Chemical wastes continue to poison people living near the abandoned factory. Testing conducted by Greenpeace found cancer, brain-damage- and birth-defect-causing chemicals in the soil and groundwater in and around the factory site, at levels up to 50 times higher than US Environmental Protection Agency safety limits. Mercury levels were 20,000 to 6 million times higher than levels accepted by the World Health Organization. A 2002 study by the Fact-Finding Mission on Bhopal found traces of lead and mercury in the breast milk of nursing women.

Survivors have not been properly compensated and culprits have not been brought to justice.  Warren Anderson, the CEO of now defunct Union Carbide lives as a free man in the US and has not been tried.
The only justice done is that in their death, the victims of Bhopal have given us a sense of awareness.

What are obstacles to achieving justice in India?
Pressure from multinational corporations, corruption in the government, bureaucracy and the judiciary are some of the reasons why justice has not been delivered.  I have talked to survivors who must bribe judges and bureaucrats to receive compensation.  The government doesn’t want to discourage foreign investment; hence it doesn’t impose safety regulation and does not punish polluting corporations.  Profit dictates the process of production.
Are you working on any new plays?

After Bhopal, I wrote a play called Truth and Treason that examines the so called war on terror. Truth and Treason tells the story of an American soldier of conscience, an Iraqi mother, her jailed husband and their 11 year old daughter killed in the war of aggression. As the play unfolds, audiences are drawn to  question not only what comprises ‘war’ and ‘terror’, but how, where and by whom the real ‘war on terror’ is fought… Truth and Treason premiered in 2009 in Montreal to an enthusiastic reception by the public

At present I am working on a new play called Unusual Battleground, which is a play about hidden identity. It is about woman survivors of genocide and rape who must hide their true identities in order to live. The play extrapolates Armenian genocide of 1915 Turkey, which is still contested by many — with genocide and rapes from Rwanda in 1994-95. The play links these two human catastrophes through memories of the Diaspora from these countries now living in Canada.
Are there common themes in your plays?

I have written over 12 full length plays both in Hindi and in English. Themes differ from play to play but they all have one thing in common – they are about human condition drawing attention to social justice with political consciousness. My attempt is not to write plays about reality but about discovering the truth behind the reality.
What is one theme or topic you would like to tackle but haven’t already?

My plays from the recent past have been on international and human rights themes.  After completing my work-in-progress Unusual Battleground, I want to turn my attention to a set of family plays that will examine gender issues among new Canadians. In this set of plays, I will also examine cross-cultural relations across communities.


Where can we find out more about what happened in Bhopal?
Some very good information is available on the web
I also encourage people to visit the website for Sambhavna Clinic Trust  headed by Mr. Satinath Sarngi based in Bhopal, India.

Where can we find out more about your work and your productions?
Those who are interested in my work, I encourage them to visit the website of the Teesri Duniya Theatre http://www.teesriduniya.com or email me rahul.varma.rahul@gmail.com
The book is available at the Playwrights Canada Press http://www.playwrightscanada.com/


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About Jolene Owen (Editor-at-large)

Jolene Owen is an interactive journalist working in the transmedia sector. View all posts by Jolene Owen (Editor-at-large)

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