Theatre actor-director Mohammad Akram Feroze recently set off on foot to travel along India’s 10,000km-long border, stopping to perform plays at villages with – and for – their inhabitants.
Mr Feroze, who does not believe in borders, carries a world passport
Mr Feroze, who does not believe in borders, carries a world passport – as part of a global movement established under Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
His journey, however, was cut short just a little over a month after he set off – at the India-Pakistan border, local police accused him of “breach of peace” and arrested him.
After spending two weeks in prison, he was freed on bail, but he says the time he spent travelling has taught him some invaluable lessons.
These are some of the highlights of his journey, as told to BBC Hindi’s Divya Arya:
‘In one village, the residents only warmed up to me when I told them that my family was originally from Pakistan’
The whole idea of my journey was to understand, engage and plant new ideas in the minds of people living in border villages.
Invisible theatre was a very effective – though risky – tool for this. It meant taking on a completely different identity to my own, when interacting with people. I did this because I wanted villagers to interact with me as a random traveller, rather than as an artist on a project.
In one village, the residents only warmed up to me when I told them that my family was originally from Pakistan who lost everything they owned during partition when they migrated to India.
The villagers immediately grew sympathetic and, in fact, opened up about their opinions on partition and how the border had altered their lives.
One old man said, “Border tension is all hype, created and sustained by governments. On the ground, it is us ordinary people who continue to suffer.”
But such insights would more often than not be quickly swept away by passionate rhetoric about security. I would be told, “things have changed now, you shouldn’t go to the border, people on the other side have bad intentions, and there are terrorists.”
No shades of grey
‘Attitudes towards borders changed depending on proximity to it’
The attitudes towards borders also changed depending on how close or far people lived from them.
It seemed to me that when it came to borders at least, people in the rest of the country understood grey, whereas those who lived on the border were more black-and-white.
One Hindu truck driver from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh who I hitched a ride with told me: “The terror across the border doesn’t worry me, my only worry is feeding my family.”
This was in sharp contrast with most border residents.
One man told me, “The threat of the enemy on the other side is real, our elders have seen violence, we fear those across the border and we have to defend ourselves.” A world passport according to him was “stupidity”.
‘For children in the villages, the border was a physical end, not a political line’
I found the children a different experience altogether.
Wherever I met them, I would try to develop a play, to challenge their concept of borders and introduce the concept of a border-less world. But the dilemma was that they didn’t understand borders as political lines.
When I asked the first set of children, “What is a border?” pat came the reply, “It’s the end.” Like the boundaries of boxes.
So first I had to show them a world map to explain country borders, and then ask them to imagine a world without them.
These were rural students who had only ever crossed the border of their village to go to a neighbouring Indian village. Life ended at the village and beyond that – their parents had explained – lay danger.
“Why? Were the people any different?” I asked. “No,” they replied in unison. Their own answer must have triggered some thought, because then a child stood up and asked, “What if I was born on the other side of the border?”
‘Explaining a border-less world to people who live along one is a challenging concept’
Talking about a border-less world to border villagers is challenging, to say the least, given that even the children have barriers built in their subconscious minds.
I would have to take a circuitous route. One play, titled ‘The educated ghost will scare away the ghost of superstition’, was to educate the villagers about the efficacy of medical treatment for epilepsy instead of prayers by local priests.
While developing the script, a child said there were no doctors in the village.
So, they had to be called from across the border from another village. It automatically drove home the point that people from outside or across the border, in this case a doctor, had good intentions.
What I was doing with them wasn’t really about what happened while I was there, but I hope that a lot of the impact will come later and these new thoughts begin to influence their actions.
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