Theatre Royal Stratford East, London (8th to 30th April 2016)
‘The House of In Between’ virtually transports you to the by lanes of Patna, Eastern India where a Hijra clan survives. Hijras or Chakkas as they are popularly known are India’s third gender who attained legal recognition only in 2014. This is their story.
The opening of the play is captivating as the use of light, dance and narration of the mythological origin of the Hijra is made known. This scene is both empowering and energising. We are then introduced to the leader of the Hijra clan, Uma (a very convincing, Esh Alladi) who is seen directing a Hijras’ dance sequence in what appears to be their home, in preparation for an event that her clan will soon grace with their auspicious presence.
The décor on stage to depict the humble abode of the Hijras has been done with great finesse be it the stainless steel vessels, a jute cot or trunks which hold their belongings. Also, the use of classic Bollywood in both music and dance sequences lends the right amount of fervour to the pace of the story.
The playwright (Sevan K. Greene) has penned a riveting story where the life of Hijras, a marginalised Indian group, is demonstrated with great poignancy, especially by the main characters Uma and Shakti (Gary Wood) through their almost perfect mannerisms characteristic of Hijras e.g. use of overt gestures, exaggerated facial expressions and being secure in the knowledge that their identity as a Hijra is often misunderstood and therefore feared by the general public.
The play unfolds to reveal to us what the clan must do for a living, in a country where they are still not fully assimilated into the mainstream. Apart from dancing, singing and blessing people during important life events, they must also look into diversifying their sources of income and are often forced to take up work which is perceived as ‘disgraceful’ in Indian culture. This brings the clan under the radar of the police who generally take advantage of their position and extract bribes from the Hijras in return for their uninterrupted trade.
The characters within the Hijra clan reminded me of different personalities that members of any group often unintentionally assume – the authoritarian leader, the rebel, the endearing one, the voice of reason and finally, the one that’s misunderstood. To this end, we get a glimpse into the individual lives of each member of the clan and during the course of these scenes, the use of visuals and background score(s) to depict a bustling Indian city is very effective e.g. honking of cars, shadows to depict a crowd, the projection of an old building terrace and liberal use of incense sticks.
Group norms within the Hijra clan emerge as important and underlying the narrative, is a plot which enlightens us about what happens to clan members that dare deviate from these norms - When Uma sternly warns her clan against rebellion and speaks of ‘Izzat’ or respect, she does so with such conviction that you want to nod your head in firm agreement.
Human dynamics of love, annoyance, resentment, competition, jealousy and above all learning how to live as one functional unit are effectively brought to fore by the characters. The jealousy harboured by Shakti towards Dev (the clan’s newest addition), the relationship between Shakti and Mukesh (Vikash Bhai, her ‘husband’ as per Hijra rites) and Amrita’s (Ashraf Ejjbar) rendition of the Hijra’s sexual desires make for some very intense, thought provoking scenes.
Although the script is engaging with a smattering of Hindi terms and is in keeping with the setting of the play I must say that at times, the dialogues were emphatic because of these words alone e.g. when Uma asks Dev to address her as ‘Nayak’ (leader), a non-Hindi speaker would not immediately appreciate the significance of hierarchy within the clan.
The actors emote effectively and you cannot but empathise with the emotional upheavals that the Hijras experience. One dialogue in particular, by Uma, will stay with me for a long time because of its very matter of fact nature – “We are neither here nor there”.