A child shouts “freedom” from a car window. A soldier runs from a teenage girl, covered in bombs. An inspirational football team throws stones. These scenes, from Abhishek Majumdar’s play The Djinns of Eidgah, charting the radicalization of the youth of Kashmir, are familiar to us in the UK, and should be to people across the globe: young people joining together, shouting out, rising up. From protests on student tuition to the over-throwing of governments, there is a growing tide of young people who have been, in one way or another, radicalized; in its depiction of the lives of two teenage brothers, Bilal and Ashrafi, Majumdar’s sensitive play examines this process.
The opening scene shows a wind-tunnel of chiffon-like material, in which two children greedily await their father’s bedtime story. As he tells them tales of generals and djinns, the futility of war, the children look on, knowing better. This scene evokes a traditional practice of story-telling, a tone which is carried through the show. Each character comes to understand the power with which words can influence and decry the world around them.
This powerful style of expression places the play within a wider oral tradition and this oral quality, in turn, exposes the cyclical nature of the events of the play; we can no longer perceive them as isolated events: war has been raging for eternity, these are just the latest victims. Tom Scutt’s design enhances this effect; the characters walk across a frayed carpet that looks centuries old, conveying a sense that their ancestors have walked across the same floor. The scene changes are unsettlingly enacted by soldiers, as old battles bleed into the contemporary world.
This approach can be problematic. The play charts the birth of revolutionary zeal in a nation’s youth, and yet they speak in the language of older men. The teenagers never succeed in gaining their own voices, which stunts the sense of them being gripped by fury. When Bilal argues with his comparatively conservative doctor, they do not seem to argue as two people from different generations, instead they speak with one voice and Bilal’s apparent rationalism negates his aggression and grief.
This problem is also present in the way political revelations are unraveled. The football team lack autonomy, as they are taken to the protest by their over-bearing coach; Bilal and Ashrafi are politicized only when it becomes impossible for them not to be. The character of Bilal’s friend Khaled is sympathetically conceived by Raj Bajaj, but as he struggles between his friend and his coach, his choice is one of whom to follow, rather than whether to fight. The figure of Dr Wani, however – powerfully brought to life by Ayesha Dharker – acts independently, and puts forward an arresting argument about dissent, telling the tale of her eight-year-old son’s newly found politics. In the end, the strongest political discussions were those of the adult characters, the young people lacking conviction.
The play stages an interesting discussion of self verses nation: how far should your country determine your future? But though this question is considered through the perspective of the inheritors of Kashmir, these young men and women never gain full control of their voices; they always seem to be parroting their elders. Though Majumdar has written poetic and often beautiful play, it doesn’t quite have enough fire behind it to truly ignite its audience.