Kerima Mohideen performed an evening of storytelling with the title: If Trees Could Speak. What was striking about it was its weaving of contemporary politics with myth, story and her own experiences.

In the first half we heard a story (written by Saadat Hasan Manto) of the Partition of India through the eyes of a man in a ‘lunatic’ asylum who wanted to go ‘home’. We heard about her childhood experience of a Sri Lankan mosque which still welcomes people of all faiths, contrasting with the church bombings of earlier this year and we heard about the ‘original tree-huggers’. Women, who were prepared to be severed in two to protect their forest from the tree-fellers of the Maharaja because their trees were sacred to them.

The meat of the evening was her second-half telling of the Indian myth of the Ramayana interwoven with the contemporary story of Soni Sori, an Adivasi activist. A woman who is endeavouring to save her forest lands and people from the ravages of mining companies in complicity with government.

What made this particularly interesting is that both stories are subversive and echo one another over the ages. The Ramayana is one of India’s most popular myths and has many versions in many languages. In Kerima`s version of the story Rama is in conflict with Ravana over the ownership of a forest that Ravana claims. Sita, Rama’s wife, sits somewhere in between the two. The present day Hindu nationalist government treats the myth almost as historical fact and allows only one version to be told. In this version Rama is a perfect hero who rescues his faithful and beautiful wife Sita, from the 10 headed demon Ravana whom he defeats in battle. Some commentators describe it as a kind of soap-opera, feel-good version that has the effect of promoting contemporary populism. For many of the minority peoples of India, Ravana, however, is presented as the hero fighting against the oppressor Rama. And I am sure there are many other shades in between.

Kerima tells the story emphasising the role of Sita, pulled between the characters of Rama and Ravana, whilst holding to her own power and integrity. There are obvious parallels between her and the contemporary social activist Soni Sori, whose story is woven through the myth.

It is a powerful and compelling mix of stories that challenges the Hindutva narrative, emphasising how the control over story and its interpretation is key to power over people and the land.

Malcolm Green 10/9/19