x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Teen life: Teenage brides still exist - in life, not just literature

My friend Sana dazedly told me, over lunch at Shake Shack a few weeks ago, that her parents are planning to marry her to a rising tycoon.

Plays and musicals always make for entertaining evenings. It’s great fun watching Simba canter about the stage in The Lion King on Broadway, or being spellbound by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s haunting music in The Phantom of the Opera in the West End of London.

The realisation struck that I hadn’t watched a live performance in my native tongue, Hindi, for years. I’d read of a play being performed at the Tagore theatre, Nirmla, based on the novel by Munshi Premchand.

I had doubts at first; Premchand lived 100 years ago and was known for mostly heart-rending, tragic commentary on the social milieu of a colonised and impoverished India, which sounded as appetising as mouldy Brie.

Still, we squeezed into the imposing theatre as the lights dimmed. The arts and culture are evidently popular here: the seats were filled and people were jostling for standing space.

The play proved to be a slick, heart-warming production. Nisha Sharma gave a masterful performance as Nirmla, a 16-year-old married to a 40-year-old widower with three sons. She does her best to be a good wife and mother, but her husband suspects that she is attracted to his teenage son.

Confusion reigns in the house, undercurrents of tension are rife and the widower sends his eldest son to boarding school in a fit of jealousy.

The younger boys feel neglected and run away. In the end, almost everyone, including Nirmla, dies of grief. Cheerful sort of chap, Premchand.

My initial misgivings about being able to relate to the play vanished – I found myself captivated. Love and jealousy are themes that endear themselves to anyone, in any century. However, the rather less endearing theme of teenage brides is sadly also prevalent today.

My friend Sana dazedly told me, over lunch at Shake Shack a few weeks ago, that her parents are planning to marry her to a rising tycoon. It’s a huge step, unfathomable to me at this stage of my life – and I don’t like to think she’s any wiser about the world than I am.

“He’s really sweet,” she assured me, glowing, but apprehensive. “He buys me presents from Hermès and drives a Ferrari, and I’ll be 18 in a month.”

In this case, both Sana and the potential groom are willing – but often, young people are forced into unsuitable alliances. The couple may not even know the full implications; marriage is so much more than getting to ride Ferraris.

More seriously, poor families might use the pretext of marriage to sell their young daughters to older men – which amounts to human trafficking, a criminal act, and is a real issue in the lives of hundreds of teenagers all over the world.

Of course we read dry accounts of human trafficking fairly frequently. It is works such as Nirmla that really bring home the message by weaving a deft, attention-holding story around characters you empathise with, and even though they were conceived in a different culture a century ago, that’s the power of literature and theatre.

Lavanya Malhotra is an 18-year-old student in Dubai

artslife@thenational.ae

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