Donmar Warehouse, London – until 17 September 2022
Partition equals trauma. It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that the British Empire’s solution to intractable problems in three of its most important colonies and mandates — namely Ireland, India and Palestine — was the divisive device of drawing boundaries which created local catastrophes. Seventy-five years ago, the Indian Partition — which has already been explored in plays such as Howard Brenton’s Drawing the Line — resulted in millions being uprooted, terrible violence and unimaginable suffering. Now four British playwrights have adapted Kavita Puri’s book Partition Voices: Untold British Stories in a joint production between Donmar Warehouse and Tara Theatre.
The trauma caused by the 1947 Partition of Imperial India into India and Pakistan (itself split into two separate parts) is an event of such massive consequences as to almost defy comprehension. Puri’s book humanises this bloody history by presenting interviews with British Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, who frankly remember the experiences of their families and friends. As the title of this stage version underlines, many in the migrant communities in Britain have been unable to articulate their painful memories of the catastrophe because the events, when neighbours often turned on neighbours, were just so horrible.
So this play, which is jointly written by Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood, is first and foremost part of a longstanding wider awakening of the British mind, and one of several recent attempts to commemorate a ghastly period in history, which was, in the words of the programme note, “one of the largest migrations the world had seen. In a period of a few months, approximately 12 million people moved across the newly formed borders of India and Pakistan. Muslims to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to India. It is estimated that between 200,000 to two million people died and at least 75,000 women were abducted and raped”.
Silence has a framing story in which Mina, a British journalist, pitches a newspaper article about migrants from the Indian subcontinent remembering Partition. At first this is annoyingly clumsy, in that it argues that the British media has been silent about Partition and Empire, when of course we have all been talking about the Raj and after for decades. Although Mina at first meets a wall of silence from survivors of 1947, she soon finds witnesses who are prepared to share their experiences. The stories are well edited and compellingly human: people remember life with neighbours before and after Partition. The British strategy of “divide and rule” is rightly criticised, and history is touchingly individualised.
As boys, Kulvinder and Irfan witness the horrors of communal violence; James, a white Scottish man remembers his ayah, but seems untouched by trauma; Pran, an Indian aide de camp to Mountbatten, is remembered by his daughter; an old Sikh woman has to jump out of a window when her house is torched; Mukesh can’t forget his first love. And there are many more stories. Mina’s father holds out for weeks until he finally records his testimony, just before he dies. Despite the use of theatrical devices, such as two actors representing a character as a youth and old man, Silence is basically a documentary which relies exclusively on storytelling by narrators. This gives the piece texture, but also misses dramatic conflict. It’s a tapestry, not a plotline.
Although religious belief and crude nationalism are the ideologies fueling horrific communal violence, many of the participants feel a stronger bond with land and locality. Religion can be changed — your sense of place is for ever. So, as migrants, many of the participants convey a feeling of homelessness, a deep connection to a world they have now lost. And with this a profound sadness. One character deeply misses the Sindh of his youth. The play also raises the troubling issue of whether survivors of trauma should, or can, actively forget their past. Why dwell on painful memories when you can celebrate your life’s successes? Silence is always an option.
On the other hand, maybe survivors are obliged to remember, to witness, to commemorate and to mourn. Memories are often involuntary; trauma is haunting. But there’s also a warmly felt sense here of generational shift. As the old men and women pass, not only do their children find and preserve their memories, but a third generation — represented by a young mixed-race couple Zara and Sami — is enthusiastically exploring their “Indian side”, seeking knowledge of where they came from, to explain how “we are here because you were there”. All of this is beautifully articulated in a clear and often discreet text. The rape stories are mercifully brief.
Abdul Shayek, artistic director of Tara Theatre, steers the high-definition production with a sure hand, helped by designer Rose Revitt, and presents this humane documentary with a boldly dynamic staging. Some good video work by Tyler Forward also lends warmth and colour to the evening. Nimmi Harasgama (Mina) and Bhasker Patel (her father) are the emotional core of the play, but Patel (pictured above right with Jay Saighal) also plays other roles as do most of the rest of the excellent cast: Renu Brindle, Sujaya Dasgupta, Rehan Sheikh and Martin Turner. The material, which has already had quite an airing in other media, carries the 100-minute play forward and the acting roots it in our common humanity, without a trace of victimhood or sentimentality. A moving experience.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk
Silence is at the Donmar Warehouse until 17 September and then at Tara Theatre until 1 October.
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