In a world mediated by sound-bites, perhaps the theatre can take us back to what it means to be human, writes Siddhartha Bose
1998, Kolkata. I am sitting in the bedroom of my parent’s flat watching David Lean’s version of EM Forster’s Passage to India. My memory is watery, but I recall certain flickering images on the screen: night-time, cut to a shot of the moon, cut to the camera panning to a sign outside a colonial club. Dogs and Indians not allowed. The memory fades to black.
2015, London. Channel 4’s Indian Summers is on the screen. Shot in Malaysia, the story is set in Shimla, which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, and was known as the summer capital of the Raj. Inexplicably, this imposter Shimla is painted in rich green hues as a humid tropical paradise, where the Angrez (English) perspire profusely, while the natives are like cartoon characters mouthing speech bubbles. This is the Indian exotic that returns to the Victorian fear of, and fascination with, the subcontinent and its people, and their supposedly uninhibited nature, sensual and wild.
The camera zooms in on another sign outside another European club in British India. Dogs and Indians not allowed. Suddenly, the earlier memory, the fading film image, one that had remained buried and suppressed, resurfaces like one of those corpses that float on the Ganges, shockingly visible, bobbing on filthy water, garlanded by flowers and toxic pollutants. The existence of that sign in the present, on TV, the personal and historical memory of it, humiliates and shames me.
Lean’s Passage to India was part of the Raj revival of the early 1980s in the UK — Salman Rushdie wrote witheringly about it in ‘Outside the Whale’. Three decades later, plus ça change. Intriguingly, in these films and TV shows, there is little on how Indians responded to this shaming provocation. The sign itself was part of colonial policy to keep Indians in their place, to remind them of their subhuman status in the machinery of empire, despite the collaborators, the clerks, the judges, the teachers, the district officers, the maharajas, as well as all the soldiers who laid down their lives in the thousands for Europe’s battles.
Today, the west has outsourced its many wars, and we still live in a world where refugees fleeing these wars are referred to as ‘swarms.’ Language still has infinite powers of exclusion. The wretched of the Earth must address the terrible power of these words, appropriate and remake and dismantle them, in order to become human again.
I grew up in Kolkata and Mumbai, two (post)colonial cities that have played a vital part shaping modern and postmodern India. The Angrez designed large areas of the cities, though Indian hands built them. The Angrez set up schools and colleges and churches, and went about a bewildering and radical process of naming these cities, their streets, and the myriad-coloured slaves who served them. Kolkata was divided into ‘white town’ and ‘black town.’ There was a ‘grey town’ as well, in the heart of the city, north of Dharamtala, where the Chinese, the Armenians, the Afghans and many more lived and worked.
The streets of central Kolkata, once the second city of the British Empire, still echo its imperial past: Russell Street, Elgin Road, Loudon Street, Park Street. It is much the same in south Mumbai. Despite having an ancient civilisation, the conscious classification and naming of a million Indians (and Indias) happened during colonial rule. Some of the Angrez went native, married Indians, studied Sanskrit, styled themselves as nawabs, morphed into William Dalrymple’s ‘white mughals’ — the fairest of the fair, the uber-caste.
Indians, however, were left to negotiate history via appropriation and bricolage. Thomas Macaulay, who sneered at, and rubbished, everything Indian without knowing an Indian language, went about remaking the modern Indian mind by constructing an educational policy that continues to shape, and blight, India today. In 1835, he said: ‘We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern — a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.’
English became the first language of education, of aspiration, of power. A new type of mutant Indian was born. Many of these mutants were inspired by the ideas of 19th century modernity emerging from the west. The Bengal/Indian Renaissance happened as a negotiation between Europe and ancient India. Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel prize for literature — famously said that he was a product of Hindu, British, and Muslim cultures. However, I suspect that under western eyes, the ideas of a complex, hybrid Indian modernity will always be viewed as derivative.
The classrooms of Kolkata and Mumbai’s better schools, with names like St Xavier’s and Cathedral and John Connon, still teach Shakespeare and Keats. Many of the graduates of these schools, ‘brown sahibs’, emigrate, or stay in India, and use their access to the language of the colonisers to exercise an almost colonial power in their nation. Aatish Taseer has written extensively about this in a searing and honest way. A dismantling needs to take place. The revolution will be live.
I am a product of all the cultural neuroses I have cited. I grew up in with English, Bengali, and Hindi, but fundamentally, I am one of Macaulay’s great grandchildren, defined by English.
I left India when I was eighteen, moving to the US to study in a small liberal arts college with a generous scholarship programme. I worked many jobs during those years. I painted houses, cleaned bars, pushed carts in libraries, taught English at university, travelled in Greyhound buses, went homeless in New York, voyaged through the American mythic, living a life some Indians would have viewed with some embarrassment. I remember an African American friend called Lyn seated on a barstool in the Midwest, who told me that I was ‘fighting the caste system.’ I lived and survived, and after 9/11 and the Iraq war, I joined the queues of bearded folk who were asked the silliest questions, and detained in the most absurd circumstances while flying in and out of the US.
Like all colonials dreaming and writing in English, I began yearning for England (even some Americans suffer from this syndrome). I spent two years preparing and securing specific scholarships for doctoral study administered by the British government and the University of London, and I landed at Heathrow in September 2005, armed with two suitcases and a bag.
After immigration, I was ushered into a line of passengers with third world passports, all of whom had to go through medical tests; the fear of disease and contamination by the other still exists. In a flash of inspiration, I told the guardians of the land that I was Indian, but I had lived in America for seven years. I was not a stray dog — no, I was more of a pet poodle. ‘You lived in America!’ they gasped. I did not have to stand in a queue. I was free to enter the city gates.
As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, and as Britain reckons with its own sense of self in times of Brexit, there is much talk of the decline of the west and the rise of the east. In India, a new, muscular form of hyper-capitalism married with the rise of the Hindu right is asserting itself — cheered on and supported by much of the Indian diaspora in the UK and the US. The reaction to historical humiliation is to wear the mask of the coloniser. Thump your chests, make a noise, say with pride that India, despite its grotesque social problems, is an emerging power.
VS Naipaul’s million mutinies mutate to a billion shocks to the system. India’s version of the new world disorder slouches towards Varanasi to be born. Meanwhile, the west is shutting its doors, building walls and fences, retreating from a necessary internationalism. The dictatorship of the media ensures that we make snap judgements about diverse peoples without actually knowing them. Communities are in conflict, and everyone, if the news is to be believed, feels under siege.
In this environment, all we have left are stories, stories we tell each other, myths that we make as a way not only to negotiate the traumas of the past, but also to remind each other that we are living, breathing bodies, bodies that cry and bleed and laugh, not holograms and projections on 24 hour news feeds. In a world mediated by images and soundbites, perhaps the world of the theatre and performance can take us back to what it means to be human again.
My play, No Dogs, No Indians, is about crossing thresholds, claiming access, seeking personal dignity. Pritalata Waddedar, the forgotten female revolutionary at the heart of the play, reacts to colonial humiliation through violence. Shyamal Chatterjee, the brown sahib, the other protagonist, appropriates the culture of the coloniser. Both enact their own little tragedies.
In my own journey through gateways and borders, the empty space of the theatre remains the most inclusive, democratic, and celebratory of difference. In a world of walls meant to exclude, the theatre welcomes.
The theatre is live. The theatre is real. The theatre is inclusive. Here we are, made of flesh and blood, sharing our stories with you. And you, the audience, will help us make this unrepeatable and vanishing moment almost holy.
OpenDemocracy.net, May 13. Siddhartha Bose’s books include two collections of poems, Kalagora and Digital Monsoon, and a study of the grotesque, Back and Forth. Siddhartha’s theatre work includes No Dogs, No Indians, London’s Perverted Children, The Shroud and a one-man play, also called Kalagora. Siddhartha was a Leverhulme fellow in drama at the University of London (2011-13).
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