How do you, in the space of 45 minutes, tell a 70-year-old story that still divides a nation?
You don’t; you can’t possibly hope to. All you can really do when trying to tell the story of the Partition of India is hold a microscope over a moment in the maelstrom and hope your audience will allow their imaginations to fill in the blanks.
That’s what I decided to do when I was commissioned by BBC Radio Leeds last year to write a story about the Partition of India, a play that would be broadcast at the exact moment the nation was divided and Pakistan was born, 70 years on.
Eight months before the 70th anniversary of Partition, which happened at midnight on August 14, 1947, BBC Radio Leeds managing editor Sanjiv Buttoo commissioned me to write something – at the time we weren’t sure what – to commemorate the seismic shift on the Asian subcontinent. The year before I had written a play for the station as part of the centenary commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, the first time BBC Radio Leeds had commissioned original drama since Alan Ayckbourn was making work for them in the 1970s. So no pressure then.
The ‘Somme’ play had been a success, so there was a level of trust that I could deliver a new play about Partition; which was gratifying and terrifying.
I’m half-Bangladeshi, so Partition had an effect on my own family history, but my fatherland was geographically separated from the worst fallout of Partition by 1,000 miles. Still, I grew up knowing of the pain caused when a line was drawn down the east and west of India. One of dozens of staggering facts I came across when I began my research was that lawyer Cyril Radcliffe had been given less than six weeks to decide where the divide of India would lay. It was a story of mismanagement, of politicking, of colonial attitudes leading a group of men. It was a story of race and religion, of horrific bloodshed and I had 45 minutes to tell the story in a radio drama.
So once I had done all of the research I cast it aside and thought about what this story told us about today. That’s the only real reason for drama to exist: to tell us something about our lives now. Otherwise it’s not drama, it’s history. The story I landed on was one with which I have some personal experience: a contemporary British Asian couple wanting to get married, one Muslim Pakistani and one Sikh Indian.
The wounds inflicted during Partition are seven decades old, but the scar tissue remains. This was my contemporary story, the snapshot that would provide a glimpse of Partition.
Listening to Partition play out at midnight on August 14 last year was a strange experience. Receiving lovely messages from people around the country who were responding to the tale I had decided to tell was a real gift. As a writer, though, nothing can really touch the experience of watching your work with an audience, something I had the privilege of doing with Partition when the Leeds Playhouse came on board as a co-producer.
The Playhouse backs on to BBC Radio Leeds, so it is odd that the two organisations had never previously collaborated. It was an honour that the leaders of both organisations decided they would work together on my play. Recording and hearing the radio play with director Stefan Escreet was fun, but transferring the world of Partition to the stage was utterly joyful. One of the things that made seeing it come to life on stage such fun was showing audiences how sound effects in the radio studio are created. Flapping rubber gloves together sounds more like a pigeon taking off than you might ever imagine. While we’re on the subject, imagine is the key word to the success of Partition the stage play (it is immodest but it would be remiss of me not to tell you that we received four and five star reviews across the board). It is the audience’s collective imagination that makes Partition work as a piece of drama.
Three of the four actors in the piece play at least a couple of roles and the actor playing Ranjit has one heck of a job: he has to play his own grandfather. Aurally, not a huge stretch – although still a challenge – but doing that on stage means you need some serious acting chops. Likewise the actor playing both Saima’s mother Amina and café owner Denise (played in this year’s and the original production by the wonderful Balvinder Sopal) needs serious range.
That the Playhouse wanted to return the play this year is something for which I am hugely grateful. Not only because it’s my play, but because, as we discovered at every post-show Q&A session, the story of Partition is still largely unknown and it is an important one to understand our history.
Partition is returning with two new cast members this autumn.
Mez Galaria plays Saima, who faces a crisis on her wedding day.
Balvinder Sopal plays Saima’s mother Amina, cafe worker Denise and registrar Mandy.
Sushil Chudasama plays Ranjit, who hopes to marry Saima. He also plays his grandfather Rajpal.
Luke Wilson plays Bob and cafe worker Nigel.
Partition, Leeds Playhouse, November 6-10. Tickets from the box office on 0113 2137700 or online at leedsplayhouse.co.uk
Bradford Alhambra Studio, November 14-15. Tickets from the box office on 01274 432000 or online at bradford-theatres.co.uk