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Partition drama?

Is this supposed to be history as drama, or drama as history, wonders Bhaskar Ghose.

india Updated: Feb 07, 2007, 17:11 IST
Bhaskar Ghose
Bhaskar Ghose

The Last Durbar: A Dramatic Presentation of the Division of British India
Shashi Joshi
Publisher: OUP Karachi
Pages: 194
Price: Rs 250

The author, in the Preface to her work, says: “It is only the dramatic genre of writing history which allows us to... frame the atmosphere of the concentrated moment. It also raises interesting issues about writing: the main concerning ‘voice’ and its textual representation.” I suppose one can see some point in what she is trying to say, though what she means by the “dramatic genre of writing history” is not clear. Is history written as drama?

Plato used dialogue to communicate his ideas, and Stanislavsky used it also as a means of teaching students about acting. But do historians have a ‘dramatic genre’ to present the results of their study? Whatever else this book is, it is not a play. It is a collection of speeches made to sound a little like spoken English but only a little. The subject is obviously one with which the writer feels very involved and therefore tries to make it sound as she thinks it might have. But putting spoken English down in writing is not as simple as she thinks it is. And that is the basic shortcoming of this ‘dramatic presentation’.

All the characters in her account speak in exactly the same way, because the writer is clearly unable to differentiate between the way one person uses the English language and the way someone else does. Worse, she is incapable of capturing the way the English use idiomatic English, even though she had before her passages from various books such as Alan Campbell Johnson’s Mission With Mountbatten to get the flavour of the way people were recorded as having spoken by Campbell Johnson. Every Englishman is not a playwright, and good man that he was, Alan Campbell Johnson was not one by any means; but some of what he reported would have been more authentic.

"Louis was such a ham last year!" Nehru (middle) with the Mountbattens in New Delhi

What we get, then, are long statements by someone or the other, sometimes interminably long, that are passed of as dialogue in a ‘scene’. One such rather amusing instance is Scene 18, which consists entirely of Mountbatten dictating a report to his secretary, interrupted only by the appearance of Campbell Johnson who then proceeds to read a statement made by Jinnah reproduced in the newspaper Dawn. All this may be historically very insightful but as drama is absolutely ludicrous. But then the author begins the play on an even more hilarious note.

The first scene has one endearing stage direction: A radio broadcast is on air. And then all there is is an exceedingly long news report from goodness knows which radio station, presumably the BBC, and that’s it! Is it just read off stage, or what? And no self-respecting news division would ever have such a hugely long report, which is more like an official statement.

The book may well provide new insights into the manner in which India was partitioned. What is curious, though, is that among the 80 odd characters who form the ‘cast’, Sir Cyril Radcliffe finds no place. Not even a walk-on role.

The few scenes that are presumably meant to bring in the human dimension to all this — the scenes with Pandit Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, for example — are wooden and stilted, for all their possible authenticity.

The author would have probably done better to have written all this as a historical novel; that would have given her the freedom to set scenes and people in them and move them around, instead of trying the infinitely more disciplined, and in some ways, limiting, form that a play is.

Bhaskar Ghose is former Director General, Doordarshan, and is involved in acting and directing with the Delhi-based theatre group Yatrik.

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