I don’t think I have ever cried during a film as openly as I did while watching “Twelve Years a Slave”. On other occasions a slightly shaming tear or two stands in my eyes before I dab it away. But Steve McQueen’s rendition of the 1853 diary of Samuel Northrup, a free black householder, musician, father, husband who was gulled into working in the cotton fields and plantations of the antebellum South induced an uninhibited flood in me. That such an insane level of cruelty was rampant just over a century and a half ago, in a country that tries to bully the rest of the world into admiration of its own brand of society and governance, would make a cynic of anyone.
My first thought was that the ability to look down on our fellow humans, regarding them as lesser creatures and therefore unworthy of any decencies, is hardly confined to the historic United States. Any sort of trafficking, of women and girls, of cheap labour, amounts to the same thing; so does the status and treatment of domestic servants in the majority of middle class Indian households, the use of building labour where stick-thin men and women huddle together in flimsy shelters at night, carrying piles of bricks on their heads while their rust-haired children play on heaps of dust and rubble. Who cares if they are thousands of miles from their home villages, what level of debts they are paying off, what their futures hold?
In the American South, crinolined belles took tea in enormous plantation houses while their husbands flogged their niggers senseless, raped their women slaves, strung up runaways on trees and preached to them from Holy Scripture on Sunday. Their slaves were their property, were they not? Just as humble domestic workers in India are paid good money, aren’t they? They get their £5 a day and their water and electricity and their poky little rooms thrown in for free! It’s a good deal, isn’t it?
As the Daily Telegraph, Robbie Collin put it, “This, at last, really is history written with lightning.”
And then I watched the livestream performance of the “Drawing the Line” by Howard Brenton from The Hampstead Theatre. This is a play which has evoked enormous praise from the press, with the sensible exception of the Telegraph. As though showing the backstory of the Partition, with pastiche depictions of Jinnah, Nehru, and (rather too sturdy) Gandhi (they may laugh all they want at the cuckolded Mountbatten- who cares) and Justice Cyril Radcliffe fussing over maps with measuring tape and coloured pencils is a great thing in itself. Radcliffe, a footnote in history books, suffers from Delhi belly and is a decent enough man- but so were the many of those who ruled India. As Dominic Cavendish points out in his Telegraph review:
The playwright has latched onto the striking, shaming fact that the fate of a subcontinent and formation of two sovereign states, India and Pakistan, was left in the hands of a political novice: the high-flying judge Cyril Radcliffe. We see him summoned by the British Prime Minster, Clement Attlee, and dispatched to Delhi to do his duty by King and country. He must fix the new borders in just five weeks. As his wife Antonia, the first of a series of sketchily written characters, uneasily notes with a laugh: “Tiny little problem, though. You know bugger all about India!”
The trouble is even when they were decent, they weren’t Indian. What could they know about a land and culture 8,000 miles to the East to be able to govern it, much less shape it? We suffered a more benign slavery, but we were slaves of the British. They, too, rounded up unsuspecting villagers to cart them off to Fiji and the West Indies- V.S. Naipaul’s ancestors were indentured labourers. I knew a young Indian/Fijian student who broke down telling me the story of her great-grandmother who had been cooking dal for her husband as he worked in the fields. She picked up her new born child and walked out to call him for the meal when some men waylaid her, gagged and bound her and took her and the baby to Calcutta where she she was put on a slave ship bound for Fiji. She never saw her family in India again, but eventually married another indentured labourer.
It puts the grand mansions of Mayfair and the country houses of the moneyed classes in perspective, knowing that they were built on the proceeds of sugar plantations; it makes all the grand pretensions of Christian charity and equality in the eyes of the Lord sound hollow. Howard Brenton has taken on a hideously complex subject and dealt with it honorably. But Nehru was not just a fiery dandy whom Edwina Mountbatten loved, Gandhi was not just given to gnomic utterances and Jinnah was not just a wily whisky-swigging fox. This large theme cries out for an ambitious script and better actors, plus the extra dimension that only the medium of film can convey.
Dominic Cavendish again:
Having seen the play, I suspect I could now probably busk a dinner-party conversation about it. But overall I was left wondering how deep Brenton’s own understanding of this chapter runs. The evening smacks of broad brush-strokes, supplying the dramatic equivalent to a bluffer’s guide. It’s always absorbing but less than fully achieved.
There are several videos worth watching on YouTube, for instance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pag5eJ0dtaY which convey the horrors of what took place after Cyril Radcliffe drew the line. Many of my relatives died in the massacres that ensued.
Interestingly, my father was ADC to Lady Mountbatten for a few months and was refused admission (because he was Indian) to the Tollygunge Club of Calcutta as he followed behind her on an official visit . Another family connection who features in Brenton’s play was Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan, the first Indian Prime Minister of Kashmir, whose son was married to my aunt.