Few English-language writers have catalogued the real, lived experience of partition, that bloody historical watershed in 1947 when British rule came to an end in India but not before the Raj had carved up the land and redrawn boundaries that sparked communal violence and mass migration of epic proportions.
Salman Rushdie fictionalised it in Midnight’s Children, Hanif Kureishi wrote of it in his memoir of 2004, but then, on the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, the journalist and broadcaster Kavita Puri began an extraordinary oral project, recording the experiences of British Asians, many of whom had hitherto kept silent. That became the immensely moving BBC radio series Partition Voices, which in turn became a book of the same name. Now comes the play adapted by Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood as a third incarnation of the project.
The testimonies, delivered by seven actors, keep their power in this co-production with Tara theatre, though they come in snippets and glimpses, hopping from sitting rooms in contemporary Lewisham to villages in 1940s Punjab. They do not always come with enough context, or even characters’ names, and are bound together by a journalist, Mina (Nimmi Harasgama). Presumably based on Puri, she is on a mission to collect and record the voices of a generation before they are lost, including the story of her own father (Bhasker Patel). It is a flimsy conceit which entails a clumsy early newsroom scene, and then short, shifting and disjointed moments, mostly featuring narrated memories while Mina sits and listens on the sidelines.
Under the direction of Abdul Shayek, Mina gives us plenty of historical facts but is dramatically underwhelming. As a first-generation British Pakistani with an Indian-born father who experienced partition, Silence speaks directly to me in its trauma and discussions of colonial history. But it does the latter in tones that are too blunt and broad-brush. Mina breaks out into mini educational treatises, summarising the British strategy to divide and rule and quoting the truism: “We are here because you were there.” These are rousing statements but they do not follow through to investigate the ideas they speak of beyond surface polemic.
There are moments of potency and poetry in what Mina hears though: of trains dripping with the blood of butchered bodies, terrified flights across borders, women abducted and raped. There is bewilderment and pain over how quickly Hindu, Sikh and Muslim neighbours turn on each other along religious lines, but accounts of unity too: a Sikh farmer standing up for his Muslim neighbours, a Muslim woman suckling Sikh children, and a sweet, third-generation mixed heritage couple (Sujaya Dasgupta and Jay Saighal) who talk about contemporary British Asian identity.
Those who have listened to the radio series may recognise several of the moving stories, although ironically they lose some of their visceral and devastating force in this dramatisation, which is more empathic and also arch at times.
The repeated sounds (design by Elena Peña) and illustrations of trains (video design by Tyler Forward) become an ominous symbol for both bloodshed and migration. The stage’s colour scheme is muted and the lack of visual exoticism is welcome but there are oddities in Rose Revitt’s set design: layered back screens alternately covered with abstract graphics, left bare or bearing images of maps and women carrying pots.
Still, the production leaves us deeply moved; Puri opens her book with her father’s silence, broken after 70 years, and the plot here drives towards the untold story of Mina’s father, which brings the biggest emotional punch.
At the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 17 September. Then at Tara theatre, London, 22 September–1 October.