We are in the mind of the Bengali lady in this production. She is writing about the unique position that the women of Bengal were in under the British Raj. Women walked a tightrope in British India – they were used as the flaming torch of Victorian ideals of morality. But in Bengal, which was the seat of the Empire for 200 years, this chained hitherto forward-thinking ladies. Bengal was partitioned in 1905, and women, both Hindu and Muslim, felt the brunt of it. Bengal worships female deities of Durga and Kali. And patriarchy takes hold by oppressing the image of our Goddesses, our women.
This production references all that backgound, but with a great deal of nuance. Our protagonist talks to Shakespeare, who becomes a symbol for the British. Anya Banerjee does a fantastic job portraying Tara Sundari, a prostitute who dreams of becoming a theatre star. She can dream because she is a “fallen woman”. And by giving up her dignity she has earned the right to think and feel and interact with whomever she pleases. Clayton McInerney, who plays Shakespeare, also plays a young British soldier who is reeling from the aftermath of the First World War and the broken promises of the British to Indian politicians to allow for self-rule in exchange for fighting for the British in the war. In Sundari, he finds comfort and solace, and not of the physical kind. He is enamoured by her boldness and her conviction. To him, she becomes the embodiment of her country – fierce, vibrant and with far more a command over English than him.
There is a series of statistics quoted by Banerjee early on which are a bit too far removed from the poetic nature of the play. And although credit is given to the famous Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, it doesn’t add to the potency of the soft power that Britain wielded over India in the form of language and culture. However, as a Bengali lady myself, Velani Dibba’s script spoke to my background really well. It is ironic that the day of writing is India’s 72nd Independence Day. Britain left India decades ago, but in Bengal the love for the coloniser, their language and their literature lives on. Britain may or may not owe reparations to India, but it owes an apology to the women of Bengal, who remain too British for India and too Indian for Britain. Tharoor’s book An Era of Darkness is recommended reading alongside this play.