Britain and India share a long and colourful shared history. Yes, the most obvious connection is the Victorian era of the British Raj, but Britain and India have been trading since the early-seventeenth century and Scots have been an integral part of that story – from sailors to merchants to officers of the British Raj. It is one such Scotsman that inspires this new body of work – Colin McKenzie, who came from the Isle of Lewis, and became Surveyor General of erstwhile India.
Four writers – Abir Mukherjee, Sandip Roy, Nalini Paul, and Sampurna Chattarji – have been examining McKenzie’s life, his letters, his art, and his collections to create a body of work that try to capture the essence of his life at that time, spanning across two continents. Casi Dylan chairs the discussion, and does a great job of drawing out, from each of the panelists, their individual stories. This is followed by each reading a piece from their works in progress and we are treated to the delightful prose and poems of varying genres and lengths, all bound together by the central theme that is McKenzie’s life. The body of work will be evocative and lyrical and bring to life an important man’s story – one who was born on the West coast of Scotland and died on the East coast of India.
As expected with four equally prolific authors on stage, the show is running against time. Post all the readings, there is only time for one question. This does take away from the show a bit – a discussion with the audience would have added to the richness of dialogue. There is also the inherent generalisation in the title – tThe works explore the relationship between Scotland and Calcutta (Kolkata), and it is important to make that distinction. This is a part of India that fared better than others during the Raj and its narratives can tend towards a much more romantic notion than the rest of India is wont to.
Overall, the story of Colin McKenzie is fascinating and the programme and festival by An Lanntair is only the start to deeper connections and forging new passages to Scotland’s South Asian links.