Guards at the Taj

This play by Rajiv Joseph was a thought- provoking exploration of the themes of beauty, power and class.  Two guards take the dawn shift at the site where the Taj Mahal is being built.  They cannot look at the building as it is not their place to do so and neither can they turn their backs to take a look.  The building is beautiful, some say the most beautiful building in the world.  It was built with the hands of 20,000 men.  These hands become important as the play moves towards its end.  We do not see these other men, or indeed any other characters other than Babur, played by Darren Kuppan , and Humayun, played by Danny Ashok.  Babur is the curious one, ready to dream of a different life, while Hamayun is the guard who knows his place and who follows orders… any order that is given to him.  This too becomes important as the play moves on.

The play uses a legend that the workers who built the Taj Mahal had their hands cut off so that they could not build anything as beautiful again.  The two characters carry out this gruesome task but struggle with the idea that beauty can be protected in this way or that anyone could want the quest for beauty to end.

There is one flashback, included to throw the ending into sharper relief. Otherwise the play progresses from an ordinary dawn on one day to a tragic ending.  Both actors were terrific with their own British accents used in part to remind us that the themes and circumstances are with us still.  The poorest of the world are still used as labour in big building projects around the world and rulers still wield power in unexpected ways.

 

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The Chinese Detective

BlogChineseDetectiveBack in the 80s the BBC broadcast two series of ‘The Chinese Detective’ with David Yip in the central role of John Ho, a keen policeman in London’s East End who has to solve crimes as well as battle the racism of his bosses.

It was a time when new police dramas were appearing, each with an ‘angle’ that made them distinct. The angle for this series is obvious but the distinction of being British Chinese did not last much beyond the first few episodes.  There was a running sub- plot about clearing the name of Ho’s father who had been wrongly convicted of a crime years before.  The suggestion was that his father took the blame because of his minority status.

In most episodes, and in series two there was no other Chinese face to be had, and very few faces characters that were not white- strange, really as this was London’s East End!

I had seen David Yip on stage a few years before and it was great to see him as the first British Chinese actor in a lead role.  I watched the episodes again many years later as a box set and loved seeing the old East End scenes, in the years before the area was transformed. The idea of a maverick police officer, ignoring procedures and protocol to solve a crime is somewhat tired now, and may have been then, but it was still an enjoyable experience to revisit old times.

‘The Chinese Detective’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Artist and Empire

In London so I went to see the exhibition at Tate Britain about artists and the British Empire.  The progress and decline of the Empire has been an interest of mine since boyhood.  Rather, I should say that the growth of the British Empire was what I was taught about in school in London in the 60s.  In fact, the glories of British history in relation to the Empire were still being taught when the decline was well under way at that stage.

In any case, the exhibition was fascinating as it demonstrated the way Britain used art to construct an image of itself as a benign ruler of the world while being influenced by the artistic traditions of the countries it conquered.  This two way street meant that the exotic entered Britain while the British flag went to far flung places.

It is probably due to my British education that most of the significant events portrayed by the artworks here were known to me: General Wolfe dying in Quebec as we defeated the French?  I knew about that; the British bravely fighting off the Zulus?  Yes; the British East India Company bringing civilisation to India?  Of course; The death of brave General Gordon in Sudan?  That too!

There were stories that did not fit the great narrative I learned in London all those years ago.  The story of Duleep Singh I only came across much later in life. How he was taken away from his mother as a young boy and brought up in the arms of the British in England, practically a prisoner, was not a story of bravery and derring- do.  It is fascinating to learn, too, that there is little evidence that General Gordon faced his killers with stoicism at the top of steps but this is the image that resonated when I was a boy and it comes from the famous painting by George William Joy.  The Victorians knew how to sell an image.

This exhibition not only sent me back to the classrooms of my youth but made me reflect on the way the years since changed my view on this history.

Once Upon a Time in England

This novel by Helen Walsh is a moving study of what can happen to a family and their dreams when they do not understand each other or communicate.  There are two violent incidents, one near the start and one at the end.  The repercussions of the first affect the lives of the others throughout the rest of the story which starts in the 70s and continues on to the end of the 80s.

Robbie Fitzgerald is a talented singer and there is no reason why he shouldn’t have a life of the stars until one night his late return from work means he misses a burglary in the house where his wife and young son are cowering.  His wife hides from him the true extent of the horror of the invasion of their house and this secret affects their future relations.  What is evident to Robbie, though, is that leaving his vulnerable wife in the evenings is no longer an option and a life in the entertainment industry is no longer possible.  He returns to his factory job and tries to please a wife who has been damaged by what has befallen her.

While Robbie’s dreams fade away he finds himself adrift of a son he does not understand, turning instead to a daughter who is more like him.  The children grow up, hiding their own secrets and the son, Vincent, who was so bullied at school for being a ‘gaylord’ emerges as a stronger young gay man, until a second violent incident once again impacts on the family which by the end of the 80s is fractured and hurting.

This novel shows the damage people who love each other can inflict without meaning to.  As each person tries to hide their own secrets, the reader is left almost screaming at the page to tell them to just talk to each other.

Susheela and Robbie met when he was a patient and she was a young nurse, over from Kuala Lumpur in an England that promised a new life.  Their relationship is brave in 70s England and their children, as mixed race youngsters suffer from racist abuse along with their mother.  The fault lines of diversity are here and the powerful novel demonstrates the hurt inflicted when others impose their views on your own identity.

This is a book worth reading.

Lilting

Time for a beautiful film!  ‘Lilting’ from director Hong Khaou is the story of a young British man and an old Chinese woman whose connection is based on a tragedy that has affected both of their lives.  Cheng Pei- Pei plays Junn, a Cambodian- Chinese woman adrift in an old people’s home mourning the untimely death of her son, Kai.  The film starts with a tender scene between mother and son which seems to be an ordinary conversation between a young man trying to please his mother until we realise that she is reminiscing in her loneliness.

Also lonely and also mourning is Richard, Kai’s boyfriend, played by Ben Wishaw.  He visits Junn and is genuinely concerned about her well being.  The fact that they do not have a language in common is a problem.  It is a problem, too, for Junn’s admirer, another resident of the home called Alan.  Richard solves it by hiring Vann, a British Chinese woman, to act as translator.   The older couple meet up for dates with Vann in attendance while Richard and Vann discuss love and loss.

Junn resents the place Richard had in her son’s life without acknowledging the fact that the two were lovers.  In fact, we are never sure if she knows this at all since the disclosure, when it comes, is never translated.  Love, lost in translation, but seen in flashbacks with Andrew Leung, so good last year in ‘Chimerica’, as Kai.

The film is never over emotional but it is a powerful evocation of loss and the search for understanding despite cultural barriers.  It is a film that reminds us that love is where it falls.

‘Lilting’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Strictly Balti

I saw this one man performance by Saikat Ahamed in Bath at The Egg Theatre.  As he makes clear in the opening of his piece he is a British Asian, a conclusion he only reaches after trying to find the right form of words for where he fits in… and fitting in is a central theme of this play.  Alone on the stage, Ahamed creates a world where boys like him struggle to find a way to be the dutiful son at home and the same as all the others at school.  The son of Bangladeshi doctors who came to the UK, his dual identity is hard work.  It is particularly evident in the stories of negotiating Bangladeshi traditions and Birmingham expectations.

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Life is hard enough for a teenager but when you add the Bangladeshi parents’ idea of what British teenagers should do, hence the Strictly Ballroom allusion, you have an even more tense set of expectations to negotiate.

Ahamed takes on all roles: his mother; father; grandmother in Bangladesh; dance teacher.  By slipping from one role to another he keeps the story going.  By using just four wooden boxes he creates a Birmingham home that is a corner of Bangladesh, the school playground, the dance class and, in a particularly moving scene, a hillside in Bangladesh.

This is the story of a boy with a dual identity and a dual heritage but it also the story of everyone who has grown up and wondered how they became who they now are.  The story of one boy from Birmingham is actually the story of us all as we come to terms with our own identity.

I loved this play.  I loved the fact that Saikat Ahamed created a story from his own life and I loved, most of all, how one person could create so many worlds on a stage.

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Marriage Material

Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir ‘The Boy with a Topknot’ was a brilliant book.  I loved his story of growing up in a Sikh family and his coming to terms with his relationships with his family as an adult.  In particular, he explored his family memories in light of the discovery that his father had schizophrenia.

I was delighted to see he had another book out, fiction this time.  ‘Marriage Material’ is set across two timeframes: the post 2011 riots when Arjan finds himself torn between his life in London and his loyalty to his mother in Wolverhampton in the weeks following his father’s death; and 60s and 70s Wolverhampton when two sisters negotiate the two worlds second generation immigrant children live between.

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In both time frames the experience of being from a minority community is explored.  Sanghera also highlights the difference between the headlines generated during Enoch Powell’s time and the headlines Arjan reads in modern times when new threats are attributed to non- white communities.

This is a story of integration and immigration.  The link between Arjan and the sisters becomes apparent and, with it, the family story reflects the development of race relations in this country.  There is a lot of humour here, though, and the central characters have enough spirit to make you root for them.  The author is also clever in his drawing of the less sympathetic characters.

Here’s hoping there is another book from Sathnam Sanghera on its way!

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