A fortnight ago, on Tuesday the 6th, I saw the resurrected 1965 BBCtv production of this play directed by Warris Hussein, adapted from its stage version by Santha Rama Rau of the legendary eponymous novel by E M Forster. If that is a loaded introduction, then there is more: this was at the start of a Warris Hussein retrospective at the National Film Theatre, and the screening was prefaced by a wide ranging discussion, after a formal introduction, between Warris Hussein and the veteran Virginia McKenna who had acted the part of Adele Quested in the tv production. They reminisced about the essence of the plot and its impact on them, as well as their mutual interactions and those of the others involved in the project - a journey back in time. But that was not all; for the next item in the evening`s schedule (after a very short interval of some 20 minutes) was an even more fascinating session, dubbed `Warris Hussein in Conversation with Samira Ahmed`, the renowned documentary maker and presenter of cultural and political programmes on tv and radio. So it turned out to be a five hour plus long evening (including travel time) with just enough of a break for convenience and a hasty snack.
I had always admired Warris Hussein for his long and distinguished career - and his impressive credentials are a testament to that. As for his actual work, though, I could only relate to this tv production of A Passage to India (`Passage`) (which I had not seen at the time as it was after I had left the UK) and his Glittering Prizes and the Edward and Mrs Simpson series of the 1970s (which I had, for by then we had settled back in here). But to be quite frank, until now I had also thought of him as passé! But here he was live in person – dignified, focused, articulate, active, engaged, full of plans for even more to come! His exchanges with Samira Ahmed were frank, informative, analytical, full of anecdotes and gave an insight into his enormous hinterland, both as a person and as a professional. There was nothing hagiographical in Samira Ahmed`s gentle probing. He was taken through a selection of his huge output dating back to 1962, revealing the depth of its range and reach – a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening exposure of his trajectory indeed.
But let me revert to the `Passage` and explain why I felt disillusioned with it. No Anglicised Indian (whether `desi` or diasporan) of a certain past era needs to be reminded that it is part of our bi-cultural heritage. Like all like-minded people of my generation, learning about it was a significant point in my intellectual awakening. I well remember the time around 1960 when it was staged in London at a theatre not far from the British Museum to much critical acclaim, though as a poor student I only read reviews of it, full of praise for the sterling performance of Zia Mohyeddin as Dr Aziz. Later I read the book itself. But the first time I actually saw it enacted on stage was at Nairobi`s National Theatre, around 1967, when an enterprising Kenya Asian BBC trained theatre guy produced it. I had even gone to the free-for-all mass audition out of curiosity, to see a long line of wannabe Indian actors (no female parts were in the reckoning, I think) being weeded out one by one. The one who I later learned was chosen to play the part of Dr Aziz was Vinay Inamdar, an insurance businessman, one of our close-knit local elite circle. He certainly did an impressive job of the role.
In those early post-colonial days, the reality of an altered state of relations between the rulers of the former empire and its subject people had not quite sunk in, and a sense of grievance for past wrongs on the one hand and a failure to embrace the change on the other still cast a long shadow over perceptions of `us` and `them`, in almost black and white terms! It was this that seemed to have coloured our understanding of how the central plank of the play (whatever that did or did not take place in the Malabar caves between Dr Aziz and Adele Quested and its aftermath) was to be interpreted and so what mattered most to us was that in the end Aziz was cleared of the charge of molesting her, irrespective of the artistic merits of the play.
Not so now however! Seeing the revival of the Warris Hussein package, I felt repelled by the sight of Dr Aziz as a character right from the beginning. In the very opening sequence, he waylays Mrs Moore somewhat precipitously, more like an unsophisticated simpleton than a medical professional. He does not ask if she had taken off her shoes before entering the mosque but assumes so, though then has the grace to offer to, and does, escort her around. Afterwards, when the scene switches to Fielding`s home where he has been invited to tea, with Mrs Moore and Adele Quested, and Professor Godbole, what happens there also is an embarrassing series of gaffes and misunderstandings, largely brought about by his ignorance of basic social etiquette and an ingrained sense of racial inferiority.
Why was he trying so hard to please his host and the English guests and residents? This was the running theme of his relationship with them, all the way through to the Malabar caves outing and its tragic sequels, including the court scene and the sad denouement. I found his speech and mannerism repulsive, his whole bearing lacking in subtlety and restraint. The contrast between him and the dignified Professor Godbole was jarringly obvious. What troubled me was whether this casting of Aziz`s persona as a classic caricature of the proverbial Indian `babu` was based on the Forster original or Rama Rau`s dramatised version or indeed Warris Hussein`s tv reconstruction of it? This is something I wish I had raised in the Q&A at the end of the Warris Hussein/Samira Ahmed conversation piece. It has troubled me that I didn`t – probably because the thought had not had time to crystallise in my mind during the tight timescale of the two programmes.
But surely Zia M`s acting of the part, both on stage and in the tv adaptation, was lauded by the critics at the time? That was indeed so but my gripe is not about the technicality of his performance but rather the portrayal of the Aziz character in terms of its conceptual construct. The way I rationalised it was this: Forster`s wrote his novel in 1924, at a time when the Raj was a firm fixture in British Indian relations, even if the stirrings of independence had begun to surface. His depiction of the respective Indian and British characters was thus rooted in the realities and attitudes of the period. But even so, would a doctor in Aziz`s position have behaved in the way he did? Granted that social intercourse between the two sides was conducted on an unequal footing or at best in artificially contrived situations, his antics seemed to be too raw and unbefitting his status. But is this not where a writer`s imagination comes into play, to endow individual characters with their own unique personal strengths and weaknesses? If Fielding was an uncharacteristic exception to the ruling genre, then surely Aziz too must be judged by the same criterion, ie. that he also was an oddity?
It is a very long time since I read Forster`s `Passage` and to that extent am now merely speculating as to his intent. I am also unfamiliar with Rama Rau`s stage play. She wrote it nearly 40 years after Forster`s original, by which time the Empire had gone, though it is impossible to say whether that might have affected her portrayal of the Aziz character. But as, according to the programme notes, Warris Hussein`s production was substantially the same as Rama Rau`s, we have to assume that Dr Aziz`s part was based on how it would have been perceived at least some sixty years ago (when she wrote the stage play) or, if it stayed true to the Forster original then, nearly a hundred! It is a pity I missed the Q&A opportunity to discuss whether the play might have been directed differently now, for example by toning down the histrionics of some of the Indian characters.
But why am I so exercised about the Aziz character in particular? Because our (meaning East African Asian) colonial experience was so different from that of the kind featured in the play. In Kenya, the Indians were in contention with the Europeans about their rightful place in the colony`s governance on the basis of their claim for civil and political equality in light of their historical and continuing contribution to the opening up and development of the country. The Devonshire Declaration was the talking point of the day in 1924. I wrote about it in my 2009 piece in AwaaZ titled `Mrs Naidu`s Eloquence` and quote this passage from it to sum up the mood of that time: `She denounced racial segregation as an “insult” and was equally scathing about the Reservation of the HIghlands, asking why the “arrogant cowardly and selfish” white man “will not fight on equal terms with the Indians and Africans against the elements”`
I find it inconceivable that an Indian doctor in Kenya would have behaved in the obsequious and self-humiliating fashion that Aziz did in all his dealings and encounters with members of the English ruling establishment. This is not just because one is looking at what might have happened from our present day perspective, for in the mid-1960s I did know people who had been around some 30+ years earlier and from their accounts it was clear that the conditions then prevailing were not as stark as in India. The thrust of the `Passage` narrative was to underline the social gulf between the ruling and the subject peoples. There were all sorts of other anomalies in the play also which I haven`t touched on here; suffice it to say that I found it dated. Nevertheless it serves as a historical literary masterpiece.