An Indian view of `Indian Ink'

Second Sight The critics gave Tom Stoppard's latest play the thumbs up. But Gopal Ghandi believes the playwright has misunderstood India
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The Independent Culture
I AM AN Indian and I went, eventually, to see Indian Ink. I heard the criticism. A man on BBC2's Late Show said it amounted to "intellectual Paki-bashing". Reviews implied that this play was not Stoppard at his best. Friends who had seen it said that it was a poor caricature of a country, a time and an argument.

First things first. I enjoyed it. Felicity Kendal was affecting and Art Malik was winsome. Above all, Peter Wood's stereovisual presentation of the play's two periods, 1930 (in India) and the mid-1980s (in England and India), was the bonus that made it worthwhile. Freezing one period in sepia lights, he made the other flow in Polaroid colours. The freeze- flow alternation was a coup. In India, we move from one century to another all the time and at every turn.

The plot concerns Nirad Das, a lonely widower and painter who fascinates and irritates the subject of his canvas, an Englishwoman, Flora Crewe. Malik plays Das, Kendal is Crewe. The play did much the same to me: fascinate but also, ever so often, irritate.

Crewe reproaches Das for combining nationalist pride with an appetite for English literature. Be yourself, she tells him, stop being us. Meaning, thereby, that he should be permanently seated in something of a lotus pose. To her regret, Das cherishes the fact that he knows the London map better than any Londoner does. He carries a Blue Plaque Guide inside his head! But Flora Crewe would rather that he forgets London and stays true to his own roots. Here, Stoppard's heroine is anticipating political correctness. Anticipating and advocating it.

Das then gives Crewe a crash course in the "the wonder that was Ind". And that is where, I began to get irritated. India does not have one but many roots, not one but many languages and cultures. But Das begins to do what Flora Crewe - and Stoppard - want him to. He expatiates on Vishnu, on Radha and Krishna, on the Gita Govinda, on the nine rasa. But this crash course crashed and I found that the Stoppard magic had stopped.

As I heard Das's expositions of the rasa and of Hindu scripture they seemed to me to come not from Stoppard but some teach yourself guide. I was reminded of the story of a suited and booted graduate from St Stephen's College in Delhi who was stopped in Piccadilly by a white Hare Krishna devotee in robes who asked reprovingly: "Atman, have you read the Bhagavad Gita?" The young man recovered sufficiently from his shock to say: "Look, your forefathers taught us to throw away the Gita and start reading the Bible. For Christ's sake - or Krishna's - allow us to read either or both or neither."

We cannot untwist the Indo-British string. Indians have for decades, if not a century or two, been able to relate to things British without, in the least, compromising their brand of Indianess They need no atavistic reversals into "themselves".

What is Stoppard trying to do in Indian Ink?

It is difficult to know. British nostalgia is clearly an important element. But what retrieves the play is Stoppard's dialogue. As the play ended, I knew that despite all reservations, I had cast my vote in favour of it. Stoppard's dippings into packaged Hindusim were tedious; but there was his bitter-sweet topping to enjoy, for the sadness it evoked, for the regrets it reminded me of. I would say: see it.

Gopal Gandhi is director of the Nehru Centre in London.