Paul Bazely and Shubham Saraf in The Father and
the Assassin at the National Theatre in London (Photo Courtesy: Marc Brenner)
Courtesy Shakespeare, we continue to add seasonal qualification to discontent. The prize for the most used phrase in the British media today should go to the summer of discontent. A Teflon prime minister who continues to defy the Cassandras; a broken economy that gets little attention from ruling politicians staring at their own mortality; and, amidst all the bad news, a dash of Orwell in the resignation of the ethics adviser to Downing Street, as if, despite his weakness for classical languages, Boris Johnson really cared about what the philosophers had said about statecraft. It was on the issue of ethics that his party rebelled against him. He was not humbled. Certain politicians are their own better judges; they have a better sense of why they are here. The British prime minister is one of them. He returns to history for solace when the present gets treacherous; a cigar-stomping figure comes to his comfort whenever he hits rock bottom. In retrospect, ethics was a joke meant to be shared at one of those forbidden garden parties. Somebody had to resign when the joke was on him. In British politics today, that person can never be the prime minister.
Ethics was not the word anyone preferred to utter when London came to a standstill this week. The strike by the railway union brought back the memories of the miners’ war on Thatcherism, and the looming shadow of Arthur Scargill as the archaic power of the working class. Unionism as a militant ideology against modernisation is alive and thriving in 21st century Britain. What the striking railway union wants is more than a pay rise to beat inflation. Perhaps they want to preserve the entitlements of Luddites in the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. They are gaining support from other unions and some Labour MPs, too, though their leader has not openly supported the strike. It is said that Britain is essentially a conservative society. Today’s class wars show at what price it can remain so. For me, the strike was an added motivation to follow the Thames Path, my new leafy riverside addiction that stretches time and distance in more pleasant ways than one can imagine in a city of permanent surprises.
Was the play The Father and the Assassin one such surprise? I saw it in its closing week, at the National Theatre’s premier stage, the Olivier Theatre. It was the legend of Gandhi told from his assassin Nathuram Godse’s perspective. We have been here before, subverting the established narrative to give voice to the voiceless. My favourite in this literary revisionism is the Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, which redeems the victim from the muted depths of Camus’ The Outsider. In Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, India’s freedom saga is the gospel according to the assassin, who has been denied his humanity by the morality of nationalist storytelling. In Chandrasekhar’s whydunit, Godse, played with abundant kinetic energy by Shubham Saraf, is a memoirist and a counter-moralist in a drama dominated by one of history’s harshest moralists. Punished by the pieties of history, Chandrasekhar’s Godse seeks redemption by humanising his backstory. A very ordinary story set against the passions and pathologies of the national movement.
Godse’s journey to assassinhood is semaphored by his moral certainties. Fair enough. Its stage rendition generates the frisson of a cartoon strip. Over-dramatised and sprinkled with undergraduate philosophical asides and desperate jokes (one of which said Partition was Brexit), this play has that overwhelming earnestness of street theatre. Loud and self-conscious, it made both the father and the assassin animated caricatures, despite Saraf’s exuberance. The father was particularly unbearable. When Godse contemporises himself, was I the only one in the audience amused by his last dissenting cry for relevance?
That said, Chandrasekhar’s play, by paraphrasing the mind of Godse, is a daring subversion, and history needs more of such democratisations in allotting stories to narrators.
The outrage was rather muted when London theatres, maybe fearing The Satanic Verses redux, cancelled the film The Lady of Heaven, which tells the story of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. Creative licence is a profanity as long as open societies allow the defenders of the sacred to be the arbiters of aesthetics.