Tia Dutt and Aaron Gill as Sami and Zara - lovers bridging the religious divide.
Pictures: Harry Elleston.


Birmingham Rep Studio


There are some things people never talk about. Perhaps that is our natural defence, hide the horrors away in the darkest corners of the mind, dare to rouse them, let them escape into our lives, and they will overwhelm us.

The partition of India in 1947 was an unspeakable horror for 12 million or more displaced people, ordinary people, like me and you people, turned into refugees in their own land overnight. The resulting slaughter and massacres accounted for another million or so, killed in the name of . . . it would be a brave God to throw his hat in to that tormented ring.

Partition was down to us, the Raj, Great Britain, who had taken over India, expanded it by land grabs, and was now leaving it, not as a sort of Asian version of the United States, but carved up on a map after secret deals and broken promises to create, effectively, two countries.

Our record on such things is not good, look at Palestine for example, another two state solution. It was decisions taken by people with power and position in London but with little practical knowledge of the reality on the ground or the likely consequences.

The borders were drawn up by British barrister Sir Cyril Radcliffe whose journeys east had never reached beyond Paris before being selected for the job and it ended up as a crude division on predominantly religious lines.

So, a largely peaceful, generally harmonious India where the majority lived happily together as fellow Indians, as neighbours, was partitioned for Indian political expediency rather than any practical considerations, with the predominantly Muslim north becoming Pakistan, and the largely Hindu south remaining as India.

Not only that but Pakistan would be East and West Pakistan, almost 1,400 miles apart with a chunk of India, and the still disputed to this day Kashmir, in between.


Asif Khan telling of a boy who lost his best friend in a life and world changed for ever

East Pakistan was to become Bangladesh in 1971 after a civil war and war between India and Pakistan, one of three wars between the two, now nuclear, states.

Back to 1947 and the communal concept of being Indians vanished overnight, nationality no longer counted, now it was religion, us against them with armed mobs of Muslims and Hindus taking to the streets.

Neighbours, friends for years, generations even, became sworn enemies overnight. Silence, adapted from Kavita Puri’s critically acclaimed book Partition Voices: Untold British Stories, itself based on her own award winning radio series, breaks that silence with snapshots of the experiences and memories of the generation of those who lived through the events of 77 years ago and ended up in Britain.

Adapted by Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood we open with a jumbled pile of chairs slowly dismantled, almost like the provinces and principalities of India, taken apart, followed by Arron Gill as Sami and his fiancée Maya, played by Tia Dutt. Both British, one from a Pakistani Muslim family, one of Indian Hindu origin, videoing themselves as they discuss life, weddings and asking relatives about the past.

From there we have a series of vignettes with Asif Khan, Bhasker Patel, Mamta Kaash and Alexandra D’Sa along with Arron and Tia, giving voice to the turmoil created by decree.

The authorities in London had reckoned that Hindus would carry on living their normal everyday lives in Muslim majority Pakistan while life for Muslims would still be the same in Hindu led India. Partition, though, had let the religious fanatic genie out of the bottle and nothing could put it back in.


Mamta Kaash and Bhasker Patel as an old couple with memories - he of a lost love snatched away at the moment of partition

Muslims fled north, Hindus south as mob rule took over. We hear of girls and woman snatched, mutilated, killed and raped. Some 75,000 were just taken, merely seen as spoils of war. Some killed themselves, some were even killed by their parents to preserve their and their family’s honour.

We hear of men, known and like by everyone, attacked and killed merely for being the “wrong” religion, of whole trainloads of refugees escaping north or south being ambushed and wiped out by armed gangs. Of neighbours turning on each other. There is a love affair with marriage in the air, doomed overnight with the soon to be bride and groom marooned on different sides of the religious divide.

We hear of families living 11 years in refugee camps – refugee camps in their own country! - families split apart, of the only survivor of a massacre of 30 people sheltering in a house. Then there are the simpler privations, boyhood friends who spend every day playing together like brothers, parted for ever. Writing to each other once . . . then no more because there is nothing more to say.

The horrors mount as we hear that time cannot be turned back to happier days and “You cannot unsee what you have seen”.

But amid the horrors we hear of the acts of kindness, shining like beacons in the darkness. Hiding and protecting refugees, helping those following the enemy faith, standing up against injustice.

The religious fervour created by partition still has its echoes in India and Pakistan today, violence, sadly, far from rare, but there is hope, remember our original Sami and Zara where religion is not even a consideration, let alone a barrier to their marriage?

The set from Rachana Jadhav is wonderfully simple, looking like two walls of glassless patio doors which can be opened and swivelled to create new scenes, or  a table, with blinds that can be pulled down to create video screens. Video plays an important part with the interviews with grandfathers, grandmothers, parents often filmed in real time and relayed on a back wall adding interest to what could easily have become a static production.

That it didn’t is down to both the writing and the cast in what is almost a cathartic telling of events which, as a population in this country, we probably know little about despite Britain bearing much of the responsibility.

It is telling that probably every family in Britain whose origins are found in India or Pakistan has tales to tell of the partition, a history that could be lost in silence, and this play at least gives them a voice with a wonderful act of storytelling. There is laughter at times, a married couple with a wife knowing her husband too well, for example, there are emotional and harrowing tales, and, through it all, there is the hope and resilience of the human spirit. We end with chairs, having served their purpose piled once more into their jumbled tower.

Originally directed by Abdul Shayek and developed for tour by Iqbal Khan, an associate director of Birmingham Rep the silence will be broken loud and clear to 27-04-24.

Roger Clarke


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