By Kabir Altaf
As the lights come up at the beginning of “A Tryst with Destiny”, a screen projects news footage of communal riots in India. We see clips from the 2002 carnage in Gujarat, protests in Indian-administered Kashmir, and an interview with Jaswant Singh in which he lays the major responsibility for the Partition of British India on Nehru and the Indian National Congress. As these news clips fade out, Gandhi and Nehru step on stage and begin discussing their roles in Partition. From the outset, the play asks the audience to reflect on the question: Was the Partition of India worth the bloodshed that accompanied it? What price did India have to pay for Independence?
“A Tryst with Destiny”, performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre in Washington DC, was written by Amita Deepak Jha, a locally-based psychiatrist and medical researcher. The play was Jha’s first venture into playwriting as well as into direction. In her “Director’s Note”, Jha notes that her decision to write the play came out of her psychiatric work. She writes: “As a psychiatrist, I help people make sense of their history and how it impacts their present. I deeply believe we as humans carry not only our individual history but also our social, political, cultural, the history of our communities and nationalities in us. It is important that we think and question our biases, prejudices, and deeply righteous beliefs of others and their motives and actions, before we embark on the blame game, creating conflicts and making wars.” As reflected in this vision, “Tryst” is an ambitious attempt to present a balanced account of more than two decades of negotiations and struggles that led to the freedom of India and the division of the subcontinent.
Partition is a deeply emotional issue for South Asians and different groups will have different interpretations of what led to it and whether it was a positive or negative outcome. “Tryst” does an excellent job of demonstrating that Partition was far from inevitable. On the contrary, there were multiple times over two decades where opportunities for compromise were squandered, sometimes by the Congress and other times by the Muslim League. Chief among these missed opportunities was the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, which was perhaps that the last chance for an agreement that would have led to freedom for a united India.
The three central figures in the story of Partition are Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi. As the leaders of Congress and the League respectively, Subhojit Sen and Krishna Subrahmanya Murti did justice to the roles of these two towering figures. They powerfully conveyed the two men’s distrust of each other as well as their individual hunger for power. By the end of the play, the audience clearly understood that if Jinnah and Nehru had only been able to get along, perhaps some compromise situation could have been reached. Sen, in particular, wonderfully conveyed Jinnah’s inner journey that led him from being the “Ambassador of Hindu Muslim Unity” to the “Father of Pakistan”. His disillusionment and disappointment with Congress were clearly conveyed. Sen also did well in conveying Jinnah’s somewhat less positive personality characteristics, such as his insistence that he, as opposed to the Congress Muslims, was the sole representative of the Muslim minority. It was evident that Jinnah wanted to be treated as an equal to Nehru and felt insecure that his party was being treated as a secondary, communal organization while Congress claimed to be the sole nationalist organization representing all Indians. It was perhaps this insecurity that led Jinnah to take such a hard line and to emphasize the “two nation theory”, which 65 years later seems to many to be an extremist and sectarian position.
As the third central figure, Natwar Gandhi, Washington DC’s CFO, did an admirable job of portraying Mahatma Gandhi. One really felt for Gandhi as he tried to balance the demands of Jinnah and Nehru. At other times, one felt anger as Gandhi tried to solve complex political issues by going on fasts and advocating that everyone sit down at their spinning wheels and spin khaddi cloth. It was clear that Gandhi abdicated his responsibilities and failed to use his influence on Nehru at times when it may have made a huge difference to the outcome of events. The final tableau of the play was particularly powerful, with Jinnah and Nehru on either side of the stage, addressing their respective nations, while Gandhi stands between them with his back to the audience, as if to show that he wants no part in Partition.
Asides from the performances, the technical elements of the play were also excellent. Rita Jalali’s costumes were faithful to historical detail, from Jinnah’s sherwanis to Gandhi’s dhoti. It was also particularly telling when the Jinnah of the second act abandoned his English suits for the Muslim sherwani and Jinnah cap. Jha’s set design was remarkably simple and elegant. Sajeev Anand’s singing and Mansoor Ahmed’s audio visual design also added a lot to the experience of the play.
As one would expect of a play that attempts to cover more than two decades of complex history, the evening dragged at times, particularly in the first act, which covered the years between 1919 and 1937 and was mostly about setting the context for Partition. Most of the real drama was in the second act as division and independence loomed closer and the personality clashes between Jinnah and Nehru became more central to the story. This uneven narrative pace is a drawback of trying to tell this story chronologically.
Though “Tryst” attempted to present a balanced history of Partition, it couldn’t help coming across as a bit pro-India and making the point that Partition was an unmitigated tragedy. This is only natural when the playwright and the majority of the cast and creative team are Indian. Though I’m sure everyone can agree that the deaths and violence that accompanied Partition were truly tragic, as a Pakistani, I felt that the play missed the Pakistani perspective of events. While many Indians see Partition as a vivisection of the motherland, for Pakistanis, it was the culmination of a freedom movement and the birth of a new nation that would protect the rights of India’s Muslim minority. Pakistan’s history shows how our successive governments have squandered that opportunity and moved away from Jinnah’s vision of a secular, democratic state. Additionally, the Indian Constitution offers Muslims largely the same rights and protections as any other citizen. Though Muslims remain India’s largest minority, they still face a lot of discrimination and are largely less privileged than the Hindu majority.
In hindsight, perhaps the decision to Partition India was not the best one, yet there is no way that Jinnah could have known what form the future Indian Constitution would take or Pakistan’s struggles in establishing its identity and defining what it means to be a Muslim homeland. The only character in the play who seems to see what the politics of exclusion will lead to is Maulana Azad, who argues passionately against Jinnah’s “two nation theory” and later begs Nehru to avoid Partition at any cost. Azad is worried about the Muslims who will be left behind in the Hindu majority provinces that will remain part of India. He also firmly believes that once one starts on the road to a politics based on differences, there is no telling when the process will end. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 showed that religion was not enough to hold Pakistan together and that ethnicity is also an extremely important factor. Ethnic conflict remains a fault line in today’s Pakistan, as well as to a lesser extent in India. Thus it can be forcefully argued that Azad was right in saying that Partition would not really solve anything.
Overall, “Tryst” is an extremely thought provoking play that compels the audience to reflect on the complex history of the years leading up to Indian independence. What a united India would have been like is a hypothetical question that can never be successfully answered, yet the play shows us that Partition was by no means inevitable and was very much an outcome of specific historical circumstances and personality clashes between flawed individuals. Jha and her team certainly achieved their goal of provoking reflection on our biases and prejudices as human beings and as members of different national communities.
Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.