Brighton Fringe 2023
The story of Indian Partition, as recounted by the 11 year old boy who bore witness.
It’s been 75 years since the British decided to divide India. Niall Moorjani’s grandfather was a child who lived through that seismic, catastrophic event and we hear his story. The British arrived in India around the turn of the seventeenth century and stayed for 340 years, during which time the sub-continent was irrevocably changed. During the first half of the twentieth century, Europe reeled from two devastating wars, which inevitably spilled over to many other parts of the world. The clamour for Indian independence became too loud, impossible to ignore. Already weakened by its efforts to defeat the Nazis in World War 2, Britain reached the conclusion that India was no longer governable. The history surrounding this is too vast, too complex to recount comprehensively in a one hour Fringe show, but Moorjani manages to neatly summarise. We learn about the key players – Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru. How did Britain conquer and govern such a vast area with relatively thin resources ? Along with superior military equipment, it used what came to be known as divide and rule. Sadly, having divided the sub-continent along religious lines, substantially amplifying differences that already existed, it was hard to reverse. The British appointed Cyril Radcliffe to divide India and Pakistan in two, non-contiguous, places (East Pakistan later being known as Bangladesh). Radcliffe had famously never been east of Paris and appeared to possess few discernible skills to bring to the table. Despite this, working in a matter of weeks from a basement in Delhi, he created international borders along perceived religious grounds, the idea being that Muslims would inhabit East and West Pakistan, with Hindus and Sikhs living in India. Other religious groups (e.g. Buddhists, Christians, Jains) seemingly were disregarded entirely. The results were devastating and the estimated numbers so vast as to be beyond comprehension : 12 million people displaced, 1 million killed or missing, tens of thousands of women abducted and violated. Many more committed suicide or were preventively murdered. There was ethnic cleansing on a horrific scale.
We enter the Caravanserai’s Junk Poets intimate space, to find a chair, two microphones and a keyboard in situ. Niall Moorjani recounts his story and, intermittently, subtly adding a mauve scarf, bangle and becoming seated, becomes his grandfather. We learn that the grandfather lived in a rural area in what we now call Pakistan. The community was inclusive, with Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus living in relative harmony, observing each other’s religious festivals and everybody participating in celebrations, such as Diwali and Eid. When independence comes, however, the village is no longer safe ; the family is displaced and the grandfather eventually arrives in Delhi, after an unimaginably difficult journey. Far from a homecoming, he finds that he is a refugee in his own country. He builds a life in India, before moving to Britain, to find that he is subject to racism and prejudice (“No blacks, no dogs, no Irish”). Nonetheless, a skilled engineer, he settles and brings up a family.
Such is the breadth of this story, Mohan could easily have become a historical lecture. However, Moorjani is a consummate story-teller, recounting his family history, woven into the tumultuous events of partition. He does this charmingly, vividly and compassionately, at times conveying a gentle humour. Dibyo Mukherjee supplements the atmosphere with his keyboard ; the hour of such a nuanced tale flies by.
The effects of partition are still felt to this day. Tensions between Pakistan and India – both nuclear powers of course – frequently come to the surface, whether at cricket matches or border skirmishes. But the impact of Indian independence and partition is felt beyond the borders of the sub-continent : every town across our land is home to people of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnic origin. And yet, the story of partition remains relatively little-known and therefore, in this reviewer’s opinion, Mohan is a ‘Must See Show’. Moorjani’s final message to the captivated audience is that we should “hold the weight of his story” ; those fortunate enough to be in attendance most definitely will.