THE HEROES FROM THE EAST
A hundred years ago, a Punjabi gunner in the 129th Baluchi regiment, Khudadad Khan, stayed at his post in the machine gun nest, injured and at bay , his commanding officer dead. With his remnaining comrades he held off the German advance for long enough for reinforcements to come, and fend off an invasion across the Channel. Surviving by a hair himself, Khan won the Victoria Cross.
Learning the story, Ishy Din found a focus for Leicester’s important, intriguing dramatic tribute to the South Asian troops who were brought over to fight for the Empire. Which some of them were, frankly, already beginning to wonder about. In Din’s play, though, it is only near the end that Waleed Akhtar”s Ayub dares pose a direct question to the greenhorn young white officer Thomas. “We gave you our values, the railway, our technology…” Says the lad, his accent cut-glass, his initial panic quelled by rest and food. Ayub just quietly askd “Why?”. His parents would remember the mismanaged famine of 1876, during which 320,000 tons of grain were exported by the colonial power…we were not always a caring “parent” to what young Thomas thinks of as childlike colonies.
But that is late on. The play, a slow-burn 100 minutes beautifully set in a towering barn and directed by Suba Das, sees three Asian soldiers detailed to hold it with tripwires and small-arms under the young, scared, new British officer, Thomas (Jassa Ahluwalia – who may look like any pink faced public school sixth former but is in fact of Punjabi descent). Distant fire indicates Khudadad’s stand beyond the fields through the long day and night: the respect in which he is held by Lance-Naik (lance corporal) Sadiq and the sepoy AD is movingly witnessed throughout. This is their regimental father, mentor, legend: and also the Company letter-writer for these men thousands of miles from home, knowing themselves “here to soak up bullets” and held together by fierce mutual loyalty and culture.
And food. After initial tensions – not least over ambition and rivalries, with snippy exchanges between Simon Rivers’ tough black-bearded Sadiq and Sartaj Garewal’s AD – better conversations grow over the elegant construction of a hot dhal dish in mess-tins. Garewal elegantly dices garlic and chillies with his bayonet: costume and kit detail is magnificent, respect to Isla Shaw. The puppyish English officer is contrasted with the focused, hard-honed Indians, of whom only Ayub is both literate and English-speaking. The tension ,where experience and strength is on one side but authority on the other, is neatly handled: the conclusion strong, avoiding melodrama, acknowledging cultural strengths and honour both sides.
As i say, the play feels like a slow burn for a while, but finally its strength is just that. Ishy Din is wise not to grope for more plot that is provided by the situation itself. I have written before ( http://tinyurl.com/q53tp5p). about the remarkable ability of theatre, above all other arts, to express the experience of WW1 and let the dead walk before us, individual and human. This is an honourable addition to that education, and I am grateful. It has a tour: British Asians should come, and us their neighbours too.
0118 2493595. http://www.curveonline.co.uk. To 23 April. Then touring to 21 May