As a playwright, Tanika Gupta finds it impossible not to be inspired by the letters her ancestor Dinesh Gupta wrote to his family while incarcerated in Kolkata’s Alipore Jail. Dinesh—a freedom-fighter convicted for the murder of a high-ranking British official—was hanged in 1931.
“The letters were beautiful. They had strength, conviction and lyrical charm. They were inspiring and tragic,” Gupta says.
With her ingenious adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations—currently touring Britain—Gupta has taken creative liberties and set the play in colonial-era Kolkata, the mid-18th century city which served as the pivot of the imperial power her great-uncle had attempted to dislodge.
A tale of two cities: Tariq Jordan as Pip and Simone James as Estella. Photo: Robert Day
Today the bustling business and administrative district of Kolkata, BBD Bag (renamed post-independence after the revolutionary trio of Binoy, Badal and Dinesh, replacing the British-christened Dalhousie Square) continues to be a link to Gupta’s lineage. As muse too, there are the corroding vestiges of the imperial city. “The crumbling Victorian buildings and the fact that it was the Raj’s headquarters made Kolkata the perfect setting. I also love its vibrancy and politics,” says Gupta.
As the writer of the new stage production based on Dickens’ famous novel on class divides, hierarchies of affluence and individual ambitions ruling Victorian English society, Gupta says colonial Kolkata fits the translocation bill. The common time period of both societies meant that Gupta didn’t have to modernize Dickens’ original language.
In the adaptation, produced by the English Touring Theatre and directed by Nikolai Foster, Pip, the protagonist in Dickens’ book, is a Bengali, his uncle and sister are Indians too, while the convict Magwitch, another important character, is an African sailor with a criminal background. If Australia was the penal outpost for Magwitch’s crimes in the original text, in Gupta’s hands it is the Andaman islands.
The adaptation, eventually, attempts to link 1860s’ Britain with the former capital of British India through common coordinates, giving Dickens’ much-adapted novel a crafty wrench. “Class divides, immense wealth versus immense poverty, a punitive penal system, lack of children’s universal education and child abuse are common themes in Dickens’ novels. They are as relevant to the UK’s modern society as in Victorian Britain and indeed in any other country,” says the 48-year-old writer, who has a production coming up with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company next year. “The English colonialists lived in their own world and looked down on the ‘natives’.”
In Pip’s journey—as an orphan in a Bengal village who is sent to Kolkata to pursue an “English education”—Gupta has drawn a parallel with those who were disparagingly referred to as Macaulay’s children: educated Indians who adopted an English way of life and would be often accused of being unpatriotic.
“I was fascinated by the way the British educated Indians of ‘good families’ in a English way, encouraging English values and morals. It wasn’t an accident that Nehru and Jinnah qualified as barristers in London and came back to fight for their country’s independence,” Gupta says in an email interview.
So does Pip in Gupta’s version of Great Expectations. “Ultimately, Pip’s dissatisfaction at the way he is treated by the English leads him to question their wisdom and awakens his Indian pride. Whilst Pip loses a lot, he gains a lifelong friend in the quintessentially English Herbert Pocket. It is this friendship across races that gives us hope and propels us to the present day,” Gupta writes in the foreword to the play which had its first production in London last month.
As a well-regarded and much-awarded playwright in England with over 20 stage plays produced in major UK theatres, Gupta remembers the many “de-Anglicization” trips she made to Kolkata at the prodding of her parents, Gairika and Tapan Gupta, Santiniketan-educated Bengalis who started The Tagoreans in the UK as a platform for Rabindranath Tagore’s works in 1965. “They wanted me to be proud of my roots. I couldn’t have written this adaptation without knowing Kolkata.”
It was Tapan Gupta’s desire to own and drive a Rolls-Royce down London after taking the ship from Mumbai as a 24-year-old fortune-seeker in 1961 that “linked my father to the novel”, says Gupta. “After all, Pip wants to do well, he wants to rise above his station and leave his small world behind. My father is like so many other immigrants who came to the UK to seek their fortune and to have an adventure, and that he did. But like the novel, the journey was long and arduous, full of bittersweet moments, setbacks and heartache.”
In an illustrious writing career that has seen her creating 30 radio plays for the BBC, Gupta has often grumbled against “British Asian” or “Asian woman Bengali writer” tags. “Why should I be tagged by race or sex when Harold Pinter never got called a male English Jewish writer?” she questions. Yet Gupta admits to having “agonized” over the decision to accept the MBE (member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2008. “I accepted because my Ma felt it was a form of vindication against the empire. It is absurd that the honours system hasn’t removed the word ‘empire’, given that the empire is thankfully dead and gone.”
It is just one of the many issues of identity that stream through the life and work of Tanika Gupta.
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