A peep into partition

17th January 2003 at 00:00
The first dramatisation of Salman Rushdie's novel 'Midnight's Children' has given UKAsians and pupils from all communities a chance to examine their family histories, writes Heather Neill

Midnight's Children: Maps at Midnight Royal Shakespeare Company

Salman Rushdie's distinctively accented voice, soft but persuasive, is intoning a few sentences from Midnight's Children. His subject is the travelling entertainer Lifafa Das and his peepshow, a black contraption into which people squint to see a series of postcards by turning a handle. It is India in 1947, the months before independence. "Inside the peepshow of Lifafa Das were pictures of the Taj Mahal, and Meenakshi Temple, and the holy Ganges; but as well as these famous sights the peepshow-man had felt the urge to include more contemporary images - Stafford Cripps leaving Nehru's residence; untouchables being touched; educated persons sleeping in large numbers on railway lines; a publicity still of a European actress with a mountain of fruit on her head - Lifafa called her Carmen VerandahI " Rushdie's novel has been adapted for the stage by the author himself in collaboration with director Tim Supple and the Royal Shakespeare Company's dramaturge, Simon Reade. The peepshow is, as often with objects in Rushdie's novels, symbolic. Our perspective on history is partial, its events viewed imperfectly and in narrow focus. The metaphor of the peepshow is perfect for the educational project, Maps at Midnight, which the RSC - under the guidance of Sita Brahmachari - has devised to accompany the production.

Workshops with people of all ages, from elders of the Asian community to schoolchildren as young as 10, in different parts of the UK, and New York and Michigan in the United States, will result in a travelling, walk-in installation of words, music, photographs and video images. Fast-moving impressions can be selected and looked at partially or in isolation, mimicking the effect of Das's "Dilli dekho", while the display of words and pictures will be "curated" as the installation travels: in each place, pieces particular to that area will replace others. The CD, with Rushdie's words and the memories and responses of dozens of others, remains the same.

At Dunraven school, an 11-16 comprehensive in the south London borough of Lambeth, an enthusiastic group of 21 Year 10 students met for a day-long session before Christmas. By the first performance of Midnight's Children at the Barbican in London tomorrow, some of their written pieces will be ready for display in the installation, but Sita took them gently towards their goal, revealing bits about the book gradually, using metaphor.

In an early sequence in the story, the narrator's grandfather, a doctor, has to examine a landowner's daughter, to save her modesty, by looking at the affected part through a hole in a sheet - that "partial view" idea again. He has seen most of her before he is allowed a view of her face and the pair marry. When students presented tableaux of partition, the others considered how different their perspectives were, depending on where they stood in relation to the sheet "window".

This was a mixed group whose family histories were affected by the world wars, slavery, the Holocaust, the fall of Communism in eastern Europe, the Irish Troubles and apartheid, as well as Indian partition and more recent disturbances on the Subcontinent, in Africa and the Middle East. One of the "frozen pictures" was a graphic description of religious difference: one student stood like Jesus on the cross while, on each side, two others adopted the praying positions of Hindus and Muslims. On tables nearby were photographs and objects brought from home - a passport, pictures of weddings and christenings in different traditions.

Sita had begun the session with a civil rights game. All blue-eyed people stood together, divided from all the brown-eyed. This became more complicated as players had to make decisions about belief. Could you refuse to join either group? Who would you part with if you made different choices from them? Later, after sharing family stories, it was time to write.

Adult sessions tend to begin with a variation on the first words of the book, "I was born in the city of BombayI once upon a time", and a look at the implications of its mixture of fairytale and fact. Here is part of one response, a poem by Rahila Gupta in Birmingham: "I was born in the city of Delhi once upon a timeIn Chandni Chowk where once a river flowedIn the moonlight Before the blood of partition A child haunted by ghosts on my mother's dressing tableA carved powder compact made of silver Peacocks danced on its wallsNo longer in reliefIts sparkle tooChoked by years of carbon coated dustTaken on trust Silver worn to the point of filigreeToo fragile to be polished to reveal itselfI " Very young children have been invited to imagine the powers that might be accorded to a "midnight's child" (for Rushdie, a child born at the moment of partition), some using words from Indian languages, although children and older people from all communities have contributed to the installation. Nadia, from east London, writes: "Razor sharp tongue are my special powers. I can cut people to ribbons with my wordsI " The project has prompted Sita to ask questions in her own family. She has discovered that an uncle was killed on the road from East Bengal to Calcutta during partition and that her father, a medical student, helped to treat refugees. Her mother is British, but revealed a cache of photographs taken by her uncle in India immediately before independence. Now, Sita's main problem is similar to that of Lifafa Das, who also had an over-abundance of material: "Imore and more picture postcards went into his peepshow as he tried, desperately, to deliver what he promised, to put everything into his box."

Maps at Midnight will be displayed alongside the production at the Barbican (tickets: 020 7638 8891) until February 23, then Aberdeen, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bath, Leeds, Milton Keynes, Norwich, Salford and Glasgow between April and June. A teacher's pack is available from the RSC: 01789 403462; www.rsc.org.uk

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