My dad texts me: "watch TV tonight". I sit there staring at my phone, baffled by his vagueness, despite being acutely aware that it’s how he always interacts. With anyone. I text him back "why?".
"Murdered By My Father"
Half an hour later of what I can imagine was an elongated sigh, my dad revealed that a new BBC drama was airing and it was a "must watch". Why? "Asians, innit”. I scanned the credits and saw Vinay Patel’s name – I recognised it immediately.
I was surprised that my own father text me about the film - usually, that generation do not want conversations around a woman’s sexual liberation. Denying it tends to be a cultural inheritance from a patriarchal mind-set – something you can’t question but don’t always agree with. Along with this inheritance on subservient yet strict ways is abuse, followed by murder, and that’s when you can no longer blame the culture. That’s when we start talking about mental health and power dynamics.
Take your mind back to last year when Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother for her social media presence. A feminist hero, Qandeel was unapologetic about her existence and it resonated with women around the world. Her brother killed her. I need to say it again, because we can never forget that it happened.
A couple of years later, Patel has written a play called An Adventure showing at Bush Theatre. It was initially described as ‘an epic love story spanning seven decades and three continents, and is inspired by the experiences of his grandparents – moving first from India to Nairobi, and then to London’.
But there was more there, I could feel it. Some Asians know how difficult it is to get your parents or grandparents to tell you what they were like as a child and to open up about their upbringing. When I was young I used to think they were just that boring and it wasn’t until much later I released it was the hurt that caused this silence. “For [my grandfather’s] birthday one year, I bought a Polaroid camera that looked a little like the one I knew that he’d used when he worked in Kenya. As I handed it to him, he said he didn’t want it, citing “too many bad memories.” That’s when I knew I really wanted to dig into the history of our family’s connections to Africa”, Patel recounts.
A lot of them experienced partition, loss, assault, segregation and forced assimilation – dreams were lost and loves were destroyed. But Patel had managed that conversation. “A few years after my maternal grandmother passed away, I bought a tape recorder and fifty odd tapes for my grandfather and asked him to record stories from his life on it. Just a little, every morning ideally but if he didn’t feel like that was fine too. I wanted to give him a project, something to distract him, and whilst he has insisted that we don’t get to listen to those tapes until after he’s died, he started to open up a little more in casual conversation too.”
The reason to hear these stories are two fold – they teach you a lot about the person you’ve become and why. What your family has done or been part of absolutely affects you now. Also it teaches you about your cultural history – you learn about partition and what the British Raj did, because school will never teach you. For Patel, it was an education into the Mau Mau conflict. “I spent about five weeks in the British Library going through old books and microfilms of newspapers related to Kenya in the 1950s. That’s where I first found out about the Mau Mau conflict, which was a part of the independence struggle, and I was fascinated how Asians fit into that narrative. I found a map of Nairobi and sat with my paternal grandparent and we “drove” the route from the centre of town out to where our family once had a coffee farm. Turns out it wasn’t too far from a notorious prison and my grandfather had no idea. That’s what I’ve learned a lot about in writing this play: The personal and the political sit so closely to each other, even when we don’t realise.”
There’s so much truth in the connection between the personal and political, in every action we take. Love itself is a political ideology in South Asian cultures, when you’re diplomatically balancing your heart and relationship with your parents. I find the political landscape of the governing body of ‘aunties’ tend to lay down laws we try our best to rebel. I look at my family and the strings of arranged marriages, marvelling at the love that has grown or diminished from being together. “Within South Asian cultures, what fascinates me about love is how there is such a different conception of it - in the day to day - than the West. I’d look at my grandparents, both sets of which had arranged marriages, which aren’t considered to be loving. And yet I saw plenty of care and affection there in ways the narratives I’d seen or read hadn’t told me. For people now, marriage is sort of the sealing off of a journey through love. For them, it was the firing gun - this is you now for the rest of your lives. What will you make of it together? I find there to be something incredibly romantic in that notion.” I agree with Patel, it is romantic. I see the love he’s talking about. My nana and nani had so much love for each other, their acute political and behavioural differences aside.
The play is an epic – an intimate tale of your grandparents but Patel suggests it’s more than that: “The starting point for me was of course my grandparents, to the extent that the main characters, Jyoti and Rasik, are named after one set of them. But as I got deep into the writing I realised that I wanted to diverge quite heavily from their actual lives, both for the sake of drama and also because of the knowledge that I wanted this play to put into the world. I wanted to pull in the Mau Mau conflict more fully so people got an understanding of it, I wanted to demonstrate the contribution of Asian women to industrial action in the 1970s. It’s a tricky balance to strike - I didn’t want to Forrest Gump it, I didn’t want these people to be too exceptional. Unique, yes of course, but also with a recognisable journey.”
With all this history and learning, the complicated path in processing everything to tell a well-formed story would mean that some alternate decisions would be made. Such as the language and accents used: “I knew I wanted to write the play in colloquial modern English, without any accents (On this point: No matter what accent you put on it, people wouldn’t be satisfied. Indian accents in the 1950s where the story begins are different enough from today that they’d seem not quite “right” to the ear”.) I wanted to do all this for a variety of reasons but the main one was because I wanted this story to seem familiar to people who didn’t know it and unfamiliar to people who think they do. The focus had to be the feelings of those people, the feelings that they don’t really seem to care to talk about but definitely had and have” says Patel. I wanted to know more about the process in writing something historically accurate, with the ability to give people a full picture.
“However, this style starts to bump up against history a little - you want to get across how people really reacted in a given moment, and I worried that the style might begin to make that a little untruthful. The further I got with developing the story though, I realised that I’d never be able to write a fully historically accurate piece in the time we have. I had to allow myself to think of this as a mythology in itself rather than a one hundred percent factual account. So now I consider the play less a historical document and more an origin story for me and people that look like me.”
Looking into the historical background of you family, as a writer can do nothing but improve your craft – learning about the lives of others helps develop more rounded and realistic characters in anything you do. It seems that Patel’s work has largely focused on South Asian issues and I wondered if that meant he was now pigeonholed to just speak on that. “Perhaps a little expected, but I’ve made my peace with it and, having gone on a real journey with my understanding of who I was, I realised I never want to run away from my background or treat it as a side story to some main narrative. I want to make my artistic life a mission to make those stories the central narratives of our time. Perhaps it’s weird to say that when my next play is about George Lucas - a feverishly hard working man whose soul was corroded by his ambition to do well for himself and his family. But you know what? That sounds like a recognisably brown story to me."
Patel has written an epic story that resonates with immigrant families across the globe – the story of love and relationships during conflict and pilgrimage is universal across certain continents. All of us who have immigrated will find something in this play, not just South Asians.
Dates: 06 September - 20 October