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  • It will make us friends":Cultural Reconciliation in Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink
  • Richard Rankin Russell (bio)

"In an age of repressive collectivism, the power of resistance to compact majorities resides in the lonely, exposed producer of art."

—Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory.

"For the former colony, decolonization is a dialogue with the colonial past, and not a simple dismantling of colonial habits and modes of life."

—Arjun Appadurai. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization

Playwright Tom Stoppard was born in the Czech Republic and grew up in Singapore, India, and England. His global origins have inspired a fascination with national identities, particularly the ways in which these identities are interrelated. In his recent drama, Indian Ink (1995), he suggests the promise and possibility of cultural reconciliation between English and Indian characters across two generations. Its two narratives set in the mid-1980s feature the literary scholar Eldon Pike collecting information in both England and India on the deceased English poet Flora Crewe for his edition of her Collected Letters, while her much younger sister, Mrs. Swan, living in London, interacts with both him and the son of Nirad Das, Anish, whose father had painted Flora many years ago in India. In the third plot strand, Flora travels to Jummapur, India in 1930 and tours the country while writing poems that would be published in her posthumous volume, Indian Ink (1932).

Through depicting a series of aesthetic interchanges between Flora and Nirad Das in the past and the aesthetic exchanges between Mrs. Swan and Anish Das in the present, Stoppard demonstrates how these processes can heal the distrust fostered by decades of English colonial rule in India. His [End Page 1] own juxtaposition and even blending of the two time periods and two sets of characters through his staging signifies how complicated and intertwined English and Indian identities have been and how dependent the two countries still are on each other. More radically, Indian Ink develops the critique of racialized incidents between supposedly sexually aggressive Indian men and submissive English women adumbrated in earlier English literature of empire such as E.M. Forster's A Passage to India and Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet by highlighting Flora's sexual and political subversiveness in the context of her interactions with Indian men more passionate about their art and politics than possible sexual exploits with her. But even Flora comes to realize how strongly artistic interactions can precipitate cultural understanding.

The play's second model of exchange, the occult practice of theosophy, also suggests a rich sense of potential in political and cultural relations between the two countries, even though it is subtly linked to the growth of Indian nationalism under British rule. This occult movement is finally suppressed by the British authorities, but its ideal of a universal brotherhood remains a striking metaphor for the global cross-cultural possibilities of rapprochement between the English and their former colonists. The aesthetic and ideological models of exchange Stoppard offers imply that the identity of each country is enabled, not disabled, by incorporating aspects of the other. Indian Ink finally provides a model of a refashioned English identity more complicated and nuanced than the traditional English identity based on whiteness and an English birth while simultaneously portraying the ongoing process of decolonization in India as a dialogue with the imperial past, signaled by the conversations between Indian and English characters across the generations.

The inextricability of English and Indian identities is woven into the very staging of the play as its action frequently moves between 1930 and the mid-1980s within the same act, scene, and sometimes from line to line. Stoppard expresses his wish for this simultaneity in his note after the dramatis personae: "It is not intended that the stage be demarcated between India and England, or past and present. Floor space, and even furniture, may be common."1 The permeability of the membrane between past and present, India and England, is demonstrated shortly after the play opens in the past with Flora's arrival in Jummapur. After Flora's line "and round the back [. . .]" literally takes her around the corner of her Indian bungalow's verandah and out of sight...


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