Interview with Nandita Ghose, playwright
Conducted by: Tom McCarthy (General Secretary, INS)
Venue: Office of Anti-Matter, Austrian Cultural Institute, London
Present: Tom McCarthy, Nandita Ghose, Nicola Triscott
Tom McCarthy: One theme that all your plays have in common, and a theme that makes them of interest to the organisation I represent, the INS, is travel. Not in a bland, touristic sense of the word, but in a more rich, metaphorical, ambiguous sense: travel between spaces, through memory and - what makes them of even more interest to us - into and out of death. What do you attribute your preoccupation with this theme to?
Nandita Ghose: One of the connections is to my father, a great traveller. There's an obsession within our family with travel, both literal and metaphorical. One of the earliest stories I was told when I was young was about Hanuman, the monkey god of Hindu mythology, who in essence is a traveller. He can travel in a battling sense, to achieve some great deed, or he can travel within his own body, change his form and shrink or become huge. He corresponds to the figure of the trickster, a Nancy. That always fascinated me as a child, and still does: the idea that you can change form as a way of dealing with things. That was the inspiration for my play Hanuman's Child. I think it's interesting that you pick out travel. I'd never thought of my work like that. Lots of it's about wanting to be in two places. As a child I longed to be in India, but couldn't actually go.
TMcC: When did you first get there?
ND: When I was eighteen. It's a long time not to go somewhere that's part of you. So I travelled there in my imagination, and India became this realm I could go into, and lots of my writing's about that, about imaginative realms you can travel to.
TMcC: In Hanuman's Child the travel is across imaginary space and geographical space and cultural space, and it's also forwards and backwards in time, between the grumpy teenager and the wide-eyed child who are one and the same person. The play starts on an aeroplane, then loops back a decade and a half, and ends on a train, and there's even a passing mention of Columbus sailing around the world discovering the Americas. I know the Columbus thing is just a detail, but it seems significant. Would you say that the main thrust of all that play's travel is discovery?
NG: Yes. 'Discovery' is an excellent word; but I'd also add to that 'Resistance'. The play's about a young girl who's being tormented and bullied because of her racial origins, and the only way she's able to resist is by calling up a symbol that relates to her ancestors - to religion in a certain sense, although it's not a religious piece. She also resists who she is, and resists India and doesn't want to go there. So the travel isn't just to go to India because it's a nice place - although it is a lovely place: it's also to recover something which is already there. I'm interested in what's innate and what isn't. There never seems to be an answer, but it's a good question for a writer to ask.
TMcC: Another thing about Columbus is that he wasn't just a discoverer - in fact, he wasn't a discoverer at all: he was a coloniser. The main character in Hanuman's Child is very much the heir of a certain colonial history; the play's space is a post-colonial one. So would you see Hanuman, the figure, as a marker for a kind of strategy vis-ŕ-vis this post-colonial space, this being caught between two spaces?
NG: I think there's a difference between what you could call a post-colonial experience and one of being caught between two places. They often relate to each other, but you could have the experience of being caught between two spaces in a way that isn't post-colonial. When I wrote that play I want particularly familiar with post-colonial literature; I mean, I'd read Salman Rushdie and people like that, but it wasn't how I defined myself. I was much more interested in the here-and-now, being in this country and being from two places and not having a language to describe that. I don't really have a historical approach; it's more personal. When I think about the whole colonial and post-colonial thing from my own point of view it becomes so incredibly complicated that it would be quite hard to function within that intellectual framework. My father grew up in India, had colonial education but went to a kind of English public school, except it was an Indian public school. I was talking to an Indian writer about the English of India being 'Indian English' and he corrected me and said: 'No, it's English, a language of India'. It has the same status in his eyes as Bengali or whatever. So it's all very complicated. I don't fit neatly into a 'post-colonial' category. I'm half-English, so I've got coloniser and colonised in me; I can see it from both perspectives.
TMcC: There's one image in that play that gets stated at least twice: she's standing by the house's curtains, looking to the outside and to the inside. It really made me think of Emily Dickinson, her geographies: how she places herself always at the intersection of different lines and bodies, 'standing on the circumference, looking in and looking out'. Were you thinking of that line? I know you write poetry yourself.
NG: Emily Dickinson is a big influence on me. But the reprise of the line wasn't conscious; I was thinking about the curtain between me and the outside world. And when I was first told the story of Hanuman my father would look up at the curtain and say: 'Look! He's coming!' and we'd look up, and as far as I was concerned he was really there. But it does relate to what you're saying: the idea that something is hidden, and the act of storytelling reveals it. The girl survives the bullying because she's seen beyond, she's seen this other world and knows who she is. So it's not so much about being inside or outside: it's about the inner resource you draw on, as a writer or as a person.
TMcC: Why do you write for radio?
NG: I love radio. It's completely intimate as a medium. It's like the best of a novel and the best of a film: you can have a broad sweep and also this one-to-one. I was a radio producer for seven years, working for the BBC, so I know the medium well, and feel I have a large palate to choose from. The other thing is sound: you get the sounds of the language, the words themselves, then the sounds the actors make during their dialogues. Also, it's easier to write about India for the radio: it's not expensive to produce, you don't have to go there with a film crew. You can have a huge Indian crowd making a lot of noise and then pan straight into someone's thoughts without a massive budget. Radio is like film in many ways. People say it's not visual, but I think it is; it's just that the image isn't right in front of you. It's a very imaginative medium.
TMcC: I love that lullaby every night on Radio Four when they read the shipping forecast: Dogger, Fisher, German Bite… There's a photographer that went and photographed each one of these places.
NG: Lots of people enjoy the shipping forecast. There's a sense of being soothed, but there's also one of this vast landscape out there that we don't know anything about.
TMcC: Let's talk about So Beats my Heart. I found that a really fascinating play, and, again, one that resonates with the concerns of this organisation. You've set it in this zone between life and death: the death of a young woman in a car crash and the newly-leased life of the man into whom her heart is transplanted. What's fascinating is that you have the heart itself speak, and you have the heart remember things, and it's the heart that leads us from one scene to another: it's the main character. Why did you write it this way?
NG: The idea just hit me. I woke up and thought it would be a fantastic idea for a play. And, again, you could only do it on radio. The heart is transplanted into a man who has no feelings, no heart. Part of him has died; he's given up on life in a fundamental way. so he has to regain his heart - love, feelings, his relationship with his wife who wants a child. When he gets the heart he has to start again, like a child. But it's not that easy to have a heart: the heart is troublesome and annoying, and speaks to him saying: 'You're not going to get rid of me so easily.' She's aggressive in a childlike way - and also spontaneous and fun-seeking, like a child. I was looking at how much you sacrifice in this society to be a so-called functioning adult. I'd started meditating, and looking at Buddhist philosophy, which says that the emotions are in the heart. Obviously, in one sense that's a fiction because it's just a muscle that pumps blood around the body. But in many traditions it's seen as a seat for other things, the best part of you - so that was my starting point. Originally it was a long and fragmented poem, but then I pitched it as a radio play and it got commissioned and then became more conventional with each rewrite.
TMcC: Michael, the recipient of the heart, is torn throughout between wanting to erase his past, to silence the voice that he and the listener keep hearing coming from the heart along with its memories, the memories of the young girl, on the one hand, and on the other wanting to find out more about it. He's very intrigued, and tries to get a message passed to her family. I wonder: did you research this and find that this actually happens in the case of transplant patients? It must be a very strange psychological situation.
NG: Yes. I researched it on the internet, and phoned up this major heart transplant centre in Leeds. This senior nurse told me that they don't actually encourage people to meet; but the recipient often feels this great gratitude. In my play that becomes a symbolic gratitude.
TMcC: There was that situation recently with racist donors…
NG: Yes, specifying the race of would-be recipients. No, it has to be unconditional. But in my play it becomes, as I realised as I finished writing it, about ideas of reincarnation. He gets reborn within his own life. Not at first, because when he first gets the heart he's this embittered individual - in fact, the heart taunts him and says: 'You're not really living; being alive and walking around isn't enough.' It's a love of life that has to be reborn.
TMcC: When I was reading that play I expected it to end with Michael dying so that the heart could be returned to its rightful owner, to death. But then exactly the opposite happens: the dead girl dies away from the heart and then gets symbolically reborn as the daughter that Michael and his wife produce at the end of the play. So would it be fair to say that in that play death isn't a destination: it's a detour?
NG: Yes, it probably is. I wasn't expecting to write a happy ending. The original long poem didn't have one. But maybe I wouldn't say death was a detour, because there is a finality about the fact that this girl eventually does fully die. I do believe that even when you're alive, several parts of you will have died. They have to, or you wouldn't be able to mature, move on. You hear of these books about your 'inner child', and rediscovering it is a nice idea, but in a sense your inner child does have to die, otherwise you'd still be a child. And your inner teenager has to be firmly put in place. If there's a message in that play it's just to enjoy life, move with it.
TMcC: The first time we met you were telling this incredible story about being flown in your father's aeroplane. It was exhilarating to listen to; and it was very symbolic: hurtling in this aeroplane downwards with zero gravity, towards the sea I think…
NG: That's right.
TMcC: You were wondering how to go about executing that as a story: whether you should use multimedia and so on. How's it progressing?
NG: I've done a first draft. I had this idea that I could develop it into virtual reality, and people said: no, don't, it's just a great story. I'll keep it as a short story.
TMcC: What's the mechanics behind the zero gravity?
NG: As far as I remember, I was in a plane with my brother and my dad said: 'I'm going to take gravity away', and seemed to switch something on the controls and told us to put our seatbelts on, and then I had this experience of weightlessness, lifting off my seat. He must have been doing a parabola. Nosediving. He always did this loop-the-loop thing where he'd go right out of the sky and drop down to the sea and we'd be screaming, and then just as it was about to hit us he'd pull the plane up and we'd go right up again. It was a lot of fun and very exciting. He could also increase the gravity, so this weight bore down on your head and your face is being pulled down. In the story I was interested in exploring the physical and the emotional, and also what happens when you have an experience that you don't really understand.
TMcC: And the way you're writing it, are you staggering it like you did with Hanuman's Child, so there's the main template-scene and then later ones that loop back into it?
NG: Yes: it starts with the father dying (it's fiction), and then goes into the actual experience, and then follows the child becoming an adult, becoming older and realising certain things about the father. But I want to keep it simple.
TMcC: It is a really simple set of coordinates: gravity, the grave, death, flight, memory. It's brilliant.
NG: I do like writing about flight. It's an experience that blows your mind. I had my mind blown at an early age. It's that feeling of going out of yourself, into another space, and then you look down and see the land in a different way, and in a sense that's what being a writer is about.