Some people with exceptional talent will reach the top of their chosen profession come what may. A surprising number of others owe their success to a lucky break. My own talents were more modest but as a young man that once in a lifetime chance was dangled before me only to be snatched from my grasp at the last minute.
It was the end of the sixties. I had just joined the British Council, then a cultural organisation and was posted to Madras (now Chennai). An envious senior colleague called it “the last outpost of gracious living.” And so it was, yet because of the lack of air conditioning and because it topped the the Foreign Office’s “scale of climatic beastliness” we were paid a hardship allowance. If hardship meant a lovely house, a large garden, four servants, a five minute drive to the office and a job that was better than many people’s hobbies, then I suppose it was pretty tough.
There was a stronger feeling than today of being abroad, of being in another place both physically and psychologically. English newspapers arrived a week late, our private correspondence was written by hand on aerogrammes. There was no telephone contact. Only the BBC World Service, if you could receive the short wave signal, kept us in touch with the outside. Home leave came round only every eighteen months and so we made Madras our home. We absorbed the culture and we made our friends. And what a culture, what friends, what a revelation it all was to an impressionable young man whose classical western education had excluded all this. Who needed the office?
During working hours there was so little for us four expatriate officers to do that we squabbled over files; if we wanted to get out of the office for a week or two we could tour the VSO projects which the British Council then managed, all over South India. The Mofussil.
One colleague kept himself aloof from all this. David was different. In an academic, hands-off way he was in charge of English Language programmes. On the strength of a best selling children’s book he had also established a name for himself as a writer. He sat in isolation in a large office befitting his grade. There he would spend many contemplative hours drafting and redrafting a single letter or minute, honing it to perfect prose. We knew, because every morning the day file, containing flimsies of all our correspondence of the previous day, (typed of course by our own Anglo Indian secretaries), was circulated and read assiduously. It filled the time and was supposed to keep us informed of what the others did. David’s one or two letters were always carefully crafted prose poems.
Among the files I managed to snatch was one for a young doctor called Roger Bannister who came out to lecture on medicine in sport. He had been the first man to run the four minute mile and in my schooldays had become a national hero. To meet him in this his second career was a thrill and one afternoon after a picnic on the beach I got to run along the shore with him.
Another doctor who seemed even then to be old, Richard Doll, came on a very different and controversial lecture tour. He astonished everyone with the claim that smoking was bad for the health. He went on to become Regius Professor at Oxford and was knighted in 1971. He lived to be 92 and is now remembered as one of the world’s greatest cancer researchers despite the posthumous revelations of having worked for Monsanto for several decades.
Sometimes our visitors fused the two cultures. One such was Peter Coe, fresh from directing Lionel Bart’s Oliver in the West End. This was a successful musical based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist. He came to work at Mrs. Rukmini Devi’s Bharata Natyam Academy. Single handed this formidable woman had revived Indian classical dance and was training young men and women to become professionals. Peter Coe spent six weeks in her theatre working with aspiring actors and musicians, amateur or professional, collecting their songs and their folklore and building a colourful stage musical. By the end he had a solid core of performers who had stayed the course and they produced a spectacular and enjoyable one-off show. He was to die in a car crash in the U.S.A. at the height of his success.
In addition to the dance academy there was a permanent group of amateurs dedicated to the Western theatre. They were all Indians, headed by the avuncular figure of Krishnamurthy, a scholarly businessman and Brahmin. He was always surrounded by a huddle of young men and women who hung on his every word. He threw very relaxed parties.
My introduction to this group was via a performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The lead was played by Girish Karnad, the heart throb of the group, who gave a searing and passionate interpretation of the role. Although new to the country, after ten minutes or so, I entirely disregarded the fact that the entire cast were Indian. Girish was also a playwright himself with Tughlaq and Hayavadana, written in his native Kannada, already under his belt and soon translated into English. He went on to make a successful film career and achieved international acclaim.
Around this time Romila Tharpar had brought out her book on Asoka who in my total ignorance of all things Eastern was quite new to me. It struck me that this originally cruel and ruthless king who converted to and helped spread Buddhism to become both a powerful and yet enlightened emperor over what is now India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, that this Indian warrior turned pacifist was also an emperor for the seventies. There was also a strong love interest. He may have died in 232 BC but his reign of virtue would appeal to the generation of 1970 AD.
I began writing a play about him. Researching how people lived in the third century BC I had delightful discussions with Indian historians who were more than willing to share their scholarship. By now I had directed Pinter’s Hard Times with the Madras Players and worked with them on Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. I had got to know some of the members very well. Tentatively I showed my play to Krishnamurthy. I thought that he might be affronted that a young Englishman should even attempt such an exercise. He courteously relieved me of the manuscript and his reaction a few days later was overwhelming. He loved the play. It was a bit too long, but if permitted to cut the five acts to three, he would have a manageable vehicle for the players.
After the first reading of my revised script the players, too, were fired with enthusiasm. As a result Krishnamurthy said he would like to direct it. Already there was a buzz of excitement in the air. There was talk of touring India with it and then of taking it to London and New York. Several of the actors were considering giving up their day jobs so as to make themselves available. As for me I would naturally have to leave the British Council and stay on in India.
There was only one problem. Who to cast as Asoka? Krishnamurthy was not convinced any of his males were up to it. Their star, Girish, was now working full time in Mysore. Then a miracle occurred. David. my colleague, the timid English Language Officer, the only one of us who was a real writer and who might well have felt threatened by this junior upstart, read the play and was also captivated by it. To our astonishment he asked whether he might be considered for the leading role. He had, this shy, reclusive man, told us, acted at Cambridge. Krishnamurthy agreed to give him an audition. Now although Asoka was an Aryan ruler it was controversial to cast a fair Englishman in the role of Indian hero. But David got the part, rehearsals began in earnest and the future looked rosy.
Disaster struck in a most unexpected manner. David. already in his late forties fell for a young volunteer. This past teenager was the same age but the complete opposite to David’s own talented and pretty hippie daughter, not to mention his vivacious and entertaining wife. Being responsible for VSO work meant the Council exercised pastoral care over the 30 or so mainly school leavers who came to work in rural projects. David’s very public affair caused consternation and scandal. The British Deputy High Commissioner saw fit to call him in and reprimand him. His wife left. Rehearsals were missed.
When David finally walked out of the production and his post it was too late to find an understudy. The cast was devastated. Many had made sacrifices to be in the play, some had built dreams around it. Krishnamurthy, already middle-aged, saw his new career as a Shakespeare Walla-like tour leader come to a premature end. My play was never performed.
Fifty years on I still have the original copy of my play about Asoka written in green ink in a large ledger. The physical object reminds me of those hot nights of study and creation on my Madras rooftop, where in those days before air conditioning I would seek the slightly cooler air. I dare not read the play again. I do not wish to find it as insubstantial as the dream that all too briefly grew from it.
And David? His book, Stig of the Dump is still in print under his nom de plume and has become a much loved classic. I am one of the few who has never read it.