I don’t know why the theatre brings Abraham Lincoln to my mind. That infamous shooting of a great American President has become a vivid representation of theatre for me. As British Bangladeshi’s living at the East End of London, on the one hand we are privileged to enjoy a very Bangladeshi life which one can live outside of Bangladesh, and on the other hand this often deprives us of enjoying the very best of British culture because we are too consumed in our own community. Theatre is one of the aspects of British culture I often regret not being able to enjoy as much as I would like to.
So when I was invited by some of my associates to watch the play ‘Salty Water and Us’, produced by Purbanat production, a professional theatre company from the West Midlands, I was curious and positively cautious in what I should expect. I was keen on the story of the play. It was about lascars from Sylhet who worked on the merchant ships of the East India Company during the British Raj in India from the 17th to mid-20th century.
Rushing into the medium sized theatre room at the Brady Arts Centre in the heart of the East End of London, I could immediately feel shared aspiration and expectation from the crowd. Would the drama will take us back to past, to our forefathers when they embarked on an unknown journey in a ship to London? Would the actors let us feel the struggles and dreams that the lascars embraced?
The play began with Samira, a selfie obsessed young student from Birmingham University who craves to find her roots. The play takes us smoothly to the early 19th century when Soidulla, a young man from Sylhet secures a job through his friend Shamruddi at the port of Calcutta and sets off for London in one of the Raj’s merchant ship. The journey of this ship to London through salty waters then introduces other characters of the drama.
The story of the play is inspired by a short story written by prominent Bangla writer, Syed Mujtaba Ali and adapted into a play by the writer Murad Khan. The backdrop is the uprising in Sylhet and Assam that resulted from British Raj’s new tax policy from 1800 – 1810.
Lascar Shamruddi works hard in the ship to earn money and fulfil his dream of owning a large paddy field and building a mosque in his village. Bohemian Kutub Ali, another Sylheti young character wants to see the whole world. The stubborn Soidulla is the grandson of Hada Miah who was a peasant rebel killed by a British personnel Robert Lindsey. Soidulla is seeking revenge.
The journey was beautifully portrayed with a powerful Bengali voice occasionally singing with tragic tone and grief, a powerful grief. The Shareng, the guardian of the ship about whom we don’t learn much about along with others tirelessly fill the engine with coal supply to keep the ship going.
English Captain Lindsey, Shivani and Kutub’s life gradually comes into light with certain twists in their personality, values and ambitions. The occasional ‘dhuro’ from Kutub made me feel absorbed in a Sylheti atmosphere and the actor did a fantastic job in portraying common Sylheti attitudes.
At times it crossed my mind that there was deliberate effort to keep out any religious reference in the Sylheti characters or it could merely be my own expectation derived from my own experience of first generation Sylheti grandfathers I met who would have certainly uttered a prayer for a deceased friend they were missing.
Powerful acting by all the actors kept us glued into the perfectly adjusted theatre lights and the simplistic use of dialogue. The flawless maneuvering of the story from the floor did not make me feel at once that I am not in a Leicester Square theatre in Central London.
There was an interesting reference to the famine that the Bengal suffered, though there could have been a clearer indication on why Winston Churchill and the British aministration should have been recorded in history as the cause of the famine. What was brilliant was the effort to resolve the key character’s moral transformation once he reached his desired goal.
Written by Murad Khan a British Bangladeshi writer and directed by Filiz Ozcan, a Turkish director, both came across as sincere and passionate about what they do and the ‘Salty Water and Us’ certainly reflects that.
Though the play depicted early 19th centuries Bengalis embarking on a journey through the salty waters, I returned home with my personal reflections on how I, as a 21st century Bangladeshi, have too become a very subject of ‘the myth of return’. Any Bangladeshi’s in the UK wanting to go on a nostalgic journey to discover your roots, I would recommend watching this play.