Description

Published date: 1 November 2017

The British Government promises that all British subjects are equal before the law. But when America begins blocking the growing number of Indian Sikhs seeking to enter the US reneging on an Anglo-American treaty, will the British step in? A British spy and his wealthy Parsi informant discuss the potential revolutionary ramifications if the British do not.

This podcast is one of five short plays produced in response to documents held at The National Archives relating to the experiences of people from South Asia at the time of the First World War. The series was created by five playwrights from the Tamasha Developing Artists (TDA) programme and funded by the Friends of The National Archives.

Written by: Amy Ng

Directed by: Anthony Simpson-Pike

Performed by: Naveed Khan, Balvinder Sopal and Peter Singh

Recorded, edited and sound designed by: Robbie MacInnes

Photo credits: Bettina Adela

With thanks to Iqbal Husain and Sara Griffiths at The National Archives; and Fin Kennedy and Mina Maisuria at Tamasha Theatre.

Transcription

This is a transcript for the audio recording of ‘Step Child’, a play by Amy Ng
Stage directions for this play are marked with square brackets.
HOPKINSON
‘Ey up Burjor. Dig in. I’ve not had a finer goat curry in the New World.

BURJOR
Mr. Hopkinson.

HOPKINSON
And the biryani! A pan-Indian feast at the Berkeley revolutionary meeting. They thought I was fresh-off-the boat, plied me with food

BURJOR
No thank you. Mr. Hopkinson

HOPKINSON
Scratch a Parsee’s Savile row suit, and you always find a puritan.

BURJOR
Sir —

HOPKINSON
Mango, Burjor? A Dussehri mango — surely a mango can’t be polluting.
BURJOR
I have eaten, thank you. Mr.

HOPKINSON
The seditionists have transcended all caste restrictions – or so they claim. Brahmin eating out of the same bowl as Shudras. It’s ever so touching.

BURJOR
I am not a seditionist.

HOPKINSON
Of course not. You know which side of your bread is buttered.

BURJOR
I am a loyal servant of the British empire.
HOPKINSON
The seditionists love your cousin — ‘Madam Cama’.

BURJOR
All Bombay Parsees are related.

HOPKINSON
Tell her she’d still be a barefoot peasant if it weren’t for the Empire.

BURJOR
She is an extremely reckless and stupid girl.

HOPKINSON
Tell her that from me, won’t you? When you’re next in touch.

BURJOR
I am not. Sir.

HOPKINSON
They were selling postcards of her wrapped up in this new Indian flag she designed — the Indian Joan of Arc!

BURJOR
This place is not safe.

HOPKINSON
You Parsees! And you wonder why we don’t recruit Parsee soldiers. Maybe you don’t have what it takes to be a spy.
BURJOR
I’m not a spy.

HOPKINSON
An informer. Better? This is the safest place in town.

BURJOR
A brothel in Chinatown is the safest place in San Francisco?

HOPKINSON
Opium cures a hundred ills — don’t you believe in your own product? You’re far more likely to get a dose of the clap in those posh establishments in Pacific Heights. Though they’ve just recruited a Russian ballet dancer who can do the most fantastic contortions.

BURJOR
The British consulate.

HOPKINSON
That bunch of toffs! My in-laws are visiting from London. Highgate London. 24 hours of Highgate London and I was craving Asiatic filth and vice.

[HOPKINSON pours dahl into the hollow of the prone girl’s neck, and dips some naan bread into the dahl.]

BURJOR
Mr. Hopkinson!

HOPKINSON
She’s dead to the world. The finest opium from the Burjor warehouses.

BURJOR
I only deal in cigars.

HOPKINSON
Your uncle’s finest opium then. A pipe for her, a pipe for the Madam.

BURJOR
She’s so young.

HOPKINSON
Behold the fruits of your labour.

BURJOR
In trade, as in all else, the Empire led, and we followed. I only trade cigars. [HOPKINSON pulls out the opium pipe from the girl’s mouth. She wails.] Hopkinson!

HOPKINSON
The British consulate.

BURJOR
I only meant…it’s less suspicious. Parsee merchants go in and out of the commercial.

HOPKINSON
They let you in the tradesman’s door. Flippin’ ’eck, Burjor, where’s your pride? Here, all men are brothers. The only colour that matters is the greenback. And such an ingenious system of hidden entrances and exits! The Madam assures me no two johns ever cross paths. And where else can I enter an Indian and leave a Sahib?

HOPKINSON
So what’s so burning it couldn’t wait till the New Year?

BURJOR
I’m sorry but — Merry Christmas, Mr. Hopkinson. [BURJOR hands HOPKINSON a present. HOPKINSON tears open the wrap to reveal two dark haired porcelain dolls.] For your two little angels.

HOPKINSON
That’s very kind of you, old boy, but they prefer blond dolls. Keep them for your grand-daughters.

BURJOR
But surely your daughters are dark.

HOPKINSON
Their mother is blond. It’s imprinting. Biological. Like a duckling.

BURJOR
Then it gives me pleasure to think they will play with beautiful dark dolls.

BURJOR
I’m sorry to interrupt your Christmas.
HOPKINSON
Oh I was glad to get out. In-laws and moving boxes.

BURJOR
How’s the move?

HOPKINSON
Poshest neighbourhood in Vancouver.

BURJOR
Congratulations.

HOPKINSON
Aye…it’s Vancouver. It’s clean, it’s green, and so is boiled cabbage.

BURJOR
You want to go back to India?

HOPKINSON
No. You know what I don’t get? Same solid English stock in both America and Canada, but America is just — zing — electric, sizzling. What do they have that we don’t?

BURJOR
More migrants?

HOPKINSON
That’s seditionist. So spit it out, Burjor. What is so burning it couldn’t go in a report?

BURJOR
You’ll get your report, Mr Hopkinson. But there are some things — how do I say this? — the right inflection, the right nuance, impossible in a report destined for the imperial government’s files. Some things only a man like yourself, who has imbibed India with his mother’s milk, can understand. You asked me to report on the characteristics of Indians entering the United States through San Francisco. The labouring classes are exclusively from the Punjab.

HOPKINSON
Sikhs?

BURJOR
Some Muslims too.

HOPKINSON
There were Sikhs there tonight. Real peasants all right. Didn’t touch the food — none of this pan-India pan-caste nonsense for them. But they were many.
BURJOR
I’m not surprised.

HOPKINSON
And we thought Sikhs the least likely group to turn against us.

BURJOR
The Parsees are the most loyal.

HOPKINSON
Your business interests are aligned with the empire.

BURJOR
I like to think of it as a special relationship.

HOPKINSON
But the Sikhs! They’re a martial race. Loyal to the Father-Mother King. Backbone of the Calcutta police force.

BURJOR
Yes, many of the local Sikhs are former imperial policemen from Calcutta, Shanghai, Hong Kong.

HOPKINSON
So why have they gone over to these seditionists.

BURJOR
They’re economic migrants. You know the conditions in the Punjab. They become radicalised in America because there are real grounds for — discontent.

HOPKINSON
So what did they expect? That white labourers were going to embrace them after they’ve driven down wages.

BURJOR
In no other species do the unfit and lazy demand special protection against the hardworking and fit.

HOPKINSON
Ha! So the Asiatic are the rightful winners of the evolutionary contest? Revolutionary, Burjor.

BURJOR
In all fairness, the majority of white Americans are friendly.

HOPKINSON
So what’s getting their goat?
BURJOR
The perceived indifference of the British authorities. The injustice.

HOPKINSON
What has their treatment in the States got to do with us?

BURJOR
Under the terms of the 1815 treaty between Great Britain and the United States, all British subjects may freely enter America. The Americans now use means tests and health exams to deny Indian British subjects this right. The British government does nothing.

HOPKINSON
You know very well why we can’t intervene.

BURJOR
I know the Empire dare not set a precedent for free movement of Indians into majority white countries. I know the White Canada, White Australia, White South Africa people are baying for blood. But this is unjust, illegal, and above all else, short-sighted.

HOPKINSON
Several steps above my rank, old chap. Put it in a report.

BURJOR
Which will never get read. Unless I have a champion. The wonder is that not more of them are radicalised. Indians, British subjects, are excluded from all corners of the empire; Indians are beaten up in South Africa, in Canada, in Australia. The racial theories coming out of South Africa.

HOPKINSON
That’s not us, that’s…

BURJOR
Dutch settlers. I know. But the British government does nothing…

HOPKINSON
As if Sikh peasants care what was happening on the other side of the world! It’s these revolutionaries… Who are they? Where are they from?

BURJOR
All over. The British Raj. Burma. Afghanistan. They’re university students.

HOPKINSON
Why here? Why now? Why aren’t they going to England anymore?
BURJOR
Acceptance.

HOPKINSON
Acceptance? Have you read the news today?

BURJOR
Every country has its lunatics. But listen — last month, five Sikh labourers were arrested on a streetcar for being too noisy and white San Franciscans defended them against the police. I’ve never seen anything like that. Certainly nowhere in the Empire…

HOPKINSON
Is that why you sent your son to Harvard?
BURJOR
He’s there for the business contacts.

HOPKINSON
A few years of polo and punting used to be good enough for Indian high society.

BURJOR
Three generations of Oxbridge and still no closer to becoming English. Indians here will be American in a generation.

HOPKINSON
Americans are working on a law to exclude all Indians.

BURJOR
That’s impossible.

HOPKINSON
I’ve seen the draft.

BURJOR
On what legal basis? We’re British subjects!

HOPKINSON
Geography. They’ll exclude immigrants from a certain geographic latitude.

BURJOR
The British government will protest energetically – I hope. Out of self-interest alone if nothing else. What if half of all imperial subjects, the Indian half, conclude that British promises are empty? That India is only the stepchild of empire?

HOPKINSON
Like I said, old chap. That’s several grades above my rank. I don’t make policy.
BURJOR
What about Canada? Such a law would embolden the White Canada party. I have seen what they do in South African schools, the racial police, picking on the black-haired children, the ones with a hint of tan in their skin, looking for that single drop of dark blood. Being half Highgate London won’t spare your daughters.

HOPKINSON
And half Yorkshire. I was born in Yorkshire. I am a pure blooded Yorkshireman. And if anyone slanders my honour

BURJOR
Forgive me, Sahib. I have never considered Indian blood dishonourable.

HOPKINSON
I shall demand satisfaction.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have a rather pressing engagement with a lovely Russian ex-ballerina in a certain establishment in Pacific Heights. I’d ask you along but it’s strictly whites only.
[He looks at the girl] She’s paid for. Have her if you want.
[BURJOR takes out a bag of Mexican food and hands it to HOPKINSON, who opens it, surprised.] What’s this?

BURJOR
Guacamole and tacos. A Mexican delicacy. It is a curious but little known fact that the Mexican street food trade in San Francisco is dominated by Punjabi Muslims who have grown moustaches. On my way here, one of them asked me to give this ‘to Sahib Hopkinson, with compliments.’

[HOPKINSON springs into action, taking a Sikh costume out of the wardrobe, tearing off his English suit and putting on the Sikh garb at great speed. He wraps the turban so that he is unrecognisable. ]

HOPKINSON
And you wait till now to tell me? They’ve been following me — they’ve been keeping tabs — the number of death threats I’ve….

BURJOR
I assure you, I was just as surprised…
HOPKINSON
You’re in danger too! They know about you! They’ll execute you as an informer! Unless… a wealthy Parsee merchant like you, acting as a humble interpreter for Indian immigrants at Angel Island. Your son at Harvard. Your cousin a known seditionist. Idiot! Sahib, I am a loyal subject of the true Father-Mother King.

[HOPKINSON leaves hurriedly. BURJOR looks at the prone girl. He puts one of the dolls next to her. He takes out the postcard with Madam Cama wrapped in an Indian flag and looks at it. He throws Hopkinson’s discarded English suit into the fire, and watches it burn.]

The End

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