'Drawing the Line'
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Everyone knows that Indian Partition was a very bloody affair, but how many of us can name the man given the responsibility of laying the groundwork for it? In July 1947 Prime Minister Clement Attlee appointed Cyril Radcliffe, a barrister, to the task of drawing the boundary lines between the two new sovereign states of India and Pakistan. There had been riots in the country and the British were looking for as orderly an exit from empire as possible.
The guiding principle, crudely, was that as many Hindus and Sikhs as possible should remain within India’s redrawn borders, while the newly created Pakistan would be home to the majority of Muslims. There was the additional problem of populous Calcutta and Bengal in the East. Radcliffe, absurdly, had five weeks to accomplish this: Independence was set for August 15.
Howard Brenton’s new play Drawing the Line, which has been playing to full houses at the Hampstead Theatre (the curtain comes down with a live-stream performance this Saturday, available on a certain newspaper’s website), focuses on Radcliffe as he struggles with an impossible assignment in a country he has never until now visited, pulled in different directions by representatives from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress Party and Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League (at one point he feels inclined to grant all requests to the Sikh representative, purely on the grounds that he has kept silent during an important meeting).
Tom Beard (above, centre, with Nikesh Patel and Brendan Patricks) is excellent as Radcliffe, a decent man in a heavy dark three-piece suit (to keep out the heat?) brandishing a red leather briefcase which he grips firmly, unconsciously perhaps to protect his manhood as he awkwardly exchanges introductory salaams with Nehru’s young aide. We see him struggling with dysentery (some comic touches) and a conviction that he is simply out of his depth. He realizes that there can be no happy outcome however he redraws the map which he is desperately familiarizing himself with, as he holes up in his quarters in the Viceroy’s residence. Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and his boss, tells him that if they can keep deaths down to 100,000 that will be “an acceptable level of violence”.
Mountbatten is nominally neutral but at one point he leans heavily on Radcliffe to urge him to move the line in India’s favour. Brenton dwells – perhaps excessively – on Mounbatten’s chilly marriage with Edwina and her affair with Nehru (nicely portrayed by Silas Carson who, although taller, bears an uncanny resemblance to the statesman), while advancing the theory that his determination to get Edwina out of Nehru’s clutches and back to England hastened the withdrawal from the Jewel in the crown. The whisky-drinking Jinnah (Paul Bazely in a fine performance) instinctively distrusts the British in general and suspects he will not get a good deal.
Brenton is sympathetic to Radcliffe, imagining him, towards the end, on the brink of a breakdown. In what must be a stroke of poetic licence, he seeks inspiration for his actions from the Bhagavad Gita. The real Radcliffe, meanwhile, took the precaution of destroying all his papers before leaving India – were there any repercussions? And in W. H. Auden’s “Poem on the man who drew the lines”,
. . . a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.
According to Andrew Robinson’s forthcoming India: A short history (Thames and Hudson; to be reviewed in the TLS), the pilot of Radcliffe’s plane (not a boat then) “searched it for bombs” before take-off. Robinson reproduces a letter Radcliffe wrote to his stepson in England on August 13:
"I thought you would like to get a letter from India with a crown on the envelope. After tomorrow evening nobody will ever again be allowed to use such stationery and after 150 years British rule will be over in India – Down comes the Union Jack on Friday morning and up goes – for the moment I rather forget what, but it has a spinning wheel or a spider’s web in the middle. I am going to see Mountbatten sworn in as the first Governor-General of the Indian Union at the Viceroy’s House in the morning and then I station myself firmly on the Delhi airport until an aeroplane from England comes along. Nobody in India will love me for the award about the Punjab and Bengal and there will be roughly eighty million people with a grievance who will begin looking for me. I do not want them to find me. I have worked and travelled and sweated – oh I have sweated the whole time."
In his book The Idea of India (1997), the academic Sunil Khilnani sums up Radcliffe’s letter thus: “It is the weary, fearful, honest pathos of these private words, not the fine public speeches and pomp that accompanied the British departure, that is the true imperial epitaph”.