Magazine article The New Yorker

Raj Recall

Magazine article The New Yorker

Raj Recall

Article excerpt


A day or two after "Indian Ink," by Tom Stoppard, began its first full-scale New York run, twenty years after opening in London, the playwright had lunch with Rosemary Harris, the play's star, at Karahi, on Christopher Street, beneath an image of Krishna on a golden chariot.

"I used to make chapatis," Harris said, as she shaped an imaginary flatbread between two clapping hands. She and Stoppard ordered biryanis, and then began to compare Indian upbringings. Harris, who is eighty-seven, and Stoppard, who is a decade younger, both spent their early years in colonial India--where "Indian Ink" is partly set, in 1930--and both can recall the experience of sailing from India, at the age of eight, to an England they didn't know. But, of the two, only Harris can recite "Little Jack Horner" and "Humpty Dumpty" in what may or may not be perfect Urdu. When she had finished, Stoppard said, "I don't have an Indian party piece. I feel so ashamed."

Harris, who compared the act of eating with one's hands to swimming in the nude, has brighter, giddier memories of the Raj than Stoppard. Harris's father, Bunny, was a Royal Air Force pilot; he was decorated for his part in suppressing tribal rebellion in the North-West Frontier, in the nineteen-twenties. Her parents had left Harris's older sister in England for eight years, in the care of grandparents.

"It must have been so wrenching for your mother," Stoppard said.

"No, I don't think so," Harris said. "They had a wonderful time: playing polo, tiger-hunting."

Stoppard and his family--at the time, they were the Straussler family--left Czechoslovakia in 1939. They settled first in Singapore. When the war reached them there, Stoppard's mother left with her two sons, while his father stayed behind; he was later killed. In India, the family lived in Lahore (where "we had a parrot who ate his cage," Stoppard said), Darjeeling, and Dalhousie.

"Oh, Dalhousie!" Harris cried. "My ayah used to say I had cheeks like a Dalhousie apple." She pinched her cheeks. "I don't know what a Dalhousie apple is. Wasn't there a General Dalhousie?"

"There's usually an imperial man," Stoppard said. "We lived in Minto Villa. I always thought it was named after a sweet."

While still in India, Tom's mother married Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British Army, and, after the war, the family moved to England. …

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