Bold programming by the powers-that-be at Radio 4 meant it was possible to listen to all seven episodes of Ayeesha Menon’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in a single day on Tuesday, exactly 70 years since independent India was born, and Pakistan created. Four and three-quarter hours of meticulously crafted drama (directed by Tracey Neale and Emma Harding) ingeniously slotted into episodes of different lengths throughout the day, some just 15 minutes, others a full hour (the adapter having to create and sustain pace in a variety of ways to suit the different lengths).
Such cavalier treatment of the schedule would have been unthinkable a few years ago; there’d have been an outcry from listeners following any attempt to do away with a weekly favourite, even if just for that day. But we’re all so used to digital flexibility now, gorging ourselves whenever we want on boxed sets and downloads. And the compression works really well for radio drama, and especially for such a rich and complex narrative, not just a family story but an attempt to draw in fiction a portrait of real events, and their continuing impact. If listened to in such a concentrated way, there’s no time to forget what’s just happened. The atmosphere is sustained between each episode, the narrative momentum enhanced. The mind keeps thinking about it, playing around with the ideas that have popped up unbidden while listening. The day is spent thinking not just about Rushdie’s characters and what happened to them but also to the broader play of the events of late 1947 and their impact, not just on the subcontinent. Drama becomes a portal, a way in to history.
Throwing Out Nehru (produced by Tom Alban), also on Tuesday on Radio 4, provided some historical context, the writer and biographer Zareer Masani expertly teasing out Jawaharlal Nehru’s significance to the story of India. Should its first prime minister be revered or vilified? Or is his legacy something more complicated?
Masani’s father was a friend and colleague of Nehru in the years before independence, but later opposed him in the Indian parliament because of Nehru’s socialist policies. How did they help ordinary Indians; how many, or rather how few, were lifted out of poverty? It’s a powerful argument, also used against Nehru by the BJP party, which now governs India led by Narendra Modi. Masani drew out the contradictions and confusions — Nehru imprisoned for many years by the British because of his anti-imperialist views, yet adopting the ways of the Raj, dining each day at a table laid with imported china, Irish linen, silver candlesticks and flowers from the garden, just as if he were still living in England (he was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, only later adopting the white kurti and Gandhi cap as his daily uniform).
In her programme for Radio 4 on Friday, The Age of Emotion (produced by Jo Wheeler), Philippa Perry highlighted the dangers of allowing feelings to enter too deeply into the common currency of debate. She wondered whether how we feel is becoming more important than how we think? Is this a danger to intellectual debate, or has emotion always played a part, whether as late Georgian sensibility or high Victorian sentimentality?
She talked to those who lived through the second world war and experienced as children the fear and horror of the Blitz. They remembered how no one expressed that fear because if they did they would not have been able to carry on. Are children now being indulged by being encouraged to talk about their feelings all the time? Have we created a ‘snowflake generation’ who have to be given safe spaces and trigger warnings every time something bad is about to be mentioned? ‘Being a teenager is an anxious time. [If you teach them anxiety] you’re putting a label on a normal emotion.’
We also heard from the digital company, alert to our fascination with feelings, which has developed the technology to ‘read’ our emotions — happiness, disgust, surprise, confusion — through the webcams on our computers. A smirk, a smile, a twitch or a blink can betray our reactions to video content, which can then be used by a switched-on marketing company to sell us what we have shown we might want.
On Thursday, Kamal Kaan’s afternoon drama for Radio 4, Breaking Up with Bradford (directed by Charlotte Riches), takes Kasim back to his hometown after three years studying at Cambridge. He thinks that he wants to go back to the terraced houses, the view of green hills beyond, the spicy dahl and civic pride of this blunted northern town, but once there he discovers that his emotional reaction is less straightforward. Who is he now? ‘Not white enough for Cambridge or brown enough for Bradford… Where do I fit?’
There are one or two false beats but this is a refreshingly different take on the problem of leaving behind what you know. We hear a new voice, an alternative set of domestic problems. What is it like to return to speaking Bengali after so long in the rarefied world of Cambridge? How can Kasim (Darren Kuppan) introduce his English boyfriend to his traditional Muslim sister?
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