There’s something distinctly unsettling about love stories in the midst of war. Inflamed passions set aside, the dance of courtly clashing set aside, war is cold strategy—politics by other means, as they say. And yet, the metaphors for love remain: immobile, implicit, riveted. Shot Roots is such a narrative set in 1857, a year recorded in my old textbooks as ‘The First War of Independence’ against British colonialism in India. Set in colonial Lucknow and featuring two soldiers from very different cultures, the play is also a story about insurgency, which is another word for the rebellion, revolt, mutiny and, of course, war. And, it is a love story about two queer characters—in itself an insurgency.
Thus, in the first instance, two different battles. A historical mutiny against the immediacy of colonial power and its changing faces. Second, a clash between heterosexuality and its constitutive Other. One of the first things that playwright and producer, Asim Ali, tells me about his play is ‘One of the biggest pushbacks that I’ve gotten … is that queerness does not belong in our culture.’ Maybe yet another battle must be recorded—one where freedom to practice and express one’s sexuality belongs solely to the West, and the periphery still sits in its native and ignorant closet.
Time and place are significant—not too old to be called primitive and ‘revisionism’ and not too new to be assimilated into a global wave—queerness is explored at a point where the ground shifts, and the ruling Raj settles into a political takeover by the Empire and the crown.
The encounter is between Dawid, a Muslim soldier in the private army of the East India Company and Donald, a higher-ranking British Officer, whom he shares an intimacy with, is marked by another shift in terrain—the end of Mughal rule.
Our textbook histories of the freedom movement are ripe for new imaginings. Thus, many complex dynamics and histories, many encounters, combine in the narrative of the play, where the relationship between the two is tested when news of a rebellion inspires Dawid to join the uprising against the colonizers. As Asim says, ‘The idea of that intimacy being with a British soldier lent itself very well to examining the complexities of the way these cultures related to each other, and the power dynamics that would have been present even within a loving relationship further strained by the secrecy that would have been necessary for survival.’
Shot Roots has been directed by Martha Benson and it promises to be an intimate love story (set in the midst of so much!). One can follow updates on @shotroots on Instagram and Twitter and the website, ShotRoots.com The play should be interesting for its representation of characters who challenge the comfortable contemporary narratives as well, at a time when India refuses both the queer and the Muslim in its new policies.
Lest we forget that it is still war, ‘Vows (and teeth) are broken.’