Harwant Bains: the history of violence and the violence of history

I went to see a revival of Harwant Bains’s 1989 play Blood last week at the Royal Court, London. Full disclosure: Bains is a good friend of mine, we go back a long way, and I love everything he writes; but we’re also adult about each other’s stuff, and know the difference between “liking something” and it being any good, and know enough about really great writers – you know, the bloody good stuff – not to exagerate praise in the cause of friendship. So when I say Blood is a damn good play, you can trust me: and the proof is that Harwant himself would hate what I’m going to write about it, and shout that I’ve completely misunderstood it, and possibly hit me, and then we’d go down the pub for a pint. (Not a normal friendship, then.) [1, 2]

The play starts in the partition of British India into the Dominions (later Republics) of India and Pakistan in 1948. Here’s Wikipedia:

The partition displaced over 14 million people along religious lines, creating overwhelming refugee crises in the newly constituted dominions; there was large-scale violence, with estimates of loss of life accompanying or preceding the partition disputed and varying between several hundred thousand and two million. The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that plagues their relationship to the present.

The viceroy, Mountbatten, had instructions from London to avoid partition if possible, but instead decided that a rushed partition and subsequent instant British withdrawal were the only way to avoid a bloodbath (Boris Johnson should have been there, he would have been in his element). Told that his plan would lead to exactly the opposite result, Mountbatten said:

At least on this question I shall give you complete assurance. I shall see to it that there is no bloodshed and riot. I am a soldier and not a civilian. Once partition is accepted in principle, I shall issue orders to see that there are no communal disturbances anywhere in the country. If there should be the slightest agitation, I shall adopt the sternest measures to nip the trouble in the bud.

Like that’s worked in the past. Wikipedia quotes Ian Talbot and Gurharpal Singh on what actually happened:

There are numerous eyewitness accounts of the maiming and mutilation of victims. The catalogue of horrors includes the disembowelling of pregnant women, the slamming of babies’ heads against brick walls, the cutting off of victims limbs and genitalia and the displaying of heads and corpses. While previous communal riots had been deadly, the scale and level of brutality during the Partition massacres was unprecedented. Although some scholars question the use of the term ‘genocide’ with respect to the Partition massacres, much of the violence was manifested with genocidal tendencies. It was designed to cleanse an existing generation and prevent its future reproduction.

It’s important to recognise that these things happened, and that the perpetrators were just ordinary people – not psychopaths, not criminals, but farmers, villagers, fathers, office workers. Every so often a Dionysian blindness grips human beings, laws and civilisation and decency are discarded, and men and women allow themselves the indulgence of going violently mad. It’s been known all through history – from the Bible’s description of rioters that killed all those who pisseth against the wall (that is, men) and raped those who don’t (women and children), to Iceland’s Berserker culture, to My Lai, to Rwanda. Yup, all that happened, and if you or I had been there, who’s to say we wouldn’t have joined in? [3]

The subsequent plot of Blood is simple – I’ll summarise it, get it over with, because as regular readers know, I don’t really think you learn all that much about a story from its plot. At the height of the madness, a young Punjabi boy (Balbir) witnesses a shocking act of violence. When he grows up, he moves to Britain – at first works in a factory, then becomes a pimp, then a murderer, then a gangster, and ultimately head of a multinational criminal enterprise. The dominos tumble, and the circle is completed: who’s to say if Balbir is born evil, or turned evil by the horrors he witnessed? Either way, he comes to a sticky end, as all anti-heroes did back in the day. He is finally murdered by his nephew – who may actually be his son, because blood is not the only bodily fluid that flows copiously in this play – who then succeeds him as criminal godfather and starts a new round of madness. There are echos of The Godfather and Heart of Darkness but also the Oresteia, where one early decision has a knock-on cycle of kill, revenge, eat, shit, kill, kill, kill [4]. “Are we animals or men?”, cried a character: but the answer is easy, they are men, since no mere animal would be so consuming, so wasteful. The last scene is Balbir’s funeral back in the Punjab, with eulogy by his brother. The end. Oh, there’s a minor subplot involving the brother and his wife, but the play is definitely Balbir’s. [5]

So, these horrors happen, we know, but those who haven’t experienced them cannot imagine them in reality. We can watch slasher movies or war movies or gangster movies as much as we like, and no matter how good the writing and the acting and the direction and the effects, we cannot experience the terror of violent reality, the pain and fear of being there – and, don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing, it’s a good thing that most of us never have to literally fight for our lives. For some weird psychological reason, we enjoy experiencing vicariously exactly those things we would most try to avoid experiencing in reality – the human brain really is pretty sick, isn’t it? In any case, this gives us an insight into Balbir’s character: the difference between him and you or me is that he has lived through this unspeakable horror, he’s really experienced it. And he survived. And that made him privileged, special. Morally untouchable. It gave him permission to pull out all the stops on his violent career. It gave his ruthlessness strength. Unlike his “good” brother, Balbir had an excuse to be bad, and combined with his natural nastiness, he turned this into a kind of superpower. We should stand in awe of him, but also envy him a little. Yes, envy. Nadine Gordimer talked about how it was bad faith to “envy other people’s historic tragedy”, and it is, but there’s an element that we do envy Balbir’s memories. What I could do if I had had those experiences, part of us thinks, and yes – I could do anything. Balbir has transcended mere morality: before Partition, he was merely bad; after, he was himself. Nietzsche’s “whatever doesn’t destroy you, makes you stronger” [6] applies, but more – Balbir is free, and he proves that by choosing to inflict pain.

These are depressing facts about human nature, but still facts. Thanks to Harwant and writers like him for reminding us of them.


1) Blood is published by Methuen in the UK and available from the Royal Court website. That’s down at the moment (again), but I’ll post the link when it’s back. Amazon do it as well if you don’t mind fellating Satan.

2) Original production was at the Royal Court upstairs in (I think) 1989. Cast included Paul Bhattacharjee and Meera Syal; the web also says Saeed Jaffrey was in it, but that must be a mistake – Harwant? It was directed by Lindsay Posner. The revival was on Friday 1 June 2018 at the Jerwood Royal Court, and was directed by Iqbal Khan.

3) And unspeakable cruelty is all through literature as well. In Jack Gold’s TV adaptation of I, Claudius, a Sargent orders a soldier to kill a woman and her children. The soldier protests that the little girl is a virgin, and killing her will bring bad luck upon the army. The Sargent says “then better make sure she isn’t a virgin first, hadn’t you?” (The line is in the book, but heavily euphemised). About the same time, Norman Mailer wrote of what the US troops did to some captured Japanese in the Pacific war – they sodomised them with a Coke bottle and broke the glass off – then let them go. As Mailer says, every time for the rest of their lives they take an excruciating shit, they’ll remember and fear the almighty Dollar. The pain and the permanence of that, combined with the imperialistic symbol of Coke, is possibly the most horrific thing I’ve ever read. But neither Mailer nor Graves intended to shock – both had fought in real, nasty, wars, and seen much worse than those things. Their point is just that, scratch away the veneer of society, and all is allowed. Alone among the animals, humans’ capacity to inflict cruelty is just about unlimited – not even by our imagination, as both Mailer and Graves insist.

4) When Agamemnon is asked why the internecine armies at Troy don’t make peace, he says “the dead do not wish it”. He meant that both sides had invested too much, lost too many, to accept anything other than total victory: poker players will recognise this as the gambler’s fallacy.

5) More recently, Peaky Blinders had a minor insult in one series lead irrevocably to a spiralling cycle of gangland battles in the next. I love stories where the plot is quite logical, and because of something decided right at the start everything else is inevitable (though perhaps not obvious). I love the idea of story as ricocheting snooker balls, as a Newtonian dynamic.

6) Not “whatever doesn’t kill you…”, as usually quoted – which would be untrue and meaningless.

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