Ishy Din Q&A: ‘There is a lot of generational trauma that came from the partition of India’

Ishy Din Q&A: ‘There is a lot of generational trauma that came from the partition of India’

The British-Pakistani playwright is one of four writers of Silence, a powerful adaptation of Kavita Puri’s book Partition Voices: Untold British Stories. Photograph courtesy of Ishy Din

The award-winning playwright on his retelling of partition and the legacy of empire for British South Asians

Ishy Din wrote his first play in his mid-30s after hearing a BBC radio call-out for scripts while driving a cab in Middlesbrough, his hometown in north-east England.  

Now 55, the British-Pakistani playwright is one of four writers of Silence, a powerful adaptation of Kavita Puri’s book Partition Voices: Untold British Stories. The play presents testimony from people who lived through the violent partition of British India in 1947, when colonial rule of the subcontinent ended with the territory being split into the modern states of India and Pakistan. It also reflects on the legacy of strife and mistrust between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities after one million people were killed in intercommunal violence while attempting to cross the new border. 

Din’s first full-length play, Snookered a story about a group of young, Muslim men who meet up at a snooker cafe every year to commemorate the death of a mutual friend — debuted at the Bush Theatre in west London in 2012, and won the award for Best New Play at the Manchester Theatre Awards in 2013.

Din, who is currently under commission to the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, has also written for a number of TV shows, including Channel 4’s Ackley Bridge and Hollyoaks.

Din spoke to Hyphen about his work on Silence, the lasting impact of the 1947 partition of India, and his future projects.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get into playwriting?

I wrote my first play in my mid-30s. I was a cab driver, and I remember driving one day and I heard an advert on BBC Radio 5 Live, asking for short radio stories.

At the time, I had just bought my daughters a computer, and I resented the fact that they didn’t use it enough, so I decided to use it to enter the competition. I wrote a short play about two young Pakistani kids who go and watch Middlesbrough play football for the first time. I sent it off, thinking that somebody is just going to read it and think ‘what a git’, and put it in the bin. But six weeks later, I got a call to say they loved it and they were going to make it into a radio drama. It was called John Barnes Saved My Life. 

You have written a number of plays about British-South Asian identity — what has been the most rewarding aspect of that work?

If you grow up as a working class lad in the north-east of England, you don’t really feel that you are allowed to be a writer. That’s what other people do. There were certainly no role models that you could look up to.

As my career progressed, I started to realise what a privilege it was, because through my work I could talk about things that were important to me and things that I felt needed airing to a wider audience.

How did you and the other writers of Silence choose which testimonies from Puri’s book to include in the play?

We wanted to keep a balance of experiences across the spectrum of partition.

It was important to show the capacity of man’s violence towards man, and how people lived together for so long, but turned on each other so quickly.

But amongst all the devastation there was hope as well, and there were some great acts of bravery, self-sacrifice and communal love. Everyone was just as scared as each other. They just wanted to be safe, and for their families and loved ones to be safe.

What was particularly striking about the stories?

People who lived through that period were really surprised by what happened, and how quickly it escalated. There’s this deep sense of shame about everything that went wrong, for the perpetrators, and for the victims, and not wanting to talk about what happened.

Even though many of those people who told their stories moved to England and went on to live quite enriched lives, the experience never left them. There is a lot of generational trauma that came from it, and we see how it has seeped into modern day communities.

Silence first toured in October 2022,  just months after the violence which broke out between Muslim and Hindu groups in Leicester. Did putting out a play like this feel particularly pertinent at that time?

Though the timing was coincidental, it was really important. It’s a lesson to us all that if we are not vigilant, these things can quite easily be sparked again. 

It was a reminder of the consequences of othering people, and othering communities. Regardless of which side of the divide you are on, these divisions can escalate very quickly and can be devastating.

What do you hope audiences might take away from the play?

That this was one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.  We wanted to bring it to the forefront of people’s consciousness, and make sure it isn’t forgotten.

We need to keep South Asian history alive, and make sure people are aware of our past, and why we are where we are. 

What have you got planned for next year?

I have a new play coming out in February 2025, which will be showing at Live Theatre in Newcastle. It’s called Champion, and it’s about Muhammad Ali’s first visit to South Shields in 1977. I’m also working on another play about the Mughal Empire.

Tell us about a play you think our readers should go and see.

Father of the Assassin, which was on at the National Theatre. It’s about Nathuram Godse, the person who killed Mahatma Gandhi.

One of my all time favourite plays is East is East. It’s such a funny but poignant insight into growing up in Manchester in a mixed race family. It’s beautiful.

Silence is touring Leicester, Birmingham and Manchester until 4 May.

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