I came across Indian Ink shortly after I had discovered Tom Stoppard. Arcadia is without question one of my favorite plays of all time but Indian Ink is very close behind, which is all the more surprising because I have never seen it on the stage. At that time (almost ten years ago) I was reading a lot about India, the literature about the time before and after it gained independence from Great Britain; I was drawn to the stories about the end of an empire which had flung its arms to the far reaches of the earth and was now shrinking into itself like a pond drying up until there is nothing left except for a memory of water.
In this play (as in Arcadia) we flash between past and present as the poet Flora Crewe arrives in India in 1930 and as the historian Eldon Pike researches her life some sixty years later back in England, going over old diaries and letters with her sister, Eleanor (Nell, or Mrs. Swan). Time is suspended as Flora's life is narrated by her sister's remininces of Flora's life among the luminaries of the art and literary worlds of that time. And then Anish Das comes to tea with Mrs. Swan, the son of the man who was friends with Flora in the year 1930, those last months of her life, in India. (All this action takes place on the same stage, characters from past and present talking almost simultaneously, which is quite confusing on both the stage and on the page; it is a conceit of Stoppard's).
As the stories unwind themselves before you the arguments flare up between the people whose lives are intersecting. Empire versus colonialization. English against Indian. We were your Romans, says Mrs. Swan to Anish. We were the Romans! (retorts Anish). We were up to date when you were a backward nation. The foreigners who invaded you found a third world country! Even when you discovered India in the age of Shakespeare, we had already had our Shakespeares. And our science - architecture - our literature and art, we had a culture older and more splendid, we were rich! After all, that's why you came.
When I think of India I think of the English, who carried their arrogance and fine china to the ends of the earth and expected the natives to fall at their feet in gratitude for colonization. I think of mustachioed men in white suits and pince-nez and inappropriate footwear, and women clad in white dresses drinking tea in the shade. And then there are the weather-beaten English who have fallen in love with the heat and the dust and cannot bear to go back to the heart of this fading Empire, to the grayness and cold of London on the other side of the world.
I see now that the dying Flora is rather like the dying Empire.