Empires of Gender

Constructions of Gender in the Age of Imperialism

Home and Away: Notions of In-betweenness in Tanika Gupta’s The Waiting Room.

By Laura-Marie von Czarnowsky, University of Cologne, Germany

Well, I’ve been ranting and raving about this for years: (...) they put you in a box. You don’t call Tom Stoppard a Czech writer or Harold Pinter a white Jewish writer, so why do we have to be called either women writers or Asian writers? For years I had been resisting writing plays that are only about Asian people, and writing plays about arranged marriages and all the rest of the clichés. I think that if you are a writer you should be allowed to write whatever you want. (Gupta in Sierz 266)

1Tanika Gupta's The Waiting Room (2000), staged at the Royal National Theatre in London, winner of the prestigious John Whiting Award, traces the story of Priya Bannerjee, a 53 year-old female Indian immigrant to Britain, and a ghost to boot. Chronicling the period around Priya's death, the two-act play follows its heroine as she lingers in the world of the living, rights her wrongs and makes her peace before she finally transcends into the titular waiting room, a non-denominational version of heaven.

2With a female Asian character at its centre, and a female British-Asian woman playwright behind the scenes, the labels of “woman writer” or “Asian writer” Gupta so resents seem hard to shake and to thus once more confirm the binary oppositions that inform colonial discourse (cf. Childs et al. 217). One is either a woman writer or a writer, an Asian writer or a British writer. But this article argues that The Waiting Room offers much more than a reading limited to the writer's and the protagonist's gender and ethnic identity. While there was “no place for inbetweens” (ibid) in colonial discourse, The Waiting Room is deliberately postcolonial in its approach. As Chris Weedon points out in Identity and Culture

Recent fiction by British women of South Asian descent suggests that Britain is not only multi-cultural but is reshaping notions of culture and identity, producing hybrid forms that draw on both so-called 'ethnic' and white British identities, cultural forms and practices. (114)

The Waiting Room continuously produces and reiterates hybrid forms out of dichotomies such as (auto)biography/fiction, India/England (as representations of East and West), life/afterlife and tradition/modernity. Elements and characters can be moved from one category to the next, and their identity is formed with and by this fluidity.

In-between: (Auto)biography and Fiction

3Tanika Gupta's first play, Voices on the Wind, is a dramatic retelling of a part of her family history [1] While the play did not receive a proper run on a big stage, it was workshopped extensively in a collaborative effort between the Talawa Theatre Company and the National Theatre Studio in 1995 (cf. Stephenson and Langridge 115). Following the workshop, it was performed twice for selected audiences at the National Theatre Studio and was later adapted for BBC4 radio (cf. Sierz 262) . It focuses on her grandfather's brother, Dinesh Gupta, who was a member of the Bengal Volunteers, a group striving for Indian independence. Hanged at the age of nineteen for shooting a high level government official, Dinesh Gupta was seen as a martyr by his Indian and as a terrorist by his English contemporaries (cf. Sierz 261). It was his story Tanika Gupta sought to explore decades later. The Waiting Room too draws on Gupta's family history, but moves from the genre of biography into that of autobiography.

4The obvious similarity lies in the ethnic background of both the writer Gupta and the characters she created for the play. Both have a Bengali Indian background, both live in England. Like Priya's children, Tara and Akash, Tanika Gupta was born in England as the daughter of immigrants. “I'm quite interested in that middle-class, Indian generation of people who, like my parents, came over in the early sixties,” Gupta shares (Stephenson and Langridge 117), and makes Priya, Firoz and Pradip members of this particular age group and social class.

5But the key parallel between the play and Gupta's life lies elsewhere. “I fictionalized my father, making him a woman," Gupta to Sierz (263). Like Priya, Gupta's father died from a sudden stroke at the age of 53, and his death and the ensuing funeral rites find representation in the play. “It was quite weird because suddenly all these Hindu relatives appeared, with ritualized weeping and wailing, and leaving out glasses of water for the soul on its journey,” Gupta reminiscences (ibid). Before the play's three male characters enter the stage, it is only inhabited by the props and an unmoving Priya in her casket, but the grieving acquaintances set the scene, as “we hear the wailing and crying of several Indian women – high pitched and feverish” (TWR 11). Once the men enter, Pradip, Priya’s widower, begins to put glasses of water on surfaces all over the room. The perception of these events as “weird” was passed on from playwright to character as Akash, Priya's son, is positively irate with the wailing acquaintances and shows scepticism when his father carries out the water ritual. The implementation of Indian funeral rites presents a stark contrast to the middle-class English setting that is established and is a first instance of cultural hybridity in practice.