I have just finished writing a play, Song for Bengal, which is currently being translated into Bengali. This the result, not only of many years spent coming and going to both Dhaka in Bangladesh and Kolkata in West Bengal, but also in research at the British Library into the conditions under which the weavers worked for the East India Company in the last decades of the eighteenth and first decade of the 19th century.
The story is of a village girl, Bilkis, who leaves her impoverished family to come to Dhaka for work in the garments industry, which now provides Bangl;adesh with three quarters of its foreign exchange. She shares a room in a hut with three other young women. Women make up about 80 per cent of the labour force in the industry.
As she works, Bilkis becomes possessed by the spirit of dead weavers and spinners from the time of the East India Company. They speak through her of the time of hunger and starvation, the great famine of 1770, the control over the labour of the weavers by the Company through its middlemen and agents.
Believing her to be possessed by evil spirits, a traditional healer is called upon to exorcise the demons. He fails, and Bilkis continues to wander through the neighbourhood, lamenting the fate of the long-dead weavers and their families, remembering how, when Dhaka was emptied of people by hunger and weavers fleeing the tyrannical regime of the Company. As she does so, it is clear that the memories of the past converge with the exploitation of the present day; and the factory-owners and government of Bangladesh come more and more to resemble the representatives of the imperial Company. Her prophetic utterances come to the attention of the authorities. She is also visited by the spirits of the weavers of Lancashire, who came into the industrial cities of the North to tend the machines which had taken work away from the weavers of Bengal.
Her subversive remarks are seen to apply to contemporary Bangladesh. Government becomes alarmed. She is eventually taken into custody as a madwoman; and in the final scene, the leaders of contemporary Bangladesh finally morph into representatives of the East India Company.
Some of the play is in blank verse. There are monologues and scenes of semi-realism. It is a kind of ghost-story which is also a meditation on arbitrary nature of identity, the shifting fortunes of countries, the roles that are made and unmade for different generations to fulfil in the unfolding drama of globalism.
We are planning a production in London some time in 2012, and I am hopeful that it will also be performed in Kolkata next year.