Remember Aunt May in Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man series? She is family to Spidey, frail yet firm, vulnerable but supportive — an unlikely combination of contradictions that was intricately essayed by British actor Rosemary Harris. The octogenarian Harris is a Golden Globe, Tony and Emmy winner, with a sizeable fan base in India that does not know that she spent her early childhood in pre-Independence India — in the North West Frontier, now Pakistan — and returned to Kerala for a holiday last year. Her new play, Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink, is being staged at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, an occasion that prompts her to go back to those childhood days when she was “baba” to the locals and her mother called her “pagal ullu”.
Over the phone from New York, Harris joyfully recites a Hindi nursery rhyme — “when I recite it to Indian cabbies in New York, they are so shocked they almost crash”. “My father was in the Royal Air Force and I grew up in the North West Frontier of India.
There was always trouble on that frontier. It is on the border with Afghanistan, not very far from where Osama Bin Laden was killed.” Between 1924 and 1935, her father won the Distinguished Flying Cross three times, “quite a record”, says Harris.
In a grand bungalow, with a “beloved ayah who took care of my sister and me” and under the warm sun, she had a “childhood much better than children in England at the time”. She studied at a little garrison school where men in service sent their children and, though she was too young to feel the heat of the freedom struggle, Harris remembers the “little celluloid dolls that were distributed by the Russians as a propaganda to influence people towards communism. I had one of the dolls and, because they were made of celluloid, they disintegrated and only their little red dresses were left,” she recalls.
At a subliminal level, she has used these experiences in Indian Ink, an off-Broadway Tom Stoppard play that follows free-spirited English poet Flora Crewe on her travels through India in the ’30s. As her relationship with an Indian artist blossoms, the freedom movement gains momentum in the country. Fifty years later, Flora’s younger sister Eleanor (played by Harris) is living the life of a “typical, retired memsahib” when a young Indian artist, Anish, comes visiting. Eleanor must now revisit some old days as well as forge a new understanding of herself. “When Eleanor arrives in North West India, she says, ‘It was early summer. The wind was blowing and I’ve never seen such blossoms— it blew everywhere.’ I remember those orchards myself. You cannot forget them,” Harris had said in an interview with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod for the Roundabout Theatre Company blog.
Eleanor, she says, lives in a cramped bungalow in the play, which reminds Harris of how much her mother hated coming back to the small house and grey weather of England. “I’ve got photographs of my mother and father in India. My mother always missed India,” says Harris. The actor visited Kerala last year where her daughter Jeniffer Ehle was making a film, Before the Rains. “I ate curry, curry and curry. The hotter it was, the more I liked it, I must have an asbestos stomach,” she says. After a pause, she adds, “There is an Indian restaurant right next to where we are doing India Ink and I love the smell.”
Her voices softens as she recalls holidays in Srinagar’s Dal Lake. “We lived in a house boat and swam among the water lilies and snakes. We were told to keep our mouths tightly shut while swimming because the water wasn’t the purest,” she says, adding, “When I read about the floods in Kashmir, I was devastated. That beautiful land is destroyed.”