Pramila Le Hunte is disturbed by the way things are. “The world is a dark place and the power of love and humanity of the soul is needed now,” says the British politician who, in 1983, became the first woman of Asian origin to fight an election on a Tory ticket in the UK. She is almost 80 and, forced by ill health to sell her house in Chhatarpur in Delhi and return to England. She has penned her legacy for the children of the world — it is a play.
I Am Your Love Story is packed with many elements that appeal to young people — the central protagonists are a good-looking girl and boy who come to India from England. The plot expands to include references to the present and historical incidents such as sexual abuse, genital mutilation that creates a community of hijras and wars in the Middle East. The script is strewn with eccentrics, especially the strange Babaji, a spiritual guru who dresses like Mahatma Gandhi, and Auntyji, who was liberated from a bad marriage by the death of her husband.
I Am Your Love Story was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe last month and its first shows in India were held for schoolchildren at Shri Ram Centre on Wednesday. They laughed and clapped at deliberate jokes, such as the hijra’s constant threat to lift his sari, but every so often, the hall went quiet as reality interjected like shards in a good-looking romance.
Le Hunte was born in Nagpur at “a very interesting historical time” when Hitler was planning to put Jews in concentration camps and Mahatma Gandhi was agitating to throw out the British. “You can call 1938 the see-saw of history,” she says. Her father was a mine owner and she grew up in the copper mining town of Mosaboni in present-day Jharkhand, which was run by an English mining company called The India Copper Corporation. “My father was the only senior Indian who was offered a large house within their community. I grew up more with the British. My mother tutored me at home as she was a graduate, but she provided a Hindi tutor as she knew that India was heading towards Independence,” she says.
This was when she developed a love for the tribal people, the Santhals, whose dance and music filled her early years. When Le Hunte went to study in Cambridge, it was social anthropology that she chose. I Am Your Love Story is based in Calcutta, where the playwright-director went to Loreto College, in the 1950s. A previous play, Sahir: His Life and Loves, was about her favourite lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, who held her through the homesick days when she went to Cambridge at 18. “I laughed and cried with Sahir. When I was homesick, I’d listen to Jaane woh kaise log from Pyaasa,” she says. It was in Cambridge that she married Bill La Hunte, who was also there as a student. “Those were the best years of my life. I shifted to England in 1968 from India after a trial period of trying to settle as a family in India. It was challenging after a luxurious lifestyle in Calcutta,” she says.
Vignettes from her life emerge in I Am Your Love Story. Charles and Wendy have come to Calcutta from England and, through them, Le Hunte takes the audience on a nostalgic trip of grand Calcutta clubs, polo matches, Flury’s and the mighty Ganges turning placid as it flowed through the city. “I was in Delhi on August 15, 1947, and also when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. The power and thrust of his message is incorporated in Babaji who assumes some of the aspects of Gandhi,” she says. Being a teacher, “who moved in the educated circled”, Le Hunte had no direct experience of racism, one of the main themes of the play. In England, she became active in the London cultural scene — the Richmond Arts Council roped her in to stage The Tempest and she made a film on Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, besides working with the government to create the national curriculum. I Am Your Love Story is being developed as an educational tool and the script will soon be published.
In the ’80s, as Margaret Thatcher launched into a fight with the trade union supremo Arthur Scargill, Le Hunte emerged as her vocal supporter. “The trade union movement had also started in India and my father was harassed by them. I admired the strength of Thatcher and wished my father the same success,” she says. The miner’s strike in England, better known as The Winter of Discontent, saw Le Hunte preparing for marches and rallies. She was chosen to contest for Parliament from Birmingham Ladywood, which she did unsuccessfully.
I Am Your Story shows the deft touch of a person who knows her audience. It is designed for short attention spans, with songs — from Bob Dylan’s The answer is blowin in the wind to Saiyan dil mein aana re from the 1951 Bollywood film Bahar — and a string of koans and repartees. Wendy and Charles, played by Chloe Van Harding and Hector Moss, respectively, are likeable and relatable but it is Dilip Shankar, a consummate performer, who headlines the performance as Babaji.
“In 2001, I returned to Delhi where my mother of 85, a widow by now, required 24/7 support. After her death at the age of 90, I built a farm house in Chhattarpur,” she says. The plays she made in Delhi include Nehru: The Inner Story, Chaplin, Gandhi and Salt and The Wolf and The North Wind (about a dictator and a shaman on a hot air balloon). “Ill health made me return to a better climate in England where I already had a home,” she says. In England, she follows the unfolding sociopolitical situation with a frown. “I do not support Theresa May now. In fact, I have written a short poem called The May Flower, where the Pilgrim Fathers sailed across the Atlantic on a ship called The May Flower, to establish their own form of Brexit,” she says.
I Am Your Love Story ends, not with curtains, but with a session of meditation. In the dim hall, the audience closed its eyes as Shankar, who conducts people through meditation many Sundays in Delhi, guided them. “The meditation worked very well in Edinburgh as it led the audience’s thoughts forward to personal worth, love towards others and peace for the world,” says Le Hunte.