Playwright Siddhartha Bose used historical research and his own experience growing up in India when he wrote his new play, No Dogs, No Indians. He told EDWIN GILSON about the lasting legacy of British rule in his home country.

THE past is the present in Siddhartha Bose’s No Dogs, No Indians, as the impact of British colonialism in India is examined across three generations. The Indian-born, UK-based playwright was interested in exploring “the ghosts of history”, and in doing so he placed two very different but related characters “into the same conversation”.

The first is Pritilata Waddedar, the philosophy graduate who led an attack on the Pahartali European Club in Chittagong, which had a sign reading “Dogs and Indians not allowed”.

After being caught by British police, Waddedar committed suicide to avoid arrest. After coming across her tragic story during research, she became the catalyst for No Dogs, No Indians. “I find if quite intriguing, disturbing, and, if I’m honest, humiliating, that colonial clubs in India had such signs,” says Bose. “Indians weren’t allowed. I was interested to see how Indians responded to that provocation.”

In contrast to Waddedar, and her rebellion against colonialism, Bose’s second character (who lives decades later), “bases himself around British culture”. He is obsessed with cricket and Shakespeare and fancies himself as an amateur actor.

“He is emblematic of a lot of people in that era,” says Bose, before highlighting the remarkable fact that English literature as a discipline was introduced in 19th century Calcutta before London. This hints at one of the most important elements in No Dogs, No Indians; its focus on language.

“There were people in India who wanted to learn the language, but at the same time it was part of colonial policy. Bose quotes the words of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who served on the Supreme Council of India between 1834 and 1838, by way of emphasising the struggles of living under British rule.

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” Needless to say, it’s a thoroughly problematic mission statement. Bose says there has “always been a paradox in perception between the (British) Empire being something benevolent but also quite brutal”.

The playwright’s second character appreciates many aspects of British life, but at the same time has to come to terms with British government in his country. One of the questions the blurb for No Dogs, No Indians poses is, “What would you choose to remember, what to forget?” But surely it’s not as simple as merely choosing your memories when you’ve lived under, or in the wake of, colonialism?

“I think it’s as simple as the experience of, and politics behind, colonialism was brutal and it inflicted psychological damage on the people who were colonised,” says Bose. “One way to deal with that damage and humiliation is to fight against it (as Waddedar did). Another way is to respond to that experience by adopting and appropriating the culture of colonialism (as his other character does). In some ways I explore the extent to which that love and desire to identify with British culture is a form of self-loathing or aspiration.”

As Bose points out, the Anglo-Indian relationship is being renegotiated in the 21st century and particularly post-Brexit. I’ve noticed that Philip Hammond and Theresa May have been in and out of India to negotiate new trade deals,” says the playwright. There is a third character in No Dogs, No Indians who is perhaps most relevant to Bose’s current position in life, having been stationed in Britain for 12 years after studying and living in America.

This character returns to India from London – as Bose often does – and encounters “steel magnates, supermodels and tech millionaires”. Do these developments match up with Bose’s own experiences of modern India?

“One feels that despite the massive contrasts in India – between millionaires and slums – things change at an incredible rate. There’s a sense of something massive taking place but at the same time it’s disturbing. “Inequality is getting worse by the day. There’s a real sense that we’re going somewhere but where we’re going to end up, well, we’ll find out in a couple of decades.”

Amid the chaos of a rapidly-developing country, Bose’s exploration of its history reveals the continued legacy of colonialism. “The impact is still felt,” says the playwright. “Even I am flotsam and jetsam of the Empire in some bizarre way.”

No Dogs, No Indians, The Spire, Eastern Street, Wednesday, May 17 and Thursday, May 18, 8pm, £17. 50