Chitra Ramaswamy: Homelands

Chitra Ramaswamy
Edinburgh International Book Festival and Scissor Kick
Edinburgh College of Art

Chitra Ramaswamy

Along with Hear No Evil and Deep Wheel Orcadia, Homelands is part of the Scotland Through Time showcase at this year's festival, which "sees three exquisite books theatricalised for the stage". This presentation was directed by Hannah Lavery and produced by Glasgow-based Scissor Kick.

Read by the author, this narrative jumps between the past and the present day, between the story of Henry Wuga leaving Germany and that of Ramaswamy's own parents leaving India, all brought together by her interviews, leading to a friendship, with Henry.

Henry—originally Heinz, but this was "too German" for wartime Britain—Wuga came over on the Kinderstransport in 1939 with other German Jewish children escaping Nazi Germany. There are stories of him growing up in Germany, including how at 13 years old in Nuremberg, "the most anti-Semitic city on earth", he managed to get in to see Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which was quite a risk; "how did a a Jewish boy love the same opera as Hitler?"—he says this is part of his fight against Hitler.

His escape really began on Kristallnacht in November 1938, after which everyone wanted to get out, but the British and Americans didn't want to know. Henry's mother, Laura, made the difficult decision to send her son away on his own, but there were 100 children at the station and only 30 seats on the train, with each compartment under Nazi guard. He ended up in a place called Glasgow. It would be seven years before he saw his mother again, and he would never see his father again, but the majority of children who arrived on the Kindertransport would be orphaned, and most would remain in Britain.

Ramaswamy likens her and her parents' experience in Britain as an immigrant to Wuga's—too Indian in Britain and too British in India—and describes the traumatic time around the death of her mother from breast cancer. They are together in the story at a Schubert concert, where Henry's wife Ingrid knows and mouths the words to Schubert's songs but will no longer sing them out loud as it would be too upsetting.

It's a fascinating story, even in this abridged form, but it is a stretch to call this a theatrical presentation rather than an author reading as Ramaswamy reads her own words, clearly but in the same tone, eyes mostly on the paper in front of her, and only moves twice: once from behind the desk to a chair, half turned away from the audience, and then to stand up and face the audience. The much more animated voice of Wuga himself in audio recordings breaks this up regularly, and there is music played live by Kathryn Joseph, who also sings a song in a slow, breathy, almost whispered voice to electric piano.

Having said that, the story draws you in and this presentation worked well as a taster for the full, complex and intertwined story in the book, published by Scottish publisher Canongate in April, and it was wonderful to see Henry Wuga himself in the audience—he stood at the end and paid tribute to the author in the voice with which we had become familiar from the recordings.

Reviewer: David Chadderton