I started collecting Judy Davis movies because Russell Crowe once told someone who asked whether he wanted to be the next Mel Gibson, “No, I want to be the next Judy Davis!” I can easily see why. Her screen presence in David Lean’s epic adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India is really something – somehow her body language seems to be more pivotal in framing each shot than the camera position/angle itself.
But this little sonnet about the first 20 minutes of the film (I’m watching it piecemeal, I don’t know the ending yet!) is for Peggy Ashcroft, who plays young Adela Quested’s mother-in-law and companion on her first-ever journey abroad. Adela and her mother-in-law share a newcomer’s distaste for the blatant colonial racism under the Raj, and remark privately between themselves on the backwardness of the British authorities who form their welcoming party.
In the scene where I left off (because I couldn’t hear the dialogue over my fan – just trying to stay cool in this crazy heat wave!) Peggy Ashcroft’s character has an unexpected encounter with a young doctor (played by Victor Banerjee) whose life will become central to the story as it unfolds, at night in the ruins of a mosque abutting her son’s veranda. He rushes to stop her from setting foot inside, not realizing that she has already been courteous enough to remove her shoes. This poem is from her point of view.
If passage by steam, by post and by rail
can reunite lovers, can trusted friends
not be made of the neighbors fortune sends
these travellers – parting the painted veil?
A heatmap of garlands, a palette of dyes,
this country is bursting with artisans,
students of law and of our medicine,
dodging our taxis, avoiding our eyes.
How do you sanction the brutal disdain
of judge for defendant in England’s reign?
Liberties novel to people of caste
ring false when tea is the measure of class.
Allow me the privilege to know someone
whose race the whole Raj is at pains to shun.