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This Warrior Is Fighting On


The Guardian, Jan. 13, 2005

Photo: Behzti

I am proud to be a Sikh, and my play is both respectful to Sikhism and honest

As a writer I lead a quiet life, so nothing could have prepared me for the furore and intense media interest of the past few weeks. I am still trying to process everything that's happened - my play, Behzti, has been cancelled; I've been physically threatened and verbally abused by people who don't know me; and my family has been harassed and I've had to leave my home.

I have chosen not to speak until now, but not because I have been frightened into silence. Dealing with the practical issues around my own safety and that of those close to me has been my priority.

Firstly, I have been deeply angered by the upset caused to my family, and I ask people to see sense and leave them alone.

I am very grateful for the overwhelming support I have received nationally and internationally from the artistic world, from fellow Sikhs and many others. At a time when the power of words is under the closest scrutiny, please know that your words have kept my spirit strong.

My play and the foreword to it are in the public domain, and I whole-heartedly stand by my work. I was very saddened by the decision to stop the play but accepted that the theatre had no alternative when people's safety could not be assured. Contrary to some reports, nothing in Behzti was ever altered as a result of pressure from anyone. As any drama practitioner knows, new writing evolves during rehearsal, and any changes made were simply part of the usual creative process between writer, director and actors. Nor, as has been suggested, did I ever veto any attempts to restage Behzti. And I will, when the time is right, discuss the play's future with relevant parties.

The closing of the play has triggered a series of timely and valuable discussions. However, there can never be any excuse for the demonisation of a religion or its followers. The Sikh heritage is one of valour and victory over adversity. Our ancestors were warriors with the finest minds who championed principles of equality and selflessness. I am proud to come from this remarkable people and do not fear the disdain of some, because I know my work is rooted in honesty and passion. I hope bridges can be built, but whether this prodigal daughter can ever return home remains to be seen.

Unfortunately the contents of Behzti seem to have been taken out of context by many. Surely it is only by reading or seeing the whole thing that anyone can usefully comment on the decisions made and on the play's merits or flaws?

I certainly did not write Behzti to offend. It is a sincere piece of work in which I wanted to talk about what is beneath the surface of triumph - all that is anonymous, despairing, human, inhumane and absurd - and to explore how human frailties can lead people into a prison of hypocrisy.

For a story to be truly universal, I think it is important to start with what is specific. Though the play is set in a gurdwara, its themes are not just about Sikhism, and I hope that a person of any faith, or indeed of no faith, could relate to its subject matter. I feel that the choice of setting was crucial and valid for the story I wanted to tell and, in my view, the production was respectful to Sikhism. It is only a shame that others have not had the chance to see it and judge for themselves.

Religion and art have collided for centuries, and will carry on doing battle long after my play and I are forgotten. The tension between who I am, a British-born Sikh woman, and what I do, which is write drama, is at the heart of the matter. These questions of how differences in perspective and belief are negotiated in Britain today will, I hope, continue to bring about a lively and vital debate.

I believe that it is my right as a human being and my role as a writer to think, create and challenge. The dramatists who I admire are brave. They tell us life is ferocious and terrifying, that we are imperfect, and only when we face our imperfections truthfully can we have hope. Theatre is not necessarily a cosy space, designed to make us feel good about ourselves. It is a place where the most basic human expression - that of the imagination - must be allowed to flourish.

As for the threats and hate mail, these have stirred only tolerance and courage within me. My faith remains strong, and I pray that these days pass peacefully, that my life will normalise and that I can get back to working on my other commissions for theatre and television. Finally, I want to pay tribute to the Birmingham Rep., which has supported my work for the past six years, and to the show's fantastic cast and crew, who showed great fortitude under the most oppressive conditions. You can all rest assured - this warrior will not stop fighting.