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"Dark Things Do Happen in Gurdwaras Sometimes"

Rupa Bajwa was born (1976) and brought up in Amritsar. Bajwa's The Sari Shop (2004), set in Amritsar, won the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction and, last Monday, also bagged the Best First Book award in the regional round (Eurasia) of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

The Telegraph, Calcutta, India, Feb. 6, 2005

Photo: Rupa Bajwa

But you're not allowed to stage them - as the crew of the controversial play, Behzti, found out in England. Rupa Bajwa returns to Amritsar to feel the pulse of her hometown.

I belong to the Sikh community, and I had always heard that we were supposed to be a courageous race. On December 19, 2004, I was shocked at the form this courage took. Behzti (Dishonour) - a play written by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a Sikh by birth - was being staged at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre when about 400 protesting Sikhs forced the play to be taken off, for showing violence and sexual abuse inside a gurdwara.

Fifty days have passed. Shockingly, though there has been considerable debate about it in the foreign media, here, among the Sikh community in India, there seems to be pin-drop silence. Sure, it was reported in the media, but no one seems to have taken it very seriously.

I suppose it is pretty understandable. Imagine anyone even trying to insinuate that our gurdwara priests could be tainted with any vice! Now that we Sikhs have displayed our courage, we can get back to earning money, shopping, having lavish weddings, watching Hindi films and praying at our gurdwaras.

I suppose this can also be considered a warning to writers, filmmakers and playwrights to steer clear of certain issues - say, female foeticide or drug peddling in Punjab, and other minor stuff like continuing dowry deaths and farmers committing suicide. Let us stick to writing clean entertainers!

Where we lived, there was a Sikh gentleman who made it a point to wake up at four every morning and visit the Golden Temple. He made sure the whole locality knew that. He had drooping eyes, a habit of gossiping, a priest-like beard and a sermonising voice. These qualities I first associated in my childhood with piety and hypocrisy, and disliked wholeheartedly.

My parents have a delightfully vague approach to religion that has been a blessing to me. Sure, I was occasionally taken to gurdwaras as a child. I played while they prayed. At about 16, I began to frequent the Golden Temple on my own. I had an old, broken-down T.V.S. moped and dreams of leaving Amritsar. Whenever distant relatives visited, I'd take my moped and trundle off to the Temple. It was the only place of escape I knew of, where I could look for solitude, without facing questioning glances, and even direct questions. I would go there, secure a nice corner for myself somewhere in the large complex, and settle down to think. Sometimes, I took books with me, and leaned against one of the carved pillars in the parikrama, reading till the light grew dim.

The Golden Temple is beautiful. Since it is situated in the middle of a sarovar, the water in the sarovar reflects light differently every hour - it gives a magical quality to the place. The gentle lapping of water, reflection of the sky in the sarovar, flocks of pigeons, a sense of history, the kirtan sung by trained raagis - it was beautiful to me.

I had one major problem though - the sewadars of the gurdwara always had an eye on me. They always seemed to be nitpicking about something - either your head covering was slipping off, or you were just sitting in the wrong direction. I knew they were doing their job, but they seemed to have an uncanny knack of interrupting me when I was following some tenuous thread of thought.

And then, one day at home, this mild irritation almost created a crisis. Two 'Aunties' had come over. One of them patted my head and told my mother, in Punjabi, 'Mrs. Bajwa, you are lucky. I see your daughter in the Golden Temple often. Absolutely sunk in prayer. At such a young age too.' Tired from reading late the night before, and stung by the allegation that I was virtuous, religious and god-fearing, I retorted, 'I go there for privacy and solitude. And precious little you have of that when those idiotic bhai jis are forever telling you to do this and not to do that.'

This was just the first retort I could think of - I didn’t really dislike the priests all that much. Some of them, in fact, seemed benevolent, advising you to sit in the shelter when a cold wind was blowing, or informing you while passing by that tea was being served in the langar. But the single, impulsive retort turned out to be disastrous.

'Wahe Guru forgive this girl! She doesn't know what she is saying,' said one of the Aunties. She sank down on a sofa and made whimpering noises that I thought were totally uncalled for. The second Auntie looked sterner. 'If you can't respect people who serve in God's temple, how will you respect God?' My mother looked slightly pale and worried. So I left the room as politely as I could.

Almost a decade has passed. One of those Aunties still doesn't speak to me.

This is the kind of intolerance that Sikhs have when it comes to their clergy. Of course, all religions have it, but here I am specifically talking about us, the Sikhs. If a 16-year-old girl doesn't have the freedom to call a priest a nuisance, it is no surprise that Bhatti's play evoked such strong reactions.

What blasphemy! How can rape happen inside a gurdwara? But dark things do happen in gurdwaras sometimes, the same way they happen everywhere else. I happened to be in Ludhiana when a girl in her early twenties was kept captive inside a gurdwara, and raped repeatedly over three days by one granthi, three sewadars and a tabla-player of the gurdwara. The girl finally managed to open a window and shout for help. By the time the police arrived, four of the men had fled. Only one of them, Satnam Singh, was on the premises. And our holy man, Satnam Singh, was enterprising enough to excuse himself to change his dress from the holy garb into civilian clothes. During this time, he jumped out of the window and ran away.

In July last year, a nine-year-old girl was raped by her uncle, a paathi of a gurdwara in a village near Jalandhar. Her holy uncle gave her an intoxicant, beat her up and raped her. He was arrested, though most of the villagers wanted to hush the matter up. Bhatti ought to respect the 'religious sentiments' of such Sikhs, people whose very existence seems to hinge upon being reassured that all their clergy are nearing sainthood.

I have nothing particular against clergymen, Sikh or any other. That isn't the point. The point is that a rapist - whether a clergyman, a plumber, a magistrate, a beggar, a writer, an executive, anybody - can be depicted in any way. In a play, in a novel, in a short story, in a film. It makes me very sad, very angry, that 400 Sikhs got violent because a Sikh priest was shown in poor light in a play. They were among those who are well-settled 'abroad,' people who bring back huge suitcases containing cosmetics, perfumes and electronic items for relatives in India when they visit.

I was visiting my family in Amritsar when this hullabaloo about the play happened. One morning, when my parents were away, a retired government officer, a Sikh, came to visit my father. It was a cold morning. I put out chairs in the sun and offered him tea. Then I spoke to him about the play and the protests. He wasn't comfortable talking about it, but I persisted. 'So, what do you think?' I asked.

'Me? Nothing.' he said, stirring the sugar around slowly, looking deep inside the cup. 'People shouldn't get violent,' he then added decisively. 'It isn't nice.'

I felt pleased. 'So the play should have gone on, right?' I asked.

'No, no,' he said, looking slightly agitated. 'It is not good to insult a gurdwara, especially in a foreign land.'

I was slightly confused. 'So it was okay to protest?'

'Yes, anyone can protest.' 'Violently?' I asked.

He put down his cup on the table. 'When did Bajwa say he'd be back?' he asked.

'He didn't say,' I replied. There was a silence that he broke after a minute. 'Why are you bothered about all this?' he asked me, suddenly irritated. 'Because I am a Sikh,' I said, with a straight face.

The answer was supposed to be a private joke, to be shared with my sisters later. However, at that moment I realised I'd never thought of myself in terms of a Sikh identity. It was probably the first time in my life that I was defining myself such, even if in jest.

I was visiting the Golden Temple again. A middle-aged woman came and settled herself on the floor near me. She told me she went to clean and wash in people's houses to earn a living. I told her about the play. 'What do you think? Can anyone in a gurdwara rape a woman?' I asked her finally. 'Any man can do anything anywhere,' she said matter-of-factly. 'See, good people are good, and bad people are bad. Everyone will have to answer for their deeds in this very lifetime,' she said. 'Yes, but this play that was staged in England . . .' She interrupted me impatiently. 'Who has seen England? And who is going to? I am not.'

And with this she got to her feet and shuffled off.

I haven't much more to say. The play has been taken off from the B.R.T. All I can do is repeat a few clichéd sentences. One, ignorance and rage have overpowered freedom and reason. Two, with no respect for dignity or truth, sheer numbers have drowned another individual voice. Can't think of a third one but I am sure you get my general meaning. I hope I haven't been disrespectful to the Sikh religion while writing this piece.

After all, we are becoming a touchy lot, aren't we?

Sat Sri Akaal!