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Not in Our Gurdwaras

Ash Kotak is a playwright and can be reached via email at

The Guardian, Dec. 21, 2004

Photo: Behzti (Dishonor)

The job of playwrights is to tell the truth as we see it, to represent our own perceptions of our experiences and to fictionalise them. But the truth hurts, is rarely simple and some people aren't going to like it.

Behzti (meaning Dishonour in Punjabi), the play that caused violent clashes between Sikh protesters and police in Birmingham at the weekend, was closed yesterday. With its scenes of rape and murder taking place within a Sikh gurdwara (or temple), Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play offended a vocal conservative group within the community.

We need to question the responsibility of the playwright. Should those writing about minority groups have a different level of censorship applied to them? Clearly not. Should consultations be made with self-appointed leaders of particularly sensitive communities? Certainly not. The playwright should only have to answer to his or her conscience. It's a question of honour.

But the play comes at a particularly sensitive time when religious people from all quarters feel threatened - both by what they perceive as the moral breakdown of society and by others' accusations of religious fundamentalism. In the blind swirl of prejudice that has followed 9/11, a Sikh turban can look the same as a Muslim cap.

Asian playwrights are regularly courted to create art that represents the 'Asian experience' in the U.K. - the more sensationalist and provocative the better. But do we have a duty to be extra cautious because of this? Who exactly is our audience?

A play written by an Asian is not necessarily an Asian play. As a writer, one hopes that it will transcend religion, class and culture. The faces in it may be brown but the experiences are universal. Nevertheless, we still pray that there are many brown faces in the audience. After all, it is our and their prejudices that we are challenging.

My generation of writers define themselves against the elders who have suppressed us. Each generation goes through its own evolution, and it will take time to understand the turmoil that this is creating. The revolt among the young should be encouraged because they are not simply rebelling but rather trying to find a voice. Most importantly, they are attempting to end the silence that exists around abuses and injustices that take place within their communities.

Surely a minority of Sikhs over-reacted. Not in our Gurdwaras! We must be as free as possible in our writing, but at the same time we are forced to think carefully about the kind of writing that will get us into the situation Behzti is now in. The result could be that we are not heard at all.

Setting Behzti in a gurdwara was without doubt provocative. The setting of the play could have been moved to a community centre and it would have highlighted the same issues. Gurpreet has certainly reached her audience, although - to her chagrin - no one is actually talking about the play. And this is perhaps the most vital question of all. With all the surrounding controversy, will an actual person such as the raped girl, fictionalised in this play, now have less of a voice or more of one? Unfortunately, I think the former will be the case.