A Matter of Words

Hundreds of indignant Sikhs stormed the Birmingham Rep Theatre in December 2004 where Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Bhezti made its debut. Not only were they seriously offended by the play’s subject matter—rape and homosexuality among Birmingham’s Sikh community—they were scandalised by its setting, a gurdwara. Consequently, the theatre cancelled all further performances of Bhezti out of “concern for its patrons.”

Before the opening night of Bhezti, representatives from the local Sikh community and the theatre held several meetings during which Sikh elders rallied for a change in the setting of the play from a gurdwara to a community centre. Although those involved in the production refused to change the play’s setting—an integral part of the work— certain other compromises were reached. For example, a statement on Sikhism would be read to the audience before each performance. Despite all efforts made to strike a balance, the play prompted an angry and powerful reaction from one of England’s largest minority groups. Bhatti’s work is now at the centre of a clash between artistic freedom and cultural sensitivity.

In Bhezti, reclusive Min (Maninder) lives with her elderly mother, Balbir, and is mourning the death of her father who committed suicide. Elvis, a black social worker who is secretly in love with Min, visits the shattered family for fifteen minutes every day. In the first few acts, they prepare to leave their cocoon-like existence to visit the gurdwara, where the remainder of the play takes place. There, Min is shocked to learn that her father had a homosexual affair with one of the Sikh elders and that this affair led to his suicide. In a grim and calamitous turn of events, the same man, her father’s former lover, rapes Min. A gruesome history of sexual violence begins to unfold, and we learn that another character, Tetee, was also raped by the same Sikh elder in her youth. Using a kirpan—a symbol of her Sikh heritage—Tetee decides to avenge the injustice committed against her by her Sikh elders.

Bhezti was marketed as a dark comedy and indeed the first few acts of it are rife with subtle humour and sharp, witty dialogue that is riveting:

Elvis: Tell me what its like. In there.

Min: You put your hands together and in that moment you have to think really quickly.

Elvis: About what?

Min: About God and what you want to say to him. Only don't speak it out loud, keep it deeply, deeply inside … It's best if you keep your legs crossed. He won't want to see your bits.

Elvis: What do you want to say to him?

Min: That…I love God and Guru Nanak and all the gurus and Jesus as well, very much, and I want to be a good disciple."

Despite this repartee, Bhezti is not without its flaws as a work of art or agent of social change. Bhatti forgoes effective, natural dialogues at times for the sake of dramatic poignancy. Other times, she is more concerned with her polemical subject matter and, as a result, her characters have a tinge of one-dimensionality. Nevertheless, Bhatti certainly exposes the Bhezti—the dishonour—behind a gurdwara’s closed doors and tackles topics that are as sensitive as they are evocative. She states in her introduction to the play:

"Clearly the fallibility of human nature means that the simple Sikh principles of equality, compassion and modesty are sometimes discarded in favour of outward appearance, wealth and quest for power…only by challenging fixed ideas of correct and incorrect behaviour can institutionalised hypocrisy be broken down."

Bhezti not only provides a significant opportunity for a community to scrutinise itself and thus evolve, but also to break down barriers that exist between minority groups and collective society. Making topics like rape, homosexuality and suicide pertinent to the audience helps to hatch a dialogue among the very communities affected by these issues.

On the other hand, if Sikhs are too offended by the play, won’t it inevitably be lost in the media hype and remain fodder for ineffective protest? Moreover, as the public reaction to Bhezti illustrates, there is an inescapable pitfall in trying to portray a community and its respective perimeters. By reinforcing the tendency to identify ourselves as Sikhs first, South Asians next and Britons last, we risk being “made to stand behind our varying ethnic and religious lines, so that we are easily identifiable, easily defined and easily controlled” says artist Amber Lone. And this identity crisis is not limited to the Sikhs. In Scotland, Catholics bombarded a theatre staging a play that depicted Jesus as a homosexual; Hindus expressed outrage at a scene in Coronation Street where a Hindu statue is used as a weapon; Muslims were up in arms over a comment from a journalist suggesting that Mohammed was a paedophile because he had a child bride. Evidently, there is a flagrant danger in envisioning the UK as a myriad of autonomous communities.

The Home Office seems not to have considered this hazard in their decision-making as they push for an expansion of the incitement to religious hatred bill. Recent provisions would eliminate a loophole which the Home Office claims “extremists were exploiting, using religious terms to identify victims whom they would have previously identified using racial terms.” Accused of trying to introduce a “blasphemy law,” the government maintains that the expansion would only affect who was covered rather than what; communities “that do not have distinct ethnic origins, such as Muslims or Christians.” They reassure the public that plays such as Bhezti would not be at risk from the new expansion nor the existing legislation. Moreover, the legislation does not require proof of the intent to “stir up” religious hatred, merely the effect. Surely this could encourage select religious bigots to demonstrate outside theatres, bookshops and cinemas in the future, proving that, in fact, a religious community had been offended. In a rush to please Britain’s Muslims, the government is diving head first into a loosely-worded, dangerous legislation change. These proposed amendments would certainly win Labour brownie points among Britain’s minority communities, just in time for the May election. (Interestingly, Blair has just cut £30m to art funding in the UK, with theatres being most affected).

In a post-9/11 world, it is naïve to think that Muslims aren’t the target of unjustified prejudice as displayed in the media, in politics and in people’s living rooms. The Government’s legislative amendment proposes to address this growing racial divide and protect its citizens.

But at what cost does this protection come?

Under the proposed changes to the law, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses would have had a very different reception than when originally published in 1989. The UK’s Muslim communities were outraged by the “abusive words written in phonetic Urdu” and Iran’s spiritual leader at the time, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei went so far as to issue a fatwa on Rushdie. But champions of free speech—and the British government itself—came to the rescue in 1989 and the book was hailed a trophy of an artist’s right to expression.

Bhatti’s play received no such privilege. Fiona McTaggart, a Home Office MP refused to defend the play and remained silent during the forced closure of Bhezti at the Birmingham Rep. How can we preserve the right to free speech in Britain and continue to push for the enforcement of a law that protects religious groups from alleged slander? Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris thinks there is a clear resolution at hand—based on Anthony Lester’s proposal, a renowned human rights lawyer—he suggests an amendment to the law on incitement to racial hatred that would include “reference to a religion or religious belief or to a person’s membership or presumed membership of a religious group as a pretext for stirring up racial hatred against a racial group.” A simple case of semantics might avert some serious abuse of the law.

Unlike other European nations, which are still going through their teething periods as multicultural societies, England has been home to large groups of minorities for several decades. But as the Bhezti affair highlights, UK urban centres are anything but a utopic tapestry in which minority groups live in harmony. South Asians have been an influential and copious force in the United Kingdom for more than two decades and increasingly so in the arts. To avoid the Bollywoodisation of anything brown, plays like Bhezti need to be embraced with open arms. Stories with social and emotional depth need to be encouraged as opposed to the superficiality of Bollywood which only serves to further the marginalisation of South Asians as artists. By communicating the nuances and complexities of South Asian groups in theatres, literature and film, we help to facilitate a dialogue between neighbours who until now only exchanged an occasional smile; we help to chip away at the distrust of the man in a turban on the Tube. At the end of the day, Bhezti is a play about familial relationships, guilt and bereavement. It’s about universal issues and more importantly, the fragility of the trust we place in elders, religious leaders and our society. A lesson well worth learning, especially at a time when we ALL need to question those in power.

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