Playing With Fire: Women playwrights explore cultural taboos by Richard Ouzounian

Plays by Anita Majumdar, left, Anusree Roy are about to hit the stage at Theatre Passe Muraille.

The next time you find yourself taking our freedom of speech for granted, consider this: Theatre Passe Muraille is about to present two plays created and performed by South Asian authors, with content so inflammatory they could never be staged in the countries in which they’re set.

Pyaasa, by Anusree Roy, opens on Friday and deals with the caste system still prevalent in India. The Misfit, by Anita Majumdar, opening the next night, is a story about the unspoken topic of “honour killings,” set in Canada and India.

These young female playwrights are aware they’re playing with fire because of their highly charged topics, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. Between rehearsals, they discussed their intentions.

“So many women are killed in the name of honour,” begins Majumdar, whose eyes were opened to the topic when she appeared in the 2005 CBC TV movie Murder Unveiled, inspired by the story of Jassi Sidhu of Maple Ridge, B.C., whose Canadian mother and wealthy uncle are alleged to have hired assassins in India in 2000 after she married an impoverished rickshaw driver there against their wishes.

“I wanted to know why it happens,” Majumdar continues passionately, “where it originates from and how we can put an end to this cycle.”

Majumdar’s talent for dance is appreciated by anyone who saw her in her first play, Fish Eyes. It’s not surprising that movement becomes a metaphor in The Misfit as well, which she considers the second part of a trilogy she began with Fish Eyes. “In the first play,” Majumdar explains, “dance was the obstacle. The character felt it kept getting in her way when she wanted to assimilate. But in this play, the character relies on dance to get her through difficult situations.”

While the subject matter is horrific, Majumdar makes it clear that “it still has my sense of humour. I need to find the lighter moments as well as the dark ones.”

Personal experience was at the root of Pyaasa, and Roy describes the show’s genesis in a moving anecdote. “I was born and raised in Calcutta and was lucky enough to be raised in an upper-class house with servants,” she says. “One of them was a man named Laxman, who was an untouchable” – someone from the lowest caste. “Every day he would come, clean our toilets and leave. We never looked at each other or spoke. I didn’t care.”

In 1999, Roy moved to Canada with her parents and learned how different the world could be. All of their worldly possessions were stolen shortly after their arrival. They found themselves in direst poverty until they could rebuild their lives.

“I faced a lot of racism and discrimination,” she recalls sadly. “It made me think of how I had lived in India. I thought of Laxman, how we had treated him, and I said, `What are we doing to each other?'”

When she returned home to India, she wanted to make amends.

“I went to him and said, `Please look at me for one second.’ He wouldn’t but I kept begging him. `I want to apologize. I’m so sorry for the way my family and I have treated you over the years.’ I took his hand and gave him some money.”

But the story didn’t play out the way Roy had thought it would.

“He suddenly looked at me for the first time, sternly, with direct eye contact and said, `You think you can come here, apologize, give me some money and it will be all right?'”

From that searing moment came Pyaasa, which means “thirst” in Hindi, and has already won Roy two Dora Awards in the Independent Theatre Division, for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Performance by a Female. Roy tells the story through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl, an untouchable and the daughter of a toilet cleaner like Laxman, whose life changes overnight when she goes to work for a woman of a higher caste.

“They say the caste system is over in India,” says Roy. “Yes, it’s illegal, but it still goes on. At the basic level nothing has really changed and it angers me so much.

“I want people to talk about it and I want them to get angry if that’s what it takes to get them going.”

Majumdar feels the same way.

“The mandate of my show is to start a dialogue. This show hasn’t been built to make friends with anyone.

“People say to me, `Why must you tell this story? Why don’t we keep it just our own business?’ But we can’t solve these issues within the walls of our own world.

“I am proud of our community, but I want to make it greater than it is. Nothing is perfect.”

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