The outspoken Anita Majumdar says her latest play, The Misfit, confronts social codes that can turn women into targets
A year and a half ago, audiences in Vancouver were introduced to Meena, the irrepressible 17-year-old Indo-Canadian girl at the centre of Anita Majumdar’s one-woman comedy Fish Eyes. Through Meena, a talented classical Indian dancer with a crush on the hot white boy at school, Majumdar illustrated the challenges and joys of living between two cultures, and charmed theatregoers with her wit in the process.
From next Thursday to Saturday (January 17 to 19) at Performance Works, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Majumdar unveils the successor to Fish Eyes—a piece with a decidedly darker core. The Misfit is inspired by the true story of Jaswinder “Jassi” Kaur Sidhu, a young Maple Ridge woman who, against the wishes of her family, married an auto-rickshaw driver in the Punjab state of India and was murdered there in 2000, in an apparent honour killing allegedly arranged by her mother and uncle. (Majumdar played Jassi in a made-for-TV film, Murder Unveiled, which aired on CBC in 2006.) The second in what Majumdar is planning as a trilogy of single-performer works based on strong Indo-Canadian women and South Asian dance, The Misfit delves into potentially disturbing territory.
“I find when I speak to people who aren’t South Asian, this concept of honour is really hard to grapple with,” explains Majumdar, who was raised in Port Moody, in a call from Toronto. “It’s really inexplicable unless you’ve grown up with it.”¦In my research of that [Jassi’s story], I was fascinated by this idea of honour, and why a woman has to represent honour. Why is she the spokesperson for her family? And if the family lost honour, why was she the first one to be punished?”
Still, Majumdar maintains The Misfit is a comedy. The play focuses on the story of Naz, a young Indo-Canadian woman who has fallen in love with a man in India and thus been disowned by her parents. A classically trained dancer, she picks up work in India with a classical dance company that performs at weddings—to the Top 40 sounds of Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls. There, Naz meets Nikki, a woman whose divorce has brought shame on her family, and Su-su, who was married off to a tree when her family decided she had no other prospects. Naz’s major conflict comes with the head of the dance company, Gustakhi, a woman who, Majumdar explains, “has a really, really dark past in terms of honour and honour killings”.
Majumdar, the only child of Bengali immigrants, says she doesn’t specify the religious or ethnic backgrounds of the characters in her play; in her view, the concept of “honour” is not unique to any South Asian group or region.
“It’s not so much a religious thing or a provincial concept,” she insists. “It’s not about Sikh Punjabi girls. In the film I did, Murder Unveiled, yes, there’s a lot of detail about Sikhs and the fact that this girl was Sikh Punjabi, but it has so little to do with that and everything to do with a mentality. And it’s one that has to change. As soon as you start targeting one religion, all the others feel they’re off the hook, so they can do as they want.”
The Misfit was two years in the making, a fact that gives it a sense of prescience in light of a recent spate of murders of South Asian–Canadian women. While some commentators have shied away from labelling these crimes honour killings, and others have advocated caution in categorizing them any differently from the domestic abuse that occurs in homes of all cultures, Majumdar clearly has few qualms about using the H word. But she is emphatic that it is the responsibility of all Canadians to prevent such violence from occurring.
“When you live in this country, you don’t bring the laws from the previous country you come from, or the way things were exercised there. I understand that it’s a very fine balance, and I am all for celebrating culture and tradition—that’s so much where my work is—but it can’t come in the way of a human being’s basic rights over his or her body, and right to be safe.”¦I think we have to stop looking at it as, ”˜Oh, that’s a South Asian problem, they’ll deal with it in their community.’ It’s all of our problem. The colour of one’s skin shouldn’t be the deterrent to helping someone take that issue on.”
Looking back on her own youth, Majumdar, who grew up speaking a “hybrid of Bengali and English”, stresses her upbringing was liberal compared with those of many peers.
“I had always thought my parents were really, really strict.”¦Later I realized I had it pretty good within a South Asian context.”
She recalls taking a Hindi class at UBC, where she found herself having to help young women circumvent family rules about contact with men. “If we had a guy in our class project and there was a question that night,” she explains, “I would have to call the guy, he would have to call me back, and then I would have to call the girl in order to get any information passed through.”
When she joined a classical Indian dance group at the university, similar issues arose. “We had problems with girls not being allowed to dance in our troupe because their parents thought they were acting like prostitutes by dancing with boys.”¦That a parent would refer to their daughter as a prostitute is just so appalling.”
Outspoken and forceful, Majumdar is under no illusions that The Misfit will appeal to everyone. “I’m sure there will be some people who won’t be happy with the work I’m doing,” she concedes. But she hopes it will stimulate discussion.
“What I try to do with my work is always keep it as open as possible. I think it’s just so important that everyone see it and everyone gets the story from it, so then we can have a talk-back [scheduled for January 18] and we can ask, ”˜What was it that made you angry? What similarities do you see in the real world?’ ”
After all, she states, “I live in a country where I have the right to voice my opinion and also create the kind of art that I think is important in this day and age.”¦I’m not a social worker—that’s not the profession that I’ve chosen. But I am aware of my surroundings. I’m aware of the world that I live in and that it’s not a perfect place. My conscience won’t let me sleep at night knowing that I’m not trying to do something with the skills that I’ve been given in this life.”