Week 51: Rukhsana Ahmad’s Song for a Sanctuary (1990)
Ahmad’s debut play, which features in the anthology Six Plays by Asian and Black Women Writers as written about last week, has been performed by Kali Theatre (which Ahmad help to set up and run), a group dedicated to the work of female South Asian writers. It is about the murder of a mother in a women’s refuge influenced by, but not based on, a real event. In Ahmad’s play men are presented either as abusive, violent husbands or as a drunken client of a prostitute.
Escaped from her husband (Pradeep) with her daughter Savita, Rajinder has trouble settling into the refuge. It is very much a play of culture clashes. It’s difficult for Kamla, one of the refuge workers, to understand why Rajinder is contemplating going back to her husband and why she won’t talk about her ordeal being married to him. For Rajinder, she believes marriage to be a sacred agreement which is perhaps shameful to break. She also knows that leaving her husband means turning her back on her extended family, despite the work she’s done for them, who will stick by Pradeep. However, Rajinder is also resentful of the ways of the other women in the refuge. She prefers to stick to her own ways even if that means annoying the others. Furthermore, she feels she is losing her daughter to Western follies such as commercial ‘tart with a heart’ films, makeup and partying. For Rajinder, the refuge is more like a no man’s land; it’s a brief escape from Pradeep (although not completely) but is not completely a safe place, and certainly not a sanctuary in the sense of a sacred place.
Song for a Sanctuary also offers an interesting contemporary reading on refugees. Kamla is suspicious that Rajinder seems too rich and up herself, questioning her need to be there. It’s clear though from when we first see Rajinder – appalled by the dirtiness of the place – that no one would ideally choose to go to a refuge if there wasn’t the need.
Ahmad’s dialogue shows a huge amount of understanding into her characters and suggests the research she undertook to write the play. Song for a Sanctuary may be an issue led play but, perhaps like the National Theatre/ Birmingham Rep production of Alexander Zeldin’s Love which opened last week, it is character driven.