“If I make one person think about the issues unfolding on the other side of the world, I will have achieved something,” says writer Satinder Kaur Chohan of her new play Zameen (meaning “land”).
The play can hardly fail to make the audience think. It is a searing critique of the devastating impact of the market on the lives of Indian cotton farmers.
As spiralling food prices threaten hunger across the world, the play is a timely examination of the true costs of big business’s grip on agriculture.
The drama focuses on one family: Baba who is a proud Punjabi farmer, trapped in a web of debt and dependency on pesticides and genetically modified (GM) crops, his useless drunken son Dhani, and his daughter Chandni – a woman caught in a dilemma between hope and duty.
Satinder says that she was prompted to write the play after reading about the growing phenomenon of farmer suicides in India. Up to 150,000 Indian farmers are thought to have killed themselves in the last ten years.
“I wanted to find out why farmers would be killing themselves on this scale,” she told Socialist Worker.
“I found out a lot about the ‘Green Revolution’ – which brought dependence on Western agricultural technology – and then the onset of the ‘gene revolution’ – which brought dependency on GM crops. Together these have created immense problems for small farmers.
“I felt angry, and compelled to write a piece around these things.”
Satinder, who lives in Southall, west London, researched Zameen by visiting cotton farmers in Punjab. “I went once at the start of the cotton sewing season and then again for the harvest later that year. It was quite extraordinary,” she says.
“In Britain there is still a huge debate about GM crops and whether this is the way forward. In Punjab there is row upon row of GM cotton growing and farmers seem to accept it without question.
“I spent time cotton picking with women in the fields. They walk from dawn to dusk and I was picking alongside them. It was an eye-opening experience.”
In many ways the central character in Zameen is not the ageing Baba, but his daughter Chandni.
Satinder says she deliberately put Chandni at the centre of the play to explore some of the issues around women’s roles in rural Punjab.
“My family are from Punjab, and it’s a place I love. I had always felt that Punjabi families are very matriarchal. But as a single woman travelling alone I was shocked by the prevailing attitudes to women.
“There is a passage in the play where I talk about female foeticide – Punjab has one of the highest rates in India. Sons are valued much more than girls – it’s a really big problem and it needs to change.”
The play raises the contradictory attitudes to the US – or “Amrika” as it is known.
“When you talk to young boys in the villages nowadays, they don’t aspire to travel to England any more but to “Amrika” – there’s a real idealism around it,” Satinder explains.
“I wanted to weave that into the play – that there’s both the US‑sponsored agriculture but that some villagers also see the US as a way to escape from severe poverty and indebtedness.”
Satinder hopes people will engage with the issues in the play. She says, “In such a globalised world we should be connected to its rural parts.
“This is a play about cotton farming. We all buy cotton clothes – it’s about the stories behind this.
“I see Zameen as a piece of political theatre,” she adds. “But the human element has to be paramount as that’s what people will connect with.
“We’re presented with all these images of a very global modern India, but I don’t see state or national government in India protecting the small farmer. Instead they are courting multinationals and agribusiness. This is their priority.
“When I was in Punjab I met people who had been pushed off their land through forcible acquisition. People showed me their battle scars. Their land had been taken from them overnight.
“These people had been on the land for generations and they are treated like this. It is staggering.”
Zameen ends with an uncompromising moment of despair and tragedy.
Satinder says, “I wanted to end on that note because the outlook is so pessimistic – it was never going to be a happy Bollywood ending.
“It is incredibly shocking and very wrong that people should be dying from debt to banks or money lenders – this should not be costing people’s lives.
“The peasantry are resilient and maybe they will find the strength to resist. I hope they do. But my worry is that they will be overrun by the power of big money and the chequebook.”
Zameen is appearing at the Southampton Nuffield Theatre on 2-3 June and the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds from 5-7 June
For more on the Kali theatre, which produced Zameen go to » www.kalitheatre.co.uk