Alumna weaves hardships into award-winning play about caste

It’s funny how life works. Some say fate plays the winning hand. For York alumna Anusree Roy (BA ‘06), fate and talent both played their cards. At home in India, Roy took her privileged life – wealth, house, servants – for granted, unaware what a difference several years could make. Skip ahead to 1999. A 17-year-old Roy and her family are new immigrants to Canada, moving this day from one low-rent Toronto apartment to another. All their cash, passports, landed immigrant papers – everything – is piled neatly into one suitcase. Now imagine that suitcase being stolen during the move.

That kind of hardship could break a person, but not Roy and not her family. Somehow they survived and prospered. Even better, Roy wove her experiences of life in a new country into her writing, and last month she reaped the rewards. Roy, 25, won not one, but two Dora Mavor Moore Awards – Outstanding New Play in the independent category for her play Pyaasa and Outstanding Performance for her portrayal of the play’s four characters. In addition, she has just been named playwright-in-residence at the Canadian Stage Company for the upcoming fall and winter season, an Ontario Arts Council funded position, where she will work on a new play, titled Brothel #9.

“I think I’m still in a state of being overwhelmed,” says Roy. “It’s really exciting and very humbling.”

Right: Anusree Roy in a scene from Pyaasa

She wasn’t alone. Alumnus Soheil Parsa (BA ’89), founding artistic director of the Modern Times Stage Company, also won two Dora awards – one for Outstanding Production, another for Outstanding Direction, both for the play Waiting for Godot.  Sarah Armstrong (BFA ’95, MFA ’99) won a Dora for Outstanding Costume Design (along with Astrid Janson) for Laurier, while Michelle Ramsay (BFA ’97) won a Dora for Outstanding Lighting Design for April 14, 1912. Established in 1981, the Dora Mavor Moore Awards are given annually for excellence in Toronto theatre, dance and opera. This year’s awards ceremony took place on June 30 at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto.

After winning the first Dora, Roy didn’t give her second nomination another thought. “They were still reading the names of the nominees and I leaned over to my mother and whispered, ‘I guarantee you she’s going to win’.” Roy was referring to another nominee. Then they announced Roy as the winner. “I remember sitting there looking at my mother and she’s saying, ‘Go….go’.”

Her play, Pyaasa, takes a hard look at the caste system in India. Set in Calcutta, it follows the journey of 11-year-old Chaya, one of the untouchables in India’s Hindu society, from childhood to adulthood in just 10 days. Chaya is the daughter of a toilet cleaner who learns early the realities of an untouchable’s life and is forced to confront the consequences and struggles of her caste. The play is comprised of four characters – representing three of the four castes in India – each played by Roy. The audience gets to hear the stories and struggles of those still locked into the caste system even though it is now illegal.

This fall, Roy will perform Pyaasa at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto from Oct. 22 to Nov. 15. “Anusree is an artist with wisdom beyond her years. The subtle, nuanced truth of her writing and performance left me breathless when I first saw this show,” says Andy McKim, artistic director of Theatre Passe Muraille. “I think she is a gifted performing artist and storyteller of the highest calibre. I thought her acting in this piece particularly transcended her youthful age and experience. She is the real deal.”

The story behind Pyaasa – which means thirsty in Hindi – has its roots in Roy’s experiences as an immigrant and suddenly having nothing – no house, no nice clothes, no servants, no money. “I faced a lot of racism here and so did my family. I came from a very wealthy family in India and we came here and ended up in a two-bedroom place.” That’s when she had her epiphany, remembering the life of the untouchables back home. “Hinduism is divided into four caste systems. It’s absolutely abolished. It can’t be practised anywhere, but it’s practised everywhere, every single day in India,” Roy says.

At her home in India, Roy’s family had their own untouchable servant – Lakhan – who would come and clean the toilets. “Another maid cleaned his footprints so his footprints wouldn’t touch ours.” As an untouchable, Lakhan’s shadow must never fall on a member of a higher caste; he is not allowed to look at them or touch them.

Living in Canada, Roy realized for the first time just how wrong the caste system is. “I was absolutely horrified when I realized.” When she went back to India, she begged Lakhan to look at her, and then she touched his hand, apologized and slipped some money to him. When she looked up at his face, he was crying. “He said, ‘You think you can come here and give me money and everything will be okay. If someone saw you touch me, I could never work again.’ Then he walked away.” Roy was stunned. “I felt breathless and lost for words.” Her intent was to do good, not harm. That was a story she couldn’t summon the courage to tell for a long time. “I associate a lot of pain with that. It was very powerful.”

Now it is her mission to talk about issues and to lend a voice to those who otherwise wouldn’t have one. “It’s truly important to me to represent people who don’t have a voice,” Roy says.

In addition to being playwright-in-residence and working on Brothel #9, Roy is also working on another play – Letters to my Grandma – inspired by her grandmother’s life and her own immigration. It weaves a journey through post-millennium Toronto and 1947 India, the year of partition from Pakistan, and the parallel hardships each face. “I’m very emotionally close to this play,” she says.

It’s a busy time for Roy, but that’s the way she likes it. “I feel if I take a moment to bask in the glory, I’ll wake up and five years will have gone by,” says Roy. If she stops, she fears, she could lose it all, again. “It’s been quite the road.”

As for the suitcase, the Roy girls posted signs for a $100 reward to anyone who returned it. Sadly, no one ever did. The cards had been dealt.

To order tickets for Pyaasa, visit the Theatre Passe Muraille box office Web site or call 416-504-7529.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer