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A celebrity' Goodness gracious me

London, April 18: How did Meera Syal become a national treasure in Britain' She hasn't been in a soap opera. She is neither old nor camp, yet she has achieved that rare celebrity status that makes her pretty much unknockable. She's an actor (film, theatre, television) and a writer (award-winning novels, plays, screenplays, television scripts, musicals, newspaper columns).

Her enormous creative output is born, she says, of a feeling of otherness. She grew up the only Punjabi girl in a small mining village in the Midlands. Like many people who go on to be professionally funny, she felt an outsider. Yet today she is very much on the inside, an Establishment figure, even: an MBE; a guest at Charles and Camilla's wedding.

A sense of her remaining on the margins, however, lingers.

'I was always the odd one out,' she says. 'It was so unusual to see anyone else of my colour where we lived. That's probably where I got my punchy side from, because I realised quickly that being a victim was never going to help. From the outside, it must look as though I have stormed the battlements of the Establishment. Yes, I get invited to some very interesting places by some very interesting people but I don't live like a celebrity, whatever that means.'

Syal is best known for comedy, she believes, because there are not many Asian women in the field. She can make any story sound funny, even one about a teacher at her grammar school who, during a class debate, said all immigrants should be packed off back where they came from. It's not a tale with huge comic potential, but the way Syal tells it, we're both laughing loudly.

Since she married Sanjeev Bhaskar, her co-star from the BBC comedy-meets-chat show The Kumars at No 42 in January, there has been a lot of interest in Syal's personal life. She's in a celebrity couple now, and suddenly paparazzi are an issue. Tabloid journalists were snooping around the new marital home when she and Bhaskar moved in a few weeks ago, even ringing local estate agents to find out how much she had paid for it.

'I find it very puzzling that people could be interested in our lives,' she says. 'I don't go to premieres or nightclubs and hang out with stars. I don't have the kind of life that would generate that sort of interest. What I don't like about discussing what my house or I am worth, apart from the fact that it's vulgar, is that it engenders envy, even though I know I've worked really hard for every penny I've got.'

She has known Bhaskar for years. When asked how love blossomed, on a trip to Australia in 2003, she jokes that, on a 20-hour flight, anyone can look interesting. But what happens between her and her second husband remains private. At the wedding, only immediate family were present.

'It's such a personal thing to pledge yourself to somebody else,' she says. 'I don't think I would have found it spiritually uplifting to have hundreds of people there. We had a big reception in India a couple of weeks ago and we'll be having some kind of party for friends here at some point but, on the day, we wanted it private.'

The couple have been approached by the likes of Hello! and OK! magazine to discuss their union, and offers to work as a Mr & Mrs double act have been plentiful. All have been rejected. 'Even though we've worked together in the past, our careers are separate and we want to keep it that way.'

At 43, she describes her progress so far as a 'long, hard, slog'.

Her breakthrough came when she teamed up with friends from the Asian comedy circuit ' Bhaskar included ' to write and perform in the hit sketch show Goodness Gracious Me, which transferred from radio to television in 1996. She later wrote the musical Bombay Dreams with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Her semi-autobiographical novel Anita and Me won a Betty Trask award and became a critically acclaimed film.

Why didn't English families keep the plastic covering on their sofas' And why didn't they have suitcases on top of all the wardrobes' These were the kind of observations that formed the basis for Goodness Gracious Me which poked affectionate fun at Indian traditions and mocked British prejudice.

For a long time, she's wanted to work with British director Mike Leigh. You can just see her as one of his dignified working-class heroes, but ' apart from a short promotional film for a charity ' her dream has yet to materialise.

Leigh does not particularly like working with actors who are too famous and it's possible Syal's success might have thwarted her ambition. 'I don't know,' she says. 'Maybe I'm too Establishment now.'

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