Modern Punjabi Literature at UBC: A glass half full!

Yes, a glass half filled with an invigorating and inspiring drink when it could as easily be brimming with it; despite falling short on the representation of over one half of Punjabis, and Punjabi women, it was still an important landmark in the development of Punjabi literary community.

The UBC Conference on Modern Punjabi Literature this past weekend was a powerful mix of literary criticisms, academic observations, poetic expressions and cultural activisms. So when the next morning, i was still grappling with the overwhelmingness of this pleasant experience, Amardeep Singh of Lehigh University had already written and published his Notes From a Punjabi Conference in Vancouver. And so, soon after meeting Amardeep at the Conference, i was happy to again experience his crisp, observant and ‘positive-interventionist’ presence through his blog, and it did bring things in perspective for me.

The discussions at the Conference were initiated by Sabina Sawhney of Hofstra University with her paper on Punjabi/Sikh identities where some of the points made by her led to issues put forward by Sadhu Binning about Canadian Punjabi literature . Though each paper presented and every thought expressed was valuable to me, I am most appreciative of ideas that tackled the work of individual writers because though we may find a sizeable body of work on Punjabi classical writers, there is a dearth of criticism on modern Punjabi writing. In that, we had Amritjit Singh of Ohio State University on “The Generational Challenges of Progressivism in the Poetry of Gurcharan Rampuri and Sadhu Binning“; Rana Nayar from the Punjab University on “Narratives of Dispersal: Stories of Raghbir Dhand” and “The Novel as a Site of Cultural Memory: Gurdial Singh’s PARSA“; and, the views expressed by UBC students of Punjabi on Ajith Kaur.

The organizers had created a safe environment where giving and taking criticism was the way to find solutions to various problems faced by Punjabi cultural and literary communities in Canada and elsewhere. “The Uncomfortable Residue of Dis-location: Fragment, Hybridity, and Panjabi Literature(s) in Canada” by Harjeet Grewal (University of Michigan), “The Cultural Politics of Crossing Boundaries” by Anne Murphy (University of British Columbia), and “Secular Sikh Writers” by Amardeep Singh pointed to some groups and individuals that are attempting to extend existing cultural, social or religious boundaries.

The Student Panel, Writers Panel, and Punjabi Poetry Readings were the highlights of this weekend of inspiration and togetherness.

Though Pakistani side of the Punjab, and the literature created by Pakistani Punjabi writers did not feature in any area of this conference on modern Punjabi literature yet the problems, needs and barriers faced by us are the same. The sad truth of the current state of Punjabi literary communities in India and Pakistan, in Canada, and in United States is apparent where we are swamped by the challenges of our immediate situations while our totality is being annihilated by our ignorance, and sometimes, our denial of each other. Let us see who we are then. We are Nanak, Farid and Kabir; Madhulal Hussain, Waris and Bullah; Amrita Pritam, Najm Hosain Syed and Ashu Lal Fakir; We are Ustad Daman, Gurdiyal Singh and Pash, Amarjit Chandan, Baba Najmi and Ajmer Rode; Mushtaq Sufi, Amarjit Pannu and Neesha Dosanjh Meminger; Nilambri Singh Ghai, Ahmad Salim and Sadhu Binning; We are Parveen Malik, Surjeet Kalsi and Baljinder Dhillon; more, and many more.

As was pointed out by presenters and participants from time to time, modern or classical Punjabi Literature is not limited to the writings of Sikh writers of Punjabi language; rather, it includes works of writers of all religions who write Punjabi maaNboli whether in Gurumukhi, Shahmukhi and Roman scripts; who live in India, Pakistan, Canada and elsewhere. As well, it must include works of writers of Punjabi origin using languages other than Punjabi because a literature is not just the keeper of a language but also of the culture and diversity of its people.

In other words, Punjabi literary community must be represented in its wholeness in Punjabi departments, language courses, educational seminars and conferences, and in text books. I was happy to note that the structure put in place by Sadhu Binning, Anne Murphy and others here at UBC already contains this capacity. The faculty members seemed proficient in both scripts; most students were aware that Punjabi uses two scripts; some senior students were able to read books in both scripts. That in itself is gratifying and encouraging; so, i came away from the Conference with the hope that steps will be taken to bring a sense of balance to our persepectives on and appreciation of Punjabi literature by assuring full representation at various levels of cultural and educational activity at UBC and in Canada.

Taking my own advice, i would like to express gratitude to Anne Murphy for the wonderful work she has accomplished for Punjabi in Vancouver by adding a title to an existing name given to her by Punjabi Sikh community so that it reads ‘Bibi Anna Kaur Murphy’ instead of ‘Anna Kaur Murphy’. The imperceptible change from ‘e’ to ‘a’ in the first name is optional but highly recommended as it will help create a beat that may appease all the diverse communities of Punjabi-rhythm freaks.

Another post will soon follow on the development ideas and strategies put forward by Sukhwant Hundal, Ajmer Rode, Darshan Gill, Baljinder Dhillon, and the Student Panel.

Fauzia Rafiq

(Update: Second Post:
“UBC Students of Punjabi Literature, Delightful Performers”

Punjabi Literature