Notes From a Punjabi Literature Conference in Vancouver

I was recently in cool Vancouver to give a talk at a conference on Modern Punjabi Literature. The conference was at the University of British Columbia, and it was hosted by the Asian Studies department (which has a strong program in Punjabi language instruction, part of which includes the study of literature).

The community was invited in, and they most definitely came -- including a number of poets and novelists in Vancouver's surprisingly large Punjabi language writers' community. One of the best-known Punjabi poets in Vancouver is of course Sadhu Binning, who has also taught Punjabi at UBC for more than 20 years (he's now retiring, sadly). His collection, "No More Watno Dur" is one of the very few collections of Punjabi poetry I've seen to be published in a bilingual edition (which is especially helpful for someone like me -- a person who reads Punjabi only haltingly, and always with reference to a dictionary).

It was great to meet, for instance, the Punjabi-Pakistani poet, Fauzia Rafiq (who didn't mention she had a blog!). Another writer who seems well worth checking out is Ajmer Rode.

At the poetry reading on the last night of the conference, Nadeem Parmar sang a ghazal in Punjabi. I Googled him today, and was surprised to find that he's written lyrics for many well-known singers, including Jagjit Singh. I also Googled Darshan Singh Gill, and was intrigued to find that he had actually been featured in a CBC documentary about new immigrants in Canada, back in 1958. And those were just a few of the names.

I also met a Dhol player for a Vancouver Bhangra band. He also plays Dhol for a "world music"/fusion group called "Delhi To Dublin", which seems worth checking out. He also plays Dhol for a "pure" Bhangra group called En Karma, which I'm looking forward to listening to.

Those are some links to start off. Below, I'll discuss some of the more substantial issues discussed at the conference.

I was surprised by the number of writers who showed up, and how prolific they all seemed to be. One of the questions we've sometimes discussed on Sepia Mutiny is the future of the Punjabi language (and other Indian languages) at a moment when English and Hindi seem ever more culturally dominant in India. But even more urgent in some ways right now than language in general is the question about the status of Punjabi literature -- with the commercial market for Punjabi-language books apparently drying up quite quickly within Punjab (Punjabi writers in India have an obvious commercial incentive to write in English). Several writers at the conference voiced concerns to the effect that Punjabi language literature runs the risk of becoming more parochial and isolated -- no longer a natural, organic part of the culture (where people publish in Punjabi because they think of it as their primary literary language). Even if it doesn't disappear entirely, there is certainly a live danger of literature written in the Punjabi language becoming a kind of museum piece.

Of course, that is only one part of the discussion. The more "internal" academic issues, including some close readings of major Punjabi writers from the mid-20th century, including Gurdial Singh, Nanak Singh, Bhai Vir Singh, among others. A number of diasporic writers were discussed, including especially Gurumel Sidhu and Gurcharan Rampuri.

There were also discussions about the mistake entailed in conflating "Punjabi literature" with "Sikh literature." Most of the authors discussed in the scholarly talks were Sikhs (in fact, most of the authors were Sikh men -- I did discuss a short story by Ajeet Cour in my talk, but I was one of the few to do so.) But of course, there is a considerable body of writing in Punjabi by Pakistanis. The problem, of course, is that while the language is very close, Muslim Punjabis tend to write in Shahmukhi script (based on Urdu), while Sikh and Hindu Punjabis tend to write in Gurmukhi (the script thought to have been invented by the Sikh Gurus).

The conflation of "Sikh" and "Punjabi" is also an issue when we're thinking about the disciplinary questions surrounding "Punjab Studies" and "Sikh Studies" in North American universities. The Sikh community has, in recent years, raised money to create a handful of Sikh Studies endowed chairs at different universities -- including the University of Michigan, Hofstra University in Long Island, and UBC itself. And while these universities have learned, sometimes the hard way in some cases, that they must retain control when it comes to hiring and evaluating faculty for these positions, questions about how independent these scholars really can be have remained in some people's minds, in part because of recent history.

Those of us who want this kind of scholarship to happen are in somewhat of a double-bind. Without support and encouragement from the community, it is highly unlikely that there would be much interest in studying Sikhism and Sikh history seriously in North America -- universities aren't funding it widely enough to support a sizeable community of scholars on their own, and very few religion departments are well-staffed enough to justify more than one "South Asian religions" person. But then, if scholars in "Sikh Studies" positions partially endowed by the community come out with scholarly work the community doesn't particularly like, the universities find themselves on the receiving end of vehement criticism.

My own paper was called "Secular Sikh Writers," and I was trying to do two things: first, provoke a debate about what is entailed in identifying oneself as a "secular Sikh." In my view, one of the unusual features of the idea of secularism in (and from) South Asia is the possibility that one can retain an "observant" relationship to a particular religious community, while also being strongly committed to freedom of religion (or even freedom from religion), socially and politically. By contrast, in the west, secularism usually is thought to be more or less synonymous with "atheism."

The paper I gave also tried to briefly chart a history of secularization in fiction by Punjabi Sikh writers, starting with Bhair Vir Singh (who was not, I don't think, "secular," according to my definition), then moving forward to Social realist writers like Kartar Singh Duggal in the 1950s and 60s, and finally to the "contemporary" moment, with writers like Ajeet Cour. My argument was that even the contemporary writers continue to interrogate the line between "religious" and "secular" experiences of the world.

A full essay on "secular Sikh writers" would obviously also include some secular Sikhs writing in English, including of course Khushwant Singh and Shauna Singh Baldwin, and maybe also figures like Rajinder Singh Bedi (who wrote in Urdu). This being a Punjabi literature conference,I focused on writers working in Punjabi. Since, as I mentioned, my Punjabi reading skills are weak, I relied heavily on translations, and then checked the original texts where I could find them (mostly at the library at the University of Pennsylvania, here in Philly).

Most of the discussion of my paper, not surprisingly, revolved around the first topic -- what is a "secular Sikh"?

Overall, a fun -- and humbling -- weekend.