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Surrey novelist and short-story writer Harpreet Sekha describes himself as a “pretty shy introvert”. To him, writing is like an escape.
“It takes me a while to think of something,” Sekha acknowledges in a Zoom interview. “But when I’m writing, I can express myself clearly.”
That’s certainly the case in Prism, a collection of seven short stories that was a 2018 finalist for the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature. Sekha’s book, which was translated into English last year by Ekstasis Editions, offers a riveting look at the lives of fictional Punjabi immigrants to Canada.
The stories revolve around the inner dialogues of a wide range of characters. They include a Punjabi sex worker, a married woman who is the primary breadwinner, and a man juggling a job and looking after his elderly and badly behaved father. There’s also an eloquent and heartwarming tale about an older man married to a much younger woman.
“I cannot write in a rush,” Sekha explains. “It takes me a long time. Usually, I write one or two stories a year.”
The first story that he ever wrote for Prism was “Penguin”. The protagonist, Simran, receives a shocking message from her ex-husband, Shamsher, who wants to see their son. This is the case even though this ex had abandoned Simran before the child was born.
The message sends Simran into a tailspin as she worries about the effect on her son, Jovan. The boy has bonded with her partner, a Canadian-born man named Keith.
Sekha says that he wrote “Penguin” because he wanted to introduce Punjabi-language readers to a man who raises Jovan as his own even though they are not related by blood.
“I want to see if a Punjabi man could be like that,” he says.
There’s a strong feminist streak in Sekha’s writing, which speaks to his deep concerns about gender discrimination within his community. It’s something he’s been observing since his childhood growing up in a rural village in the district of Moga.
“The male side is dominating and I want to see them equal,” Sekha declares.
That’s reflected in another story in Prism, “House Wife”, which is told from the perspective of Neenu. She is so exhausted by her job that her husband, Manmeet, ends up devoting a lot of his time to raising their son Kevin.
Sekha points out that in Punjabi culture, women usually do the cooking and look after the housework. In “House Wife”, he wants to challenge that popular assumption.
Insurgency led to immigration
Both of Sekha’s parents, Harchand Singh and Jagdish Kaur, were teachers in Punjab and he grew up in a home full of books. He never planned to move to Canada but the family felt that they had no option as turmoil between militant Sikh separatists and the Indian government intensified in the late 1980s.
Sekha acknowledges that it became very dangerous for young men like himself. They faced peril not only from the insurgents, but also from the police who were committing extrajudicial killings.
“We came here with $60 in our pocket,” Sekha says.
He was only 20 years old. Suddenly, living in a large city was quite a culture shock. Eventually, he became a machinist and a real-estate agent while retaining his love of literature and writing.
Sekha has written one nonfiction work, Taxinaama, the novel Hanery Raah, and several anthologies of short stories. In addition to challenging patriarchal attitudes within his community, he has also written extensively about the challenges faced by migrant workers.
His nephew is well-known B.C. playwright and theatre and film director Paneet Singh, whose body of work includes The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson.
“Sometimes, when we have family gatherings, he and myself go to some corner and start talking about literature,” Sekha says.
“Punjabi Suit” opens anthology
About three dozen of his short stories have been published in Punjabi since Sekha arrived in Canada, with several being adapted for the stage. He says that a playwright is currently working on a script based on “House Wife”.
The best-known story in Prism is “Punjabi Suit”, which was published in 2016 in Sirjana, a high-profile literary magazine in Punjab. It opens the collection and reveals the inner thoughts and experiences of a Vancouver sex worker of Punjabi ancestry.
She routinely lies to clients about her age, height, and weight. “My experience tells me that those who wish to come don’t ask too many questions and those who ask too much, don’t show up,” she says. “They just want to flirt.”
It’s raw, explicit, and reveals the violence often endured by people who make a living in this industry. Sometimes, she tells clients that she is from Chennai in South India, rather than from Punjab in the northwestern part of the country.
“I don’t want to reopen the wounds my repeating my life story,” she says. “It is a painful story indeed.”
The final story in the anthology, “Another Sucha Singh”, turns a popular Punjabi folktale upside-down. Sekha acknowledges that even he was surprised that this story emerged from his imagination.
In the folktale, Sucha Singh becomes a hero for murdering his sister-in-law and her extramarital lover—Sucha Singh’s former best friend—in a so-called honour killing. The Sucha Singh in Sekha’s story, on the other hand, has a very different mission in life: he wants to respect the feelings of his spouse rather than kill her.
“I challenge the folklore,” Sekha says.
Tackling taboo on care homes
He also tackles widespread opposition in Punjabi culture about putting elderly family members into long-term care. In “The Home”, a man is confronted with a difficult choice as his father’s behaviour deteriorates with age.
Sekha notes that in Canada, people are trained to work in care homes. There, he says, the elderly can stay with people their own age rather than sitting at home feeling isolated.
“There is a taboo in the Punjabi community—if an elder person goes to the care home, they think their kids or their family is not supporting them,” he says. “I want to break that. It’s not. This is a new world.”
The English-language translator of Prism, Canadian author Ajmer Rode, notes in the preface that Sekha “dives deep into the immigrant psyche and reveals its angst and solace as few other fiction writers of the Punjabi diaspora do”. In so doing, Rode maintains that Sekha is contributing to the diversification of Canadian literature.
The Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature was founded in 2013 by Vancouver businessman Barj Dhahan and his wife, Rita Dhahan, with the mission of celebrating excellence in Punjabi literature. The $25,000 annual prize is awarded by the Canada India Education Society, which partnered with the RBC Emerging Artists Program to translate Prism into English.
This year’s Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature will be awarded on November 17 at a gala event at the Sheraton Vancouver Guildford Hotel.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr.