When Vancouver businessman Barj Dhahan approached the podium inside the Komagata Maru Museum on September 28, he could feel a sense of satisfaction. Since the Canada Indian Education Society and UBC Department of Asian Studies launched the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature in 2013, Dhahan has witnessed a dramatic increase in interest in Punjabi writing in several countries.
“Punjabi is a thriving language,” Dhahan declared. “It’s spoken by millions of people—more so in Pakistan than in India. Punjabi is also a global language.”
Dhahan, award sponsors, media, and lovers of Punjabi literature had gathered at the museum beside the KDS Ross Sikh Temple for a big announcement—unveiling three finalists for this year’s Dhahan Prize. The winner will receive a $25,000 cash award. The two other finalists each take home $10,000, making it the world’s most lucrative Punjabi-language literary prize.
“This year, we received 38 books—22 were novels, 16 were short-story collections,” said Dhahan, who founded the prize, which is the Punjabi equivalent of the Giller. “Each jury has three members and they are highly educated, respected scholars, writers themselves, or critics.”
Two short-story writers from Mohali in the Indian state of Punjab are among this year’s finalists. Deepti Babuta is the author of Bhukh Eon Sah Laindi Hai (Hunger Breathes Like This). Written in Gurmukhi, it’s published by Saptrishi Publication (India). The other Mohali writer, Balijit, wrote Uchian Awazan (Clarion Calls) in Gurmukhi script. It’s published by Caliber Publications (India).
Lahore writer and professor Jameel Ahmad Paul wrote the third book on the shortlist. His collection of short stories, Mendal Da Qanoon (Mendelian Rules), is published in Shahmukhi by Punjabi Markaz (Pakistan).
Prize finalists address contemporary themes
According to the Dhahan Prize website, Bhukh Eon Sah Laindi Hai is Babuta’s fourth collection of short stories. Most stories in this book centre around the experiences of women in urban environments.
“Every short-story title is provocative, conjuring up images from individual and collective memory,” the website states. “They are genuine voices of women. They give agency to females in relationships dominated by powerful males.”
Meanwhile, Balijit’s Uchian Awazan incorporates “a wide range of themes relevant in contemporary Punjabi rural and urban society”. The title story revolves around a Dalit named Sudagar, his wife Parsini, and their family. They raise a weak buffalo calf, which produces its own calf almost every year for 12 years. That supplies the poverty-stricken family with enough milk to get by.
“Ecological in scope, the story ends with profound poignancy as the main character is about to skin the dead buffalo which he had raised like his own child,” the website states.
Paul’s Mendal Da Qanoon includes a story about Bengalis’ deep love for their language. This continued after Urdu was imposed on East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) following Partition. Bengalis’ devotion to their native language contributed to the creation of Bangladesh.
In West Pakistan (now Pakistan), where Punjabis are the largest ethnic group, residents accepted Urdu as the national language. In his book, Paul writes that “we (Punjabis) had abandoned our own language. Likewise, we were expecting Bengalis to do the same to Bangla.”
The winning book will be unveiled at a November 16 gala event with dinner at Surrey’s Northview Golf & Country Club. Tickets cost $75 and are available through the Dhahan Prize website.
Jurors guided by rigorous rules
At the September 28 event, Dhahan revealed that jurors must sign a confidentiality agreement. This stipulates how books are adjudicated.
Moreover, jurors must evaluate the quality of the book and not focus on the writer’s past works or their gender. According to Dhahan, there’s a scorecard with a numbering system. In addition, jurors must offer a qualitative response explaining why a book deserves to be on the longlist and the shortlist.
There are five criteria for judging, starting with originality.
“Is there a new theme, a new way, of telling a story?” Dhahan asked. “That’s one quality.”
Furthermore, jurors must evaluate if the writer is fully knowledgeable about the topic. Next, the book must achieve a high literary standard. On top of that, jurors evaluate the aesthetics of the book.
“Is the language original?” Dhahan asked. “Does it capture the reader? Does it give the reader joy when they read it?”
Finally, jurors must rate the book on its relevance. Since the prize was launched, there have been 70 different jurors. That’s because organizers like to bring fresh eyes to the books each year.
According to Dhahan, jurors and others collectively devote thousands of hours of work into setting the stage for the awarding of the grand prize.
Principal speaks about youth prize
In 2017, the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature also launched a youth award. Dhahan said that there were 47 submissions this year. Nearly a dozen schools in Metro Vancouver offer Punjabi writing courses.
In addition, Indigenous youths have submitted poems and one or two of them will be included in the Lofty Heights anthology this year. Last year’s anthology had three poems by Indigenous youths.
The youth prize is supported by Coast Capital, which was represented at the event by its manager of business banking, Ian Mann.
The principal of LA Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, Sunny Deol, was another speaker. He stated with pride that one of the students at his school, Rehat Kaur Aujla, won a 2023 youth prize.
In his youth, Deol attended LA Matheson. Back then, the school’s only second-language instruction was in French.
“I do appreciate the work of the school district and the B.C. curriculum in providing students a choice to follow their passion,” Deol said. “I am extremely grateful for the past several years to Barj in supporting our students’ passion for Punjabi literature through the recognition of this new prize.”
Meanwhile, the Royal Bank of Canada has backed of the Dhahan Prize since its inception. The bank’s director of senior commercial markets, Michael Daerendinger, disclosed at the event that his financial institution had contributed $40,000 this year to support the Dhahan Prize in Punjabi Literature.
He added that the arts contribute to a healthy community, high civic engagement, and social cohesion, while fostering creativity and innovation.
“We believe in supporting artists and organizations of different genres, including literature,” Daerendinger said. “We recognize the struggles that many artists have to gain recognition and become successful in their practice and their art.”