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Roundabout: Glimpses of Punjabi immigrant lives in Canada

I had nourished dreams of being an engineer but I did everything else from picking fruits, driving cabs and working in factories and in this conflict I started scribbling my thoughts — Harpreet Sekha

punjab Updated: Jun 23, 2018 23:59 IST
Nirupama Dutt
Nirupama Dutt
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Punjabi,immigrant,Canada
Canada-based Punjabi writer Harpreet Sekha (HT Photo)

Reetika Vazirani, India-born American poet, said in one of her poems that an immigrant dies many times. Look at it from another perspective and this means that an immigrant lives many times too. It is this tightrope walk from life to death and back to life that’s captured in the stories of Punjabi writer Harpreet Singh Sekha, who has written three anthologies of short stories: Biji Muskra Paye (And Biji Smiled), Bara Boohey (Twelve Doors) and Prism.

His is gentle prose and gently he treads through the lives of the men and women who people his fiction and unobtrusively he reaches the very core of the immigrant experience. The locale is Canada, the la la land for Punjabis. For Harpreet, whose native village is Sekha Kalan near Moga, immigration happened in 1988. “My two sisters were married and settled in Canada. They sponsored my parents who thought it was best to move their son away from mainland Punjab because of the turbulent times. It was for me that they resigned from their government jobs, made me abandon my engineering course and we moved to Canada”.

As happens always, the early years were very tough on him. Harpreet, who has made a place for himself among the Punjabi writers of short fiction in the diaspora and was in the city this spring to promote the Dhahan Prize set up in Canada for Punjabi fiction writers in Canada, India and Pakistan, says: “Once in Canada the question was to earn a living. I would go to the fields with my mother to pick berries as daily wagers. I went about the task but something was breaking deep inside me. I had nourished dreams of being an engineer but I did everything else from picking fruits, driving cabs and working in factories.” He adds that this constant struggle inside him perhaps pushed him to scribble his thoughts and observations of the new world around him. Before he knew it the scribbles turned into stories and a writer was born.

Harpreet’s stories attracted notice and he was recognised as a sensitive writer of non-fiction with his very first anthology and the title story (And Biji Smiled). Punjabi critic and editor Raghbir Singh Sirjana compliments him thus: “The ease and spontaneity with which Harpreet Singh Sekha pens a story makes him different from others. In a very short time he has proved his talent and now stands in the same row as other prominent Punjabi writers of Canada like Sadhu Binning, Jarnail Singh and Amanpal Sara”.

The unassuming Harpreet, who lives with his family in Surrey, British Columbia, says: “I have a long way to go. Immigrant literature in different languages, including Punjabi, has produced many milestones. I have still not done something spectacular”. Modesty apart, this writer’s strength lies in not being parochial, nostalgic or judgmental. Saying this is saying a lot and his strength lies in gently unfolding the events, leaving the reader to form an opinion as he masters the art of being absent even as he’s present.

Take the title story of his first anthology, And Biji Smiled. He weaves a complex saga of the desperation to get to the la la land with the protagonist, a young Punjabi girl, entering a loveless marriage with a Canadian Punjabi at the behest of her boyfriend. The plan is that the boy will then reach Canada and she will elope with him. This is something commonplace in moving-to-Canada tales but the internal conflict and final decision of the girl are depicted most authentically.

Having been a cab driver for long years, Harpreet has penned a memoir called Taxinama, but the experience has also brought out some fine stories and one of them is Sabhyachar De Rakhwale (Guardians of Culture). It is a scathing comment on the attitude of the Punjabi men when it comes to viewing ‘their girls’ and ‘our girls’. Panj Dollar Da Note (A five Dollar Note) makes a touching story of an old man and his grandchild and there are many others. After reading one of his stories one is left with the urge to read another and this is an achievement as a story-teller.

Otherwise, Harpreet says: “I work as a computer mechanical control machinist for a living. However, when a story persists on being written out, I find time on the weekends”.

First Published: Jun 23, 2018 23:31 IST