Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature celebrated at Vancouver Writers Fest

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      B.C. has a rich tradition of Punjabi writing dating back more than a century to journalist Guran Ditta Kumar's anticolonial newspaper, Swadesh Sewak.

      Perhaps the best-known Punjabi-language writer in B.C. is Sadhu Binning, but there are many others, including Georgia Straight contributor and Radical Desi magazine cofounder Gurpreet Singh.

      Today, the Vancouver Writers Fest is acknowleding the importance of the Punjabi writing community with a free event at Granville Island's Waterfront Theatre at 1:30 p.m.

      It will feature finalists for the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature.

      The award is named after Vancouver entrepreneur Barj Dhahan, cofounder of the Canada India Education Society.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Dhahan said that he studied creative writing at UBC and wanted to create an award modelled on the Giller Prize to highlight Punjabi literature.

      "I said to my wife and a few of my friends, 'The Giller Prize has been an amazing undertaking,' " Dhahan said. "It has really helped to inspire young Canadians writing fiction. Now, it has become the signature literary event in Canada every year." 

      The India Education Society created the Dhahan Prize in partnership with UBC's department of Asian studies. 

      Last night, Wisconsin-based author Shauna Singh Baldwin provided the keynote address at a gala event celebrating the winners.

      First prize along with $25,000 was awarded to Darshan Singh for Lota. It's a biographical novel of Punjabi Communist leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet.

      The second prize and $5,000 went to Harjeet Atwal for his novel Mor Udaari in Shahmukhi script. Atwal has written more than 20 books and is the editor of the Punjabi magazine Shabad.

      The other second prize and $5,000 was granted to Nain Sukh, whose real name is Khalid Mehmood, for his novel Madho Lal Hussain (Lahore Di Vei). It was also in Shahmukhi script.

      Sukh's novel created a stir for its fictionalized depiction of the division of properties in Lahore during Partition in 1947.

      In the summer of that year, Sikhs and Hindus fled the Punjabi city in the midst of intense communal violence after it became clear that it would fall within the new nation of Pakistan.

      Dhahan's father started an educational society

      In the early 1980s, Dhahan's father began promoting health initiatives in his homeland of Punjab. Dhahan said it was because he was inspired by Canada's universal public education and health systems.

      "He really benefited from that and he wanted to do something similar back in India," Dhahan said.

      This led to the creation a nonprofit education program, which promoted health and education initiatives in Punjab.

      "The times were very difficult due to the violence in the state, weatherwise, and with all the political activity and instability," he said. "So I went to see him on a short trip in the summer of 1986 after 20-some odd years. And I spent 17 days with my dad."

      That visit led Dhahan to feel reconnected to the area of his birth.

      In the late 1990s, he persuaded UBC to launch a baccalaureate nursing program in Punjab with his father's organization.

      "That led in the subsequent years to repeated visits where I would be part of the delegation with faculty members from UBC," Dhahan recalled.

      While the organization was focused on health and education, language was also important. Dhahan noted that its bylaws were written in English, which was translated into Punjabi several years later.

      According to Dhahan, the Punjabi language is being diminished even in the state where it originated. Parents want their children to speak English and Hindi to get ahead. In addition, a former BJP government in India pushed to rewrite the history of India. It supported the creation of television serials to highlight Hindu culture. Moreover, the Devanagari script was being promoted all over India.

      "It's an economic reality that families will have their children learn the language where they feel they need to get a good job in the future," Dhahan acknowledged.

      He recalled that four years ago, he was on a drive with his wife Rita to UBC, and again he talked about creating an award to promote Punjabi writing. He knew that if it was going to be an international prize, it would have to include both major Punjabi scripts.

      In addition, he said, bridges would have to be built in Pakistan, England, and other countries with large Punjabi-speaking populations.

      Scholars and experts needed to be recruited to create a structure and a judging process. Finally, the award needed sufficient funding to provide a prize of at least $25,000 per year.

      Dhahan concluded that at a minimum, it would require a $3-million endowment.

      "There's the money piece for the prizes, but also for the behind-the-scenes work that has to be done," he said.

      At this point, his wife told him to do it. Dhahan said he replied that they didn't have that kind of money.

      "She said to me, 'Stop talking about this and go and do it. If you have to work harder and do more business, then you go do it,' " Dhahan revealed. "That was the trigger."

      He quickly added that it was also about a "romance around literature, around writing" that led him and his wife to endow the award.

      "It's using creative works to create better understanding among human beings across the planet, to promote Punjabi literature," Dhahan said. "It has a rich tradition."