Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sadhu Binning's No More Watnu Dur

I've just finished reading Sadhu Binning's book of poetry, No More Watnu Dur (watno dur is Punjabi for "far away from the mother land"), written in memory of the Indian passengers (British subjects all) of Komagata Maru, the ship which sat in Vancouver's harbour in 1914 for weeks while Canadian (and British) politicians and bureaucrats argued over whether or not the 376 passengers could disembark (as they should have been able to, according to the law of the day). Shameful demonstrations demanding that Canada be kept white accelerated until the ship was sent back to India (after the passengers had already endured appalling on-board conditions because of the attempt at, essentially, starving them into submission). It's an incident that is only recently becoming better known and students are always shocked when I introduce it (generally at 4th-year level) through Sharon Pollock's play The Komagata Maru Incident.

Binning's book provides some poems I can include in courseware at the 1st-year level, giving me a chance to raise questions about history and representation and the nation, but also to give a voice to the numerous students I have of Punjabi descent, allowing them to make a connection between what they hear and learn in their homes and what's happening in the classroom. As well, I suspect that many of them feel a strain at times maintaining that happy multicultural smile, denying that Canada has any racism while their parents, if not themselves, have experienced some of what Binning describes. As the speaker in "My Thirteenth Year in Canada, says to the "dear Canada" he has difficulty embracing, "after working together for more than a decade / some [of his co-workers] still believe / if I really want to / I could teach them how to charm a snake" and he complains that "in case someone does become my friend / I am asked to join in the laugh / at jokes about / my own colour, dress or nationality."

The poems have, arguably, too much polemic to qualify as "art" or "literature," whatever those two terms might mean, but there are many effective lines, felicitous metaphors, and insights into positions we generally fail to acknowledge or imagine. They introduce white Canadians to the immigrant's hopes and frustrations, to truths about ourselves as seen by "the Other," and if they're not yet literature, they broaden the base on which that can eventually be built. As well, the distance between each lefthand page, written in graceful Punjabi, and the righthand one which holds the English translation, suggests both the gap that must be bridged to communicate across languages and the impossibility of completely overcoming it. And the Punjabi writing stands for a continent and centuries of civilization, little recognized in our classrooms -- based on my past experience, this is likely to be a powerful validation for the Indo-Canadian student, as well as eye-opening for others.

Added later: I should add that Sadhu Binning is himself an immigrant to Canada from India, having lived here forty years now. According to the blurb on the back of No More Watno Dur, he's published two books of poetry, two collections of short stories, and has co-written and produced several plays about the South Asian Community. He also co-edits a Punjabi quarterly and from 1977-1982 edited a literary monthly. He currently teaches Punjabi at the Asian Studies Department of University of British Columbia


  1. I read the Wiki link and found the history behind this very interesting, thanks. Patricia

  2. Patricia: It really is interesting -- the incident played a role in the move to India's independence and yet is little-represented in our history books.