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Anu Kumar
Friday , October 04, 2013 at 11 : 38

Similar Stories, a Century Apart


Sometime ago a friend I have never met but is one of my best friends in the strange redefinitions the virtual world permits us wrote about a case that he had been preoccupied with. He is a human rights lawyer, fighting refugee cases and in some instances, he is not very successful. He remains a broken man thereafter, for some days his emails are short almost disconcerted in tone. His words appearing to waver like his mind.

The people he represents are usually refugees from the developing world. They come in search of a better world seeking an end to discrimination or simply for happiness. He wrote me once about a woman from South Asia, who had journeyed to Canada at an advanced stage of pregnancy. It was an act of desperation and to many her very manner of fleeing seemed 'outlandish'.

Most cases are confidential and he is hesitant. You might say that the virtual world encourages in far too loose a manner a sharing of confidences but it can be beneficial too. When you are broken down or confused, there is the virtual world and sometimes friends made this way are not necessarily judgemental. Also the time zone gap and the entire difference in latitudes can offer a welcome change of perspective that can be helpful.

No matter the travails those who flee have encountered, as I learn in the few stories I have willingly listened to, these still don't really diminish in the land of their choice. For those not privileged, and in a world increasingly hostile to the poor migrant, it is hard to prove oneself and my friend takes on himself the burden to explain, extrapolate the circumstances of their leaving to those who would certainly have no idea. Not least in Vancouver, where he lives, a city that for several years now, has ranked consistently high in the list of the world's most liveable cities. It has parks, well planned living zones and a widely praised and greatly emulated public transport system. Vancouver is also one of the world's most ethnically diverse cities, a welcome home to many diasporas.    

When he works on his cases, he disappears from the virtual world. When he writes, its almost in hushed tones. As he makes a bare passing reference to what preoccupies him. He tells me of the man from a country in East Africa hounded because of his sexual orientation, who traveled all the way to Vancouver, in search of himself and freedom to be. And he mentions his fears that his client may be denied refuge.

Some things I want to tell him never change or they do very slowly. Even a century seems too long. Almost a hundred years ago, a ship sailed from Hong Kong to Vancouver. On board were 300 or more people seeking a better life for themselves. They were mainly from Punjab and not all were Sikhs. The names in the list broken down reveal some who were Muslim, a few Hindus and the rest Sikhs.    

The man instrumental in chartering the ship, Gurdit Singh Sandhu, wanted to circumvent and challenge the Bill of Direct Passage, a Canadian law that allowed in only migrants who had proof of direct passage from their land of origin. It was passed specifically to disallow migrants from Asia. No steamship in those days made it possible for a direct sea journey from South Asia to the Americas. Such strict laws had been passed in the first decade of the 20th century to slow down and stop the flood of immigrants. Beginning from 1902, several hundreds of people from the Punjab had settled down on the west coast of the Americas. Some of them who settled in British Columbia in Canada, for example belonged to a contingent on their way to London for the coronation of Edward VII as king following Victoria's death in 1901.

Gurdit Singh Sandhu had lived a peripatetic life as a child and at the time the Komagata Maru sailed he was a fishing merchant in Singapore. It was his father who had first left home for Malaysia like many others of his generation who had left home. The Anglo-Sikh wars had displaced several people of the region; an ambitious scheme of building canals had added to the dislocation of many. There were also those from the army who had witnessed and now wished for a better life for themselves.

Enthused by the idea of helping his compatriots. Gurdit Singh was also influenced by the Ghadrites, a group of men who in the early decades of the 20th century, wanted to wage war against the British in India who preached their ideas first in the west coast of the Americas. One of the passengers on board was a younger brother of Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian American writer and preacher who was a key figure in an important legal battle for rights of Indians to obtain US citizenship, a case that also bears its name.

The ship sailed from Hong Kong in April and picking up more passengers at Shanghai and Yokohoma reached Vancouver in the last week of May. It was then turned back after a wait that lasted nearly two months even as a case to allow in the migrants was waged in the lower court. Bagga Singh was one of those who fought for the migrants, helping form the 'Shore Committee' to raise funds to feed the migrants and fight the legal case on their behalf. He had traveled first from Punjab to the USA and then managing to skirt strict immigration laws, found work in the many lumber mills of British Columbia.    

You can see the documentary made by Ali Kazimi, 'Passage from India' that tells the story of him and other immigrants like Bagga Singh. They never saw themselves as Punjabis or even as Sikhs but largely as Indians. It was their struggle symbolized by what happened on the Komagata Maru that added to the growing nationalism of the 1920s. It would be another seventeen years before Bagga Singh's wife and two daughters would be allowed to travel from Punjab to join him.

In 1913, Bagga Singh had first left home in Sarabha now in Punjab's Ludhiana district. It was the name also borne by the most famous Ghadr leader of the time, Kartar Singh Sarabha, who had moved to San Francisco in 1896.

It was Kartar Singh's idea to organize a revolution as the British involved itself in World War 1. Kartar Singh traveled to Calcutta via Colombo and met up with leaders such as Rash Behari Bose, the man who would from Japan later play a key role in the founding of the Indian National Army. The Ghadr plan was to organize mutinies and revolts across military camps but it was foiled, chiefly on count of presence of a 'mole' who was privy to most of the confabulations. Soon several of the revolutionaries were arrested. There were also rumours that armed revolutionaries would land and so security was beefed up across port cities in India. It was around this juncture that the Komagata Maru that had docked at Calcutta on a long return journey was fired at by the police ostensibly to quell a riot. It claimed the life of 19 of the passengers.

Bagga Singh's descendants thrive in Canada. A far cry from over a century ago when a man had struggled for the sake of his fellow men. Being Punjabis and Sikhs gave them an identity, a way of belonging and created bonds for these people on the move. Later, the community developed along the gurudwaras. It was these places that helped raise funds to fight the unfair immigration laws. It was from the 1920s that families were allowed to join the men. A plaque commemorating the 75th year of the incident was placed at Vancouver's Portal Park, and a memorial has been planned too.

There is no harm trying, I write to my friend when he does seem despondent. All of us want to do our bit and can't. I tell him I admire him for his brave attempts.

He is someone made by tides of movement and dislocation himself. His story is one shaped by history and is also in part a matter of choice when he moved from Kenya to London and thereon to British Columbia. He was a man who while growing up had witnessed the clash of two world movements. The fight of a bullying colonialism against the nascent even undetermined wave of angry nationalism that stretched from Southeast, South Asia and carved its way in a broad swath across Africa.

He is made by the story that has followed him. While there are those stories that lie forgotten by the wayside; of those who cannot make it, those who left it too late, those who simply do not qualify.

Such as the Sikh taxi driver I once conversed with in Singapore. Like other cabbies, he was always too happy to talk, to share his story. His father, he told me, had come to Singapore as a watchman in the 1930s. 'There were too many Chinese then, but having watchmen didn't help. The Japanese still came and made them penniless. My father had nothing. we had nothing to lose. But now I want to go, live elsewhere.' Then he turns around to tell me, almost in an expressionless tone that he didn't qualify as a migrant in Canada. 'Singapore too expensive, can't I drive taxi in Toronto?' He drops the first 'o' as he pronounces the word. He waggles his left hand and I watch his kara slide down to his elbow glinting as it catches the light from somewhere.

Toronto must be as well. I almost tell him. Vancouver's real estate prices are among the world's highest too. But I don't. It's not necessary, and the story is his to tell and not mine to interrupt 'Why do you wear it on your left hand? I ask.

He looks confused and I point to his kara, 'I thought one wore it on the right but I don't know...''Depends on if you are right-handed,' he smiles. 'I do it because it jangles too much as I steer and drive. People may not like it.'

I smile my thank you one last time and don't tell him that I didn't mind at all. It was his story I liked. Perhaps my last thank you covered it all. Just as I don't ever tell my virtual friend that his stories aren't small in any measure. That they are inspiring. But in a virtual world, words of comfort can appear clichés, just as callous as the interruptions in all our real life conversations.


More about Anu Kumar

Anu's most recent novels are 'It Takes a Murder' and 'Inspector Angre and the Pizza Delivery Boy'. She recently moved once again and is hoping to find the many definitions of dislocation through this blog. Her website not always regularly updated but located securely in cyberspace is anukumar.org.