Phinder Dulai has given readings and talks on Canadian literature, with an emphasis on migrant voices, for schools, colleges and universities both in and outside of Canada. He has worked in print journalism in Vancouver's South Asian media and was an associate producer for Gabereau Live. His poetry has been published in Ankur, Rungh, The Canadian Ethnic Studies Review, and the Toronto South Asian Review. Excerpts of his poetry have been featured in the Vancouver Sun and The Globe and Mail. He works for the BC government and lives in Burnaby with his wife and two daughters.
In 2016, he received news that his book written in response to the Komagata Maru incident and his life in B.C. called "dream - arteries" was selected for use in B.C. high schools. In response to this news he wrote:
"I remember the first time I discovered poetry - it was grade 11 high school English and it was when we read The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. This was in Pitt Meadows where I and family lived.
"I have always thought that in the midst of some of the most vulnerable moments for a teenager during those high school years, there is always some space for one to escape to and my English classes were this for me; that and post punk and alternative new wave music from the 1980s.
"Those were very tough years for a coloured kid, a teen that sat at the back and did not say much or feel intelligent, but the years did provide lessons.
"Now BCERAC has reviewed and recommended dream / arteries for high school courses throughout BC in the areas of language arts, social studies and social justice.
"This is significant. I think I might be the first South Asian of Punjabi descent whose book has been included, both this year and any time before; I am so grateful to the ERAC evaluation team for so clearly identifying the potential strength of where dream / arteries might inspire and live within the teachable moment; also important - this is where I have made home, this is where I have spent the most significant amount of my life.
"Being sanctioned in this way means a lot for me given the anecdote I offered above; particularly because the focus of dream / arteries span across an arc of thematics; as had my previous books. I am hopeful that through this institutional curricular adoption and recommendation, the perspective I brought to consider the documentation of the Komagata Maru and other sections of the book will result in good paths to learning for students and some material that can be moved into a dynamic teaching moment."
DATE OF BIRTH: May 10, 1967
PLACE OF BIRTH: Great Britain
EMPLOYMENT OTHER THAN WRITING: Civil Servant
Ragas From The Periphery - Published by Arsenal Pulp Press, ISBN - 1-55152-021-4 - 1995
Basmati Brown - Published by Nightwood Editions, ISBN 0-88971-0 - 2000
dream / arteries (Talonbooks 2014) 9780889229136 $16.95
Soul-journ to the End of the Pacific
This piece by Phinder Dulai was originally published in Rungh magazine. It was re-introduced for his book on the Komagata Maru Incident in 2014.
"I did initial research on the piece and wrote it on the 80th anniversary of the KM in 1994," he recalls. "I sat on it during that time because I could not get anyone in the larger print press to consider taking it on and so it found a home at Rungh Magazine - an inter-disciplinary journal that provided some space for voices like myself. As young as I was I was also very determined to have the piece find the light of day."
“What is done with a shipload of my people will determine whether we shall have peace in all parts of the empire” -- Gurdit Singh, May 1914
Dated May 10th, 2014
To an unknown passenger:
When you arrive in the early hours of the morning, you will not see the grey green sheath of the Georgia Strait, you will look into the darkness and know you have entered a new land. You will see the dark waves as they push against the rusty ship.
The distance offers a few waking lights streaming on the dark waters, and in that moment, you will drift to slumber. The air, a sweet remnant of spring, will be familiar to your lips, and the past seven weeks at sea— an unfamiliar rite of passage— will have been worth it. The day is May 23, 1914, and the ship that carries your dreams is named The Komagata Maru.
When the ship’s anchor drops, your eyes draw to the rising land mass known as North Vancouver. Awake. Awoken. The dawn plays tricks on your eyes. You see shapes taking form, colossal shapes, square shapes hulked over the harbour to be reckoned with. But your mind sees your farm as it was in your boyhood, before you took your place in the British Armed forces and before serving the British Raj, where you wagered and worked war in the Sudan, in Somaliland, in China and at Saragarhi, on behalf of your master. You remember the corn, rice, red peppers and sugar cane at the farm, knowing the same force that drives the roots down into your fields, brings the season’s meaning, and is infused in your body.
You wonder why Mathaji sold two parcels of your land for you to journey to this new place, why your family still could not afford to keep you, without sending you away into a world unknown. And the remaining two parcels of sugar cane you harvested turn into income for the local government; the vizeer, the sarpanch, the British civil servant.
Not knowing how much you were impoverished by your master. That the drain on your country of Bharat cost your home one billion pounds over a fifty year period; or that during that time, 19 million people died of famine while Bharat paid England’s debt at about 244,000,000 pounds sterling in 1900, with annual increases since then; or that at least $175,000,000 was drained away every year from India without a cent's return. You do not know the compounded interest amounting to 72 and-a-half million sterling grew India’s famine; not failure of rains, or over-population. Awful poverty caused by the largest foreign tribute ever seen, and an equally expensive tribute to the Indian Durbars; royal families that squandered away your labour and livelihood.
This letter is to you my friend, because you are not awake to your sacrifice to the greatest of endeavors: freedom, as you try to find ways out of the complete poverty of your arrival in the new land, and the living poverty at home on the farm.
You will not know these things because these points of light have not been shone in your eyes. You are the unwilling event that once again gives birth to the idea of freedom and self-determination in your homeland; the idea, not the death of the maru!
You place your foot up on to the plank and look to feel the earth again under your feet. Voices
from the shoreline shout out to you, “Keep off the land,” or, “Drive the beggars back to the Ganges.” (Vancouver Province) You comply, 70 years have seeped into your actions, your thoughts —you comply with every demand and order meted out by the British, even here. You step back and take your place amongst the others and await for the next move.
In front of you is the charterer who convinced you in Singapore that life in Canada will be one of good living. Gurdit Singh asks the shore man: “Immigration Inspector Malcolm Reid, why the delay?” Reid replies: “The whole boat will be quarantined for medical checkups, and following that, each individual on the ship will have to have $200 in his pocket and be travelling direct passage from his place of birth.” (Implausible since there are no ships travelling non-stop from India to Vancouver, Canada.) You step back, deprived of community and wait out a medical check up that will last over ten days, as opposed to the customary 24-hour check.
The rations on the ship diminish in the following fortnight. Day turns into day and the ship becomes Vancouver’s mobile marine pen zoo. By this time a 3-shift watch consisting of two armed police guards will keep an eye on your every move, as you slowly descend into yourself and feel your whole world squeezed into this ship. When asked for food by Gurdit Singh, Inspector Reid states it is Gurdit Singh’s responsibility to feed the passengers, knowing Singh cannot move or acquire funds for foods.
Trying to land in Canada, you have been denied your humanity. Stories are written about you that never reach your eyes or ears, yet they provoke the rising cries and anger that drift from the wharf, slip into the water to surround and crawl up against the ship and ricochet off the ship into the lifeboats and steel cables that hang above your head.
The Vancouver Province run stories saying “the right-thinking people know that the natives of Hindustan…should not be allowed in this country, except for circus purposes…. We do not think as Orientals do. That is why the East Indians and other Asiatic races and the white race will always mis-comprehend each other…” or “The Sikhs are like the Irish raised to nth or the fourth dimension. They are remorseless politicians and disturbers. They are complex and quite unaccountable… For the sake of the picturesque I am glad to have a few specimens. But those who came last (on the Komagata Maru) are not quite up to the sample. They must be returned as such.” On your behalf, there are those in the Indo-Canadian press who applaud your arrival. The Hindustanee paper published by Husain Rahim: “We extend a cordial welcome to Bhai Gurdit Singh and his party of 375 East Indians on board the Komagata Maru which arrived in this harbour.
All kinds of spectacular and alarming stories in which the arrival of this ship has been termed a Hindu invasion have been indulged in by the local press day after day in their sensation mongering dailies, while the Empress boat, bringing 650 Chinese at the same time, was welcome….”
In a week, after days of negotiations for food, you will have received provisions, but in the height of summer, you will parch, as the freshwater supply runs out on the ship. Amidst the politics of whether the community of South Asians living in Vancouver should foot the bill, or whether the government who have imprisoned you as innocent people on the ship should foot the bill, your mouth runs dry and you drink “bad dirty water, in which you become sick with cough and throat sores.” When the fouled water is finished, you will have to wait until the politics subside, and Inspector Reid -- having accepted and then deferred his legal responsibility -- gives the City of Vancouver the legal choice of deciding whether your devalued life is worth helping under the Public Charges Act.
The surrounding faces will tell you all. You are cramped in filth in a run-down freighter without drinking water, with little food items.
Dominion Day the shoreline is packed with onlookers crowding the harbour and you are both spectacle and recreation. You are left with one meal a day of potato soup and rice, leaving no water supply.
By July 9, to salvage Reid’s public image you are supplied rations that will last a few days. Hunger drones day by day. The battles you fought in will not equate to the misery and degradation that is now your life in the new world.
The Battle Of Burrard Inlet will not begin with your actions and will not end with your surrender. On July 19, at 1:30 am, the assault begins against the beaten body of the old Maru. Through hunger, thirst and filthy, you look for what would defend you from the state-terrorism that prevails upon the scene. With firebrick, pieces of machinery, hatchets, coal, iron bars, and makeshift clubs, you defend yourself against a jet stream of fire hoses, and you know shots echo in your ears and across the water. The night report stated that you had a pistol yet they decided not to use gunfire.
You succeed in one thing: to have been victorious in one battle for the freedom and equal movement as a citizen of the British Empire. You become a martyr for the cause, though your eventual journey to imprisonment and death still awaits across 46 changing waters. Defenceless, still a pauper, you will see from the distance a warship coming your way. The HMCS Rainbow arriving at 8:15 in the morning anchors 200 yards away from your freighter. The Rainbow’s arsenal consists of two six-inch and six four-inch torpedo tubes. The ammunition supply consists of old-fashioned shells. The tubes are aimed directly at your head. Along with this is the Vancouver Militia including the sixth regiment and the Irish Fusiliers and Highlanders. In your freight, all you have is coal. The whole of Vancouver will be out to see your demise as their morning’s entertainment.
Punjabi lives laid down for the British Armed Forces, the lunar light cuts across the wave and lingers on in your mind? A question asked out of exasperation sparks the heart of revolution; once an ally and now the enemy.
Dr. Oscar Douglas Skelton writes to Sir Wilfred Laurier: “this nucleus of the new Canadian navy was first used to prevent British subjects from landing on the British soil.”
The Maru drifts out to the sea at 5am in the morning on July 23 1914. You have provisions, your sleep eases, but the final sacrifice awaits you at Budge Budge, India where as a perceived criminal you will lay down your life as 177 rounds of .303 bore from the Royal Fusiliers pierce your group.
Dreams dissipate as these arteries spill over and a massacre’s only witness is the rippling waves of the Hooghly River.
I offer this one last piece of information in your memory from an anonymous quote—dated January 5, 1914:
“What good has India done us? First it has increased the small island of England to the largest empire in the world, and has given them wisdom, strength and happiness. I will tell you the benefits one by one. All the regiments have been formed from India. All our merchant ships steaming in all ports of the world have been built by the wealth of India. All the big buildings in London are built out of Indian money. If it were not for India, England would be unknown today. The modern towns of Edinburgh, Cheltenham and Bath have all been built with Indian money. It was by the help of the Indian merchants and Indian money that we were enabled to fight Napoleon Bonaparte. It was only by the help of Indian money that we were enabled to defeat and bind him and deport him to an island in the Atlantic Ocean. These benefits have been done for England by India, but the Indian people are not aware of their strength.”
Vancouver, British Columbia, 2014
Vancouver Sun and Vancouver Province Archives – Source for quotes from Vancouver residents and editorial comments during that time.
Johnston, Prof. Hugh. The Voyage Of The Komagata Maru – The Sikh Challenge To Canada’s Colour Bar, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1989
Photographic Use; Courtesy of Vancouver Public Library:
Leonard Frank photo, VPL Accession Number 6231
Canadian Photo Company photo, VPL Accession Numbers 133
Copy of letter: City of Vancouver Archives - Box: 509-D-7 folder 2 – Reference code AM69, page 149: Dated June 8, 1914 for Inspector Malcolm Reid (Dominion Immigration Agent) to Superintendent of Immigration W.D. Scott – Subject Matter – starvation on the ship; surveillance of ship committee correspondence to Canada’s Governor General.
Puri, Harish K. Ghadar Movement to Bhagat Singh (A Collection of Essays), Ludhiana, India: Unistar Books Pvt. Ltd
• Sir Malcolm Darling. 1947. The Punjab Peasant in Prosperity and Debt. London: OUP
• Various referenced materials regarding the British Colonial structures imposed on the farming communities in Punjab.
Rai, Lala Lajpat, Young India: An Interpretation and A History of the Nationalist Movement from Within, Hindustan Books, Originally published in 1916, republished in 2012.
Hyndman, Henry Mayers, “Reports of the Social Democratic Federation, Ruin of India by British Rule ,” in Histoire de la IIe Internationale, vol. 16 (Geneva: Minkoff Reprint, 1978, 1907), 513-33 – Source - www.marxists.org
dream/arteries by Phinder Dulai (Talonbooks $16.95)
from Beverly Cramp
A hundred years ago, a Sikh entrepreneur named Gurdit Singh Sarhali chartered a Japanese steamship, the Komagata Maru, for $66,000, to set sail for Canada with 376 British subjects (including 340 Sikhs) aboard. They were travelling from Punjab, India, via Japan, in order to test Canada’s racist immigration laws.
Nearly all the passengers were not allowed to come ashore. The Komagata Maru sat moored in Vancouver’s harbour for two months while courts deliberated on the case and some of the city’s white citizens lined the pier taunting those onboard. Passengers were without sufficient food and drinking water.
In 1908, Canada had passed a law that allowed government officials to prevent immigrants who had not travelled by “continuous journey” from their country of origin. It was known that the distance from India to Canada necessitated stopovers along the way.
One of the Canadian navy’s first ships, the HMCS Rainbow, eventually sailed into Vancouver Harbour and forced the Komagata Maru back to Calcutta, with deadly consequences for many aboard.
Almost a century later the B.C. government formally apologized for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident. Now a new memorial has been erected on the Vancouver waterfront to acknowledge the mistakes of the past.
Growing up in vancouver, Phinder Dulai has pondered the Komagata Maru story since his Vancouver college days in the late 1980s. He first wrote about it on the 80th anniversary of the stand-off in 1994 in the form of a fictionalized letter to one of the passengers on the ship.
“I could not get anyone in the larger print press to consider taking it on,” he says, “so it found a home at Rungh Magazine, an inter-disciplinary journal that provided some space for voices like myself. As young as I was, I was also very determined to have the piece find the light of day. It eventually appeared in 1998.”
In his ‘A Letter to The Maru,’ Dulai addressed an unknown passenger whom he called Ranjeet. Dulai imagined him as the son of a poor farmer, later a soldier for the British Armed Forces, and that Ranjeet’s family had sold land that should have been Ranjeet’s inheritance to send him on the Komagata Maru to Vancouver.
“This letter is to you my friend, because you are not awake to your sacrifice to the greatest of endeavours: freedom, as you try to find ways out of the complete poverty of your arrival in the new land, and the living poverty at home on the farm.”
In his third poetry collection, dream/arteries Phinder Dulai now connects those 376 passengers with other New World migrants who travelled on the same ship throughout its thirty-six-year history, including ports of call in Hong Kong, Japan, India, Turkey, Halifax, Montreal, and Ellis Island.
By drawing on the records, nautical maps, and passenger manifests of the Komagata Maru, Dulai demonstrates how the 1914 incident encapsulates a broader narrative of migration throughout the New World.
Dulai’s dream/arteries is “hybrid poetics” that mixes historical fact with fiction along the lines of Renée Sarojini Saklikar’s children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood $18.95) which recently won the 2014 Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry. Also Vancouver-raised, Saklikar was 23 years old when her aunt and uncle were murdered on June 23, 1985 during the bombing of Air India Flight 182.
Dulai’s viewpoint is original for its expansiveness. In his research, Dulai uncovered a letter sent to Sir Wilfred Laurier about the role of the HMCS Rainbow, pointing out, “this nucleus of the new Canadian navy was first used to prevent British subjects from landing on British soil.”
As well, Dulai has unearthed an obscure letter from an enlightened British subject:
“All the regiments have been formed from India. All our merchant ships steaming in all ports of the world have been built by the wealth of India. All the big buildings in London are built out of Indian money. If it were not for India, England would be unknown today. The modern towns of Edinburgh, Cheltenham and Bath have all been built with Indian money...but the Indian people are not aware of their strength.”