Conversations around the 1984 attack and occupation of the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, the November pogroms in Delhi, Bhindrawale, Indira Gandhi, Khalistanis, and the human rights violations throughout Punjab are divisive, conflict-ridden and sometimes scary. So much so that many don’t talk about the traumas of the past thirty years in public because it’s too painful and we’re often expected to take a side: Khalistan or pro-Indian government. But like any movement, there is so much more nuance to the discussion – something captured with deep empathy and sensitivity in A Vancouver Guldasta.
The new play from Paneet Singh invites the audience to witness a family living in Vancouver as they process the immediate traumas of June 1984, and learn to live with the uncertain choices they each make.
It’s the first week of June 1984, and we meet the Dhaliwal family in their living room, joking and playing, and generally a well knit group. The Dhaliwals live in a quintessential Vancouver Special house in East Van, home to so many generations of immigrants throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Very quickly, we experience a family divided and united over how to process and respond to the Indian government’s attack on the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) and Amritsar. We also meet Andy, the Dhaliwal’s basement tenant, who escaped from his own violent traumas in Vietnam.
Playwright and director Paneet Singh shares his insights about the inspirations central to A Vancouver Guldasta, the importance of having the play physically located in a house, and the importance of conversation in unpacking Diasporic trauma.
Why does the play take place in a Vancouver Special house instead of in a theatre?
The house itself is a character in the play. Because of their size and affordability, migrant and working class families took to Vancouver Specials, and these houses became building blocks of neighbourhoods like Punjabi Market in South Vancouver. They were the space in which so many intercultural friendships developed, like the one we see between the two teenage characters in the script. So many experiences were shared across communities in these homes, and the walls sing those stories. The play is not just the experience of the script, but also the experience of an authentic Punjabi home in the 1980s. It’s an opportunity for the audience to be in a space and hear a conversation they otherwise would not have been privy to.
How did you transform the space into a living room from the 80s? The attention to detail is outstanding.
I couldn’t possibly take the credit for that. Adelaide Wilder, who also designed my last show, The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson, is an incredible artist and collaborator. I supplied her with pictures of Punjabi homes from the time period, and she used that along with her own research and existing knowledge to bring it to life. Together, we worked on the nuances to make it really authentic for the time period for a Punjabi family.
Tell us about your use of archival video from 1984. Where did you find the clips? Why did you choose to tell parts of the story using video?
This story has really been developing for almost a decade, when I was gifted a VHS tape of these videos by a friend. I saw how raw the emotion was in these clips and I knew immediately that they were a powerful storytelling device. The script was formed around a few of these clips that I’d selected. Experiencing the footage, along with integration of other technology and media, is all a part of adding to the experience of being there in this home during the time period.
What was your research process like? Where did you gather the information and stories that informed your script?
A lot of it came from community members and their stories. Whether it was through formal interviews or just conversations I’ve had with people over the years, I’d say there are at least a dozen stories that informed the script. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Preet Dhillon and Ninh Nguyen, whose stories really helped shape the characters of Rani and Andy.
Any Sikh who brings up the event in the public sphere is immediately thrown under the microscope and their political intentions and loyalties are intensely scrutinized. – Paneet Singh
There are parallels between the traumas faced by Andy in Vietnam, and what will happen in Punjab through the 80s and 90s, really striking. Why did you choose Andy’s story?
I knew I needed a character who had experienced the trauma of large scale violence on the ground to help round out the narrative. While the story is very much about the effects that the violence in Punjab had on the diaspora, and not as much about what’s happening in Punjab itself, I knew the story would be incomplete without that angle. Diasporic Punjabis have the privilege of having conversations and passing judgment on the political situations in India because we don’t often have to face the ramifications of our conversations first-hand. That’s as much as I can say without giving too much of the plot away!
Your first play, The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson, is a story about an iconic individual, Mewa Singh, and the story of the Komagata Maru. Why did you focus on the story of a family in A Vancouver Guldasta?
Finding intimate stories in big events is a recurring theme in my writing. Even in The Undocumented Trial, it was much more about four characters’ journey in discovering their own identity than it was about the actual Komagata Maru. This script has probably been the most intimate of those stories so far, and the most removed from the big events, physically. The family is a reflection of my own internal conversation, and conversations within the Punjabi community about 1984. There is definitely a diversity in how people processed this trauma over the last three decades. I wanted to bring that diversity of experience to life in a space of empathy and compassion – so a family in their home lent itself as a setting, naturally.
Why was it important for you to write about this moment in time?
1984 is as politicized as its ever been. In my years of being exposed to it, I haven’t really seen much work regarding the events of the time that are primarily just examining its traumatic impact on the diaspora. Any Sikh who brings up the event in the public sphere is immediately thrown under the microscope and their political intentions and loyalties are intensely scrutinized. In this environment, I thought it was important to put forward the story that’s been drowned out in this noise – the story of a community’s pain, and ways in which it was dealt with.
On the night I attended A Vancouver Guldasta, you mentioned that we as a community never have conversations about Khalistan outside closed doors. Can you expand on that idea and why you decided to approach the subject in your play?
When Khalistan is mentioned, there’s never a conversation. Whichever side you’ve decided to stand on has immediately legitimized or delegitimized you to an entire group. Yes, it’s more nuanced now than it was before, but there’s still a line in the sand for many people. I didn’t care to make a statement on Khalistan in the play itself, but to give it the space that it deserves in the story. I wanted to examine it as a part of an individual’s grieving process as opposed to a political idea. If 30,000 Sikhs were fired up enough to be declaring it on the streets as they marched through Downtown Vancouver, it’d be irresponsible for me as a storyteller to ignore something that is so central to the conversation at the time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the conversation between and around CBC reporter Terry Milewski and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. Sure there’s a race angle, but I’ve also been thinking about it in the context of what you said at your play – we don’t talk about Khalistan openly because it’s uncomfortable and it’s often portrayed as a very black and white issue – you support it or not, and your decision says something about who you are and what kind of person you are. With Jagmeet, because he may support the idea of some kind of an independent homeland for Sikhs, Milewski implies that Jagmeet must be a sympathizer of the people behind the Air India bombing. They are two very separate things that Milewski conflates – something that I think many people do incorrectly, and as a result, we can’t have open, public conversations about Khalistan without being afraid of being labelled as a terrorist, or facing other repercussions.
I don’t know Jagmeet’s personal stance on Khalistan, but otherwise I couldn’t agree with you more. Let alone Khalistan, we can’t have an open discussion about human rights abuses in India period, because immediately you’re labeled as a separatist or terrorist sympathizer. There’s nothing wrong with being or not being a Khalistani, but you can very well be a critic of human rights abuses in India without believing in a separate state. Again, it’s this line in the sand that gets drawn. It’s great for sensationalized media coverage, but it’s horrible for allyship.
The play feels almost incomplete because as an audience, we know the trauma doesn’t end here. We know that a few months later, Indira Gandhi is assassinated, and the Delhi pogroms happen, the bombing of Air India, ’87 – plus everything else that happened in Punjab through the 80s and 90s. What will happen to the Dhaliwal’s as the decade progresses?
That’s up to the audience, really. I’ve told my bit about the Dhaliwals by the end of the play, and it’s really up to the audience to take the story wherever they want. I do hope it’s something that audience members think about as they leave the play. For anyone who experienced or is familiar with 1984, It’s a valuable time to reflect on one’s own journey.
What has the audience response been to the play? Have any comments or reactions surprised you?
The audience response has been positive. We’ve seen a range of audiences, and so far all demographics seem to have been responding to it. What’s really caught me off guard is how emotional of a response this is getting from audiences that aren’t necessarily tied to the 1984 narrative. It was something I expected from audiences that remembered living through it and had similar experiences to the characters on stage, but it’s been getting just as emotional of a response from those who are not familiar with the events at all.