1984 through Indian Eyes:
Literary Accounts of Operation Blue Star and the Anti-Sikh Pogroms
By Lori Way
Part VI – “My People’s Heart” by Preeti Kaur
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Operation Bluestar in Amritsar, India, in June, 1984, and the anti-Sikh pogroms that took place the following November in New Delhi, Lori Way concludes her six-installment review of works of literature focusing upon these events. Many thanks to Lori for providing to us insights and discussions as we reflect on 1984 and its aftermath 30 years since. You can see her entire series here.
For the last installment in my series dedicated to 1984, I thought that it would be fitting to take a look at the work of Preeti Kaur, a Sikh poet from California. I first learned about Kaur’s work by reading American Turban, and I have had the pleasure of sharing her poetry with my peers at academic conferences for the past two years. Kaur began writing poetry while studying with June Jordan as part of the Poetry for the People program. She has contributed to many literary websites, journals and collections since then, including Meeta Kaur’s Her Name is Kaur (see my review here). Those familiar with Sikh history will certainly appreciate Kaur’s work, but general audiences will find the raw emotion of her writing to be moving as well. Her poetry has raised awareness about anti-Sikh hate crimes, such as the 2001 murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi and the August 2012 massacre in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
In her poem, “My People’s Heart,” Kaur turns her attention to the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. Kaur explained in an email that her original poem was inspired not only by what happened in 1984, but also the 2002 mass killings in the Gujarat and the rapes that took place in both attacks: “I wrote the poem in response to the unwritten and the unsayable, particularly sexual violence, and its continued use in communal violence in India. I wrote it as a remembrance poem, to remember the traumas of the dead and those who survived, and as a poem to respond to Hindutva.” The first publication of Kaur’s poem was in The Sikh Review, but it was later revised to focus on the events in 1984 and can be found on various websites in this form. Here is an excerpt from the poem as it appears on Kaur’s website:
i plant a circle
in my backyard
a golden garland
for my dead
each bright bud
dipped in saffron nectar
like the kesri turbans
which crown my people’s heads
like an ember
like the city/ the village
like the gurdwara upon gurdwara
of torch and bullet
at the hand
of politician/ policeman/ mob leader
into a cremation ground (Kaur)
Kaur’s warm color references slowly build into a flame that reveals 1984’s atrocities, working from a peaceful backyard of marigolds to burning gurdwaras, cities and villages. The garden becomes a cremation ground with turbans ablaze. Like the other authors of 1984’s literature examined in this series, Kaur connects Indian authorities – the politician and the policeman – with the mob leaders who have targeted her people.
Knowledge of Sikh culture and traditions is fundamental to much of Kaur’s writing, and she attributes the origin of her literary sense to correspondence with her grandmother who lived in the Punjab. She also worked with her father to understand the poetic intricacies of the Guru Granth Sahib: “My father’s lessons in trying to impart the pronunciation and recitation of Sikh prayers helped to tune my ear to the ways words can have a musicality of their own. As I grew, he explained the multiple meanings of these words, their layered intentions towards introspection; I became enchanted with metaphors, especially those that permeate Sikh theology” (qtd. in Yalamanchili).
Kaur’s poetry also follows in the tradition of other great Indian writers who have challenged the system through their work. Contemporary authors of Indian descent can draw inspiration from a diverse legacy of protest literature. The great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, for example, meant for many of his works to be a call for the “awakening” of India. Here is one of his most famous works from his Gitanjali collection:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. (75)
Tagore’s writing earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, the first non-Western author to win this award. He was also knighted in 1915 by the British Crown. Yet in a move that perhaps foreshadowed Khushwant Singh’s symbolic protest 65 years later (see my article here), Tagore renounced this title in response to the killing of Sikhs in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar.
The works of both Kaur and Tagore exemplify poetry’s power as a tool for social justice. Poetry can document traumatic events of the past such as 1984’s violence while also revealing the emotional impact of those events upon the people who lived through them. It can also raise awareness and motivate political action. Authors of Indian descent, whether they be in India or in diaspora, are tied to a proud multicultural heritage that preserves the best that its traditions have to offer yet promises a bright future as well.
I hope that the literature discussed in this series has inspired Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike to explore works in creative writing as well as nonfiction that tell the story of 1984. I would also like to thank American Turban for providing a forum for me to share my thoughts about these works over the past six months. It has been a great privilege for me to honor the victims of 1984 in this way, and it is my sincere wish that they are never forgotten.
You can read more of Preeti Kaur’s poetry at her website, The World I Stitch. Her most recent published poems can be found at Jaggery: A DesiLit Arts and Literature Journal and in “Afrofuture,” which is Issue 4 of Spook Magazine. Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali is available through Amazon.com here. Order through Amazon Smile and a portion of your purchase will go to a charity of your choosing.
Kaur, Preeti. “My People’s Heart.” The World I Stitch. N.p., 29 October 2005. Web. 27 November 2014. <http://phulkari.blogspot.com/2005/10/my-peoples-heart.html>.
—. Email interview. 27 November 2014.
Tagore, Rabindranath. Gitanjali. 15th reprint. New Delhi, India: UBS Publishers’ Distributors Pvt. Ltd., 2010. Print.
Yalamanchili, Pavani. “Preeti Kaur, A People’s Poet.” The Aerogram. N.p., 27 February 2013. Web. 27 November. 2014. <http://theaerogram.com/preeti-kaur-a-peoples-poet/>.