Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Kuldip Kaur Gill

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Yesterday's events saddened and shocked me. It was impossible for me to understand how a place of worship became a place of carnage within only a few minutes.

I knew I wanted to write about it, but instead of focusing on how angry and frustrated I am, I have decided to celebrate my relationship with Canadian Sikhs and my encounters with Sikhism.

Throughout my travels in Kenya, I have returned time and time again to the same Gurdwara. A welcome sight and a halfway point on our journey, the Gurdwara became a place of solace and relief after a long car ride. We always visited the temple room first, paying our respects to the gurus and spiritual figures (within and outside of the Sikh faith) whose photos and pictures lined the walls. We asked for a safe journey and helped ourselves to the prasad (food offering that is then consumed): pieces of coconut or roasted chickpeas.

We'd then proceed to the langar (the food hall) where lunch is served to anyone who is hungry. We always looked forward to the steaming hot curries and fluffy rice, perfectly round chapatis and chai.

No one has ever been refused at the Gurdwara. Everyone is welcome.

***

Over the years, I've had the pleasure of working with Sikh musicians and artists.

One of my greatest influences and mentors was the late Kuldip Gill. A Sikh who immigrated to Canada in 1939, she was a master of merging traditional Indian poetic styles with modern poetics.

Kuldip had an elegance and class about her that was so charming it was hard to ignore. Kuldip mentored me for my MFA summer thesis, a project that eventually became my first book-- Bleeding Light.

The first and only time we met was a sunny day in Toronto. We agreed to meet at the hotel she was staying at. When I greeted her in the lobby, her pure white hair and tasteful red lipstick proved to me that you can be beautiful at any age. She was the epitome of grace. We had a coffee at the hotel cafe, brainstorming about the etymology of words and the structure of ghazals. We had a buffet lunch at an Indian restaurant and returned to the hotel so she could change for the book launch we planned to attend in the evening. Dressed in black with a subdued but intricately designed Kashmiri shawl, Kuldip apologized for making me wait for so long in the lobby (in truth, the wait was quite short). After the book launch, I offered to catch her a cab, but she insisted that she would be okay. She was independent, strong and resilient.

Kuldip was one of the first Canadian poets to experiment with the ghazal form in English. She insisted that before I could write a ghazal, I needed to research the form. She taught me to respect and study the tradition and then formulate my own poetic voice. It was one of the most valuable lessons I've learned as a writer.

Throughout the summer, we communicated via email. We exchanged comments on my ghazals and she sent me her own poetry, asking me for my opinion. It was a rewarding process, intellectually challenging and creatively stimulating. She responded to my edits within a day, always with positive and useful feedback.

Kuldip passed away before Bleeding Light was published. She died a few days before my birthday. I remember hearing the news and standing outside in my driveway, barefoot, trying to process it.

I had no idea she was ill.

The only way I could honour her was to dedicate my book to her memory.

I ordered Valley Sutra, the last book she wrote before she died, and read it cover to cover. In between the free verse poems, I found a handful of ghazals. I felt connected to her through the couplets, through the fact that a part of me stayed with her, and a part of her will always stay with me.

Our whole lives,
by this flowing river.
Our whole lives
flowing -- by this river.

Kuldip Gill, Valley Sutra

In Memoriam.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Sheniz Janmohamed

Sheniz Janmohamed is a spoken word artist, author and graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. Her first book, Bleeding Light (TSAR) a collection of sufi-inspired English ghazals, was published in 2010.

Go to Sheniz Janmohamed’s Author Page