Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Seva - Sharanpal Ruprai (Frontenac House Poetry)

Today's book of poetry:
Seva.  Sharanpal Ruprai.  Frontenac House Poetry.  Calgary, Alberta.  2014.                                                        

Sharanpal Ruprai is opening a window to a world most of us have never seen, much less experienced.  Seva tells the life story of a young woman growing up in a Sikh household.  If that was all if did we could still find ample reason to celebrate this poetry.

But that is only where Seva and Ruprai begin.  She illuminates a very private world and when she casts the light that private world responds.  Being a young woman in a world where domestic rules and cultural norms are radically different inside and outside of the home is an incomprehensible task.  Seva bravely walks us through the challenge.

Sharanpal Ruprai faces a myriad of challenges when she wakes up in the morning.  Being a young woman of colour as an outsider in a dominant culture where most others are white, prone to labelling turban wearing brown people as "Pakis," and where tolerance and understanding are never a safe bet, never a given.  As Ruprai's mother laments: "never trust anyone."

Five Day Sin

My mother insists.
She takes my measurements and I clinch my pelvis,
stomach, thighs and bum cheeks, praying the numbers
work in my favour. Kachera are too much like baggy shorts
with a draw string. She purchases light blue broadcloth,
tells me the colour is more feminine than pure white.
She did not grow up in Canada, does not know that girls
are size-eyeing each other up and checking out who is wearing a bra
with matching panties. The name-brand ones.
You have to purchase each panty separately. I covet those panties.
My mother on a mission from Guru Gobind Singh.
What did he care about bras and panties?

There was no getting out of my body I am stuck in my body-time
but my body my body bled for days menstrual pads did not stick
blood trickled down my body my thigh.
I was sent home for stomach pains.
              Tampons were out of the question.
Mother surrendered and bought me a package
of five oversized-white-no-name-brand underwear.
I was told I would be forgiven
for wearing panties for five days out of the month. Never
did I have cramps or what boys called pms.
Each month, I willed my body
my body to release as many eggs
as it wanted, as long as I bled
for five days, so I could be
like the other girls.


There is much joy and beauty in many of the small moments of family and community that Ruprai accessed to tell her story, it is not all woe.  But figuring out who you are is a struggle we've all engaged in at one point or another in our lives.  Most of us haven't had to double down to step outside of our culture to fit in.  Sure, we've rebelled against our parents with hostile cigarettes dangling from our lips.  Then most of us turn into a slightly different version of our parents, and we haven't had to step outside our own traditions to do it.  And let's face it, in almost every case, women have a tougher go than man.

Ruprai never laments, these aren't sad, "look at me" songs.  These poems are about growth and experience and endurance and rebellion.  These poems tell the journey of how a young girl grows strong to become and empowered woman.  These poems kick the odds to hell.

One Strand as a Time

Every morning, a disciplined choice of a black starched turban.
Dreams of combing fingers through short black hair vanish
every morning. In front of an open locker
an inspection for unruly strands.
Bullies yell down the hall ride them' cowgirls!
Avoid eye-contact and stare at yourself in the mirror.

In the washroom, a fist into a mirror.
Every morning, a disciplined bully trashes a turban
avoid gym, too hot and sweaty to play tag and cowgirls
do not care for brown skinned cowboys.
                                                 Dreams of track'n field gold vanish
Parents think, a bookish child, good thing really. Strands
of rope tucked away in a locker.

Down the hall a push into the open locker
a click of a lock, a scream, let me out, a mirror
shatters and unruly strands
poke out and bullies pull at an unravelled turban
Dreams of making it through the day unharmed vanish,
bullies yell heehaw heehaw, ride them' cowgirls!

No more heehaw or ride them'cowgirls!
No more being shoved into a locker.
Dreams of short black hair vanish.
A pair of scissors, black elastic, a mirror
and a hacked up turban,
in the school basement long black strands.

Snip one strand, snip two strands, snip three strands
of hair hacked up all over the floor, no more cowgirls
taunts, mo more dirty turban
lover jokes, no more being thrust into a locker
a sneer in the mirror
a sneer, tears and fears in the mirror vanish.

They gawk, we gawk, parents gawk
                                         and dreams of a good Sikh child, vanish.
Tears stream and hair strands
are stuck to the school bathroom mirror.
Students cowered in the gum. No brave cowgirls
anymore, police, principal, and parents peer into a locker
the murder weapon is longer than a turban.

Every morning, in front of a locker, sounds of snipping strands
In the school bathroom, a turban cowgirl
vanishes in the mirror.


Today's book of poetry has a morning read every day and today's was held out on the front porch to enjoy the spectacular fall weather here in Ottawa.  Short sleeves and sunshine in late October.  Hard to imagine but it is here.  Some of the local kids; Clara, Bela, Theo, Maya, Julian and Daniel, were playing one of their self-styled games of hide n' seek.  The sky is blue, blue, blue and it is unnaturally warm for October.

The reading was a gaudy affair with summer hats and drinks with fancy, funny straws.

Ruprai's poems are rapid, sure fire shots, bursts of clarity, but there is always enough in there to assure us that these are poems of intelligent rebellion and emotional growth.  These poems can also be seen as a template for other young women frozen in place by circumstance. 

Today's book of poetry recognized the intensity of an old soul in a new voice, it appears in every smart poem.

Baker's Dozen

A woman who creates and becomes, as she wished.
She who is simply unsatisfied.
She who does not take pleasure in tracking down clean water.
Two suited women, side by side in a cubicle.
The women, contemplate ovulation and children.
The midwives who kill girl babies, though it may not please them.
A woman and a woman, who learn how to read and translate.
She who stokes the fires for light, not heat.
A woman who justifies the missing salt and butter.
A woman who takes pleasure in washing her lover's hair.
She who prefers salt over butter.
These women, aware of how they are saving the world.

There women add one more line, add to the world.


Sharanpal Ruprai's eye on the world is one the poetry world could use a lot more of.  Today's book of poetry is going to be first in line for her next book of poetry riches.  Sharanpal Ruprai makes Canadian poetry just that much richer, broader, and more tolerant and understanding.  What could be better than that?

Image result for sharanpal ruprai photo
Sharanpal Ruprai

Sharanpal Ruprai earned a Ph.D. from the Department of Humanities at York University, Ontario, Canada. She holds a Masters degree in English from the University of Calgary and a Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Arts from the University of Winnipeg.

“There is much to be learned and appreciated in this project. Sikh culture and mores unfold in a poetic narrative that both entices and educates. Arrangement of the words on the page and the Sikh words complement the telling. Clear images. Consistent mode of foreboding.”
     — Barb Carter

“I think it’s wonderful. I found it powerful and a way into a secret world. I laughed and wept. It’s beautiful. I can’t wait to talk about it — on and off the air.”
     — Shelagh Rogers


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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