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Truth Be Told:
Stratford’s “The Komagata Maru Incident” Recreates A Dark Chapter From Canada’s Past

A Review by T. SHER SINGH




A century ago, we’re oft reminded, Canada came of age through the great tragedy of Vimy Ridge. As the years go by, the phrase is repeated every time our nation reaches a milestone: 1967 and Montreal‘s Expo; 1972 and the hockey victory over Russia; the referenda over Quebec’s future, first in 1980 and again 1995; to cite but a few examples.

For me, this year’s appearance of Sharon Pollock’s ground-breaking play, “The Komagata Maru Incident” (1976) on a stage in Stratford, Ontario, as part of Canada’s top cultural fest and a world-renowned Shakespeare venue - constitutes a real and giant step towards Canada coming of age.

It is the first time in more than a century since the dark chapter in our history was enacted in real life, that a full public airing has happened on a forum which ultimately acknowledges it, by the mere inclusion of it in the season’s play-list, as an important step towards truly understanding who we are and where we come from. Though most Canadians remain in wanton, blissful ignorance of  the nation’s sordid past, this is without doubt a significant move forward.      

There have been several attempts in the recent past to put the tragedy in the limelight.

For example, in the mid-70s, a fiercely patriotic Canadian, historian Pierre Berton, did the first exposé here (the ‘incident’ is well known in Punjab and amongst British Raj history buffs) in Britain’s colonial backwater by presenting it as a segment on a history series on CBC television.

It raised eyebrows. It didn’t take long for Sharon Pollock, who had already made a mark as an award-winning playwright by examining some of Canada’s buried stories, to be alerted to it and thereby brought the saga to the Canadian stage.

Ali Kazimi’s ‘Continuous Journey’ (2004), a landmark documentary by an award-winning Canadian filmmaker, did yeoman service by helping put the story on the high school radar.

But it is the debut in Stratford this summer of Pollock’s masterful re-telling of the story, and Keira Loughran’s interpretation of it, that has finally broken the glass and introduced it into the wider national consciousness, challenging our Canadian predilection to sweep our shameful past under the rug.        

The Komagata Maru Incident
(“KGM“) describes the arrival of a ship-load of 376 potential immigrants in the Vancouver Harbour on May 23, 1914 - (all British subjects by dint of the Punjab and the South Asian subcontinent being part of the Empire: 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, 12 Hindus) -- and the ensuing attempts, all illegal and morally repulsive, by the Canadian government to refuse them entry.

They are held at bay, refused disembarkation, and denied any supply of water, food, medicine and other essential supplies.

The instrument of the successive illegal moves by a government which declares itself a ’white man’s country’ is a Canadian immigration officer, William Hopkinson, who is privately also a spy for the British government.

Hopkinson bears the burden not only of an absolute lack of moral compunction, but is also totally beholden to his local superiors who want him to resort to any mischief necessary to keep the immigrants out. As well, his British masters in Delhi fear Canada‘s amateur bigotry may jeopardize larger Empire interests and require him to give precedence to their bidding.

Hopkinson also has a skeleton in his closet. He has hidden the fact that his mother is ’brown’, that is, a native back on the subcontinent - a fact he feels may hold him back in his career. To show his impeccable qualifications for carrying out his masters’ orders blindly, he outdoes himself in his dishonesty, viciousness and brutality against the ship’s passengers with whom he shares part of his ancestry.

The play is crafted masterfully by Pollock, capturing the sheer horror of Canada’s shenanigans, while sticking closely to the facts and often using the actual words of the key real-life players. Though a relatively short play with bare-bone sets and effects, it deftly unravels the intricate schemes of the conspirators and keeps us on the edge of our seats until its sudden and climactic conclusion.

Of the six roles depicted on stage, only one -  Hopkinson (played with finesse by Omar Alex Khan) - is directly identifiable as a historical figure. Therein lies Pollock’s challenge, and she meets it with aplomb.

First, she takes the unusual step of placing the entire action on stage in a brothel. In a brothel, you ask? Why not on the ship? Or on shore where the boorish ‘this-is-a-white-man’s-country’ mobs, incensed by their own high courts which have ruled that the Sikhs have every right to be allowed ashore, are foaming at the mouth? Or why not in a Vancouver gurdwara?

Pollock explains that it was to show that the ideas being spewed by the racist politicians and their rabid supporters lacked all semblance to basic human decency and therefore belonged only in the darkness of a brothel. This is not to be taken as a judgement on the sex-trade workers, but instead on the shady characters who exploit them.  

Evy, one of the prostitutes, at one point screams a damning indictment against Hopkinson and all those he represents:

I’m a whore and what you do is offensive to me! What you do would gag me! I’m a whore and when I look at your job, I could vomit!

The second device used by Pollock to create the desired effect through the unravelling of the story, is the absence on stage of any of the turbaned Sikhs who stare endlessly towards shore, awaiting relief, justice and fair-play. That is, the whole incident unfolds from a perspective other than that of the Sikhs.

I find this makes the play all the more powerful. Any telling of a historical wrong, no matter how horrendous, often tends to weaken when told by the victims. Pollock’s mastery is in revealing the wrongs through the very words and actions of the perpetrators themselves: Hopkinson and those who pull his strings.   

The plot is carried on the shoulders of a Greek-chorus-like character, simply referred to in the script of the play as “T.S. (The Master of Ceremonies, who plays many roles)“. Brilliantly played by Quelemia Sparrow, he is transformed by her into a female constituting a jester, shaman, joker (a la Batman), harlequin, puppeteer, all rolled into one.

Furthermore, she transforms at a moment’s notice from a huckster to a magician, then a member of parliament spewing racist inanities, then a secretive senior government official to whom Hopkinson reports, from a town-crier to a spokesman for the Department of Immigration, from historian to a Trumpian mischief-maker …

Sparrow carries the multiple roles well, switching back and forth from one to the other, with seamless ease, conveying the ironical and the sinister, the racist rant and the bureaucratic obfuscation, a stage-manager’s directions and a newspaper hawker’s headlines, all with equal dexterity.

What makes this particular interpretation of the play most memorable for me is Kiran Ahluwalia’s ’A Woman’, an anonymous Sikh woman standing on the foredeck of the Komagata Maru.

[Records indicate that there were two women and a child aboard the ship.]

She is mostly shown in the shadows, comforting an increasingly emaciated child, and occasionally speaking out in the direction of the scene on the shore. Her words convey the mood on the ship, the reaction of the passengers to each of Hopkinson’s criminal manouvers (siege, and then use of force, actual or threatened, by police, military and the navy, and the total denial of water, food, etc), and the defiance of the ship’s passengers in the face of a show of naval force (“half of Canada’s navy!”).

What makes Ahluwalia’s role particularly poignant as the Woman is her occasional break into song -- words of affirmation and nostalgia, hope and longing, couched in exquisite ragas from the Punjabi/Sikh musical tradition. As only song and poetry are wont to do, they add a haunting new dimension, an atmosphere of impending tragedy and a deep sense of grave injustice.

[The ship is ultimately forced to return, after more than two months in Vancouver Harbour. Upon arrival in the Port of Budge Budge near Calcutta, dozens of the passengers are shot dead by British troops in a desperate attempt to whisk them away into prison or forced exile so that word would not spread across the land about their mistreatment as British subjects.]

While this innovation by Keira Loughran - the introduction of the haunting Punjabi ragas - enhances the story-telling, some of other changes to the original miss the mark.

The two prostitutes in Loughran’s rendition -- (Evy, played by Diana Tso, and Sophie played Jasmine Chen) -- are emphatically shown as Chinese. Pollock’s original however envisages them clearly as white women; all one has to do is read the dialogue (e.g., the story of the march through the Prairies) to see how the change clashes with the words spoken by the characters.

Moreover, the switch weakens the story in Loughran’s retelling. The two white prostitutes and their utter disgust at the machinations of Hopkinson and his masters shows us that the racism and bigotry was not a given or a normal behaviour amongst the entire Canadian population. The riff raff on the roads or the corrupt and narrow-minded politicians did not reflect what decent, practising Christians of the day, for example, thought about the whole affair. One doesn’t need to go far … the lawyer hired on behalf of the Sikhs, Edward Bird, was very clear in his contempt for the bigots, the prime minister, the politicians, the bureaucrats, all the way down to the street hooligans. He typically received death threats as a result and for a while had to flee the province.

Pollock conveys to us that even plebians like Evy and Sophie, themselves ‘white’, could see that there was something terribly wrong in the way the ship’s passengers were being received or depicted.
I also found T.S.’s appearance on the stage as a First Nations shaman was an unnecessary distraction. Pollock’s telling of the story makes it truly universal -- I’ve had leaders of the Italian and Japanese communities in Canada, for example, come to me (please see the note below), asking me to take Sharon Pollock’s play, in its pristine originality, across the country, unchanged and at their expense.

Adding the First Nations element actually takes away from that universality. If Loughran is trying to point out that the First Nations too have been wronged, or that the proprietary claims by those who call themselves 'white' are ill-founded given their usurpation from the First Nations, the idea doesn't come across clearly and only causes a confusing distraction.

No doubt, the First Nations of this land have suffered grievous wrongs, many far more tragic than that of the Sikhs, and they continue even today. But the brief introduction of the shaman at the beginning, and again near the end of the play in Loughran’s retelling does not do anything for the First Nations, while leaving the audience quite perplexed.

Otherwise, Quelemia Sparrow is superb, though I do think that retaining T.S.'s masclunity (and 'whiteness') is essential to understanding what went so terribly wrong in the behaviour of those in power.

There is no reason why Sparrow could not have played it as a male role, given her ever-switching persona. Only a white male can stand in the role of all that was done by the government and its supporters -- after all, all the perpetrators were white and male. To have only one white member of the cast left standing (Georg, who is not even Canadian, therefore cannot take responsibility) from the original dramatis personae lets the Trumpians who saw themselves as primarily 'white-Canada-males' and therefore somehow mysteriously 'wronged', completely off the hook!

The introduction of the shadow imagery/puppetry and the legend of the crow (through song, and then through translation) puzzled me, as it did all of the members of the audience that I spoke to about it. They were valiant attempts to present the full import of the tragedy, but all they did was leave new, unanswered questions in our minds.

Despite the last few nitpickings on my part, I recommend Keira Loughran’s KMG at Stratford unequivocally ... to all Canadians [Remember, it runs only until September 24, 2017!] It will shake you up. It'll move you to tears. And it'll  immensely add to your understanding of what it means to be a Canadian.

And, an added bonus: it’ll show Mr Trump’s theatricals south of the border in a totally new light.     

*   *   *   *   *

As I got up from my seat at the conclusion of the performance I attended in Stratford last week, I heard a long-drawn sigh right behind me, immediately followed by the words, “I’m exhausted!”

I turned around and saw an elderly gentleman talking to his spouse (I guess). I politely asked him why he felt so.

“Emotionally!” he said, and then went silent, indicating he was overwhelmed.

His companion touched my shoulder and leaned towards me. She had tears in her eyes. “It’s so sad!” she whispered, and gestured that she couldn’t say more, shaking her head several times.

Not long thereafter, another elderly male stopped me -- I suppose because I’m easily identifiable as a Sikh by my turban and beard -- and claimed direct descent from one of the key players of the historical event. [The audience that day consisted of more than 95% ‘white’ theatre goers.]

He then said: “You know, it’s all wrong, you know!”

Puzzled, I asked him to elaborate.

“They weren’t Sikhs at all. Or, at most, a few. Maybe a dozen. The story is all wrong!”

I walked away, not keen on having a mindless argument. Bristling at the exposé of historical lies and whitewash, and by the creeping loss of unearned, un-merited and undeserved privilege felt by some today, I know that there are still many who like to play the Trump card when confronted by uncomfortable truths; they think by denying facts, they are able to muddy the waters and thus trump the truth.

There’s more to it.

Contemporaneous records and newspaper reports from the period erroneously refer to the ship’s passengers as “Hindoos”, even though 340 were Sikhs, only 12 Hindus.

The misnomer in the press and the government’s pronouncements was intentionally mischievous. Nobody knew better than the leaders across the British Empire, especially in Canada, that Sikhs were Sikhs and Hindus were Hindus, and the twain did not meet. [Mind you, a slur using any racial epithet is unacceptable. But so is an intentional misnomer, just as it would be insulting to refer to Christians as Jews!]

A letter from John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada -- sent in 1867, not long after the birth of modern Canada -- addressed to Sir Henry Sumner Maine, member of England’s Council of India, reads:

War will come someday between England and the United States and India can do us yeoman's service by sending an army of Sikhs … across the Pacific to San Francisco and holding that beautiful and immortal city with the surrounding California — as security for Montreal and Canada."

Please note: he didn’t seek the help of ‘Hindoos’. He sought the help of Sikhs! There was no confusion.

Also, the panic over Canada’s overt bigotry in the English halls of power in the British Raj was over the fact that it was 1914 and war had just erupted in Europe. The Brits desperately needed the by-now famous Sikh troops to man their numerous regiments to help them in Europe. Once again it is worthy of note that they were anxious to recruit Sikh soldiers unabashedly, not ‘Hindoos’.

Pollock's and Loughran's The Komagata Maru Incident extraordinarily, in no more than an hour and a half, lays bare all these facts.

To sum it all up, the Woman tells us of Mewa Singh’s final words, after he is ordered to hang for having doled out final justice to William Hopkinson:

I am a gentle person, but gentle people must act when injustice engulfs them. Let God judge my actions for he sees the right and the wrong. I offer my neck to the rope as a child opens his arms to his mother.”

The supreme sacrifice of Mewa Singh as a Canadian martyr is now honoured annually in British Columbia in particular, but also across Canada - as it has been ever since 1915. 


*   *   *   *   *

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I was the Producer of Sharon Pollock’s ‘The Komagata Maru Incident’ for its staging several times in the 1980’s - including Toronto, April 1 - 5, 1987; London, April 22-25, 1987. It was directed by Brian Longstaff, and subsequently by Sonia Kaur Dhillon.

You can buy your tickets for ‘The Komagata Maru Incident’ by CLICKING here. They’re going like hot cakes.
September 5, 2017

Conversation about this article

1: Harold Carr (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada), September 06, 2017, 11:21 AM.

The 'white-man's-country' stalwarts were mentally unbalanced and often certifiable lunatics. Mackenzie King, a 'whites only' luminary from the period, for example, discloses in his personal diaries that he received daily guidance from his dead mother. How did he communicate with her, if she was dead? Through his dog, King explains further in his extensive diaries. Then there was our first prime minister, John A Macdonald. It is no secret that he was drunk through his waking hours and carried out his public duties through a permanent alcoholic fog. There you go -- what can one expect from a bunch of nuts but stupid ideas! P.S. I saw the play in Stratford the other day. Thought it was excellently done.

2: Pritam Singh (Buffalo, New York, USA), September 06, 2017, 3:59 PM.

The play was well done. Glad I went to see it. Hope many will get to see it.

3: inderpreet Singh (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), September 06, 2017, 5:34 PM.

Indeed, this play should be staged across Canada and, if possible, also south of the border. Can't the Stratford Festival set up a touring group and send it off for a multi-year tour? It's bound to be a financial success and at the same time will do an enormous service to Canada and Canadians.

4: Arjan Singh (USA), September 07, 2017, 2:10 AM.

Excellent write-up to a play that must be staged around the world. I am an avid reader of Shakespeare. The fact that it was staged at Stratford Festival speaks volumes. Komagata Maru is not just the story of the Sikhs; and their struggle but it is about basic human rights for all. This caught my eye: "Contemporaneous records and newspaper reports from the period erroneously refer to the ship’s passengers as “Hindoos”". The Sikh community must document their history through a concerted effort and correct the historical records to ensure that the future generations do not get confused with the written records. The fact that they were looking for 'Sikh' troops specifically and not 'Hindoos' speaks volumes to the level of integrity and decency of the Sikh community of that time. The question is: Are we doing enough today to maintain that level of commitment and integrity? Lastly, we are in debt to the editorship of this online portal for publishing such illuminating articles. We must do fund-raising to support this online portal.

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Stratford’s “The Komagata Maru Incident” Recreates A Dark Chapter From Canada’s Past"

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