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Remembering Komagata Maru: A Passage To Canada

Remembering Komagata Maru: A Passage To Canada

A short story by Gary Thandi


It was early morning in late February, 1985, when the plane finally set down. It had been over 25 years since that visit, but now that I was back, it felt like it was just yesterday. I remember the big sign as we got off the plane that said, “Welcome to India,” but I had no interest in feeling welcomed. I wanted to be half a world away, back in Vancouver, my comfort zone.

I looked over at the grumpy ten-year old sitting on the patio chair beside me, and, although she couldn’t fathom it, I knew exactly how she felt – like me so many years ago, she wanted to be anywhere but here. And I hoped that she would soon change her mind, just like I had. “This is it, Jassi, the place your great-grandfather and I used to sit and talk.”

She just nodded her head, ever so slightly – she was clearly underwhelmed by that fact.

komagata 3I had been meaning to come back for years, but unfortunately got caught up in life – I figured I’d wait until I graduated high school, but then college started … so I thought I’d wait until college ended … but then I got married … I thought I’d go sometime after I got married … then the kids came along … I’m sorry grandfather, for taking so long.

I remember the 10-year old me pouting all the way to the customs booth. I also remember mom turning to dad as we waited, saying, “Oh, Balwant, the airport is just the way I remember it.” Then, after looking around, she added quietly (doing her best to keep it from her kids, but I still managed to hear it), “Except there’s much more security than there used to be.”

I had been too preoccupied with the heat and my deep self-pity to notice all the armed guards scattered throughout the airport. I suppose I would have been just as nervous as my parents if I known what it meant to be a Sikh in India at the time. Tensions were high in 1985, but none of that mattered – once grandfather called, the family had to drop everything and get on the first plane out. I couldn’t understand why at the time; I hadn’t never even met him prior to then. Sure, he was the one that named me, but that didn’t mean anything to me. In fact, I probably held that against him.
That’s because he had named me Hassan. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how my Sikh grandfather had given me a Muslim name. Not only was it the wrong religion, but it was hard to pronounce to boot. Substitute teachers called me “Hay-sin” and “Hay-san” and one even called me Jose – I’d wait for them to go do down the classroom roll call, and just when they’d come to my name, I’d say preemptively, “Call me Harry.” My little brother got off a little easier – “Sohan” was much easier to say.

When we arrived at the village, we were greeted by my dad’s older brother, Gurdit, and his whole family. And after many hugs and kisses, it was time to meet this man who had such great influence over my family. I slowly walked up to this frail looking old man sitting quietly in chair and said, in the most respectful tone I could muster, “Sat Sri Akal.”

Grandfather reached his hand out to mine, and I took a seat beside him – on the very same spot my daughter was now sitting. “Tell me, young Hassan, are you tired after your long flight?” he asked.

“Um, yes,” I replied.

Luckily, I was able to head straight up to the guest room and go to bed. But in the morning, Grandfather was there again, waiting for me.

“Hello Hassan,” he said. “Please have a seat.” I walked over and sat down beside him. “So how are you this morning?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” I replied. “But it’s so hot.”

He laughed. “You must be used to the Canadian weather.”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“So Hassan, what’s it like?” grandfather asked.

“What is what like?” I asked.

Komagata Maru 8“Vancouver,” he replied. “It has been seventy years, but I still remember looking out and seeing those beautiful snow-capped mountains off in the distance. It seemed so close, and I wanted nothing more than to set foot on them.”

“You were in Vancouver?” I asked.

“Baba Gurdit Singh had organized the sailing,” he said. “Until my last breath I will remember the smell of that coal. The ship reeked of it. There were nearly 400 of us on that ship – they were all like my family.” His tone then turned somber. “But the people didn’t want us there, and they were ready to shoot anyone who tried to set foot on the land. I was just a child and was very afraid, but thankfully there were many people around me that were not afraid – people like Gurdit, Balwant, Sohan and Hassan.”

My ears shot up when I heard those names. And it wasn’t just the last name that rang a bell – Balwant was my dad’s name, Gurdit was his older brother, my uncle’s name, and Sohan was my little brother’s name. All of those names had been chosen by my grandfather. “Hassan?” I asked.

“Yes. I named you after him. And God rest his soul, he would be very proud, knowing you are carrying on his name.”

Grandfather proceeded to talk about these men, as well as the others that were on the ship or helping out from the shore.

Now, all these years later, I did my best to explain all this to Jassi, knowing there was no way I’d come close to Grandfather’s account of what had happened back then. At least I had the benefit of books, videos and the internet to rely on for information about that ship to at least do it some justice.

“Why did the people act like that?” both Jassi and I, 25 years earlier, asked.

“Basically they were afraid of anyone different than them,” both Grandfather and I replied.

I tried asking more questions about his time aboard the ship, but he was more interested in hearing me talk about Canada. That was the highlight of my three weeks. My grandfather spent time with my dad, mom and little brother too, but the porch conversations were ours and ours alone.

“Babaji,” I asked, “Why haven’t you ever come to visit?”

“Your grandmother, God rest her soul, would say ‘Jaspreet, why don’t you just go and visit Canada?’ But I couldn’t. Back when I was your age, Canada gave me the greatest dream I have ever dreamed, but it shattered those dreams just when I thought they were about to come true. I couldn’t go back after that.” But he refused to dwell upon those stories, and would always shift the conversation back to me and my home. “Now, tell me more about Canada.”

I sometimes wonder if Grandfather had summoned the family to India just so he could talk to me: a ten-year old kid telling an eighty-year old man about a place the latter had seen back when he was a ten-year old kid. I don’t know if that would make sense to anyone else, but it made perfect sense to me. And as I explained to Jassi, it seemed to make sense to her.

“So was he happy hearing you describe Canada to him?” Jassi asked.

“Yes, but I decided that it wasn’t good enough to describe it,” I explained. “I wanted him to see that Canada was no longer the way he remembered it. So I asked him to come back with us.”

“What did he say?”

I looked at my daughter and wondered if I hung onto grandfather’s every word just like she was hanging onto mine.  “He couldn’t say ‘no’ to his grandson,” I replied.

After the airplane landed, we got off and picked up our bags – this time there was a “Welcome to Canada” sign to greet him instead of an angry mob. The first thing he said when he stepped outside was “It’s so cold.”

I laughed. “You must be used to the Indian weather.”

Komagata Maru 7Grandfather’s health continued to deteriorate during the time he was with us, and he eventually requested to go home. He died a few months after returning to India. Although I wanted to go to the funeral, only dad went – tensions had become much too high there to risk all of us going.

“He was a great man,” Jassi said.

I leaned over and gave Jassi a big hug. “God rest Grandfather’s soul, he would be very proud, knowing you are carrying on his name.”

Grandfather’s final request was that his ashes be spread out over the most important places he had been to in his life. Some had been spread out in places in India that he had visited as a young man, and of course, some had been spread out in the village – and one place in particular – around the porch where Jassi and I were sitting – and where Grandfather had spent so much of his days.

“Here,” my Uncle Gurdit said, handing me an urn. “Your grandfather gave us clear directions that only you could pick these up.”

komagata 5“But,” I said, my voice trembling slightly. I didn’t know that some of Grandfather’s ashes had yet to be spread. “If I had known, I would have come earlier.”

Uncle Gurdit laughed. “You were supposed to come at this moment, no sooner no later. Your grandfather told us you would only come when the time was right.”

I suppose he was right – I had come at the right time. I looked over at my ten-year old child, and smiled. I knew exactly what I was supposed to do with the urn. Grandfather was coming back to Canada, one last time.

Important dates in Canadian history:

•    April 4th, 1914: the Komagata Maru departs from Hong Kong.
•    May 23, 1914: the Komagata Maru anchored in Burrard Inlet.
•    July 23, 1914: the ship is forced from the Harbour, with few passengers allowed to remain in Canada.
•    September 26, 1914: A British gunship stopped the  Komagata Maru as it approached Calcutta. Passengers were taken prisoner and told they would be sent by train to the Punjab. However, many of the passengers had other matters to tend to in Calcutta, and wanted to go there. The British refused, and a violent clash that took the lives of 20 passengers ensued.


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