Punjabi Women’s Stories Unveiled


Kuli Kohli gives an account of the Punjabi Women’s Writing Group event in Wolverhampton last April with an account of her remembrance of The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar massacre, which took place 100 years ago on 13 April 1919.

group portrait photo of four Punjabi women

Santosh K Dary, Nirmal Orjally Parveen Brigue and Komlaish Achall (Artist & Photographer of the PWWG).

It’s been a year since the Punjabi Women’s Writing Group was set up. The year has flown by. I have put a lot of hard work and effort in keeping the Punjabi Women’s Writing group going and trying to encourage more Punjabi women to join the group. It’s been a struggle but very rewarding. From bitty and scrambled thoughts in gossip and talk, we have managed to turn unpunctuated rambles of writings into some promising works of art and poetry.

The Punjabi, Hindi or Urdu language doesn’t have any punctuation apart from full stops, however, the meaning is clear. Some of the ladies have started to attend a creative writing course run by the Workers’ Educational Association to help them improve their attempts at writing.

We have had a lot of support from Offa’s Press in being given opportunities to share stories and poetry at events at Wolverhampton Central Library and WOLF, the Wolverhampton Original Literature Festival. Our performances have received great approval from different types of people.

Nirmal Vaisakhi

The audience were amazed and engaged. They thoroughly enjoyed watching and hearing the voices of these sparkling women who have never told their stories before in public and especially to multi-cultural audiences. We received positive feedback from many people who came to watch us.

We’ve had free sessions/ workshops from the Offa’s Press poets to help the group along including, recently, a session lead by David Bingham teaching us how to write haiku! You can imagine some of the Punjabi women’s reactions. What is haiku? Is it some kind of food, an animal or some distant land?

A couple of the ladies have been given the opportunity to perform poetry at ‘City Voices’ – a local poetry gig. This has given them confidence and encouragement in knowing that their stories and poetry has an audience.

More and more interest is being generated, but keeping the group running is a struggle. Many of the women who would like to attend the writing group have young children and live in extended families; some women have to work around their family affairs and steal time to meet. And some cannot attend the meeting at all because of employment and other commitments; some send me emails and come to visit me at home whenever I can fit them in.

It’s very rewarding to give these women a chance to find their own voices, especially when I know how hard it was for me to be taken seriously and how I struggled to find my voice. Finding like-minded people was a challenge but I am fortunate to have found help, guidance and one-to-one mentoring. I want to pass on my learning and knowledge to others.

For the community as a whole, the Punjabi Women’s Writing Group has opened peoples’ eyes. These women who, once, could only sit with their own cultural groups and family members, talking and enjoying the gossip, have now realised that their striking stories are unknown to other British audiences. Their stories can be captured and turned into heart-warming poems and tales. Some of the stories that came from the members of the group were like any other, i.e. moments of joy, sadness, triumph, fun, tears and hurt.

The difference is that these stories seize the moments when these Punjabi women straddle two or three different cultures simultaneously in Britain. The stories that are emerging are an array of unique experiences in Punjabi Women’s lives. A mixture of loon masala (salt & spice), these women write their reflections upon blank sheets of paper, uncovering their veils.

The next Punjabi Women’s Writing Group featuring Kuli Kohli takes place at Central Library Wolverhampton on 24 July 2019 and again in Telford on Sunday 22 September. For further information please visit www.kulikohli.co.uk

Arrival in England, June 1965
by Parveen Brigue
My first steps on England’s soil… Walking down the steps of the plane, I saw the sun shining cheerfully. This magical island was so bright and fresh. Not a spot of dust and noise. “Wow!” I said, “This is swarag (heaven)! We are in swarag and what lies ahead of us?”

Coming from India where everything was dusty, crowded and very noisy and just the few steps coming down from the plane give me a strange feeling and questions start to conjure in my head about food, people and my family.

I had never felt this way before. There was a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach and I was going cold at the thought of leaving my bhuas (aunts – my Papaji sisters) behind in India who I was very close to…

…Papaji was so happy to have his family join him after two years of separation. We knew there were many journeys ahead of us all – in settling down in this magical island. This was heaven on earth.

Nirmal Orjally expresses what it means to her as a PWWG member. The value of the group is for us women to speak from the inner-self and tell our stories in writing. She chooses topics that are a common concern in Punjabi community such as excessive drinking and neglect. She performed at City Voices on the topic of alcoholism from the perspective of a child, wife and mother. She was surprised when members of the audience came to speak about her poems afterwards. They said that her poems were an eye opener, taking them back to their own childhoods.

He loves me… He loves me not…
by Nirmal Orjally

Like clouds at play in azure space,
she too plays on the daisy carpet
of the school field.

Her game…
“he loves me…
he loves me not…”
She reveals picking one last petal…
her true love.

As time wears on,
sitting in her garden –
an empty vase; long nights
compare, despair
as her thoughts run wild.

She picks a single rose,
and plucks the petals, one by one
whispering… a fresh twist…

Does he love me?
Or …
does he love… his bottle?

Words Unsaid
by Santosh K Dary

There is a storm of tangled phrases
brewing in my head.
Years of words stuck in my throat,
the words I should have said.
No courage to speak, I’m helpless
no protest I make.
My smiles collude, I nod to please,
opt for peace, for everyone’s sake.

Plagued thoughts enter my mind
roars like a beast,
like a tsunami waiting to unleash,
dark and gloomy, hungry to feast.
Yet the words remain locked in my throat,
threatening to explode.
Repressed, simmering emotions
trapped and will not erode.

If I could say, would it change my life?
I stop and ask ‘log kiya kehenge?’
Then my courage fails me,
I cannot find my voice, senses tell me ‘rehande’.

Saddened, deflated – my tears unshed,
accepting some words are better left, unsaid.

Punjabi words:
Log kiya kehenge: What will people say?
Rehande: Leave it

After a year of working with Punjabi women of different backgrounds and different ages, I’ve realised several of the women have gone through phases of trauma and depression which affects them a great deal. They continue to hold on to these incidents that cause illnesses such as depression and anxiety and other such mental health disabling effects. Some of these women have lived in a society where men have had the overall control within the family. Suppression and depression are linked, especially when we live in a society where the main focus is to please others and forget about your own dreams and desires. As Punjabi women our main outward thought is: “What will other people say about us if we don’t do as we are expected to do?”

For the latest PWWG performance for Vaisakhi on 12 April 2019, we concentrated on the Punjab and the Vaisakhi celebration. This is the harvest festival, New Year and religious celebration for the birth of the Sikh faith. We realised that it was the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar massacre, which took place on 13 April 1919 when troops of the British Indian Army under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer fired rifles into a crowd of unarmed Indians. They had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, to celebrate Vaisakhi. It was a terrible event and the British government has still not apologised.

I wrote a poem and read it out at the event. It caused some emotional distress within the audience and it was difficult to read in public. I soon realised that reading something on the topic of a historic massacre stirred some shock and horror amongst the audience. Although a hundred years have passed and my poem was a reminder of what happened on Vaisakhi 1919.  Even though I didn’t know anyone who had relatives killed at that time, it still shocked me when I recited the words “Fire! Fire! Fire!” I felt like I was there in the chaos and shock.

When I looked up at my audience it was clear that they too were reliving that moment. I had to stop reading at that moment and calm myself before I carried on. Perhaps someone in the audience did have relatives or friends killed, perhaps it was a reminder to some or perhaps new knowledge to some… I saw some of the audience struggling, with tears in their eyes as they were reliving a moment of terror and intense fear.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar massacre, took place on 13 April 1919 when troops of the British Indian Army under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer fired rifles into a crowd of unarmed Indians, who had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, a beautiful garden/ park in Amritsar, Punjab to celebrate Vaisakhi.

Vaisakhi Mela
by Kuli Kohli

Jallianwala Bagh 13 April 1919

Golden wheat in sweat and blood,
a storage of roti for the year ahead.
A holiday, a break for all farmers
to enjoy a harvest celebration.

We Indians: Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs
lived together in harmonious villages,
loved our neighbours as human beings,
bound in religions, faiths and cultures.

We were made inferior in our Mother India,
as Angrej Sahibs robbed us of humanity.
The British Raj reigned without hearts,
abused in our own sacred land, our homes.

A Vaisakhi mela? A political discussion?
Hundreds of unarmed demonstrators?
Crowds of holidaymakers in Jallianwala Bagh?
No righteousness, freedom, respect nor justice.

The Brits refused to care. Put fear upon fear.
The obedient troops loaded their rifles to kill.
General Dyer ordered: “Fire!! Fire!! Fire!!”
until the chaos, screams shuddered into silence…

One hundred years later the families, generations
in dried-out rivers of blood, search for an apology.

Mela – Funfair
Roti – Chapatti (or a meal)
Angrej Sahibs – British white gentlemen