When Gurdeep Pandher wants to travel home, he picks up a book about everyday life in rural Punjab. For Pandher, books are a way to recall and learn more about the places he calls home.
Having moved from his ancestral village Siahar in his native land Punjab to Canada, Pandher is a bhangra dancer, artist and educator who currently lives in an off-grid cabin in Yukon. He is known for creating joyful videos of him dancing in unusual locations, such as in nature, in the winter cold and on the CN Tower.
His videos have been seen by millions of people around the world and he has toured Canada, dancing bhangra with minor hockey teams, performing to traditional Indigenous drumming, creating bhangra-Celtic dance fusion and teaching the dance to members of the Canadian Forces.
Pandher will champion Hotline by Dimitri Nasrallah on Canada Reads 2023.
In the lead-up to the great Canadian book debate, Pandher sat down with CBC Books to discuss five books that provide insight into life and history in India and Canada.
Tootan Wala Khoo by Sohan Singh Seetal
“Starting from my early days back in Punjab, I have read [many] books in Punjabi. The first book that came to mind is the novel,Tootan Wala Khoo by Sohan Singh Seetal. It’s a beautiful novel.
I was born into a farming family, so the book depicts village life beautifully — farming life, what people do and hardships they go through.– Gurdeep Pandher
“This book basically explores rural life in Punjab about 100 years ago before Partition in India. I love the book because I’m from a village. I was born into a farming family, so the book depicts village life beautifully — farming life, what people do and hardships they go through. What happened in the book was similar to things that were happening around me at that time in the village. It was the first novel I ever read.”
“The second book that comes to my mind is The God of Small Things. It’s in English. This book won the Booker Prize in 1997.
“This book deals with different social laws and they can be strict. And there’s the caste system. The caste system is people divided into different groups: upper caste, middle class, lower caste. Life for people from the lower caste is very hard.
“In this book, it’s the story of twins and their life is stuck. They want to follow some passions, some journeys, but because of those taboos — those social laws — they are not able to do anything and they are stuck in the society. The social laws are still there in 2023, although this book was written about 20 years ago.
It resonated with me how painful the social laws can be in your personal growth, in your life journey. I had some personal experiences, too.This book has been very vocal about those social constraints and how they can impact someone’s growth.– Gurdeep Pandher
“I read the book in my later years when I started knowing a little bit more about the English language. It’s a beautiful story. The God of Small Things is set in Kerala. Kerala is close to the ocean. I’m from Punjab which is in the north.
“It resonated with me how painful the social laws can be in your personal growth, in your life journey. I had some personal experiences, too.
“This book has been very vocal about those social constraints and how they can impact someone’s growth.
“We need our society to grow. We need to accept, embrace. We need to create an equal society for everyone. These were the biggest takeaways.”
Mera Pind by Giani Gurdit Singh
“If I translate Mera Pind into English, it means ‘My Village.’ It’s a beautiful book written about rural life in Punjab.
“When I was growing up in Punjab, that’s the world I was watching around me. There was no big media. [The book describes] what I was seeing 24/7: what people were doing around me, their culture, their rituals, their folklore, their songs, how people get married, how people get engaged — how people live from the birth until the death, in lifespan.
I have that book in the Yukon Territory if I need to travel mentally over there. I start reading this book and it brings me back.– Gurdeep Pandher
“There are so many cultural customs over there, in villages especially, and this book describes beautifully, very positively actually, about those customs.
“This book connects me with the culture, with the land where I come from. Even now, I have that book in the Yukon Territory if I need to travel mentally over there. I start reading this book and it brings me back.
“Every culture should have a Meri Pind so that it can give insights into their culture, their lifestyle and their way of life.”
“I read this book just two years ago in the Yukon. I learned a lot because this book is a story about residential schools in Canada.
“There’s a family. The children were taken to residential schools. Through those hardships, the boy somehow finds his passion in hockey by secretly playing in the ice rink of that school.
“He plays really well and then the coach of the team watches him and he gives him a chance to play with other people on the team and he does really [well], which encourages the coach to take him to different places and hockey competitions.
I like this book because I learned a lot about residential schools and Indigenous cultures in Canada. Being an immigrant, it was important for me to know.– Gurdeep Pandher
“He finds his fame in that way and then eventually he becomes part of a national hockey team. But that trauma stays with him. He even comes to Toronto to play and the trauma from residential school — the pain, the suffering — continues haunting him all the time and he leaves everything behind to go back to his community.
“I like this book because I learned a lot about residential schools and Indigenous cultures in Canada. Being an immigrant, it was important for me to know.
“Even if someone finds a better life, those past experiences continue to haunt you and bring you down. That was very eye-opening. It’s important to recognize that time, all those children who were taken away, those who died and the children who survived, remembering them, honouring them, recognizing them, respecting them.
Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh
“This book is back to where I’m from, but this book is in English.
“The whole region was under British colonialism for a long time then one day, they finally decided to give freedom to the region, but before that they decided to split the country into Pakistan and India. My ancestral native land Punjab got divided into two parts. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of people had to leave their traditional homes to move to the other side of the border. There was no Pakistan before. It happened at the same time the region got independence. Partition happened on the basis of religion.
This book is a historical novel and it portrays a picture of that time very beautifully, although the picture is sad. Wherever you come from, it’s important to learn about the past historical events of that region.– Gurdeep Pandher
“People from one religion had to go to Pakistan and people from other religions had to come to India’s side. In this movement or migration, there were rumours. At that time, there was no media there; people were relying on other people talking and sometimes news was not accurate. Because of those rumours, a lot of misunderstanding happened between different faith groups, which led to hate, violence and they happened to the extent that one million people lost their lives in 1947.
“This story is set during that time. There’s a village on the border of India and Pakistan and the people who have been living with peace and love for thousands of years are suddenly enemies because of the rumours and mistrust, and fighting starts.
“Everybody from that region knows about these incidents because this is part of our history. Reading the book was also learning about the history of that region.
“People lost their relatives, their communities, their friends, who they had been living with together in peace.
“This book is a historical novel and it portrays a picture of that time very beautifully, although the picture is sad. Wherever you come from, it’s important to learn about the past historical events of that region.”
LISTEN | Khushwant Singh speaks to Eleanor Wachtel for Writers & Company:
Writers and Company52:45Novelist Khushwant Singh interview (1998 Encore)
Pandher’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.