Vancouver Sun

Vancouver philanthro­pist offers first internatio­nal prize for Punjabi literature

- GERRY BELLETT VANCOUVER SUN gbellett@vancouvers­un.com

Vancouver businessma­n and philanthro­pist Barj Dhahan says his concerns about the dwindling use of Punjabi spurred him to offer the world’s first literature prize for Punjabi fiction.

The Dhahan Prize, worth $ 25,000, with two secondplac­e $ 5,000 prizes, will be presented Oct. 25 at a gala reception in the UBC Museum of Anthropolo­gy.

“This is a global prize based in Canada. I believe it is the only prize of monetary value for Asian or southeast Asian language writers,” Dhahan said.

Punjabi, one the world’s major languages, is on the list of those at risk of becoming extinct, said Dhahan, whose charitable foundation has been responsibl­e for improving education and health care in the Punjab region of India.

“When I go to there I find that people who spoke Punjabi are now speaking English and Hindi. English is having a big impact,” he said.

“In Canada, kids raised in Punjabi homes might have verbal skills in Punjabi but a lot of them are not able to read or write, which is a pity,” he said. “The Punjabi language has a rich cultural history and tradition spanning 1,000 years.

“Great literature is always about defining human experience. My mother is 88 and she never had the opportunit­y to go to school. But I’ve been fascinated by the stories she has told me about her growing up and the idiom she uses and the language are set in a rural landscape. If those stories aren’t captured, her voice disappears,” he said. Dhahan doesn’t want to see the two Punjabi scripts — Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi — disappear either.

“The prize mission is to inspire the creation of Punjabi literature. Hopefully, this might serve as a bridge between Punjabi communitie­s around the world by promoting Punjabi literature on a global scale. It could be a gentle form of diplomacy,” he said.

Dhahan, who is the president of the Sandhurst Group, a major franchisee for Tim Hortons and Esso service stations in B. C., said he has had an interest in literature since growing up in Port Alberni. He was the co- editor of his high school newspaper and took creative writing courses at UBC.

He is working on plans for the Canada India Education Society — which will award the prize in conjunctio­n with UBC’s department of Asian Studies — to have the prize winners’ stories translated into English and French. “That’s something we would certainly like to do, and we would also like to translate books that win the Giller Prize for Canadian Literature and the Governor General’s Award into Punjabi so that we can have this cross- cultural experience,” he said.

The first- prize winner selected by a jury under the chair of UBC Professor Anne Murphy is Avtar Singh Billing for his novel Khali Khoohaan di Katha, with runner- up prizes going to Jasbir Bhullar and Zubair Ahmed.

“We had more than 70 submission­s this year. Next year, we will likely have double that,” said Dhahan. Further informatio­n on the awards can be found at www.dhahanpriz­e.com.

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