Women who Named the Unnamed
Celebrate the (here and) Now
Darshan Mann : From Struggles to Success
By Parabjot Kaur Singh
British Columbia’s Punjabi community saw a surge of cultural production led by Punjabi writers, artists and activists in the 1970s and the 80s when, among other things, about half a dozen full length Punjabi plays were staged addressing various issues impacting the community. Darshan Mann became the face of that socially aware theatre as she enacted different aspects of the lives of Punjabi women in Canada.
In the play, ‘Sharbati’ (woman’s name), Darshan plays the role of a woman who gets married without her consent. When she fails to conceive a baby, she is forced to seduce her brother-in-law to have a child. The role of this female character depicts a victim and a survivor. ‘Sharbati’ was a two-and-a-half-hour play written by Rana Jung Bahadar, directed by Mohan Bagan and produced by Sumat Kendar. In her next play, ‘Ik Kuri Ik Supna (a girl a dream), Darshan projects a woman who suffers emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her husband. She takes the steps to heal by seeking professional help. ‘Ik Kuri Ik Supna’ was a forty-five-minute play written by Ajmer Rode, directed by Ajmer Rode and Bhupinder Dhaliwal, and produced by Sumat Kendar. Darshan played a young, married woman with two daughters in the play, ‘Nirlujj’ (without shame), where she becomes pregnant again, and has to face expectations to have a male child from her extended family. Her husband is advised to marry his wife’s sister. ‘Nirlujj’ was written by Ajmer Rode, directed by Bhupinder Dhaliwal and produced by Sumat Kendar.
Apart from playing various leading roles depicting Punjabi women, Darshan also played an authoritarian male figure in a play that explored how the wife’s health is neglected and ignored by her husband and in-laws. This forty-five-minute play was produced by Jyoti Sanghera and Darshan. In ‘Dhalde PerchhaaweiN’ (fading shadows), Darshan was an elderly married women who is deprived of her son’s love. Since her son settled abroad, both she and her husband wait for his return. ‘Dhalde PerchhaaweiN’ explores isolation and loneliness faced by elderly parents. In another play, ‘Navi PeeRhi’ (new generation), Darshan was a young college girl who falls in love with a classmate. After their families give their consent for marriage, the mother-in-law provides a long list of dowry items to the bride’s family. The bride-to-be objects to this tradition and tries to persuade her fiancé to reason with his mother. ‘Navi PeeRhi’ was collectively written by the team members. As well, Darshan actively participated in the play, ‘TooRi Vala Kotha’ (storage room for hay). This play portrayed the different stages of women’s empowerment. Each character represented progressive and proactive women who were strong enough to challenge and withhold tradition. Her performances, plays and skits include the acclaimed stage play, ‘MahileeN VasdeeyaN DheeaN’ (daughters living in castles). Without fail, her performances liberated women and imparted a sense of agency.
Working on the stage in the Punjabi-Canadian community carved a pathway for Darshan to connect with her cultural roots, especially Punjabi literature. Darshan mentions how she was admitted in the hospital while pregnant with her daughter, Pamela, when her sister-in-law introduced her to the great Punjabi writer, Gurbakhsh Singh Preetlari. She gifted her with his book, ‘Ishq Jina De Hadhi Racheya’. After reading ‘Preetlari’ (love string) magazines, Darshan regained her strength and resilience. As a matter of fact, Darshan learned how to read the Punjabi language while reading Gurbakhsh Singh Preetlari’s literary works. Darshan gained internal strength and a voice that she continues to use today. Interestingly, Gurbakhsh Singh Preetlari paid Darshan a visit while he was on a tour in Vancouver. Darshan remembers how this meeting was one of the most memorable and life-changing moments of her life. She immersed herself in Punjabi literature for the next ten years, with some detours in other languages including writings by Russian author Maxim Gorky that further strengthened her inner self.
Darshan found an opportunity to work with the provincial New Democratic Party (NDP), and as the Campaign Manager for Penny Priddy, she managed and organized campaign roles and duties for the upcoming elections. After Penny Priddy won the election, Darshan assisted Priddy’s MLA office as the CA. At that point, Darshan was one the few South Asian women to work as a CA for the NDP’s Ministry of Gender Equality. Subsequently, her work in politics and ability to organize people for a cause led to her being sought out to help with many political campaigns.
As Darshan’s involvement increased with BC’s NDP, she was already making a positive difference, not only in the office, but in the wider Punjabi-Canadian community. In the 1990s, the NDP agreed to provide funding for the new Senior Centre on Scott Road and 72nd Avenue in Surrey while the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple provided the land. Darshan was supportive of the project but she noticed that there was no place for women to socialize, organize and meet one another. So, she approached the organizers and created a large gathering room on the top floor that began the long-standing tradition of a ‘Social Thursday’ that is still being practiced today.
Now, sitting in her artful yet humble living room, Darshan Mann reminisced about her life journey from Nainital, India to Vancouver, Canada. Darshan was born in Bhairomunna, a small village near Sahnewal, Punjab. At six months of age, she migrated with her parents to Nainital in Uttarakhand where she obtained her basic, formal education. As soon as she completed her secondary education in 1964, Darshan got married and immigrated to Vancouver in 1964. There, Darshan gave birth to her son, Tishi. She was blessed with two more children, Rajeev and Pamela.
Darshan continued her education in Canada taking specialized courses in bookkeeping, accounting and typing. Darshan began to work as a Community Support Worker with the Indo-Canadian Society, and later with Canada Revenue Agency. But it was while working as a receptionist for a medical clinic that Darshan came across patients where sixty percent were from the Punjabi-Canadian community. Reviewing and analyzing patients’ files, Darshan noticed that a number of South Asian women were being sexually and physically abused by their husbands and/or by the prominent members of the larger Punjabi-Canadian community. These shocking facts prompted Darshan to take a stand against the injustices toward South Asian women.
While working in theatre, Darshan was heartbroken after her oldest son, Tishi, passed away from an asthma attack. She regained her strength through acting and the immense support provided to her by the members of India Mahila Association (IMA) a Punjabi women’s organization that Darshan is a part of, and her close friends from literary and theatre groups.
Darshan acknowledges India Mahila Association (IMA) as the pillar that gave her the strength to rise from the emotional pain she battled with. Darshan believes that the India Mahila Association provided her with the opportunities to gain internal strength and a strong voice. Darshan actively participated in the education committee, culture committee and the victim support groups. Darshan remained an active member and participant with the India Mahila Association for most of her life. Darshan worked closely with women such as poetess/author Surjeet Kalsey by organizing workshops through Battered Women’s Support Services, and with social justice activist, Raminder Dosanjh, Darshan produced talk shows about sensitive issues on Sushma Dutt’s radio programs. Another way Darshan assisted and supported women was through the Rape Relief Services: Women Against Violence Against Women as the executive of the committee.
While serving many different roles and positions in the IMA, Darshan developed strong relationships with survivors, authors, poets, social and political activists from the Punjabi-Canadian community. These relationships gave rise to the the strong, independent, and strong-willed stage actress, Darshan Mann.
At this time, Darshan focuses on her housekeeping business, and through her business, she continues to fight for women’s rights by assisting immigrant women with English language training, life skills, and employment opportunities.
Darshan lives an independent, and simple life. She enjoys spending quality time with her son, Rajeev Mangat, daughter-in-law, Tej, granddaughters, Reyana and Maya, daughter, Pamela Gill, son-in-law, Ranjit Gill, three grandsons, Avani, Ishan, Yashin and granddaughter, Ashni. Darshan spreads positive vibes with her friends and continues to support causes that she cares deeply about: social justice, human rights, literature, theatre, and political activism.
Parabjot Kaur Singh is a writer, radio host and activist. Her poems have been published in the PULP, a literary arts magazine of Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), and in RAINBOW: Anthology of South Asian Writers by South Asian Literary Society of Canada. She has presented her work at Surrey Muse, Surrey Muse Writers, and at KPU’s poetry gatherings and year end readings.
Women Who Named the Unnamed
Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes
Saturday, September 28, 2019
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