First published in 1978, the novel Maluka continues to be one of the very few accounts of early Indian labor migrants, who came to B.C. in the early twentieth century and mostly worked in the saw mills. 

The novel was written by Sadhu Singh Dhami (1906-1997) whose own life story is very similar to that of the protagonist of the novel, Maluka. After immigrating to Canada in the 1920s at a young age, Dhami started working in the saw mills. Encouraged by other Indian workers, he also continued his studies and became the first Punjabi/Sikh to get enrolled in a public school in BC. He went on to complete his bachelors from UBC and PhD from The University of Toronto in 1937. 

“Study Maluka; write our story someday,” a fellow Indian mill worker once told Maluka in the novel. It was a self-reference to Dhami’s own efforts of writing the novel and recording the stories of those early Indian migrants he himself had worked with in the mills.  

As the collection of interviews on Simon Fraser University’s Indo Canadian Oral History project website indicate, most of the early Indian migrants who left their homes and undertook months long sea voyages to come to Canada in search of better economic opportunities, had no choice but to do the arduous, unsafe, underpaid labor in the sawmills. 

False Creek, Fraser Mills, Hastings Mill, Port Moody Mill,  Cowichan Valley and Columbia River Lumber Company were few of the most popular mill sites where these Indian migrants worked. 

A few decades later, however, shifting of the economy and frequent mill fires led to a decline of the mill industry. The mill centers, once bustling, started shutting down one after the other in the second half of the twentieth century. Some of these abandoned mill sites, like False Creek, Port Moody and Fraser Mill, have been turned into residential and recreational hubs today. 

Such an abandonment and redevelopment of mill sites in B.C. has, however, also effaced life stories of early Indian migrants who had lived and worked in these mills. Within such a development-induced historical amnesia, the stories recounted by Dhami/Maluka are a rare, valuable archive which provides a glimpse of these Indian mill worker’s lives.   

Portrait of a sawmill worker at the Fraser Mills (Image: South Asian Canadian Digital Archive)

While sitting on the bank of Fraser River during break time in the mill, Maluka remembered river Sutlej of Punjab and with it all the memories of the past life came back to haunt him. He was not the only one overwhelmed by his past. 

Sham Singh, a fellow mill worker in the novel, used to run an ox-cart between Hoshiarpur and Jalandhar before migrating to Canada. Alienated by the new work of the mill, he longed for the job to drive a horse wagon in the mill to continue to be with an animal. Other laborers would talk frequently and loudly while working in the mill, like they used to do in the fields of their villages in India. The cookhouse, where they would all gather after work to eat, was in many ways their home away from home.  

Group photo of Sikh lumber mill workers at the Hillcrest Lumber Company, Sahtlam, B.C. (Image: South Asian Canadian Digital archive)

Along with the memory of the past/home, Maluka also had to navigate through the new, white world he found himself in while studying in the school and university. 

His class fellows called him “Sheikh” after the hero of the movie, The Sheik (1921), who, like Maluka, also wore a turban. They asked him questions about the marvelous stories they had heard about India; stories of fire eating fakirs, ascetics, holy men, snake charmers and  magicians. 

Another time, a friend who used to deliver newspapers excitedly told him about an issue of Vancouver Sun which was full of pictures of India. “They will make you homesick,” he told Maluka.“The snake charmer, the bathing ghats, the dancing girls and the crowded streets with cows in the middle.” While encountering such images of Indian life, Maluka could not help but feel ashamed of them.           

These shameful experiences of interactions with white people opened up a conflict between old and new, East and West, Indian and Canadian life for Maluka. Within himself, he struggled with resolving these conflicts. 

Eventually, he decided to remove his turban and cut his hair. After a strong reaction from his community, he decided to move away and travel in order to discover the world beyond the Rockies. Other young Indians who started studying in colleges and universities also started adapting to the new world they found themselves in. The more orthodox, old people chided them for corrupting the cultural and religious values they had brought from India. 

Reading the stories and experiences of early Indian migrants tells us, the people who continue to migrate to Canada in search of a better life, that we are not alone. 

There were people before us, who looked like us, grew up in the same places as us, spoke the same languages as us, who had migrated to Canada and tried to come to terms with memories, discriminations and crises of the new world. Knowing about their life stories, with all their complexities, would have helped us in processing our own struggles, thoughts and experiences today. 

Due to the lack of such stories and histories of our immigrant pasts that we could relate to, our journeys of navigating through our current realities has become a very tiresome and lonely pursuit. We lack the solace, perspectives, historical density that the stories like those of Maluka could have provided us. 

The original English version of the Maluka is almost extinct but its Punjabi translation can be bought from India Bookworld shop in Surrey, BC. 

About the author

Hammad Abdullah

Hamad came from Pakistan to Canada as an international student and recently completed his masters in history from UBC. He is interested in issues related to South Asian cultures, histories, and colonialism. When not reading and writing (or thinking about reading and writing), he can be seen playing cricket.

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