Seva is Sharanpal Ruprai’s first poetry collection. According to her website, Seva is a “poetic journey into the life of a Sikh girl; the narrative, through unique perspectives about culture, gender and ritual, enters a world that is usually inaccessible.”
Ruprai invites her audience to enter the world of a Sikh girl as she explores the intersection of religion, gender, and culture. Seva is written from a perspective not typically accessible in mainstream Western literature, making it a valuable addition to the landscape of Canadian literature. Ruprai includes a selected glossary of Punjabi-English translations, which is helpful to readers like me, who lack insider knowledge.
Many of the poems deal with a clash of two worlds: traditionalism and modernism, men and women, Sikh culture and Western culture, or old and new. Ruprai artfully dances between the conflicting worlds, bouncing between acts of rebellion and acts of conformity. The desire to fit in is echoed time and time again in the collection, as characters carve out their ethnic identities. Another recurring element is shedding light on the private lives of women.
The women who populate these poems are relatable and captivating. In the poem Sacrifice, the women wash men’s turbans as the narrator wonders whether her mother or aunt ever complained. Just as you think this poem will be about conformity to traditional values, internal conflict is exposed when the narrator quips, “…my brother should do his own laundry.” Ruprai expertly balances feelings of rebellion with the traditional expectations of conformity.
In To the Rescue, Sharanpal likens her Naaniji (maternal grandmother) to a hero. When her grandfather’s wallet is stolen, Naaniji replaces the stolen money with money she hid in the hem of her handmade underwear. Naaniji doesn’t expect nor receive recognition for this selfless act. She is content with secretly preventing a crisis from occurring. It is just one of the many ways women clandestinely wield their power and exert control over events. What is most intriguing about Seva is the spotlight Ruprai continually shines on the interior lives of Sikh women.
Five Day Sin is a personal favourite of mine. It is a vignette of the coming-of-age challenges for a Sikh girl who yearns to fit in with her Canadian peers. A prepubescent girl longs to wear name-brand bras with matching panties like her peers do. However, her mother follows traditional Sikh values and insists that she wear kachera. The clash between traditional and modern values, between Sikhism and mainstream Canadian culture, is partially resolved when the girl is liberated by her period. While on her period, or “five day sin”, her mother allows her to wear oversized white underwear. For those five days, she can finally “just be like the other girls.”
Ruprai’s final poem in the collection, (Re)create, perfectly ties together themes of ritual, religion, and gender.
“You learn to look like you are praying to a man even though you know he and you were carried and birthed by a woman.”
She reveals a disconnection between external actions (praying to a man) and internal thoughts (knowing everyone is birthed by a woman). Although it seems like men are in the foreground and women are in the background, women are not powerless because they have maternal influence. Men are shaped by their mothers and the choices that women make.
At the end of the book, Ruprai reveals that some of the poems were inspired by family and personal experiences. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the characters and Sikh rituals in Seva. It is a personal meditation that can be enjoyed by anyone, Schema readers included.
Overall, Ruprai gives the interior lives of Sikh women the attention that they deserve. The collection feels warm, cozy, and inviting. I would recommend that you savour these poems in ultimate comfort; I read it while wearing sweatpants and eating grilled cheese.
Seva by Sharanpal Ruprai can be bought online here.