So We May Always Know

The Vision of Inderjit Kohaly
By Zool Suleman

Share Article


Inderjit Kohaly represents a rare individual who recognizes the value of the past to the future. While he was trained as an engineer in India, Mr.

Kohaly has made his mark not in the mines of British Columbia but in its cultural history. Through his activities as a publisher and now an archivist, Mr. Kohaly has managed to provide the readers of this issue with a window into the evolution of the South Asian community from the 1900s to the 1950s. This fifty year period of history represents the formation ofthe South Asian community on the West Coast of Canada, a period marked by virulent racism, violence and struggle. While Mr. Kohaly's interview has been edited forgrammar and syntax, his opinions about the relevance of history and helping to create understanding are clear; both within South Asian communities and between South Asian communities and dominant culture. Rungh supports Mr. Kohaly in his project to retrieve and create an archive of photographs of South Asian families who settled on the West Coast of Canada up to 1950. Mr. Kohaly is persevering in this task through the use of his own funds and the occasional aid of volunteers. The culmination of his dream is to have one copy of these archival photos be deposited with the National Archive in Ottawa. We are pleased to play our part in documenting Mr. Kohaly's project.

The Vision of Inderjit Kohaly

Zool: Maybe you can tell us a little bit about your own history. When did you first come to Canada?

Mr. Kohaly: I came to Canada in 1954 as an independent immigrant in the quota system. At that time there was a quota system—50 from India, and 100 from here and so many from there.

Zool: What made you want to come to Canada?

Mr. Kohaly: Oh, just curiosity. I wanted to come out of India and this country accepted me so I came to Canada. I found that there was a little problem to start with but later on it was nice and I had a nice time here. And I've made my life quite successful.

Zool: Do you regret coming here? Do you wish now you had stayed in India?

Mr. Kohaly: No. No, I love this country. I love this country as good as my own country. As a matter of fact I have lived here longer than I have lived in India. So this is my second country.

Zool: Tell me about the magazine you used to publish [The Indo-Canadian]. What gave you the idea to start the magazine?

Mr. Kohaly: Well at that time there was no magazine or newspaper for our community, and we felt that there was a need. As well, there was a need to communicate with the white people. There was no media or whichever media was present like the Vancouver Province and the Vancouver Sun, they were not writing favourably about us. We didn't want any favour from them, but they should at least write something correctly. We thought that if we had our own paper, we could project our own image, our own feelings about what our 'good points' are to the Canadian people. That's how we started the magazine. That was the idea, to make a bridge across the Indians and the white people.

Zool: I noticed the title you chose for the magazine was 'Indo-Canadian.' Was that the first time that the term 'Indo-Canadian' was used?

Mr. Kohaly: No, we had many other titles thought up, but we finally agreed upon this title because it represented both India and Canada. Our emblem [for the magazine] also represented India in Canada. Our logo was a maple leaf and within that we put the Ishwar Kapilar. That created a sort of a sign for us that we are Indo-Canadians living in Canada. The magazine was published for about eleven or twelve years. Then I gave up and some other papers like the present Indo-Canadian [a weekly newspaper published in Vancouver] took over the name and became a newspaper in Punjabi.

Zool: How was the magazine received?

Mr. Kohaly It was well received. Some of the white people appreciated it and we used to send it to the libraries. They subscribed for it. The subscription was only $1 per year. Some people didn't even send a subscription, but we still mailed it to them anyway. We had 1,000 copies printed every time and most of them went to MLAs, MPs and the national library and libraries in other provinces. So we had a wide unpaid circulation. We were happy that we could publish the magazine for as many years as we did. We had nice articles which were of general interest and they introduced our culture to Canadians who appreciated it very much.

Zool: From your experience, do you find that the younger people these days are trying to do more cultural things, or do you find that there is a problem there and that they don't produce enough creative work?

Mr. Kohaly: Well, there has been a gap between the interests of our generation and those of the younger generation. Though we had our [Sikh] temples here, later on the Hindu temple came and the mosques came. But still there was no real interest shown by the elder people in their children because they [the parents] were struggling for their livelihoods. The young people were left on their own to survive by whichever way they could. Actually we didn't guide them the way we should have and as we would have in India and in Pakistan. There the family is a unit and there the elders have contact with younger people all the time and they rub off on each other. Here we had nothing to rub off on each other because we thought that our children were our responsibility to educate about our community, our culture. We thought that they get enough education from Canadian schools and Canadian society, so we lost them. One generation was completely lost because they didn't get anything from the temples. They would go there and there was nothing there in their language [English] that they could easily understand. So when one generation is neglected, the following generation, naturally, is neglected too. Now the elders are taking more interest in the young boys and girls. They have classes for them and I think it will take another generation or so to bring them back so that they feel proud of themselves. The pride has to come back. It is not enough that they know about our culture, the pride has to be there.

Zool: What can our communities do to bring back that pride? What can the leaders of our community do today?

Mr. Kohaly: Well, they should have more programs and functions where young people are involved or they are given a greater chance to show themselves. There are a lot of programs going on now but they need to be publicized or spread out more often in the general community and not exclusively for say, Punjabis or Bengalis. You see, we are fractionalised community. In one of the editorials I wrote for the Indo-Canadian a long time ago, I spoke about government grants being given to each individual group [within the Indian community]. I felt at the time that this was destroying us [as a community]. It was as if "I am not associating with the Gujerati [person] because he has his own grant and he doesn't care about us." If there were common grants to all of the [Indo-Canadian] groups combined, they could say, "Here's the money. Do something with it."

We need common programs or collective programs where we know what it is that the Iraqi [community] is thinking so we know what their dances represent and they know ours. At that time, we felt that these grants were not good for our community. But if each one can gets his own money to play with, why shouldn't they take it? We should not depend on grants. We should have a common fund for our community and we should use that fund to have the programs that everyone can join in and display their culture. India is a big continent and it does not have one culture, even though we call the country Hindustan. Each [Indian] province has its own way of life and its own culture. I believe that all the cultures should be all displayed so that we can say, "We know Gujerati culture; we know South Indian culture. But they are so different." We lived all over India for two years, in Banglore and Madras. I worked in the gold mine. I was a manager there and I learnt the differences between the communities. When you know the differences, you love them because they belong to you, you belong to them. When you come over here, to Canada, Madrasis say, "I'm Tamili, I'm Telegu." These sorts of statements create friction. If we can somehow or other devise a method that we are all from India and look at ourselves as Indians, rather than as Madrasis or Punjabis, then we can find a solution.

When you know the differences, you love them because they belong to you, you belong to them.

Zool: In the roughly forty years that you have been in Canada, do you find that there are more issues of racism now than when you first arrived? Do you think that the larger Canadian public is more accepting of Indo-Canadians than they used to be?

Mr. Kohaly: The friction is the same, but the level of tolerance is different now. We were not tolerated as nicely forty years ago. We were openly rejected.

I Was a double graduate [Mr. Kohaly came to Canada with a Masters' degree in Engineering] but I had to work in the sawmills because they didn't recognize my degrees. In 1956, they started to ease upon this issue a little bit. "If I am a graduate," I argued, "I should be given a better job. I should be utilized properly." So at that time, in 1956, five or six people got engineering jobs and teaching jobs. So, I also got into engineering. At that time, there were hardly any [Indian] shops here. There was an Italian shop where we used to buy our groceries. Gradually our shops opened up and similarly we expanded into every other field.

Now we have discrimination of a different kind. It is very sharp and very cruel. But we now have the strength to stand up to it and face it. Before, they would come and break our windows and nobody could do anything. The police wouldn't do anything. Now we take things into our own hands and they don't come near us. Naturally, the government acts nice and they are more liberal-minded [than 40 years ago]. We are better prepared for all these things. We are stronger and we are a little united on this count. So they dare not say something or do something which will create trouble. They are smart and we are smart.

Zool: Tell me about the archival project you are working on, when did the idea first come to you to do this?

Mr. Kohaly: About three years ago, I got this idea. We were sitting together, some friends and I when they said, "Well, you not doing anything. Why don't you start something. It will be worthwhile." So, the idea started there and I thought it would be a small project consisting of about two or three hundred families and it would not be too much. However, to handle two or three hundred families was not as simple as I first thought and it has taken me three years so far. I have done quite a bit of it but I do not see the light at the end of the tunnel as of yet. It will take another year, I think, to finish it.

The main idea was that histories are usually written about people who took a strong part or did something as the head of the community. Nothing is mentioned about the average person who raised his family and who brought up good children who are now very well settled and who are in good positions in the government and the public sector. Why should history neglect them? This idea inspired me. There are people who should be remembered and that's why I started collecting everybody's pictures not just those of known people. Some people went back to India and never came back, so we don't know much about them. But the people who stayed here [from the early 1900s to 1950], I thought that they are worth keeping track of so that they will be remembered for a long, long time.

The earliest [photograph] I have collected is from 1905 and there are many that I haven't come across yet. The families of those who arrived to Canada from 1900 up to 1950 have been or have to be contacted for their photographs. People are cooperating nicely, but some people feel shy about parting with their originals. I would request of these people that if they don't want to part with their originals, they should go to the nearest photographer and get a negative made. Send us the negative and the cost of the negative and we will pay the cost.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Inderjit Kohaly
Inderjit Kohaly contributed to Rungh Volume 2, Number 1 & 2.
Zool Suleman
Zool Suleman is an advocate, writer, journalist, and cultural collaborator.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre