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Jeevan Singh Deol: A Budding Historian


The Toronto Star, Mar. 30, 2003

Photo: Jeevan Singh Deol

Jeevan Singh Deol is not your typical Sikh guru [sic]. He is clean-shaven and doesn't wear a turban. He does have a slight accent, a hint of British articulation that he acquired after seven years researching Sikh history in Cambridge, England. Deol is one of the younger generation of Indian immigrant descendants who were born and raised in Canada, growing up talking to their Punjabi-speaking elders in English. At age 31, Deol, a Vancouver native, would discover the oldest Sikh scriptures outside of India.

Deol's discovery of the 1660s sacred manuscripts by [sic] Guru Granth Sahib in the British Library in London last Sep. earned him an honourable award presented by the Centennial Foundation at its annual gala at the Mississauga Convention Centre last night. 'What you do as a historian and as someone into manuscripts is very remote to many people. But to be opening and touching it, it is like touching the guy who founded the religion,' said Deol, who began his scholastic pursuits by studying Shakespeare and English literature at the University of British Columbia. 'As a historian, you find a manuscript, microfilm it and (the original) is gone five years later when you go back to it. One of the great satisfactions for me is you feel like you have actually made some kind of intervention in preserving our history by documentation.'

Deol said he did not start learning Punjabi until he was 14 after his grandfather, Kehar Singh Kailly, on his deathbed, urged him to go back to his cultural roots. When he finished his undergraduate study at U.B.C., he went to Oxford to study Indian literature. It was during his one-year sabbatical in India to polish his Punjabi that he decided to pursue a higher education in Indian history. One of the things that Deol is keen on is to continue to document Sikh manuscripts before they all disappear and, based on that literature, create materials 'for the next generation to learn about their past and empower themselves.'

That's exactly the mandate of the Centennial Foundation when it was founded by a group of leaders from Canada's 500,000-strong Sikh community in 1997 - to promote an understanding of the Sikh culture and make its history and heritage accessible to its youth. 'We live in a culture so dominated by western ideals and concepts. Material in our own culture is often not portrayed in the same fashion,' said Satwinder Gosal, 42, a corporate lawyer and one of the founders of the organization. 'Punjabi literature, arts, music and materials have to be made more relevant for kids growing up here.'

Deol agreed. 'Through history, you learn about who you are, where you come from. But once you've done that, you need not be shy and afraid about understanding it on your own terms,' he said. 'Our ancestors came here and sacrificed a lot of their lives for us to be comfortable. It's time to stand up, pick up that torch and move it forward, and make sure there's something that we can all pass on to our children.'

Last night's gala was attended by 600 guests and raised more than $40,000 for its educational program. Other award recipients included community activist Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, scholars Inderpal Kaur Grewal and Mohindar Singh Sachdev, community leader Harinam Singh Khalsa, businessman Joginder Singh, artist Manu Saluja and human rights advocates Akaash Maharaj and Zanana Akande.