Distance Repaired

Himmat reviewed
By Rusaba Alam
Munish Sharma by Sarah Race Photography

Munish Sharma. Image credit: Sarah Race Photography

Himmat
Written by Gavan Cheema
Directed by Paneet Singh
May 6 to 15, 2022
Vancouver East Cultural Centre
Historic Theatre
Vancouver, BC

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Theatre Conspiracy’s Himmat explores the family conflicts and ruptures that resurface after Ajit, a young Punjabi woman, begins spending more time with her father when he falls ill and has to stay at the Surrey Memorial Hospital. The play is set in his hospital room, where conversations between Ajit, her father Banth, and her mother Bachani unfold a series of recollections from all three centering on Ajit’s childhood and her parents’ early lives before she was born.
Veenu Sandhu, Munish Sharma, Gavan Cheema. Photo by Wend D Photography
Veenu Sandhu, Munish Sharma, Gavan Cheema. Photo credit: Wend D Photography.

Through these conversations interspersed with memories from the past, we learn alongside Ajit about major and minor moments in the family’s history, from her parents’ experiences dealing with racism as a young couple to her trips to the truckyard with her father as a child to Banth’s alcoholism and its compounding effects on his relationships with his wife and children.

Although these episodes are populated by friends, co-workers, and strangers, the three actors playing Ajit (Gavan Cheema, also the writer of Himmat), Banth (Munish Sharma), and Bachani (Veenu Sandhu) at different ages are the only ones who appear onstage, underscoring the fact that these scenes are not set in the past, but rather memories replaying in the present during Ajit’s visits to her father. In other words, everything that takes place in the course of the play—remembering, forgetting, reliving, retelling—takes place in the hospital room. Accordingly, Banth’s hospital bed is a fixture of every scene, transforming into the truck he used to drive or one of the furnishings of Ajit’s childhood home as each memory requires.

Himmat - Veenu Sandhu and Gavan Cheema. Photo by Sarah Race Photography.

Himmat. Veenu Sandhu and Gavan Cheema. Photo credit: Sarah Race Photography.

Himmat - Gavan Cheema. Photo by Sarah Race Photography.

Himmat. Gavan Cheema. Photo credit: Sarah Race Photography.

Himmat - Munish Sharma and Veenu Sandhu. Photo by Sarah Race Photography.

Himmat. Munish Sharma and Veenu Sandhu. Photo credit: Sarah Race Photography.

Himmat - Gavan Cheema and Munish Sharma. Photo by Sarah Race Photography.

Himmat. Gavan Cheema and Munish Sharma. Photo credit: Sarah Race Photography.

Himmat - Munish Sharma. Photo by Sarah Race Photography

Himmat. Munish Sharma. Photo credit: Sarah Race Photography.

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Himmat - Veenu Sandhu and Gavan Cheema. Photo by Sarah Race Photography.
Himmat - Gavan Cheema. Photo by Sarah Race Photography.
Himmat - Munish Sharma and Veenu Sandhu. Photo by Sarah Race Photography.
Himmat - Gavan Cheema and Munish Sharma. Photo by Sarah Race Photography.
Himmat - Munish Sharma. Photo by Sarah Race Photography
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In one particularly affecting scene, Ajit learns for the first time about the racist incident that led her father to cut off the long hair he had kept as a Sikh man, an injury he feels he never recovered from. As the play goes on, the movement back and forth from memories to the present becomes the impetus for Ajit and her father to start to repair a longstanding distance that had until then remained unspoken between them. In a scene set in the present, we see Ajit and her father folding the long fabric of his turban together, the cloth running the distance between them.

In its portrayal of this process, Himmat is determined to avoid pathologizing its subjects or resorting to cliches about addiction, migration, and family conflict, thought occasionally I felt that we could afford to stay a little longer than we did with the more difficult threads of the narrative. On a phone call near the end of the story, for instance, Ajit begins to learn more about what growing up with Banth’s anger was like for her older sister, who is much less interested than she is in trying to repair her relationship with their father. It seems to me that the play moves past the implications of this conversation fairly quickly in its final scenes, where Banth is discharged from the hospital, giving a kind of closure to the painful recollections that his stay has opened up for the family. The parents share a moment together to tell each other, “We did okay,” before Ajit and her dad start making plans on the way out of the hospital for her to write the story of his life, which we might imagine will become the show we are watching.

Himmat Veenu Sandhu and Munish Sharma photo by Sarah Race Photography
Veenu Sandhu and Munish Sharma. Photo credit: Sarah Race Photography.

The emphasis here is on what the play’s director, Paneet Singh, describes in the program as “the moments of joy and struggle throughout the process of repair.” For this viewer, the play is most successful in the moments when it holds open the complexity of Ajit’s relationship with her father and invites the audience in to experience it with her. This was nowhere clearer for me than in the scenes played in Punjabi, which range from Banth’s memories of his early life in India to conversations between the parents set in the present, all of which are offered to the audience without English translation, though context clues and temporary conversational lapses into English help to convey what is taking place for those who do not understand the language.

In Himmat, these untranslated scenes amplify the emotional arc of the play by putting much of the audience—non-Punjabi speakers like me, but also, I imagine, many diasporic Punjabis—in something like the position of Ajit, the adult daughter who is working to piece together a shifting and at times contradictory family history without mastery over the language. In the way Ajit and her parents’ memories are presented, layered over each other, and spilling from one point in time into the next, the coordinates of their lives might retain, even for a fluent speaker, an element of incompleteness or of the unknowable. Like it does for her, Himmat’s staging of rupture and repair works best when it produces for its audience an intimacy out of distance.

Rusaba Alam
Rusaba Alam is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literatures at the University of British Columbia. Her interests include postcolonial environmental writing and the temporality of climate catastrophe. She is a recipient of the Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS doctoral scholarship and the Killam doctoral scholarship.
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