Interview 4

Award of a Life Time: Local Writer Ravinder Ravi has been recognized for his work –

Work inspired by an extraordinary life – Photo and Story by Lauren Benn

A Terrace resident never suspected he’d win two life-time achievement awards.

But Ravinder Singh Gill, who has lived in Terrace for 36 years and writes under the pen name

Ravinder Ravi, was in Vancouver recently to accept them. He received one March 26 from the

North American Punjabi Writers Association and another April 2 from the University of British

Columbia. Both are in honour of his contributions to the world of Punjabi literature, work largely

studied within the sphere of Punjabi academia.

And it’s no wonder.

Gill has lived no ordinary lifetime. The 74-year-old retired English teacher and active playwright,

poet, short-story author and world-famous philosophic pundit has lived a life marked by

controversy in his birth country, India. Controversy that would shape culture there for generations

after his departure. But unbeknownst to many who have studied him, his literary passion also

made its way into the hearts of a generation of Nisga’a students. And they found their way into

It all began with youthful wanderlust.

As a young man living in India, he earned two bachelor degrees, one Masters and a teaching

certificate. But even though he had work there, pay was low and opportunity scarce. In 1966,

already 10 years into his career, he made 244.00 Indian Rupees monthly— the current equivalent

of $35 Canadian dollars. For Gill, the money was not enough. Although he was married with a

child and another soon to come, when an opportunity to teach in Kenya arose, he jumped —

against the wishes of his family. He wanted to make a better life.

“I…was fed up with the tightening noose around my neck,” Gill wrote in his an autobiography

about leaving India. “[I] decided to sail to the unknown lands and charter the unchartered waters.”

He landed in Africa on February 5, 1967 — the same day his second son was born.

But Kenya would not be what he’d hoped for in many ways. Despite what he calls the happiest

and most memorable years of his life, even though work paid better, it was unstable. Because of

this, his family lived divided by international borders. Gill would spend the next eight years

teaching in Kenya, taking breaks every few years to see family or travel throughout Europe and

the United States. These years of excitement were underpinned by a longing for stability.

During this time, he wrote and published some of the most controversial works of the decade in

India. Written in Punjabi, but inspired by foreign values, his poems, plays and short stories

introduced ideas about family, relationships, and ways of relating to the self that pushed and

upset traditional Indian values.

“At that time I felt that the freedom and the worth of self is more in the western society than in

ours,” he said, “where the identity of the individual is lost in the collective.”

Gill witnessed romance beyond arranged marriages, the clubs and brothels of Europe — a

different way of life.

“I was writing what I was experiencing and what I was feeling,” he said. “I was directly in conflict

with what I was taught.

“And so, I became a controversial writer. And the result is, the current generation and the

generation before me, they are following the path that [controversial writers like me] laid out.”

During an interview with The Terrace Standard, Gill threw his head back and chuckled. The

wrinkles around his piercing brown eyes deepened as he remembered being at odds with his

home country — at odds with himself.

“It was a long, bitter fight,” he said. “Eventually, [those who opposed him] realized they were


But that wouldn’t be until he was living in Terrace, after immigrating to Vancouver in 1974 in

search of stable work. But after nearly six months, despite being certified to teach in Canada, he

found nothing. That is, until a friend offered him a different kind of job in B.C.’s North.

“He advised me to take whatever comes your way, this is Canadian way and then you keep trying

[to get] what you want,” Gill said. “It was kind of initiation into Canadian society, that’s the way I

looked at it. ”

He worked his first manual labour job, the graveyard shift, cleaning at the Pohle Lumber Mill in

Terrace, alongside two Indians who, like him, also held Masters degrees in their home country.

But hope for a better life in Canada seemed like a mirage, as the mill went under less than two

months later. For the next jobless year, Gill found comfort in fine whiskey.

So when a temporary teaching job at the Nisga’a Elementary-Secondary School (NESS) in the

Nass Valley was offered to him, he did not suspect the stable life he’d longed for had arrived. But

his job eventually became permanent. His family reunited under one roof. And he landed amidst a

group of students whose personal struggles were uncannily similar to those of his past.

NESS students were primarily of aboriginal descent. Their traditional family structures and

relationship values were quite similar to those Gill was raised with. The identity struggles born of

conflicting cultural values, experienced by both Gill and his students, strongly paralleled.

And although Gill — a self proclaimed atheist — doesn’t believe in fate, his life experiences

enabled him to help his students heal. A life of writing controversial poetry, short stories and

drama took on new meaning to him as an English teacher at NESS. He used the pen as medicine

for the soul by teaching his students to write and express themselves through poetry.

“Our people went through a same struggle under the colonial system as these people were going

through. So, I could understand them. I could communicate with them. I could get them out of

their psychological fixes, give them an outlet into poetry, give them some kind of relief,” Gill said,

remembering his teaching days at NESS. “When you talk it out, write it out, it’s a sublimation of


“It was an active kind of teaching with involvement in student kind of problems,” Gill said. “ I was

so amazed with the creative energy of the kids.”

Some students’ poetry reflected anger and deep sadness — land claims and identity crises were

common themes.

“So writing… it was creative and it helped them express,” he said. “Some were very, very

emotional you know, quite a lot of feelings of depression.”

And sadly, a young and gifted student named Sonia Guno would become the poster child of her

peers’ struggles after committing suicide.

“Before she died, she wrote a lot of poetry that was totally depression,” Gill said, pausing. “What

she wanted was not there. She was kind of lost.

“I started an award in her name, the Sonia Guno memorial award,” he said. “It was given to the

best poet of the year.”

He also compiled the poetry of his students, publishing two books called Wind Song, titled from

one of Guno’s poems, in memory of her. The books’ covers are adorned with the Nisga’a people’s

crests: Wolf, Eagle, Raven and Killer Whale. Guno’s words live on in their pages.

“The Indians cry, a mighty cry, but for whom they cry, and why? I surely hope that, it is a cry of

Wisdom, and hope; A cry of a, new beginning for Indians that today can barely, cope,” Guno wrote

in a poem titled Our Cry. “Our cry is for Freedom! For peace, equality and for, our Land. It’s not a

cry, for a warrior’s band!”

Gill also created a Wind Song scholarship of $500 which was awarded yearly to a student moving

on to post secondary education. Wind Song was read by many Canadian politicians of the time,

including then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

“The thoughtful sentiments expressed in verse,” wrote Trudeau to NESS after reading Wind Song,

“are a wonderful testimony to their talents and skill and the dedication of their teachers.”

While Gill’s impact on his students shows through their writing, the students’ influence on Gill

shows through his.

And so it came to be, that a little piece of B.C.’s North landed in the classrooms and on the stages

of India. From settings in the beautiful Nass Valley, to characters inspired by his students, or

stories of seeing beauty through hardship inspired by work at the lumber mill, Terrace and

surrounding areas will live on through his internationally-read work.

Of these stories, one stands out to Gill in particular. His short story, titled “One More

Hemingway”, is set in the Nass Valley. It tells the tale of a teacher who lived a solitary life and

loved nature. He hunted his food from the land, but the repetition of this process became

meaningless as loneliness became him. One night, as he sat in front of a fire, he thought of

shooting himself and calling it quits — just like Ernest Hemingway. But then, a flame flickers as

the sun dawns, creating a most brilliant light.

“And that gives him some inspiration to keep moving,” Gill said.

“And so, he sees that life is worth living, not destroying.”


-Published in the “Terrace Standard”, Terrace, B.C., Canada, on April 6, 2011 –

Credit: Ms. Lauren Benn, Terrace Standard VOL.23 NO.51, Wednesday, April 6, 2011