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15-Yr Old Sikh-Canadian Tops 6000 Commonwealth Writers:
Simran Kaur Sandhu

by JEAN KONDA-WITTE

 

 

Her poignant essay contrasts two girls, one with a disdain for the printed page, the other willing to risk her life to steal a book in order to teach others to read.

The fictional work of Simran Kaur Sandhu has won the Abbotsford (British Columbia, Canada) teen the special prize for imaginative writing in the worldwide Royal Commonwealth Essay Competition.

Simran, 15, a Grade 10 student at Dasmesh Punjabi School, was the lone Canadian winner, beating out stiff competition from more than 6,000 entrants from around the Commonwealth in this year's competition entitled Women as Agents of Change.

"I was kind of surprised. It was a great honour considering how many entries there were," said Simran.

"I was really proud. I couldn't believe it. My teachers encouraged me. Without them, I wouldn't have even entered."

Simran was rewarded with the special prize for her essay Running From the Dust: Girl Power about a young female teacher bucking traditions and the military in Afghanistan.

The judges were obviously impressed, saying: "This is an excellent story which is well told. It is vivid, frightening and the writing really flies in places. Simran offers a very thoughtful and engaging comparison on how we value books in different circumstances and cultures."

Simran said she researched the Taliban and Afghanistan before writing her essay.

"I wanted to actually describe the cruelty. But there are still people willing to stand up and change things for the better," she said of her fictional piece, which took just two days to write.

"Living in Canada, I'm completely blessed. I wanted to show two people; a modern-day girl who doesn't hold education and books above technology," she said. "And the other perspective where girls don't have a choice; a girl [in Afghanistan] who risks her life to steal a book to teach others."

Entrants were encouraged to think about the opportunities and barriers faced by women around the world, as well as the role women play in their families, communities and countries.

"The modern day girl still doesn't realize what she has and what other people are willing to give up to get it," she said of her message.

The Essay Competition was founded in 1883, making it the world's oldest and largest school writing contest. It is part of the Royal Commonwealth Society's annual Young Commonwealth Competitions, which also includes photography and film categories.

This year, the Royal Commonwealth Society is running two new competitions, Me and My Net (www.meandmy.net), encouraging young people around the Commonwealth to think about malaria prevention, and the Jubilee Time Capsule (www.jubileetimecapsule.org). The Capsule, designed to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012, will bring together a collection of people's stories and memories covering every day of the last 60 years. There will be prizes awarded to the best entries and prizes for schools involved in the project, known as 'Super Schools.'

Following her success, Simran's school - Dasmesh Punjabi School - has been invited to become a Super School.

 

 

Running From the Dust: "Girl Power"

By Simran Kaur Sandhu

 

Imagine a book, any published material, printed on pages tightly bound together. It could be the brand new encyclopedia you bought just to fill your new bookshelf, snuggled close to the dictionary, the one you've never once used, but had since you were five. Or it could be the book you've yet to start with the small writing about the harsh living conditions in whatever country you've seen commercials about on TV, collecting dust while lying carelessly, facedown under the coffee table. But of course you don't look there.

You only see the nail polish and cosmetics on top of the same table, things you'd much rather spend your time with. Or maybe you're imagining your school textbook, stained with whatever you were eating at the time, and filled with humorous drawings and doodles of your teachers. You push away these same textbooks, making room for your laptop, not even giving them a glance after typing in your password. The words in the books you've yet to look at have no meaning to you. They're lifeless and dull compared to the technology around you. And quite frankly, you'd rather be talking with your friends or killing zombies in the video games you begged your Mom to get you. You'd do anything to get away from these textbooks, so you procrastinate and dawdle, realizing that you'd rather sit around and do nothing than open one up. Maybe you'll glance at it tomorrow during class, maybe you'll open and try to read the chapter you're almost positive you're having a pop quiz on. You wait, and wait, postponing studying, and promise to yourself you'll just take a quick nap before getting down to business, a quick closing of the eyes just to catch up on some badly needed sleep.

* * * *

Afghanistan, Summer, 1997

"Thief!" she heard the merchant shout, as clouds of dust began to form behind her.

She hadn't thought he would notice her, as she slipped the book behind her back. She hadn't even contemplated what would happen if he did. But here she was, running from the Taliban soldiers who she was certain would realize she was not the boy she was pretending to be.

Setara cringed at the thought of the punishment she would have to face and pushed herself to run faster.

Faces were blurring now, as she ran past them. She wondered why the soldiers were wasting their time on her, when there were men beating their children and wives behind closed doors. Setara had heard it once, the yells and cries from the people next door to her. So why were they after her? When all she had taken was a book, thin and bendable, Afghani script running along the narrow spine and ripped cover.

It was the first time she'd stolen anything, or taken such a risk in public. But, everything had happened so fast.

There was no thought involved, as she had slowly moved the book behind her. But, it was useless to think about now, as she found her way around a group of women in dark burqas.

She hoped she'd make it to the cellar in time. The old cellar the other girls and her had found in an abandoned house, isolated from the rest of the city.

The girls would be wondering where she was by now, why she was so late.

She had been teaching them how to read and write in Pashtu for a month now. They would not be able to start without her.

The book had been stolen for them. She could no longer continue teaching them with the same old material they had mastered. They desperately needed something new.

Girls were not to touch books, not to read from them. It was a fact, a rule, something that could not be changed.

You had to work your way around these rules to make a difference, Mother would say. Setara could almost picture her face now, the smile in her eyes that always seemed to be there, even under the net of her burqa.

Mother would be worried unlike her strict Father who would be furious. An adventurer's will, her mother had said she had. But she knew her father would argue otherwise. Mother and Father, however weren't here right now, and she quickened her pace, turning into a deserted alleyway.

Bricks lay broken and scattered on the floor while rubble fell from the top of the fractured buildings.

She paused to catch her breath, and pushed herself against the alley wall. She was still clutching the book in her hands, her knuckles pale from her tight grip. She considered whether or not to leave the book in the alleyway, in hopes that the Taliban would see it and terminate their chase.

But, no. That would be pointless. It would make no sense for her to back out now. She needed to see this through.

Suddenly she heard the faint voices of the soldiers, in the distance, and Setara's hands, their iron-grip still on the book, began to shake.

She could not run now, as they'd see her coming out the alleyway. They did not like thieves, and Setara was positive she would be no exception.

Maybe they'd use her as an example for the others, like they had done once with one of the girls from the city. The soldiers had seemed emotionless as they cut her thumb off, opposing the fact she'd painted her nails with nail polish.

Setara did not want to be cut in public-did not want to be cut at all. She had stolen for the girls, stolen something they were not to study. They would punish her for sure.

And though Setara had been unmoving, as she was still pressed against the wall, there was still dust around her, that small layer twisting and turning above the ground.

Suddenly Setara was no longer the adventurer her Mother claimed her to be, or the girl who her Father had scolded, or even the teacher she was to younger girls who were waiting for her in that empty cellar. Setara was no longer brave, was no longer her thirteen-year-old self, but scared. Just scared.

It felt wrong being anything else at the moment.

She heard footsteps now, slowly advancing toward her and she looked up to see two groups of soldiers on both ends of the alleyway.

She let a sob escape from her dry mouth.

They were shouting at her, words she did not want to hear or understand, as she let cry after cry escape from her.

She could see the dust that was forming behind the soldier, as he ran toward her. Setara, in a panic, not knowing what else to do, ran toward the opposite direction, hoping to somehow get past a second group of soldiers.

The book was still in her hands as she threw herself at the soldiers in an exhausted attempt to get away.

They pinned her down in mere seconds, their different voices slithering, molding themselves into one.

Setara's mouth was pressed against the dirt underneath her, her shouts and screams melting into the earth. And as she turned her face to the catch a breath of air, she saw the dust that was once following fearlessly in her wake, begin to settle around her.

* * * *

A pitch higher than nails on a chalkboard wakes you up. You turn and look at the clock on your bedside table, and the glowing numbers read 2:46 a.m. You realize the sound is your alarm clock, waking you up for the reviewing you promised yourself you'd start.

The nap you started off with took a lot longer than you planned. You open up your textbook, to the first page of the chapter, stare at the words in front of you, and then like you've done hundreds of times before, you give up. You're tired and groggy from being asleep for so long, and you declare that there's no hope for studying now. In one swift movement, you push all the books and pencils off your bed, cringing at the sound of the bulky textbooks hitting the wood floors.

You dismiss the sound and the books altogether, falling comfortably onto your bed and back to sleep.

*   *   *   *   *
 
 
[Courtesy: Vancouver Sun]
September 18, 2011

 

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), September 18, 2011, 8:06 AM.

What beautiful prose! Involving a subject extremely dear to every true Sikh's heart - that of basic freedoms and fighting tyranny in the guise of dogma.

2: N. Singh (Canada), September 18, 2011, 11:07 AM.

Truly beautifully written! Insightful and mature beyond her years! Congratulations, Simran, you have made us all proud, and well done to Dashmesh Punjabi School.

3: Irvinder Singh Babra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), September 18, 2011, 3:02 PM.

Simran's extra-ordinary research led to the extra-ordinary award. My heartfelt congratulations! It's also a major milestone in the Canadian and international fiction writing, reporting and literature. I do not know if any of the established writers of fiction have ever shown such promise so early. It won't be long, I'm sure, before publishers will be knocking on her door.

4: Roop Dhillon (Reigate, United Kingdom), September 19, 2011, 4:22 PM.

Shabaash, Simran ji!

5: Tejpreet (Penang, Malaysia), September 21, 2011, 1:16 AM.

Kudos, Simran, your literary work is captivating, engaging and brutally honest. Having such skills at a tender age, you'll excel in the literary world without a doubt. You've done us all proud.

6: Arjun Sekhon (India), April 06, 2013, 11:57 PM.

Fantastic Simran, wish you good luck in the future

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Simran Kaur Sandhu"









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