Early in the first act of the The Orchard, a new Canadian adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic Russian play, The Cherry Orchard, family patriarch Kesur Basran stares out at the audience and defines his place in the world in two short unequivocal sentences.
“We come from the Punjab, land of five rivers, so green you can grow anything. We have been farmers since the birth of those rivers,” he proclaims, referring back to his native state in North India which is also known as the breadbasket of the country.
It’s the kind of self-bracing mission statement one can imagine Irish, Scandinavian, German and Ukrainian immigrant farmers making after finally arriving at their homesteads and being confronted by the vastness of Canada’s Prairies.
Unlike the original Cherry Orchard, which was a story of Russian aristocrats losing their feudal estate with the end of serfdom, this modern version – currently playing at Vancouver’s Stanley Theatre – follows the struggles of an immigrant Punjabi Sikh household clinging on to a humble family acreage. In place of images of the Russian czar are now those of Sikh gurus. In the wardrobe, embroidered Russian caftans have been substituted with colourful Punjabi turbans.
But this is not India. This is small-town 1970s Canada, with all its small-minded insularity. And on a set that could double as a farmhouse from a Steinbeck novel or The Waltons, the Basrans are playing out their lives as South Asian pioneers. They are the first trickle of immigrants from India relocating to B.C.’s fruit-growing Okanagan region and squaring off against racism, isolation and all the vicissitudes of agrarian life. But more than anything else these days, they are confronting the troubling prospect that their lives as farmers may soon be over, fading away much like Kesur Basran’s memories of those five rivers. In 60 days time, the Basrans’ orchard will be put up for bank auction if the family is unable to pay its compounding debts.
While cross-gender casting and cross-cultural adaptation are in vogue these days in the theatre world – Bard on The Beach this summer, for example, will be staging a South Asian version of All’s Well That Ends Well – this play, written by now Toronto-based playwright Sarena Parmar, is ultimately less a South Asian version than a Canadian reboot. Parmar’s play is a very relevant tale of the hardscrabble experiences of Canadian family farmers – particularly fruit farmers based in the Fraser Valley, Similkameen, Okanagan and Kootenay regions – fighting to preserve their way of life against the “invisible,” though ever present, hand of the market.
In this regard, The Orchard explores the inevitable tension – as in the original Russian play – between social cohesion and market commodification, the enoughness and forgotten economics of “small is beautiful” versus those of ever-growing scale. The Basrans could pay off their debts, but they would have to sell off the orchard that anchors their way of life. Meanwhile, the buyer who keeps pressing the family to purchase the land plans to increase its profitability by chopping down the trees and paving it into an RV park.
From a value-neutral numbers standpoint, this act of innovation makes sense. It seems like just another of capitalism’s ever-churning and life-improving acts of innovation and “creative destruction” – in this case filtered through a Punjabi Sikh cultural lens. But, as usual, overlooked in the calculations are everything from the difficult-to-quantify social costs of losing arable land and locally grown produce, to the inestimable price paid by a family and community losing its way of life.
Land ownership has long been a source of social esteem for Punjabi Sikhs, whether living in India or abroad. Zameen is a Punjabi word that means “land” and, zameendar – literally “of the land” – was a title once given to land owners who, a century ago in India, “owned” the soil, the minerals, the animals, the villages and even the peasants on their expansive holdings. Today, that title is loosely claimed by tens of thousands of small-plot owners that dot the countryside, fiercely guarding their holdings from strong-arm groups and unscrupulous siblings. During the North Indian land rush of the previous decade, cases of illegal land seizures and even fratricide were a common part of the Punjabi news cycle.
But there is also a deeper, almost transcendental, reverence in the Punjabi cultural psyche of living a life rooted in the land. The poetry of the Sikh gurus, who hail from the Punjab region, are steeped with farming metaphors about the nobility of honest labour, and reaping karmically what one sows. Even as Sikhs have emigrated to countries such as Canada, the United States, Britain, Malaysia, Italy and Australia, many have re-established pastoral lives centred on farming.
Playwright Parmar grew up in the Okanagan in one such immigrant Punjabi Sikh household. Her family orchard produced apples, pears, nectarines, peaches, apricots and cherries. Depending on the season, various members of her extended multigenerational family pitched in with pruning, picking, tending, moving sprinklers and attending the fruit stand.
While it was a bucolic existence – ebbing and flowing with the seasons – it suffered all the hardships of immigrant and farming life. The adults worked day jobs to counter unpredictable farming income, diseases and pests could wipe out an entire harvest, and while the fruits of their orchard were always within the reach of their hands, the ultimate “fruits” of their labour were always at the whims of market prices far beyond their grasp.
“The more I kept recontextualizing this play into the Okanagan in the 1970s, the more the play kept revealing itself to me. New perspectives on the themes kept popping out, as did new ways to look at the characters and how Chekhov wrote them,” explained Parmar, whose work featured at the Shaw Festival last season.
“There were big social changes happening in both contexts. In the late 1800s, the power of the Russian aristocracy was waning, and a new middle class was emerging. In Canada in the 1970s meanwhile, it was the beginning of [discussions around] the Multiculturalism Act, and the lifting of restrictions off immigration from Asian countries. This led to a huge influx of immigrants from India who went on to change the social fabric of Canada.”
These changes are today visible in the participation of Sikhs in all aspects of Canadian life, including leading roles in a number of the country’s political parties. But this didn’t come without great resistance, and, in particular, the provincial racism of 1970s Canada. In The Orchard, this manifests through a turbaned Gus Basran being repeatedly denied employment and Barminder not being accepted by her teenaged peers.
Yet there are also telling and poignant moments when these racial divisions dissolve into the background, revealing the greater class unity found in common struggle. One such moment is when Gus begins a quip only for his neighbouring white farmer, Paul, to join in chorus: “If I grow a potato for 15 cents and I sell it for 12 cents, then I may as well eat it myself,” they roar collectively.
Despite the hardships of early pioneer families like the fictional Basrans (or the non-fictional Parmars), increasing numbers of Punjabi Sikh immigrant families have not been deterred from continuing to buy orchards, and holdings in B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve, and from rejuvenating the ailing family-farm enterprise, long abandoned by the locals. These families are cultivating small acreages, and selling their produce farm-to-table through local community markets. And they are demonstrating, through their devotion to a traditional agrarian way of life, that what provides meaning to our lives is not necessarily “optimized” at the intersection of supply-and-demand curves – a key point Chekhov was also articulating.
This immutable, sticky truth, emerging out of Chekhov’s story about the demise of traditional Russian society and spanning into Parmar’s adaptation in multicultural Canada, is more relevant than ever in our hedge-funded, market-dominated world.
Ultimately the story of the Basrans, as with other small acreage family farmers in B.C., is as iconically Canadian as that of the traditional Prairie family wheat farmer standing alone against the giant combines of corporate farming closing in around him. And there is something plucky in that tale that all of us – who aren’t oligarchs – can aspire to.
The Orchard (After Chekhov) plays from March 21 to April 21 at The Arts Club (Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage).