A tribute to Rana Bose
By Himmat Singh Shinhat
Rana Bose, Montréal-based writer passes away
Rana was a passionate and committed artist and activist. His contribution to and his presence in the artist-activist community in Montréal and abroad was huge. His loss cuts deep for those he loved and those who have created and worked with him through the years.
I still remember the day, a few years ago, when Rana called me out of the blue on Facebook Messenger. Something was strange. There was no playfulness in his voice, no urgency about things to do for the next issue of Montréal Serai, the web-zine he co-founded with a group of fellow artists and activists, including myself, more than thirty-five years ago now.
I could hardly hear him. The usual confidence in his voice was gone, and the words came in stops and starts, one or two at a time, between deep sobs. He told me he had just been diagnosed with cancer. “I love you, Rana,” the words came up by themselves… I was lost, in shock. I didn’t know what else to say. “I love you too,” he said. I held my phone close to my ear as we wept together.
The treatment was successful and hope returned, however, his immune system had taken a hard hit. With the COVID pandemic in full swing, he had to stay at home most of the time and visits were curtailed, with few exceptions. Occasional visits from family and friends were subject to a strict mask policy.
The flame of his passionate activism continued to burn brightly during these last few years. Despite his physical condition, he carried on working hard, taking care of the business of producing Montréal Serai. His priority was to bring together a new generation of activists, artists and writers to take over. The founding generation was gradually withdrawing as members retired. He also continued to write. Baraka Books published his last novel, Shaf and the Remington, in September last year. The reviews were unanimous. This was his best work.
After a trip to India, returning through Europe a couple of months ago, the cancer returned. Rana was in and out of hospital again, undergoing treatment. I made a couple of visits to him during that time and Lisa, his partner, sent regular updates via email to his family and friends. I could feel him fighting, his love for life, his courage and passion ever-present. I brought music for him to listen to on my phone; new compositions and arrangements of familiar tunes I was working on, including a song we had written together for a play decades ago. We reminisced about those times and the political and social environment back then and how things continue to evolve.
On Tuesday, May 9, 2023, Lisa emailed again to say that Rana was being moved to palliative care:
“… the disease has progressed too fast and too extensively for there to be any hope of a positive outcome.”
She emailed again the next day:
“Sadly, this will be my last update. Rana passed away peacefully at 1pm today surrounded by love and tender hands…”
I am so thankful that Lisa and the rest of his family were present with him during this time. I am inspired and humbled by Lisa’s unconditional love and devotion to Rana.
The last few days have brought back so many memories of Rana’s life. I first met him in the early 1980s, when I joined Teesri Duniya, the theatre group he co-founded in 1981 with fellow Montréal playwright, Rahul Varma. It was my first time acting in a theatrical production, Sue Townsend’s The Great Celestial Cow, with Rana directing.
In 1987, he co-founded a new theatre group, Montréal Serai, with a group of fellow activists, artists, and writers producing a series of his plays through the years that followed, including Baba Jacques Dass and Turmoil at Côte-des-Neiges Cemetery, Some Dogs, On the Double, The Komagata Maru Incident, Nobody Gets Laid, The Death of Abbie Hoffman, 5 or 6 Characters in Search of Toronto, and The Sulpician Escarpment. I cherish fond memories of working together with him on these productions, as an actor under his direction, and creating the music that would form the soundtracks to his vision.
Montréal Serai, the magazine, was born in parallel to the theatre group. It was driven by a handful of passionate and determined writers, activists and community organizers, with Rana as our untiring leader. After several years as a printed journal, Montréal Serai became a web-based arts-culture-politics magazine. The writing eschewed mainstream discourse to favour alternative perspectives.
Over time, the readership grew to an international audience of readers hungry for critical and progressive writing. The content covered a variety of themes such as the decolonization of social and political spaces, the fight against oppression, resistance to authoritarianism, and the erosion of civil and political liberties.
Rana inspired and encouraged me to write myself, assigning me performances, films or books to review, later supporting my search for my own voice as a writer.
On top of all this, Rana maintained an active writing practice and published a series of four novels, Recovering Rude (Véhicule Press, 2001), The Fourth Canvas (TSAR Toronto, 2008), Fog (Baraka Books, 2019), and Shaf and the Remington (Baraka Books, 2022).
Rana’s last play, Tribes! (No Matter What), was presented this past June by Theatre Esperance and co-producer Teesri Duniya Theatre at the MAI cultural centre. The team made a heroic effort, pulling a 50-minute high-energy production together in just one month, with the hope that Rana would see it before his passing. Sadly, that was not to happen, since Rana passed away in the month of May.
Above and beyond all of his many achievements, I celebrate his humanity, his friendship and the love and support he bestowed on his family and his friends. When I retired in 2017, I started work on creating my first solo multidisciplinary performance using storytelling, music and video. I wanted to relate the story of my relationship with my father against the backdrop of decolonization and my family’s migration out of India into the diaspora. His coaching and advice had an immeasurable impact both on my writing and my presence on stage. This time last year, it filled my heart with pride to see him sitting in the front row of the MAI theatre with Lisa on the opening night despite his failing health. It’s a moment forever etched in my heart…
It’s difficult to capture a life that has been so hugely impactful on all of us in these few paragraphs; pixels on a computer screen or a smartphone, blurry and out of focus through eyes heavy with tears…
We love you, Rana; we miss you; we cherish our memories of you.
More information about Rana Bose
A book review of Shaf and the Remington from Baraka Books, his publishing house
A wonderful interview with Rana conducted by Audrey Meubus of the Quebec Writers’ Federation
Info on Rana’s last play, Tribes! (No Matter What)
Himmat Singh Shinhat
A composer and a professional musician by training, Himmat has created solo performances, soundtracks for theatre, film, contemporary dance and performance art. His creative writing has been featured in articles, reviews and short stories. In collaboration with his mother, Surjit Kaur Shinhat, Himmat has also published a series of children’s story books that present episodes from Sikh history in English, French and Punjabi.
Himmat is a co-founder and past president of Montréal Serai, and co-founder and former board member of the Festival Accès-Asie (the Montréal Asian Heritage Festival). He is also a past president of Montréal Arts Interculturels and the Centre Culturel et Communautaire Henri-Lemieux. Please visit his website.