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Masters of Indian Literature - Gurdial Singh

Before I embark on this article, let me put out a disclaimer to save me from embarrassment later. There are many good critical articles about Gurdial Singh, and his translator, Prof. Rana Nayar, has come out with a 'Gurdial Singh Reader' that collects various articles about his works. Moreover, Prof. Rana Nayar himself has written some excellent articles about Gurdial Singh, and his foreward to Gurdial Singh's novels talk about the literary history of Punjabi writing and place Gurdial Singh in the perfect context. Many a time, I did not want to write this article, for I was apprehensive that I would not match the depth of Prof. Rana Nayar's writings. However, I love Gurdial Singh's works so much that I decided to go ahead and take this step, despite my misgivings; for I wanted an article on Gurdial Singh bearing my name to be available on the Internet. So, I hope you will judge me kindly on this one.

The second disclaimer I must put up is about the point of view I will adopt while writing this review. I spent all my life in South India, and I do not know North India's culture much, let alone Punjab's, except what I gather from the movies. Gurdial Singh's novels happen in a particular part of Punjab, the Malwa region; hence the cultural references in his books may sometimes escape me, which is natural. Unlike the other Punjab critics and writers, who assess Gurdial Singh's work from within the culture, I write as an outsider. Please keep this in mind when you read the article.

No one has written so eloquently about a downtrodden individual as Gurdial Singh has, the key word being 'individual.' Gurdial Singh's novels are always about individuals first; through them, we see the society in which they live and operate. Gurdial Singh is not interested in an individual's esoteric pursuits but in how a person can maintain his individuality and idiosyncracies within structures like family, society, and state and the compromises that need to be made to survive within these structures. Here it is not a heroic pursuit that Gurdial Singh depicts but rather the pursuit of something as simple as living a life of dignity, which is a challenge to the poor people and people of the 'lower castes.' The hardships the poor person faces are compounded when that person has a moral center and a clear vision of right and wrong. In other words, this poor person has individuality, which, for some reason, threatens society and the state. It is such individuals that Gurdial Singh predominantly highlights in his works. Gurdial Singh's protagonists are not looking for revolution to break all structures and restrictions; they are looking for ways to live their life according to their values, and even that requires a lot of struggle and may finally end in tragedy.

A case in point would be Bishoi, the carpenter,  the protagonist of 'Unhoye'(Survivors), who refuses to yield to the coercions of the state that wants to build a road through his property. His refusal to part with his land is seen as a direct revolt against the state, and as could be expected, the state comes down on him heavily, imprisoning him. Yet, Bishnoi's spirit is unbroken. Aided by his equally strong-willed wife, Daya Kaur, he fights this individual battle, refusing to yield an inch to the powers that want to make him bend. Gurdial Singh places this battle in the context of the society of the pre-Independence times when downtrodden men like Bishnoi did not understand much of the legalities involved and responded to acts of suppression in their own violent ways. The individuality of Bishnoi is highlighted by the characters surrounding him, be it his antagonists or his own family members, who make compromises with the powers that be to lead an easy life. The fight remains individual and doesn't become a movement and hence ends up in a tragedy, for the odds are always stacked against an individual when the said individual takes on influential people. Bishnoi's tragedy is not of the heroic variety but rather the tragedy of the unknown downtrodden human being who decided not to let go of his values. He refused to merge with those faces who bowed meekly before power and lived a life of servitude. Instead, Bishnoi wanted to live life in terms considered primitive, but it was the only way that Bishnoi knew.


"The society implicitly imposes a code of honor on him, urging him to kill the person responsible for his father's death. In this, we can see the commonalities between various societies worldwide regarding certain values like honor. This novel reminded me of Marque's, 'Chronicle of a Death Foretold."

Moddan, the protagonist farmer of 'Adh Channi Raat' (Night of Half Moon), also fights against the heavyweights of society, first for his father's honor and then for his own, killing one man first and then almost killing another. The complexity of this novel derives from the fact that Moddan is bound by the unwritten laws of the same society that he is protesting again. His feeling of revenge crystallizes not just due to his internal turmoil, having seen his father being cheated and dying a broken-hearted man. The society implicitly imposes a code of honor on him, urging him to kill the person responsible for his father's death. In this, we can see the commonalities between various societies worldwide regarding certain values like honor. This novel reminded me of Marque's, 'Chronicle of a Death Foretold.' The Marquez novel came almost a decade later, and it deals with a similar subject, especially about the inevitable drastic acts, for that is society's expectation. Gurdial Singh explores how society treats such a man once he returns from prison, not just his challenges of adapting to society but to the new circumstances, even within his family. Moddan tries to lead his own life, moving away from his brother, who had made peace with his father's killers. Yet, he is unable to digest the injustice being meted out and fights against it on an individual level, with tragic consequences.

The changing times and their impact on the morality of society and on individuals have been a constant theme across much of the literature. In the Indian context, you have some great novels along these lines, like 'Arogya Niketan' of Tarashankar Bandhopadhyay, 'Patinettam Atchakodu' (18th Parallel) of Ashokamitra, 'Teru' of Raghavendra Patil to name a few. Gurdial Singh's 'Anhe Gora Da Dhaan' (Alms in the Name of a Blind Horse) takes up the subject of changing times and how it impacts the poor in society. This novel, though, departing from his earlier ones, is not about an individual but about the whole Dalit community that suffers when times and morals change.

The novel starts with a Dalit family being thrown away from a small hut they had been occupying for a long time based on an unwritten agreement between the landowners and this peasant family. The new owners demand an ownership deed, asking them to prove their ownership of that small piece of land, when everyone knows that the land does not legally belong to the poor family, but they have been permitted to stay there and make it their home. In the changed times, a spoken word, a promise, an assurance no longer matters. Legal contract matters; they can be dispossessed if one does not have it. That is the line taken by the government officials, who are in cohorts with the rich and the powerful. As many of us know, the land is a primary driving force for industrialization and greed. This combination of greed and industrialization plays out, affecting the poorest of the poor.


While industrialization has industrialists as targets, with whom negotiations can happen, maybe leading to a decent resolution, modernity has no such antagonist and must be dealt with individually. The march of progress is always threatening, and the flux takes time to settle and, in the intervening time, affects a lot of people. In this novel, Gurdial Singh also deals with the progress of modernity. Melu, the cycle rickshaw pullers, and others like him are feeling the force of modernity, for auto rickshaws are slowly replacing the cycle rickshaws, affecting their incomes - and hence their lives - badly. While moving away from the cycle rickshaw and buying an auto rickshaw could be a solution, there is no capital available for these people who do know what could be a solution but do not have the means of implementing the said solution. So to change with times, which we are exhorted to do, not only do we require a change in mindset, but we also require money. This need has been felt by many small owners for a while - like when automatic Xerox machines replaced manual Xerox machines.

"When you depict the village honestly with all its warts, we get a better understanding of the place and its dynamics from such novels than we get from reading the newspapers".

A legal document being more important than a promise given earlier had played out earlier in Gurdial Singh's first novel - and his most loved one - 'Marhi Da Deeva' (The Last Flicker). Jagseer, a Dalit Sikh, is a tenant farmer and farms the land given to his father by his friend Dharam Singh. Jagseer's father is treated like his own brother by Dharam Singh and gifts him half an acre of land. None of this is documented, and now Dharam Singh's son, with support from his mother, wants to throw out Jagseer from this piece of land that he has been farming for a long time. An aged Dharam Singh is unable to control his family, leading to tragic consequences for Jagseer.


Let me hasten here to add that though what I have condensed and said is true and is, in fact, the central concern of Gurdial Singh, it must not be interpreted that Gurdial Singh's writing is dry and his characters are unidimensional, representing a point of view. Nothing could be further from the truth, for Gurdial Singh was a writer with an extraordinary craft in his possession and a poet when it came to using language. (Let me add that when I say 'poet,' I mean the poetic imagery that he conjures up and not the poetry inherent in the use of language, for I do not know Punjabi.) The ability to tell a good story, to create believable characters, and to put us in a certain milieu are all the hallmarks of great writers, be it Tolstoy or Marquez. Take the case of his first novel, 'Marhi Da Deeva.' At its center lies a forbidden love story, the story of Jagseer's unrequited love for his friend's wife. This is placed in the context of the village, the context of exploitation, and the context of the family. Gurdial Singh always ensures that even the most inconsequential characters have a shape of their own and thus bring alive the atmosphere of a place. For example, in one of the novels, a man attends the Panchayat meeting regularly and sides with whoever is speaking, thus earning the scorn of the people around him. This person has no significant role in the novel, but such characters give depth to the portrayal of society as a whole. Similarly, we have an excellent description of the poor family to whom Bishnoi lends one of his hand carts in 'Unhoye.'


The telling of the story is critical to keeping the reader engaged, and Gurdial Singh was an excellent storyteller. His craft was such that he could immediately draw you into the story, and his brilliance made it look like you were watching a standard daily occurrence in the village. No artifice, unnecessary climactic moments, or ideologies thrust slyly on you. The story flows in a natural fashion, like the flow of a stream over obstacles making it look not like Gurdial Singh was a storyteller plotting his tale but rather a person who recorded the happenings in his village accurately. That craft of Gurdial Singh to obliterate himself and never reveal the author's hand in his novels has always fascinated me, and that is one reason why I consider him a great master.

His poetic touch lends a lot of balance to his novel, ensuring they don't become a long dirge but rather novels that seep deep into your heart and remain ensconced there for a long time. The whole of 'Marhi Da Deeva' turns into great poetry due to that poetic climax. Before the murder is committed in 'Adh Channi Raat,' the description of that night is amazing and poetic and contrasts the beauty of nature and the evil inherent in human beings. The one novel that is different from the others is 'Rete Di Ikk Mutti' (A Handful of Sand). This novel has some excellent poetic passages, like the novel's climax or the incident where Amar Singh's wife almost gives herself to her sexual desires. The burning desire within Soni is communicated so effectively to us that we are not shocked at the final denouement, for we understand her needs clearly. All of this is possible due to Gurdial Singh's ability to generate poetry whenever needed and fit it in appropriate places, thus taking the novel to a different plane altogether.

When you depict the village honestly with all its warts, we get a better understanding of the place and its dynamics from such novels than we get from reading the newspapers. Gurdial Singh's novels also become both historical and cultural artifacts, for they depict the goings-on in the villages with a sharp eye that misses nothing. In the process, we learn a lot; for example, we learn how syncretic the culture of the land was, where Hindus and Sikhs have so much in common, the legends, the music, philosophy, and so on. For example, there is a lot of religious music in 'Parsa,' and 'Anhe Khode De Dhan' starts with a tale of the churning of the ocean being told to a small kid. These kinds of records help us understand our history, especially during these times when people want to reject this syncretism and become 'pure.' 

Dark Background

"Such opposing ideas bring into relief the main problem. At the same time, we understand the situation's complexity; thus, the novel moves away from a simple didactical plane to a higher plane of complexity."

Another side effect of a candid portrait of society is the appearance of other strands of concern, which sometimes run parallel to the main thread and sometimes merge into the main thread. Two such threads relate to old age and the philosophy of life. In almost every novel of his, we have an old character or a character that grows old. Jagseer's mother, Moddan's mother are old when the novel opens, Daya Kaur grows old as the novel progresses, and so does Bishnoi. It is a terrible time for these people who were hale, healthy, and were always working throughout the day. With their senses slowly deserting them, these proud and independent individuals have to depend on others; sometimes, the others are kind, and sometimes, they are not. The onset of old age and the question of mortality naturally leads to the philosophy of life, and the characters discuss this aspect of their lives often. Old age becomes a time to summarize your life and its achievements, if any, and it is also the time to think about your generation's future. They would play no part in this future, which some of them find bleak, adding to the tragedy. In a way, Gurdial Singh shines a light on the tragic aspects of life, not on one particular aspect, but on the life lived as a whole.

The inevitability of friends comes out as another bright thread in Gurdial Singh's works. Each of the protagonists has a loyal friend, standing by them through thick and thin, advising and supporting them in times of need. Gurdial Singh also brings in characters who provide an alternate path, a path not taken by the protagonist, in order to highlight the main character's unyielding nature. Moddan's brother and Bishnoi's brother compromise with the enemies of their brothers and live a good life, but is it a life of honor? That is the question that Moddan and Bishnoi raise. Such opposing ideas bring into relief the main problem. At the same time, we understand the situation's complexity; thus, the novel moves away from a simple didactical plane to a higher plane of complexity.

Those who have read Gurdial Singh must wonder why I haven't spoken about his epic novel, 'Parsa.' "Parsa' is a slightly different novel in that it does not speak of the subaltern castes but speaks about a Brahim Jat. The scope of 'Parsa' is much wider than the earlier novels, and there is an inward-looking focus in this novel, which again differs from his other novels. This novel requires an article on its own; maybe I will write one later. As of now, I give you this excellent article by Prof. Rana Nayar, who talks about 'Parsa' in a lot of detail, giving us enormous information and insights. You will agree that this is probably one of the most definite articles on 'Parsa.' For those interested, here is the link:

Gurdial Singh has been criticized for making all his novels male-centric, a criticism that Prof. Rana Nayar addresses in his foreword to a collection of Gurdial Singh's short stories. Prof. Rana Nayar says that in the short stories, Gurdial Singh gives women equal weightage and argues that we cannot see Gurdial Singh as a male-centric writer. Within the context of just the novels, men are indeed at the center of the stories, and though there are strong women characters like Daya Kaur, they are not the central characters. Yet, it must also be said that the lack of a central woman character does not take away from the main concerns of the novels, for the women too suffer along with the men.

"One of the primary translators, who also is a great fan and evangelist of Gurdial Singh's work, is Prof. Rana Nayar. He has translated four of Gurdial Singh's novels out of the six available in English translation."

We -  those who cannot read Punjabi -  must consider ourselves lucky that Gurdial Singh has been translated into English, thus enabling us to partake in his great works. One of the primary translators, who also is a great fan and evangelist of Gurdial Singh's work, is Prof. Rana Nayar. He has translated four of Gurdial Singh's novels out of the six available in English translation. The four novels being: 'Adh Channi Raat' (Half Moon Night, which he has translated with Pushpinder Say), 'Anhe Ghode De Daan' (Alms in the Name of a Blind Horse), 'Unhoye' (The Survivors), and 'Parsa.' (Unfortunately, 'Unhoye' and 'Adh Chanini Raat' are out of print.) Additionally, Prof.Rana Nayar has also brought out a 'Gurdial Singh Reader' wherein the author's books are discussed in great detail. (I bought this reader, but I haven't read it yet because I didn't want my article to be influenced by the writings in this book. Now that I have written this article, I shall start reading this book.)

Prof.Rana Nayar has also translated Gurdial Singh's short stories, which are available in an e-book form.

Prof. Rana Nayar not only translates but has written some excellent prefaces to the novels he has translated. Tracing the origin of Punjabi literature, he tells us about Gurdial Singh's place in Punjabi literature in no ambiguous terms. Reading these extremely knowledgeable forewords is a great pleasure because we can learn so much from these writings. Prof. Rana Nayar's translation technique, especially that of retaining certain Punjabi words in Punjabi and not translating them, gives us a whiff of Punjabi culture and draws us into the culture effortlessly. His translations are fluid and easy to read without being simplistic. He does write about the challenges he faces translating Gurdial Singh, and once you read it, you realize how hard he must have worked to get these gems to us. Until and unless someone is deeply in love with the author's works, this kind of translation is not possible, and from my interaction with him, I can categorically state that he is a huge fan of Gurdial Singh's works. (When I remarked to him that I love Gurdial Singh's novels, but I cannot get a couple of them, he immediately sent me two novels he had translated. I am indebted to him for this gesture.)

The other two novels available in English: 'Marhi Di Deeva' (The Last Flicker) and 'Ret Di Ikk Mutti' (A Handful of Sand), have been translated by Ajmer S.Rode and Ravi Nandan Sinha, respectively.

Though Gurdial Singh wrote mainly about rural India, his concerns are still valid both in rural and urban India, especially with technology enabling the state to surveil its citizens around the clock; the meaning of privacy and individual freedom undergoes a drastic change. The challenge for individuals to maintain their individuality without aligning with any group becomes harder in the social media era, where everyone, not just the state, is ready to pounce on you for real and imagined hurts. To be an individual in this era requires great courage and effort, and we can find solace in Gurdial Singh's works that we are just continuing a long tradition, where despite opposition, an individual wants to remain an individual who does not bow down or humiliate himself. This spotlight on an individual, that to one who is downtrodden, is what gives Gurdial Singh its gravitas. His poetic prose makes him a poet of the oppressed and establishes him as one of the great writers of India, along with writers like Tarashankar, Basheer, Ashokamitran, and Bhyrappa. All these writers can stand shoulder to shoulder with any great writer worldwide.


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