Gurdial Singh’s protagonists were Punjabi society’s unhoye — people who just did not exist in the consciousness of those at the top. To him goes the credit of putting Punjabi fiction on the national map. His work and life embody the tenaciousness of the never-say- die Punjabi spirit.
For the past so many days, I had been trying desperately to get in touch with Gurdial Singh. In the past twenty-five years or more that I have known him, there hasn’t been a single occasion when my call to him has gone unresponded. If he didn’t ever pick up the call, he would always make it a point to call back.
But this time, it didn’t happen. Though I kept calling up, there was no response. Finally, on Saturday when I finally spoke to Manjiti, his eldest daughter, I learnt that he had been admitted to Max Hospital, Bathinda, since August 6, with multiple complications. And today, as I stepped out of the university class, a message flashed on my phone, saying that he was no more.
It is hard to believe that the doyen of Punjabi novel, who changed the very tenor and substance of its discourse, more than 50 years ago, with the publication of his path-breaking novel Marhi Da Deeva, is no more. Of course, frail health and weak constitution had dogged him right from childhood, but he always stood unwavering like his characters Jagseer and Bishna, refusing to be cowed down.
The indomitable spirit of his characters was, indeed, a personal creed with him. There is so much of Parsa in him that one wonders if the latter is only a fictional character. Gurdial Singh always experienced life uncomplainingly, facing all its challenges with philosophic calmness and gentle, sage-like serenity.
This is not to say that he didn’t have the true-blue, rebellious blood of a typical Punjabi in his veins. Like his characters, he accepted life in totality, but refused point-blank to compromise with its tyrannies. All his life, Gurdial Singh wielded his pen almost like a sword, cutting through the dark, deceptive web of social inequality, injustice, casteism, religious bigotry et al. He would, indeed, go down in history as a writer who used his pen to fight every conceivable form of social, political and religious oppression.
It’s not without a reason that we often think of him as a “messiah of the marginalised”. Yes, he was a fighter, and he fought till his very last breath, refusing to go under. But this time, his battle was not against life but death, and this is one battle no human has ever won. For Gurdial Singh, writing was not merely another craft or vocation; it was the very stuff and substance of his life and breath. Not many people can claim to bridge the gap between practice and precept, but he actually did it, for he lived his thoughts and wrote what he actually believed in. For him, writing was a form of activism, a way of transforming our decadent, putrefying social order.
He was one of the most read of our contemporary Punjabi writers, and he read the best there was to read. He was the happiest talking of ideas, discussing books he had read and sharing views on writers he loved to revisit. A teacher in the classical mould, he was always around to share, teach and analyse, and he would do so, compassionately as well as ungrudgingly. Never at odds, his Apollonian self-discipline fused admirably with his irrepressible Dionysian creative spirit, both in his life and his works.
In one of our discussions, he had once revealed how he had imbibed the art of story-telling from some of the great masters such as Gorky, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Balzac, Maupassant, Steinbeck and Irving Stone. He once told me how he had once spent hours reflecting over one little sequence in The Grapes of Wrath, just to be able to learn the craft of minimalism. That was Gurdial Singh, painfully punctilious, exasperatingly exacting and laboriously self-critical. His works were invariably subjected to several revisions, one more critical than the other. No wonder, the finished product was always like a well-cut, chiselled diamond.
Modest to a fault, Gurdial Singh was always media shy, eager to shrug off even the most prestigious of literary awards and honours that came his way. When he got Jnanpith in 1999 for his novel Parsa, I had interviewed him for The Hindu. In response to a typical journalistic question on what he felt on this occasion, he had spoken with a straight face, “Oh, this is for the characters of my novel or, at best, for Punjabi literature.” He was not so proud of the fact that he had got Jnanpith, but more proud of the fact that he was the second Punjabi after Amrita Pritam to have received it.
His output is, by any stretch, prodigious, as he has over 45 works of varied description to his credit. Though he earned his plaudits as a novelist and story-teller extraordinaire, he has written and experimented with diverse writings: children’s literature, plays, essays, an autobiography, travelogues and journalistic write-ups. Unlike most serious writers, he believed that a writer must reach out to the people through all possible modes of communication. Some of the qualities that set him apart as a writer are his sincere, passionate engagement with issues close to his heart, his remarkable, often rare control, even restraint over the artistic material, authenticity of his beliefs and convictions, and an unsparing, no-holds-barred articulation of it all in several of his works, fiction, non-fiction or otherwise.
Gurdial Singh has, indeed, left behind a rich literary/cultural legacy. It will take us years, if not decades, to understand the exact measure of influence his writings cast on Punjabi mind, society and culture. In some ways, his contribution has been mapped out already, but there is so much more that remains to be discovered.
I have no hesitation in saying that the real assessment of Gurdial Singh’s work is possible only if he is placed among the best in recent times. He could confidently rub shoulders with the likes of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Naguib Mahfouz and Simin Daneshwar. For now, he rests among the stars, with evening dew shedding silent tears over the departure of nature’s very own, brilliant child.
Gurdial Singh: A life stranger than fiction
Gurdial Singh was born on January 10, 1933, in a poor family of carpenters and blacksmiths at Bhaini Fateh village in Faridkot district. His early childhood was spent in nearby Jaito Mandi and he received his early education at the local middle school, encouraged by the h eadmaster, but much against the will of his parents. Before he could pass his middle school, circumstances forced him to join his father at work.
From 1945 to 1952 he did hard physical labour as a carpenter-cum-blacksmith. Hammering out iron sheets proved to be so strenuous for the frail young boy that his right arm became an inch longer than the left. In 1946, Gurdial married Balwant Kaur, a girl from Bathinda and has three children, Manjiti, his eldest daughter, was born in 1951, followed son Rabindra and another daughter, Sumeet.
Due to the persistent efforts of headmaster Madan Mohan Sharma, Gurdial resumed his studies. After physical labour, he would study for 12-14 hours a day, passing his matriculate examination and then Gyani (with honours in Punjabi). In 1954, he became a primary school teacher in a neighbouring village at a salary of Rs 60 a month. As this wasn’t enough to take care of the growing needs of the family, he took up translation work, completed his F.A. and, despite odds, did his M.A. (Punjabi) from Panjab University, Chandigarh, in 1967. In 1970, he joined as a Punjabi lecturer at Barjindra College, Faridkot and became a Reader at the Regional Centre of Punjabi University, Bathinda, from where in 1998 he retired as a Professor. He was also a Fellow of the Panjab University.
His journey as a writer progressed alongside. Winner of Padma Shree and Jnanpith, Gurdial Singh’s first story was published in Panj Darya, edited by Mohan Singh; and thereafter he was published in Preetlari and other literary magazines on a regular basis. Saggi Phul, the first collection of stories, was followed by several novels, Marhi Da Deeva (made into a film), Unhoye, Addh Chanini Raat (which won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975), Anhe Ghore Da Daan and his magnum opus Parsa. In 1998, in recognition of his service to Punjabi literature and culture, he was awarded Padma Shri. In 2000, he was honoured with Jnanpith, the highest literary award in India.