Satnam, whose real name was Gurmeet Singh, was happiest in the dark jungles of Bastar in Chhattisgarh observing the tribals who lived guerrilla lives and were referred to as ‘deadly Maoists’. He looked closely at their lives and struggles that resulted in a well-acclaimed and unusual travelogue called ‘Jangalnama’.
Satnam said in the book, written in Punjabi and later translated into 16 languages, “Dilli is only a word associated with government, and to them, government means greedy contractors, repressive police, displacement and harassment.”
While the book was being translated into English some time in 2007, I visited Satnam at his house at Ranjit Nagar in Patiala, which he shared with his mother Puran Kaur, who was into her 90s, on the brink of dementia, her back completely bent. Lively and a fine conversationalist, she grumbled to me, “He runs away to the jungles all the time and I do not know when he will return or if he will ever return.” But he always returned unexpectedly and scribbled through nights on sheets of paper that led to the exceptional book of which it is said, “‘Jangalnama’ is not merely a travelogue recording Satnam’s days in the jungle. It is a compelling argument to recognise the humanity of those in conflict with the mainstream of Indian society and to acknowledge their dream of a world free of exploitation.”
The brave Puran Kaur, who had toiled hard as a primary school teacher to make ends meet with her husband hardly earning, died five years ago, and on Thursday we got the news that Satnam had left for his final journey to the last wilderness. The writer who was an ultra-Left activist ended his life by hanging himself from the ceiling. His comrades said he was suffering from acute depression at the decline of communism.
His close friend, neighbour and ideological co-traveller, Bawa Singh, said, “In Satnam’s case, it was both personal and political despair. He was an emotional and gifted person who wrote equally well in Punjabi and English and could have been a professor at a university had he not chosen to be a party whole-timer.” This meant little money but he wrote brilliantly in journals. A great setback came when his wife left him to be with a friend and comrade of his. Satnam brought up their child Reeva, who is a college lecturer and is married, and looked after his mother. However, of late, he was melancholic and did not complete his second book, which was in English and was three-fourths done. “I was with him on Wednesday evening and as was his wont, he said he had made a noose for himself and would hang himself. Such was his alienation with life for some time. Some months ago, his friends, writer Arundhati Roy and filmmaker Sanjay Kak, visited him goading him to return to his writing but Satnam seems to have given up on life and was communicative only after a couple of drinks,” Bawa Singh added.
Satnam came from an economically backward family of the old city of Amritsar and while doing graduation at Khalsa College there he came in contact with ultra-Left groups, dropped out of college and started working full time on the writing and ideological work of the groups. He was a lucid writer on international affairs.
Remembering him, his admirer Vishav Bharti, who translated ‘Jangalnama’ into English, said, “We were fascinated by the book as students at Punjabi University, Patiala, and in 2004 organised a discussion on it, in which Satnam also participated. He was a man of conviction and did not care for fame or money. Translating his book was a great experience.”
His friend Manmohan Sharma said, “We would talk on phone every other evening sharing things that bothered us the most. His death is a loss and a tragedy that he kept his sorrows to himself.”
Comrades of Satnam, who was cremated at Patiala on Thursday morning, will organise a memorial meeting at Patiala on May 8.