Jagseer was Punjabi fiction’s first Dalit hero, and he stepped out of Gurdial Singh’s 1964 debut novel ‘Marhi da Deeva’ (translated into English as ‘The Last Flicker’). Yet, there was nothing heroic about him. Poverty, an unfulfilled life, unrequited love, addiction to opium and passivity went into the the making of Jagseer who paved the way for the sub-genre of Dalit Fiction and other subaltern writing in Punjabi.
The writer breathed his last at a private hospital in Bathinda on Tuesday after prolonged illness. Gurdial was on ventilator support since August 13 after he fell unconscious at his residence in Jaitu town of Faridkot district. He is survived by his wife, Balwant Kaur, a son and a daughter.
Born into a Ramgarhia family of traditional carpenters in Jaitu near Bathinda, Gurdial created his masterpieces in the ‘chabara’ (room on the terrace) and went on to win the most prestigious honours, including the Jnanpith Award (2000), the Sahitya Akademi Award (1975) and the Padma Shri (1998). He struggled hard to study, having to return to labour now and then; but deeply instilled in him was the very dignity of labour. All this, and a countrywide appreciation he earned, while he remained rooted in his hometown and chose not to move beyond Bathinda, where he taught in the regional centre of Punjabi University.
Well-known Hindi critic Vishnu Khare, in an appraisal of Gurdial’s work when he won the Jnanpith honour, said, “His essential sensibility and locale are rural and his medium is not the urban, middle-class Punjabi but a language liberally, even belligerently, laced with his native Malwi (Malwai) vernacular. In this he resembles Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’, who shook sophisticated Hindi out of its urbane narcissism with his melange of dialects from northern Bihar.”
He treaded his own path in other ways too. When there was a spate of returning awards in protest against “rising intolerance” last year, with Punjab leading the way, Gurdial did not do so. “I will not return the Padma Shri or any other award, even though I am pained by the growing intolerance and more. I feel that the immediate response of writers, following the killings of writers in Karnataka and the beef-related lynching in Dadri, was spontaneous and worthy. But, after that, it has become a cult of sorts and I have no wish to jump on to the bandwagon,” he said in an interview to HT.
His message to the writers was, “They should continue to write, pointing to the ills of politics, social inequality and exploitation of all kinds, and raise awareness among the people.” And that is just what Gurdial did in a long and prolific writing career.
His novels include ‘Anhoye’ (1966), ‘Adh Chanani Raat’, ‘Parsa’ (1999), and ‘Aahan’ (2009). Besides, he published 11 collections of short stories, plays and other prose. His two novels, ‘Marhi da Deeva’ and ‘Anhe Ghore da Daan’, were made into successful movies.
Paying him a tribute, Sukhdev Singh Sirsa, president of the Punjabi Sahit Akademi, said, “He was one of the last ones in the Munshi Prem Chand tradition of writing about the downtrodden. He brought alive the struggle of the working classes of rural Punjab. He leaves behind a rich collection of work and he was writing to the very last. His death is a big loss.” Gurdial’s translator into English, Rana Nayar, said “His passing away has left me bereft.”
“Gurdial Singh’s talent was in the fact of bringing out the extraordinary in an ordinary character in keeping with the Sikh religious philosophy. I was privileged that he translated my novel ‘Zindaginama’ into Punjabi in 1994.” - Krishna Sobti, Hindi novelist
“I was amazed by the structure of ‘Anhe Ghore da Daan’ in which events take place in less than 24 hours and a Dalit family is pushed from the village to the city. I found Gurdial Singh a very gentle person and was thrilled when he saw the film on DVD in Jaitu and liked it.” - Gurvinder Singh, filmmaker, who adapted ‘Anhe Ghore da Daan’ into an award-winning movie
“He did not return his award when we were doing so but he told me that he is as disturbed by the events in the country. However, he said, the awards were because of the love of people for his writings.” - Mangalesh Dabral, Hindi poet