Eminent Punjabi writer Gurdial Singh has said he will not return any of his awards even as a wave of authors have given up theirs’ in order to protest the “rising intolerance” and “government’s onslaught on freedom of expression”.
After Patiala-based Dalip Kaur Tiwana returned her Padma Shri on Tuesday, speculation was rife there would be a similar news coming from Singh’s hometown of Jaitu Mandi in Faridkot district.
Singh, a Padma Shri awardee and Tiwana’s contemporary, is one of the most celebrated Punjabi writers who has focused on the economically and socially marginalised people in rural Punjab in his short stories and novels.
After frustrating network hazards, a mobile call finally got through to the senior writer with the inevitable query.
“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 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 the bandwagon,” the 82-year-old writer was quick to reply.
So far, one Padma Shri, 10 Sahitya Akademi awards, one Shiromani Sahitkar award and one NCERT (National Council of Educational Research And Training) award for children’s writing have been returned by Punjabi writers.
According to Singh, the writers’ action would not have the desired impact on the state of affairs prevailing in the country “because we are acquainted with the country’s politics”.
“Narendra Modi’s track record in Gujarat is well known, we have seen the dynastic rule of the Congress and in Punjab a vote is bought with a bottle of liquor. Then what impact will we writers have when even the reading habits are at an all-time low? We are no Nobel laureates like Rabindranath Tagore!” he said.
“They should continue to write, pointing to the ills of politics, social inequality and exploitation of all kinds with a view to raise awareness among the people,” he added.
Singh, who remained rooted in his hometown and did not move beyond Bathinda where he taught in the regional centre of Punjabi University, has received a horde of the country’s most prestigious awards.
He made a startling entry from short stories to his classic 1964 novel Marhi da Deeva (The Last Flicker) which was adapted into a Punjabi film starring Deepti Naval, Raj Babbar and Parikshit Sahni in 1989. The widely-acclaimed film went on win a National Award. Marhi da Deeva had a Dalit sharecropper as the protagonist for the first time.
He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975, followed by the Soviet Land Nehru Award in 1986, Shiromani Sahitkar award in 1992, Paash Award in 1995, Padma Shri in 1998 and Jnanpith Literary Award (shared with Hindi writer Nirmal Verma) in 2000 among many others.
An author of many memorable novels in which he exploited his local Malwai dialect to full advantage, his 1976 novel Anhe Ghore Da Daan was made into a feature film by Gurvinder Singh. It won four national awards, besides the Golden Peacock Award at the International Film Festival of India and the Black Pearl Trophy at the Abu Dhabi film festival.
“I am completing the second volume of my novel Aahan. Some 50 pages are left, but my health is an issue,” said Singh when asked how is he engaged these days.
Although Singh dismisses the concept of the writer as an activist, his novel Aahan is about the locust attack on Punjabi farmers’ fields in the past and its tragic fallout.