Late Kesar Singh Kesar, then a professor of Punjabi at Panjab University, suggested that I interview Punjabi writer Gurdial Singh.
The year was 1978 and I had just got myself into the role of a self-styled literary correspondent — reporting on seminars, poetry readings and titbit about Punjabi writers in English. This was an area in which I faced no rivalry from my peers, who thought me to be a bit nutty to invent a vernacular beat.
The professor went on to tell me that Gurdial was a prominent writer who had received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel ‘Marhi Da Deeva’. He was visiting the city and I could come and meet him, he said. A day was fixed and I listed that story as my weekly Page 3 feature in a paper I worked for.
I reached Kesar’s Sector-19 house and was face to face with this smiling congenial writer. I took out my notepad and pen to start the interview but the writer was the one to put the first question. ‘What of my works have you read?’ I looked at him in surprise and said in all honesty, ‘None.’ The next question was how would I write about him and I simply stated: ‘What you tell me!’
Now that’s how scribes worked most of the time. It is not that I was all illiterate when it came to Punjabi. I had read quite a bit of Amrita Pritam, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, some of Nanak Singh but nothing at all of the writer I was sitting across.
He smiled and shook his head and as tea was served he took out two slim novels. One was the award-winning one and the second was called ‘Adh Chanini Raat’ and one fat congratulatory volume called the ‘Abhinandan Granth’ and asked me to read them all and return in a week for he was staying on in Chandigarh for some time.
Stumped, I took the books and stepped out feeling like a snubbed student. At office I had to tell the News Editor, a much acclaimed journalist, that I would be filing a feature on some other subject. ‘What happened to the Punjabi writer?’ I showed him the volumes I was carrying and narrated my sob story. At this, the seasoned journalist said with arrogance that I should return the books and say, ‘I don’t have the time!’
I did not do so for I was eager to learn as I earned and read ‘Marhi Da Deeva’ and was deep into the world of Jagseer and Bhani, skimped through the granth and my kind mother, an avid reader, read ‘Adh Chanini Raat’ and told me the story.
So I was back in four days for the interview which I hope I conducted quite knowledgeably. The same News Editor edited it and gave it a fine headline: ‘His Pen is his Chisel’.
I had earned my passage to Punjab by doing my first interview with a Punjabi writer and that too with one who became a legend in his lifetime. Interestingly, it was his first interview for an English newspaper. For years I was to recount this anecdote, in younger days over rum and later over coffee, and I share it again as a tribute to a rare person and an exceptional writer.