How come so many writers from Punjab have returned their awards? Is it a politically driven move? Who is behind all this? Such are the questions being asked ever since Punjabi writers have played a major part in the nationwide literary protest. Often these questions come from those unacquainted with the literary and cultural traditions of Punjab and the core of Punjabi consciousness.
Well, everyone has heard about the big, fat Punjabi weddings but here we are face to face with the big, bold Punjabi literary protest and not quite sure what to make of it. In a matter of four days 10 writers returned their Sahitya Akademi awards, the highest from one state so far, one writer her Padma Shri, another his Shiromani Sahitkar and one a National Council for Education, Research and Training award for children’s literature. Well, what’s happening? This was the surprised exclamation by many who are puzzled to learn what the phrase Punjabi by Nature, the name of an upmarket Delhi restaurant, could mean.
It would be far-fetched to say this assorted literary ensemble writing in different genres, coming from different backgrounds with marked differences in ideology have been hand-picked by the Congress or say the Aam Aadmi Party to embarrass the ruling party at the Centre or tilt some election in the state. Writers do not have any role to play, but for casting their individual votes, in electoral politics. In fact singers, actors and comedians are the ones in demand when it comes to gathering or engaging the masses. And with a little bit of luck even a comedian can well turn politician. This unlucky-for-some number of 13 writers is indeed a manifestation in life of Wordsworth’s description of poetry: ‘A spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’.
However, intellectuals point out that Punjab has a long history of literary dissent from the times of Guru Nanak to the present. The national movement for independence had writers fully involved all over the country and so also the Punjabi writers. Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan says: “Nanak Singh’s collection ‘Khooni Vaisakhi’ on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was banned and Babu Ferzodeen Sharaf was sentenced to one year rigorous imprisonment for writing ‘seditious’ poetry for the Guru ka Bagh and Jaitu agitations.”
This dissent became an organised movement in 1936 when the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) was formed in 1936. Some of the prominent writers from Punjab, though writing in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and English, in the pre-Independence years were Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Mohan Singh, Sahir Ludhianvi, Amrita Pritam, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Balraj Sahni, Mulk Raj Anand and many others.
Thus, Punjabi writers have had a legacy of social commitment and a tradition of including the political in their work. The writers who have now given up their awards in protest addressed the politics of their times with many of them decrying Partition that split Punjab into two in their writings. At the same time, they tried to pick up the bits and pieces of the tragedy and renew ties with Punjabis across the border.
The give-it-up writers are all above 60 and exposed to the movements post-Independence, including the brief spring thunder of the Naxalite movement that rose like an echo of the larger uprisings in Telangana and Bengal. It was suppressed all too soon but its impact on literature was deep, giving us some of the best writers. Satyapal Gautam, founder head of the department of philosophy, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), says: “Many of these writers wrote poems and stories in protest against the Emergency imposed in 1975. They were witness to the militant years of Punjab and the killings of the Sikhs in 1984. They know what it is to suffer in times of divisive politics and that is why they have reacted so quickly to the excesses in present times.”
The troubled decade-and-a-half of the Khalistani movement in Punjab saw communal polarisation and many writers were killed for their resistance. Those killed included Jaimal Padda, Paash, Sumit Singh, young editor of ‘Preetlari’ and ‘Punjabiat’ propagator Vishwanath Tiwari. It was in those unhappy days that Surjit Patar wrote his famous poem: ‘Kal Waris Shah nu wandea si, Ajj Shiv Kumar di waari hai/Oh zakham tuhanu bhull vi gaye, Je navean di hore tiari hai’ (Yesterday we divided Waris Shah, today it is the turn of Shiv Kumar Batalvi/Have you forgotten the old wounds that you are looking for more anew?’ Harking back to the misery of Partition, the poem called for a pluralistic and inclusive society.
Passion and commitment
For writers who come out precociously with a book without having written in a magazine or journal to test their merit or collecting a series of SMS a la Kapil Sibal, this give-it-up tribe may seem strange. Honourable Shashi Tharoor’s warning of ‘dishonouring recognition’ is needless when it comes to writers of Indian languages of these generations. Each one of them was recognised by the readers for they recited in public and published in magazines long before they dared to bring out a book. All Indian languages have a strong and continuing tradition of little magazines. The oldest literary magazine in Punjabi, ‘Preetlari’, is young at 82. It was founded by Gurbaksh Singh in 1933.
The talents of these writers were shaped in times when there was no liberalisation, corporatisation, or consumerism. Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, mobiles or even a computer were non-existent for this lot. A work of literature was never a commodity or a product; it was passion, commitment and hard work. As far as awards go, to those who live with their words in the minds of readers, awards may or may not come. Once they come, they are precious but if the conscience demands and a symbolic gesture must be made, these can well be parted with: this is what these whimsical souls have shown.
One famous line, gleaned from folk literature, describes this phenomenon termed as Punjabiat: ‘Do pair ghat turna, par turna madak de naal’ (One may live a year less, but one will live with pride and dignity).
Why the protest?
As many as 35-plus writers, including recipients of the young writer and translation awards, have returned their awards protesting against, as they say, the rising intolerance in the country under the present central government. Many major writers have resigned from their posts in the Akademi’s executive. On September 4, Hindi fiction writer Uday Prakash was the first to return his Sahitya Akademi award in protest against the killing of Kannada Sahitya Akademi winner MM Kalburgi. A month later Nayantara Sahgal returned her 29-year-old award on what she described as a ‘vicious assault on India’s culture of diversity and the right to dissent’. Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi followed and the trickle has turned into a tide of discontent with writers from different parts of the country joining the protest.
The write side
Rupa Bajwa, a young writer of English who won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2006 for her debut novel ‘The Sari Shop’, is from Amritsar. She writes on Facebook that she has received 464 messages asking her why she has not returned her award. Then 289 messages more ask her why she is supporting writers returning their awards. Her reply to the 464 people is that she is entitled to making her own decisions and that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh did not give her the award so why should she return it because of them. To the other 289, her answer is that she respects the intent and method of dissent adopted by the writers. However, she adds that some writers may choose to express their dissent through their writings.
Missed the bus
When veteran writer Gulzar Singh Sandhu, who has just taken over as president of the Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi, was asked what he thought of Punjabi writers outdoing one another in returning their awards in protest, his reply was: “The first few were genuine but now it has become more of a fad.” But would he return his Sahitya Akademi Award? To this his reply was, “You see I got late. I went to Kasauli for the Khushwant Singh Lit Fest and I don’t know how to use the Internet so I did not come to know what was happening.” Well Sandhu Sahib, never mind the missed bus.
The desi way
When a local wit was asked that would all these return gifts to the Sahitya Akademi make a difference, he related a desi joke to make a point. It went thus that a Punjabi lad was showing off his bright red knickers. When a friend asked him what was so special about them, he boasted that a train would stop at the sight of them. Challenged to prove it, he stood on the rail track. The train did not stop and he jumped away just in time. Sheepish he told the friend, “So what if the train could not stop. At least, I made it screech out loud!”
Summing it up
Now Punjabis are a money-minded lot, else how would they be so prosperous? So a group of wannabe writers were discussing which award would be the easiest to return because returning a trophy also means returning the cash award. So after viewing the losses and gains, it was decided that returning one of the Padma awards would be best as no money comes with it and as far as prestige goes, returning one such award is more prestigious than getting it.