Roundabout: Love, hope in the time of Covid
The debut novel of Gurmeet Karyalvi, a well-known and sensitive writer of Punjabi, opens with the harsh April sunshine of 2020 glaring at the board of Divine Light Public School, which seems wilted like the once dancing dahlia flowers in the school’s garden.
Like the flowers, the school seems withered without the ringing laughter of children in smart uniforms, who have not stepped into its gates for many days now. While students, whose smiles and frolic would liven up the building, are nowhere to be found, one finds uniformed policemen deployed there: their faces harsher than before, larger than life and expressionless.
This is how, Karyalvi, who was born and brought up, in the village of Karyala near Moga in the Malwa region of Punjab, starts the narrative of his novel Oh Ikki Din (Those Twenty-One Days) where a school has been turned into an isolation centre, as is now the case with most schools and colleges of the city.
Officialdom now rules these places of learning and hope. The inmates after putting their belongings in appointed spaces are summoned to the school grounds to listen to essential announcements to be made by SDM sahib.
As one holds Gurmeet’s novel in one’s hands looking at its beautiful cover with its distant hills and two masked faces, a woman and a man, looking longingly out of windows at a field of flowers, from which rises a menacing hand with gnarled fingers, many thoughts flit through the mind. This book reaches a year after the scene that the writer conjures takes place amid the first wave of the pandemic. Much has happened since and the people of India have travelled from hope to hopelessness during the brutal second wave, which is playing havoc with lives as Indians struggle to breathe.
Sincerity of sensitive prose
Readers of literature have revisited several books to make sense of these times from Albert Camus’ The Plague, The Diary Of Anne Frank, penned by an adolescent Jew girl in hiding with her family from the Nazi harbingers of death, as well as Gabriel Garcia Marques’ Love in the Times of Cholera.
Yet the writer who tells the saga of 21 days in isolation holds his own with the sincerity of his sensitive prose in one of the first contemporary novels in the Punjabi language on the trying times humanity has been placed in the time of Covid, in spite of strides in development made all over the world.
Gurmeet carries with him the name of his village Karyalvi, which is a common tradition in India and more so in Punjab where the writer is often known by the name of the village or town that he is born to. Many prominent writers have taken their villages and towns to heights of fame such as Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi, famous writer-editor Gurbax Singh Preetlari or this year’s Sahitya Akademi award winner, veteran Gurdev Singh Rupana. This is just to name a few. There have been instances where a person is known by the name of their poem, story or even a column as in the case of Baldev Singh Sadaknama or the one-story wonder Amar Singh ‘Kabarput’ (gravedigger). Perhaps in times to come one may find people referring to Karyalvi as Oh 21 dinan wala!
As it is Kayralvi is an established prose writer with six collections of short stories to his credit, two books of prose set in the days of militancy in Punjab and several plays and stories for children besides penning poetry. However, this is the first novel by this sensitive writer who has struggled against class and caste prejudice to reach where he has. He has done the momentous task of not just making a name for himself but has also endeared himself to readers.
Khushwant Bargarhi, founder of People’s Fourm publishing house near Faridkot, which distributes books to people at minimal rates each month, says of Gurmeet: “He is a writer of soil and richly conscious of social reality. His ease with language and a mastery over rural Punjabi idiom has always won the hearts of readers. His greatest gift is that he turns despair into hope.”
Telling story of the times
How did the seeds of this novel, which paints a vivid picture of officialdom at micro-level yet indicative to the macro-level, in which one has thrown the nation into the killing second wave as battles for power are being fought, get sowed in the writer’s mind?
Gurmeet replies: “I work in the government’s welfare department and my wife is a staff nurse, so it was a very close encounter with the management of the pandemic and the plight of the people as they struggled in loneliness, locked indoors during this man-made crisis, which prompted me to record the story of the sad seasons that we are passing through. As a writer, it was my discovery of hope in the hearts of many that egged me further and I wrote it out in a month and a half!’
The characters the writer creates are true to life and the stress of the situation where people wait on mattresses placed at a social distance in the classrooms of the Divine Light Public School. True to life is also the narration of squabbles, discrimination, bureaucratic indifference, fear and despondency but in midst of all this blossoms the unsaid love story of Jinder and Amrit and hope that moves from a character named Anand who holds even in the bleakest of times that life will always triumph over death.