Ajeet Cour: A Punjabi Writer

ajeet cour.jpg

Since I’ve written a lot on Indian writers from Bengal (and lately, the South), I often get emails from people saying, “when are you going to write about Punjabi literature? And what about Sikh writers?” My response is pretty simple: a person needs to be inspired. Ethnic and religious loyalty ought to take a back seat to the quality of the writing, and the effect it has on you as an individual reader. If that means Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, or Zadie Smith get more of one’s critical attention than Amrita Pritam, so be it.

But I was recently invited to give a talk on Sikh writers at a small Sikh Studies conference at Hofstra University, so I started reading authors that I didnÂ’t know very well — and I was, in fact, quite impressed. So over the course of this summer I hope to profile some Punjabi writers, including some that are Sikh, starting with Ajeet Cour, Kartar Singh Duggal, and Khushwant Singh (who writes in English). Incidentally, many of these writers’ works are accessible in North America and the UK, through sites like Indiaclub.com or Amazon Marketplace sellers.

With Ajeet Cour, the place to start is her memoir, Pebbles in a Tin Drum, published in Hindi and Punjabi as “Khanabadosh” (which means “nomad” or “vagabond”). This isn’t a conventional memoir so much as an arrangement of the key crises in Cour’s life. It starts out of order — with her moving account of her adult daughter’s death from a severe burn accident in France. But then Cour backs up, and tells the story of her family’s move from Lahore to Delhi during the Partition; of her failed romance with her English teacher, Baldev (through whom she started on her path to the writing life); of her failed marriage and subsequent divorce; and finally, of her life as a single mother in Delhi who struggled to support herself and her daughters while working as a writer in the 1970s and 80s. She also talks about her experiences as a Sikh woman in Delhi during the riots in 1984. And there are two chapters that I rather liked on the unlikely topic of her legal battles with her landlord — which dragged on for years and even went to the High Court. This experience gives Ajeet Cour a pronounced hostility for Indian government bureaucracy, which shows up in some of her short stories. For instance, in the collection Dead End there is a short story about a family that tries to get justice for their daughter, after she was raped and murdered by Indian soldiers during the troubles in Punjab. Instead of justice or sympathy, all they get is endless bureaucratic run-around. (Sadly, a familiar story for people who have suffered as a result of communal violence in recent years.)

Even though CourÂ’s life has been pretty unconventional, she remains in many ways a traditional Punjabi Sikh woman. When her daughter is dying in a French hospital, for instance, she takes frequent recourse in prayer:

I had only been saying to God, ‘Look I have not committed any sins all these years. . . . Bless my daughter and help her get well. She is going to be nineteen on the twenty-sixth of November. This is no age to go through such suffering. At this age she should enjoy herself. You know fully well how she has spent her childhood sharing her mother’s poverty and how she had to face her father’s temper and hatred. Things have just started getting a little better. It isonly now that we can afford to relax in the evenings and listen to music and discuss books. Our greatest strength is that we have each other as friends. The friendship I enjoy with my two daughters has given warmth to my life and dispelled the pain from my existence.

The quality of the translation isn’t great, but there’s a kind of directness and sincerity here and elsewhere in Cour’s writing that comes through anyway, and that I really admire. (There aren’t very many prominent Indian writers of Cour’s generation that are avowedly religious. Most are either silent on their religious beliefs or use their writings to emphasize the “backwardness” or even the danger of naïve religious belief.)

Another passage I admire from Pebbles in a Tin Drum is CourÂ’s description of the room she was born in and lived in until they had to leave Lahore:

Some are born in gypsy families and others become gypsies through a conspiracy of circumstances.

Isn’t it ironic that man remains totally ignorant about the two most significant events of his life, his birth and his death? The first takes place due to negligence and the second leads to the disappearance of its protagonist from the world. Dust into dust and air into air. You can go on searching eternally but you won’t find those who have blended into earth and air. Poets are free to make the elements — the earth, the air and the sky — as romantic as they like but I asure you that these elements are not only deaf and dumb, they are also blind.

I was told about the first major incident of my life by my mother and grandmother long after it had taken place. Showing me a large, spacious bed they had said, ‘You were born on this bed.’ The bed was placed in a spacious, airy room in my grandmother’s house in Lahore. A wide bed made of strong wood, it was supported by thick, round, carved legs which reminded me of the silver-encircled ankles of Haryanvi women working along with their men in the fields.

And then a bit more on the tension between romance and the real world. As a young girl Cour was attracted to the windows in her house, which her family had covered in heavy curtains:

I feel all that has become a part of my constitution, my texture. Or maybe I have been created by a blend of all these things. You could even say that it was the conspiracy of that room which had blended with my blood the moment I was born. A poet would say that every object in that room was a symbol, a sign whose meaning was revealed layer by layer at a later stage.

However, I am not a poet, I am a storyteller. Of course I can say this much, that I have always longed to feel the open, free air and vast areas of empty space stretched around me. Unfortunately, every window that life threw open on the rippling breezes and blue skies where the balmy sun floated like will-oÂ’-the-wisp was blocked by heavy bamboo curtains, denying me access to what I desperately wanted to reach.

In a sense this is a metaphor for her struggle (which I think is everyone’s struggle) to experience life in its ideal, beautiful form — in the broad daylight as it were. Most of the time we are stuck indoors with the light on partly cloudy, fussing with the curtains. (This is a domesticated version of Plato’s allegory of the cave of course.)

There is more that could be said about Pebbles in a Tin Drum as well as the short stories of Cour’s that I’ve been reading (in Dead End and Other Stories). But I’ve run on too long already. So I’ll just end with a quote from Cour’s story “Returning Home,” which features an adult woman’s reminiscence of her childhood fascination with her mystical grandfather. It again gets into the theme of religion, though I think it does so from a somewhat secular perspective:

He recited the lyrical hymns from the Holy Book for hours. Whenever he was free-which he almost always was!-he climbed the stairs, humming, and went to the meditation room, and recited hymns from the Holy Book. While reciting, he closed his eyes and climbed down those invisible stairs which lead one to a very dark and very bright spot in the inner recesses of the soul. He spent long hours at that pitch-dark and brilliant, luminous spot in the inner core of his being. And his lips quivered with silent laughter.

I often saw him sitting like that, absolutely quiet. With the open pages of the Holy Book spread before him, his eyes closed, completely oblivious of his surroundings, a silent laughter spread across his face like sunshine, and his hands dancing gracefully.

This is one of the earliest memories of my childhood. Though we always feel that everything connected with those early days of our life were wrapped up in unknown mysteries and inexplicable magic, I honestly feel that my grandfather was a mystery, he was magic personified.

Any comments on Ajeet Cour — or other Punjabi writers you admire (including those who write in English)? I’m open to suggestions for writers to talk to about.

95 thoughts on “Ajeet Cour: A Punjabi Writer

  1. Fantastic post! Wish I knew of Punjabi authors. Is the woman who wrote Aag ka Darya (River of Fire) Punjabi?

  2. Here is link to a website I often visit. This site has some of the best in punjabi poetry. Some of it is translated in english, but mostly in Gurmukhi or Shahmukhi.

    “Sant Singh Sekhon” and “Gurdial singh” would my recomendations. Their work might not be translated into English.

  3. I just checked and Indiaclub carries some translated works of both Gurdial singh and Sant singh sekhon

  4. Eddie, you’re thinking of Qurratulain Hyder. She isn’t Punjabi, but I have read “River of Fire” and might post on it some time if I have a chance to re-read it. If you have any impressions of that novel you wish to share, feel free.

    HM, thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.

  5. I just read this novel by this Sikh guy from London called Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal. The novel is called Tourism and it is a tedious self-satisfied piece of Sub Michel Houellbecq trash. About a Punjabi guy from Southall who sleeps his way through London society, passing lots of liberal baiting comments on race and religion and modern multicultural England. Lots of explicit sex, casual nihilism, desperate to be ‘edgy’ and ‘dangerous’. Just comes across as juvenile and predictable.

  6. Ajeet Cour’s daughter is the acclaimed artist Arpana Cour.

    I have to say, Ajeet Cour’s life sounds eventful and fascinating.

    Perhaps the most acclaimed post-partition Punjabi poet is Shiv Kumar Batalvi. The article linked to gives an overview of his long narrative poem ‘Loona’.

  7. I am curious about the last name “cour”, is it another version of Kaur? is it a very commong last name?

  8. MG, It’s just an unusual transliteration of the standard last name “Kaur,” which is given to Sikh women. I’m not exactly sure why she chose this transliteration rather than the standard one, but this is the way her name is always spelled in English.

  9. Khushwant Singh is my all-time favorite Indian writer, Punjabi or not. His intellectual range covers glib but incisive commentories on people and practices as well as serious, textbook quality writing on Sikh religion.

    Just last night I picked up “India,” a little book of essays he wrote almost fifty years ago. His observations still seem current and relevant.

  10. MG, It’s just an unusual transliteration of the standard last name “Kaur,” which is given to Sikh

    This is commonly seen in indian-origin names in the Carribean and Fiji. usally occurs when people immigrate to a foreign country, either to hide their identity or happens because they don’t know how to spell it in english.

  11. I’ve been a fan of Bhai Vir Singh – his works were romantic, but still inspiring in terms of its Sikhi. (And I’m not one for romance novels, either.) His book, Sundri, always got me hyped up when I was younger, and still does so. I read it quite a few times since that first time I was forced to for the Hemkunt Sahib speech competition. :)

    I would like to see more modern Punjabi authors though and have a chance to bring their works more into the mainstream.

  12. Busy as Amardeep is with book writing and blogging at two sites, I am not sure if he checks his other blog regularly. I will copy a comment I left at the “quieter” blog.

    I read “Pebbles..” many years ago and have forgotten much of the details. I do remember however, the heart rending description of how helpless and emotionally bereft Ms Caur became when her younger daughter lay dying and eventually died in Paris. Her grief had an exhausting quality to it and I don’t mean it in a bad way. I remember thinking that if I as a stranger, felt so wrung out by her all consuming sorrow at the loss of a daughter, how did her other living daughter feel? That daughter, Arpana Cour is a well known artist. Her work is very good but quite gloomy.

    I wish you would do a post or just comment on this very aspect of Punjabi writing. The childlike (not childish) style of expressing overwhelming emotions – be it love or grief. There is almost a performative quality to it which is not to say that the emotions are not genuine. For example, Amrita Pritam’s lament for Sahir Ludhianvi startled me when I first read her book at the age of 18 or 19 – an age when I took much more kindly to excessive hyperbole than I do now. Yet in spite of wearing their hearts on their sleeves, at their core, these women were very strong willed, independent women – far from being shrinking violets.

    I don’t know if I have made myself quite clear but it is a contradiction that baffles me about Punjabi writing and to some extent, Punjabi social customs.

  13. Ruchira Paul,

    You start by talking about Punjabi writing but add the word “custom” at the end. Can you expand on that? Because that is not a literary matter (more of an anthropological?)

    I used to like Khushwant Singh, until he lost his mind and wrote a mean-spirited, petty and flimsy piece on Amrita Pritam after she died. I don’t think he is the best Sikh writer by any means. I don’t consider him a very serious writer either.

    I remember reading ‘Chitta Lahoo’(white blood) by Nanak Singh…now, he is a master.

    PS: There are Sikh writers not mentioned thus far, but I’ll have to be selfish about that, because I plan on translating two of them in the near future!

  14. That daughter, Arpana Cour is a well known artist. Her work is very good but quite gloomy.

    I think I remember reading how Arpana and her mother were surrounded by a mob in 1984 in their car and barely escaped with their lives. Added to that the ancestral memories of partition passed to her by her mother, by all accounts a tough childhood with a family life described as being full of ‘hatred’, and the trauma of her sisters violent death, and you get a sense of how and why her art may be shaded. I remember seeing some deeply affecting paintings of Guru Nanak that she made, which I can’t find online at present.

  15. I knew I was going to get into some trouble by adding “custom” at the end of my comment. But I did it after some consideration and not as a casual, thoughtless quip. Literature after all mines custom, culture and social anthropology for its inspiration.

    I don’t mean it in a derogatory sense. (Full disclosure: I am not a Punjabi but am married to one. That, and numerous close Punjabi friends since childhood; I know what I am talking about.) There is no doubt in my mind that public display of raw emotions is more acceptable in the Punjabi community – that is neither good nor bad, just different. Most other communities especially, Bengalis, south Indians and Maharashtrians tend to be more reserved. It may be compared to the difference between the stiff upper lip of northern European societies as compared to the more expressive Latin (or American) cultures.

    Punjabis tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves more unselfconsciously, both in grief and in joy. Be it the exuberance of a Punjabi wedding (although I hear that ALL Indian weddings now model themselves on that template) or the grieving at a death watch, starkly overt expressions of emotions are acceptable.

    Pali brings up the partition. Let me add something about that issue also. My own parents, came from the eastern half (Bengal) of partitioned India which saw far less violence than the western half, from which my husband’s family comes. Both my husband and I wered born after independence but grew up in households with completely different attitudes and memories of the partition. My side of the family which lost far more in material wealth than did my husband’s family, felt less torn about the partition and their loss than does my husband’s father. My parents were able to make reasonable lives for themselves in India and went about their business more or less in a forward looking manner. They talked to us about the partition in terms of history, politics and mostly the perfidy of the British in bringing it about.

    But my father in law, who too did well for himself, had seen incredible violence as a young man escaping with his family. He is much more sentimental about his erstwhile home and bears a far greater sense of betrayal. His account of the loss vacillates between regret, fear and doubt. He is an acclaimed Urdu author who writes with Punjabi sensibilities. The bulk of his work relates to the partition experience – sometimes critical, sometimes sad and always nostalgic. And very, very emotional – I detect the same sense of “wailing” sorrow in his work as I did in Ajeet Cour’s. Unlike my parents who too dearly loved and missed the city they grew up in, my in-laws have gone back several times to Pakistan to visit their old home, neighborhood, college and friends. Without appearing to be judgemental or harsh, I have to say that it sometimes seems a bit like wallowing in a wrenching past experience one doesn’t let go of for either emotional or literary reasons. Or perhaps, victims and witnesses of extreme violence tend to react in this bipolar manner.

    Ajeet Cour’s extraordinary grieving expressed in very, very raw terms took me aback. I felt bad for Arpana Cour whom I consider a talented and sensitive artist – in case that was not made clear. I have a younger sister also. I remember thinking that if my sister had died and mother had grieved in that manner, I probably would have taken my mother’s hand and said, “Mother, look at me. I am your other child who needs your love. And I am alive!”

  16. Urvashi Butalia, who wrote The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, is also an amazing Punjabi writer. Khushwant Singh has written some great material re: 1984 and Partition as well, in addition to short, interesting stories.

  17. Problem:

    I often get emails from people saying, “when are you going to write about Punjabi literature? And what about Sikh writers?”


    My response is pretty simple: a person needs to be inspired. Ethnic and religious loyalty ought to take a back seat to the quality of the writing, and the effect it has on you as an individual reader.


    I started reading authors that I didn’t know very well — and I was, in fact, quite impressed.

    So the problem was obviously lack of exposure, not quality. My interest is this–what’s the reason why people aren’t exposed to Punjabi and Sikh writers more frequently? I remember having a professor of history in undergrad who was really resentful that so much Bong stuff was covered by South Asianists–in her view, to the detriment of other areas. So I tend to view this as a general problem among those areas that aren’t focused on in all kinds of fields–why does this tend to happen?

  18. One of the best books I have read on the partition, or generally is ‘The train to Pakistan’ by Khushwant Singh. Slightly off topic, but for those who have read ‘The train..’ or are interested in the partition should check out ‘Toba Tek Singh’.

    Btw, been lurking for a while now.. SM does keep me entertained. Its good to see what occupies fellow post-colonials across the pond.

  19. Surely the late Amrita Pritam has to figure pretty highly as well. There’s a poem she wrote that I can’t find the name of but its been put to music and is the opening song for the film Pinjar – a rather morose and melodramatic adaptation of her book of the same name, directed by Dr.Chandraprakash Dwivedi and starring Urmila as Lajjo. Might anyone know the name – its a lament to Bulle Shah about punjab during/post partition. Does Sahir Ludhianvi figure at all…and what of Bulle Shah’s ‘Heer’….and I really dont know if anyone might agree but there is a rapper in Cali somwhere (I think) called Bohemia who raps in Punjabi – his song Kali Denali is fairly interesting…a bit random but would ber interested to know what others think.

  20. Saurav:

    So the problem was obviously lack of exposure, not quality. My interest is this–what’s the reason why people aren’t exposed to Punjabi and Sikh writers more frequently?

    That’s a good question. The short answer is, I don’t know. It might be that there simply hasn’t been a towering literary figure — a Punjabi Tagore — who has given the region an international profile. The most familiar name is Khushwant Singh, and he isn’t “serious.”

    Or it may have something to do with what Ruchira is saying: the topics chosen by the authors of the partition generation is somewhat limited, and everyone seems to be traumatized by life in independent India. And with the Sikh community in particular, there is such a sense of division and acrimony about the recent past (the 1980s) that the documentary role of the writer — making meaning out of recent history — is going to be a particularly thankless task.

    Whatever the case, I don’t think it’s some kind of Bengali intellectual conspiracy!

    Another concern I have is that I don’t know of any younger writers who are working in Punjabi. Everyone I know of is over 60! It might be that I simply haven’t been exposed to the younger generation, sitting as I am in Philadelphia. Or perhaps ambitious younger writers based in Punjab (like Rupa Bajwa) are writing in English. That doesn’t bother me too much: as long as authors keep it real.

  21. “what’s the reason why people aren’t exposed to Punjabi and Sikh writers more frequently?”

    I agree with Amardeep there has been no towering literary figure like Tagore in Punjabi literature. I would also add to his comment about the “topics chosen by the authors”, a generation of writers almost wasted there talent writing about socialist Ideology in the late sixties and the early seventies. I call it a waste as they chose a theme already beaten to death and none of those writers had anything new to offer.

    “Surjeet Paattar”, a poet, stands tall among the current writers.

    One thing is for sure, there is a tremendous hunger among oridnary punjabi’s for good punjabi literature.

  22. Amardeep:

    It SHOULD bother you that younger Punjabi writers are opting for English. What is the future of the Punjabi language? I understand that you are a 2nd-gen (as am I) but why wouldn’t you care about the slow death of your language? Agreed that there’s nothing you can do about it one way or another.

  23. Amitabh

    Why do you think that Punjabi is undergoing a ‘slow death’? This is a little overstated. Punjabi is vibrant and alive – in popular culture and as HM points out, in literature too and through the Sikh religion, as a spiritual language as well.

    As to the question of writers from a Punjabi background choosing to write in English – this is part of a debate that affects all writers in India and the question has been posed about whether Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil etc etc are also ‘dying a slow death’ because of this. But the debate is not really helped by the overstating of the issues, as if Punjabi is a beleagured maiden at risk from the predatory English language.

  24. Nice post Amardeep,thanks.

    A few points I would like to make,

    1.All vernacular languages in India are dying a slow death literature wise but Punjabi literature does seem to have taken a worse hit.Sale of a few(like 2-3) thousand copies of any literary work in Punjabi is considered a success ,so much different than Bengal or Tamilnadu or even Gujarat.The causes I think are manyfold; a) the parition and the political divison of the punjabi speaking community.culturally,muslim punjabis were the nobility and (presumably) culturally more refined than the agrarian and rustic sikh punjabis.with the parition,the music and the dance of the rustic community flourished in india whereas the urdu-punjabi tussel in Pakistan stymied the growth of Punjabi literature there. b) the RSS inspired movement for the divison of Punjab which forced many Punjabi speaking Hindu families ‘disown’ the Punjabi in favor of Hindi.I think that is a very underappreciated factor. c)the gradual erosion of the urban Punjabiyat.Back in the early twentieth(and the 19th and the 18th) century,this was the class which pioneered the Punjabi literature.

    2.There are so many excellent Punjabi writers I like to read but all in their 60′s .Hardly see any work form 30-40 something Punjabi writers.

    3.Shiv Kumar Batalvi I think had the capacity to become,well,not Pnjabi Tagore but Punjabi Faiz maybe.He was a cult figure and had a charisma which I think wouild have inspired many a Punjabi youth to literature had he lived another decade or two.His ealry demise was a blow.

    Will like to ponder more over the ‘expressive’ nature of Punjabi literature/Punjabiyat later,

    Thanks again

  25. I think it’s a serious dilemma facing South Asian writers, ie. whether to write in their native language or not. I am not sure what I think exactly. However, I remember my first experience with a hybridized text, by which I mean that it was written mostly in English but some parts were left in the language the author speaks. It was the first time that I could actually read and grasp the meaning of the second language, and the experience was more wholesome somehow. Discussing the book with friends, I realized that they had experienced the book differently not knowing what certain words meant, or the meanings of names, places, etc. It made me think that perhaps diasporic literature could be written that way, in a hybridized form so that it is more accessible to some than others. After all, it makes sense that I should understand and have more access to a culture that I hail from.

    I think some examples of writers who do this kind of thing are Roy and Desai. Roy uses Malayalam unapologetically through out GofST. But ultimately, these are English novels. I just thought that perhaps there is a solution to this dilemma in their style of writing…?

  26. nofixedadderess

    Add the Khalistani tendencies who shot dead poets like Paash to your list for voicing opposition to their ideology and you have another reason for the decline of Punjabi literature.

  27. You all should hear the song ‘Punjabiye Zubane’ by Gurdas Maan, written by Shiv Kumar Batalvi (you can hear it online if you go to http://www.apnaorg.com/, scroll down and click on the link ‘Songs about Punjab, Punjabi, and Punjabiat’). In it, he conceptualises the language as being a beautiful young woman of his country, and addresses her directly. After a few verses praising her, he addresses her current plight. One verse says that ‘in 1947, you suffered a stroke, and never got back on your feet again’. In another verse, he says ‘by educating our sons in English, we have prepared your funeral pyre’. He also laments the denigrating attitude many today have towards the language, but consoles himself by saying ‘when have crude and worthless people ever realised the value of anything?’

  28. ‘when have crude and worthless people ever realised the value of anything?’

    This is an eternal lament. A language as rich as Punjabi, from the brilliance and high tradition of Waaris Shah, to the demotic of folk songs, to the poetry of Shiv Kumar, the spiritual dimensions of Sikh hymns, the novels of Gurdial Singh amongst others; all of these things represent a great diversity of language, both oral and written. If the Punjabi novel is not in great shape right now, things will change. Languages adapt, and the conception of Punjabi as ‘slowly dying’ is alarmist and overstatement. These issues are not peculiar to Punjabi. There is a long and well worn debate on the relationship of the English novel to that of the regional Indian languages. Language and literatures exist in revival and decline – new writers and generations rise. It will be the same with the Punjabi novel too.

  29. Nanak Singh From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Jump to: navigation, search Nanak Singh (born Hans Raj, July 4, 1897 — 1971) is a poet, songwriter and novelist in the Punjabi language. His writing in support of India’s independence movement forced the British to arrest him. While in prision, he published several novels which won him literary acclaim.

    Nanak Singh[edit] Biography He was born to poor Hindu family in Jehlum district of Punjab, which is now in Pakistan. Due to poverty, he did not receive a formal education. He started his writing career at an early age writing verses on historical events. Later, Nanak Singh started to write devotional songs, encouraging Sikhs to join the Gurdwara Reform Movement. In 1918, he published his first book containing hymns in praise of the Sikh Gurus. This book sold more than a hundred thousand copies. [citation needed]

    On April 13, 1919, British troops shot and killed over one thousand protestors in what became known as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Nanak Singh was present at the rally. Two of his friends were killed. This incident impelled Nanak Singh to write Khooni Visakhi, an epic poem that mocked colonial rule and unmasked the cruelty of the British Government. The British Government became extremely concerned about his provocative writing. They banned the book immediately and confiscated every copy of it. [citation needed]

    Singh also participated in India’s independence struggle by joining the Akali movement. He began editing Akali papers. This also was noticed by the British Government. Singh was charged with participation in unlawful political activities and was sent to Borstal Jail, Lahore. He described the savagery and oppression of the British on peaceful Sikhs during the Guru Ka Bagh Morcha demonstration in his second book of poetry, ‘Zakhmi Dil’. It was published in January 1923 and was banned within two weeks.

    Nanak Singh wrote novels while in jail. He wrote over 40,000 pages in long hand Gurmukhi (Punjabi) script. He was recognized with many awards, including Punjab’s highest literary award in 1960. His great historical novel, Ik Mian Do Talwaran (One Sheath and Two Swords, 1959) won him IndiaÂ’s highest literary honour, the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1962.

    He wrote the novel Pavitar Paapi (Saintly Sinner) in 1942. The novel became immensely popular and won him literary acclaim. It was translated into Hindi and several other Indian languages and was adapted into a film in 1968. Currently, the novel is in its 28th reprint in Punjabi. His grandson, Navdeep Singh Suri, translated the book into English.

    Quoting the Tribune, “Nanak Singh was the best selling novelist in India for thirty to forty years. He wrote over 50 books including novels and collection of short stories. He made significant contributions to various literary genres. For him character was the determination of incident and incident the illustration of character. His greatest contribution to Punjabi fiction is its secularisation. He depicted excerpts from contemporary life, cloaked with a veil of romantic idealism.” [citation needed]

    In his novel Chitta Lahu (White Blood), Nanak Singh writes, “It seems to imply that in the lifeblood of our society, red corpuscles have disappeared.” Natasha Tolstoy, granddaughter of the world renowned novelist Leo Tolstoy, translated Nanak Singh’s novel Chitta Lahu into Russian. She visited Nanak Singh in Amritsar to present the first copy of the translated novel to him.

    Nanak Singh died in 1971.

    Indian President Giani Zail Singh brought a copy of Khooni Visakhi to India from a museum in England.

    His centenary was celebrated in 1997. In Singh’s honour, IndiaÂ’s Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral released a postal stamp in 1998.

    Retrieved from “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanak_Singh”

  30. A critical point that many of you have missed is that a vast majority of Punjabi writers continue to write in their mother tongue. Part of their motivation is the years of attempted marginalization of Punjabi in Punjab by the government. I spent my teenage years in Punjab, and my father is a published punjabi writer himself. He is now involved with committed Punjabi writers who are writing in the US at this point in time. I think of Roy, Rushdie and several prolific writers from Bengal, who write in English, and the kind of access that gives them. So, the questions is, how many of us have actually read these works in Punjabi, to be able to judge their quality? Obviously, anyone writing in English in India has an edge. There can be no argument about that.

    I do believe that the fame of Rushdie’s and Roy’s has marginalized writing in native languages in India to some extent. I recently read Rushdie’s intro. to an anthology on South Asian writing where he claims that the best writing in India at the moment is in English. How would he know? It’s part of my motivation for potentially translating some of the works.

    In addition, for a state that was ravaged by(in part)government sponsored crimes against humanity, writing wasn’t exactly on many minds. Many, like my father, left, so they could live…Where you can be “put away” for being a Sikh male between the ages of 16-50(roughly), the arts aren’t exactly your obsession. It becomes an afterthought.

    Finally, the writers most of you guys have talked about are not what I would desribe as contemporary Punjabi writing. But then again, the ones writing at this moment/recently are yet somewhat obscure and you probably won’t find their books on Amazon.

    Ruchira Paul, I agree with the assertion that Punjabis tend to wear their heart on their sleeve. But, some of your observations (expressions of grief)only seem true for what I used to see in village folk in Punjab. It certainly doesn’t encompass the urban population in Punjab or the Punjabi diaspora here, and certainly sounds stereotypical.

  31. In addition, for a state that was ravaged by(in part)government sponsored crimes against humanity, writing wasn’t exactly on many minds.

    The militants didn’t help things either my friend. Lets not forget that – the poet Paash and others were killed by them, and they contributed to the horrors. It was a dirty time.

  32. Thank You Amitabh. KM I certainly am not quite in the position that your father is, as my first Punjabi manuscript is still being checked over in the UK. Once it is ready it should be available for all to judge for themselves. My motivations are also very diffrent from those whos parent language is Punjabi. I am trying to promote heritage beyound Bhangra in Western youth. Naturally my writing in Punjabi is as difficult for an englishman like me, as is writing in French for any other English man too. But I am determined to do it, as I think Dispora Literature can be done in the orginal Punjabi if one tried it. Why not write Sci Fi, Thriller and horror as well?

    I agree that Rushdie should not make such rash statements. I would like to know if I am a strange occurance or whether others born in the west are attempting to write in Punjabi?

  33. Jagtar,

    Aha! Paash is the MAN! I love his poetry. Incidentally, I was with one of his friend’s this weekend who was visiting my father, a fellow poet. Lots of anecdotes about their naxalite days.

    I don’t think I said that the militants were doing “good”. But hey, they identified themselves as “militants”. Not like the freaking Indian government who stabbed many in the back. And please, let’s dig up how they became militants? And you know what, there was a time in my life when I, ME, wanted to help them. And that’s saying something. We will never know the whole truth about everything that happened in Punjab. But, that’s just the kind of animal India is…

  34. Rupinder

    It would certainly be good if Punjabi novels were produced in a variety of genres! The question with diaspora Punjabi literature is would it have a wide readership amongst the Punjabis in the West or would it be more tailored for the Indian market? There must be interest in Punjab for a novel written in Punjabi about the British Punjabi experience, contemporary life for young British Indians.

    I agree with you that Rushdie’s dismissal of non English language Indian literature was very crass. There have been a number of rebuttals of him, I am sure that Professor Amardeep Singh would be able to comment or point to some essays on that issue.

  35. A lot of interesting points being made here.

    But I was reading the Wikipedia entry on Paash and I had a question: how many of you are reading in Shahmukhi? And: where did you learn it?

  36. But hey, they identified themselves as “militants”.

    Well, yeah, if that makes a difference. They shot Paash dead, I doubt the identified themselves before doing that. Nevertheless, I don’t want to have this debate. Dirty things happened. Lets stick to literature.

  37. I recently read Rushdie’s intro. to an anthology on South Asian writing where he claims that the best writing in India at the moment is in English. How would he know?

    Thanks for this comment, KM (the entirety–not just this snippet, which I couldn’t resist quoting). It’s really interesting and cuts to the heart of a lot of interesting issues about nationalism and class and whatnot in the Indian state.

  38. “I don’t want to have this debate”.

    No problem.

    “Lets stick to literature.”

    Often, politics and the conditions of geographic location bear upon literature, and help make sense of it. I was only interested in bringing up a particular slant to the issue we are discussing, not spitting out political rhetoric for the sake of debate.

    And, I believe, it is the moderator who establishes the limits to discussion, if at all.


    I don’t know where you can learn Shahmukhi. I don’t know it myself. But I know that a lot of Paash’s writings are available in Punjabi (maybe not on Amazon), if that’s what you were referring to.

  39. Paash, the amazing. His hard hitting poems are just wonderful. I wish he lived longer and I wish he saw the current changes in India and wrote about it. In my opinion his genious was burdened by the current socialist Ideology, I wonder what he would’ve felt after the Soviet Collapse. What he would’ve written?

  40. I have a lot to say. Firstly I am presently in the last stages of correcting my manuscript, which will hopefully be available this summer in book form. A couple of years ago I went to a PAASH receital in Southall, which was organised by KC Mohan. Paash’s siste was there also. It was amazing.

    Since then I have swapped writing in English to writing ( attempting to) in Punjabi. The process included a journey into PunjabiLit. The best site for English speakres truly is apnaorg.com. It is a mine of information. However I am a prose writer in Punjabi ( I can do poetry in English, but that’s because thatis my first language.), and discussing modern prose on their forum as been difficult due to their Poertry especially old Sufi poetry leaning. In regards to this, I thank you Jagtar for introducing me to this link. The process required me to teach myself Punjabi at home. Please see the 5abi link. This is a useful stating point.

    I have noted mention of how to learn Shahmukhi. AGin I have included two apnaorg links for this which are useful. see below.

    I would like to know if in the UK there are others like me, who not only have a thirst for reading Punjabi but would also like to try and write in it? It is my intention to encourage those of us who can stillspeak Punjabi to try tp make use of the skill in this way. Maybe we can start PunjabiLit book clubs?

    I am attampting to have my book exclusively published here and not in India. This is because the producers at Desi Radio have convinced me that I should not aim at India, who will not understand my UK framed Punjabi, but aim at UK Kids and encourage them to read and write. My book may even be average, but the point is to encourage all those who have sat GCSE in Punjabi or A Level to make use of it, and to this end Desi Radio even interviewed me earlier this year soly to convey this message.

    It will be interesting to know if others out there have taken similiar steps or would like to.




  41. Rupinder

    Have you thought about contacting the conveners of GCSE Punjabi classes to take your work into schools?

  42. dear Pali,

    I can not assume my work is good enough for that. It is an idea the radio station wanted to pursue, but I woould not know where to begin. I might attaned the World Punjabi Conference in Leicester in July 6,7 and 8th. And I have been invited by the All Parliamnetary Panjabi Committee to attend one of their events there. Perhaps someone ther woould know whether this is a good option for me. But at the end of the day it depends upon the standard of what i have written.

  43. Rupinder

    Make contact with an established Punjabi novelist and seek mentoring from them. The conference in Leicester should be a good opportunity for you to make contacts.