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. KM: Again, there is no attempt at stereotyping. I detest stereotypes of any variety. I was recalling actual eye witness events. In Delhi – in the homes of friends and neighbors. Many moons ago. None of the folks involved were uneducated rustics. As I said, there is nothing wrong with any of that. No judgemental commentary here. We Indian borns are too hung up on regional stereotypes, both in personal and popular culture. So I don’t blame you for being suspicious of my account of my experience. Just want to assure you that it is a completely objective statement and I stand by it. I would also add that hearing me speak about certain Bengali customs and social traits, some of my friends and family have accused me of being “self hating.”

    I just looked up the Wikipedia entry about the poet called “Paash.” Very attractive. The Naxalbari movement was raging in Bengal and to some extent in Punjab during my youth. I remember the upheaval and the role of the Congress government in quashing it very well. I do not read Punjabi. Is any anthology available in English (or even Hindi/ Hindustani) translation? If not on Amazon, in India?

    KM, I assume you are a young person. I am surprised, quite pleasantly, that you speak passionately about social/governmental mischief and misconduct in India. It is rare nowadays to hear the younger generation admit to anything Indian other than Bollywood glamor or Thomas Friedmanesque shiny IT stories.

  2. KM,

    Many interesting points you make…..literature draws its juice from the society around it and yes,the last 20 years were in that sense not conducive.My grandad used to write in Punjabi and I remeber him telling me how post-partition ,most of his works were infused with a touch of sadness at the horrors of the Great Divide bit also hope and enthusiasm for a new beginning.

    However,currently,the threat is not political but largely the changing socio-economic mores.I dont know if I am alone in percieving this but whenever I go back to India these days I feel such a spectacular lack of peace….everything and everybody around me seems so rushed and driven by mere consumerism.Even Houston seems serene compared the life back in the hometown.Books,literature,arts seem to be losing relevance to that society.

    The state -sponsored genocide in itself a matter of a detailed discussion.All in all,the outwardly exuberance and the ‘balle-balle’ and the ever-smiling faces and the unbridled optimism should appear a bit incogrous given the four centuries of wars,sacrifices and persecution.I am getting tired of all the sadness just wonder if there is something the community doing wrong to invite the persecution.

  3. Ruchira: “I am surprised, quite pleasantly, that you speak passionately about social/governmental mischief and misconduct in India. It is rare nowadays to hear the younger generation admit to anything Indian other than Bollywood glamor or Thomas Friedmanesque shiny IT stories.”

    I guess I am a product of my environment. I grew up in an not-so-affluent, but literary and politically very conscious household. And boy! all the stuff that went on in Panjab while I was growing up transformed me for good. I have no taste for bollywood or appreciation for the techno-glitter of the new India, that ignores millions. And Bollywood has been the opiate of the masses, barring the occasional art house type Indie film. I almost always find myself in the minority when I am critical of India, especially in the US. Honestly, politicaly speaking, America is not vastly superior either, but I’d take the political BS in America any day, over what I saw in India. Though increasingly, I find Canada quite attractive.

    About the anthology in English, I can look into it for you, though I am not aware of any. I’ve read a few random English translations here and there.

    NOFIXEDADDRESS: “Even Houston seems serene compared the life back in the hometown. Books,literature,arts seem to be losing relevance to that society.”

    oh so true and funny! But I won’t be nostalgic. To some extent your comment about the arts applies to America as well.

  4. Pali:

    In reference to some of your posts upstream; I think your optimism regarding the health and vitality (and future viability) of Punjabi is unfounded. I don’t think I’m being alarmist. I’m probably ahead of the curve somewhat, in the sense that what is apparent to me already will become apparent to sceptics in due time. If you look at the ground reality, you will find Punjabi’s domain ever shrinking. When a language ceases to be transmitted to the young, it dies. That process is already well established in many families. As nofixedaddress noted, the pace of socio-economic change in India is startling. The craze for English has become an obsession on the part of parents eager for their kids to ‘get ahead’. English-medium schools abound and are increasing all the time. Education in India has become a private enterprise, and government involvement in the form of public school education has largely collapsed. Anyone who can afford to, goes to an English-medium school. Those who can’t, go to poorly-funded, poorly-taught, poorly-equipped Punjabi-medium government schools. The effects of this are already apparent. Go to Chandigarh, and see how many people in their 20s and teens would be able to have a decent Punjabi conversation with you. And the Punjabi that IS spoken, is quite watered-down and mixed with English and Hindi.

    It doesn’t take long for a language to die. It can happen in 2 generations if the necessary environment for it to flourish is missing. The Sicilian dialect was very strong 2 generations ago, and now among the young in Sicily, it barely exists. Many languages have gone into terminal decline. Look at Irish (Gaelic). Welsh. They are trying so hard to revive those languages now, but it is too little too late.

    What I said about Punjabi applies to most if not all Indian languages. There are Bengali kids in Calcutta who speak poor Bengali, Maharashtrians in Mumbai who speak poor Marathi, I’ve met Gujaratis from Ahmedabad who actually spoke poor Gujarati. Without doubt there are people from Chennai who only speak basic Tamil. It is the inevitable result of English-medium education when carried out for enough generations. Where will your future Punjabi writers come from? They aren’t learning the language.

    I grant you that in villages thoughout India, people are still strong in their mother-tongue (not out of choice, it’s just the circumstances they find themselves in). And maybe some future writers will still come from that pool. But with the changing OVERALL SITUATION in India (somehow I’m having trouble expressing myself in terms of all the ingredients that define that) Indian languages are not positioned to do well.

  5. KM: Thanks for the offer to find me a translation of Paash. Please leave me a message on my blog in case you locate something in the future. I usually don’t look at the comments here. Unless Amardeep has posted something provocative and I decide to post an opinion.

    My student days in Delhi University were during the turbulent 70s when the Vietnam era style protests, strikes, bandhs and gheraos were in full tempo. Combined with the increasingly violent Naxalite movement unfolding in parts of India, student politics was vibrant. And it was pure politics based on ideology – no communal odor to it. We were all political and acutely aware of the goings on. Everyone took sides. So I believe that many among my generation never became politically lazy, either in the US or in India. (My children think that we grew up in the best of times – rock n’ roll, social turmoil and activism). You are right that the current situation in the US is dismal. I set up a blog in middle age only to vent my anger at Bush and his murderous brigade. Please visit if you have the time or the inclination – the link appears here. Strangely enough I have so far received very little hostile comments to my bitter criticism of US policies but anytime I say something even mildly critical of India, I seem to touch a few raw nerves even though mine is a small blog and does not deal with south Asian matters on a very regulare basis. nofixedaddress: You in Houston? So am I. Mine is a fixed address though.

  6. There are Bengali kids in Calcutta who speak poor Bengali

    Um, there’s a whole country named after the language. I think we’ll be okay.

  7. Yes Bangla language will do ok courtesy of Bangladesh, where the quality of English has actually deteriorated significantly over the decades (as it has in Pakistan). Bangladesh is economically and socially at a very different level than India, and has different forces at work (of course this is true of disparate regions within India itself, but Bangladesh probably falls outside of even that). In any case Bangla and Punjabi are in two different boats ( for example Punjabi in Pakistan is in HORRIBLE shape, literally being strangled by Urdu). Not all the desi languages are in EQUAL danger. My point about the admittedly select but not insignificant demographic in Kolkatta was just as an example that underscores the trends that are taking place across India. There will be a very large minority of urban-dwellers who will essentially be native English speakers in a generation or two. You can disagree with me, but I have no doubt.

  8. This bit of narrative is especially for Prof Amandeep’s critical perusal

    In the post-partitioned Delhi, there once existed a shop in the Ajmal Khan Bazaar run by three brothers displaced from the Pothohar region of Punjab. The name of the shop was “Fancy Store”. One of the brothers who ran the shop was Amar Singh who happened to write extraordinary mystical love poetry in Punjabi. He committed suicide in the mid-1960s after falling in and subsequently failing in love with a Punjabi short-story writer. A collection of his poems was posthumously issued under the title: “Eh Janam Tumhaare Lekhe” (This Life to Your Account)

    The fellow in question was reportedly a tall, handsome, soft-spoken and always impeccably dressed gentleman. He fell in love with this woman who eventually rose to be the sort of wordsmith that I suspect many a scholar like Amandeep (and why not!) come to admire immensely. Initially, this love was tumultous and was passionately reciprocated by the lady wordsmith. The poet in love wrote some of the finest love poems of that period but the businessman in him started almost totally ignoring a flourishing business. There was an unexpected slump and the business began to suffer hugely. The amorous relationship between the two writers also began to chart a different course and the destiny now turned fully against the poet. The lady began to recoil. She did not want to see him anymore. But the lover poet was quite foolishly dogged in his amoratic pursuits. Once when he was at the ladyÂ’s house, she reproached him for speaking too much and threatened to cut his tongue at which the lover-poet went to her kitchen and took a knife and cut his tongue and handed it over to her. His tongue was stitched at the hospital but things did not improve as the lady wordsmith began to to spurn him even more resolutely.

    Finally, one day at the residence of the lady in one of those increasingly traumatic and emotionally devastating encounters, the lady wordsmith in exasperation asked him to die at which the lover-poet consumed a fatal overdose of sleeping pills enough to kill an elephant. The poet-lover walked out of her house one last time got into an auto-rickshaw and on way to his house went into deep sleep from which he never recovered. It transpired subsequently transpired that the glass of water to gulp the pills down was actually handed over to him by the lady wordsmith in question.

    These tragic and uncomplimentary events obviously do not figure in any biographies… and are more often than not dismissed as mere trivia and an anti-woman flight of sordid imagination. Most writers live in self-congratulatory spaces and like most writers are “narcissistically driven”.

  9. It is sad to read the logical and obvious points made about the failure of the transfer of language from one generation to the other. This implies that perhaps I am wasting my time writing in Punjabi (given that it is not even my natural language), which wonÂ’t be read by what I perceived was my target market. Perhaps I should just stick to writing in English? Then again in my own household I am trying to buck the tide as much as I can. This is hard, as we are second generation and can not but helps speak English to our children. Nila Noor may be the one and only exercise in writing in my heritage language.

    Yes Panini Ji, I take your point about me being a tad too Narcisstic, but trying to market or inform people of a book one is writing will always come across like that no?

  10. Rupinder

    The trouble is, your biggest audience would be in India. In the UK, it will always be hard to find an audience for Punjabi language novels especially amongst the youth. I think you should go to the conference in Leicester and discuss these issues with the writers there. But as it happens, I don’t see why you can’t write in English and Punjabi. Get an audience with writing in English about life for Punjabis in Britain, and then take the promotion of Punjabi forward from there. These are big and important themes you touch on. Speak to some novelists in the conference, get their opinion on it all.

  11. Pali, I appreciate what you are saying. I will try to make the effort to go, as I live quite far from the Midlands. Anyhow, I originally started Nila Noor as a novel telling people in India in their language (read one of) what UK Born Punjabis think. I know this is available in English already, but I have the impression, that the only image they have of the west is provided by the immigrant generation writing and their world view.

    The idea of making the Diaspora the audience was the Radio stations. This is because my written Punjabi is grammatically English and written in the very basic way we speak it in the west. The radio had been told by UK born students of Punjabi that they found Punjabi books difficult to read because the structure was different and use of San , hun instead of see and hain did not help. Only at this stage I considered the Diaspora. I think I will begin by marketing myself to the Diaspora and if I generate enough income (Punjabi Publishing is self funded unlike English); will pay for the book to be published there.

    This stream started with the introduction of Ajeet Cour. I have added Nanak Singh. Are there any others we should be aware of, especially contemporise. It would be nice for someone to share that with us.

  12. Raindrops blown into a new River By Rupe Dhillon

    Punjabis as is well documented have been exploring new lands and settling since the time of the Raj. Those that settled in the UK from India and Pakistan in the sixties came to fulfil a need for the British. Local people were not willing to do certain tasks, mostly manual ones, and it was felt that members of the Empire could fulfil this gap.

    Due to the Soldiers from the Indian army travelling to the west (especially during the war, where many found themselves in Brighton), stories of how wonderful the west was reached India. The other factor was economics. Again the sheer discrepancy in wages and the power of the pound sent back home, attracted many. Mostly those who were not educated enough locally to compete in the Indian and Pakistani market. Of course this is not completely true, as the west need Doctors (India’s doctors were to the same standard as UK ones), and many other educated people heard of the “gold rush” and wanted a part of it. Many sent money back home, as my parents did, improving the lot of those at home. This especially became true of Eastern Punjab, where the new money came at the same time as Punjab was itself going through the Green Revolution. The attention was to make a quick buck and return. Instead the first traunch did so, not having time to mingle with the locals (who were aggressive anyway) and living on rent.

    However by the late sixties people started buying properties and soon brought their families over. During the late sixties and seventies the first generation of British Punjabis were born. At home they spoke Punjabi and ate Punjabi food. Outside they spoke English and mixed in with the indigenous population in the school playgrounds.

    Enoch Powell had only wanted the educated Doctors, and feared that the voucher system had allowed in too many common Indians. He delivered his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech in Wolverhampton. The far Right took this as an excuse to lash out at the new outsiders. Our parent’s generation had to live through racial abuse, glass ceilings and alienation in a new culture. The result was ghettoisation. As all immigrants do, people settled near each other. These were the raindrops that had been blown into the new river of England. But for this generation at least, a thin layer of oil separated them from the local people. Mistrust on both sides existed. As most of the new comers were working class, they threatened the worst of locals who did not have the skills. The result was the rise of the National Front.

    Despite this the Punjabis, Gujaratis and Bengalis settled in the towns with the greater economic advantage. For example many had settled in Ilford in the East End of London. A rich ex- Colonel who use to live in India wanted to use their labour ( he saw them as hard working) instead of the locals, and began transporting them to his factory daily, in the West End town of Southall. Soon people just settled here and many took up posts in the airport as well. It was the beginnings of a town which would be synomous with Punjabi. This also happened in Barking and Gravesend. Meanwhile the Pakistani community did likewise up North, mostly in Bradford. Overall Sikh Punjabis settled in Birmingham, Slough and London. The Muslim Punjabis were to be found in many working communities throughout the rest of England.

    Thus the area where the new Punjabi generation was to grow up was mapped. In the early days they all stuck together because of the threat from far right groups. As time went by they became comfortable in their new found homes. This unfortunately meant much of the cameradie that existed before melted away, as they reflected the politics of back home, i.e. India VS Pakistan. The result was the second generation became polarised.

    Those who were of Indian descent shouted about Sikhism and Punjabyat the most. The West Punjabis became more emersed with Urdu and the Pakistani identity. The result was a battle on two fronts. One with the white racist, and the other amongst themselves.

    The last unified stand was in Southall in 1979 when Indian and Pakistani youth joined forces with each other and took on 200 skinheads in bloody battle. Suddenly they were noticed.

    This generation had grown up with racist taunts and tension, especially where there were less Asians. The term Asian came into usage to describe all easterners. They certainly had mixed feelings. Some totally rejected their Punjabi identity, whilst others barricaded themselves from the outside world. Strangely the pattern the community followed was similar to the Godfather movies. I.e. the parents spoke nothing but their original language with each other, never really having to use English. The second generation spoke a mix, whilst the third generation mainly English. The Indians began to mix with the advent of Thatcherisation, and did really well in the eighties. The Pakistani community became even more insular, and placed religion first. The result was that the Indian community began to westernise swiftly, forgetting all but the external aspects of their religion. The Pakistani community kept stronger ties with back home.

    The hardest aspect of this period was for the second generation growing up. Who were they? Indian or British? They were angrier than their parents and took on the local racist face on, and also excelled in education and business. By the early nineties they had constructed a new inclusive image, the British Asian, superseding religious differences and using English as the common uniting language. The third generation grew up with this, and no longer felt threatened. At the same time western liberal ideas had pushed the far right aside in most areas. Bhangra was also accepted by the English as it became fashionable and mixed its sounds with western music. This was successfully exported back to India. In reverse the Indians had always had Mumbai cinema as well, so had not lost complete touch with their background. However as the parents had been busy working hard, traditional Literature and culture was not passed on. Only religion and Bollywood. As a result this became the only connection for the new generation.

    By the late nineties integration seemed to have occurred. The raindrops from the east were now a part of the local water.

    September the eleventh changed all that. Being Asian made everyone an enemy of the state. Paranoia set in, and the so called British Asians started differentiating amongst themselves. Everyone became self conscious. On a positive note the new generation suddenly had a thirst for its past. The Pakistani community leant Urdu and wore their identity with pride. The Sikhs wanted to learn Punjabi and pressed schools and parents to teach them. The result has been that the third generation can read and write better than their parents in these languages. However this must be kept in proportion, as only a minority of the Sikhs are taking up Punjabi, and Muslims are fully concentrating on Urdu.

    The real negative consequence was the rise of the far right, and the sudden realisation that the Pakistani community had remained insular. A clash began between the victimised Muslims and the far right. That is an altogether different issue.

    Punjabi pride is returning amongst the new generation; however it has different shades and a different path then that of India and Pakistan. Many of the old beliefs were brought over by the parents, and these have stayed. Pakistan and India have moved on and in fact ahead of the beliefs of the immigrants. Religious loyalties are stronger than cultural ones. Bollywood and Rap music had a greater influence than Heer Ranjha. People donÂ’t know about these things unless they inquire about them. The result is that the new generation of British Asians have been absorbed in the local river, but still inwardly yearn for their heritage, but not in the same way as those in India and Pakistan. Where there has been a real yearning for heritage, they have put more effort in than their counterparts in India, who are becoming more westernised.

    The greatest preserve has been the language in its spoken form, presently Punjabi being the second language of the UK. This is not likely to last, as the new ideas from the Indian Subcontinent mix in with the new feelings of the western youth, who are more militant as regards their religions. But as regards their heritage language, they are forgetting this. Punjabi is spoken in a purer form in the UK currently than in India. But the next generation only understand English, and will probably even turn their back on Bollywood. What will remain are the differences in skin tone from everyone and the side effects of September 11th and July 7th.

    Religion will be given priority over language and culture. Eventually this may be rejected by those who want to integrate in western society and not be ostracised for being different. Thus Jinnah’s words will ring true. “Place me (the raindrop) into the well of water (The UK) and of course I am going to become part of the water”

    If the western youth are not taught about their language heritage now, then even in the west Punjabi could die out.

  13. Nice article Rupinder. Especially on the history and struggles of Punjabis in England.

  14. Rupinder, one thought on a marketing strategy for you. In the U.S. there has been a rapid growth in what are called “SAT novels,” that is, novels that are specially written to contain vocabulary words that high school students will encounter on their college entrance exams.

    You may consider thinking of your novel as partly an educational exercise. Publish it in Punjabi in the front and English translation (in a smaller font) in the back. And put definitions of the few of the more difficult Punjabi words you’re using in bold on the bottom of each page.

    Instead of marketing it as simply a Punjabi novel, you could market it as a novel for people who know some Punjabi, and want to improve their Punjabi reading skills.

    I’m sure a lot of Gurdwaras — where they are desperate for kids to learn Punjabi — would buy dozens of copies each. And from there the word would spread.

  15. Great idea Amardeep. It could also be marketed to schools and colleges who do Punjabi GCSE examinations. You can at least get your work out there. You should write journalism too. That article gives an excellent overview of Punjabis in Britain and deserves a wider readership. On the one hand promote Punjabi as a language, on the other write to get an audience in English. Think creatively.

  16. My confidence in Punjabi has almost been shattered by a particular individual, nd it has been said that my English, along with others from the west, is not on par with the individual who said this. You need only go on the discussion forum on http://www.apnaorg.com to see this. SO I am uncertain about my writing abilities.

  17. I suppose in the long run I could use my new found skill just to translate Punjabi novels into English. Re Amardeep’s idea. This is good, but as it has taken me 4 years , burning the midnight oil, just to write it in Punjabi, I am not in the position right now of putting the effort in of translating it into English. May be in the future.

    I am correcting the last 50 pages ( painfully slowly at 1 page a night) after which it will be proof read by a Punjabi speaker. Then hopefully published. Amardeep, did you get the chance to read my Nila Noor Extracts? What did you think?

    By the way what do people think of Jaswant Singh Kanwal? I am reading his Aeeonia’chon Uto Surrmay at the moment.

  18. Just to clarify, I didn’t mean you should tranlate other people’s Punjabi novels — I meant, provide a translation of your own Nila Noor in the same volume where you have the original in Punjabi.

    Don’t stress too much over criticism on an internet forum. As we on SM have had to learn the hard way, no matter what you do people will criticize you.

    And no I haven’t read the Nila Noor extracts yet — but I will try them soon.

  19. Hi,

    This started off as an interesting section. It is nice to see that someone in the west is trying to do something in Punjabi, but you seem a little uncomfortable with it. I canÂ’t believe you are the only one, as Gurdwaras everywhere teach Punjabi. Anyhow if people are interested in Punjabi Literature there are some good websites such as Punjabilit.com and apnaorg.com. If people want to buy Books there is a specialist retailer thepunjabi.com.

    I think Kanwal was a Political Writer, and one of the best. Most Punjabi Literature relates to such themes, especially Naxolite and Romantic. Ajeet Cour is good, but people should check out Tiwana as well.

    I look forward to see if this Neela Noor adds up to anything. WhenÂ’s it out?

    It is a shame Ajit only concentrated on the daughter who was dying. The living needed support also…

  20. One of my favorites is a wonderful Punjabi poet, Navtej Bharati, from London, Ontario. He is sort of a mentor/inspiration to me, for lack of a better word. He’s published quite a bit of poetry and received several awards. The few times that I have met him, I can say that he is a rare human being, and immensely talented. I cannot wait to bring some of his works to the English speaking world.

    His brother, Ajmer Rode, is a good writer as well, and is based in Vancouver.

  21. guys theres alot id like to say so excuse me for the legnth of this:

    so, mr blog person, you didnt even know about punjabi literature yet you saw yourself fit to give a talk on it? so you quicly read some and then went down and gave a talk (as some kind of expert?)

    rachira pual, very well that you noticed the “There is almost a performative quality to it which is not to say that the emotions are not genuine.” you are too kind, probably just being culturally sensitive, so i will say it for you. Yes most modern punjabi lit is sentimental rubbish. and yes its so exaggerated. i think north indian culture in general is exaggerated- as evidenced by bollywood. theres no excuse for it its just bad art. me thinks some people try to hard to be genuine when infact they are false. dont however, confuse these with punjabi customs, which they do not represent! although i do understand what you mean about punjabi customs being more ‘direct’ and less about decorum than some other indian cultures. i remember reading a hymn by Guru Nanak where he refers to God as ‘tu’- which is the very informal, and direct pronoun from- it was quite a shock (punjabi speakers will know what i mean, i mean you’re not even supposed to refer to those you respect as ‘tu’).

    km, “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.” Why? this is the exacting brilliance of Kushwant Singh, his boldness. its a pity he never took himself serious, God knows he had the potential and if he did he would have been noble prize material. look at the times the guy lived through.

    His piece on Amrita Pritam was honest, unlike all the exaggerated crap that people started saying about her post-humous. people were trying to apotheosize her- int the typical indian fashion. he pointed out her flaws and narcissism.

  22. Panini Pothoharvi:

    OK, I admit, I have no idea who you are talking about. WHO was the woman that Amar Singh was so crazy about?

  23. Trilochan,

    I am a student of critical theory. I don’t shy away from criticism simply because I like someone’s writing. But, Khushwant Singh’s piece was poorly written. He did not support any of his conclusions. Infact, as far as I remember, he said something about how the only reason she made any impact at all was because she was beautiful. It’s a ludicrous assertion at best.

    Because someone uses flamboyant words and acts courageous through their use of language, does not add any weight to their reasoning and logic, or enhance the merit of their line of argument.

    And, infact, there is more to this because of his private politics with Ajeet Cour and Pritam herself, which frankly, I could care less about.

    And I’d love to hear about the books you consider “modern punjabi sentimental rubbish?”

  24. Dear Amitabh,

    I wish I could name this very famous – much of her fame being purely manipulated – woman writer but I wont for fear of inviting the charge of a libel being filed against me. But with a little intelligence you can, I am sure, figure out who she is.

    But of course, Amar Singh was a real poet of great promise. He did commit suicide in deep dejection and in this he was most definitely egged on by this prima donna of Punjabi lit. He reminds me a lot of the Russian poet from the 20s – Sergei Aleksandrovich Yesenin – who died very young and of the eccentric Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh who chopped off his ear, went through bouts of depression and eventually chose his own death. For the kind of passion with which he alighted the scene of Punjabi poetry, he was incredibly moving, this Amar Singh. He wrote in blank verse and was unquestionably more intense than Shiv Kumar Batalvi.

    But you may also read this bizarre account as pure fiction.

    Trilochan – if he indeed is the former Punjabi poet – goes predictably off tangent. His certificate of merit to Khushwant Singh is, to put it mildly, laughable. Khushwant Singh winning the Nobel would certainly have happened in an age where the canonical notions of excellence have been completely thrown to the winds. If VS Naipaul can win one, anyone can.

    TrilochanÂ’s views on Bollywood are absurd. There is no way we can treat this area of cultural texts lightly without being a little soft in the upper chambers. This resistance to popular culture is peurile and ideologically regressive.

  25. Dear KM,

    Maybe what you say about Navtej Bharti and Ajmer Rode is right. I haven’t read their work with the sort of care one needs to judge great works of creative excellence. But I have read a lot of contemporary Punjabi poetry and, in my humble opinion, the greatest living poet of the language is one London-based stand-offish and hard to please Amarjit Chandan. He is way way ahead of the much feted Paash and Paattar. His prose-writing is even more profoundly moving. It is because of literatteurs like him that Punjabi literature can hold its own against the finest writing of the world.

  26. Trilochan, I am not claiming to be an expert. I was invited to give a talk by a serious Sikh Studies scholar, so I did research and I did my best. The paper was well-received; among the audience members was Pashaura Singh.

    My goal here on this blog is to share whatever knowledge I have in case readers find it interesting. I don’t hold my credentials up as a qualification — though as a professor of literature I do have credentials — and I don’t think you should hold what you perceive as my lack of them against me. Evaluate what I have said, not my background.

    What do you think of Ajeet Cour? I think her story “Returning Home” (which I quoted from above) is magnificent.

  27. Panini Pothoharvi,

    Chandan is a good writer, from what I have heard from my father and other Punjabi writers I have met, who also happen to know him personally. I haven’t read any of his works thus far. Which do you recommend I read?

  28. those of you in the know should seriously consider holding kavi darbars in various locations. its been very interesting to learn about recent punjabi authors

  29. How about talking about established writers rather than a work in progress serial posting here? It seems Amandeep Chandan is the best in the UK, so too late Rupinder! Mind you your pushing yourself down our throats as first British Born. Who is the First US or Canada born Punjabi Writer?

    And Panini what are you on about?

  30. The negativity from an individual to an aspiring writer is unfortunate indeed.

  31. Sahej:

    A while back on another thread you asked me where I do my online ordering for UK bhangra. I use punjab2000.com, they have a great catalog, and almost all of the latest stuff. I’ve used them many times without a problem.

  32. hi km

    oh come on, ‘He did not support any of his conclusions.’? it wasnt a doctoral thesis! and i didnt see naything in the article to suggeest what you claim about her being beautiful- if i recall correctly he said he noticed her around lahore or something (well he’s a dirty ol lech as im sure you know). all that stuff about her casting the vote for herself to get that acadmi thingy award etc i think ur being unfair to him. ‘And I’d love to hear about the books you consider “modern punjabi sentimental rubbish?” ‘>>>>surjit pattar comes to mind. but hey beyond that take ur pick!

    you know k, i so wanted to like paish. but for every good line he penned he just dragged on and on, and spoilt. good art needs restraint.

    amardeep, forgive me if that sounded like an attack, but its what came to mind. not to comment on you, but you can emphasize, im sure, that if theres something you take seriously and then someone comes along quickly reads abit then sets themself up ready to lecture on it- doesnt it seem abit insulting/glib? i hope you understand what i mean, its not at all personal. i havent read ajit caur and to be honest (and im going to get totally mobbed for saying this im sure) i tend to keep away from woman writers because i find their stuff to be too, well, womanly (sorry). this i find also to be true in western lit. good women writers are few in far between for me. although DK Tiwana is ther exception that proves the rule for me (i mean i liked her political stuff- even though i usually hate political stuff). its just my personal opinion form experience ok people and im not saying you should all agree with me!

    panini (great name by the way)- such comments against a master like naipaul? obviously we arent going to agree here so best to leave it really. about bollywood- urm you DONT think its based on exaggeration? you do realise, we’re talking about bolllywood here right? urm… btw whose hostile to popular culture over here? what an unfair comment. infact i think its offensive that you equate bollywood with the sum total of indian mainstream culture! im completely insulted.

  33. hey amandeep

    one thing i found abit silly about your article was the bold parts: the Partition; of her failed romance with her English teacher, a pronounced hostility for Indian government bureaucracy,

    its almost like you’re saying “oh hey if she went through hat she must be a good writer”. its very shallow. i bet you’ll deny it though.

  34. Trilochan, You’re contradicting yourself. First you say this:

    im sure, that if theres something you take seriously and then someone comes along quickly reads abit then sets themself up ready to lecture on it

    Then you say this:

    i havent read ajit caur

    I might turn your comment back on you. I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying Ajeet Cour, and then you come along with your various pronouncements. But you haven’t bothered to read anything by her! So it’s very hard to take you seriously.

  35. If I don’t promote myself, how else will people know? I am different from Chandan. Punjabi is a second language. How well I write I do not know. I am still waiting for a response from Amardeep on that one, as I have sent him an extract.

    I wish I could post in Gurumukhi here so you can judge yourself. Amardeep it woul dbe good if you did a blog on Nanak Singh as I think he is the main Punjabi prose writer. ANyway back to typing my script…

  36. Dear Amardeep,

    My interest in this blog was roused primarily because of Professor Amardeep’s – to be a professor at the age of 32 is indeed a huge achievement – writings which are in a manner of speaking learned and seem to conform to prevalent notions of literary criticism – much of which has unfortunately fallen into disrepute and disuge owing to the rise of cultural studies and theory in the last two decades. In the wake of this shift, the conventional criticism and earlier takes on ideology have tried realigning themselves to stay within the ambit of the paedagogic glare but have always found it never a little easy to survive.

    My own view is – apropos the writings of Professor Amardeep – write-ups such as the one on Ajeet Cour tend to push the already fragile domain of lit-crit into near extinction. I think a dispassionate reevaluation of the writers with vastly exaggerated reputations such as Kartar Singh Duggal, Ajeet Cour etc is urgently called for. It is also important to know why no one from amongst the serious contemporary/ younger writers in the Punjabi language would give these artificial luminaries – some describe especially Ajeet Caur’s writing as mere ink-flow – a second look. People in the know, for instance, dismiss Ajeet Cour’s Khanabadosh as a blatantly narcissistic piece of self-installation. It is a conveniently and cleverly edited piece of half-truths related from a populist and ill-digested feminist position which is bound to find favour with a certain brand of outsider – the one who left physically or fi(phy)guratively – for its seductive “robustness”. Their work is neither within the domain of archaeology nor within that of genaeology, to use a Foucauldian fad. It can hardly be accused of historical or existential veracity. Moreover, it is alleged by many – and these many know their language -that both Kartar Singh Duggal and Ajeet Cour do not even possess requisite facility with the language in which they write to qualify as writers. This may be an extreme view but these critics do cite examples from their work to substantiate their position.

    Urvashi Butalia is indeed a lot more sincere than either Caur or Duggal but her work alas is too uncomfortably close to sketchy fieldwork of an occasional journalist. In this regard I am a strict reader and would not give much, if any, credence to the work of an eminent historian (?) like Gyan Pandey. Partition is far too serious an issue to be left to Gyan Pandeys and Sabiha Sumars (remember Khamosh Pani of the world. I find it easier to relate to Professor Veena Das and Sucheta Mahajan as a student of history. Beyond this I will withold my comments because somewhere along the line I have genuine regard for Urvashi and her now estranged partner Ritu Menon.

    I would be deeply interested in looking at Professor Amardeep’s writings on Bengali literature especially as I have myself done some work on Raja Rammohan Roy, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Rabindranath Tagore, Jibnanand Das, Shakti Chattopadhyaya, Shankho Ghosh, Suhas Mukhopadhyaya…

    Trilochan ji – even the severest manifestation of expressive economy is an example of exaggeration. Popular culture, as you have rightly pointed out, is not only about Bollywood. As of now, it has become closely interlinked to the entire apparatus of cultural industry. Personally I hate Midival Punditz – who have found space in Professor Amardeep’s pantheon of favourites – but I would like to place them within the field of cultural investments before thinking of panning them.

    Finally, a word about Rupe: his case is acute and demands an immediate redressal. He has been working persistently now for a number of years and deserves attention. I think his writings should be dispassionately read by the people whose opinions matter – people like Professor Amardeep, for example – but he must be honestly told what his problems as a writer are. And I am sure he has many. He may initially find it discouraging but in the long run an honest opinion would do him a world of good. This unending marathon from blog to blog in search of words of encouragement – who knows if such soothing words have any grain of honesty in them – may eventually become too painful, too excruciating… I, for one, wish him all the very best.

  37. Trilochan,

    I distinctly remember him elaborating on Pritam’s appearance right after he asserts that she is over-rated. He also goes on to elaborate on her smoking habits and cutting her hair. There was a subtext there. Who cares if she smoked? I just finished reading ‘Nausea’ by Jean Paul Sartre and loved it, despite some of the political/personal decisions he made in his life that don’t exactly make him shine.

    Here is an excerpt from the Deccan Herald: “When I translated Pinjar, I gave half the share of the royalties due to me to her, on condition that she would tell me her life-story and about her love life. She conceded that she had been in love with Sahir Ludhianvi. He came over to Delhi to meet her. It came to nothing. I told her that her love-life could be written behind a postage stamp. She used it as the title of her autobiography— Raseedee Ticket.”

    He can be critical of her. But he can do better than that.

    More importantly, if you, I mean you Trilochan, are going to make generalizations and broad conclusions about an entire body of literature, you better have more to back it up, than just one author and the “take your pick”. And if you do, kindly enlighten me.

    Otherwise, I agree with Amardeep,and think you’d benefit more from reading the literature you are making statements about.

    And LITERATI you surely don’t live up to your name. “It seems Amandeep Chandan is the best in the UK, so too late Rupinder!”

    It’s Amarjit Chandan. Get it straight, especially if you are going to belittle someone.

  38. My own view is – apropos the writings of Professor Amardeep – write-ups such as the one on Ajeet Cour tend to push the already fragile domain of lit-crit into near extinction.

    Literary criticism is doing fine. Check out The Valve. As with Trilochan, I would encourage you to make fewer grand pronouncements and stick with the concrete.

    People in the know,

    Does that mean you? For future reference, phrases like this come across as pompous.

    for instance, dismiss Ajeet Cour’s Khanabadosh as a blatantly narcissistic piece of self-installation.

    This is nonsensical. “Self-installation” isn’t really a word. You’re trying too hard to sound smart; it isn’t working.

    Their work is neither within the domain of archaeology nor within that of genaeology, to use a Foucauldian fad.

    Again, you sound like you’re pulling phrases out of a randomizer — it makes no sense at all. The Archeology of Knowledge certainly has nothing at all to do with Khanabadosh, I’m afraid.

    I think this comments thread has probably outlived its usefulness. To everyone who contributed useful, sincere comments, thanks. To Rupinder, good luck.

  39. Panini, “write-ups such as the one on Ajeet Cour tend to push the already fragile domain of lit-crit into near extinction. I think a dispassionate reevaluation of the writers with vastly exaggerated reputations such as Kartar Singh Duggal, Ajeet Cour etc is urgently called for. It is also important to know why no one from amongst the serious contemporary/ younger writers in the Punjabi language would give these artificial luminaries – some describe especially Ajeet Caur’s writing as mere ink-flow – a second look.”

    Yes, we urgently need to dismantle the exaggerated reputations of Ajeet Cour and Kartar Singh Duggal. It’s what the obscure field of Punjabi literature needs, a field where selling a a few hundred books is an achievement. Just being sarcastic. I say go discover the volumes upon volumes of new Punjabi writing that thus far few on this blog seem to have read.

    Oh the fragile field of lit. criticism! As someone who has been crunching Spivaks and Bhabhas for some time, I don’t share the same sense of doom. If it were all to come to an end, hopefully it will be for something new, radical and perhaps more accessible to the common man. Though, I admit, some theory has been radical in the past and it’d difficult to pin-point the “common man”. A lot of BS has been written in the name of lit. criticism. Afraid of post-theory, are we?

    I seem to use the term “BS” a lot. Can I recommend a small pocket-sized book I read recently by a philosophy professor, Harry Frankfurt, at Princeton entitled “On Bullshit”. More needs to be done on the subject. Interesting read.

    And with that, I am off to Brazil…I’ll miss the rest of this discussion. Ciao.