Reading the Punjab



First, let me explain how after returning to Ireland from Malaysia,  Singapore, Tanzania and London recently, my reading world became incredibly revolutionized.

It was almost as if on engaging with the photography of specific cultural elements afforded to shopkeepers, restaurateurs, streets, towns, alleyways and marketplaces, plus talking with booksellers and visiting local bookshops in numerous places so that I could purchase and indulge in my own brand of obscure literature… that I received a certain spiritual enlightenment.

I derived such an insatiable thirst for cultural stories in books and films… even greater than usual, from when I  first encountered this passion, once-upon-a-time in March 2008.  Then my life was forever changed after viewing Tehran’s award-winning film-maker, Niki Karimi’s poignant cinematic production titled One Night, on Irish television. I found myself seduced by Persian culture and would forever submit myself to a broad exhilaration of the senses, for my chosen Arts.

Now, it was as if on deciding to return to creative writing – naturally reading follows a close second – I was in the right place at the right time.  Without a doubt, the universe conspired to lavish me with the appropriate energy and miracles;  to once more engage with this astonishing feat.

I am an individual with whom the laws of attraction  often work unheeded for better or for worse, as I have noticed this  in the past with my travels and the dramatized encounters that unfold in fascinating patterns, along the way.

My desire for tasting different cultural flavours and extraordinary moods through world literature, suddenly expanded into a fabulous fusion.  My perplexing curiosity trailed me into newer territories, quieter regions and far more bashful cultural elements.  I am particularly drawn to the lives of the lower working classes, to stories of crowded streets, flats, small towns and rural peasantry complete with an assortment of tradition and ritual.  I read all else but these are the thought-provoking tales that bring me pure bliss.  And where I stay loyally passionate about the Middle East and Greater Middle East, West and North African Literature and the Malay Archipelago, I am now strangely drawn to the Indian Sub-Continent as well especially Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Clearly, my hunger to absorb such literature, seems magical. It leaps with adventurous alacrity  into the expanded unknown. Presently, I can’t even count the books already downloaded into my Kindle 3G, those still on their way to me from Amazon, Abe Books and The Book Depository plus, the wonderful stories that followed me back to Dublin, in my luggage. Hidden gems, all.

A few thoughts on Voices in the Backyard: Punjabi Short Stories

I purchased a paperback of the above title recently from Abe Books UK.

Voices in the Back Courtyard: Punjabi Short Stories, published in 2010 by Rupa Publications, New Delhi, India, consists of a  collection of 15 tidy short stories purported to the darker melancholia of Punjabi village life and penned among others,  by Punjab’s late legendary poet, Amrita Pritam and also Dalip Kaur Tiwana, Ajeet Cour, Prabhjot Kaur, Bachint Kaur, Sukhwant Kaur Mann, Rajinder Kaur, N. Kaur, Rashim, Sharan Makkar, Balwinder Brar, Chandan Negi, Veena Verma, Baljit Balli and Sharanjit Kaur.

All the heartfelt and in some cases, almost prayerful fictional versions featuring the irony of family life,  the sufferings of the girl child, the throes of love and the trauma of loss, greed, slander and notwithstanding a selfish lawlessness among the poorer lot, are carefully shown up by these glorious women writers.  The chosen tales which are all precise and concise in nature and extremely easy to read, are  aptly  translated in turn by Narinder Kaur Jit, a professional translator and an English Language lecturer at the Govt. Ranbir College, Sangrur in the Punjab.

Now, this would prove my second read on this renewed reading journey.  The first fabulous novel I encountered in London was the Delhi publication of a semi-tragic Kolkata narration earnestly composed  by Saborna Roychowdhury. You can read my review here.

Perhaps I was drawn to the Punjabi stories because my mother is Sikh.

But the title appeared beguiling and inviting at the first instance.  Says Narinder Kaur Jit in her reflective note at the start of the book:  “The translator has a dual responsibility as he/she needs to have a complete command over the socio-cultural nuances of both the languages.”  Kaur also speaks later of how her awe at the splendid writings set before her, would soon reinvent itself as a bond from where Kaur was then able in her work as a translator to penetrate the minds and moods of each writer, whence her work would change into an enjoyable experience.

I have loved the majority of the sensitive renditions and from the rest that merely brushed past me, I was still able to garner wisdom. Personally, I found these pensive ruminations to have turned more energizing, sharper in approach and slightly cutting-edge towards the end.

Already at the start, I sensed a gentle tug of the senses from being immediately  whisked away to faraway sleepy hamlets, where aeroplane flights were unlikely to reach and where in devouring so much translated West African and Arabic literature, I recognised now, how the science of one village would differ from another.

I observed through stories of gregarious if not drunken truck drivers, merciless petty thieves, idle gossipers and greedy parents yearning to make money out of their unfortunate children; how tradition could shape personalities….that of the simple cowherd or the resigned spinster…to either subdue or kindle a sharp tongue or a courageous heart.  In this case, as the riveting tales stretched themselves to a lingering forethought, many decisions were birthed in community gatherings held in courtyards of one kind or the other, whereupon scornful womenfolk may have offered slander or the lonely housewife, silently mulling over her whispering demons, while  stirring the inside of a cooking pot, in the cooking area.  Insert:  Inset: Amrita Pritam

Amrita Pritam’s Shah’s Harlot was not without its sarcastic irony and here, the famous writer stood in invisible defence for a wife over a mistress, no thanks to the silliness of menfolk and gossipy women, lacking in compassion. A dancer cum prostitute, the belle of the brothel, called Neelam, had been a frustrated challenge all the while, for the Shahlini, once her husband, the enviable and charismatic Shah, began to conduct his affair with Neelam, in a clandestine manner.   On finding out, the Shahini threatens to end her life with poison but the amused husband is instead   coaxing,  flattering and cunningly persuasive of his wife’s traits. Finally, Neelam will meet Shahlini and here, Pritam sketches for her reader, a commendable battle of wits.

Preferring people-stories, I sadly, wasn’t ready for the classical rendition of God adhering to the change of seasons, in God and Seasons by Dalip Kaur Tiwana. The introspective tale is shrouded by metaphors and figurative elements in that clever, puzzling way.  Still, I  gathered one line of a wonderful wisdom, to cradle in the memory, for the rest of my life.  In an intense dialogue between God and the season of spring, Tiwana writes her genius. “Here it is only after death, that the people come to know they had been living.” I could meditate on a line like this for days and still, be seeking  answers.  Deeply philosophical in its approach, the parable may be seen as a tender reprimand for the reader to grab each breath of life without hesitation.

Seven spinsters who are best friends and simply whizz at a game of cards, are stuck without husbands in The Seven Maidens and Agony of a Daughter, stays beautiful to the senses and the tearful heart, with its bearings of a classical tragedy.  Then too, there was the case of the naked ghost in Spook, who appeared to a lonely woman, insisted a crowd of busybody neighbours. Of course, the lonely woman vehemently denied the existence of such a chilling encounter but to no avail.  I found this intriguing tale by Rashim to be a splendid page-turner.

My favourite had to be The Purchased Woman, an astute, considerate story that lends itself to a gallant romance and brillliantly penned by Veena Verma.  The beefy, former police inspector…now gone a little wayward, Maghar Singh is a truck driver. He purchases a demure virgin, an older girl,  Lacchmi, whom Verma sketches out with great care.

“Two months ago, Maghar Singh had purchased her from Calcutta, only for twelve hundred rupees; that too, in partnership with three other friends of his. He had taken his truck to deliver some goods there, and picked her up on his way back.  From there, he directly went to Ludhiana, to his buddies, but there were not there at that time.  Ultimately, he had to bring her to his village… he usually brought a woman at night and took her away in his truck at dawn…” – The Purchased Woman, Veena Verma.

It turns out that the meek Lacchmi, who is magnificent at whipping up a superb fish dish,  who adores her simple rice and lentils curry and loves pinning flowers to her bun, falls in love with the totally insensitive Maghar Singh who may live now and then for his bulky truck, his friends and his ale, but nothing more. Singh through gullibility, was once swindled out of the promise of a good bride, by a  faithless friend and was promptly told off by his resigned Dad, who takes a fondness to Lacchmi, without hesitation.  Now, this doesn’t please Maghar Singh at all and he plans to  cart the heartbroken Lacchmi out of the way,  for good.   Thus, the big question remains on how to set about winning the affections of such an insensitive loudmouth before it is too late.  Without question, it is the unfortunate woman whom society in this case, dictates who should suffer the most. Lacchmi possesses no vindictive ambition so it is left to chance and the heavens to hero down a miracle.

Verma tempers her gift of high comedy by slotting tender ticklish scenes with tasteful elegance into this enchanting love story.

Also:  How Amrita Pritam Inspired Me

(I wrote this article a long while ago but have reposted it here as I feel it’s a perfect supplement to the little book above on Punjabi short stories.  Some of you may have read this before.)

Captions: Amrita Pritam in retrospection & inset, with her faithful sweetheart of many years, Imroz.(Amrita Pritam’s autobiography titled Rashidi Ticket or The Revenue Stamp.)

Here is my story of Amrita Pritam, the late Punjabi poetess consumed with passion and a courage to defy the norm and of how her magic resonated with me. These are the strange lines that first danced in my head and started me on my own journey of writing serious poetry.


Amrita Pritam, the late Punjabi poet was consumed with passion and a courage to defy the norm and her magic resonated in such lines as these:

“There was a grief,

I smoked in silence,

like a cigarette

only a few poems fell out of the ash

I flicked from it.

The prominent grand dame of Punjabi letters together with her fiery, passionate poetry and the doyenne of its country’s literature, Amrita Pritam, passed away on October 31 2005 at 86.

By then, she had earned herself orbituaries in several world newspapers. Pritam once declared that love meant admiration of a woman’s mind and body!

“A woman should come to a man as body, stressed Pritam. …as a poem and as a person all-blended and fused into one total being. She does not chide the male ego in the process.

” Man, she went on to hint, was a hunter, as evolution put him on the highways of time and space. Woman was then a transmitter of knowledge.

Yes, from the very prenatal state, the female had to tell a child – what was wind and storm, tree and bird, and what was an apple and snake, long before a holy book said it in so many words. “

No one”, finished Pritam, “has ever peeled a woman.”

Here was a woman who had earned world respect in every sense of the word. She essayed through prose and poetry, the gory events of the Partition, earned herself admiration from both sides of the feuding Punjab, won herself awards a-plentiful, authored over a 100 books with her first poetry collection being rocketed into fame at just 16 and had her works translated into several languages including French, Danish and the Japanese.

Her best known novel, The Skeleton was later made into a powerful Hindi film called Pinjar in 2003. It dealt with survival and hope despite chaotic riots, displacement of families and human suffering.

And this is for you if you want to catch a breath of her verse:

“Who will ever stitch a torn phulkari of light?

In the niche of the sky the sun lights a lamp.

But who will ever light a lamp

On the parapet of my heart…” – Amrita Pritam –

And Pritam would have known a solid thing or two about romance. The petite poetess (she was barely 5 ft tall) was described as precocious from young. For her lover the writer Imroz (pictured above and not Muslim inspite of his name) who devoted most of his life to her until the moment of her final fading breath, “he painted her eyes everywhere on walls and doors”, and when ailing, she was finally unable to move, he looked after her to the last.

Pritam already had children; her daughter, Kundala and son, Navraj from an early broken marriage. The thing is Pritam confessed to being in love passionately and intensely only once in her life and this unfortunately, had nothing to do with the star-struck Imroz.

Pritam who once took to cutting off a great chunk of her hair and smoking heavily in a show of defiance, was known to be head-over-heels in love for most of her years, with the charismatic lyricist/poet of an incredibly great stature, whose name was Sahir Ludhianvi. Ludhianvi already had a wife and other women.

(However, there are studies that question the prospect of such a feverish crush ever occurring, thanks to Pritam’s age and her absence in the locations mentioned.) Anyway as the ‘story’ goes…

The famous songwriter of Hindustani films (an industry that would complete Pritam’s fascination with fantasy – she loved Hindi cinema), who passed away in 1981, was known to be a heavy drinker and to shout profanities rudely and loudly when things didn’t go his way. He died after suffering a heart attack while playing cards.

Pritam had met him for the first time at a press conference. She took to immediately scribbling his name excessively all over her palm, fingers, wrists and on bits of paper. She even asked him to autograph her palm, “promising never to wash the signature off.”

Ludhianvi on the other hand, stayed attracted to Pritam in a cold, silent way. He said nothing, just stared at her, in what I suspect today to be in the most sensual fashion, puffing away at cigarette after cigarette.

After he left, Pritam smoked all the crumpled butts that were hastily rescued from the ashtray!

This was the start of something electrifying yet bizarre. Ludhianvi would visit Pritam, continue to say nothing, but to sit in front of her, looking straight into her eyes, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Then he would get up without a word to go. Pritam who nurtured this lifelong crush with the fragility of a diamond, would stare in morbid fascination.

Later, she wrote some of her best poetry based on this strange but highly-seductive encounters.

The poem described her fantasy lover’s every body language and slight movement and it was clear how she adored each memory.

“There was a grief,

I smoked in silence,

like a cigarette only a few poems fell out of the ash

I flicked from it.”

I first began to read this poetry that was published by Femina Magazine in Mumbai, India.

Femina is known to be the equivalent of India’s fashionable Vogue. The stylish read was edited at the time, by Vimla Patil in Mumbai.

Femina was at the time, a main sponsor for the Miss India/Miss Universe/World competitions.  The magazine held all the right ingredients for a winning mix of the glamorous and artistic. Patil chose an enchanting  picture of Pritam to go with her poetry.

The poet posed with a natural sophisticated flair, lying back slightly on a wicker chair with legs crossed, one hand thrown backwards while balancing a cigarette and penetrating almond-shaped eyes that were without a doubt, bent on seducing the camera.

(Insert: Vimla Patil today): One of India’s most senior journalists and who edited Femina magazine for 25 years in Mumbai. Patil was the first editor abroad to recognise my own poetry potential. (I am Malaysian) just before my poems were accepted by literary presses in England at the time. For a little while and knowing nothing of the tale, I became tightly drawn to Pritam’s verses.

Recognising them to be different from anyone else’s I began to savour her words slowly, letting them rest in my mind and reflecting on her own emotions before it dawned on me that I should try writing my poetry again in a serious way after a long hiatus from my school years.

I was never trained to write poetry but it appeared that through Pritam’s own supposed passion for Ludhianvi’s smoking fetishes – as the saying goes -, she was slowly guiding me in that subconscious way as to a new knowledge on embracing the right rhythm, tone and pace for a love poem.

I begged inwardly to reach her deepest secrets, that were so profoundly wound into her lines.

In other words, I learnt from her by ear.

I was already at the time, reading the British poets in what was known as the Movement comprising a special group that was made up of Sylvia Plath, Randal Jarrell, Ted Hughes, Kingsley Amis and many others. I related to Plath the best. Something – I’ll never know what – about Pritam’s stylish elegance and the pride she took with her verses convinced me that I too, could make a go of it if I wanted.

After awhile, I summed up enough courage to send a few on to, Ms. Vimla Patil at Femina. Patil responded quickly – she had selected 3 poems out of 5. Later, she would take more, of course. But at the time, I was ecstatic. Then I began to send them on to England.

There must have been a rare star milling around somewhere. It was a time of acceptances and not rejections. (Insert: Pritam photographed by Outlook Magazine.) I often wonder at the turn my destiny would have taken if I had pursued this passion and not simply stopped for years. I don’t think it’s too late now – there’s still a tomorrow and the same editors are all around, though they’ve commanded striking portfolios by now.

It’s funny when I heard of Pritam’s death in 2005 – I was instantly haunted by her memory.

At the end of the day, she turned out to be the invisible catalyst of my small successes. Diamonds mixed with mud for the years to follow when I felt unable to write.

Yet now I’m on another path, writing my book. Again, my long and winding road retraces itself back to the same forgotten years. What Pritam once inspired in me would still trail the root of this accomplishment. In this respect, I succumb to joy that such a good slice of that precious past was mine and perhaps most of all, that it can never be changed.

“I will meet you yet again

How and where I know not

Perhaps I will become a figment of your imagination and maybe spreading myself in a mysterious line on your canvas I will keep gazing at you.

Perhaps I will become a ray of sunshine to be embraced by your colours

I will paint myself on your canvas I know not how and where —but I will meet you for sure.

Maybe I will turn into a spring and rub foaming drops of water on your body

and rest my coolness on your burning chest

I know nothing but that this life will walk along with me.

When the body perishes all perishes

but the threads of memory are woven of enduring atoms

I will pick these particles weave the threads and I will meet you yet again.” – amrita pritam

– Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama D

Credit: Painting of Amrita Pritam in golden orange hues, courtesy of Farzana’s WordPress
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2 thoughts on “Reading the Punjab

  1. Hi, I am Narinder Jit Kaur, the translator of ‘Voices in the Back Courtyard.’ It is such a pleasant surprise for me to see your review of the book. it’s so heartening to note that you have analysed the stories in such details. It has been so encouraging. Recently I have translated an award-winning collection of Punjabi short stories written by Sujan Singh. The book has been published by Sahitya Akaemi, New Delhi. Hope you get to read that book too. Thanks a million for you comments on the book.


    • Hello Narinder, I am just as pleased that you enjoyed my thoughts on that fascinating book of short stories and also to have made your acquaintance. I try to review stories with a fair sense of fair-mindedness. Please do let me know the title of your new work of translation and I will happily buy a copy. warm regards


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