Book Review
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Stories of the Soil

Punjabi Short Fiction

Translated and Edited by Nirupama Dutt

Penguin India, Pp344. ISBN 13 9780143068587


Spanning a century the book Stories of the Soil is a collection of over forty classic Punjabi short stories. Combining a rich oral tradition of qissas with tropes from Western literature, Punjabi short-story writers have developed their own unique way of portraying love, longing, ecstasy and malice. Spanning a century, these stories talk of life in the village and the town. There are haunting tales about Partition like 'A Matter of Faith' by Gulzar Singh Sandhu where a horrible tragedy is viewed through the eyes of a child. Along with sensitive accounts of life from across the border in Pakistan are tales by the Dalits who until recently had been rendered voiceless. Amrita Pritam's 'The Vault', a metaphor for a barren womb, explores the identity of a Punjabi woman while stories like Surjit Birdi's 'Flies' reveals the concerns faced by the Punjabi diaspora.


Niru welcoming Amrita at a function in Jalandhar 1983.jpg

Nirupama Dutt with Amrita Pritam. Jalandhar. 1983


Translated and edited by Nirupama Dutt, these carefully selected stories reflect every aspect of life in the land of five rivers. Dutt is a poet, art critic and journalist who has published short stories in English and two anthologies of poetry in Punjabi and has received the Punjabi Akademi award for poetry. She has also translated into English the poems, short stories and plays of many contemporary Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu writers and has edited two anthologies of short stories by Pakistani writers and a collection of poetry from South Asia.



List of short stories included in the book:

The Classics
1.         Pemi's Little Ones- Sant Singh Sekhon
2.         Spilt Milk- Nanak Singh
3.         The Shah's Harlot- Amrita Pritam
4.         Raaslila- Sujan Singh
5.         The Race- Balwant Gargi
6.         Majha is Still Alive- Kartar Singh Duggal
The Great Divide and After [Sann Santli]
7.         Grass- Kulwant Singh Virk
8.         A Matter of Faith- Gulzar Singh Sandhu
9.         Mirror- Gurdev Singh Rupana
10.       Jasbir Then and Now- Prem Prakash
11.       Junction- Gulzar Mohammad Goria

Forever a Woman
12.       The Vault- Amrita Pritam
13.       God and Seasons- Dalip Kaur Tiwana
14.       Nothing is the Same- Sukhwant Kaur Maan
15.       Papa- Rashpinder Rashim
16.       Graveyard- Parvez Sandhu
Love and Longing
15.        Togetherness- Gurdial Singh
16.        Kot Mehr Singh Wala- Gurdev Singh Rupana
17.        Evening in Lahore- Navtej Singh
18.        Ma, I want to be Tagore- Mohan Bhandari
19.        The House with a Peepul Tree- S. Tarsem

The Village and the Town
20.        Kith and Kin- Waryam Sandhu
21.        Two Persons- Gurbachan Singh Bhullar
22.        Salty Milk- Ram Sarup Anakhi
23.        The Game- Gul Chauhan
24.        Gravedigger- Amar Singh 'Kabarput
The Dalit Voices
25.        Scorpion- Attarjit
26.        A Ticket to Rampura Phull- Prem Gorkhi
27.        Black like Us- Mohan Lal Philauria
28.        The Sinful- Bhagwant Rasulpuri
29.        The Misfit- Nachhatar

Beyond the Barbed Wire [West Punjab]
30.        Ganga Ram- Azra Wakaar
31.        Proclaimed Offender- Ahmed Salim
32.        Ideal Town- Iliyas Ghumman
33.        Paying Guest- Mohammad Mansha Yaad
34.        Doors and Windows on a Rainy Day- Zubair Ahmed 
Faraway Shores [Pardes]
35.       Flies- Surjit Birdi
36.       Third Eye- Raghbir Dhand
37.       Nikki- Ajmer Rode
38.       The House- Surinder Sahota
39.       Shadows- Veena Verma




A Stellar Service to Punjabi Literature


By Navtej Sarna


Nirupama Dutt has done a stellar service to Punjabi literatureand to non-Punjabi readersby bringing 40-odd Punjabi stories into the mainstream.


Building upon the oral tradition of immortal kissas like Heer-Ranjha and Sohni-Mahiwal, the Punjabi short story began its journey about a century ago. Dutt picks up this trail beyond the early didactic period and divides her selection into eight themes. The classics include the parable-like stories of Nanak Singh and Sant Singh Sekhon as well as the provocative voices of Amrita Pritam and Balwant Gargi, known better as poet and playwright respectively. These are followed by stories of the Partition, the violence that rocked Punjab in the eighties, gender and caste issues, love and nostalgia as well as yearnings of the diaspora. One section is devoted to post-Partition Pakistani writers, allowing the reader to glimpse composite Punjabi culture, what it was and what it could have been.


Historical themes however do not submit easily to neat, balanced divisions: a few more Partition-related stories, even at the cost of some lightweight ones, would have reflected its huge impact on Punjabi life. That aside, Dutts love of Punjabi and her understanding of Punjabs social and literary milieu help her achieve a fluid translation. Her labour of love is as important for what it includes as for what had to be left out and should point other translators to the neglected treasure trove of Punjabi literature.


[Courtesy Outlook


Writer Navtej Sarna is Indias ambassador in Israel



  Nanak Singh_Amritsar_1958. Pic Gopal Singh Chandan.jpg  Sant S Sekhon_ Pic Niranjan S Nakodari.circa 1970.jpg  Sujan Singh_ N Delhi_Dec 1956 .jpg  Balwant Gargi_Amritsar_May1958_Pic Gopal Singh Chandan.jpg

  Nanak Singh                                  Sant Singh Sekhon              Sujan Singh                Balwant Gargi



Pics except Sujan Singhs by Gopal Singh Chandan




Stories that cross borders, barriers


By Urvashi Butalia


As children, we spend many a long winter afternoon and evening, listening to stories my grandmother told us of the travels of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, of the legend of Puran Bhagat, the son of Raja Saiban, tricked by his stepmother but later vindicated, of the star-crossed lovers Heer and Ranjha, Sohni and Mahiwal, Sassi and Punnu. Later, my mother picked up on these stories and added her own favourites literary offerings, among which the poems of Bhai Mohan Singh held a place of pre-eminence. And many, many years later, when I began researching the Partition in Punjab, stories kept surfacing again and again, real and imagined stories. As one of the people I interviewed, Mangal Singh from Amritsar once said: weve put all our forgetting into this land, and it has given us back hundredfold.


For a land so rich in history, and so imbued with the culture of the story, the kissa, the dastaan, the kahani, it is surprising that so little of Punjabs literary wealth has been translated into other Indian languages and into English. Perhaps one reason could be that there arent many people who are equally fluent in Gurmukhi and another Indian language. Nirupama Dutt, journalist, writer, translator, is one of those, and what makes this anthology, edited and translated by her, so significant, is both the choice of stories and the fine translations in which they are presented to the reader.


For any editor, putting together such an anthology inevitably raises the question of what to include, when to begin, whether or not geography is a sufficient condition, what borders mean, do we talk of the Punjab of today or the greater undivided Punjab, and importantly, which language are we speaking about. Perhaps had it been Bollywood, this question would not have arisen, for offerings of music and films from the Punjab are so imbued with what is today the successful mix of Hinglish/Pinglish, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and much much more.


Nirupama Dutt gets round this problem by categorising the stories she has collected somewhat differently, and making no apologies for inclusion or exclusion. Thus she begins with a taste of the classics, stories from the middle of the last century on, bringing in writers like Amrita Pritam, Balwant Gargi (principally a playwright but who also experimented with short stories and novels), Sant Singh Sekhon and others.


Surinder Sahota Dehlavi. Southall. 1973. Photographer unknown.jpg      Raghubir Dhand. Bradford. 1981_By Amarjit Chandan.jpg      Surjit Birdi_ Jalandhar_1962_Pic by Moon Light Studio.jpg      Ajmer Rode_ Goleta. USA. 2001 by Amarjit Chandan.jpg

Surinder Sahota                        Raghubir Dhand                   Surjit Birdi                     Ajmer Rode



No anthology on Punjab is complete without a section on the Partition (and indeed if there is one subject on which writings from Punjab have been seen in translation, that is the Partition) and it is to this that she turns next, choosing not the usual suspects, but a somewhat different selection that features, among others, Kulwant Singh Virk. Attention to the margins comes from her sections on women (separately and within the main sections), and, importantly, dalits. The dalit voice in Punjab is all too often forgotten, and yet, it has been a strong political voice and remains so to this day.


Other categories include the village and the town, and two more unusual ones: stories from across the border make up the first of these. Theyre written not in Gurmukhi, but in the Shahmukhi script, and date from after Partition, the point from which Dutt dates the beginnings of short fiction in Pakistan. If this is one border, there are stories too from another the faraway border, for the Punjab is the land that has also given so many of its people to faraway shores, with the Punjabi diaspora now being spread in virtually all parts of the world. While diaspora writing isnt really anything new, whats unusual about these stories is that they are written in Gurmukhi pointing to another interesting aspect of how the language of home is kept alive in the adopted land.


For Punjabis who no longer have Gurmukhi, or who never had it (and there are many), this anthology offers a glimpse into the multi-layered and nuanced world of the land they think of as home. But clearly these are not its only intended readers, and Nirupama Dutts effortless and easy translation, as well as her choice of stories, not only make this anthology well worth a read, but are also what will help it to travel widely into other lands and cultures.


Urvashi Butalia is a writer, publisher and co-founder of Indias first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women. She is now director of Zubaan, an imprint of Kali.

[Courtesy Deccan Chronicle



Navtej Singh_.jpg    Ahmad Saleem_London_040509_Photo by Amarjit Chandan-.jpg     Zubair Ahmad. Lahore. Dec 2009. Pic Amarjit Chandan.jpg

Navtej Singh                                     Ahmad Salim                                Zubair Ahmed


A Substantial Read


By Sakshi Goel | Agency: DNA


When we think of Punjabi stories, what comes to mind are Heer-Ranjha and similar tales set against a rural backdrop with a folk-tale-like flavour. However, this collection opens up a whole new window to this genre. With works by over 30 writers, Nirupama Dutt has put together an interesting mix of stories that take us on a guided tour of both the Punjabi story as a genre, and of the socio-economic evolution of the community.


The collection is divided into eight sections, each containing stories that have some common ground, either thematically or stylistically. For example, in the section titled Beyond the Barbed Wire, Dutt has selected prominent stories by Punjabi writers from Pakistan, describing life in the country post-Partition.


The book opens with a story about hospitality in the land of five rivers and ends with one about a woman abandoned by her husband who migrates to England. The collection is rich in style, subject matter, and in the flavour of language that comes through even in the translation.


The stories themes are universal love, longing, and the complications that arise in relationships facing the throes of time and societal pressures. But the writers present them in settings that are peculiarly Punjabi, and the treatment will resonate with almost anyone who is of Punjabi origin or knows someone from the community. Issues such as the advantages and drawbacks of being an immigrant, work and discrimination in a foreign land, dwindling agricultural incomes, and treatment of women in rural Punjab all find place in stories such as The Shahs Harlot, Kith and Kin, Black Like Us and The Sinful.


The collection also offers a few surprises. The House with a Pipal Tree is about men permitting their wives to be polygamous for child bearing, and Raaslila is about love between a young child and an older woman.


Written in an abstract style, The Vault, about a woman longing to be a mother, is an example of how Punjabi writers penned stories that go beyond just the Heer-Ranjha-style folk tales. Similarly, Gurdev Singh Rupanas Mirror from the section titled The Great Divide is noteworthy because unlike most stories about riots and partition, it is not given to protracted descriptions about murder and mayhem. Yet the climax leaves the reader with a chilling sense of what such events do to human nature and the suffering that was brought upon the community.


On the whole, given its wide variety and an easy-to-read translation, this collection is a substantial read and a good way to get acquainted with the lesser known aspects of Punjabi fiction.  



   Dalip K Tiwana. c 1975.jpg            Prem Prakash. Dec 1986. Photo by Amarjit Chandan.jpg           Gurbachan S Bhullar. c 1980.jpg

            Dalip Kaur Tiwana                            Prem Parkash                              Gurbachan S Bhullar



[All pictures courtesy Amarjit Chandan]