Stories of the Soil
Punjabi Short Fiction
Translated and Edited by Nirupama Dutt
Penguin India, Pp344. ISBN 13
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.
Dutt with Amrita Pritam. Jalandhar. 1983
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.
of short stories included in the book:
Village and the Town
the Barbed Wire [West Punjab]
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
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.
Navtej Sarna is Indias ambassador in Israel
Sant Singh Sekhon
Pics except Sujan
Singhs by Gopal Singh Chandan
Stories that cross borders, barriers
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
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.
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.
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.
A Substantial Read
Sakshi Goel | Agency: DNA
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Kaur Tiwana
Gurbachan S Bhullar
[All pictures courtesy Amarjit Chandan]