My father once told me that to create an ornament, you have to mix the right amount of gold and metal. For literature too, you have to present life’s truths with your own, not more, not less. If it is just a replication, then it is a photograph,” says Kirpal Kazak, who has been selected for the Sahitya Akademi Award 2019, for his collection of Punjabi short stories Antheen (Endless). His literary work is a reflection of his life, but also mirrors the life and struggles of the common man, of farmers, labourers, Dalits and women.
For more than five decades, Kazak has authored several books including one on the nomadic tribes of Rajasthan, Bihar, and Odisha. “The banjaras, baazigars, Sikligars and Gadi Lohars of Punjab have been my life’s research and there’s so much that I have imbibed from their lives. The Punjabi University (Patiala) recognising my work, gave me a job as a technical assistant, despite the fact that I wasn’t highly educated and then also made me a professor,” he says. His books including Agan Katha, Kala Pattan, Hummas, Kala Ilm, and Adha Pul.
His writings have been a reflection of poverty, hardships, humiliation, and anonymity that he went through over the years. “However, to be honoured with this award is an honour. We never let our hardships overtake our lives, we were taught to go beyond poverty, and never compromise on values, honesty and courage. Literature, I believe, shows us light in our darkest hours, and for me this award is yet another stimulus to continue on this endless journey,” says this 76-year-old Patiala-based writer.
Originally from from Sheikhpura in Pakistan, Kazak says his father was a Ramgharia, from a family of masons. It was not unusual therefore for him to take up the job of a brick layer as well. His time in primary school was one of hardship, as he fought hunger and the need to survive. His father earned a meagre wage because of a physical disability — his one leg was shorter than the other — and was paid less than other mistris. “My siblings had all passed away because of a disease, and my mother had to feed me food given as alms from homes in the village. That’s how I grew up, and all this somewhere affected me deeply mentally,” says Kazak.
Though he couldn’t afford higher education, Kazak was drawn to writing. His father would read katha in a temple and gurdwara, and Kazak would accompany him, drawn to the stories that he narrated. “He looked at religion with his own eyes, and was never bound by it. He gave wings to my thoughts, making me understand how like a sculptor takes out a form from stone, fully understanding what he wants to create, a writer must know what he doesn’t want to write, to pen a meaningful work. It was from him that I learnt not to be attached to one’s own work and keep an objective view. He taught me to accept praise with grace, and be worthy of the good word, to not linger in contentment but move ahead with each success. These teachings became the foundation of my life, which reflects in my work too,” says Kazak.
At the age of about 17, Kazak ran away from home. He met a sculptor, who was also an Urdu storyteller. From him, he heard a story about a man and a woman, which he turned into a fictional one. “I rewrote their story in the way I thought it should be written. A professor, Mohan Singh, who read it, got it published and told me I had what it takes to be a writer. That began my tryst with words. As a writer, I learnt to see what others were not seeing and to express minute details, be it of a person or an incident, with history, sociology and politics integrated into the story,” says Kazak, who apart from more than 90 short stories, has written plays, documentaries, novels and scripts for films and television.
Kazak says his writing is also a result of the long hours he has spent with books and listening to writers, thinkers, and painters, whom he interacted with through his life. He believes that writers must be exposed to other disciplines to enrich their work. “I have one foot in tradition and one in modern for it is imperative that we must know where we started from and where we are going. Our writing must not be forced upon readers, but it should be open to new interpretations and thinking. People say that words are falling silent, but I don’t believe that. We need a language and idiom that catches the reader’s attention, if there is nothing new to say, why will someone read. In the world of visuals, we need to tell new stories of our times, with clarity and seriousness. Fiction needs time, while poetry reacts immediately,” he says.
His next book is on Indian cinema. “Literature has taken me from darkness to light, and if I am frustrated with life’s challenges, how will I take my readers out of this swamp. Literature is one step ahead of life. Yes, there are times when I am at crossroads, face dilemmas, but I continue to write, because I listen and read — two essential prerequisites for an author.”