Your short stories, Chauthi Koot (Fourth Direction) and Main Hun Theek Thaak Haan (I’m Now All Fine), from your 2000 Sahitya Akademi award-winning collection, offer a keen insight into the separatist movement and militancy in Punjab in the 1980s. Are they based on real-life events?
Both of these are true stories. They may have been slightly tweaked, as I acted like a typical writer who wanted some creative liberty. The first story, Chauthi Koot, is taken from my brother’s family and is about their two dogs. My brother, his wife and children loved these dogs to death. But then, a message came from the militants, saying that these dogs needed to be killed. The militants gave the family cyanide capsules which were mixed in some curd and fed to the dogs. So, in a life choice between man and animal, the animal died.
The story caused me immense pain and stayed with me. These were stories that went beyond the political insurgency, and were not just about fighting or accepting certain communal identities. These were stories of the common man caught in a frenzy that leads to tragedy of various kinds; in which life is cheap and trust is hard to find. The militants were a nuisance in the night and the counter-militancy operations by the CRPF were a problem during the day. All of this broke the backs of common people, who were troubled for the smallest of things.
The Punjab in your stories is one where things are not just prosperous, happy and exuberant. It is grim and unlike what is projected to the rest of India and the world.
I have lived in both of these Punjabs. Sarson ke khet, colours, music and bhangra —this is not the only Punjab that is there.
I have seen so many of my friends die between 1960 and 1965, when there were violent clampdowns on Sikhs after their demand for a separate country, Khalistan, began to gain momentum. I was teaching in the village high school at that time. As sociologists were to discover later, the maximum number of kharkus (literally meaning people who made loud noises and could shake the establishment) came from my village. Also, a huge number of people were killed in the same village.
Things improved in the 1970s but the violence continued in the ’80s. Many of my students and neighbours died in front of my eyes — some killed by the militants and some by CRPF jawans. Once, the police picked me up and said, ‘We’ll put a case on you’ because I was rushing a friend to the hospital. I know what being shot looks like.
You must understand the impact the violence had on me. My wife would wake up scared and in a cold sweat in the middle of the night if she heard the sound of a motorbike or a car in our lane. It was lights out after 6 pm and not a soul on the street. Any sound of any kind at night meant that we could just be pulled out of our homes, stripped, killed or looted — and there was nothing anyone could do about it. We were even dreaming of death.
When Punjab is being written about, the “happy” side of it is important, but the “grim” side is equally relevant and important. Punjab chakki ch pis reha si te assi vich fase si (Punjab was being crushed in a grindstone and we were all stuck in the middle of it).
You grew up in the India just after Partition. What drew you to literature and which writers shaped your formative years?
I grew up in Sur Singh, a village near Amritsar. My father was a farmer and my siblings and I had a very humble childhood. My bebe (mother) couldn’t read or write, so I used to read stories to her and sometimes just make them up to entertain her. That’s how I became fond of stories and writing. In 1987, I moved to Jalandhar, finished my PhD in philosophy from Panjab University and taught Punjabi at Jalandhar Lyallpur Khalsa college, till I retired almost a decade ago. Apart from Premchand, Rabindranath Tagore and some Russian writers, the writer who has had a huge impact on my writing was and is Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari, the father of modern Punjabi prose.
When did you start working with Gurvinder Singh on his film?
Until a few years ago, I had no idea who he was. Gurvinder and I have a mutual friend in London, and he approached me through him. He had read my stories and liked them. I wondered, who makes movies on my stories anyway, and decided to hear him out. This is also when I saw his first film Anhe Ghode Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse) at Toronto Film Festival and liked what he had done with it.
Then, Gurvinder came and stayed in our house in Toronto for a couple of days. I liked the way he perceived tiny details which a lot of people would miss. He had already written the script for Chauthi Koot and I liked what I read. Apart from the credit for the story, he has also given me a credit for the dialogue of the film. I haven’t been actively involved in the shoot and written any new dialogues but he’s made sure that the credit was given because some of my story dialogues have been placed exactly how they were written. That’s a significant thing to do. I didn’t even ask for that.
In the film adaptation, Singh has used a lot of silence to deal with such violence. How close do you think it is to the tone in your work?
I think it’s very close. Gurvinder is an intelligent filmmaker and I like the way he has read every word carefully. It’s important for a filmmaker to understand the tone of the story, like it was intended. Only then can one do justice to the work. His hard work showed in the script and in our discussions.
In a state full of brilliant literature but starved of cerebral cinema, what do you think films such as Chauthi Koot can do?
I believe these are important stories and today’s generation needs to know these stories. Films, in this day and age, have more reach than a short story. So yes, films such as Chauthi Koot become important in telling the tales of people, those that aren’t mentioned in history books and that touch upon the grey zones of life. They also define the local idiom by connecting themes of morality, religion, violence.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m living in Toronto, Canada, where my wife and I spend our time looking after our son’s children. I’m also busy with a few lectures here.
I’m one of those writers who write very little. I do plan to write some more stories, more tales of the times when people mistrusted their own blood, their best friends, and even themselves.
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