By Amarjit Chandan
Santokh Singh Dhir, who has died aged 90, was a major Punjabi writer and one of our last links with the second generation of grandees.
Dhir was born to a Sikh father and a Hindu mother. His life was a hard struggle raising a large family. He started to work as a tailor, but soon left tailoring to work as a journalist for Preet Lari ਪ੍ਰੀਤ ਲੜੀ, a progressive Punjabi monthly and the daily Nawan Zamana ਨਵਾਂ ਜ਼ਮਾਨਾ of the Punjab communist party. But journalism again was a temporary stitch; he became a full-time writer and survived on writing alone for the greater part of his life. From Bhasha Vibhag Punjab to Sahitya Akademy Delhi name any Punjabi literary award Dhir and had it. He was a member of the (East) Punjab communist party’s state council.
Known for his eccentricities he survived in his later life on state grants and friends’ generosity. Punjabi University, Guru Nanak Dev University and Punjabi Sahit Sabha Delhi had awarded him life fellowships.
Dhir once had to go to Dr. Jaswant Singh Neki for psychological treatment. Both were poets and close friends but were diametrically opposed in their political views. While Dhir was a die-hard communist, Neki was and is a metaphysical poet and a staunch anti-communist. Dhir wrote a poem titled Ikk Beemār A Patient [to his Doctor]. It goes like this: Doctor, have you got answers to the worldly aspects of human existence? Do you know that an unending wrestling match is going on between Mr Yes and Mr No. The poet however did not tell the doctor who wins ultimately and who the referee was.
Punjabis are insensitive to mental health issues and for that matter Dhir was ridiculed and joked about in Punjabi literary circles. The raised finger of his right hand always trying to make a point became his trade mark. Despite his limited means he was always immaculately dressed and put surma kohl in his eyes. Gargi titled his book of literary sketches as Surmey vāli Akkh after Dhir before he made phone calls to Amrita Pritam, that is, on whom he had a brief crush.
Dhir’s short stories Koi Ik Sawār ਕੋਈ ਇਕ ਸਵਾਰ, Sānjhi Kandh ਸਾਂਝੀ ਕੰਧ, Savér Hoņ Tak ਸਵੇਰ ਹੋਣ ਤਕ, Măngo ਮੰਗੋ are his masterpieces and world classics. Baru the hero of Koi Ik Sawār inspired me to write a poem on him and Dhir. The story’s three English translations exist done by Khushwant Singh, Amrik Singh and Balwant Gargi. A TV film was made on it but Dhir did not like the film. His short autobiographical novel Yādgār ਯਾਦਗਾਰ (1979) on the theme of platonic love is written ‘with light with utmost restraint’ as Harbhajan Singh the poet put it. Touched by it I wrote an essay on his classic poem Nikki saleti saRhak da tota ਨਿੱਕੀ ਸਲੇਟੀ ਸੜਕ ਦਾ ਟੋਟਾ which was linked with the novel. Dhir later included it as a prologue in its third edition.
His early collections of poems Guddiyān Pottelai ਗੁੱਡੀਆਂ ਪਟੋਲੇ (1944), Pauhfutala ਪਹੁਫੁਟਾਲਾ (1948), Dharti Mangdee MeehiN Ve ਧਰਤੀ ਮੰਗਦੀ ਮੀਂਹ ਵੇ (1952), Pat Jhharhey Puran*ey ਪੱਤ ਝੜੇ ਪੁਰਾਣੇ (1955) and Birharhey ਬਿਰਹੜੇ (1960) and his short fiction collections Chhittiān de ChhaweiN ਛਿੱਟਿਆਂ ਦੀ ਛਾਵੇਂ (1950), Savér Hoņ Tak ਸਵੇਰ ਹੋਣ ਤਕ (1955) and SāNjhi KaNdh ਸਾਂਝੀ ਕੰਧ (1958) are full of verve. It is a treat to read his early work written in musical Puādhi Punjabi dialect and in the diction close to folklore.
After Dhir reached middle age, he lost the verve in his writing. The style turned dry, bland and somewhat loud. His close friends Balwant Gargi and Gurcharan Rampuri concurred with me.
Unlike his contemporary Punjabi Marxist writers, he wrote about sex without any inhibition. But later revised one of his novels Sharabi ਸ਼ਰਾਬੀ (1963) expunging sexually explicit parts in its second edition renamed Do Phul ਦੋ ਫੁੱਲ. This kind of self-censorship is unprecedented.
A few months ago Dhir asked me to preface his last collection of poems Kodhrey dee Roti da Mahān Geet ਕੋਧਰੇ ਦੀ ਰੋਟੀ ਦਾ ਮਹਾਨ ਗੀਤ. I felt honoured. But none of the poems touched me and I politely declined his invitation.
I felt sad when I last met him in the end of last December at his Mohali home. He was lying low. I tried to cheer him up telling jokes but he did not respond.
His four daughters and a son survive him. His family has given his body to the Post Graduate Medical Institute (PGI) Chandigarh for scientific research. This gesture was most probably made according to his will but I find it a bit sentimental. There is no dearth of unidentified bodies in Indian medical institutions. Dhir deserved a dignified funeral befitting his stature.
Santokh Singh Dhir, Punjabi writer born Bassi Pathana District Patiala December 2, 1920, died Chandigarh February 8, 2010