During the last five decades, for a plethora of reasons, Punjabi Literature has been in the doldrums. The primary cause is the almost unique embarrassment of the middle classes who in any society traditionally support their language, to reject it in favour of English. Thus each decade there are less and less Punjabis who can read and write it or want to read and write in it. This situation has been exacerbated by Partition splitting Punjab down the middle and making it two countries with religious bigotry and two separate scripts. If this was not bad enough, there has been the pushing of three alien languages on the population. The three languages I refer to being English, Hindi and Urdu. The latter two are in reality different words for Hindustani, the one and same language. English is of course an economic powerhouse. All of this has reduced the appeal of the Punjabi language, which has successfully been sold to the Punjabis themselves as the language of the yokel.
Whilst currently there is boom in the production of regional language books, from which Punjabi has benefited, the majority of these books are truly under par in regard to the standard of writing, especially when measured by international norms. Most remain parochial, with themes limited to village life , feudal disputed and other such matters. The writers themselves have only been exposed to their village environment or may have experienced immigration, in which case the books remain forever lamenting a loss of an imagined Punjab, and historically are despondent to their children integrating in their chosen society. There is no appeal to the intellectual or urban class . There has to my understanding been no local movement in punjabi literature for decades. The cycle just churns out these same books or books paid for by ( against their will) by rich people who are then deemed “published”.
Five years ago a University in Canada and a business man , Barj Dhahan, decided to improve matters by setting a challenge in the form of a prize for fiction only. This is the Dhahan Prize. It has at least shifted up quality work to our attention. The last three books to win the prize ( For there is a main prize and two runners up) includes Kaun, a novella , presented as a novelette as it has yet to be published in book form, a story written in the Shahmukhi script of West Punjab. This is a significant book. Why?
Well, in Britain there has been the birth of a type of Punjabi Literary movement, dubbed Vachitarvaad, which I have participated in developing by doing my utmost to push boundaries and experiment with language, syntax and subject matter. The latter includes Science Fiction, Phantasy and magical realism. Very few others have tried this, until recently; interestingly both winners of Dhahan Prize, one from India and one Pakistan. The former Pargat Satauj wrote Ik Pind Dee Khabar, using a ghost as a narrator. The second, Mudassar has taken this further in Kaun. All three books can be classified as Vachitarvaad or Transrealist.
Kaun is full of magical realism and cinematic imagery which modern CGI can confer to the Silver screen. The book is primarily about Sarmad, who wants to be an actor. Whilst working in a studio, Sarmad asks a Film Director, Joseph, to give him an opportunity to act. The latter does so by asking him to work in a rehearsal room dominated by three mirrors on three of the walls, and a particularly large one on the end wall. There is a wardrobe in the room he can use to dress up as any one of many characters from the bundles of available film scripts. I counted eight characters in total he dressed up as. But it is not just the dressing up. He reads the scripts related to them, absorbs them, and then we get to know those stories when he transforms literally into them in front of the mirror, which not only shows him his reflection, dressed as the character but confers the life of that character and like a cinema screen shows the scene in which the character lives, sarcastically taunting Samad about being up to playing the part. The use of the mirror as a speaking character by means of a surrealist world in which he enters reminds me of the portals from C.S.Lewis’s Narnia books, except the portal talks back. Also it is very much like the British television show, Mr Benn. So through this approach we visit characters from various stages of Punjab’s history and social backgrounds. Significantly this ignores the modern states of Pakistan and India to an extent to remind us of a history much deeper, before religion divided people. Specifically this is dealt with in Channi Palivaan’s story, an old wrestler content not to participate in the rat race and very aware of the Punjab where Muslim, Hindu and Sikh lived together as Punjabis.
Other poignant characters include Shaboo the dancer, dressed as an ape, mixing with a transgender dance troupe. Ditta Saini the labourer representing his trade throughout the ages. There is also Sham Gopal Verma, Mauji Khan the musician who gets to walk with a Fakir whose philosophy inspires a modern Punjabi religion now made world famous with the men supporting flowing beards and wearing turbans. To make it more blunt will ruin the plot. We then see the horrific experience of Bhashkoo, the Ghummar, vividly showing the Indian Subcontinent’s backward attitude since feudal times towards the many lower castes of India. A backward culture which has become the modern Hindu religion. Yet its practices are from a world where the Gods of Olympus, Asgard and the like would be comfortable. The key act of horror something akin to what drove Mel Gibson’s interpretation of William Wallace to take up arms. A courage that the Indian population talks of but in practise is too disintegrated, uneducated or cowardly to do. If they did, then all the upper classes of both India and Pakistan in today’s climate may face the modern equivalent of the guillotine. This won’t happen because the culture and religious belief system has become more than an opiate, suppressing the masses. Then there is the Actor himself, or rather the Romeo. Finally Samad try’s dressing up and living in the skin of a woman that has to live in India / Pakistan. He soon learns how terrifying and distressful that actually is, even in this day and age. The true misogynistic nature of Punjabi, and in general South Asian society is laid bare. Sarmad has to deal with understanding what it means to be a woman in a country where raping women is not a real crime, unless the western media choose to tell the world about it. I can not say too much else without giving away the plot, other than that this alludes to the dark story of Somi, a woman in a man’s world.
So through all of these experiences the plot is simply about Sarmad deciding which part he is capable of playing. However the real story can be divided into two things. Firstly the true social history of the Punjab, most of which is unknown to the Punjabi population of modern Pakistan. That is why Bashir has chosen, I think to write this novella. Secondly this is really about the beauty of the Punjabi language. And does he use beautiful sentences and imagery? Yes. Only the other day I spoke to a young British Pakistani girl, who though proud of her Punjabi roots made it clear that in her mind Urdu was the high language. This falsehood has brainwashed too many Punjabis on both sides of the border, and I feel in the end Bashir’s book is all about addressing these very issues.
If there are any weaknesses in Bashir’s book, it is that he, like Mr Benn, all too briefly steps into their lives. All of them could have been explored in greater depth, which could have made it into a longer novel. That said, this makes it a perfect book for tenth graders to study at school , as it briefly explores all these lives and could bring the discussion into a classroom.
I think anyone who can read Punjabi should go out and get hold of this story and read it. It will open your eyes to these issues and also for those Punjabi readers who are used to the usual fare of village life, property stealing, feuds, immigration woes and remembering 1947, as if 1984 and Zia Ul Haq never happened, it will be new and refreshing. To those who are familiar with the Neil Gaimans, David Mitchells and Haruki Murakami, this will show even Punjabis can on occasion reach world standards.
Indeed this is why the book has won second prize from Dhahan in 2019. There is an English translation being worked on and a Gurmukhi transliteration for the Indian market is already out in Shabad magazine, soon to be followed up by a book version.
There will be a limited edition Gurmukhi version published through a Print On Demand provider, published by Khushjeevan Books London, in the near future for the western market. Of course there is the original version already available in Punjabi in Shahmukhi. Which ever version you read , this is truly aesthetically pleasing writing you will want to experience.