Sunday, November 23, 2003

Punjabi Literature
Punjab through times and tests
Jaspal Singh

Ram Sarup Ankhi is a celebrated Punjabi novelist from the fertile land of Barnala where more than 10 Punjabi writers dwell without jostling against each other. He is known for the sheer size of his creations. Kothe Kharhag Singh, one of his works, is probably the most voluminous of all Punjabi novels. His latest novel — Dulle di Dhab (Lokgeet Parkashan, Chandigarh) appears in five parts, each of which has a separate identity as Sardaro, Hamirgarh, Jassi Sarpanch, Achhra Dandu and Salfaas.

This novel is equally impressive in size, like the Sahitya Akademi Award winning Kothe Kharhag Singh. Sardaro is the tale of a gritty tribeswoman (Bazigarni) with an insatiated carnal desire. Her Husband, Dulla, is as old as her father. She elopes with Maingal, a pauper Jat and a friend of Dulla.

Even while staying with her husband, she develops illicit relations with Khadu, her stepson from Dulla’s previous wife. From her liaison with Maingal, a son, Jaswant Singh, is born, who becomes the main character in the third part (Jassi Sarpanch) of the novel. Afflicted with pangs of separation from Sardaro, Dulla becomes a Sadhu and sets up his hermitage on the banks of a dhab (water reservoir) called Dulle di dhab.

The second part of the novel — Hamirgarh — presents two sub-plots. The first one appears as a triangle involving brothers Bhajna, Muhmel and his wife Jalkur and the second is the tale of brothers Shiama and Rama and their escape from the clutches of their uncle, Gurmel. Shiama joins the Army and Rama takes refuge at Dulle di dhab, where he is made head of the hermitage after Dulla’s death. The place attracts thousands of devotees and the hermitage is now wallowing in wealth. Rama sheds the final vowel of his name and becomes Baba Ram Singh. He uses (abuses) the power of the dera for his personal ends as most “holymen” do.

Jaswant Singh, son of Maingal and Sardaro, becomes Jassi Sarpanch of the third part. He is a typical small-town racketeer and an archetype of most of our national leaders as well as those who are solely responsible for the massive criminalisation of politics in India. In all these tales, human relations are defiled and at places absolutely vulgarised under a spiritual and devotional veneer.

Achhra Dandu, the fourth part of the novel, creeps in the 1980s when Punjab had to grapple with terrorism. This was the time when small-time leaders like Jassi used the militants to serve their selfish interests. Superficially, they show solidarity with them and even sport all the symbols of religious fanaticism. Persons like him, in that time, rule the roost, while all the bigwigs of Punjab politics retreat to their fortified cocoons in utter irrelevance or join hands with the bigoted fanatics to save their skin. Jassi Sarpanch, true to his ilk, now plays the politics of murder by using his police and militant links. Achhra is done to death by militants at Jassi’s instance.

How do the power relations in society work out during those dreadful days is the theme of this part of the novel. The momentary power shift with the collapse of traditional power structures in the face of such freak socio-political hurricanes has been skilfully brought forth by Ankhi by using various narrative techniques. The last part of the novel, Salfaas, vividly presents the farce that follows the decade-long tragedy of the 1980s and the early 1990s. This section of the novel specifically deals with the crisis of peasantry in the wake of shrinking land holdings and tightening debt-traps leading to massive drug abuse and suicides.

Dulle di Dhab has a vast range in terms of time and space—- from the beginning of the 20th century, it reaches its denouncement at the portals of the 21st century. The novel ends with the suicide of Santa, a marginal farmer in distress, who is no longer able to withstand the strain of the present times. The novel’s narrator, Ankhi, is a master of Malwai, which he deftly uses to portray the variegated cultural mosaic of the region.