ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Gurdial Singh, Voice ofthe Voiceless

Rana Nayar ( teaches at the Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh, and has translated Gurdial Singh’s works into English.

In novel after novel, Gurdial Singh (1933–2016) created sensitive and memorable vignettes of how multiple forms of oppression worked through our social structures, often crippling those who remain trapped within. He won the Jnanpith award for Parsa, the second Punjabi after Amrita Pritam to win the prestigious award. Singh’s work is arguably among the best of world literature.

When Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” she probably had no idea of who Gurdial Singh was. And I wonder if she had read any of his works then, or has read them even now. Anyway that is not important. For, in her essay, she was mainly preoccupied with a fundamental theoretical question: whether the subaltern should speak in his own voice or be spoken of by another?

In the case of Singh, it is not an either/or situation. He was, at once, a subaltern, and not a subaltern, one who has spoken for himself as well as others less privileged than him, in a voice that is, at once, gentle and persuasive, nuanced and subtle, radical and compassionate. It is a voice that speaks of the subalterns in a way they would have, perhaps, liked to be spoken of, a voice that gives them a sense of selfhood, an agency, an identity, and, of course, a definite place in the cultural imaginary, too.

For Singh, the subaltern is not the other, and his voice is not the voice of the other. In his dedication to the Alms in the Name of a Blind Horse (2016), he had put it rather well when said that it is the voice of “the struggling voiceless millions in our land/Who are yet to find their voice.”

Well, eyebrows might be raised the moment I speak of Singh as a subaltern, and therefore, some sort of explanation is in order. Yes, he was not a subaltern in the real sense because he did not belong among the poorest of the poor. And yet in some ways he was. He was born into a Sikh Ramgarhia family of Jaito Mandi, mainly artisans. His father was a man of modest means, who often doubled up as blacksmith-cum-carpenter, as the work he did was seasonal in nature.

If we go by the caste hierarchies operating in Punjab, he was only next in line to the high caste “twice-born” dwijas. But within the domain of Punjabi letters, dominated as it has always been by the Jat and Khatri Sikhs, he was never ever regarded as an insider, as the fact of him being a Ramgarhia was always held against him. Such is the paradox of our class/caste-ridden society. It continues to measure the true worth of a human being, no less a litterateur of Singh’s stature, not in terms of what he was or ultimately became, but rather in terms of the caste he was born into.

Perhaps, this is not the occasion to say it, or perhaps, this is the only occasion for saying it. It is with deep anguish that I recall today the words of one of the established signatures of Punjabi literature. Reacting to the news of Gurdial Singh getting a Jnanpith in 1999, one of his contemporaries, a well-known novelist himself, had reportedly quipped, “After all, it has gone to a carpenter.” Rather than feeling proud of the fact that the highest literary honour in India had been conferred upon a Punjabi, the second time, after Amrita Pritam, “the gentleman in question” was more interested in pigeonholing Singh into a caste lineage.

Of Oppression and Emancipation

Singh was painfully aware of how deeply embedded class/caste-consciousness was in our society and how rigidly ingrained “hierarchical notions” were in our minds. All his life, he fought against such deep-rooted, orthodox practices and prejudices, whittling them down with his razor-sharp mediations at consciousness raising and societal transformation. I would not say that he was fully successful in bringing about this “silent revolution” of minds and attitudes, but he certainly tried to do so, with the sincerity and persuasiveness of a committed, almost a zealous missionary.

Gurdial Singh had the true-blue, rebellious blood of a typical Punjabi in his veins. Like his characters, he too accepted life in totality, but refused point-blank to compromise with its unjust tyrannies. Throughout, Singh wielded his pen almost like a saw, cutting through the dark, deceptive web of social inequality, injustice, casteism and religious bigotry. It is not without reason that we often think of him as a “messiah of the marginalised.” Yes, he was a fighter, and he fought till his very last breath, refusing to go under. Only this time, his battle was not against life but death, and this is one battle no human has ever won.

In novel after novel, we find Singh creating sensitive and memorable vignettes of how multiple forms of oppression work through our social structures, often crippling those who remain trapped within. He has widely been acknowledged as a novelist in the classical Marxist mould, whose main concern was with creating “narratives of oppression” and through them, tearing down the decadent social/cultural practices. Though in his early novels such as Marhi Da Deeva (1964), Unhoye (1966), Rete Di Ik Mutthi (1968), and Adh Chanini Raat (1972), all forms of oppression like personal, familial, societal, feudal and patriarchal manifest themselves, it is in his magnum opus, Parsa, that he finally breaks through the cycle of oppression and creates what may only be termed as a “narrative of emancipation.”

On the publication of Parsa in 1991, a large number of Punjabi critics, especially of Marxist persuasion, had felt rather disappointed with Singh for turning into a “renegade.” They thought, in Parsa, he had not only abandoned his Marxist framework but also taken, in a rather unexpected manner, a sudden “spiritual turn” that was quite unnecessary. What they saw as a retrogressive gesture was essentially a form of aesthetic/creative and/or spiritual evolution, as no writer, worth his salt, can possibly afford to remain in a time warp, forever. Parsa is, indeed, a “narrative of inwardness” that seeks to resurrect the cultural memory of Punjabi society through this fascinating, intriguing central character, who is both a Brahmin and a Jat. It is in this novel that Singh has challenged the complex cultural sociology of caste in Punjab, foregrounding his philosophy of “cultural syncretism” that he always believed in.


Unlike what some people may think, Singh subscribed to the notion of inclusive, and not exclusive, brand of humanism. For him, Punjabiyat was not merely a quest for exclusive Sikh identity, but represented a far more complex notion of identity, with a kind of intermingling of faiths as diverse as Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam, something to which Guru Granth Sahib is a living testimony. He had a fine sense of history, and a nuanced understanding of how Punjabi language had evolved into a hybridised form. Though he wrote primarily in the Malwai dialect (popular in the Malwa region to which he belonged), he always used a fair sprinkling of Baghri, Rajasthani and Hindi to reflect the complexity of linguistic landscape, even cultural diversity, of the Punjab.

It is not only at the linguistic level that he managed to map the contours ofPunjabi culture, but he did so even at the level of the “novelistic discourse.” Until the times of Gurdial Singh, two diametrically opposed ideologies, namely, a brand of naïve romanticism (associated with Bhai Vir Singh and Nanak Singh) and an indigenous form of realism (associated with Sant Singh Sekhon, Surinder Singh Narula and Amrita Pritam) had continued to exert pressures and counter-pressures upon the content and/or form of the Punjabi novel. Apart from these ideological tensions, which helped shape the aesthetic/ideological concerns as well as their articulation, Punjabi fiction had continued to shift back and forth between the rural and the urban, the past and the present, the poetic and the realistic.

Enduring Contribution

The historical importance of Singh’s fiction lies in the fact that it sought to encapsulate the dialectics of tradition and modernity, even tried to attain a rare synthesis of the two, wherever possible, something that had eluded Punjabi fiction until then. Conscious of his role in reconstituting the novelistic discourse, he ruptured the tradition of the Punjabi novel from within, while continuing to nurture it from without. By pulling it out of the morass of bourgeois morality into which Punjabi novel had largely sunk in its post-independence phase, he opened up possibilities that would have otherwise remained unrealised.

Singh radicalised the Punjabi novel or reinscribed its ideological and/or aesthetic space by infusing into it a new consciousness about the underprivileged and the oppressed. Commenting upon his first ever novel Marhi Da Deeva, Namwar Singh, an eminent Hindi critic, is believed to have said:

When the novel was a dying art-form in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century, it was Tolstoy’s War and Peace that resurrected faith in the novel as a form. In a similar fashion, when in Indian languages the novel was going through its worst ever crisis, Gurdial Singh’s Marhi Da Deeva revitalized this form as only he could.

For Gurdial Singh, writing was not merely another craft or a vocation; it was the very stuff and substance of his life and breath. Not many people can claim to bridge the gap between practice and precept, but he actually did so, for he lived his thoughts and wrote about what he actually believed in. For him, writing was a form of activism, a way of transforming our decadent, putrefying social reality.

He was one of the most well-read of our contemporary Punjabi writers, and he also read the best there was to read. He was the happiest talking of ideas, discussing books he had read and sharing views on writers he loved to revisit. A teacher in the classical mould, he was always around to share, teach and analyse, and he would do so, compassionately as well as ungrudgingly. Never at odds, his Apollonian self-discipline fused admirably with his irrepressible Dionysian, creative spirit, both in his life and his works.

In one of our discussions, he had once revealed how he had imbibed the art of storytelling from some of the great masters such as Gorky, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Balzac, Maupassant, Steinback, Irving Stone, etc. He told me how he had once spent hours reflecting over one little sequence in The Grapes of Wrath, just to be able to learn the craft of minimalism. That was Gurdial Singh, painfully punctilious, exasperatingly exacting and laboriously self-critical. His works were invariably subjected to several revisions, one more critical than the other. No wonder, the finished product was always like a well-cut, chiselled diamond.

Modest to a fault, Gurdial Singh was always media shy, eager to shrug off even the most prestigious of literary awards and honours that came his way. When he got the most prestigious Jnanpith in 1999 for his novel Parsa, I had interviewed him for the Hindu. In response to a typical journalistic question on what he felt on this occasion, he had spoken with a straight face, “Oh, this is for the characters of my novel or, at best, for Punjabi literature.” In a befitting reply to his detractors, he was not so proud of the fact that he had got Jnanpith, but more proud of the fact that he was the second Punjabi, after Pritam, to have received it.

His output is, by any stretch, prodigious, as he has over 45 works of varied description to his credit. Though he earned his plaudits as a novelist and a storyteller extraordinaire, he has written and experimented with diverse literary forms such as children’s literature, plays, essays, autobiography, travelogues, and journalistic writing. Unlike other serious writers, he believed that a writer must reach out to the people through all possible modes of communication. Some of the qualities that set him apart as a writer are his sincere, passionate engagement with issues close to his heart, his remarkable, often rare control, even restraint over the artistic material, authenticity of his beliefs and convictions, and an unsparing, no-holds-barred articulation of it all in several of his works, fiction, non-fiction or otherwise.

Gurdial Singh has, indeed, left a rich literary/cultural legacy behind. It will take us years, if not decades, to understand the exact measure of influence his writings would exercise on Punjabi mind, society and culture. In some ways, his contribution has been mapped out already, but there is so much more that remains to be discovered.

I have no hesitation in saying that the real assessment of Gurdial Singh’s work is possible only if he is placed among the best the World Literature has produced in the recent times. He could confidently rub shoulders with the likes of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Naguib Mahfouz and Simin Daneshwar.

Until then, he rests among the stars, with evening dew shedding silent tears over the departure of nature’s very own, gem of a child.


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top