The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 30, 2001

Socially analytical stories, but in convoluted style
Review by Jaspal Singh

SHORT story writing in Punjabi had a very promising start in the thirties and the forties of last century. Gurbakhsh Singh Preetlari, Sant Singh Sekhon, Sujan Singh, Kartar Singh Duggal and a little later Kulwant Singh Virk are some of the illustrious men who laid a solid foundation for this literary form.

Subsequently a huge crop of second generation emerged on the scene in the sixties and the seventies. Mention may be made of Prem Parkash, Jaswant Virdi, Mohan Bhandari, Gulzar Sandhu, Gurbachan Bhullar, Prem Gorkhi, Waryam Sandhu, Kirpal Kazakh, Jasbir Bhullar, Gurmail Madahar and so on.

Now the third generation which is no less gifted has appeared with writers like Jinder, Nachhatar, Harjit Atwal, Baldev Dhaliwal,Jaswinder, Jarnail(Canada) Amar Giri and so on. The last mentioned has already published six collections of short stories, three of them meant for children. Amar Giriís latest collection of stories "Pashu Andar Pashu" (Arsi , Delhi) has just been released.

Some of the stories of this anthology are in the traditional vein while others deviate from the usual narrative structure, thus giving them a Beckettian twist with a dose of "absurdity" woven into their texture. Even in the earlier collections like "Dupehar te Dehshat" and "Mataarh" quite a few stories had the element that sets them apart from those spun by contemporary writers.


The first story in this collection is "Deela" (a weed) which revolves around the life of a soldier Subedar Gajjan Singh who is a friend of the author. After retirement he returns to his village with a pension and other retirement benefits. He plans to cultivate his eight acres with the help of his unemployed post-graduate son.

Initially he wins a lot of goodwill and respect. But after teo years of crop failure he falls on bad days. The local police is also after him since he has given some military training to a few village boys so that they could join the army or the police. But the police thinks that he is training terrorists. Consequently he gets involved in a few court cases as well.

In this condition the villagers also distance themselves from him. Now he is utterly disillusioned. His son, in a state of penury, joins a gang of anti-social elements and the retired soldier is forced to compromise.

This story is not about retired soldier Gajjan Singh. No doubt the sons and daughters of most army officers do well and are able to find attractive jobs. But what about the children of other ranks?. The nature of a soldierís career involves frequent transfer. He does not strike roots anywhere.

"Nanian" is a story of decay and dilapidation. An old widow Gian Kaur lives in a big crumbling house with her cat. She is a devoted Sikh and a regular visitor to the gurdwara. But towards the end of her life she goes mad and her real self comes out. She in fact is Gulbano, a Muslim, who may have been taken as his wife and converted by Phuman Singh during partition riots in 1947.

But in a state of madness when her unconscious erupts and the real self appears. She talks of allah, azaan, Mecca, namaz, abba, aslam and a few other Muslim indicators. From the village gurdwara, the loudspeaker blares advising the people to become staunch Sikhs.

"Gulmohar" is a story that analyses the generation gap and family maladjustment and the ultimate break down.

"Aad-Sach" is about women liberation. The author makes sarcastic comments on the aberrations in the feminist movement and how the leaders overlook them. According to the author, most of the arguments in the feminist discourse are flippant and untenable.

"Shah Swar" is again a satire on the popular folk psyche. There is a man riding a horse and a donkey riding a man and the town crowd makes a fool of itself. Everything is allegorical here. "Pashu Andar Pashu", the story that lends its name to the title of the collection, is about caste divisions in traditional Indian society. AGarg boy, son of a progressive father, marries a low caste girl. The social order based on caste relations comes under severe strain and is shaken, which leads to the mental disorder of the progressive father. The story brings into focus the interplay of deep-rooted caste equations invisibly distorting the socio-cultural discourse.

"Parmatma Nahi Riha" is a pathetic tale of a family whose sons have settled abroad leaving the ageing parents behind. The sons cannot even attend the last rites of their father; rather they engage somebody to make a video film of the funeral. They want to show it to their family members and friends in the USA. For the small children in the family, it is a matter of entertainment. But the scene of disposing of the body in an electric crematorium frightens the children and they run away screaming. Now their mothers take a hint and find a very good use of this film for frightening and disciplining the unruly children.

"Master kitta-Mukhi" is perhaps the best story in this collection, which throws light on a deep-rooted malaise in the present day education system in Punjab. The teaching community in village government schools is mainly comprised of shirkers with rabid caste prejudices. Most of the well-to-do residents have withdrawn their children from the village schools and sent them to the so-called English-medium schools in nearby towns. The village schools take care of mostly dalit children.

The Jat teachers have a vested interest in not teaching them properly so that they do not rise above the gutter level. Master Bikkar Singh in this story tries to give vocational training to such student by making them clean the street, grounds and rooms of the school. The dilapidated school building requires repair which too is carried out with the labour of the students. He, in fact, is turning them into farm labourers, sweepers, cobblers, rickshaw-pullers or at best butchers. Then he proudly claims that he is infusing dignity of labour and a sense of discipline in the students.

Some women teachers because of their links with the lower bureaucracy seldom attend the school. Similarly some teachers are busy in trade union work while some others are running parallel businesses or even parallel English-medium schools. They have very little time to attend the school where they are formally employed.

Bikkar Singh is very regular in the school but he has a caste axe to grind. In the end he is recommended for a national award. Many hilarious situations in this story are deftly handled by the author, which vividly bring out the underlying sickness of the system.

Amar Giri has an insight into the social processes but he needs to demystify his style and diction. In many stories he is taken in by the mystique of expression that makes some of his stories opaque and convulated. The reader is at times irritated since he is occustomed to a certain chronology of events and conceptual linearity in his perceptions. The reader does not mind a subtle use of symbols and metaphors since he can interpret them culturally.

Giri can better utilise his talent in creating social narratives, depicting characters, events and situations in a natural way.