The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 18, 2002

Mosaic of life in a village on the Chenab
Jaspal Singh

Discourse of Zindaginama (a semi-anthropological critique)
by Kumool Abbi. Harman Publishing House, New Delhi. Pages XXVI+329. Rs 1100.

Discourse of Zindaginama (a semi-anthropological critique)HISTORIANS at times make use of literary sources while weaving their historical narratives. Last April, a bunch of Punjab historians led by J. S. Grewal organised a seminar at Panjab University specifically devoted to this theme. Since most literary discourses are rooted in the socio-cultural conditions of the epoch, they usually reflect social reality in an authentic way. Our history teacher in a local college would always advise his students to read Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities while delivering his lectures on French Revolution. Though Dickens was born 23 years after the outbreak of that momentous event, he meticulously portrayed the prevailing social conditions of France about that time.

An inverse attempt has been made by Kumool Abbi, a teacher in the Department of Sociology, Panjab University, Chandigarh. She has made Zindaginama, a novel by Krishna Sobti, the object of her study, not as a literary critic but as a sociologist. She tries to construct a totalising picture of life obtaining in ‘chej doab,’ particularly in the district of Gujrat in erstwhile Punjab during the first few years of the 20th century. Zindaginama itself is a masterpiece in its own right that vividly portrays the times, but being a creative work it makes use of all kinds of literary devices to lay out its textual scheme in a palatable style. The literary text has a potential of becoming a source material for a sociological study more so when no fieldwork is possible in the social formations that no longer exist at their original locales.


Kumool has attempted a ‘semio-anthropological critique’ that leans heavily on the interpretation of textual signs and symbols in its endeavour to deconstruct the narrative in order to dig out layers of sociological patterns. Being a trained sociologist, she does not touch the literary strategies of the author, which would have been very important for a literary critic. Her aim rather is purely professional; hence she treats the text as a corpus of sociological data to be interpreted in terms of ‘social structure and religion,’ ‘the women’s world,’ ‘economic discourse,’ ‘historical and political discourse’ and the ‘search for cultural identity of the individual.’

The main focus of the novel Zindaginama is on the mosaic of life in a village on the right bank of the Chenab river in the district of Gujrat, but the village Shah’s haveli becomes the most important nodal point from where semantic vibrations are sent out in all directions. Even in haveli, baithak becomes the centre of action and reflection since almost all main actors of the narrative congregate here to gossip about men, events and ideas that occupy their minds. The Shah is a Hindu Khatri but he tactfully maintains the balance among all communities of the village—Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and various groups of menials and tribals. Most of the households in the village are under Shah’s debt. But he skilfully operates as a moneylender without hurting the pride of his clients. At times he even shows generosity and thus helps out the poor people in distress.

The condition of women in the early decades of the twentieth century is highlighted with its diverse ramifications in a male dominated patriarchal society where ‘purdah’ is observed as a matter of social institution. Women’s anthropological and existential situation manifested through structures of her gendered identity along with her longings, desires and passions are minutely commented upon. The economic life of the people in villages during those days was mainly based on agriculture, animal husbandry and simple crafts. Soldiering was another important vocation for Punjab farmers at that time and during the wars there were special recruitment drives verging on conscription.

The political turmoil in the country in the wake of events associated with the ‘Kamagatamaru’ episode is discussed by the people chatting away in the baithak. These are one or two families in the village who have links with the activists of the ghadar movement. Though most of the people are supporters of the Firangi government, the dissenters and rebels are also tolerated and protected or at least helped to escape the government agencies during raids. Of course there are communal tensions at times but they remain confined to the towns. Anthropologically the village community being an organised whole with mutual dependent functional relations, so the contentions issues could not be stretched too far without disturbing the existing structure.

The present study has an edge on most other sociological studies since it does not stop at the interpretation of empirical data provided by the text rather it moves on to the existential aspect of man as a "being." Kumool maintains, "The world created by the author, partly empirical and partly in the ‘imaginaire,’ is seen essentially as a recapturing of the nostalgia of lost consciousness, by means of which the author attempts to reconcile with the self while trying to solve the existential crisis of who am I?" The appendix of this study gives a lot of information about the district of Gujrat (Pakistan) pertaining to castes, communities, tribes, fairs, melas, incidents of violence, state of refugees, land allotment data and so on. Perhaps this is the first sociological analysis of its kind that moves from fiction to fact while trying to present the panorama of a social formation that existed about a century ago.