The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 25, 2003

Punjabi literature
Focusing on the problems of Punjab peasantry
Jaspal Singh

Anndaata WITH seven collections of short stories and seven novels, Baldev Singh from Moga has now emerged as an important writer of popular themes in fiction. Lal Batti, his unconventional novel about life in Kolkata’s red-light area was well received by the Punjabi readers and social reformers. Baldev made a mark as a writer of sensitive prose with his three-volume Sarhaknama (the road narrative), a series of creative writings about the life of truck drivers in India.

Incidentally, the psychic structure of truck drivers all over the world is almost the same, if one ignores the local variables. Baldev’s latest novel Anndaata (the grain-giver) has created ripples in the Punjabi literary circles since it deals with the plight of the Punjabi peasantry in the present times. The farming community in the region is in a state of turmoil as landholdings are shrinking and jobs in popular professions like soldiering etc. are virtually non-existent. Hordes of young boys and girls from villages with university degrees are without any work and most of them are completely lost in life taking to evil ways as a pastime.

Vizir Singh Dhillon, the son of a prosperous farmer Vaisakha Singh from ‘Chakk Buurh Singh’ village, has fallen on evil days. Due to subdivision of land in the family, he now owns only seven acres of it. His eldest son Bhagtu wants to buy a tractor for tilling the land but the father opposes it, as the size of the holding does not merit it. So Bhagtu loses all interest in farming and joins a gang of anti-social elements, committing crimes in the neighbourhood. He then manages to go abroad by forcing the family to sell a piece of land and himself lands into a veritable hell in Lebanon and then in Turkey from where he is shipped back to India as a pamper and a physical wreck.


The middle son Rajpal, an arts graduate from a rural college, after having lost all hope of getting a job, joins a faction of the Kisan Union and remains busy in peasant politics, holding dharnas and gheraos in Chandigarh. The third son Gura in weaned away from farming by the ‘glamour’ of pop singers of Ludhiana. He becomes a second-line singer and a Bhangra performer. Vizir Singh’s daughter Bhupi who had some college education, in utter disappointment with the family’s penury, elopes with her boyfriend never to be traced again. Vizir Singh caught in the debt-trap of a worst kind commits suicide like many desperate farmers who recently went the same way.

Another well-to-do Jat farmer Dasaundha Singh Gill, who was known for his arrogance, has become a pauper and now works as a labourer in the village. When Bhagtu, repatriated from Turkey becomes a ‘sadhu’ and constructs a ground hut by the grace of ‘Sangat’ at the ‘samad’ (tomb) of the village elder Buurh Singh, Dasaundha, now Desu, starts working as a ‘dera’ menial going from door-to-door begging grain for the ‘dera.’ Rajpal, after his father’s death is left with four kanals of land and now plans to make both ends meet by selling milk. In the end he is going to sell vegetables in the Kisan Mandi which his Bihari tenants have grown in the four-kanal ‘farm,’ as they themselves had to go to their ‘des’ in an emergency. Vaisakha Singh, his grandfather, watches everything like Teresias in the ancient Greek legends. Desu, in his penury goes to beg grain and Rajpal, in the same condition goes to sell vegetables on behalf of the Bihari growers. What an irony the grain-givers have become grain-beggars. On the other hand, the sons of ‘Artias’ (commission agents-cum-money lenders) geometrically multiply their businesses with each new generation. The four ‘bania’ sons now own four trading establishments but the four peasant sons have one-fourth of a holding each, throwing them into a bottomless abyss since they do not know how to diversify and multiply their sources.

This novel dilates on the problems of Punjab peasantry in a focussed manner—the problems associated with their perpetual pauperisation, dowry, drugs, foreign mania, ‘mandi’ and ‘dera’ culture, their vulgarisation and indebtedness made worse by the indifference of the ruling classes. It is a story of absolute decline and fall of the peasantry in North-West India which is truer than the truth itself—the Punjab peasantry is only a point of departure. All politicians, bureaucrats, economists and social reformers must read this novel if they are really interested in understanding and alleviating the problems afflicting the largest segments of our society.