More specifically, in the context
of the Sikh history, one is reminded of Guru Nanak Dev’s
efforts to set up Kartarpur (the House of God) way back
in the l6th century. While that was a perfect example of a
religious utopia, it’s secular, more mundane counterpart could
be found in Gurbax Singh Preetlari’s dream of setting up Preet
Nagar, near Amritsar, in the Pre-Partition Punjab.
Preet Nagar, Urmila Anand takes a hurried, rushed trip down
the memory lane. As Gurbax Singh’s daughter, she witnessed
both the creation and the slow decay of this home-grown notion
of a Punjabi commune.
in Punjabi and now available in its English rendering, too, this
slim volume rummages through a heap of dim-lit personal
memories. Although the story of Preet Nagar is also the story of
how the progressive ethos and culture of the Punjabi literary
sensibility was shaped and nurtured in the pre-Partition period,
Urmila refuses to stray that far. Diving into personal memories,
where all kinds of anecdotes, significant or otherwise, jostle
for her attention, she doesn’t appear unduly concerned about
the claims of the historical memory.
Written in a
down-to-earth, straight-from-the-heart style, the book is more
of a daughter’s than a writer’s tribute to the man who saw
the rise and fall of a dream. Gurbax Singh went to Michigan
University for a degree in engineering. It was during his stay
in the US that he nurtured the dream of setting up Preet Nagar.
On his return, he worked for Indian Railways for a couple of
years before taking premature retirement. And that is when he
started fashioning his dream into reality. As a prelude, in 1934
he floated Preetlari, the famous literary magazine initially
published in both Punjabi and English. In the years to follow,
Preetlari, with its emphasis on new-wave writing, was to become
synonymous with liberal, progressive and scientific outlook,
even acquire a legendary status in Punjabi culture.
Dhani Ram Chatrak,
a famous Punjabi poet, was instrumental in getting Gurbax Singh
a large tract of land at a reasonable price near Amritsar.
Initially, eight identical houses were built there, and in 1938,
Gurbax Singh was among the first few to move in there along with
his other family members. A la Thoreau’s Walden, Preet
Nagar was conceived as a self-sufficient commune, complete with
its own dairy, a primary school, textile looms, a printing press
and a community kitchen. As it was mandatory for all the
residents to eat in the community kitchen, in certain cases, the
young girls never really got to learn cooking. Often they also
went about bareheaded, inviting disapproving glances from
If Nanak Singh,
Narang Singh, Kartar Singh Sachdev, Dalip Singh and Harcharan
Singh were among the early settlers of Preet Nagar, Balraj Sahni
and Balwant Gargi were some of the regular visitors there. Over
a period of time, it evolved its own local culture of Preet
Milnis, seminars, literary discussions, stage shows et al. It
had barely developed into an important hub of literary/cultural
activity when the Partition struck. And this is how the ‘land
of love’ had first turned into a graveyard of hatred, and
later of memories. Like the mythical city Atlantis, Preet Nagar
now belongs to the haze of history.
translation is both lucid and readable. He could have easily
avoided the temptation to gloss such commonly known Punjabi
terms as saag and makkii di roti. By not
acknowledging his name on the main cover, Guru Nanak Dev
University has been less than fair to the translator. However,
the decision of the university authorities to back up this
personal memoir of historical importance for English does
deserve full applause.