The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 8, 2003

A heap of dim-lit personal memories of an indigenous utopia
Rana Nayar

Remembering Preet Nagar
by Urmila Anand, translated into English by S. K. Bhatia, Guru Nanak Dev University Press, Amritsar.
Pages 82. Rs150.

Remembering Preet NagarMAN’S desire to create a world within a world, a secular utopia lies embedded somewhere in the religious fantasy of the Promised Land. A strange blend of myth and reality, this desire incarnates itself differently in different human beings. While the ordinary men are happy to condemn the world they live in, the idealists believe in dreaming up alternatives, often enough leaving it to the visionaries to give such alternatives a real chance to live and survive.

Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, H.G. Wells’ A Modem Utopia bear testimony to man’s archetypal quest for a "wish-wish, nowhere land." Springing eternal in every human heart, this quest is not a handmaiden to any specific tradition, religion, community or culture. It is another matter that the story of utopias is much better documented in the Euro-centric tradition than it is in any other. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to come across an effort that matches Lewis Mumford’s The Story of Utopias (1922).

And yet the history of the actual communitarian efforts in the East appears to predate similar efforts in the West. According to Mumford, it was only as late as the l7th century that the Dutch Mennonites made early forays into setting up communitarian colonies. However, history bears witness that in our context, the saints, sages, preachers and religious reformers have been making similar efforts ever since one can remember.


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.

In Remembering 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.

Originally written 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 outsiders.

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.

Prof Bhatia’s 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.