Hindi review
Stories told with sensitivity
Ashok Malik

Soyee Hui Heer
by Kartar Singh Duggal. Bhartiya Jnanpith. Pages 179. Rs 40.

Soyee Hui HeerThe common thread running through the selection of the more than two-dozen stories from the master storyteller of Punjab and Punjabi, Kartar Singh Duggal, is that he touches the innermost feelings of his principal characters. His stories explore layers of their innermost thoughts in a very subtle way which shows his empathy for the characters.

Introducing the selection, Duggal takes a dig at the muckraking that has dominated short-story writing in India, as elsewhere, for a long time: "To describe the filth in all its filthy detail for showing how dirty it is cannot in my view be the purpose of the eternal art of story telling." He names Lihaf of Ismat Chugtai and Kali Shalwar of Saadat Hasan Manto as two of the better-known samples of this trend. Elaborating he says – filth does have a place in this art but only if it highlight the beauty around it.

Almost all his finely chiselled characters show that they have minds of their own. Be it the cows (Baggi in Letri ki ek Subah or Neeli) or Mhaja, the tongawala, or the forceful but womanly Santi (in Safedposh) – they are all ruled by their hearts rather than their heads. Mhaja, the voluble and old tongawala of Delhi who fails to get even one passenger over the whole summer day, shows fatherly concern and character when he forces the amorous young couple off his tonga after realising that the firangi paramour is accompanying a school-girl who used to ride his tonga to school for full 10 years.

Manglo, the proud and doting mother of an only son who joined "santji’s" bandwagon, does not shed even one tear when her terrorist son is felled by the police and just says "chalo chutti payee". But her tears do not stop when she learns of the death of the Brahmin young man of her village who dies defending the honour of his sister.

Duggal’s stories are about everyday characters with spontaneity and a capacity to surprise. Chameli, the young wife of long-time mali of a government bungalow, on Holi day smears the aristocratic and insular occupant of the bungalow with all the colours she has been keeping ready for the festivities. Heer, in the title story of the present selection, is the personification of the dormant desires of the middle-aged childhood-widow, Devaki, awakened by just one touch of a young doctor’s hand on her shoulder when she goes with him inside a dark room to get her eyes tested.

The dusky single woman smoking endlessly and sitting besides a sardarji during an international flight is drawn to him, but contrary to the ways of smugglers (which she is) forbids him from carrying her heavy gold-laden bag and snatches it from him just a few steps short of the customs counter. All his stories are peopled by lively characters.

Some of the stories in the collection — selected from 30 of his books of stories published in Punjabi so far — can be placed on a timeline that starts much before the traumatic Partition and ends around the tragic events connected with terrorism in Punjab. But like the other stories that cannot be thus placed, they too have a quality of timelessness about them. The collection is designed to give the reader a feel of the rich variety of Duggal’s writings.