Sagas of unsung heroes
Nonika Singh

HISTORY, we all know, is replete with unsung heroes. "But should they remain unsung?" questions eminent Punjabi playwright Dr Atamjit. So taking upon himself the onerous task of bringing these unsung heroes to light, he penned a play Mungu Comrade on the life and struggle of a Sikh Kenyan freedom fighter, Makhan Singh. Now he has turned his attention to several unknown heroes of the Gadar Party, who along with the popular ones like Lala Hardayal, become protagonists of his latest play Ghadar Express.

Dr Atamjit has written about several lesser-known heroes of freedom struggle in his plays
Dr Atamjit has written about several lesser-known heroes of freedom struggle in his plays

As the play is all set to open at Sacramento, USA, he agrees that writing an historical play isnít easy. More so when it involves dovetailing histories of men spanning continents as in Ghadar Express or when men like Makhan Singh leap out from recent past with unadulterated courage of conviction but sans the sensational details. He says: " In fact, I was repeatedly dissuaded by my friend Amarjit Chandan not to write about Makhan Singhís life for it was so linear".

But then it was this linearity that challenged the writer in Dr Atamjit as he says, "I could easily have written a biography and be done with it but then my forte is playwriting". He agrees that playwriting is dependent upon significant others like celebrity directors and receptive audiences. And though his plays are part of the syllabi of several Indian universities, he also concurs that we have yet to develop the habit of reading plays. But surprisingly, he encountered responsive listeners as he read out his Mungu Comrade at many play-reading sessions in India and now he plans to do the same in Kenya, the place where Makhanís extraordinary saga unfolded and where Dr Atamjit discovered his tale while on an academic trip.

Recalls Dr Atamjit, "When I first heard about him, more than being fascinated by his account, I was ashamed. For here was a fellow Punjabi about whom a Gujarati, Zareena Patel had written a book Unquiet and I, who take pride in being a Punjabi writer, knew nothing about him". He decided to make amends to ensure that at least Punjabis living around the world know that Makhan Singh represents the essence of Punjabiyat and humanism.

However, when Dr Atamjit began researching he had to contend with an alien culture, politics and a social milieu in which he had to "find and fit in" this Punjabi. And while understanding the meeting ground between his cultural roots and role in Kenyaís freedom movement, he also had to make his story appeal to Punjabis.

Thus he had to put all his dramaturgy skills to test. Just when he thought the playwright in him had been "suitably challenged", just as he patted himself on the back with "above average marks", yet another litmus test awaited him. He confesses that after writing about a man who espoused non-violence even in times of Mau Mau (a movement that endorsed violence as a means of resolving issues), dwelling upon the firebrand philosophy of Gadar Party did present a dilemma.

No, Dr Atamjit doesnít go into an amnesia mode while writing a new play. Between the two diametrically opposed ideologies, he quips " there is bound to be a valid enquiry ó where do I stand?" And he found the answer in the realisation, "When we study Indian history, we donít reject the contribution of those who tried to attain freedom through violence. Yet we acknowledge that public can only be awakened through non-violent means".

While chronicling the travails of Gadar P arty he may not have endorsed violence but couldnít help himself from wondering aloudó"Here was a short-lived movement with nearly 150 martyrs. Isnít it our duty to pause and ponder what exactly did they devote their lives for?" Undisputedly, it was freedom they desired and patriotism that spurred them. As for why they failed, reasons Dr Atamjit: "They were fuelled by fire but lacked rationality in their mission".

The difference between a historian and a playwright, he feels, is " While a historian is content with facts, a playwright is more keen on social history and to create as well as understand the social mores he needs to tamper facts with imagination". Like he created a fictional love angle in Mungu Comrade, not merely to add spice but for the much-needed emotive element to engage audiences.

Nevertheless he argues, "You cannot go against the basic grain of truth". Simultaneously, while he hasnít deliberately edified any of his characters, he quips, "I am not on a faultfinding mission either. If these heroes deserve it they must get their due". As for Punjabi playwrights not getting theirs, he says, "Let us admit it, for a variety of reasons theatre in our region has not grown so big. Nor have its playwrights. Still many of our playwrights stand tall enough to be counted". Needless to add when the count begins this winner of Punjabi Academyís "Playwright of decade" award and recipient of prestigious Shiromani Natak-kaar award will have to be reckoned with too.