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Posted at: Sep 9, 2018, 1:45 AM; last updated: Sep 9, 2018, 2:16 AM (IST)

She wrote their destiny

From a truck driver to a mason, Amrita Pritam’s Nagmani introduced many promising writers to Punjabi readers

Vishav Bharti

Jotting down about his life on the highways, a young Punjabi truck driver from Kolkata posted a dispatch to #K-25 Hauz Khas, New Delhi-6. His aspiration was to see his story printed in Nagmani. “Your write-up is unique. It will be published in the next issue,” responded Amrita Pritma.The year was 1979.

 Amrita Pritam named the column Sadaknama after she received another piece from him. It continued till the last issue of the iconic magazine. She also gave a new identity to the truck driver-turned-transporter Baldev Singh as well. He added Sadaknama to his name.

From a daily wager writing a short story on a newborn left on roadside to a mason weaving a story around his first love; from a young Army captain touching unknown aspects of a soldier’s life to a rebel poet’s last poem for his beloved, Nagmani opened its pages to every talented voice.

Brought up in the this ‘nursery’ of Punjabi literature, if Baldev Singh Sadaknama got a Sahitya Akademi award for his writings, the world also applauded mason Kirpal Kazak for his monumental work on nomads. Dalit worker Prem adopted the name Prem Gorkhi and the world of Punjabi literature recognised him as a wonderful short story writer who painted the pain of the oppressed. The Armyman was Col Jasbir Bhullar and the rebel poet was Pash.

The chroniclers of Punjabi literature say that with Nagmani, a new trend of confessional literature in Punjabi began. Nagmani, started in 1966 by Pritam, whose birth centenary celebrations kickstarted on August 31 this year dominated the Punjabi literary scene for three decades. It is said that magazine was conceived by her close friend Sati Kumar, a young Modernist poet, and designed by her artist-partner Inderjeet Singh Bhangu, who later changed his name to Imroz.

Sadaknama says he was just a truck driver who had never met Amrita but would read Nagmani occasionally. “One day, I jotted down the conversations that would often to take place between the drivers, and just sent it to the magazine,” he says.

Within a week, a postcard from Amrita Pritam confirmed that the write-up had been accepted. “Is this even literature?” Well-established critics had then raised doubts reading his ‘weird experiences’. However, the excited and encouraged young driver dispatched another piece. And Amrita’s response was an offer to start a column. She named it Sadaknama, narration of life on highways. “What would have happened to my experiences if Nagmani was not there? Perhaps they would have been lost in time,” says Sadaknama.

Gorkhi’s is similar story. As a daily wage labourer in Jalandhar, young Gorkhi was shocked to see a newborn left on roadside. He weaved a story around the child and posted it to Nagmani in 1970. “By the time it was published, I was doing Gyani (one-year diploma in Punjabi). My teacher was impressed to see my name in the magazine.” There was no looking back for Gorkhi after that. Amrita, he says, would always boast that he is the product of ‘Nagmani school of literature’. “I was not even much educated. She made me a writer,” he says.

Mohali-based Jasbir Bhullar, a retired Army officer, has a somewhat similar tale — an unknown who became a writer due to Amrita’s iconic magazine. He was posted as a Captain in Sikkim in 1971 when he wrote a story of a soldier who had left his pregnant wife at home and couldn’t return due to war. That story, Ek Sifar Da Dukhant, is considered one of the finest Punjabi stories ever written about a soldier’s life. “Getting it published in Nagmani was simply beyond my imagination. But I thought the story is good, so I must give it a try,” he recalls.

Bhullar clearly remembers Pritam’s response: “Jasbir, not much has been written in depth about life in the Army. So, write more of such stories.” There was no stopping Bhullar since and he sent all his stories to Nagmani. Amrita often introduced him as the only writer whose writing she has never turned down. He says she wouldn’t only just publish the works, but would convey her critical appreciation in her one liners.

Nagmani gave young writers a distinct identity, says Ambala-based Paul Kaur. She was just a under-grad student at MCM DAV College, Chandigarh, when in 1980 her poem found a place in the magazine. “Nagmani left its mark on at least two generations of Punjabis. It had become a parameter among youngsters. You were considered a writer only if you were published in Nagmani. She never cared about big names. She chose writings on merit.”

What set Nagmani apart from its two contemporaries, Preet Lari and Aarsee, was that Amrita would always get back to its authors about the fate of their writing, says Punjabi writer and lyricist Shamsher Sandhu, who frequently figured in the magazine. “Within three days of receiving the author’s work, she would send a postcard acknowledging the receipt. Then within a week, she would convey her ‘yes’ or ‘no’ with a valid reason,” says Sandhu. He says that his contemporaries would flaunt Amrita’s letters — written on pages of beautiful letter pads — as a badge of honour. Critics, and those whose works were turned down, would make fun of these young authors as ‘Amrita Pritam’s durbaris’.

Nagmani welcomed writings by young authors from diverse ideologies. From believers to atheists, from post modernists to Naxalites, from existentialists to absurdists, everyone was welcome.

Sandhu, who has had a long association with revolutionary poet Pash, says that when Pash was in jail, she printed several of his poems on the cover. “Once he gave a small photograph of his girlfriend to me along with his famous poem: ‘Main hun vidah hunda haan, meri dost’. A little shy, Pash asked me to give it to Imroz, but requested that she be drawn in such a way that she is not recognised.” In the next issue, along with the poem was drawn a tree with a discreet face on the trunk, which only either Imroz or Pash could spot.

Every piece would be accompanied by a sketch of the author or something related to the subject. The colour of the paper was light brown. Again there was a reason behind it. “She said the colour had emotions,” says Ludhiana-based poet Prof Gurbhajan Gill. A prominent author once made fun of the magazine, saying ‘scrap dealers are reluctant to buy Nagmani due to its paper’. Amrita was quick to retort: “Nagmani is the only Punjabi magazine which doesn’t go in scrap!”

In the late 1990s, three decades after its birth, the readers got to know that the magazine was closing down due Amrita’s health problems and other logistic issues. Readers and well wishers protested. Nagmani continued. However, their good luck could not last. Finally, in a day came in 2001 when a brief note announcing its last issue appeared on the magazine’s pages. Similar emotions were again expressed. A contributor offered to run the magazine, as he was retiring. Some other readers offered to form a trust. However, next month, it was not Nagmani that they received in post, but a money order signed by Imroz along with a request to accept the remaining amount of their subscription.

Before nagmani

Before Nagmani, it was Preet Lari that introduced and produced such a large number of writers. Gurbaksh Singh, Preet Lari’s US-returned engineer-turned-editor, had started it in 1933. Writers of Amrita’s generation were introduced to the literary world through Preet Lari.

The other view

Many young writers from small towns and villages of East Punjab indulged in do-it-yourself psycho-analysis writings about their repressed sexuality, says London-based poet Amarjit Chandan whose works were also published in Nagmani. “Many young writers, who idolised her, copied her kitcsh style, diction and narcissistic themes. Nagmani’s prime concern was good quality literature. Through Nagmani, Amrita became the mentor of young Punjabi writers, who were largely apolitical. However, I doubt that like Preet Lari if Nagmani left any everlasting impact on the Punjabi mindscape, adds Chandan. 

Chandigarh-based non-fiction writer Gurbachan goes a step further: “There is no doubt that Nagmani was started with good intentions. However, it was Amrita Pritam herself who always remained its centre. She would often publish letters to the editor from girls who said that they sleep with Nagmani under their pillow. It was her this narcissist tendency that would rarely give space to any criticism. The young writers who wrote for Nagmani couldn’t see beyond the magazine,” he says.

Literary line-up 

  • Phulwari: Founder editor Hira Singh Dard, 1924.
  • Preet Lari: Founder editor Gurbakhsh Singh, 1933.
  • Punj Darya: Founder editor Mohan Singh, 1939.
  • Prabhat: Founder editor Sohan Singh Josh.
  • Jiwan Sandesh: Founder editor Giani Gurdit Singh, 1953.
  • Aarsee: Founder editor Amrita Pritam, 1958; later edited by Pritam Singh.
  • Dastavez: Founder editor Amarjit Chandan, 1969.
  • Lakeer: Founder editor Prem Parkash, 1969.
  • Samta: Founder editor Gursharan Singh, 1980.
  • Kahani Punjab: Founder editor Ram Sarup Anakhi, 1993.

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