For a reader uninitiated in the tradition of the short story in the Punjabi language Slice of Life offers a rich harvest of examples of writings from within this tradition. The stories selected, translated into English by Rana Nayar, are arranged in chronological order and range across the entire span of the twentieth century.
In his Introduction to this volume, Nayar provides a historical perspective on this range of stories, tracing not only the evolution of the short story tradition in modern Punjab but also its antecedents within the storytelling tradition in India as a whole. The Punjabi short story, accor-ding to him, can be traced back to the medieval forms of Sakhi literature and inspiring legends such as Varaans. Solidly grounded in history, the short story in Punjabi has been always a vehicle of a deep-rooted impulse towards realistic expression in Punjabi literature. Only during a brief interlude in between did the Punjabi short story adopt another guise—that of the qissas, verse renditions of popular lore of love and of faith instigated by the Sufi folk-productions that captured the imagi-nation of Punjab all through the medieval era.
It was not that the earliest exponents (in the modern period) of the short story in Punjabi, such as Charan Singh Shaheed and Giani Heera Singh Dard, necessarily employed the techniques of realism to narrate their tales. In each of the two stories by these two writers in the volume under review, the fabulist mode of narration is utilized freely, but the implications of belief in a supernatural world order which the fabulist elements underscore are interrogated and even debunked. Thus Baba Waryama’s project of acquiring a “divine sight” into the past lives of people around him and Rajni’s self-prostration before the “miracles” of Pir Galarh Shah are equally ridiculed by their respective authors. The influence of the efforts of the Singh Sabha move-ment to rid the Sikh panth of ritualistic and superstitious practices is writ large on these stories.
Similarly, the influence of anti-colonial ideology marks the story ‘The Rebel’s Daughter’ by Giani Gurmukh Singh Musafir. The pathos generated by conflict between political and personal loyalties lies at the core of the story in which the nationalist parents’ sacrifice of a child and the child’s development of a nationalist consciousness are the prime focus. The nationalist struggle is in focus again in Kartar Singh Duggal’s ‘The Miracle’ which brings to the fore the extraordinary energies evoked in ordi-nary people in the course of any heroic enterprise.
Along with Kartar Singh Duggal, Amrita Pritam is one of the few Punjabi writers who have been extensively translated into English and other world languages. Amrita Pritam’s ‘Thursday Fast’ is the fictionalized account of a woman who has taken to prostitution out of dire necessity although she retains her identities as devoted wife and mother while living up to the demands of her ‘profession’.
The trials and tribulations of women in gen-dered societies is the subject also of Ajeet Cour’s story ‘Moments Hung on the Cross’ and of Daljit Kaur Tiwana’s story ‘A Silent Witch’, each dealing with the lives of women who try to survive broken marriages with determination and dignity. The sensitivity to women’s subjectivity as in these stories is complicated by the introduction of a class dimension to the representation of a woman’s sufferings in Chandan Negi’s ‘A Festering Wound’. “The story encapsulates the poignant predicament of a mother who trades her newly-born children simply to keep herself and her disabled husband afloat, and a wife who tries to keep at bay her own crippling desires amidst the growing squalor of daily domestic drudgery.
The final entry in this anthology of short stories is one by Prem Gorkhi which recalls the intense passions, suspicious, jealousies and homicidal hostilities of European naturalist theatre in depicting the rage of a man who fears that he has been cuckolded by his wife. The psychosexual context of this drama is graphically etched out and its resolution in Bishna’s sense of remorse at having maltreated his wife results in the much-required catharsis for its readers.
Nayar challenges the thesis of many a chronicler of Punjabi literature that Punjabi literature defines itself by its response to the Partition of India being the reference point for all cultural negotiations of life in the province in the twentieth century. In Nayar’s opinion, the twentieth century witnessed in Punjab, apart from the Partition, tumultuous episodes such as the Green Revolution marching hand in hand with the first stirrings of the Naxalite uprising, the battle for the Punjabi suba ending in the bifurcation of Punjab into Punjab and Haryana, and then a long, long plunge into religious fundamentalism and militancy. And all this, he asserts, “has also found an equally vibrant and soul-stirring articulation in the Punjabi literature.”
The many facets of life in twentieth century Punjab and the ups and downs in its history find themselves movingly recorded in a Slice of Life.
Tapan Basu teaches in the Department of English, Hindu College, University of Delhi, Delhi.