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Left Wing Punjabi Writer Sukhbir Singh No More

By Vidyadhar Date

05 March, 2012

It is a pity that the recent death of Mr Sukhbir Singh, a prominent progressive Punjabi writer, went virtually unrecorded in the Indian media which shows the scant respect meted out to regional language writing in the country. He actively participatated in agitations of the Communist party of India in the 1950s and was in jail with another progressive writer, Ali Sardar Jafri, in Nashik in Maharashtra.

Gulzar, poet and writer, fondly remembers Mr Singh, his old friend. As Mr Singh lay ill in bed, Gulzar recited lines from Ghalib to cheer his ailing friend for 50 years. The lines meant - you may not be able to lift your hand to have a drink but you can still see the goblet of wine with your eyes - Go hatho ko Jumbish …. . Sadly, Sukhbir, 86, passed away a few days later. Gulzar lamented while speaking to me that regional language writers get little attention unless they are connected with films. Even Jnanpith award winners Shrilal Shukla , Hindi writer, and Sharyar, Urdu writer, got little coverage in the media after their death.

Gulzar owes much to Sukhbir who introduced him to modern writers and world literature. Had it not been for Sukhbir, I would have become a rather traditional Urdu writer, he says. Gulzar and Sukhbir always sent the draft of their writing to each other and eagerly wait for mutual comments. Such was the bond. Sukhbir, who lived all his life in Mumbai, was a self effacing personality and he was a very simple man. He always used post cards , never sent emails to communicate. Gulzar has preserved quite a few of these cards. Sukhbir also wrote well in Hindi and was a regular contributor to Navbharat Times. A special issue of Illustrated Weekly of India on Indian writing edited by Nissim Ezekiel prominently featured Sukhbir’s poems.

Interestingly, it was a handsome prize in the Illustrated Weekly’s Crossword in the fifties which helped Sukhbir to go to from Mumbai to Amritsar and do his M.A. in Punjabi literature. Sukhbir was always a gentle rebel. His was a family of engineers but he insisted on being on his own and studying literature. He became one of the few regional language writers who could make a living from writing. He also translated Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace and writings of Gorky and Sholokhov into Punjabi. Among his friends were Harnam Singh Naaz, poet and father of Test cricketer Balwinder Singh Sandhu, and Balraj Sahni, the renowned actor. Sukhbir was a great admirer of the Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafrfi and was part of the progressive writers’ movement.

Gulzar and Sukhbir shared a life long passion for two classic books both about struggling creative artistes which greatly inspired them. One was Irvin Stone’s Lust for Life about painter Van Gogh’s struggle as an artiste and the other was Martin Eden by Jack London about a proletarian youth’s struggle to become a writer. We picked up every edition of these books, Gulzar said..

Being a recluse and self-effacing person Sukhbir always stayed aloof from literary cliques who controlled and ran universities and academies in Delhi and East Punjab. He hardly got any literary award. He refused an award in 1991 meant for ‘writers living in India away from Punjab’ instituted by East Punjab government’s Bhasha Vibhãg – language department. TheRussian embassy in Delhi used to honour the translators who translated Russian works into native languages of India with award plus a short-period travel to Russia. But, the corrupt bureaucracy led to some other writer getting the award that year, although the magnum opusJang te Aman had come to the market that year only. Next year, the awards were terminated. After that, Sukhbir made a point not to receive any award whatsoever, nor attend any conference, seminar etc.
He considered himself a rational Marxist writer opposed to Stalinist socialist realist kind of formula literature. He was close to the Communist Party of India and admired its imaginative leader PC Joshi.

He wrote poetry in blank verse with a certain rhythm on the lines of Neruda and Mayakovsky. Sukhbir developed close friendship with Balraj Sahni, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander and Gulzar where they worked together in the local Punjabi Sahit Sabha. He also ghost-edited a Punjabi monthlyJivan (Life) published in Bombay, said writer Amarjit Chandan.

Not many people know that Sukhbir was also a very good painter, though he did mostly sketches. For this reason, his knack for visualisation penetrates and reflects his writings as well.

His wife, one son and two daughters survive him.

(Mr Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist. datebandra@yahoo.com)


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