Monday, June 05, 2006

Ajeet Cour: A Punjabi Writer

Since I’ve written a lot on Indian writers from Bengal (and lately, the South), I often get emails from people saying, “when are you going to write about Punjabi literature? And what about Sikh writers?” My response is pretty simple: a person needs to be inspired. Ethnic and religious loyalty ought to take a back seat to the quality of the writing, and the effect it has on you as an individual reader. If that means Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, or Zadie Smith get more of one’s critical attention than Amrita Pritam, so be it.

But I was recently invited to give a talk on Sikh writers at a small Sikh Studies conference at Hofstra University, so I started reading authors that I didn’t know very well —- and I was, in fact, quite impressed. So over the course of this summer I hope to profile some Punjabi writers, including some that are Sikh, starting with Ajeet Cour, Kartar Singh Duggal, and Khushwant Singh (who writes in English). Incidentally, many of these writers' works are accessible in North America and the UK, through sites like or Amazon Marketplace sellers.

With Ajeet Cour, the place to start is her memoir, Pebbles in a Tin Drum, published in Hindi and Punjabi as “Khanabadosh” (which means “nomad” or “vagabond”). This isn’t a conventional memoir so much as an arrangement of the key crises in Cour’s life. It starts out of order — with her moving account of her adult daughter’s death from a severe burn accident in France. But then Cour backs up, and tells the story of her family’s move from Lahore to Delhi during the Partition; of her failed romance with her English teacher, Baldev (through whom she started on her path to the writing life); of her failed marriage and subsequent divorce; and finally, of her life as a single mother in Delhi who struggled to support herself and her daughters while working as a writer in the 1970s and 80s. She also talks about her experiences as a Sikh woman in Delhi during the riots in 1984. And there are two chapters that I rather liked on the unlikely topic of her legal battles with her landlord —- which dragged on for years and even went to the High Court. This experience gives Ajeet Cour a pronounced hostility for Indian government bureaucracy, which shows up in some of her short stories. For instance, in the collection Dead End there is a short story about a family that tries to get justice for their daughter, after she was raped and murdered by Indian soldiers during the troubles in Punjab. Instead of justice or sympathy, all they get is endless bureaucratic run-around. (A familiar tale for people who have suffered as a result of communal violence in recent years.)

Even though Cour’s life has been pretty unconventional, she remains in many ways a traditional Punjabi Sikh woman. When her daughter is dying in a French hospital, for instance, she takes frequent recourse in prayer:

I had only been saying to God, ‘Look I have not committed any sins all these years. . . . Bless my daughter and help her get well. She is going to be nineteen on the twenty-sixth of November. This is no age to go through such suffering. At this age she should enjoy herself. You know fully well how she has spent her childhood sharing her mother’s poverty and how she had to face her father’s temper and hatred. Things have just started getting a little better. It isonly now that we can afford to relax in the evenings and listen to music and discuss books. Our greatest strength is that we have each other as friends. The friendship I enjoy with my two daughters has given warmth to my ife and dispelled the pain from my existence.

The quality of the translation isn’t great, but there’s a kind of directness and sincerity here and elsewhere in Cour’s writing that comes through anyway, and that I really admire. (There aren’t very many prominent Indian writers of Cour’s generation that are avowedly religious. Most are either silent on their religious beliefs or use their writings to emphasize the “backwardness” or even the danger of naïve religious belief.)

Another passage I admire from Pebbles in a Tin Drum is Cour’s description of the room she was born in and lived in until they had to leave Lahore:

Some are born in gypsy families and others become gypsies through a conspiracy of circumstances.

Isn’t it ironic that man remains totally ignorant about the two most significant events of his life, his birth and his death? The first takes place due to negligence and the second leads to the disappearance of its protagonist from the world. Dust into dust and air into air. You can go on searching eternally but you won’t find those who have blended into earth and air. Poets are free to make the elements — the earth, the air and the sky — as romantic as they like but I asure you that these elements are not only deaf and dumb, they are also blind.

I was told about the first major incident of my life by my mother and grandmother long after it had taken place. Showing me a large, spacious bed they had said, ‘You were born on this bed.’ The bed was placed in a spacious, airy room in my grandmother’s house in Lahore. A wide bed made of strong wood, it was supported by thick, round, carved legs which reminded me of the silver-encircled ankles of Haryanvi women working along with their men in the fields.

And then a bit more on the tension between romance and the real world. As a young girl Cour was attracted to the windows in her house, which her family had covered in heavy curtains:

I feel all that has become a part of my constitution, my texture. Or maybe I have been created by a blend of all these things. You could even say that it was the conspiracy of that room which had blended with my blood the moment I was born. A poet would say that every object in that room was a symbol, a sign whose meaning was revealed layer by layer at a later stage.

However, I am not a poet, I am a storyteller. Of course I can say this much, that I have always longed to feel the open, free air and vast areas of empty space stretched around me. Unfortunately, every window that life threw open on the rippling breezes and blue skies where the balmy sun floated like will-o’-the-wisp was blocked by heavy bamboo curtains, denying me access to what I desperately wanted to reach.

In a sense this is a metaphor for her struggle (which I think is everyone’s struggle) to experience the life in its ideal, beautiful form — in the broad daylight as it were. Most of the time we are stuck indoors with the light on partly cloudy, fussing with the curtains. (This is a domesticated version of Plato’s allegory of the cave of course.)

There is more that could be said about Pebbles in a Tin Drum as well as the short stories of Cour’s that I’ve been reading (in Dead End and Other Stories). But I’ve run on too long already. So I’ll just end with a quote from Cour’s story “Returning Home,” which features an adult woman’s reminiscence of her childhood fascination with her mystical grandfather. It again gets into the theme of religion, though I think it does so from a somewhat secular perspective:

He recited the lyrical hymns from the Holy Book for hours. Whenever he was free-which he almost always was!-he climbed the stairs, humming, and went to the meditation room, and recited hymns from the Holy Book. While reciting, he closed his eyes and climbed down those invisible stairs which lead one to a very dark and very bright spot in the inner recesses of the soul. He spent long hours at that pitch-dark and brilliant, luminous spot in the inner core of his being. And his lips quivered with silent laughter.

I often saw him sitting like that, absolutely quiet. With the open pages of the Holy Book spread before him, his eyes closed, completely oblivious of his surroundings, a silent laughter spread across his face like sunshine, and his hands dancing gracefully.

This is one of the earliest memories of my childhood. Though we always feel that everything connected with those early days of our life were wrapped up in unknown mysteries and inexplicable magic, I honestly feel that my grandfather was a mystery, he was magic personified.

Any comments on Ajeet Cour — or other Punjabi writers you admire (including those who write in English)? I’m open to suggestions for writers to talk to about.

[Cross-posted on Sepia Mutiny]


bess said...

"In a sense this is a metaphor for her experience the life in its ideal, beautiful form — in the broad daylight as it were."
Enlightment or fundamental change seems always to start with the decision that a piece of sky isn't enough, not when all of it is available. And the phrase, "domesticated version of Plato's allegory..." is brilliant.
Enjoying your writings.

3:48 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

I read "Pebbles.." many years ago and have forgotten much of the details. I do remember however, the heart rending description of how helpless and emotionally bereft Ms Caur became when her younger daughter lay dying and eventually died in Paris. Her grief had an exhausting quality to it and I don't mean it in a bad way. I remember thinking that if I as a stranger, felt so wrung out by her all consuming sorrow at the loss of a daughter, how did her other living daughter feel? That daughter, Arpana Cour is a well known artist. Her work is very good but quite gloomy.

I wish you would do a post or just comment on this very aspect of Punjabi writing. The childlike (not childish) style of expressing overwhelming emotions - be it love or grief. There is almost a performative quality to it which is not to say that the emotions are not genuine. For example, Amrita Pritam's lament for Sahir Ludhianvi startled me when I first read her book at the age of 18 or 19 - an age when I took much more kindly to excessive hyperbole than I do now. Yet in spite of wearing their hearts on their sleeves, at their core, these women were very strong willed, independent women - far from being shrinking violets.

I don't know if I have made myself quite clear but it is a contradiction that baffles me about Punjabi writing and to some extent, Punjabi social customs.

4:57 PM  
Jabberwock said...

Ethnic and religious loyalty ought to take a back seat to the quality of the writing, and the effect it has on you as an individual reader.

You stole the words out of my mouth. Out here, if one does three consecutive reviews of books by non-Indian authors, one is accused of having a "colonial hangover".

11:06 PM  
uma said...

Thanks for this post, Amardeep. I've read "Pebbles..." too and, like Ruchira, I was deeply moved by the description of her younger daughter's death in France... I always wanted to read more by Ajeet Caur, but never managed to. Now I will.

1:50 AM  
ana beynaam said...

i haven't read ajeet caur, but when reading a bit of what amardeep wrote, i couldn't help but think of difficult daughters. i think it was just in her relationship with her english teacher.

and thank you for: Ethnic and religious loyalty ought to take a back seat to the quality of the writing, and the effect it has on you as an individual reader.. right on ji! i tend to feel guilty sometimes when i gush more about zadie smith or peter carey or the russian writers than desi ones. it's too bad we can't just appreciate good literature for what it is, no matter who writes it, rather than being told we don't pay enough attention to our roots.

as a punjabi woman, i wanted to address what ruchira said about the childlike quality of some punjabi writing by women, but i think i, too, would like to hear it from amardeep

12:40 PM  
Manish said...

i tend to feel guilty sometimes when i gush more about zadie smith

Pish. After White Teeth, Zadie's honorary desi anyway.

1:51 AM  
ana beynaam said...

my reading of punjabi writers is limited to amrita pritam, manju kapur and a little bit of shauna singh baldwin. i may have also read some pakistani punjabi writers who write in urdu, but i can't recall. i'm always looking for more, but other books temporarily derail that search.
i'd like to read more of shauna singh baldwin before i comment on her writing. (like actually finish the novel)

11:52 AM  
RajpaL said...

Amardeep, I think there are not many famous Sikh writers around. To be honest, I have only read a couple. Them being 'Train to Pakistan' by Khushwant Singh and another novel written in 'Gurmukhi' called 'Tutan Wala Khoo' (I think this is correct but it was a Long time back as a teenager - it was soon after I had learnt to read/write 'Gurmukhi').

You must have heard of the new book - 'Tourism' by Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal. I haven't read it yet but it just got released here in Australia. Other Sikh authors I have heard of are Simon Singh (Big Bang) and 'Billy' Arjan Singh (Modern day Jim Corbett who has written 'Tiger Haven'). I might be getting these books soon.

I do plan to get my hands on 'Gurmukhi' literature in the future though !

Not related to this topic, but I recently finished 'The Romantics' by Pankaj Mishra.

9:53 PM  
tilo said...

**It is only now that we can afford to relax in the evenings and listen to music and discuss books.**

Might be a bad translation but what a great line....

I am so dismissive of so many of our older compatriots for not being to enjoy their lives but maybe they are not familiar with such simple pleasures we take for granted.

10:57 PM  
Anonymous said...

Lots of talk about Gautam Malkani "londonstani" set among Desi-British (published in late June)

8:25 AM  
Anonymous said...

in Late june in the US i mean

8:26 AM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

I thought you had closed discussion on Ajeet Caur but now I find that you have begun it all over again. Are we to assume only that only complimentary comments shall be included on your page and anyone everso slightly referring to Foucault and Deleuze would be superciliously mocked at Professor Amardeep?

6:15 AM  
Amardeep said...

This version of the post was put up the same day as the Sepia Mutiny post. It's called "cross-posting," and it's a common feature of blogging. This is my own blog, and it gets a modest number of readers. Sepia Mutiny is a group blog with a large number of readers that I joined recently.

If you'll look, you'll see a time stamp at the end of the post and a date stamp on the top.

9:14 AM  
zhivago said...


i tried to comment under the post "operation bluestart" but perhaps you have closed that option?

i am concerned with your and others use of the term "riot" to descirbe what occcured after indira gandhi's asassination. what constitutes a riot? after rodeny king's police beating there were "riots" in LA, but these were not government organized porgrams, where mobs of blacks went around looking for any white man, woman, child to burn alive.

in 84, hindu mobs had clear lists of sikh homes and business. the number of deaths we get by even international sources are far from accurate as we see that in the gujarat case over 15,000 ppl were murdered but the numbers we hear dont gover over 3k. today ppl continue to find bones of the dead and missing

again, is wat happened in 84 really "riots"? we shouldnt let our need for diplomacy and acceptance get in the way for speaking the truth as objectively and honestly as possible, sugar coating wont alter the minds of those who lost family members and today are suffering from the torture. but perhaps you and i didnt lose anything directly from 84, those who did see that day as the darkest moment of life.

also even khushwant singh, kind of a weird dude, not very sikh oriented, explains how he felt like a jew in nazi germany and as gurdewara was burnt to the ground near his place and he had phoned a hindu friend who told him to find a shelter in a hindu's home. this is what you call a riot? more like a genocide.

if you havent seen the history channel documentary already here ya go

"storming the temple"

by the way most sikhs, practicing sikhs..not sikhs who wear turbans like hats... (who have been thru it, lost someone, and arent linked to the government), dont see the operation bluestar as a humilating day, instead they view it as a day of moral/military success as it took a whole army with tanks to combat a few hundred sikhs.

and yet we still continue to admire india because it has great old temples. :)

4:10 AM  
zhivago said... mention 2k lost after "riots" 2k missing in punjabi...

have you heard of khalra? he made a list of countless youth missing across villages in punjab, and guess wat? he turned up missing and never found. you can also watch his wife's interview im told but i think its in punjabi on youtube. ask any sikh who knows about this, he/she can get you a list of atleast 25000 youth missing or killed in fake encounters. it is not good to follow wat you hear so hastly as even ignoring one life lost is morally wrong, even in the liberal secualr world.

when will neutral people like you call indira gandhi a terrorist or her son rajiv for being the sole cause for the attacks? or wat about that guy who organized the gujurat attacks?

u were indirectly touched by the event, i have yet to meet a punjabi sikh who doesnt know someone who knows someone who was killed, tortured, or raped. seriously, try this you will be amazed at the numbers.

it would be great to see a post on your blog discussing the situation of the dalits, naxalites. how about that, you have enough traffic by hindus and i sure they will appreciate such effort an your part. maybe you have already? but dialogue on reservation doesnt count! lol

4:26 AM  
annaps said...

Ajeet Caur will attend the book fair at Frankfurt/Germany this year. Some years ago I had the opportunity to read the short story about 1984 she wrote. I was deep impressed by her clear words full of motion. It is difficult for me to describe it in english, as I am able to read english, but do not have much practice to write. (I am german married to a Sikh and just starting to learn Gurmukhi) Tommorrow she will read in Bonn (where I live) and so I will have the chance to meet her personally.

3:42 PM  

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