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Grand Amateur of Punjabi Letters: Kartar Singh Duggal (1917-2012)

By Dr. Ashok K. Choudhury | PUBLISHED: 24, Feb 2012, 13:01 pm IST | UPDATED: 24, Feb 2012, 14:04 pm IST

Grand Amateur of Punjabi Letters: Kartar Singh Duggal (1917-2012)

The very first month of the year 2012 has not been a good beginning for the corpus of Indian vernacular literature as it lost two of its great icons. Kartar Singh Duggal, a pioneer in the world of Punjabi literature, passed away on 27th January, barely three days after the death of Sukumar Azikode. An eminent Malayalam critic, orator, academic, journalist, probably the most influential Gandhian, who dominated Kerala’s cultural scene as an intellectual giant, Sukumar Azikode  passed away on 24 January. And then, Duggal left us at a ripe age, a few weeks before his 95th birthday, after having enjoyed the affection of both critics and readers during his long literary career. Readers have always identified themselves with his works and personality.

He was acclaimed as a household name in Punjab. With 26 volumes of short stories, 13 novels, 15 plays, 8 volumes of poetry, 2 autobiographies, 9 volumes of criticism, 7 volumes of general writing in Punjabi; 15 volumes of short stories, 12 novels, 6 plays, 3 one-act plays in Hindi; 3 volumes of short stories, 2 plays, 4 novels in Urdu; and 8 volumes of short stories, 2 novels, 1 biography, 41 volumes including Sikh history and culture, besides some edited works in English,

Kartar Singh Duggal can rightly be considered as the best known and most talked about writer of Indian literature. The endless statistics about Duggal’s is only meant to point towards his creative versatility that springs up in a genius true to his natural ability. For a writer of such vast literary embrace, how can we fail to quote him: “Writing is my first love. Writing is my creed. I go to it with the humanity of a devotee”. 

As a towering figure he inspired all writers, emphasized all that was good in them, and had no harsh word for any. I myself owe a lot to him for his affection and modest elderly blessings and presence. I remember, in July 2007 I got a message that Duggalji is keen to talk to me. I could not believe it. Immediately I called him up. Very sweetly he invited me to his house. When his domestic help informed him of my arrival he personally came out of the house, his wife Ayeshaji also with him. He very warm heartedly welcomed me and requested his equally good natured wife to prepare some snacks for an almost unknown man like me. That was quite a way of life for them that I would prefer to call it Duggalan.

Why he invited me was that an article of mine on him had appeared in Creative Mind. Like a child he asked me how you wrote such a huge article on me. Where did you collect so many rare photographs? I had read him after Sahitya Akademi elevated him to “immortals of Indian literature” in May 2007. Duggal was one among many writers who took pen to protest the tide of blood and hatred, and to uphold the banner of humanity and peace due to the tremendous impact of whole Partition of the country, responding to the challenge of the massacre and suffering, and degradation of all human values.

While dealing with this theme he seems to have been carried away so much by what he had witnessed. His Abducted Not Other Stories of Partition Holocaust (2007), the translation in English, published by UBSPD, New Delhi, narrates the echoes and re-echoes smeared with human blood. The stories throw light on ashes still left smoldering in his haunting memories of Partition, but are not mere stories about political or geographical partition. The stories are about siblings separated from siblings, children separated from parents, friends separated from friends.

He was acclaimed as a ‘trend-setter’ both in style and technique, and the choice of the subject and theme. As a short story writer he was recognized as an “Usherer of modern sensibility in Punjabi literature”. From his preoccupation with Freudian psychology, which was the chief motive of the Punjabi short story at the time when Duggal started writing, he came to a more human understanding of the problems of his characters. His tone is restrained and urbane and his portrayals of the north Indian upper-middle class families, especially those of Muslim descent, are deft as well as authentic. Following the naturalist trend, both ‘empirical humanism’ and ‘psychological realism’ are the notable characteristics of his literary expression.                                            

Duggal initiated the trend of stream-of-consciousness in Punjabi fiction as also that of character sketching with minute details and analysis. Sincere love, co-operation, sacrifice, and co-existence are the pre-dominant values that he tried to preach through his characters. He was a progressive writer, followed the tendency which bears a close resemblance to socialistic realism, and got inspiration and guidance from Gandhism. He was the first writer who took up the issues with almost the same zeal as Urdu writers Saadad Hasan Manto and Ismat Chugtai had manifested. Duggal was influenced by the Freudian short story writer of the West: D. H. Lawrence and Maupassant.

Duggal was more of Freud than Marx in him. In fact he was too non-conformist to allow his individuality to be subsumed under a Freud or a Marx. His humanistic metaphysique, which placed the focal point in man, helped him in endowing his fictional characters with rich existential individualities of their own. His favorite character is the unsophisticated country simpleton, living in the primitive world of magic and superstitions and leading an instinctive animal life. Duggal was deeply attached to his birth-place, the hilly north-west Punjab called Pothohar, the dialect of which area he often used in his short stories to provide local colour and also as a means of individualizing his fictional characters.                                                                     

In his works several strands are marked by a consummate artistry and psychological insights. He was well acquainted with life in rural Punjab, particularly before Partition, which left ever-oozing scars on the psyche of the brave and hard working people of the Punjab. After Partition, Duggal lived in large cities holding prominent positions in the government and, therefore, well equipped to paint in detail the urban life and its changing scenario. To quote Ajeet Cour, the renowned Punjabi critic and writer, “Duggal is unique in Punjabi literature for having fictionalized important events in the contemporary history of India. The way he has interwoven personal relationships of the unforgettable characters with historical events shows his superb literary craftsmanship”.

A linguist in his own right, he was well conversant with as many as four modern Indian languages: Hindi, Urdu, English and Punjabi. He wrote with equal felicity in all of them. He was also familiar with Persian. There is hardly a genre of literary form in which he was not excelled himself. The multi-faceted writer was born on 1 March 1917 in Dhamial; a village situated five miles off Rawalpindi, the famous Pothohari region, now in Pakistan, to Jiwan Singh Duggal and Satwant Kaur. Duggal received his early education at village school and passed Matriculation from Mission School, Rawalpindi, in 1934.

Completing his graduation in Punjabi Honours from Punjab University, Lahore, he received his M.A. in English literature at Forman Christian College, Lahore, in 1940. Like his contemporary eminent literary figures: Amrita Pritam, B.S.Anand, Iqbal Singh, and Surjit Singh Sethi; Duggal joined AIR, but after doing research in Punjabi folklore for some time. He had a long innings with AIR, which he joined in 1942 in Lahore, and retired in 1966 as Station Director of the Delhi station. During his tenure, he organized and executed a plethora of programmes reflecting the life and culture of Punjab. His years in the AIR were, no doubt, been equally creative as his literary life. About those pre-Partition days, he said, “It was an essentially secular and non-communal service I had opted for in India, the country which suffered from communal virus eating at its sinews”.

He was associated with National Book Trust, India, during the period 1966-73, first as its Secretary and later as its Director. Duggal was also Advisor (Information) to the Planning Commission of India during the period 1973-76. Also he was appointed Member of the Advisory Committee of Government of India, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, in recognition of his expertise in the field of broadcasting.

Duggal’s literary career, however, began at the tender age of twelve as a poet. He won many prizes in school and college, including one at the All India Kavi Darbar held at Punjab Sahib. He turned to story writing during his college days and his first short story appeared in a leading Punjabi journal Likari in 1937, though it was written in 1934, at the age of seventeen. But he made his debut with a collection of short stories entitled Saver Sar (At the Dawn, 1941). Since then he never looked back and wrote short stories one after another. His first phase of short stories Saver Sar, Pipal Pattian (Leaves of the Pipal, 1942), Kudi Kahani Kardi Gai (She Continued her Tale, 1943) followed one after the other soon after he graduated.                                                                       

These three collections portray vivid and realistic picture of the society, especially the rural life of Pothohar. Saver Sar, however, is a detailed description of the morning atmosphere when life gets active after rest for the whole night. Writing this story, Duggal overcame the dearth of atmospheric stories in Punjabi literature, a kind of story very difficult to handle successfully.

He provided variety to his Punjabi readers. Duggal occasionally overemphasized the ugliness of his characters as well as of the situations. In Dunger (The Animal, 1947) he described so much details of the ugliness of his characters and situations, that the reader starts hating him creating that ugliness instead of the ugliness itself. Similarly, his famous short story, Nawan Ghar (The New House, 1950) brings into bold relief his faith in the intrinsic capacity of man and of life as a redeeming force. This sort of humanism runs counter to the tenets of Progressivism according to  which the social system is the root cause of all ills and evils afflicting man, even when his sensibility got completely soaked in social awareness, particularly after 1947.

Nawan Admi (New Man, 1952) shows Duggal’s deep insight into the mind of man and the moods of animals. He showed the maturity of his art through Phul Torna Manah Hai (Plucking of Flowers is Prohibited, 1952), Pare Maire (In Wonder Fields, 1961), and Ik Chhit Chanan Di (A Sprinkling of Light, 1963).

Duggal influenced Punjabi short stories, considerably through 'Ik Chhit Chanan Di', which won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1965, containing 25 short stories, out of which 11 stories deal with Freudian concept of sexual relations. Two of the stories deal with Partition, while rest of the stories portrays the sufferings and joys, particularly of the middleclass. He was upholding the warmth of human relationship, highlighting eternal values. His main narrative mode is psychological realism.

To quote him, “I knew society needs reforms, but I am interested deeply in psychological problems”. All the stories are well knit and well structured and a balance between the narration and texture. “Ik... reveals a mature mind looking at life steadily and comprehensively. For their deep psychological insights, their vigour and narration and the excellence of short story technique, the work has been hailed as an outstanding contribution to contemporary Punjabi literature”, says Akademi.

He was an expert in creating dramatic situations in his stories. Duggal was at his best in the stories in conception and art like Chanani Raat Da Ik Dukhaat (A Tragedy of Moonlight), Sat Din Svarag Wich (7 Days in Heaven), and Khata Mitha Swadem(Sour and Sweet Taste). His psychological grasp of the characters produced some of the finest stories. Manjeet Singh says, "In Ik… Duggal’s main intention is to portray the sufferings and pleasures of human life, particularly among the middleclass. On the whole, the stories included in this collection are fascinating and delightful. Besides their immense cognitive and artistic values, these stories have their wide range of appeal”.

In the later phase of his short story writing consists of Majah Nahin Moya (Majah is not Dead, 1970), Sonar Bangla (Beautiful Bengal, 1972), Dhoya Hoya Buha (1976), Ikraram Wali Raat (1979), Tarkalen Vele (1983), Hamma Admi (1986), Pare Maire, Sabe Sanjhiwal Sadayan. In Sabe Sanjhiwal Sadayan, Duggal maintained his dominant position. He continually extended his thematic range to embrace the realities of the urban civilization. One of the stories, a study in boredom, expresses the aberrant behaviour of an urban middleclass bored woman. By fashioning some of the stories in this collection on the atomistic conception of time he raised the Punjabi short story to a higher level.

Duggal was, however, known for imparting aesthetic pleasure through his short stories. Of all the Punjabi writers, he was, perhaps, the most conscious learner. Addressing as chief guest at the anniversary celebration of Katha, an Odia short story journal, at Bhubaneswar in 1990, he said, “Having been the author of 500 short stories, originally in Punjabi, the short story seems to be the closest to my heart. But I started my career as a poet. As a literary genre the short story is almost the same as I am. I must have read not less than 1000 short stories from all over the world before I took to writing short stories seriously”.

The thematic range of Duggal is wider than that of any other contemporary Punjabi writer. He is the best example of craftsmanship and technical skills. His stories generally follow the accepted patterns and are always well constructed and immaculately written. He was not an experimentalist and did not take liberty with technique. Being non-committed, he was in a sense, free to concentrate on the problems of form and to do technical experimentation.

In his monograph My Art of Short Story, he wrote that he made certain structural experiments. Uninhibited by any dogma-determined choice, he has touched almost all the problems of contemporary significance: sex taboos, hollowness of the feudal values, the degenerating effect of the foreign rule and of the big money, the Partition-bloodshed, five-year plans, bhoodan, etc. Under the influence of the ‘naturalist movements’, he painted the most ugly and dirtiest aspect of life in his earlier narratives. But later, he explored the dark side of animal lust and suppressed sex instincts in men and women. Even his animal characters present sex-cardoon.

Duggal was the first Punjabi writer who threw to the winds all inhibitions in the selection of his subjects. His characters are generally sex starved abnormal souls. He portrayed his feminine characters vividly but delicately, delving deep into the very dark recesses of their minds. Like Manto and Lawrence, breaking all the    barriers, he portrays women in their period, pregnancy, and hitherto untalked of naked absurdities of their being.  He was criticized for this and charged of having introduced ‘pornography’ by presenting sex as a factor in human motivation on different levels of consciousness. But his locale is Punjab. With Pothohari dialect he gave it unrivalled local colouring. With repetition of small sentences, sprinkling of Pothor expressions and poetic touches, he was able to weave a fascinating environment.

Though acknowledged as a short story writer, Duggal’s contribution to the genre of novel is no less. Every chapter of his novel tends to become a complete short story in itself. And his novels are a hefty blend of form and content. His first novel Andran (1948), created around his life in Pothor, in which his making the landlord’s natural son raise against him and oblige him to distribute his land, is rather romantic. The topographical novel was hailed for its Pothohari dialect, may be because it brought nostalgic memories to the refugees from that part of subcontinent on account of the Partition.   

His next novel 'Nahun te Mas' (Nails and Flesh, 1950), later merged into Ab Na Bason Eh Gaon (No More will Live in this Village), depicting the plight of the refugees from West Pakistan is a story of Muslim-Sikh family amity set in the strife-torn period of the Partition of the country on eve of Independence. It starts with the struggle for freedom and ends with the announcement of general election by Indira Gandhi after the Emergency.

Since then he penned several trilogies:  Haal Muridaan Da (Plight of the Disciples), Ma Pio Jaye (Born to the same Parents), and Jal Ki Pyas Na Jaye. The first part of the trilogy titled Haal  Muridaan Da, being autobiographical in essence, depicts the boyhood, youth and years of maturity of a sensitive soul. In the first part, sex is dominant followed by love in the second part and in the third it depicts the conflict between man and wife, as they unwittingly become the playthings in the hands of political forces. It relates to conditions in a typical Punjab village after World War 1 with the British Rule tightening its grip but at the same time inspiring the nationalist forces to give a determined fight for freedom. Haal… ends with the British relenting but deciding to divide the country with the creation of Pakistan. The Hindu-Muslim who lived amicably all these years is estranged. Neighbours and friends, who would sacrifice their lives for each other, are torn apart. 

Maa Pio Jaye, the second trilogy, written in an epic scale, portrays the terrible days of Partition when thousands of families fled Pakistan. The novel attempts to agglomerate the flux of time by visualizing the course of events, not from one angle but from multiple angles. It tells the story of refugees and their rehabilitation, culminating in the liberation of Bangladesh when a life is given to the two-nation theory of the advocates of Pakistan. It is, in fact, a saga of political upheaval on the Indian sub-continent that brought in its wake many clashes of loyalties: individual, social, and otherwise. Duggal painted numerous canvases and placed them in close juxtapositions as to present an integral design. The construction of the Maa… has been musicales. He showed several people falling in love, or dying, or praying in dissimilar ways.                                                                   

The third trilogy, 'Jal Ki Pyas Na Jaye', attempts at depicting a new India, with waves of foreign influence coming in. It portrays the nation of the present, in the throes of development, and also buffeted by the winds of change, blowing in from the outside. Jal… also depicts the story of Emergency and how the people voted Indira Gandhi out of power as a punishment and then, having been disillusioned with the alternative, voted her back to power in a sweep as it were. The locale is Delhi, and the central character is Mira Behl, a modern woman whose sources of pain are different but as much intense.

The yeomen service in portraying the Sikh point of view are his pre-90s trilogy: Nanak Naam Chardi Kala (Blessed are those who Remember God, 1989), Tere Bhane (As willed by you), and Sarad Punian Di Raat (The Night of the Full Moon, 1970), proposes to tell the story of the Sikhs’ in search of their identity from time of Guru Nanak to the present day. Nanak Naam Chardi Kala conveys the period up to the 4th Sikh Guru, Guru Ram Das. Tere Bhane carries the story up to Guru Tegh Bahadur. And the third volume Sarad Punian Di Raat is devoted to Guru Govind Singh. Sarad… is the story of a mother who spells disaster for her daughter on account of her own wrong doings. Duggal explained how a woman spends a night of full moon in the arms of her lover, but in the morning her young daughter becomes victim of flaunts of the folk around since they took the daughter for the mother. In a moment of utter despair, the young girl commits suicide. The Biblical adage- ‘the sins of the father are visited upon the children’- constitutes the main theme of Sarad…

His other notable novels are Man Pardesi (Alienated Heart, 1981), the story of agony of the Muslims in India, divided after the Partition and because of which even their loyalties are suspect;  Phulan Da Saath (Company of Flowers, 1986), a tender love story of the Khalistan movement in the Punjab. However, his Dil Darya is the story of his childhood in which, as a sensitive child and adolescent he was exposed to the passion of men and young women. As a fiction writer, his aim is to portray the pleasure and pains of life and to interweave the story in such a way so as to present a true picture of the individual and the society. In post-Bhai Vir Singh generation, Duggal ushered modernity which epochs a crusade against the old exhausted feudal values and the orthodox morality for which sex was a taboo.

Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia says, “The spatio-temporal particularity of characters and events constitutes the essence of the novel form. Short story in a sense is an expression of atomistic experience happening in atomistic time. Because it is the experience in a flash of moment, so it has all the spontaneity looked up in that moment when it appropriates to itself the totality of time. Spontaneity and intensity- these are the qualities of Duggal’s artistic experiences which have ensured him top position that he enjoys today”.

Besides novels and short stories, Duggal was an established playwright. Widely known as a Radio and TV playwright, he wrote 7 full-length plays and more than 50 one-act plays. He indulged in old experiments in technique. His plays are close to his stories, both in theme and style, and are examples of contemporary problems. His full-length plays are: Puranian Botlan (Old Bottles, 1954), Mitha Pani (Sweet Water), Kohkan (Breaker of the Mountain, 1958), Shaur Te Sangeet (Noise and Music), Budham Saranam Gachhami (I came to Budhha’s Protection, 1957), Ik Akh Ik Nazar (One Eye Remains Unprejudiced, 1980), Mian Meer, etc.

Among these, two plays stand apart and deserve special attention: Mitha Pani and Kohkan. Mitha Pani tells of the fate of an Indian peasant family that has left the part of Punjab given over to Pakistan and have come to settle in India. They abandoned all their property and land to start life anew on a plot that used to belong to a Moslem peasant who in his turn had abandoned his accustomed place and moved to Pakistan. The hero Jwala Singh and his wife Jwali cannot dismiss the memories of their deserted home, and of the sweetness of the water in their old well. But their son Baldev disapproved of this new soil, which is good too, all it needs is water! Unexpectedly Sakina, the daughter of the former landlord appears who has strayed from the family and is now forced into hiding since she is a Moslem. As she begs for shelter Jwala and his wife decided to accept Sakina as their daughter, who later falls in love with Baldev. In Punjabi Literature (1968), I. Serebryakov writes, “Duggal depicts life in a Punjabi village with amazing realism. The emotional tension, the psychological subtlety of each image, the poignancy of the issue touched upon, renders the play outstanding in Punjabi drama. The language is excellent, succulent and vivid, close to daily speech…”

In Kohkan the influence of tradition is even more strongly felt. The time of action is the present, the place- a farm on the eastern fringe of the Punjab, 70 km west of Delhi. His one-act collections for Radio broadcast are: Dia Bujh Gya (The Lamp is Blown Out), Ik Cipher Cipher (1x0=0, 1943), Oh Gae Sajan Oh Gae (They Goes My Love), Tin Natak (3 Plays), Saat Natak (7 Plays, 1955), Naun Natak (9 Plays). However, his best play Dia Bujh Gya set in the village of Kashmir, in which a mother, in order to save the valley from invaders, kills the treacherous son. Its poetic language fills the play with vigour. The play has been translated in book form in Urdu, Hindi and English and staged in various languages in the country. Dia… won him the ‘Ghalib Award’ for Urdu drama in 1976.

Duggal’s work of dramatic genre shows the ability on the author’s part to respond to the most vital problems of the peasant, and a capacity for broad generalization. However, he played a historic role in the developing years of Indian broadcasting. He once told, “Most important, my contribution to the Indian broadcasting was my emphasis on the sound aspect as the vehicle of the dramatic in scripts written for Radio. I wrote model plays in which the plot hinged around sound as a factor. I developed monologue as a genre for Radio…”

He also showed his creative talent in producing his outstanding autobiography. Though Punjabi literature has produced some remarkable autobiographies like Meri Jiwan Katha by Gur Baksh Singh, Aap Beeti by M S Randhawa, Rasidi Ticket by Amrita Pritam, Nange Pairan Da Safar by Daleep Kaur Tiwana, Duggal’s Kis Peh Khohlan Ganthri (Whom Shall I Tell my Tale, 1985), a voluminous work of 618 pages, is, probably, the lengthiest work in this genre in Punjabi, which was initially serialized  in three important dailies of Punjab simultaneously on a weekly basis for about three years in the original Punjabi and its translation in Hindi and Urdu. But in Meri Sahitik Jewani (My Literary Career), commissioned by the Punjab University, Duggal narrates his travel as a writer.

For Sahitya Akademi’s Histories of Indian Literature series, Duggal, along with Sant Singh Sekhon, a grand old man of Punjabi letters, wrote A History of Punjabi Literature (1992), the first authoritative chronicle of its kind. The volume is also a recapitulated and accurate profile of the ethos of Punjab along with major themes of its writers from the earliest to the present day with a rare sense of involvement and commitment. He translated, for wider readership, his own stories into Hindi, Urdu and English, and thus, has a tremendous reach as a major voice in Indian literature. He rendered a fine translation of the holy Guru Granth Sahib in English in tune with the spirit of the scripture. His works also have been widely translated.

His contribution to the world of letters has won him several awards and honours: ‘Man of Letters’ (1962) by the Government of Punjab, and by the Delhi Administration in 1976; ‘Ghalib Award’ for Urdu Drama (1976); ‘Soviet Land Nehru Award’ (1981), in recognition to his services to world peace, humanism through creative writing; ‘Fellowship’ by Punjabi Sahitya Academy (1983); ‘Bharatiya Bhasa Parishad Award’ (1985), for Novels; ‘Bhai Mohan Singh Award’, for his Autobiography; ‘Padma Bhushan’ (1988) by Government of India, for totality of his contribution to Indian literature; ‘Parman Patra’ (1993) by Chief Minister of Punjab;  D.Litt. (Honoris Causa) by the Punjabi University in 1994; ‘Sarva Srestha Sahitkar Award’ (1994) by Punjab Academy. In August 1997 he was nominated to Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament.

Duggal was selected for Nishan-I-Khalsa (Order of the Khalsa) on the occasion of the Tri-centenary of the Birth of Khalsa in 1999. On the occasion of World Punjabi Conference in 2001, Duggal was conferred ‘Waris Award’ for his contribution to Punjabi writing. The Governor of Punjab decorated him with 'Punjab Ratan' in 2001.  In 2004 he was elected as permanent President, Punjabi Sahit Sabha.

Widely traveled, Duggal attended several international conferences and seminars, representing India and leading Indian delegations. He was associated with many literary and social welfare organizations: Punjab Sahitya Akademi, Hindi Samiti (Government of India), Zakir Hussain Educational Foundation, Indian Institute of Social and Economic Growth, Afro-Asian Writers Association. Besides, he was the Founder-Member of RRRLF, Institute of Social and Economic Change, and Zakir Hussain Educational Foundation.

Throughout his life he worked to encourage and promote literature and arts. He was a grand presence in Punjabi literature and enriched it through his versatile creativity and considerable output. In conversation with this writer, Duggal revealed that he switched over to poetry, the genre with which he had started his literary journey in early 1930s and was busy in finalizing his unfinished works, as well, revising his pre-‘90s trilogy. But his death left behind an indelible mark in Punjab and Punjabi literature.


Dr. Ashok K. Choudhury, a postdoctoral scholar & lit critic, is with Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.

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