Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lal Singh Dil's 'Dastaan'

Lal Singh Dils’ Dastaan: An Autobiography of Absences  
Chetna Prakashan, Ludhiana, 1998

World literature is full of autobiographical writings that include regular full-fledged autobiographies and genres such as personal diaries,  journals, and memoirs; for many great, famous and successful men - generals, statesmen,  revolutionaries and politicians, diplomats, business and industry tycoons, victims of personal violence, social or political injustice, sportspersons,  showbiz stars, poets, -   have written their  life histories to narrate their struggles and success stories, along with their failures, the role they have played  in shaping certain historical events in the lives of nations or organizations, for  self expression or self glorification or money or whatever other reasons; and those who can’t write  have engaged ghost writers or commissioned biographers to do it for them. How truthful and honest these are depends on each individual, his character and personality, and his motive.

Where does Lal Singh Dil’s  autobiography, ‘Dastaan’, fit in the rough map of the genre I have drawn? Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007) belongs to none of these categories of intellectually and spiritually, educationally, professionally, financially, politically and socially distinguished people. He was a revolutionary and a poet but never became famous, for he is not known much beyond the confines of Punjabi poetry and there too he has suffered neglect; although he is counted among the four foremost Revolutionary  poets in Punjabi and enjoys some status but no real patronage or great readership. He was also  a revolutionary in the Naxalite mould but never in a position of leadership in the movement, and participated only in one or two minor and unsuccessful Naxalite operations; one of them an attack by a handful of Naxalites on a police station, after which he was arrested, tortured and jailed, and after his release he remained on the run from the police. Like a very large number of Punjabi Naxalites and like the three other foremost poets (Avatar Singh Sandhu Pash, Amarjit Chandan and Sant Ram Udasi) thrown up by the Naxalite movement in Punjab, he too became disillusioned with the movement; at least two of them – Amarjit Chandan and Sant Ram Udasi - renouncing the Marxist ideology altogether, the former claiming to have become a ‘non-ideological’ (Vichardharamukt) poet, and the latter adopting the other extreme, of  Khalistani ideology. Pash  remained faithful to the Marxist ideology, but when he was beginning to  reshape his intellectual position his life was cut short by Khalistani terrorists. Lal Singh Dil did the strangest of twists; he converted to Islam without renouncing his Maoist ideology, and put forward a  strange theory that one had to be a Muslim before one could be a Maoist. He died both a Muslim and a Maoist, but was cremated as a Hindu or a Sikh.

He also does not  qualify to be included among the great autobiographers because his life is not marked by any great events or personal achievements, if  for the moment one leaves aside his poetry. If anything, it is a life filled with the most pedestrian and common place occurrences in the life of an almost completely marginalized individual, who, for all his aspirations and dreams, remained largely unemployed, or fitfully employed as a daily wager, manual worker, a cook, a watchman in a mango orchard,   a street vendor  of trinkets,  and  could never through out  his life manage to get a sustained meaningful employment; and could not marry, or even cohabit with a woman because no girl or woman who got interested in him was willing to become his companion, so we get the impression. However, as a poet he published  three  collections of poetry,  in addition to his autobiography.  

So why should Dil have written his life story, and why should we read it? There are no great confessions for him to make, no sinful acts to show for which a man should feel remorse and or harbour a sense of guilt, no acts of exemplary, Bhagat Singh like, courage or bravery or defiance, for which a man should feel proud, no great  and original intellectual formulations or ideas of national or international, military or civilian, political or economic or social interest or importance for which a man could be admired and remembered for. 

And from the purely literary point of view too Dastaan has not much to offer. The prose style is not great, the narrative is lose and meandering, and not very distinguished unless I am a very poor judge of Punjabi prose style. The form is anecdotal,  events are  narrated in short spurts and often remain incomplete,  lacking in any sustained and conclusive treatment. There are no dates to pin point important land marks in Dil’s life.

Yet he wrote his life story, though only after being urged upon by his friends, particularly Amarjit Chandan.  I can find only one justification  for Dil to have written it and for us to read it.

As I can see, Dil’s ‘Dastaan’ deserves to be read even by non-Punjabi readers not for what is present in it but what is absent. To put it differently, it is an autobiography of absences. The very things for which someone writes an autobiography are absent in Dil’s Dastaan, and it is these absences that make his autobiography a remarkable reading  and worth reflecting upon. Lal Singh Dil through out his life harboured one dream, one illusion, that  a Maoist revolution will solve all his problems. 

But who was Lal Singh Dil and what were his problems?

Lal Singh Dil was born in a ‘chamar’ (an ‘outcaste’ community of tanners ) family in Ghungrali Sikhan near Samrala a small town in Punjab, a family without money, without land, without property, without education, without any useful traditional skills of the caste to which it belonged (at least this is not reflected anywhere in the Autobiography), in fact,  without any financial, intellectual and even cultural and spiritual resources that could give Lal Singh a kind of start for upward social or economic mobility. The family was fitted to perform only manual and menial agricultural labour,  and Lal Singh’s father almost through out his life worked as an agricultural labourer on someone’s land. Most probably the family formally subscribed to Sikhism but it is no where mentioned in Dastaan. Nowhere in the book do we read about any member of his family going to a Gurudwara, or following any of the prescribed rituals, code or customs in the Sikh religion.  One  of Dil’s friends  refers to an occasion on which Dil’s  father talks of Guru Nanak  as an ‘incomparable person’; and  in Dastaan Dil’s refers to a letter that his uncle wrote to Shiromani Gurdwara Committee threatening that he along with a hundred Sikhs of his caste would convert to Islam if the discrimination against them was not ended. However, after Dil had converted to Islam there are many references to Islam, Allah, the mosque and namaaz and other aspects of Islam. 

So what is special about Dastaan? A few things. First, through out his life Dil remained an ‘outcaste’. This is how he begins his life story: ‘To keep pushing me into the same fire again and again and yet to keep me unscathed, well it  was no less than a Godly miracle’. What that fire was he illustrates with an example in the next few lines of the  same opening paragraph. While as a small boy of  five or six, out of innocence, he dares to bathe at  a jat farmer’s well. He is immediately  whiplashed thrice, dragged and driven out by the farmer’s son. As   a ‘chamar’ he is not permitted to bathe at the well of an upper caste, in this case a Jat. He is pushed into this fire again and again while at school, at college where he dares to fall in love with an upper caste girl, and even while he becomes a part of the egalitarian Naxalite revolutionary movement and the poetic fraternity; and, of course, by the police who, being mostly upper caste, singled out Dil (and others of lower caste) for ‘special treatment’. Everywhere he is reminded  of his caste. His conversion to Islam later, he says, gave him relief from the heat of this fire, but here too it seems that the  female poet who fell in love with him for his poetry (for so Dil believes) also backs out for reasons Dil does not spell out, or does not want to share with his readers, but they may have something to do with the fact that he was a convert from a low caste, or a mere wage labourer. Finally, by and large neglected though occasionally patronized,  he ended up as a tea vendor  at a bus stop close to his native town, and died  in penury, a sick man and an addict. How far his own temperament and behaviour or ‘flaws’ in his character contributed to this alienation is not recorded, though it is hinted at here and there by some commentators; but never frankly stated or specified by anyone. But I don’t think these so called ‘flaws’ matter at all. But if they matter they do  only to show the petty mindedness of  those who talk of these flaws and make them an excuse for the kind of treatment that was given to Dil by the fellow poets and revolutionaries, leaving aside a few well-wishers.

Another something special about Dil is that a person so completely marginalized, alienated and cast out should have at all pursued the vocation of a poet. His published output is not voluminous – just about 150 short poems, and two long poems – but that he was stung by the bugbear of the Muse is extremely remarkable. If we go  and look out  for a poet who economically perhaps never rose above the level of a wage labourer, we are unlikely to find many anywhere in the world. His training as a poet has many gaps. Yet his poetry is remarkable because  it brings out the nothingness of the lives of people he was familiar with  and lived with because he was one of them—the landless labourers and daily wagers, and street hawkers and nomads of all varieties (bazigars, sikligars, sansis, bawariyas, sepelas…) moving from place to place like animals foraging for food,  men and women toiling in others’ fields for almost nothing, cooking, washing dirty linen and dishes, sweeping floors, collecting animal dung, performing so many tasks reserved  for the ‘menials’ in the Indian socio-economic context; in fact the most ordinary even among the ordinary, the people about whom no one wants to write because there is nothing ‘worthwhile’ to write about them; the people who are called ‘extras’ in the cinema parlance and are hired for a shot for  a pittance to form the anonymous crowd to foreground some great personage or his heroic act. May be even less than them.  Lal Singh calls many of them the ‘naglok’, as opposed to the upper caste ‘aryans’ who usurped their land and country and everything else.

It is this exclusion from everything that civilization provides to its fortunate children that Lal Singh’s story pre-eminently highlights. It showcases what it means to be treated as the last dregs of a society, to be stigmatised, excluded and disinherited from the sweet fruits of civilisation, and possess almost nothing except what nature provides. But Lal Singh faced all this with great dignity, without cringing, with  his head held high. He remained an outcaste, and a rebel. 
All this makes Dastaan worth reading.

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