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Tale Whisperer

That writer down the street, calm and enigmatic

Tale Whisperer
Gurdial Singh (1933-2016)
Tale Whisperer

Yesterday, Prof. Gurdial Singh ji left his mortal frame after a brief illness. When the news got across to me, I was shell-shocked. Somehow, the impression I had about him was that he could go through any crisis, and yet come up trumps. For that’s what he had done, every time. But this time round, we weren’t so lucky. This time, his visit to the hospital proved to be his last, and a fatal one, too.

A certain gloom hangs over my heart as I sit down to pay tribute to this man, someone whose life was as much of an inspiration for me as his works always were and will always be. My association with Prof. Gurdial Singh ji goes back some two decades and a half. In 1990, I had just joined the Panjab University, when I started contemplating how translation, too, could be treated as a serious academic enterprise. That’s when Gurdial Singh happened to me. 

To be honest, I had never thought that one day I would be known less as an academic and more as a translator of Gurdial Singh. If today, I have an identity as a translator, it’s thanks to Gurdial Singh ji. Not only did he trust me with his works, but also gave unstinted support while working on the translations of some of his great works.

My first introduction to Gurdial Singh was through his work, and that’s the way it should always be. I’m not saying, the person doesn’t matter, but Gurdial Singh, the person, as I was to discover much later, always believed in putting his work first, and himself second.

In 1999, when Jnanpeeth was announced, he shared this most prestigious literary award of India with Nirmal Verma, another leading light of Hindi literature. I spoke to him on the phone, asking him what he had felt on the occasion. While I was expecting him to react in a somewhat ebullient manner, all he said, in his characteristic restrained and subdued tone, was: “Well, this is an award for Punjabi language, literature and culture. I owe it all to my fictional characters, who deserve it more than I do. It is an affirmation of their indomitable spirit, recognition of their triumph in life.”

Self-effacing to an extreme, Gurdial Singh was painfully shy, even modest to a fault. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he never believed that a writer should either launch his books or participate in literary festivals. All his life, he lived as a recluse in a small town called Jaito Mandi, where he was born, and where he finally breathed his last, too.

Not until a road was named after him did the people of his town realise how ­acclaimed he was.

Not until did he get a Jnanpeeth and a road leading up to his house was named after him did common people of Jaito discover that a great writer was actually living amongst them. So unobtrusive was the presence of a man who rose to such heights. He didn’t just create unhoye (people about whom it was difficult to believe that they ever existed) characters, but he lived almost as if he was one of them.

When I first read his novel, Addh Chanini Raat in 1991 (by then Macmillan India had already agreed to publish it under its Modern Classics in Translation series), I was really overawed by the power of his narration, heart-warming, authenticity of his characters, and passionate intensity of his personal convictions.

One of the problems we, as translators jostled with was how to capture the nuances of his idiom, and render his Malwai dialect, steeped in local colors, smells and sounds, into English. At one point, I had knocked down a reference to a jand tree, just to find an easy way out of an impasse. Gurdial Singh sent back the translation with a two-page long note, painstakingly explaining the cultural significance of jand tree.

Working in close association with Gurdial Singh has been, for me, a cultural education of sorts. Today, if I can claim to know anything about Punjabi language, literature, history or culture, I must say, I owe most of it to him. And what a great teacher he was! One never felt small or inadequate in his presence. Whatever he taught, he taught in a gently persuasive, indulgent and incomparably compassionate manner.

Of course, his bearing was that of a gawkily tall, awkwardly lanky, and an excessively mild-mannered man. I am yet to come across a man who could be as soft-spoken as him. In fact, while speaking, his voice would often trail to a whisper, and then one had to strain one’s ears to know what was being said.

But behind this exterior stood a steely frame, and a person of rare personal courage and unyielding spirit. It was only when he started talking about issues close to his heart or the matters of social, economic and political injustice that a lion would literally leap out of his mild-mannered exterior.

In life, he never put too strong a point on anything, but in his writings he didn’t spare anything or anyone. Whatever fell under the penetrating gaze of his pen came in for a sharp criticism. In his works, he always pulled his punches rather hard, called a spade a spade and hit where it hurts. But he only hit out at a society gone awry, at the crass devaluation of humans, and the inexorable system that worked at odds with a common man.

Be it Jagseer of Marhi Da Deeva, Bishna of Unhoye, Moddan of Addh Chanini Raat or Heera Dei of Kuwela, Gurdial Singh was always interested in the humdrum existence of those, who silently go about their lives, away from our prying eyes, grappling with tyrannies beyond our imagination. Though his characters leap out of the dark shadows, they cast a spell that refuses to leave us. Long after we have put away his stories, we return to Gurdial Singh’s characters, looking for answers that often elude us in life.

Of all his characters, it’s Parsa who lingers in my memory longer than I can imagine. I haven’t really come across a character as strong, as enigmatic and as bewilderingly complex as Parsa, at least, in my readings of world literature. It’s in this novel that Gurdial Singh has finally crafted a powerful and complex narrative of emancipation. Parsa is a significant cultural text, a triumph of Gurdial Singh’s redemptive imagination, and his life-long commitment to fiction.

Like Mahasweta Devi, who also passed away last month, Gurdial Singh’s sympathies always lay with the hopelessly oppressed and torturously marginalized. All his life he fought valiantly to restore dignity, respect and pride to all those, who had been shrugged off arbitrarily by life. He struggled to put the last man on the centre-page of his fiction, even history. And with what startling results, and what stupendous success!

Ironically, though he lived in a mandi all his life, it is tacheac market he resisted with all his might.

Like a true visionary, Gurdial Singh dreamt of an equitable social order, where human beings could actually be valued for who they are, and not for what they have. He was painfully aware of how capitalism was slowly making inroads into our personal, domestic and/or cultural spaces, swallowing them up imperceptibly, reducing all human equations into marketable commodities.

Ironically, though he lived in a Mandi all his life, yet market is what he resisted with all his might. Market is the last place he would have liked to either position himself or his works in. Two of his novels Marhi Da Deeva and Anhe Ghore Da Daan have been made into brilliant movies. Both won international acclaim, though didn’t do all that well on the home ground.

A man who fought for the cause of the common people ended up creating works which shall continue to enjoy pre-eminence as “modern classics”. Most of his critics do concede that Gurdial Singh deserves his pride of place among the greatest of Indian writers such as Prem Chand, Phaneshwar Nath Renu, Mahasweta Devi, U. R. Anantamurthy and Nirmal Verma et al.

But I dare say, he deserves his place among the best we have had on the international scene in the recent times, such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Naquib Mahfouz and Simin Daneshwar.

To my mind, the only real tribute to Gurdial Singh would be to assess his work from the wider perspective of World Literature. May his soul rest in peace!


Gurdial Singh’s Literary Odyssey: At A Glance


  1. Marhi Da Deeva1964 (The Last Flicker, Sahitya Akademi: An English Translation)
  2. Unhoye 1966.
  3. Rete Di Ikk Mutthi 1967.
  4. Kuwela 1968.
  5. Adh Chanini Raat 1972. (English translation is Night of the Half-Moon, Macmillan Madras, 1996)
  6. Aathan Uggan 1974.
  7. Anhe Ghore Da Daan 1976.
  8. Pauh Phutale Ton Pehlan 1982.
  9. Parsa (English Translation is from NBT, New Delhi, 1999)
  10. Aahan, 2008  

Short Story Collections:

  1. Saggi Phul 1961.
  2. Chan Da Boota 1963.
  3. Upra Ghar 1966
  4. Kutta Te Aadmi 1971.
  5. Masti Bota 1982.
  6. Rukhe Misse Bande 1984.
  7. Begana Pindh 1985.
  8. Chonvian Kahanian 1988.
  9. Pakka Tikana 1990.
  10. Kareer Di Dhingri 1991.
  11. Meri Pratinidhi Rachna 1992.


  1. Farida, Ratin Wadian 1982
  2. Vidayagi De Pichhon 1982
  3. Nikki Moti Gaal 1982


  1. Punjab De Mele Te Teohaar 1988
  2. Lekhak Da Anubhav Te Sirjan Parkiriya
  3. Neean Mattiyan (Autobiography) Part-I, 1999
  4. Doojee Dehi (Autobiography) Part II, 2000  

Books For Children:

  1. Bakalam Khud, 1960
  2. Tuk Kho Laye Kawan 1963
  3. Likhtam Baba Khema 1971
  4. Baba Khema 1988
  5. Gappian Da Pio 1989
  6. Mahabharat 1990
  7. Dharat Suhavi
  8. Tin Kadam Dharti 1993
  9. Khate Mithe Lok 1993

Awards & Honours:

  1. Best Fiction Book Award (Four times, in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1972)
  2. Nanak Singh Novelist Award 1975
  3. Sahitya Akademi Award 1975
  4. Punjab Sahitya Akademy Award 1979
  5. Soviet Land Nehru Award 1986
  6. Punjabi Sahitya Akademy Award 1989
  7. Shiromani Sahitkar Award 1992
  8. Bhai Veer Singh Galap Puraskar 1992
  9. Pash Award 1995
  10. Uttar Pradesh Hindi Sahitya Samellan Samman 1997
  11. Padam Sri 1998
  12. Jnanpith Literary Award 2000.  

Gurdial Singh on Literature

For Gurdial Singh literature is not literature unless it springs from life. Writer’s job it is to instil into people a consciousness and even sensitise them. Writing should create a bonding that makes sharing of joys and sorrows, possible (sukh dukh di sanjh). Literature should compel the reader to think, as it’s purpose is not to satisfy but disturb. When a friend told him that he couldn’t sleep for consecutive three nights after reading Parsa, Gurdial Singh took it as a compliment, as a sign of his success as a storyteller. Literature that does nothing except fulfil the gaps and fissures in life, providing easy escape routes is dangerous, he emphatically says.

According to him, what is, indeed, damaging as well as disappointing is the tendency to write just about anything for fame or money. Often such writing celebrates trivia, focusing attention upon marginal issues. A vast majority that leads such a wretched existence can’t be wished away so easily. More than anything else, it’s the basic problems of life that count. For instance, how can one ignore the economic fall out of the political instability upon the common people?

Perhaps that’s why Gurdial Singh feels that those who are being made into stars by the media are not writers but only “newsmakers.” Under the glare of media strobes, every little gesture or statement begins to appear both appealing and meaningful. This engenders a sense of complacency, even a false consciousness. Often, the ruling elite, who claims to redress the problems of the people, never gets to face a real crisis in life. Besides, if you can win, using money or devious means, why address real problems at all? It’s only when people become aware and hold the governing class accountable for their (mis) deeds or take them to task can the things ever hope to change.

Notions of so-called “modernism” can hardly be applied to our set-up, which is still semi-feudal. All “isms” emerge from the social system, all that constitutes the matrix of our socio-cultural milieu. If an “ism” remains an offshoot of pure subjectivity, then it’s meaningless. If European writers talk of ‘alienation,’ it is authentic because this experience is a by product of the widespread destruction wrought by the World War II, which crushed all familiar parameters of life.

On being asked about the major influences upon his writing, Gurdial Singh said more than other writers, he was inspired directly by the life itself. Russian writers did leave a deep impress upon his mind, though. His favourite novel is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. As a storyteller, he has always had great admiration for Chekhov as well. “In his novels, Tolstoy pays a great deal of attention to tiny details, fleshes them out with great care. What to talk of his characters, even his dogs and horses have distinct vigour and intensity.” It’s his vastness of life that has been a source of perennial interest to Gurdial Singh. Among other books, he made a special mention of Irving Stone’s Lust For Life, Steinback’s The Grapes Of Wrath, Phaneshwar Nath Renu’s Maila Anchal and Yaspal’s Divya.

A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

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