Knit India through Literature – Volume IV – the NORTH

/Knit India through Literature – Volume IV – the NORTH

From the Book


Ajeet Cour

I have known the renowned Punjabi writer Ajeet Cour for many years now. We met at several literary meetings and I found an outspoken and sociable friend in her. The Academy of Fine Arts and Literature in Delhi was founded by her and is well worth a visit. The Academy is located in a four storied building set in a sprawling campus that also boasts of a beautiful garden. One of the floors is dedicated to conducting dance, music, and art and pottery classes for underprivileged women. Yet another floor houses an extensive library, an art gallery and also a concert hall, As such, it offers scope to experience and appreciate all aspects of the fine arts within its premises.

Ajeet Cour was born in Lahore in 1934. She has earned a unique status among writers of fiction and her works have been rewarded with several honours including the Central Sahitya Akademi, the Bharatiya Bhasha awards etc. As many as 53 students from various universities have based their doctoral theses on her writings. Five of her stories have been made into tele-films that have been very well received.

This region has been under the rule of the Persians, the Islamic and Sikh kings for several centuries. What has been the status of women from then onwards till today?

Talking of rulers, let me first tell you something amazing! A fact not often mentioned in our history books. Our history books say that the British ruled over India for two hundred years, but I am proud of the fact that they could rule over Punjab for just 98 years. All their attempts to enter Punjab were nullified by the brave Punjabis for over a hundred years. And yet, or because of that festering wound of repeated defeats a country back, they created a blood-both in Punjab with their historically unforgivable plan of partitioning the country. Punjab suffered the most.

Now, coming to your question, for the past several centuries, Punjab has been an economically developed state. There has been no dearth of prosperity since the Punjabis are an industrious people and have laid great emphasis on agriculture. As a border state, Punjab had faced the onslaught of foreign incursions quite often. Since the men have had to busy themselves with the business of war, it is the women who completely shouldered the household and other responsibilities. Women have faced up to their commitments very well right from child rearing on to tending to land and cattle. This has been the innate strength of the Punjabi women. Yet, one cannot shy away from the truth that in Punjab too, like in other states, women, irrespective of their own individual talents, lead lives that have been determined by the male members in their family. Men have dominated their lives and have been the fulcrums around which their lives have revolved. The turban and the mustache are considered the symbols of the father’s and the brother’s izzat (honour) respectively. Right from their childhood, women have been brainwashed into leading lives that uphold the honour of their fathers’ turbans and their brothers’ mustaches!

Did mothers and sisters have any symbols of honour?

None at all! Honour is a term that has been and continues to be associated only with the male members in our society. Yet, it must be admitted that, compared to the situation in other states, the atrocities heaped on women are much less here. There may be many who refuse to accept my reasoning on this though. The impact of the Sufi thoughts that spread to these parts from Persia yielded good results. It is the Sufi thought that taught us to not just revere God by placing Him on a pedestal but also to perceive Him as someone who touches your soul, someone who is to be loved and adored. This coincided with the beginning of the Bhakti movement. The Sufi thought and Bhakti Movement influenced each other. Bhakta Meera and Lal Ded and Akka Mahadevi were bold enough to proclaim their love for the divine Lord, renouncing all other relationships imposed on them by society.

The periods of Sufism and Bhakti Movement in fact overlap each other. Amazing though! Because Sufism emerged from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Persia, and moved on to the Middle East, from where it travelled to Kashmir and to Lahore in Punjab. The way thoughts and philosophies and birds travel!

In Tamil Nadu Andal started writing Bhakti poetry in 6th-7th centuries. Akka Mahadevi wrote her immortal verses. Basvanna in Karnataka, Thunchan in Kerala, Meera in Rajasthan, Kabir in U.P., Nanak in Punjab, brought in a whiff of fresh air in the stagnant religious beliefs which were based on rituals and traditions, and fear of God, and God’s special creation : the Brahmin.

Both Sufism and Bhakti Movement were very potent but silent revolutions not only against the fundamentalism of Islam and Hinduism, they brought the whole religious philosophy out of the prison of ancient languages like Sanskrit and Arabic which were the stronghold of maulvis and priests. They brought their religious philosophies into the homes of common people, in the own languages of the common people. The languages spoken in their homes near their hearth and cooking pots, the languages spoken in the streets. Languages of the masses ! Transforming the whole philosophy of religion, making it a personal affair between God and the human being. No middlemen required!

Punjab had the good fortune of being influenced by both Sufism and Bhakti movement. Data Hajweri Sahib came from Uzbekistan, through Gazanvi, and set his ‘darbar’ in Lahore in the 10th century, revered by people of all faiths as ‘Data da Darbar’ till the Partition of the country. Now of course, mostly Muslims keep the tradition alive, and occasional visitors like me! And, Baba Shaikh Farid wrote his beautiful Sufi poetry in the 12th century, which was later collected by Guru Nanak who was born about 300 years after the death of Shaikh Farid. The fifth Guru, Guru Arjan who compiled Guru Granth Sahib, included this poetry in the Holy Book of the Sikhs.

We consider Sheikh Farid as the first poet of Punjabi language.

I am not able to accept this theory that this perception of God as the divine lover and consort was derived from Sufi thought. Our ancient scriptures indicate that it is the saints and rishis who were born as the Gopikas who adored Lord Krishna.

Is that so? Irrespective of who said it first, the idea of perceiving God as a lover is a beautiful one. When Guru Nanak likened God to a husband, he was merely enunciating the fact that God means everything to us and also to underline the renunciation theory. Yet, our men have misinterpreted it to mean that women are subordinate to men and implemented it that way! At the height of the Khalistan movement, there was an attempt to bring in legislation to repudiate women’s right to ancestral property, particularly the agricultural lands. It was given up after women, including myself, launched strong protests against the move.

So, you claim that this is also a patriarchal society, even if there have been fewer crimes committed against women as compared to other states.

It is certainly a patriarchal society! The Sikh gurus have constantly taught us that women need to be treated with due respect and have demonstrated this by according women equal status to men in the gurudwaras. Guru Nanak wrote that, “you are born of a woman, marry a woman and have children through a woman, so why do you hate her?” Despite all this, a patriarchal system has taken root here.

Sivasankari, I am deeply hurt by this kind of ‘objectification’ of women. Our Sikh gurus have fought hard to uproot untouchability and casteism. They set up langars or common dining halls in the gurudwaras. In those days, caste feelings ran high and even if a low caste man’s shadow fell on an upper caste man’s food, they would consign it to the dustbin. The setting up of langars meant that all people, irrespective of their caste divisions, gathered at one place, sat together, squatting on the floor, and consumed the same type of food. This was truly a revolution that was made possible by our gurus. Yet, the same kind of attention that was devoted to eradicating untouchability was not paid to women related issues.

I have heard that the practice of marrying a widow off to her brother-in-law prevailed here. This sounds like a good way to resolve the problem of oppression of widows. Does the tradition still continue?

The custom still exists in the rural areas. Yet, the reasoning behind it was not so much that the widow should not suffer loneliness, but rather that family wealth and agricultural lands should be retained within the family. How could marrying a widow off to an already married man or a man much younger to her be considered an appropriate solution to her problems? Rajinder Singh Bedi, one of the four great Urdu writers, wrote a popular novelette by the name of : Ek Chaddar Maili Si (A Soiled Bed-Spread). In that story, he writes of how the young brother-in-law, who is to marry his brother’s widow, used to sit in her lap when she came to that house newly married to the elder brother who is now dead. When such things happen, how can they be described as change for the better?

The history of Punjabi literature, spanning the last few centuries, does not seem to boast of too many women writers apart from yourself, Amrita Pritam and Prabhjot Kaur. Is it that there haven’t been too many women writers or have I missed out on them?

You must include the name of Dalip Kaur Tiwana also in your list of women writers. And Paul Kaur among the young generation of poets. Other than that, your assessment is fairly accurate. I think the problems that beset them have prevented too many women from writing. Take my own case… I was not permitted to write for almost nine years after marriage. I had to really struggle.

That is truly surprising, Ajeet! Women were accorded equal status in gurudwaras and the administration of langars was handed over to them, but they were not permitted to write?

Every society has its own paradoxes, Sivasankari!

The Partition did not impact people from the other regions as much as it did the Punjabis and the Sindhis. What was its impact on you and on women in general?

To put it in a single word, it was a holocaust. A horrifying experience. What an inhuman act it is to abduct and rape the women of another religion in order to dishonour the family and the religion they belon0g to! Rape is not just a sexual act… it is an attempt to subjugate a woman, her family, her village, her religion ! To pronounce loud and dear that the people of a particular religion, who are the rapists, are more virile and more relevant in society. Have you read Amrita Pritam’s novel Pinjar? She has powerfully illustrated how a woman’s life is completely disrupted as a consequence of the Partition. Although there have been several literary works based on the Partition, I wish to pinpoint a couple of them. The works of Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia bring home to us the impact that Partition had on women. Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Lajwanti deserves reverence. A woman who disappears during the Partition is later found in a refugee camp and sent back to her husband. Although, the husband is unwilling to take her back, she is forcibly sent with him. After they return home, he treats her like an untouchable. Lajwanti means ‘touch-me-not’. A wonderful story!

What was the impact of the women’s movement in Punjab? Can you tell me something about its inception and growth here?

There was no separate women’s movement in Punjab. They fought for the freedom of the country, and their contribution to the freedom struggle is well-known. You feel a strange feeling of sisterhood with their photographs in the Cellular Jail of Andamans, which should be treated as a place of pilgrimage. Every child of new India should be taken there to know the value of freedom and at what sacrifices we achieved it. It is our own Austwich which is an important piece of history, underlining our identity. Not as a Hindu, not as a Sikh, not as a Muslim, not as a Christian, but as an INDIAN ! Of course, many of those faces in the photographs now belong to the lands which have been given different names : like Pakistan and Bangladesh. But at the time of their Supreme sacrifice, they were just proud Indians ! Later, those who raised their voices in favour of women’s rights functioned as a part of the Communist movement. The wives of Communist Party leaders, including Vimla Dang and Vimla Farouqui, and many others fought for women’s rights. The works of writers like Amrita Pritam and my writings were not branded as feminist writing, but they did propound feminist ideals.

The famous Malayalam writer Thagazhi Sivasankaran Pillai also mentioned something similar. His works were not branded as Dalit literature but his stories like ‘The Scavenger’s Son’ and ‘Chemmeen’ revolved around the lives of the oppressed classes. Let us now move on to your works, particularly your autobiographical work Khana Badosh that won the Sahitya Akademi Award. The very first chapter narrates the pain and heartbreak you suffered as a mother when your younger daughter suffered a fire accident and was admitted to the intensive care unit of a hospital in France. It details the trauma of every single minute and also the final blow when she died despite all efforts to save her. When I read it, the pain touched me deeply too. That must have been a very difficult time!

No, Sivasankari… the pain continues to howl even today… The wounds are yet to heal. The pain is raw, and it is here. NOW ! Let us not talk about it.

Certainly. Yet, please share with me how you were able to pen down a trauma that you are yet to recover from.

I was constantly in tears, following the loss of my daughter. Amrita Pritam asked me to write about it saying that it would help me heal. I wrote a bit and then some more, as she kept urging me. Amrita was editing a magazine called Naagmani at that time. My experiences were serialized in the magazine and later published in the form of a book. And, this Institution, the ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS AND LITERATURE. My father used to keep coaxing me that I had not made any savings for my daughters’ marriages. He booked two flats, one in each of their names. Once her flat was ready, I decided to hand over the keys of her flat to my younger daughter after she returned from France, where she had gone on scholarship from JNU for two months. She never came back though! I wanted to do something in her memory to smother my own pain. Perhaps that is the only way to fight pain! So I obtained special permission from the DDA officials, and converted her house into a Fine Arts Academy where young women belonging to disadvantaged sections of society, living in the slums clusters, received training in basic education, the various arts, and vocational skills.
Your experience perfectly illustrates the belief that even while God shuts a door, He opens yet another. The Academy that was started at a small level to train poor and orphaned young women has today grown to a level where it conducts seminars jointly with other SAARC countries. Before we go into that in detail, tell me something more about your own childhood and how you became a writer.

Having read my autobiography, you must have learnt something about my childhood. My father was a doctor and my mother was highly educated too. However, our lifestyle was rather simple since we, as a family, followed the Gandhian principles. There were several restrictions. Would you believe me if I told you that I was a rather demure young girl, with her head covered and her eyes lowered to the ground. I grew up gazing up at the stars and the sky as I lay on my cot on the open terrace. Amrita Pritam’s father Kartar Singh Hitkari was a good friend of my grandfather as they both belonged to the same place, Gujranwala. Unable to bear her parting, after he had married Amrita off, her father followed her to Lahore from Gujrawala. It was there that he became a close friend of my family. He was a scholar of Punjabi language. He had acquired the title Gyani. I was not even nine years old, when he stopped me from going to an English medium missionary school and took on the task of teaching me Punjabi in Gurmukhi. I studied under him and acquired the title Buddhimaani. It was a University degree which I got when I was just nine years and four months old ! It created quite a sensation, and my photographs were splashed on the front pages of all English, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu dailies. Nobody mentioned how I had howled and cried on being plucked out of the Sacred Heart School, losing all my friends there! Nobody mentioned how I would quiver like a leaf in storm when my teacher Giani Kartar Singh Hitkari jee carried me in his lap to the examination hall, every day ! It was an important event that occurred during my childhood. .

Does that mean that you were not educated at school or college?

Of course I did go to school, and acquired a master’s degree later. In Delhi. You asked me how I became a writer… It was partly due to Kartar Singh Hitkari jee, Amrita Pritam’s father. When he came home to teach me, he would bring along a red book with embossed golden lettering on the cover. It was the first volume of poems written by Amrita : ‘Amrit Lehran’. He had such great love for his daughter Amrita and her poetry ! It was this that inspired me to write poetry. I longed that my own father would perhaps one day hold my book, so lovingly, close to his heart, with that tiny star of pride blinking in his eyes! And love me for my writings !

When did you first start writing?

I was sixteen years old when I wrote my first story. In the ten years that followed, as many as hundred stories were published in various magazines. When I was approached by publishers, I picked only twelve from among them, which I thought were worthy of publication in book form. In fact I am my own worst critic. My first collection of short stories was published under the title Gulbaano.

What was the theme of your first story? What prompted you to write it?

Not just my first but most of the stories that I wrote in the initial years focussed on emotions. Particularly of women. I don’t even recall most of them.
I would like to have your viewpoint of a couple of reviews that I came across. They had comments like ‘She started with sentimental themes but got rid of them soon…’ and ‘She is shockingly bold, outdoes her mentor Amrita Pritam.

I think they call me ‘shockingly bold’, because I have written on sexuality without any falls and without any relief. I have even described the sexual act in a poetic manner, lyrically, in a couple of my stories. Following this, writers like Amrita and Duggal started writing about sexuality. In that sense, I own up to having opened the heavy, rusted iron gates in literature that held back such honest and bold expressions of simple human behave. However, it is not a fair assessment to say Amrita was my guide or mentor, but her father definitely was. I loved her very much, since I knew her right from my childhood. Her poetry is outstanding. So far as novels go, none have touched me as much as Pinjar.

You mentioned that you were not allowed to write for nine years following your marriage. Can you explain why?

My mother got me married very young since she was always very unwell and feared that her death was imminent. My husband was in love with another woman. We did have two daughters but they were more an accident. Ours was no marriage at all ! For nine years I willed myself to obey him and thereafter I began writing. In our thirteen years of marriage, I was harassed, physically and mentally tortured, and sent away to my maternal home eight times. Every time I returned after my mother threatened me saying that she would die if I did not go back to my husband. However after my mother died I was determined not to go back. My father did not concur with my decision. So I left his house as well ! And lived in a women’s hostel with my children and struggled hard to earn a living. It was the year 1965… Later, because of constant threats from my husband, I had to send my daughters away to a boarding school in Shimla. Under severe financial stress, for four years I lived only on thirty paisa a day : 12 paisa for half a loaf of bread, and 18 paise for ‘toned’ milk. Since travelling by bus cost money, I used to walk long distances. Now my daughter Arpana tells me that I need not work or walk around anymore since I have done enough of both to last me a lifetime!

Was it the experience of those years that has transformed you into the courageous and outspoken Ajeet Cour that you are today?

It was not just those years but also the pain of losing my young daughter, when she was hardly nineteen years of age. It was like a dam bursting within me, flooding out all inhibitions, all so-called proprieties, all respect for traditional family values. It was like a tsunami, taking away all the houses, people, and all their trash into the belly of the ocean which had groaned in protest, like a hungry animal ! And I stopped caring for the people who didn’t matter in my life. The only person who matters is my daughter Arpana.

Let us now talk of the Academy’s functioning

All those things that I was unable to do for my own daughter, I wanted to do for the underprivileged girls coming from poor hungry shanties, forced to clean utensils in the neighbouring posh homes, scrubbing floors, cleaning their chubby babies’ soiled bottoms ! Fat and overfed babies of those chiffon-clad and diamonds-loaded ‘mem sahibs’ ! I was determined to contribute towards improving their quality of life. In all of them I saw my own daughter and did for them what I would have done for the daughter who had gone away to an unknown universe, beyond my reach ! That was the initial objective of the Academy. I feel a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment that I have been able to help change the lives of hundreds of girls over these past 33-34 years. Apart from this, I also felt a deep need to do something to change the bitterness and hatred that has tainted Indo-Pak relations. I decided that I would get the writers from both these countries to meet and raise their voices in favour of the need to bring about a change in this ‘relationship of suppressed hatred’. When I organized the first Indo-Pak Writers’ meet in September 1987, I had to struggle hard to obtain visa permits for ten Pakistani writers from the Indian government. But the Conference was very well received. Following this, I got into the act to address the contradictions in Indo-SriLankan ties, and gradually it became possible to have meetings of writers from the SAARC countries, under the banner of ‘Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature’, an offshoot of the Academy. The outcome of these meetings proved so positive that the Nepalese Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala once remarked that he was willing to close down their embassy in New Delhi if I would assure him that these literary meetings would be held continuously. I can’t ask for a greater compliment! At the FOSWAL, we have always felt that culture as a resource ought to be harnessed to further the unifying processes in the region. With this view, we took the initiative in organising the first-ever Indian-Pakistani Fiction Writers Conference in 1987. In this conference, it was for the first time that Indian and Pakistani writers could meet and interact, share their literary creations as well as their issues and concerns as writers. We followed it up with many big and small cultural events highlighting our objectives of peace and cultural connectivity in the Region and expanding our endeavours to the whole of the SAARC region from 1999 onwards. In our small but determined way, we have been focusing on the role of cultural connectivity and how it can serve as a catalyst in bringing the SAARC sister-countries closer to each other. We knew that in our endeavours, we were swimming against the current, but we were sure that we would succeed in turning the tide for the benefit of the diverse peoples of the region. It was largely with our efforts and our obstinate optimism that in the 11th SAARC Summit held at Kathmandu, ‘culture’ as an important agenda was included in the constitution of SAARC, called ‘SAARC CHARTER’ for the first time. And the FOSWAL, the first and the only organization in the region working in the arena of culture, was given the status of a ‘SAARC RECOGNISED BODY’, the status now elevated as ‘SAARC APEX BODY’, the one and the only organisation in eight SAARC countries, authorized to work in culture-related activities in the region. We, the practitioners of ‘the written word’, do ‘perform’ at many levels and influence things in direct and indirect ways. But unfortunately we continue to be outside the decision-taking process which is done at the level of ‘babus’ in the governments. We have been trying that each Member Country should agree to set up a SAARC Cultural Centre. One of our endeavours though, has taken off the ground after a focused effort of 4-5 years. India is eventually going to build a SAARC University, the blueprint of which was prepared by my friend Dr. Gowher Rizvi with intellectual and practical inputs of mine !

Please comment on the way of thinking of the Punjabi and Sikh youth of today…

I am really concerned that their interest in our culture and literature is diminishing. I keep wondering why the Sikh youth of today are reluctant to wear their religious symbols. As far as the basic cultural ties of languages are concerned, it strikes me as strange that a Punjabi converses with his children in English or Hindi, trying to look and sound more elite, more cosmopolitan. Isn’t it strange and very pathetic for people to forget or avoid their mother tongue? Having said that, it is also heartening that there are steps being taken to capture the lost glory of Punjabi tradition, not only in India, but outside too, by certain groups and individuals.

What of the trends in Punjabi literature today?

I wish the younger generation of writers would work towards fuelling constructive thoughts in the minds of their readers through their writings ! First came the Partition which chopped off Punjab in two parts : Indian Punjab and Pakistani Punjab. And then the half of the Indian Punjab was also further divided into three parts. Because of government’s apathy towards Punjab and Punjabi, and their miscalculation that the Partition-marauded Punjabis won’t have the strength to protest, they did no declare Punjabi as the official language of Punjab when they were bifurcating or demarcating all the states on the basis of languages spoken there. Nobody can explain their callousness towards Punjab, from where all those wonderful soldiers come who keep giving their lives to protect the sanctity of this country by protecting its borders. It is a black spot in the politics of the government. Historically and ethically ! So after all sorts of protests, when the government ultimately decided to declare it a Punjabi-speaking state, they chopped it off, like a cake, into three parts. Having lost half of Punjab to Pakistan at the time of Partition, the rest of the half being chopped off into three ‘loaves’ was a bitter, callous, and very unfortunate decision. The two states created out of Punjab were Haryana, and Himachal. Punjabi is the language of both, still! But not officially! Officially both Haryana and Himachal are Hindi-speaking States. It is only the governments which can create lies, and keep them alive too! Before this, my books used to sell out within a matter of months even if the print order ran to around five thousand books. Now, it is difficult to sell even a thousand copies over two years! This trend is not healthy for the literature of any language!

It is said that the Punjabis are innately courageous people. Do you believe that such innate qualities exist?

Certainly! Definitely! Most of us lost our homes, our lands, money and property during the Partition and came here as refugees. Yet, none of the Punjabi refugees, particularly the Sikh refugees, ever went out begging. They stayed in the camps for as long as they couldn’t find work and set up a home, even in a shanty. And it was the minimum of time. Even in the refugee camps, the proud Punjabis used to avoid eating ‘unearned food’! Inspite of all hardships, Punjabis have always kept their backbones strong and unflexible. That is why I am very proud to be born in the land of five rivers, though the politicians slashed the rivers and the lands again and again! We took roots in the new soil, because we are very sturdy people. One of the Sikh tenets orders to reject any food earned without honest labour done with ‘ten fingers’, meaning one’s own hands ! By the sweat of one’s brow ! Punjabis are not just courageous, but they also do not have the habit of wallowing in self-pity.

What are your future plans as a creative person?

At the end of every day, I curse myself that I have wasted yet another day. I feel like I am stuck at a level-crossing where the gates are closed. A train with an endless succession of coaches is passing through. So slowly! Clugging along ! I am unable to turn back either as I am hemmed in by traffic lined up behind me. Signals won’t go up, gates won’t open till the last coach passes. Then there are thousand battles to be fought! I keep fighting for the environment, for preservation of historical heritage! For all those wonderful monuments which give a distinctive character to this city of Delhi. The city where a thousand battles have been fought over the centuries, where scores of dynasties ruled, which have been luring people from all over the world to come and loot its riches : the Mongols, the Afghans, the Turks ! And I keep fighting for every tree that is slaughtered, for every monument that is squandered, squeezed in, sandwiched by the hoards of people and their homes, by awfully flawed schemes of the government. Right now, even the river Yamuna is being killed for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. Can you survive, killing your rivers and forest covers ? So much hollow talk about ‘global warming’ and ‘holes in the azure layer around the earth’! Man has become so greedy that he is blind towards all that he is trampling over, without realizing that it is the lives of our own children that we are suffocating! A mad rat race! And there is no end to it! Basically, all this hurts me very deeply. And every bomb dropped on Afghanistan and Iraq hurts me! Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Rawanda, Darfur, all the pain travels from there, straight into my heart. In short, I am busy dealing with all these howls and hurts! But I do keep writing rough sketches of stories, novelettes. It needs a different frame of mind to sit down in total silence, and do the second, and the third, and if need be, the fourth drafts. I told you that I am my own worst critic. The perfectionist in me is sitting on a black rock, with a frown on the forehead, and an admonishing finger raised! Even after having written nineteen books, I can still be admonished and quietened and slowed down by my inner voice! That’s the tragedy! But, that is precisely what makes me the sort of writer I am. Feeling the way I do, I am not sure how I can answer your question.

-July 2008