When Paash refused an interview

An award, long overdue
By Nirmal Sandhu
Tribune News Service
CHANDIGARH: The news that Waryam Singh Sandhu has won an award, that too the Sahitya Akademi award, comes as a surprise. Not that he didn’t deserve it. He should have been given it long back. But odds were heavily against it.

First, his own temperament. He is too shy and straightforward to try for it. Awards these days we all know are “earned”, not conferred. If given a choice, Waryam is the sort of person who would pass it on to a friend.

Then he was a born Jat. That too in Majha where physical strength is valued more than the power of the pen. Sursingh village, which falls in Tarn Taran tehsil of Amritsar district and where Waryam studied, grew up and became a school teacher, is famous as the land of the Ghaddari Babas. During militancy this village was often in news. Wrestler Kartar Singh also belongs to this village. Not just this village, but the whole area was bereft of writers. Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari and novelist Nanak Singh lived near and in Amritsar. They had little influence on Waryam. Growing up in such an area, how Waryam became a writer is itself a wonder.

Looking back, Waryam remembers: “It seems when as a child I used to sit in my grandmother’s lap listening to her stories till midnight or early morning climbed on to my grandfather’s shoulders to go to the gurdwara and heard in rapt attention the Bhai’s tales, the seed of story began to sprout within me.”

I was in college when I read Waryam’s “Lohe De Hath” (1971). Short tales on social injustices and deprivations could ignite rebellion in any youth. It was a product of the Naxalite movement. Once Waryam was lodged in jail as Naxalite boys used to visit him and village elders went to the police station and got him released.

His second book “Ang Sang” appeared in 1979, third “Bhajian Bahin” in 1987 and fourth “Chauthi Koot” in 1998. In these stories Waryam’s thought and craft matured. His stories are usually long, but the narrative remains gripping. His characters — picked up from rural middle class families — stand out. They all, like the author, struggle for a better life.

In Punjab while Ph.D degree holders occupy high positions in universities, writers remain neglected and financially insecure. Waryam would have languished in Sursingh but for his friends and well-wishers, particularly Harbhajan Singh Halwarvi, who made him leave his school job and ensured a more respectable job at Lyallpur Khalsa College, Jalandhar.

Punjabi writers often feel very enthusiastic if they are written about in English, their public advocacy of Punjabi notwithstanding. You ask an average Punjabi writer for an interview, he or she would land at your place with his/her photographs and books. When I used to write a column “Window on Punjabi Literature” in The Tribune, I wrote to Waryam requesting a meeting and a photograph. He replied, talking about our common relatives, but neither sent a picture nor mentioned a meeting. I had to buy his books and the write-up was published without his photograph.

 The only other writer who refused me an interview was Paash (also a Sandhu — Avtar Singh). He had agreed to meet me, but at the last minute changed his mind and instead went to the Rose Garden along with his friend, Shamsher Singh Sandhu.

I can understand why none of the English newspapers — whose reporters are desperate for interviews and can pick on any model or pop singer to fill the pages — have written about Waryam. In a way, it is good for him. Had he been in Chandigarh, he would have been embarrassed to hear from a bubble-gum journalist: “Uncle, what do you write?”

By selecting Waryam for the Sahit Akademi award, the akademi has bowed to talent (which is rare) than to favouritism (which is all too common). Perhaps it had limited options. Who else deserved the award more than Waryam? It has redeemed its soiled image partly.

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