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Journey through text

In his latest book, Nain Sukh combines oral and written texts to analyse the magical land of Punjab

Journey through text

Walter J. Ong writes in Orality and Literacy (1982) that oral traditions never had any sense of language as a structure. While language and thought for the ancient Greeks mainly grew out of memory; writing, he explains, cannot simply transmit what it receives from speech in an unchanged manner. He also believes that Plato at one stage in Phaedrus and Seventh Letter “downgraded writing in favour of speech”.

With this context, let’s zoom in to our own Punjab to understand why speech and orality have taken precedence over the complicated and isolated world of writing for such long periods in our cultural history. However, as Ong concludes: “(where) Oral word ties human beings to one another in society, writing intensifies the sense of self”.Mahmood--2

In his latest book Dharti Panj Daryai (Land of Five Rivers), Nain Sukh combines oral and written texts to understand, analyse and explain this magical land of ours i.e. Punjab. In his opening lines, he talks about the dilemma of our collective failure to collect, preserve and connect our past orality with today’s literacy, and warns of the looming dangers, as the generation that holds our oral history is rapidly disappearing. He remembers hearing some folk lines from an old man that he met in Gondal Bar back in 1994 and explains how just recently he was able to make the connection of those with its written text while reading a book about times of Sultan Allauddin Khilji.

Let me share those powerful folk lines here which display the intensity of Punjabi emotion: Zafar Khani, Maar Kaani, Chughatta Soor Aaya ee (Zafar Khan, pull the bow up and release your arrows, Mongol, the pigs, are invading).

Nain Sukh (whose birthname is Khalid Mahmood) is a prolific Punjabi writer. A lawyer by profession, he was born in Sargodha but has been settled in Lahore for the last three decades. His earlier published works include four short stories, Theekaryan (2005), Uthal Pathal (2011), Shaheed? (2016) and Aai Purray di Vaa (2017) as well as an award-winning Punjabi novel, Madho Lal Hussain: Lahore di Vel (2015) and a book of poems Kikkar tay Angoor (1994). Dharti Panj Daryai (Land of Five Rivers) is his first book of non-fiction and this too started as a novel but took its own course and ended up as a book of non-fiction.

Nain Sukh has dedicated this book to his two sons with a grievous and sarcastic tone of our collective Punjabi disappointment. He writes “Mai(n) Punjabi Likhaari, eh kitab mere putraa(n) Daniyal tay Shehryar day naa(n) jehRay Punjabi bolday, paRhday nah likhday” (I, a Punjabi writer, dedicate this book to my sons Daniyal and Shehryar who don’t even speak, read or write Punjabi).

The first chapter takes its name from the book title. It starts from origins of the Harappan civilisation, invasion of Aryans, Vedic class system, struggles of Musallis (untouchables) and low caste Punjabis, and moves on to oral history and Punjabi folk response to foreign invasions, unappreciated Punjabi resistance and details of Punjab rulers and dynasties, Jogis, Sufis, epics and ballads of the land ending at the partition of Punjab. At the end of the chapter, he quotes Cyril Radcliffe’s letter to his stepson after he put a knife through the heart of Punjab by drawing that bloody line.

The author talks about the dilemma of our collective failure to collect, preserve and connect our past orality with today’s literacy and warns of the looming dangers, as the generation that holds our oral history is rapidly disappearing.

I reproduce last few lines of that letter here: “Nobody in India will love me for the award about the Punjab and Bengal and there will be roughly 80 million people with a grievance who will begin looking for me. I do not want them to find me. I have worked and travelled and sweated – oh I have sweated the whole time.” (Cyril Radcliffe to Mark Radcliffe, cited in Edmund Heward, The Great and the Good: A Life of Lord Radcliffe (Chichester, 1994), p. 42)

Irani mass-murderer Nadir Shah is rightly condemned in Punjabi folklore and poetry. The following lines are worth sharing from the opening chapter of the book: Aaya Nadar, Paati Chaadar, Baho(n) chooRa lehyya KuRay, Kee Asaada rehyya KuRay (Nadir Shah invaded and looted everything he could, nothing left to mourn).

Other chapters of the book include ‘Panj Peer’ (Five Saints), ‘Baar di Vaar’ (An epic of Baar), ‘Darbari Re’aaya’ (Colonial Courtesans), ‘Lahore Day Sao Saal’ (Hundred Years of Lahore), ‘Kaal Bulendi’ (Thus calls goddess of rage and death), ‘Lahore Shehr da Kanjjar Mohalla’ (Redlight District of Lahore) and ‘Lok Rang’ (Folklore).

Two chapters ‘Lahore Day Sao Saal’ and ‘Lahore Shehr da Kanjjar Mohalla’ are reproduced in the current book which were originally published in Nain Sukh’s novel Madho Lal Hussain: Lahore di Vel (2015).

In ‘Panj Peer,’ Nain Sukh provides details of the five saints who grew into mythical legends and were adored and worshipped by Punjabis of all castes and religions, including Maata Raani (Queen Mother: Guru of the Untouchables) and  Sappaa(n) waali Sarkar (Peer who Controls Snakes), among others.

In ‘Baar di Vaar’, after providing information on the geographical landscapes of the Bar regions, Nain Sukh provides new insights about the ever silent Punjabi subaltern with considerable details of their perceived origins and struggles. This includes his field research about Musallis (Untouchables) that he did between 1982-83. His emphatic writing style and love for those considered as untouchables and low castes is soulfully moving.

In ‘Kaal Bulendi’, Nain Sukh covers events and poetry related to Punjabi Jaangli tribes’ anti-British campaign of 1857, lead by Rai Ahmad Khan Kharral. This was the time when Jaanglis of all castes and cadres fought together bravely for their native honour and pride.

‘Darbari Reaaya’ is one of the most interesting chapters in the book, where the author shares documentary evidence of the utterly shameful lackeying of the colonial period Punjabi feudal lords, religious scholars, district board members and the then Punjab chiefs who were willing to do anything and everything for the British Raj in return for honorary titles, lands, and borrowed power.

In the last chapter ‘Lok Rang’, Nain Sukh provides quick briefs of different aspects of Punjabi life and culture.

Dharti Panj Daryai is the first book of its kind that can undoubtedly serve as a reference anthology for students of Punjab and Punjabi studies. It will be much better if more references are added in the next book, including the list of Nain Sukh’s oral sources using in-text citations, strictly following a standard referencing system, preferably Harvard, so the book can confidently be used by other researchers and those in academia.

Nain Sukh deserves full credit for creating a holistic picture of Punjab and its people by combining verbal and written sources. The only limitation of this book is its readability. There is a huge amount of data and information covering a broad range of subjects that has the potential to jostle your reading comforts; so much so that each chapter demands a separate book of its own. 

Dharti Panj Daryai
Author: Nain Sukh
Publisher: Newline Lahore, 2019
Pages: 320
Price: Rs500

Mahmood Awan

Mahmood Awan
The author is a Dublin based Punjabi poet. He may be reached at [email protected]

6 comments

  • dr.m.sami punjabi

    Mahmood Awan himself writes beautifully about Punjab/Punjabi..this writeup literally tempts us to read the book..and of course will do that..

  • Number of important extracts were edited out so I will add couple of those here:

    Another interesting text in Darbari Re’aaya (Colonial Courtesans) chapter is an 1893 letter by Faqir Kamaruddin to East Indian Company officers that tells us how quickly loyalties of Punjabi elites changed after Ranjit Singh’s Lahore Darbar was taken over by East India Company in 1849. Fakir Kamaruddin was son of Fakir Nuruddin (brother of Fakir Azizuddin; both these resourceful Fakirs were key ministers in Ranjit’s Singh’s Lahore darbar). Here is that letter, read and decide for yourself: “With due respect, I beg to state as I have for many years felt convinced that the time had arrived for our benevolent Indian empire to introduce some distinction for those who showed hereditary services to strengthen Hon’ble Company’s rule in Punjab. I have often said that I should be proud to wear a copper order bearing merely the words: Tisree poosht Sircar company ka Naukar.”

  • 2/4 : In this chapter Nain Sukh has shared documentary evidence of the utterly shameful lackeying of colonial period Punjabi feudal lords, religious scholars, district board members and the then Punjab Chiefs who were willing to do anything and everything for the British Raj in return for honorary titles, lands, and borrowed power. Ironically, these are the same people whose descendants are ruling today’s West and East Punjab. They belonged to all religious groups and communities. This documentary evidence includes three extremely disturbing letters. 1st letter is written and signed by DG Khan area resident Punjab Chief’s who are congratulating Edward VII on becoming emperor of India in 1901. While 2nd one is written by 51 Hindu, Sikh and Muslim District Board, Municipal and Town committee members of Lyallpur, Jhang, Montgomery (now Sahiwal), Multan, Muzaffargarh and DG Khan areas dated 1935, congratulating King George V on silver jubilee anniversary of his accession. (Contd)

  • 3a/4: In While the most shameless piece of document is the 3rd letter written and signed by Muslim Peers and Gaddi-Nasheens of the Punjab including Peers of Pakpattan, Multan (ancestors of Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Yusuf Raza Gilani), Sial Sharif, Shah Jeewna (Faisal Saleh Hayat’s ancestors), GloRa Sharif and others, praising Michael O’Dwyer, then Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab. In this letter these Peers and their representatives are blatantly condemning Jallianwala Bagh Shaheeds and holding them accountable for their own deaths rather than their colonial killers using terms like ‘Fissad fil-ard’ (engaging in spreading corruption on earth that threaten social and political well-being). This letter was written just days after Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 and was presented and read in person in front of Michael O’Dwyer. While above mentioned Faqir Kamaruddin was given the title of Khan Bahadur in 1887 by the colonialists and was allotted huge lands in Chenab Colony.

  • 3b/4: Faqir Kamaruddin was later found requesting colonialists to write Syed with his name at the time of his entry into Punjab Chief’s register. His request was duly accepted and then these Faqirs officially became Syeds and are thriving part of Pakistani ruling elite since then.

  • 4/4: In Baar di vaar, Nain Sukh provides new insights about ever silent Punjabi subaltern with considerable details of their perceived origins and struggles. This includes his field research about Musallis (Untouchables) that he took in year 1982-83 with his MKP (Mazdoor Kisaan Party) friends. In Kaal Bulendi he remembers Rai Ahmad Kharral as a folk hero: Dhakkaa(n) yaad karendiaa(n) hin /hik vaari muR aavee(n) ha/ Raa Nathu diya Ahmad Khana (Your native land cries for you, O Rai Ahmad Khan, come back one last time). He further quotes Najm H Syed‘ poem ‘GhoRay Waali’ to show intensity of that resistance: ‘eh GhoRay nahi kaagat Kako/eh GhoRay nahi leeraa(n)/ eh udNay sapp nee Baar day/Unn ghaat thallee(n) darya/ehnaa(n) gaanay baddhay aggam day/ the’ay apNay aap gawah ( O’ my little girl, these horses are not toys made of paper or cloth/ these are fearless legends of the bar/Gorilla warriors, ready to hunt in deserts and rivers/their valour is infinite / As they are their own masters).

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