The death of Afzal Ahsan Randhawa is a colossal loss for Punjabi language and literature. Born a decade before the creation of Pakistan, Randhawa enriched this language with a devotion that is rare to find.
A doyen of Punjabi fiction and poetry, Afzal Ahsan Randhawa was born in Amritsar in 1937, educated at Murray College Sialkot after which he joined the Punjab University Law College in Lahore. By the early 1960s, Randhawa had earned his law degree and begun his legal practice in Faisalabad.
He became active in bar politics from the very start of his legal career. He didn’t change his routine of sitting and discussing the day’s activities and politics with friends at the Faisalabad city courts till his last breath.
But it was Punjab and Punjabi literature which was his first and last love; this is evident by the fact that he started writing Punjabi fiction and poetry at a time when the language was considered ‘seditious’ by authorities and people who wrote in the language were branded as ‘Indian’ agents. He paid no heed to this and firmly espoused the cause of his mother language.
It was this determination that made Randhawa keep writing Punjabi fiction and become one of the finest and most mature writers of his time.
Given that Randhawa opened his eyes in undivided Punjab, he was witness to the rich cultural diversity that was the hallmark of the land of five rivers. In his novels, stories and poetry, he has chronicled those times and dazzled everyone with his tone, style and language.
In 1961, his first novel Deeva tey Darya was published and received much applause. Run Talwar Te Ghora is a collection of his stories that came out in 1973, and to this day is considered a classic of sorts. Doaba is another bestselling novel that was penned by him in 1981. Many more books followed; these included very diverse texts. He wrote Punjabi poetry and drama, and also translated novels of Chinua Achebe and Gabriel Garcia Marquez into Punjabi.
Randhawa was at the forefront of the struggle for democracy and was jailed during the days of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD). This was not the only obstacle he faced; he also witnessed his books and plays being banned from the Pakistani state’s television and radio channels.
Randhawa was that rare sort of human who not only took part in movements of people’s rights through his words and art but also through his actions. His contribution to literature and politics alike made him an iconic figure and his departure has saddened everyone.
Noted fiction writer Mustansar Hussain Tarar says he had known Randhawa for many decades, and that they met on and off during various literary and cultural events and conferences. “He was a true literary giant and now there is no one who can write like him. He truly had a style of his own. A tradition of Punjabi has ended with his demise. He belonged to the posse of Punjabi progressive writers who started writing in Punjabi. Along with Randhawa sahib, Hussain Shad, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Sibtul Hasan Zaigham and Fakhar Zaman all helped start a Punjabi wave and Randhawa sahib was the vanguard of that wave.”
Tarar makes a telling remark about Run Talwar Te Ghora: “The title alludes to the bygone culture of Punjab where women, swords and horses defined all about a Punjabi man”. According to Tarar “Run (Woman) was Punjabi literature, Ghora was his fiction and Talwar his poetry”. Tarar lamented that although people are still writing Punjabi fiction, nobody can claim the same commitment to the language as Randhawa had.
Writer and archivist Ahmad Salim knew Randhawa since 1960s. Salim was planning to write his biography and had a long conversation with him two years ago. He needed a few more similar long sittings to finish gathering information for the biography; but because both men had busy schedules, this did not happen.
It was Doaba that influenced Salim so deeply that he terms it as “an encyclopaedia of the undivided Punjab”. Doaba was published in the literary magazine Punjabi Adab and created quite a stir at the time.
“It was a life-like portrayal of Punjabi culture and I consider it a classic. I wrote a laudatory essay on Doaba and, luckily, Randhawa sahib liked my essay. I used to visit him often; I would meet him at the courts whenever I was in his city. He may be a lawyer by training but he was an even greater advocate of the cause of Punjabi language and literature,” says Salim.
Punjabi intellectual, poet and crusader of Punjabi rights, Mushtaq Soofi, thinks highly of Randhawa who he believes was bold in championing the cause of Punjabi during trying times. “His commitment towards Punjabi language and its movement didn’t waver at all and he stood by his stance till the end of his life.”
Soofi describes him as “the pioneer of Punjabi fiction writing on this side of Punjab, since the tradition of fiction was almost extinct in Pakistan before his entry”. Soofi recalls that because Randhawa was born in undivided Punjab, he witnessed the rich cultural and lingual diversity of those times. “This allowed him to portray the cultural ambience of the whole Punjab in his fiction,” he says.
Jalandhar-based Punjabi fiction writer Jinder pays Randhawa a rich tribute. He also picks Doaba of all his works because it presented a powerful and true picture of Punjab before the partition of 1947. But Jinder is also enamoured by Run Talwar Te Ghora. “Characterisation was Randhawa sahib’s forte; such strong, powerful characters are hard to come by,” says Jinder.
Almost all of Randhawa’s stories and novels have been translated into Gurmukhi; many of them are being taught in universities in India. This we learn from academic and critic Dr Saeed Bhutta. He names Munna Koh Lahore, Randhawa’s short story collection as his favourite, but also mentions that all his classics deserve credit. Dr Bhutta became acquainted with Randhawa during the meetings of the Punjabi Adabi Board of which he too was a member.
Punjabi language right campaigner, poet and critic Iqbal Qaiser is an admirer of Run Talwar Te Ghora. He says, “Randhawa sahib was lucky in the sense that in both the Punjabs, students have written an inordinate number of dissertations on him. Through his novels, short stories and poetry, he helped start a dialogue between both Punjabs.”
Fiction writer and research scholar, Julien, regrets he was unable to meet the great Punjabi writer. “Randhawa sahib brought a revolution in Punjabi fiction. Before him, Punjabi fiction was either reformatory or romantic but he changed its course. He wrote chaste Punjabi and there wasn’t any discrimination in his writings towards anyone. He experimented a lot in his fiction and thus gave it a definite shape. Even in his translations of Achebe and Marquez, he did it with utmost perfection, and one feels as if these works were written in Punjabi language.”