A process of literary interaction between the East and West Punjab has been slow in the backdrop of Indo-Pak strained relations. Ideological imperatives on the both sides of borders discourage people-to-people contact even at unofficial level. So much so that request for issuance of a visit visa can make you a suspect in the eyes of state institutions puffed up with a sense of super patriotism. Political expediency and bureaucratic gobbledygook rule supreme in the subcontinent. But thanks to odd individual efforts the literary exchange between two sides of the Punjab seems to be gaining momentum slowly but steadily the best evidence of which is the publishing of literary books originally published in Gurmukhi script by people in the East Punjab or diaspora.

One such notable publication is Ravinder Sehra’s book of verse, titled Kujh Nah Kaho (Don’t Utter a Word), brought out by Kitab Trinjan, Lahore. The book transliterated by US-based excellent translator and author Javaid Boota carries Surendar Sohal’s blurb and short introduction by Ambrish.

Ravinder Sehra is a well-known poet with a progressive worldview. He is versatile as is shown by his poetic expression which deals with a large array of themes that includes politics, love, big business shenanigans, class exploitation, xenophobia and nature. His poems are marked by clarity of poetic vision and expressive simplicity. His poetic vision is inspired by a dream of an exploitation-free transformed world. Disarming simplicity one comes across in his poems is perhaps an outcome of his deep understanding of language and firm desire to communicate. And he seems to reach his intended audiences effortlessly which is a no mean feat in our literary world that puts premium on ambiguity. Let’s savour one of his short poems: “Where have gone the paths I trod once, in winter and summer? / My feet had learnt one thing; to trudge along day and night / How long was the distance stretched ahead, where was the destination and whether one would ever land there, were the questions that never bothered me / I just strode the paths, familiar and unfamiliar / Where have gone those paths?”. The book is a rewarding read indeed.

Dying before one’s death is one of themes we encounter in Punjab’s classical poetry. The mystery of death intriguingly provokes mystically inclined poets to look at the world in a more objective manner. It enables them to explore the manifest but ignored reality of life in a state of being unencumbered by lust of possession and fascination of material acquisition. They are brave enough to defy the norms in a society that eventually reduces all human relationships one has whether with nature or other human beings into a property relationship. But the matter can also be other way round; one can be alive after being dead to discover the reality of life at the level of imagination, of course.

This is exactly what happens in Makhdoom Tipu Salman’s novella, Adhi Maut (Half Death), published by Sanjh Publications, Lahore. He is a young fiction writer and author, and a lawyer by profession. The protagonist is a male from urban lower middle class. After being dead, he looks at the world from the skies and lands at his previous residence where his dead body wrapped in a shroud lies surrounded by women sitting on white sheets with swarms of children and flies running amok. The protagonist assumes the shape of a mosquito to avoid causing any sort of disturbance at his funeral. He remembers what caused his death; a motorcycle accident. This becomes the starting point of the story of his life, which he now relives in a matter-of-fact manner. His father, who worked as a cleric, managed with great difficulty to get him educated from state-owned educational institutions where the bulk of students came from low income groups. After having done his Master’s, he ended up with a low paid job in a bank because neither his family was well-connected nor could he manage to get any recommendation, a prerequisite for a good job in public or private sector.

The author employs two tools, which serves as a literary device; one linked with imagination and with a religious tradition. The first is the dead man alive and second, the presence of two angels invisibly perched on human shoulders tasked with writing the good and evil that a person does. But what is significant is the narrative the author builds; the ordinary story of ordinary mortals of urban lower middle class. His struggle exposes the harsh reality of the non-privileged in a society where a sense of privilege rules the roost not only as a fact but also as a dream of future. Unremarkable life usually goes unremarked. Tipu Salamn has done a good job by exploring what is mundane, which is taken for granted. Mundanity of life when put under microscope reveals what is meaningful but neglected or ignored that keeps the life rolling. Social and cultural strategy of the power structure is designed with the express purpose of underestimating rather undermining the significant contribution small things done by small men make in sustaining and enriching our world. The language in the narrative is simple. But the use of simple language is not a simple thing in literature; it can go either way. It can enhance the communication and it can turn into journalese incapable of expressing anything beyond what is prosaic. The author needs to be a little more careful with the language. The novella is easily accessible and a good read. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2020