In all of Nain Sukh’s books, people’s history and changing times have a conspicuous presence and the narrative shifts to them from the characters whether they are human or places, villages or cities.

“People’s history has not been recorded in our part of the world. People have almost forgotten it or the generation that had preserved it in its memory is depleting fast,” he says.

Nain Sukh’s book, Jogi, Sapp, Trah (The Snake Charmer, Snake and Fright), won the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi literature worth $25,000 announced in Canada, while the runners-up were books by Balbir Madhopuri and Sarghi from Indian Punjab. The Canada-based prize committee had received 45 entries this year.

Nain Sukh’s award-winning book has many characters from the lower stratum of society, considered outcasts -- Dalits who converted to Islam, but could not shake off the stigma attached to their former caste besides weavers, shoemakers, fishers, hairdressers, snake charmers, gypsies and all the subalterns.

He says when those belonging to these so-called lower castes realised the dishonour attached to their work and craft, they gradually started quitting it. This culminated into the erasure of history that was preserved in their collective memory, as nobody had recorded it.

His book wins $25,000 Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature

While agreeing that history sometimes dominates his narrative, Khalid Mehmood, who goes by the pseudonym of Nain Sukh, claims to have tried to focus more on stories inJogi, Sapp, Trah. He seems to have been successful as the stories are short and targeted as compared to his earlier books. The subject of his novel, Madhu Lal Hussain: Lahore Di Wael, published in 2014 is the same, to some extent, that is set in Lahore and takes the readers on a sojourn to the city’s history while simultaneously remaining in the present.

Regarding his novel, he says he depended on a lot of research and references from whatever sources he could find and then verified them by the people. “I feel written history can be misleading and full of lies, but people don’t tell lies.”

The fiction of Nain Sukh is centred more on the ‘wretched of the earth’, or the subalterns or downtrodden, which permeates in all his stories making it look intentional on his part.

“I was interested more in the life of gypsies, the snake charmers and street entertainers and wanted to know about them. I later realised that nobody had written about them.”

Nain Sukh is passionate about the loss of culture, festivals and the people. History of the lost generations can only be known by the people having lived it, he says. “I just weaved the stories and anecdotes as described by them.”

Citing the example of Soag Sohai, he says he had written about the family of Faqirs, who found themselves at a loss to understand the strange Muslim practices as told by the mullah; they had shared with him their predicament and told him about their songs as well. The same practice he followed in Jogi, Supp, Trah, Chairman Tey Rail Gaddi and some other stories. This gives Nain Sukh’s fiction more authenticity.

Some of Nain Sukh’s short stories recall the British Raj through their characters. Even the stories based on the contemporary world, like his novel Madhu Lal Hussain, also go back frequently to the colonial times.

As a writer, he focuses on alternative perspectives of life and its perception, sometimes quite opposite to the mainstream version. He says when he was writing a story on Dada Ameer Haider, a veteran leftist union leader belonging to the Potohar region, included in his earlier book, Aae Puray Di Waa, he visited his area and met the locals.

“By talking to the people, I found out they considered train as a symbol of separation of lovers and departure from the motherland, and it also manifested in their songs. Apparently, train was a symbol of development, but not for the locals. Same is the case with army service and the ‘famous’ martial race that people took as symbols of separation. The songs of people going to war are full of sorrow.” Train as a subject comes in his story Chairman Tey Rail Gaddi.

Nain Sukh finds the same alternative narrative in the establishment of the canal system in Punjab in which land was snatched from the local population and doled out to the settlers coming from other regions. He thinks these hard facts and negative side of development have been ignored because it didn’t suit those in power. He questions development and progress in his fiction – one such story is Plastic Hi Plastic whose sub-theme is land and organic farming.

Nain Sukh’s fiction is more descriptive and narrative, and less dramatic. There are almost no dialogues. “I try keeping the story intact in my fiction. I connect various events and anecdotes and weave a story out of them. However, I don’t follow the bookish definition of a short story, having a beginning, middle or climax and an end.”

History is not the only dominant element in his fiction. He also talks about the changing contemporary society, the people that fell for certain constructs and meta-narratives in recent Pakistan. “The past fascinates me when society was more pluralistic and there was relative equality. Then times changed and religious extremism increased to the extent that people are now pigeonholed in sects. I deliberately create characters or dialogues that favour pluralism and diversity against blind religiosity.”

It pains Nain Sukh to see the people of Punjab discarding their own language and wonders what can change the situation. He uses Punjabi language that is spoken across the swathes of Punjab, sometimes words no more in use, especially by new generations of Punjabi speakers. He says he does not make a conscious effort to use certain diction as it comes with characters delineated in his stories.

“The Punjabi language and its words are rooted in culture. If language dies, the whole culture dies with it. Turkey, Korea and Japan have saved their languages and made progress. However, we are losing our language and have not made any progress.”

Nain Sukh started publishing late in life. He was influenced by the qissas his mother used to narrate and sing, including Molvi Ghulam Rasool’s. He got close to the Mazdoor Kisan Party in his teens that focused on the Punjabi language. He wrote his first Punjabi story when he was 18, but started publishing late. His first book of short stories, Theekriyan, was published in 2002 when he was 40. His second book, Athal Pathal, was printed in 2004, followed by the novel, Madhu Lal Hussain, in 2014. Other collections of his short stories,Aai Puray Di Waa and Shaheed, appeared in 2017.

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2021

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