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From a carpenter to a writer, Singh has come a long way

JAITO, MARCH 15: At the age of 12, Gurdial Singh picked up a hammer and some nails and for the next eight years worked with his father as a carpenter. Literary laurels, fame and recognition were far from his mind then. His only ambition then was to stop working as a manual labourer and become a teacher.

He fulfilled that part of his agenda and the awards and recognition he hadn't dreamed of followed culminating in the Jnanpith announced last week, only the second such award (Amrita Pritam received the first, 18 years ago) for writing in Punjabi.

It has been a long journey down several paths for this village boy fired by his determination to get what he wants. However, he never allowed success to go to his head. ``I couldn't, because I remembered the days when I worked as a manual labourer.'' In his analysis, success could lead to only one of two things: A sense of elation and overjoy or remaining a humble author true to his roots. And throughout his literary journey, human values and the semi-feudal village set-up have provided a backdrop for his outpourings.

His passion was education, both in giving and receiving. He did his matriculation while working as a carpenter, and those years would remain crucial in his life. ``Psychologically, it has been an important factor,'' he says. He then got a diploma in `Oriental Training', which helped him fulfill his ambition when he was offered a job at the local primary school. He took some more courses through private classes, and the first time he stepped into college was as a teacher.

By 1964, at the age of 29, he had written his first novel, Marhi da diwa (The Lamp At The Mausoleum). Gurdial Singh describes it as the first Punjabi novel in ``critical realism''. It came in for high praise, some critics calling it a landmark equivalent to Premchand's Godan. A film based on this produced by NFDC, with Raj Babbar in the lead role, won the best regional film award in 1989.

However, his success failed to impress the authorities. Three years after the novel appeared, Gurdial was still not deemed ``educated'', and in 1967 he appeared for the post-graduation examination. That helped him get a job at the university, where he was asked to teach his own novels. He declined.

But had it worked out, it would have been interesting, because Gurdial is the opposite of the qualities he gives his protagonists. Where his novels deal with belligerent, iconoclastic people taking on the world, he describes himself as ``meek''.

``In real life, I am unable to confront people who do wrong. I don't pick fights and I'm not defiant,'' he says. That, in fact, is what turned Gurdial Singh into a writer. ``As a mild-mannered person, I always wanted to give vent to my feelings and writing is a natural outpouring,'' he says.

Qualities that prompted critic Attar Singh to remark, ``The characters he portrays in his novels are extraordinary but Gurdial Singh is himself an ordinary man.'' Ordinary? Don't bet on it.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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