Baljinder Pal’s article on Lal Singh Dil can be read at the following link :
Amarjit Chandan’s article on Lal Singh Dil can be read at the following link:
Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007)
How is one to remember Lal Singh Dil? The literary status of Dil in the world of Punjabi literature was never disputed and he is often described as the poets’ poet. Punjabi poet Surjit Patar says: “He will be counted as one of the top Punjabi poets of the twentieth century.” However, there was more to Dil’s life than is difficult to slot. It was a life of immense struggle as his story stands witness to the deep-rooted human discrimination in the name of caste, which, a creation of the Hindu way of life, is yet to be found in all major religions that have been based on conversion from Hinduism. Sadly enough, it has also been a part of the Left group cadres, which ideologically do not recognize religion, caste or creed. So Dil’s various attempts to transcend the caste barrier by joining the Naxalite movement of the late sixties in Punjab or later converting to Islam with the new name of Mohammad Bushra met with frustration that his simple poetic heart opposed.
However, his life and struggle raise the issue of caste prejudice and a big question mark after his death. Punjab has a higher Dalit percentage than that of the other states. Scheduled Caste form about 30 percent of the total population and eight percent of these castes live in the rural area and are landless and mostly Sikh Jats are the land owners. The Dalits take the religion of their masters as per old practice.
Born to a low-caste Ramdasia Chamar (tanner) family, Dil was the first of his clan to pass Class X, while doing his daily labour, and go to college. He was training to be a basic school teacher when Naxalbari intervened. Dil’s poetry was true to his life and that of those around him and the experience of poverty, injustice and oppression was so real and told so well that he was hailed as the bard of the Naxalite movement in Punjab. In the dream of a society free of caste and class, Dil saw a new dawn for the oppressed. However, the extreme Left cadres were not without the caste factor and when the movement was crushed the torture meted out to the Dalits by the upper-caste police was far worse. Dil went underground and moved to Muzaffar Nagar in Uttar Pradesh. Here comes the progresson of Dil. As a caretaker of a mango orchard there, he came in contact with Muslim culture. Once again he saw escape from caste oppression and converted to Islam. In a historical letter written to his mentor-friend Amarjit Chandan in February 1974, he revealed his decision in a long letter saying a crescent moon had appeared on the palm of his hand and adding a line: “Allah is very kind to Maoists because he understands cultures.”
Years later Dil was to tell me, “Caste prejudice exists among the Muslims too.” And this was a scathing comment on the “Manu-made” evil that exists among the Muslims, Christians and Sikhs of the sub-continent because it is so deeply rooted in the Hindu way of life that it is difficult to get rid of it even after conversion. However, Dil remained a devout Muslim saying his namaz , keeping rozas (fasting) and eating only halaal. While he did not put his last wish to be buried on paper yet he had articulated it to his close riends and relatives. Gulzar Mohammad Goria, a writer and Dil’s constant companion, told me: “The wish was communicated to his brothers and left-wing activists. However, there was no Muslim burial ground is Samrala as the Wakf Board had leased out the ground to a Sadhu, who has built a temple there.” It would have meant taking his body to the neighbouring village of Bhaundli but it may not have been accepted there so the brothers of dil conferred and respecting the fact that he had converted to Islam, they yet decided to cremate him as they had done with other elders of the family. Goria adds, “We did not wish to rake a controversy that would make Dil the Muslim overshadow Dil the great poet.”
A great poet he was undoubtedly and his collection of poetry Satluj di Hava (1971), Bahut Saare Suraj (1982), and Sathar (1997) as well as his autobiography, Dastaan, enjoy an exalted place in Punjabi letters. However, his life was a constant struggle. He was never married nor did he enjoy the companionship of any woman. His body and mind wrecked by police torture, he took to country brew. When the Naxalite movement was crushed all the activists went back to their class folds. Dil had nowhere to go to. His dreams for a better life were gone and till the end he remained a ‘proclaimed offender’ in police records because there was no one to help and set the record straight. Sadly, many Naxalite writers and artistes were to receive honours, posts and money from the government but even the meager pension of Languages Department, Punjab was not to find its way to Dil’s hovel through his long years of penury or illness.
For some years after his return to Samrala, Goria and he reopened the mosque in Samrala with Dil saying the morning and evening azaan (call for prayer). Goria recalls: “God is everywhere and our effort in opening the mosque was directed to give confidence to a minority community who should not be afraid of going to their own place for prayer. However, when people started coming to the mosque, the Wakf Board intervened and took over. Well, the Wakf Board must be having its own reason because political ideology apart, Dil and Goria were just a bit too fond of their drink.
With the money sent by his well-wishers in England, his hut was made over into a pucca home and a wooden shack built to serve as a teashop so that he may earn a living by selling tea. He did so in partnership with Pala, a local upper-caste drug addict, but after his death the shop was closed. On Sunday when hundreds of all shades gathered to bid adieu to Dil, but for one all old comrades took care not to mention the two truths of dil’s life: one that he had converted to Islam and the other he found solace in addiction. Expressing regret as an ex-Naxalite activist Manmohan Sharma, an admirer of the days when red had not faded, says: “This is how society exhumes radicalism and Dil the radical was not acceptable either to the society or his own party cadres.” Chandan adds more explicitly: “Beneath the faded red, the Hindus and Sikhs, they would not have anything to do with his last wish for a burial.”
Dil was a legend in his lifetime and now after him his poetry lives and so does his struggle and protest. He had told this writer that one day people would come and sing qawwalis under the banyan tree outside his hovel. It will happen one day, for in ‘Manto-town’ (Samrala being the birth place of Saadat Hasan Munto) Dil was the true faqir and Manto and Dil were forever buried in many a heart.
(Lal Singh Dil, poet, born 11 April 1943, Ghungraali Sikhaan, Ludhiana; died 14 August 2007 Dayanand Medical College and Hospital Ludhiana.)
The shades of his evening
Many suns will die
Your era will arrive
Many suns have died since these lines were written but their time has still not come. So more lines are being created, more suns are being done to death, in that brick dwelling. Inside the four brick walls, the sun that survived, is wreaking havoc with its heat. The room is hot like a furnace. In the middle of the room, over a string cot, lies Lal Singh Dil, writing the last paragraph of his 78-page poem.
On the cheap register that bears the lashes of his personal history, Dil has noted down the day when he began writing the poem, two years ago. In front of his cot lies another cot, like a berated lover. Few dirty cups share a table with few saucers and two kettles; one made of cheap bone china and the other of aluminium. An old iron trunk plays foootsie with rust in one corner. Numerous mementoes weigh heavily on a cement slab. Their plastic covers have never been lifted. The floor near Dil is littered with Beedis and burnt and unburnt matchsticks.
Jo ladna nahi jaande
Jo ladna nahi chohnde
Wo gulam bana liye jaande ne
(Those who do not know how to fight
Those who do not want to fight
They are turned into slaves)
Lal Singh Dil is sixty-three now. He wrote these lines in 1967 when the thunder spring of Naxalbari reverberated in faraway Punjab. For the first time in his life, he felt as if his life had a mission. There was no point in remaining only a poet now. So Dil picked up a gun and joined the movement.
In his recent unpublished poem, Dil describes a dream where he sees his mother washing his clothes. He tries to hold her and she breaks away, prompting him to write:
Mein kis da putt han?
(Whose son am I?)
It is a manifestation of Dil’s longing for love, which he did not receive from anyone except his mother. Born in the chamar (tanner) community in Samrala town of Punjab, Dil was the first member of his family to finish school. His mother sold off her ear rings to make sure that Dil went right up to college.
Those who know Dil since college days say that he was very handsome and because of this and his poetry, many girls fell for him. There was one girl who wore her hair in plaits and lived in a neighbouring village. She was from an upper caste family. Dil’s friend lived in the same village and so Dil would see that girl often and developed a liking for her. But she died of cerebral haemorrhage. Later Dil would find another girl who looked like that girl, wearing her hair in the same fashion. One day he was invited to that girl’s house where he was offered tea in a steel tumbler. Afterwards, the girl’s mother picked the tumbler with a pair of tongs and threw it in fire to purify it. Dil writes in his autobiography Dastaan (Story) that he can still hear the clank of that tumbler thrown in the fire.
Dil began to write poetry during his college days. One of his early poems was published by Preetlarhi, a leading literary journal of Punjab in those times. He was working as a daily wage labourer when the peasant uprising in Naxalbari spread like wildfire. That was the time when Dil wrote a poem called ‘The shades of Evening’.
After remaining underground for four years, Dil was arrested by the Police. In the lock-up, the upper-caste Police officer slapped Dil hard and shouted: Ab chamar kranti layenge is desh mein? (Would the lower caste bring revolution in this country now?)
For nine months, Dil would face extreme physical torture. He would be subjected to more torture than his fellow comrades because of his caste and because of his poetry.
Soon after his release from the prison, Dil had to go into hiding once again. Only this time the period of hiding was much longer. He fled from his hometown to a village near Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, where he worked as labourer in mango orchards. He made a comeback in mid 80’s, after a gap of fifteen years.
By that time, the memory of Lal Singh Dil had faded away from people’s memory. He was an icon in 70’s, Samrala’s own Che Guevara. Fifteen years later, he had to open up a tea-stall to make his ends meet. Even that did not last for long. But what did, and still is, is Lal Singh Dil’s ink.
Dil happens to be the contemporary of radical poets like Avtar Singh Pash and Santram Udasi. In ‘The shades of Evening’, based on his experiences during the Naxalbari movement, Dil writes:
The shades of evening
Are old once again
Head for settlements
A lake walks
From an office
Thrown out of work
A lake is sucking
The thirst of water
Throwing off all wages
Someone is leaving
Someone comes wiping
On his dhoti
The blood of weak animals
On his goad
The shades of evening
Are old once again
Loaded with rebuke
The long caravan moves on
Along with the
Lengthening shadows of evening
In his one-room hermitage, Lal Singh Dil, the biggest name in Punjabi free verse poetry, spends his last days in penury. He told someone recently that he does not expect anything from anyone.
In the same 78-page unpublished poem, Dil writes:
I do not want to write about my personal sorrows.
Lal Singh Dil’s wounds are too many to heal. And something has to be done with his sorrows also. The shades of evening may have to turn like old once again.
This journey became possible because of my friend, filmamker Ajay Bharadwaj. His recent film Kitte Mil Ve Mahi features Lal Singh Dil as radical poet.
Punjabi Poet Lives in Penury
Born to lower caste, Lal Singh Dil made name with his pen.
In the late sixties, when he used to recite poems, thousands of people would gather. Lal Singh Dil was a celebrated poet, akin to his contemporary revolutionary poets, Avtar Paash and Sant Ram Udasi (aka the “Punjabi poets”). He revolted against the unjust regime and fought not merely with his pen, but with a gun, as the American writer Ernest Hemingway fought. Lal Singh Dil, once a firebrand in Punjabi poetry, is currently going through tough times in his hometown of Samrala.
These days, most of his time is spent in a dark 10 x 13 room. One room corner still has marks from the last monsoon leakage and another has a small kitchen. Two walls of his room are colored with some written couplets. Except for a long row of mementos, it is hard to find anything in order. As soon as I reached his place, he came upstairs without looking at me, even without any query, and started making tea.
“Now I am in my late sixties and my health is quite poor, even sometimes I find it hard to breathe, otherwise everything is fine,” he began to speak as if he was talking to himself.
When asked about his financial resources, he whispered, “Earlier, I was running a highway tea stall, but three years back that too had to close down. After that, conditions were severe; even sometimes I didn’t have money to post letters. Now, a publisher gives me five hundred rupees ($13) every month as royalty for my books. Recently, I got some money for honor, which I deposited in a bank and I’m waiting when it will be finished. You can’t read or write with an empty stomach.
Dil was the first in his family to finish school. On every step of his life, he faced humiliations because of his low caste. In the early sixties, as he was studying in his tenth standard, his first poem appeared in the famous Punjabi literary journal Preetlari. In the early seventies, he compiled an anthology of poems titled “Satluj di Hawa”, meaning “The Winds of Satluj” (one of the five rivers of Punjab), which is equal to an epoch in the history of Punjabi revolutionary poetry. “With the thunder of spring” (phrase used for an armed peasant uprising of the mid-sixties) he too joined the Naxalite movement and attacked a police station with his fellow comrades. Later on, he was arrested and imprisoned for nine months.
When asked about his treatment in custody, he became silent for a while and spoke with a thick voice, “Compared to my comrades, they tortured me more because I was from a lower caste. It was extreme. But I never bowed in front of jail authorities despite being humiliated, and as a result I got the name ‘rebel.’”
Due to the brutal repression of the police, the whole Naxalite movement suffered a setback. Most of Dil’s comrades were either killed in encounters or were imprisoned, so nobody was there to welcome him when he was released from jail. Thus, in depression, he left Punjab for Uttar Pradesh. There he adopted Islam and worked as a watchman. In the early eighties, he came back to Punjab because of his deep love for his motherland. Even then he did not get married because he wanted to live “free.”
Asked whether it was a mistake to join the Naxalite movement, he answered with little resentment, “No…not at all, it was the struggle for the betterment of society, even today there is need for such struggles, but with valid means.”
When asked what inspires him to still write, for the first time in our conversation he looked into my eyes and answered after a long pause. “Social injustice, physical torture and mental agony all motivate me to write,” and he began to sing the following lines of his poem “Dance”:
When the labourer woman
Dr Harbhajan Singh’s article in Punjabi (Gurmukhi) on Lal Singh Dil’s book BAHUT SAARE SURAJ
- Review of Lal Singh Dil’s book Aj Billa Phir Aaya
- Memoirs of a tea-vendor
- Baljinder Pal’s article on Lal Singh Dil
- Des Raj Kali’s article on Lal Singh Dil
- Amarjit Chandan’s article on Lal Singh Dil
- Nirupma Dutt’s article on Lal Singh Dil
- Rahul Pandita’s article on Lal Singh Dil
- Vishav Bharti’s article on Lal Singh Dil
- Harbhajan Singh’s article on Bahut Sare Suraj
- Lal Singh Dil books
- Lal Singh Dil
- Revolutionary poet Lal Singh Dil-by Dr Raunki Ram