The second issue of Baramah, an annual Punjabi literary magazine, was released online on 5 August, 2020 by the Lyallpur Young Historian Club, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. The launch was streamed live and guests attended from their homes in London, Lahore, Lyallpur, Ludhiana, and Windsor.
The zine is co-edited by Zubair Ahmed and Amarjit Chandan, and it is published from Lahore in the nastaliq script. The content ranges from scholarly essays to short stories and poetry; commentaries on painting, cinema, and music, to profiles, memoirs and interviews of writers and scholars.
Amarjit Chandan, who lives in London, edited the first ever revolutionary underground literary magazine in Punjabi called Dastavez (The Document) in the 1970s. He has been translating, writing, editing books of poetry and prose ever since and acts as a bridge between the writers and literatures of the West and East Punjab.
Lahore-based Zubair Ahmed is a retired professor of English literature who writes in Punjabi. In fact, a collection of his stories translated into English is to be published in Canada later this year. Chandan and Ahmed look after the magazine and also curate Kitab Trinjan, a Facebook page where they feature the works and profiles of Punjabi artists, writers and scholars.
Baramah’s 2020 issue focuses on the Punjabi language and identity and attempts to bridge the fissures within the Punjabi Qaummunity (nation), divided not just by the borders on land but by script too. It is one of the many initiatives Punjabis on either side of the Radcliffe Line have undertaken to transcend it.
These include publication and distribution of books of essays, poetry, plays, novellas, and short stories. The pandemic has invigorated this desire to get together, read, understand, and learn from the shared history and literature beyond geography, religion, and script with the help of online history webinars, zoom conference calls and WhatsApp groups.
The literary exchange has been going on since the ’60s and ’70s. East Punjabi writers often address their West Punjabi counterparts in their works. In his book Udd-de Bazan Magar (Chasing the Flying Hawks) published in 1974, revolutionary East Punjabi poet Paash wrote a poem Ahmed Salim de Naam (In the name of Ahmed Salim):
(Jangi KaidiaN nu Smarpan)
Ae kalam de kirtia ve, ae mere Ahmed Salim
Chumm keseekhaN, mere sajjre baney rishte de veer
MaiNvi haaN JehlaN da shayar, mera vi ne ishq lok
tainu puchde ne Pindi de, te mainu Dilli de teer
(Dedicated to political prisoners)
O labourer of the pen, o my Ahmed Salim
You kissed the bars of the jail too, o my newfound brother
I am the poet of prisons too, my people are my love as well
The arrows from Pindi seek you, and the arrows from Delhi are after me too.
After Paash was murdered in 1989, West Punjabi poet Mazhar Tirmazi wrote a poem, Qatil (Murderer):
Awan wala waqt likhega
tusin uh maare
jihde maut toN marde nahi
maut jinna da ohla ban jaandi ae
naam tinna da laike pandhi turde ne
The pen of the future will write:
you murdered those
whom death cannot kill.
for whom death becomes a safe house
by taking whose name wayfarers find their way.
Paash’s writings are still published and read as widely in west Punjab as in east Punjab. West Punjabi poets like Ustaad Daman are widely read in east Punjab.
During the online release of Baramah, eminent Panjabi poet Surjit Patar emphasised on the importance of these efforts at a time when our lives as well as languages are growing apart. In west Punjab, the Punjabi language is not officially recognised by the state. Many writers have been fighting for the introduction of Punjabi at the primary school level.
On the other hand, in east Punjab, the Punjabi language has official status and is taught in schools. There are university departments dedicated to research in the Punjabi language and literature. Here the language is heavily influenced by Sanskrit and Hindi, whereas the language used in west Punjab sees Farsi and Arabic influences.
In east Punjab, history is taught in allegiance with the Indian nation state, of which Punjab is a mere sidenote; the Unionist party leaders who wanted a unified Punjab are hardly talked about. On the other side, in West Punjab, textbooks adhere to the narrative of the Pakistani state in which Hindu/Sikh histories are overlooked. Sanjha Punjab is the piece of the puzzle that children on both sides of the border miss out on.
Kitab Trinjan and Baramah
Contributors to the Baramah magazine come from Edhrala Punjab, Odhrala Punjab, and Teeja Punjab (This Punjab, That Punjab and Third – diasporic – Punjab). The magazine was Chandan’s idea and he came up with its name too. They have refrained from publishing it online, although it is cheaper that way, but print, they argue, is, after all, print.
Ahmed has recently resuscitated Kitab Trinjan, a bookstore cum publishing house. The bookstore in its earlier avatar was founded by Ahmed along with Anwar Chaudhry and Nisar Khan and was operational between 1997 and 2009. The idea of Kitab Trinjan was formed at one of the weekly meetings of the sangat (literary gathering) held at renowned Punjabi poet, essayist and playwright Najm Hosain Syed’s place at Jail Road, Lahore.
After closing shop in 2009, Chandan and Ahmed have been curating Kitab Trinjan, the Facebook page. In his address to the virtual gathering at the online release, Chandan mentioned how difficult it is to produce a miaari (quality) Punjabi magazine. There are around thirty magazines being published in east Punjab, but most of them are financed by writers living abroad, who keep publishing their own work, some of it of indifferent quality.
Baramah, on the other hand, seeks contributions from writers across the globe.Chandan’s essay on the Punjabi Qaum, his own poetry, translations of Yiannis Ritsos and Bertolt Brecht, and an essay on the works of artist Rupy Cheema Tut (who also designed the cover art) have been published in the 440-page magazine.
Lyallpur Young Historians Club
In 2019, young historians Khola Cheema and her partner Tohid Chatha founded the Lyallpur Young Historians Club (LYHC),an independent club dedicated to preserving the history of the subcontinent and specifically of Punjab. The club is based in Lyallpur, now known as Faisalabad, the second-most-populous city of West Punjab after Lahore.
The couple have been part of a group named Kuknas, which has been running the Lyallpur Punjabi Sulaikh Mela for the past five years. It is a volunteer-driven gathering and perhaps the biggest Punjabi literary festival. LYHC seeks to create a space for sharing the ideas of eminent historians and social scientists. Their first event was the launch of American Sikh scholar Dalvir S Pannu’s book The Sikh Heritage: Beyond Borders. To discuss the book, they invited scholars Iqbal Qaisar, Nain Sukh and Zubair Ahmed from Lahore.It was attended by around fifty people, mostly locals of the city.
Before the LYHC could plan its second event, Covid-19 had spread all over the world, and the Pakistan government had imposed a lockdown like most other countries. The LYHC decided to move their club activities online. They organised an online video lecture series on the history of the Punjab, a series on historiographies of Punjabi cities, and an online reading room where books are reviewed by eminent scholars from all over the world. Their first online video lecture on the 101st anniversary of Amritsar Jallianwala Bagh massacre was held on 13 April this year.
Among the LYHC lecture archives us a four-part lecture series titled Gwacheya Punjab (Lost Punjab) by Nain Sukh (the pen name of Khalid Mahmood), a scholar of Punjabi history and oral traditions. In these, he excavates the history of state formation in the region in Raj Kahani (the most popular of the lectures); the history of its subaltern castes, tribes, kammis (dalit toilers), untouchables in Drawarhnama; the history of Jogi and Faqiri traditions in Jog te Faqiri; and the history of folk traditions titled Lok Punj Pir.
These video lectures are an extension of Nain Sukh’s written work tracing the role of subaltern castes/untouchables and their affiliations with Faqiri and Jogi traditions. He portrays the anti-establishment currents of outcaste faqirs and jogis who have been at loggerheads with caste feudal lords/moneylenders and monarchs in his book. He has compiled his work in a book titled Dharti Panj Dariyai.
The initiative started by the LYHC bridged the script and border divide by providing historians with a platform on which they could liberate themselves from the confines of Punjabi, Urdu, and English academese.
Delhi University Professor Chakraverti Mahajan has studied the LYHC as an anthropological case study, titled “Convivial Gatherings in the Digital Sphere”. He states, “The LYHC has provided a psychological space for sharing memories, anxieties and hopes for future in a safe and congenial environment. Also, a space to share a sense of solidarity with each other across the border and to dream of a shared Punjab howsoever impossible it might seem given the political dispensations in both nations. The LYHC thus embodies the struggle of memory against forgetting, of people’s voice, of folk traditions against the nature of nation states. In many ways it is the next version of what most peace activists in previous decades did by lighting candles on the border on important dates for both the nations.”
The LYHC YouTube channel added 300 subscribers in the week between 12 September and 19 September 2020, going up to nearly 2000 subscribers in all. Talking about their reach, Cheema said that the lockdown gave them an impetus to explore online options. Although a physical social gathering has its own charm, they would not have been able to reach the kind of audiences they have now. Today, a scholar like Professor Pashaura Singh and a trucker named Japnam Singh both tune in to these lectures.
Literary gatherings sans borders
The famed Sangat (literary gathering) at Najm Hosain Syed’s place that was instrumental in the conception of Kitab Trinjan has also moved online and is now accessible to people in east Punjab and abroad. These weekly gatherings were started in the 1970s to discuss the poetry of classical Punjabi poets like Guru Nanak, Baba Farid, MadhoLal Shah Hussain, Guru Arjan Dev, Baba Bulle Shah, Waris Shah and others.
In the current round of online gatherings organised by Risham Hosain Syed (artist and singer daughter of Najm Hosain Syed) in the weeks of August and September 2020, the readings comprise Bhai Gurdas’s vaars and Syed’s nazms. The text is shared in both scripts on a WhatsApp group. On Friday evenings, the participants join in a Zoom conference with salutations of aslamalaikum, sat sri akal, namaste, before the poem of the week is recited and the words and their meanings are discussed.
The people of east Punjab, who are not used to hearing words like “mainda” and “tainda”, variants of “mera” and “tera” (“mine” and “your”) familiarise themselves with a part of the language and a geography they no longer have access to. And the west Punjabis discover how a word like paha (path) is pronounced by their east Punjabi brethren.
After the literary reading, there is discussion and debate on interpretations of the poetic text in the historical context and its relevance in contemporary times. The Sangat is brought to completion by the singing of the vaar or nazm.
Debates also ensue in these online gatherings on the veracity of the texts. There are multiple editions of classical texts like, say, Qissa Heer Waris Shah or Kafian of Shah Hussain. Despite the best efforts of editors on both sides, there is no consensus on the authenticity of their verses. These gatherings are also a space to identify which texts are better edited and closer to what the poet might have written.
Risham Hosain Syed curates the Sangat compositions of classical Punjabi poetry sung by herself, her mother Samina Hasan Syed, her father Najm Hosain Syed, and others on her SoundCloud page. A website for the Sangat texts and compositions is under development.
Despite the challenges faced by independent Punjabi publishers and groups like the LYHC and Sangat, such as lack of institutional support, dearth of financial resources, and restrictions in cross-border mobility, there is the spirited efforts of people like Ahmed, Chandan, Cheema, Chatha, and Syed, who are tirelessly active in creating, curating and archiving knowledge to strengthen the Punjabi language.
The Coronavirus pandemic has invited theorists to think of it as “a portal to a new world” to “adopt the path of global solidarity” and “reorganise human society”. The lockdown has provided a portal for Punjabis to reorganise themselves to work closer together, creating solidarities beyond the nation-states of Pakistan and India; and to create unofficial archives with the help of the internet. These accessible open archives will work as resources for the new generation of scholars of an Internationalist Sanjha Punjab.
Jasdeep Singh is a software engineer, translator, and film writer based in Chandigarh. During the lockdown he started an online reading group in which sangatis from this Punjab, that Punjab and overseas Punjab discuss the poetry of the 16th Century poet MadhoLaal Shah Hussain. He is recovering from Covid-19.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.