Poet of the Flaming Sutlej – Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007): Nirupama Dutt
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 a 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. It was a life of immense struggle, and his story stands witness to the deep-rooted human discrimination in the name of caste (a creation of the Hindu way of life) which is still 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 by converting to Islam with the new name of Mohammad Bushra, met with a 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 other states. Scheduled Castes form about 30 percent of the total population. 8 percent of these castes live in the rural area and are landless – the landowners are mostly Sikh Jats. 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 and go to college, while doing his daily labor. 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 so well-told 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 progression 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 and friend Amarjit Chandan in February 1974, he revealed his decision, 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 subcontinent, because it is so deeply rooted in the Hindu way of life that it is difficult to get rid of 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 friends 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 neighboring village of Bhaundli, but it may not have been accepted there so the Dil’s brothers conferred and, respecting the fact that he had converted to Islam, they yet decided to cremate him as they had the 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 honors, posts and money from the government, but even the meager pension of the Languages Department, Punjab, was not to find its way to Dil’s hovel through his long years of penury and 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 giving 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 have had its own reasons 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, all his old comrades, except one, took care not to mention the two truths of Dil’s life: one, that he had converted to Islam and, the other, that 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 Manto) Dil was the true fakir, 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.)