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Posted at: May 22, 2016, 2:00 AM; last updated: May 22, 2016, 2:00 AM (IST)PUNJABI LETTERS

A peep into Punjabi diaspora

A peep into Punjabi diaspora
Mahanyatra by Gurbachan. Avis Publications.

Jaspal Singh

One of the most readable Punjabi prose writers, Gurbachan was once Gurbachan Singh Azad. In course of time, he shed the last two epithets of his name and is now making do with the stem Gurbachan alone. His prose collections, a dozen odd, include literary sketches of scores of Punjabi writers, literary theory and some very interesting travelogues. 

Gurbachan has an insatiable wander-lust. He has two daughters, one is based in Japan and the other in France. If he faces the East he flies to Tokyo and after hectic touring for a few days, he crosses the Pacific to reach the American continent where he would stay for a few weeks before crossing the Atlantic to land in the European mainland, cruising through various countries, visiting places, meeting people then writing about them in his own inimitable style. 

There are nearly half-a-dozen such itineraries, absolutely unplanned, casual and even aimless. His quest is to meet people, study them in their existential situations and then commenting on the struggle for survival and success of boys from Punjab. Gurbachan also brings out a very popular Punjabi journal Filhal, so his editing acumen also stands him in good stead. His narratives are well-structured, though at times they have a fare sprinkling of sardonic wit and even a little malice.

Gurbachan’s latest account of old and recent wanderings has appeared as Mahanyatra (The Great Expedition). It begins with his first landing in London and after rambling for a few days he moves to Paris and meets HS Gill who is on a sabbatical from Punjabi University, Patiala.  Gill’s wife and children being French nationals live there. With Paris begins the great commentary on Modernism and Post-Modernism. Starting from the days of Paris commune in the 19th century, the author sets on a long intellectual journey through the maze of French art, music, philosophy and literature that in fact is the essence of Paris. But now under the impact of corporatisation of the American ilk, the city is fast losing its intellectual verve. 

The main thrust of the Parisian discourse has been the philosophical ruminations and debates, particularly those of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan, Sartre and Claude Levi-Strauss. There is an interesting commentary on the French, Irish, English and American writers who descended on Paris after the World War I. The generation after the Great War was dubbed as the ‘Lost Generation’ (UneGénération Perdue) by Gertrude Stein, so beautifully portrayed by Earnest Hemingway in his book A Movable Feast. 

Since Gurbachan is a doctorate in English literature and masters in Punjabi, he can easily connect with both Punjabi and western literature. He has a huge battery of friends and acquaintances around the world, so he moves with felicity from one situation to another. He has read Sigmund Freud and other psycho-analysts that enables him to dip into the psychic-structure of his subjects. In Paris, he makes it a point to visit Café Sartre before commenting on the great philosophical debates of the last century which are so relevant even today. Incidentally, such debates are beyond the comprehension of most of the Punjabi writers who keep on scribbling a lot of trash.

During his several sorties to Europe, Gurbachan travels from London to other towns of Britain and then to various places in France, Holland, Germany, Italy.... In Canada and the USA, he visited almost every town where his acquaintances are settled. Being a wanderer, he does not mind a cold welcome either, yet he tries to make the most of what is available in the situation. Since he is interested more in the study of human beings in different socio-economic, existential situations, he does not waste his words on needless description of visuals.

Beginning with Lal Singh Kamla Akali in the early decades of the last century, scores of Punjabi writers have tried their hand at this genre of literature. But very few of them have made an attempt to study the human beings and their psychic comportment in different situations — good or bad. Besides Gurbachan comments on the state policies, systems and cultures of a few countries including that of the USA, which is labeled  by him as the inhuman machine of global state-terror. Such commentaries too are beyond the scope of other Punjabi writers. On the whole, Gurbachan’s focus remains on the human condition of Punjabi Diaspora. As a language craftsman he has very few rivals. His sentences are crisp though with a tinge of irony and sarcasm. Many years ago, Balwant Gargi wrote such delightful prose in Punjabi. Now after a gap of decades, this whiff of fresh air is welcome again. 


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