The World of Kartar Singh Duggal
By Dr Afzal Mirza
Maryland, US

There were few Sikhs who made their name in the realm of literature in the pre-partition India and Kartar Singh Duggal was one of them. He is perhaps one of the senior most progressive writers alive today, the other being our own Hamid Akhtar.
The other notable Sikh writers of that period were Rajinder Sing Bedi, Balwant Singh, Takht Singh, Iqbal Singh, Amrita Preetam, Prof Mohan Singh and Khushwant Singh. Out of these Bedi, Balwant Singh and Takht Singh wrote in Urdu while Amrita Preetam, Bedi and Mohan Singh wrote in Punjabi and Iqbal Singh and Khushwant Singh were primarily English writers. Duggal however wrote in all the three languages with equal prowess. He wrote poetry, dramas and stories thus trying his hand in all genres of literature and bagged many awards.
An appraisal of Duggal’s life as shown in his memoirs entitled Kis nun kholan ganthri (Before whom should I unpack my baggage) depicts him as an interesting character being a product of the times when the society was liberal enough to accommodate inter-faith friendships and relationships. Duggal was born in Dhamial – a place in close proximity of Rawalpindi. Dhamial of 1930s represented the life of the pre-partition India where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were living together peacefully. Duggal therefore would fraternize with people of all religions. Not only that he went to school with his Muslim friends but he would also go to their homes and was treated as a member of the families he visited. While studying in the Gordon College for his BA, Duggal also appeared in Honors in Punjabi exam and passed it with distinction. He was therefore given the job of teaching Punjabi in the same College. In those days he wrote Punjabi poetry and prose and his name gradually came to be known in the literary circles.
Duggal derived his first literary inspiration from Davinder Satyarathi, a literary figure of the 1930s, who used to travel from village to village to collect Punjabi folklore. Duggal described his meeting with Satyarathi in these words, “While sitting in the library I met Davinder Satyarathi for the first time. He had locks of hair resting on his shoulders, wore a long coat and held a big bag full of papers, books and copies… He showed me his English article published in Asia magazine and then later on I read a number of his articles all written on Punjabi folklore in Modern Review of Calcutta… I took him to my village and started collecting folk songs. Once he wrote an article on those folk songs in my presence which was later on published in magazine Pareet Larri. So I thought if he could write and get published why couldn’t I do the same… One day he told me that he met Iqbal as well. I felt envious of the man who had met such a big man. Satyarathi told me that he met Iqbal to get his advice on his (Satyrathi’s) tendency to commit suicide because those days he was jobless and fed up with life. Iqbal told him, ‘Look you are a Hindu. Hindus believe in avagvan (reincarnation). If you will commit suicide you will be born again. Then either you will get a better life than what you have now or worse than it or .the same as you have now. So there are only 33 percent chances of your betterment in the next life.’ Iqbal’s advice opened his eyes; he never thought of suicide again.”
Duggal once attended a lecture by Sir Abdul Qadir in Rawalpindi where the latter told the audience many anecdotes about Allama Iqbal. He said, “Allama started writing in Urdu because Punjabis used to consider Urdu as their mother tongue. Punjabi was not taught in the government schools. Again when love for his mother tongue woke up in his heart he realized the greatness of Bullhe Shah and Waris Shah but then he had gone too far and had started writing in Persian as well…Sir Qadir told that before his death Iqbal had expressed his desire to hear Bulleh Shah’s kafi… Many a time I thought that had Iqbal written in Punjabi our language would have attained a great importance.”
In Rawalpindi Duggal also met Sarojni Naido. “She was reclining against a big pillow (gao takya) wearing a greenish sari and chewing paan. She looked like a queen… I praised her poetry but she said, ‘Leave it brother. Now it is a struggle for independence.’ I liked her a lot because she was cutting jokes and laughing all the time,” he writes.
After graduating from Rawalpindi, Duggal shifted to Lahore for his MA in English and joined FC College. Prof Mohan Singh, an important Punjabi writer, was his teacher there with whom he developed friendly relations. Mohan Singh used to live on Maclagan Road and published magazine Punjdarya. He was devoted to the publication of that magazine While still a student Duggal started reciting his poetry in Radio mushairas and wrote Punjabi features in which the singers of that period namely Malika Pukhraj, Eidan Bai, Zeenat Begum, Shamshad Begam, Tamancha Jan and Munawwar Sultana sang his songs and Amrita Preetam read the dialogues ” Those days Khushwant Singh had come to Lahore after completing his studies in England to start his legal practice. He used to live in a flat in front of Lahore High Court. Duggal writes, “When I met Khushwant I was stunned by the beauty of his wife Kanwal…After every week or fortnight there used to be a gathering at Khushwant Singh’s flat which was attended by selected writers. There Mohan Singh and Davinder Satyarathi also used to come. Once or twice perhaps Amrita Preetam also came who was known as Amrit Kaur at that time….There used to be new books in Khushwant’s library which he offered to his friends to read…I remember that when he wrote his first story in English he was extremely nervous. He had got it typed but was not showing it to any one. But in due course of time he became a top journalist of the country. Those days he was impressed by Aldous Huxley and had all his books in his library.
In 1942 Duggal joined All India Radio and was posted in Lahore. Professor Ahmad Shah Bukhari (Patras Bukhari) was its director general and according to Duggal that was the reason why the atmosphere in Radio stations was like that of an academic institution. Most of the meetings used to take place at the residence of the director and there used to be a relaxed atmosphere in those meetings. “We used to get work from girls of red light area but the moment they entered the radio station they used to behave like ladies of noble families. Whenever Bukhari sahib would come to Lahore a wave of excitement used to run in the station not because he was the DG but because every one loved him. He used to hold parties every evening where writers and intellectuals were invited. Once he was invited at Imtiaz Ali Taj’s residence. Bukhari complained to Taj sahib that he had stopped writing dramas for the radio. Taj sahib said that Duggal used to extract dramas from me. Taj sahib was very close to me. He would talk to me about everything including the matters related to Hijab Imtiaz’s sickness or Yasmin’s studies….During British days when the government was filling the jails with freedom fighters once Bukhari sahib to the chagrin of British rulers gave shelter to Congress leader Aruna Asif Ali in his residence. When in 1946 Patel became in-charge of broadcasting Bukhari sahib started wearing khadar dress so every one followed him and started wearing khaddar. Bukhari sahib did not want to go to Pakistan but Patel was an iron- hearted man. So he was compelled to go to Pakistan…”
Rajinder Singh Bedi had also joined the radio. He was made in-charge of feature programs. Then Bedi wrote his famous drama ‘Khawaja Sara’ which caused a great deal of controversy in the press on charges of obscenity. The matter went to Bukhari who read the manuscript and cleared it. Duggal says Bedi used to smoke which is not allowed among Sikhs. Once he was caught by an elderly Sikh who scolded him for smoking. Bedi said to him politely, “I’m ashamed Sardar Ji . The problem is that I have become a Sikh from a Muslim and I have left all other bad habits but can’t leave smoking.”
When Duggal was working at Lahore Amrita Pareetam used to write for the radio sometimes. She used to broadcast as well. He writes, “Amrita was a beautiful woman of her time… There was never any dearth of her admirers. She knew all the ways of attracting them… Those days she was more known for her good looks than her poetry. She was especially kind to me…. After partition when I saw her in Delhi she was married to Sardar Pareetam Singh.” Then she had already written her masterpiece poem ‘Aj Akhan Waris Shah Nu’.
Talking of the artists that were working in Lahore Radio he fondly remembers Achla Sachdev, Om Parkash, Rafi Peer and Mohini Das. About Mohini he writes, ”Artists like Mohini are very rarely born. She could make every character live. She had a beautiful voice but was very ordinary looking... but still there used to be queues of her admirers. She married a program officer named Hameed and became Mohini Hameed. No doubt she was an employee of the radio but she was always treated as if she was a special guest of the radio station.” [Well in her nineties Mohini now lives in Seattle. She can’t talk and see and shuns company. Such are ways of nature. (A.M.)]
As the partition of the sub-continent became imminent Duggal wanted to continue living in Pakistan. He had a strange knack of befriending Muslims especially the women. One wonders how he reconciled his extreme religiosity with the ideology of the progressive writers’ movement. With the arrival of refugees from India the conditions in Lahore deteriorated and on August 2 1947 he had no option but to migrate to India. In Delhi he married a Muslim woman named Ayesha who was the sister of poet Ali Sardar Jafery’s wife Sultana Jafery. Thenceforth started another chapter in his life.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.