Another People

Punjabi poet Lal Singh Dil's revolutionary fervour and poetic zeal

From left, Lal Singh Dil, Amarjit Chandan and Prem Parkash at the home of poet Sarod Sudeep in Samrala, 1979. COURTESY THE AMARJIT CHANDAN COLLECTION
01 February, 2013

“A LOVER, A POET AND A MADMAN, all in one,” writes poet and journalist Nirupama Dutt in her introduction to Poet of the Revolution, her recently-published English translation of Dastaan (1998). “He will be counted as one of the major Punjabi poets of the twentieth century,” revered Punjabi poet Surjit Patar is quoted as saying in the same introduction; while Amarjit Chandan, another well-known Punjabi poet, says over email, “There are surely ten poems by Dil that I’ll include in a representative collection of 20th century Punjabi poetry.” In translating Dil’s memoirs and 25 of his poems for the book, Dutt writes that she has striven hard to “resurrect in English the life, times and poetry of one ... who was ever struggling to strike a balance between his immense poetic talent and the harsh reality of his life.”

His talent and his difficult existence may well appear to be two parts of a doomed dialectic at first. However, their significance in shaping Dil’s poetry becomes clear by the end of the memoirs. Dutt’s translation succeeds in locating within the vacillations and dramatic events of Dil’s life the prism that reflects his unique poetic vision. The urgency, wit, horror and sometimes even the utter naiveté that informs the memoirs is not lost in a translation that manages to communicate the full import of a life with all its rough, raw and human edges.

Lal Singh Dil’s life passed beneath a shroud of poverty, caste-based discrimination, police torture and alcoholism. And yet it is the dust and earth raised by farmhands working in fields and his evocation of this among other simple, scarcely heroic acts in his verse that establish for his relatively paltry oeuvre the unique position it occupies in modern Punjabi poetry.

A RECTANGULAR ROOM ON THE ROOF of a single-storied brick house. The twin-panelled wooden door opens a crack to reveal crudely painted walls and two charpoys presided over by a ceiling fan. Filmmaker Ajay Bhardwaj’s camera flies through this door in his documentary film Kitte Mil Ve Mahi (Where The Twain Shall Meet, 2005), and begins by roving across the utensils, the chapped walls and a solitary portrait of the revolutionary freedom fighter, Bhagat Singh. It then comes to a halt before the frail figure of Lal Singh Dil, seated on a charpoy and gazing self-absorbedly beyond the doorstep. Dil’s characteristically tempered recitation of his poem ‘Shaam da Rung’ (Evening Tide) plays over the images.

Kitte Mil Ve Mahi explores the Sufi tradition still thriving in a post-Independence Punjab scarred by the horrors of Partition. It worms its way beneath the archetypal image of a Punjab rendered uniformly prosperous by the Green Revolution to probe the casteist discrimination that roils underneath. In a state where the majority of the population hold Sikh beliefs—a religion that abhors discrimination of any kind—Bhardwaj finds marginalised Dalits turning to Sufism in search of succour. Lal Singh Dil, born to a low-caste tanner family and a convert to Islam, forms the beating heart of the film.

Dil’s house is located in a less-than-prosperous section of Samrala, a small town roughly 60 kilometres away from Chandigarh, the administrative capital of the state of Punjab. One of the many tangles of narrow gullies that leads out from the main road running through the town winds up in front of an iron door which yields to a stone staircase rising towards the poet’s room. It was while living here that Dil’s peripatetic and eventful life—chronicled vividly in his memoirs—came to a close in 2007.

Dil’s room in Samrala today. During his lifetime, the awards and trophies that now decorate the room were locked away in a trunk. COURTESY ANUPAM KANT VERMA

I visited Dil’s house recently to discover that his room wears a different garb from the one seen in Bhardwaj’s documentary. Worn-out trophies and awards jostle for space on a lone shelf, a new portrait of Bhagat Singh leans against a wall, and the far end of the room is occupied by a pair of trunks housing Dil’s belongings in their entirety.“He didn’t like to show off his trophies and awards,” Charan Singh, Dil’s youngest brother, mutters. “All these were locked up in a trunk while he was alive.”

BORN IN 1943 to a low-caste Chamar family in Samrala, Dil’s childhood, as is evident from his memoirs, was scarred and sullied at regular intervals by caste-based discrimination. At school and at play, Dil and others belonging to the lower castes were incessantly humiliated by adults and children from the upper strata of society. Being the only child in his family to receive an education, he stuck it out, tolerating the cruelty even of his teachers, finding solace in the song and dance of the folk theatre performed by the Raasdhariyas.

From here Dil passed on to ‘The Crucible of College’, the title for this period of his life in his memoirs. It was here that his lifelong love for poetry and women was born. But while poetry bestowed its manifold gifts on Dil, throughout his life he would admire women only from a distance. He fell in love with a girl who succumbed to cerebral haemorrhage, was engaged to be married to another (the wedding was called off due to Dil’s deteriorating financial condition), and was humiliated by an upper-caste Sikh girl whom he fancied, the last experience singeing his memory for life. In Dutt’s introduction to the memoirs, Amarjit Chandan is quoted as having said, “Lal never got the companionship of a woman, so his portrayal of the pain of womanhood is imagined and removed from life.”

A short poem, ‘Ik Soch’ (Just a Thought) offers a glimpse of Dil’s spiritual passion for women:

Forlorn, I contemplate

a single thought:

that your oiled hair

would bring me salvation...

Trilok Singh Ghai, translator and writer, who’s currently engrossed in translating a selection of Dil’s poems into English, admits to being deeply intrigued by Dil’s empathetic portrayal of women despite his distance from them. “Chandan has compared Dil’s portraits of women to Amrita Shergil’s paintings,” he says. “I agree with him there. His women are the daily-wage labourer women. And I’m still thinking about how to write about these poems.”

Even though Dil’s portrayal of women strove towards the idealistic, his depiction of their position in society remains cognisant of both their great strength of character and their vulnerability. In a poem titled ‘Bholiaan’ (Girls Picking Fruit), he writes of how a poor woman’s life is spent clinging on to little moments of joy in the face of indigence and suffering, from childhood right through to marriage and further on to middle age. Dil’s poem ends on a note that can be understood as both reproach and warning.

If the inhabitants of other planets

would learn of this

they would turn to stone

and never rise again

If animals were to

experience this

they would run to the forest

screaming in fear of humanity...

Dil’s poems began to be published in magazines while he was at college. Although it remains unclear which particular works of literature he read and admired during this time, his views on sentimentality in poetry are made evident in the memoirs when he declares ‘Murdey’ (Corpses), an early poem of his, a direct attack on “uncalled-for sentimentality in the name of poetry”. On the other hand, his views on world literature seem ambiguous; he derides Mikhael Sholokhov’s classic And Quiet Flows the Don, saying “The Russians had found a fine way of selling their waste paper to Indian buyers.”

The peasant uprising at Naxalbari, West Bengal, took place in 1967. Inspired by Leninist, Marxist and Maoist thought, young people in the state began transforming into armed revolutionaries, embracing guerrilla warfare in a bid for complete social change. The revolutionary wave flooded Punjab the following year. Dil had dropped out of college for lack of money to work as a daily wage labourer. The Naxalite movement provided him with the right platform from which to express his great passion and fervour for the working class . The caste-free society espoused by Marxist tenets ignited him into action, both poetic and militant. An active member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Dil soon became one of the most celebrated Punjabi poets of the time, reciting his verse before thousands of people during mass gatherings.

Burma and France quiver.

Slogans echoed by the Indian soil

pierce the walls of the enemy’s home

The jungles just have one thing to say:

Forget love! Just watch

the enemy going up in flames.

From ‘Satluj di Hava’ (The Satluj Breeze)

The revolution birthed a handful of poets who came to represent the Punjabi language poetry of those days, suffused with hope and the prospect of change. Paash, Amarjit Chandan, Sant Ram Udasi and Lal Singh Dil were foremost among their contemporaries. Paash was to emerge as the most popular, due in part to his thunderous recitations of his own rousing poetry, fuelled by calls for change.

Dil often complained that his poetry wasn’t as popular because he was sidelined as a result of his lower caste, which can also be read as an insinuation at the casteist discrimination simmering beneath the revolutionary facade of the Naxalite movement. Both Trilok Ghai and Baldeep Singh, an erstwhile teacher of English at Malwa College, Samrala, and a close friend of Dil’s agree. Singh goes further, “Another reason may be the absence of sloganeering in Dil’s poetry. His is a subdued, tempered voice. Also, when he recited his poetry he spoke in a soft and suppressed tone.”

Paash was an upper-caste Jat while Dil, Udasi and Chandan came from the lower castes. “And as a result,” says Ghai, “they look at society in different ways.” Chandan, he says, developed a sophisticated style owing to his education and training in poetry. Unlike him, Dil picked up everything from experience. “Lal’s style and technique are distinct,” says Chandan. “Apart from the ghazal form which, I think, is unsuitable for the Punjabi language, I see no other influence of any modern Punjabi poet on his work.” This distinctiveness was derived from a life spent in close association with the people whose trials and travails lie at the heart of Dil’s work. As Baldeep Singh quotes Dil saying in an interview,

My poems are emitted from my bones as the truth. During the Naxalite movement many poets started to write following a fashion. They never wrote from experience. That’s why their poetry is full of romance. Revolution and change was their intellectual need. It was not a social urge. Revolution is a social need for the part of society that I belong to. My poetry gives the message of that struggle.

In 1970, an abortive attack carried out by Dil and his comrades on the Chamkaur Police Station in Ropar led to his hounding and subsequent arrest by the police on the false charges of possessing a revolver. Days of police torture followed, all told in horrifying detail in the memoirs. “The police,” writes Dil, “wanted to stamp the Naxalites out once and for all.” Thrashed and tortured regularly, he was moved from prison to prison, and berated constantly —“So you bloody Chamars, you want our land!”—all in an attempt to draw out the names of his comrades from him. Dil took refuge in his poems, which he’d recite to himself.

After his release from jail, Dil fled to Uttar Pradesh, travelling across towns and cities. In a pattern that he was to follow for the rest of his life, he undertook menial jobs such as cook, watchman, gardener, labourer, farm-hand, and errand-boy for a cloth merchant.

My country has

another face

Another set

of people

Where a settlement



Retires for the night

And counts the stars

To soothe aching limbs

from ‘Mera Desh’ (My Country)

“He was in contact with these kind of people,” says Ghai. “He’s writing about these marginalised and neglected people. He’s writing about them because he is one of them.” Dil’s great triumph in his finest poems lies in his ability to steer clear of any semblance of romanticism, outright disparagement or fatalism while writing about the people. His empathy for those whose psyche he seeks to inhabit arises from the personal bond he established with them over the course of his life. Chandan says that his simple, experiential imagery isn’t fake or contrived as has been the case with a majority of progressive Punjabi poets. The aesthetic that Dil’s poems possess is an aesthetic whose nuances are perhaps comprehensible to and emerge from the people he writes about. “Dil lent a face to these people who have been totally marginalised, people who travel with blankets from village to village looking for work,” says Baldeep Singh. “People who are treated like animals. He gave dignity to them and their work.”

In ‘Nadeen’ (Weeds), one of his finest poems, one sees glimpses of the aforementioned aesthetic:

…this little trowel

with its wooden handle

softened by the touch of

many a hand

It is indeed a work of art

A simple instrument used by a daily-wager transforms into an aesthetic object under Dil’s observant eye. Ghai cites this very poem when he draws attention to the delicate images he’s discovered in Dil’s poems that perplex him as much as they hold him in thrall. “Dil is not trained in poetry but these images are so delicate. They are marvellous,” he says. “It only goes to show that if he had been better trained in poetry, he would have written some of these poems even better.”

Dil’s first volume of poetry, Satluj Di Hava, was published in 1971, followed by Bahut Saare Suraj in 1982 and Sathar in 1997. Amarjit Chandan considers Dil’s later work weaker than what came earlier. “He lost verve in the end and indulged in ghazal writing. He wrote some poems not up to the mark.” At his finest, though, Dil remains an astounding chronicler of the lives of his beloved people. In her introduction to the memoirs, Dutt notes famed Punjabi poet and critic Harbhajan Singh confessing after his first encounter with Dil’s poems, “These lines written in bitter truth put me to shame ... Lal Singh Dil’s lines hit me hard. Lal Singh Dil is a truly new signature in contemporary poetry.” Chandan recalls in an email, “While I was active in the Naxalite movement and had a cash prize on my head, I used to keep in my pocket a poem by Dil. It has an image darey pariNdiaaN nu gãwan da sãhas hunda… (Frightened birds take courage to sing.)”

THE MEMOIRS CULMINATE WITH DIL’S RETURN to his hometown from Uttar Pradesh after his conversion to Islam. He had converted because, as he writes in his memoirs, “Islam was attracting me to its fold, and I started feeling that someone who cannot be a Muslim cannot be a communist. In fact, I felt Islam to be closest to the communist ethos.” The failure of the Naxalite movement had left many a comrade with wounded souls. Chandan says that this utter disillusionment was reflected in Dil’s case in his conversion to Islam. “Till the end he worshipped Mao, Stalin and Prophet Mohammad! He didn’t like my criticisms of the first two. Like many Indian Maoists he was in denial about their monstrous crimes.”

Dil, the devout Muslim and poet, would now visit the mosque and read the Quran but not at the cost of his liquor. Alongside, the flux of poetry continued unabated. “Every night, rain or shine, drunk or sober, brother would write well beyond midnight,” says his brother, Charan Singh. “He hardly left his room. We even served food to him there.” He did take on the occasional job, at one time vending tea from a stall on the Machhiwara road in Samrala. But most of the time he depended on his brothers—who worked daily wage jobs themselves—for his sustenance. The trophies that are littered across the shelf in his room may not have meant anything to him at the time, but he certainly valued the monetary prizes that sometimes accompanied them. “Due to his drinking habit, he would deposit his prize money with me and ask me to give the money to him in small amounts,” says Baldeep Singh. “There was no interval to his drinking and the money would soon run out. But despite everything he never begged for money from anyone.”

Dil passed away following seven days of hospitalisation in Ludhiana close to the midnight hour on the eve of the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. His wayward habits meant that he wasn’t granted an Islamic burial. With the dead body slated to arrive for the cremation at a Dalit cemetery on the 15th, friends and family in Samrala started making arrangements. “But since it was Independence Day we couldn’t find garlands to place on his body,” says Baldeep Singh. “All the garlands had been sold because of the occasion.” In the end, flowers were gathered from neighbours and other people’s houses and fashioned into garlands.

Poet of the Revolution marks the first time that Dil’s work has been translated into the English language in book form. It is hoped that this, and the handful of his poems rendered into English at the end of the autobiography, spark a renewed interest in his poetry. Famed Punjabi singer Madan Gopal Singh says “There isn’t a memoir that I can think of which is so organically vivid in its condensed energy and its wayward but tragic displacements. The book is speech with its internal, human interruptions, excesses, unexpected closures and openings.” These excesses and openings were characteristic of Dil’s life—one so deeply enmeshed with his poetry that the resulting words are lent blinding illumination and a lasting feral force.