“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.