The Survivors – Gurdial Singh

We took these photos 4 years ago while driving through dense traffic on the Sathy Road. The road was being expanded and a CAT was razing down a few buildings along the road. We don’t know if they were legal constructions or not, whether compensation was given or not. But I still can’t stop thinking of that forlorn lady sitting amidst the debris at a corner of a demolished house.

Gurdial Singh’s Punjabi novel, ‘The Survivors’ (translated by Rana Nayar), deals with an issue that has not been dealt with sufficiently in literature – the plight of individuals displaced by ‘development’ measures. Every time I drive on a highway under construction, and see half-demolished houses and old roadside shops that have become inaccessible, I ask myself what happens to the people who inhabit those houses and whose livelihoods have been dependent on those shops. The Survivors is the story of a gritty carpenter, Bishna Singh, and his wife, Daya Kaur, who are forcibly thrown out of their houses, after they refuse to allow a road to pass through it. They could never throw the house out of their minds. Bishna is sent along with his brother to jail for resisting. His brother regrets it thinking they should have simply yielded and taken whatever compensation was offered. He breaks up and goes his own way with his family. Bishna and Daya Kaur survive but could never bring their demolished lives and families back to the old normal. Bishna’s fight is not political and is entirely personal. But his futile fight against a system that has no place for the individual ends only with his death after many years. Isolated in his own village, he finds solace in another place but returns to his village in his old age, only to renew his bitterness and resentment. Despite all their travails and resentment against those who betrayed them, the couple retain love and compassion for those around them. The poverty forced on them does not snatch away their magnanimity and generosity.

A village in Punjab comes alive in the novel. The novel starts during the British era and ends in independent India. But the transition to independence is barely noticeable and I learnt of it only through the pointers shown in the introduction. The total lack of focus on the change in rule is one of the powerful messages of the novel. I may not put it amongst the greatest novels I have read, but it is definitely memorable for the subject it deals with and the doughty protagonist it created.

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