Kids Corner


Unni Sau Chaurasi:
Harbhajan Singh’s
Poetry of Nineteen-Eighty-Four







UNNI SAU CHAURASI: POEMS & ESSAYS, by Harbhajan Singh. Edited by Amarjit Singh Chandan. Chetna Parkashan, East Punjab, 2017, pp 127, Rs 200.



Punjab has been living with an injured soul since its annexation by the British colonialists in 1849. Punjabis were divided, reduced, and humiliated for the century and a half that followed and accelerated efforts were repeatedly made to partition their collective heritage and culture along reductionist religious lines.

However, the collective cultural-spiritual thread among Punjabis could never be fully broken.

When the Indian army stormed The Darbar Sahib in June 1984, it was not only the Sikhs who felt that pain and humiliation, their fellow Punjabis on the west side of the border experienced it as well.

Late Afzal Ahsan Randhawa’s poem Navãṉ Ghalughãra (The Latest Holocaust) written on June 9, 1984 is a testament to that feeling.

This pain was aggravated when an anti-Sikh pogrom across India was organised and launched by the then ruling political party. After Indira Gandhi’s execution by her own body-guards, a nation-wide genocide of Sikhs led by Hindu mobs was unleashed and went unchecked, beginning with the first week of November 1984, and continuing in the decade that followed.

Indira Gandhi was marketed to the Hindu populace as ‘Mother India’ when, on her direct orders, the destruction of the Akal Takht and a massacre of thousands of Sikh pilgrims was carried out within the Darbar Sahib complex by a full-fledged army assault.

Poet Harbhajan Singh remembered her in the following words: “Jay jay maata jay matrai / Jagg tay hoNi nah tairay jahi/Harminder di karran juhaari/tu aaeeṉ karr tank svaari”.

He rhymed again: “Maaṉ aiṉ jaaṉ matrai / Saanu wadh kay dhuppay suttya / naalay aakheeṉ zakhmaaṉ walya / aa tainu mallham lagaawaaṉ”.

Unni Sau Churasi (1984) is a collection of 48 poems by Harbhajan Singh (1920-2002) about the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. This book also includes three of his essays, taken from his autobiography Chola taakiaaN waala; 1994, and one short interview.

‘Unni Sau Churasi’ is a remarkable collection but after reading Harbhajan Singh’s three essays about 1984 reproduced in this book, I felt his prose was more touching, magical, and poetic than his poetry. His Ghazalia style rhyming choices, at times, worked against him and his thematic concerns. I wondered why he didn’t prefer composing these poems in the form of Dholas, our free verse folk genre that opens with expressions like Kaal Bulaindi or Kanni Bundday and is recited as a vaiN narrating pre-and post-war trauma alongside stories of courage and compassion.

Amarjit Singh Chandan has edited and introduced this book with an insightful and must-read introduction. Award-winning filmmaker Gurvinder Singh designed the book cover.

This is the first time that all these poems are being published as a collection and the credit goes to Amarjit and Harbhajan Singh’s family for allowing these to be published. Fear of state oppression may be one reason that these poems took so long to be published as a book.

Harbhajan Singh himself indirectly pointed this out in one of his essays while talking about the publisher of Aarsi magazine, Bhapa Pritam Singh, who declined to publish one of his 1984 poems titled ‘Jay jay maata jay matrai’.

Harbhajan Singh spent his childhood years in Ichhra, Lahore and after Partition settled in Delhi. He wrote more than 50 books of Punjabi and taught for Delhi University’s Department of Modern Indian languages programme. He belonged to that small group of intellectuals who were against extreme positions of both the Indian state and the Sikh resistance fighters.

He conveyed that openly in his poems: “Nah Bullehia assiṉ Bhindranwalay / nah assiṉ Indiraaṉ waalay” or “Iknaa har kay bandday kohay / Ikna har kay Manddir / dohaaṉ day wich koi nah aisa / jiss nu apNa kehyyay”.

When Deputy Inspector General of Police (‘DIG’) of Jalandhar, A.S Atwal (known to be the author of extra-judicial killings - ‘fake encounters‘), was shot dead at the entrance of Golden Temple on April 25, 1983, it was Harbhajan Singh who wrote these lines: “Eh anhoNi taiṉ darr hoee / dharram kodharram nitaaro / tairi deohRi daagh pia hay / Kirpa sehat utaaro.

Like many Sikh intellectuals, it was during the events of 1984 that Harbhajan Singh for the first time was forced to think about his Sikh identity. He expressed this grievously and openly in his essays and poems: “Karamat hay aakhir umray / Kaafir rabb nu dhe’aaya / Main kaafar di sodh lai tu apNa ghar dhatthwaya.”

During this pain, he recalled his Lahore too: “Mannia eh shehr Lahore nahin/ par sawwa pehr da qehr taaN hay.”

Harbhajan Singh was one of the few Punjabi writers whose poetry challenged the powers responsible for causing destruction to Punjab and its people. There were many others like Amrita Pritam who didn’t utter a single word against those atrocities, rather they went to accept political nominations and material privileges from the country’s rulers. Amrita Pritam used to keep Indira Gandhi’s photo by her bedside claiming that she and Indira were sisters in the previous incarnation.

In the face of such brutal state and majoritarian oppression, Harbhajan Singh dared to invoke the spirit of Shah Muhammad’s Jang Hind Punjab and Waris Shah’s eternal lines where Shah clearly separates Punjab from Hind in these words: Surma nainaaṉ di dhaar vich phabh rehyya / ChaRhya Hind tay Kattak Punjab da ji.

Harbhajan Singh also echoed this historical division which has always been part of the Punjabi psyche where lines are drawn between Punjab and the Delhi (Dilli) Sarkar.

He wrote: “Faujan koN des tu ahead / kehRay des tu zehr lay’ayaaṉ … Dilli nay jadd Ambarsar tay / Jamm kar hukm Chalaya … Rani’ay Rani’ay kikkar nu kaho kaaṉ udaaway / Nahi taaṉ kikkar wadhaN khaatir / waadhi turya aaway.”

Harbhajan Singh also elaborates about Baywatni and Badwatni, Des and Kudes. He went to the extent of writing that: “I may have felt less pained if I was a Jew in Nazi Germany than being held hostage as a Sikh here … Baywatni tu kittay wadh dukh badwatni da see”.

He couldn’t forget the voices of the murdering Hindu mobs looking for Sikh heads outside his half-built Delhi house where he was caged during the first week of November. He rhymed in rage describing these mobs as barking dogs: “Raat Kujh Bhaonkday kuttay see tay khamoshi see / Koi talwaar sirr uttay see tay khamoshi see … Galli tay kuttay achaanak bhaonk pa’ay / Ajnabi wangoon maiṉ apnay ghar gya.”

Harbhajan Singh termed Operation Blue Star as JarhaaN waala PhoRa (A cancerous tumour) and narration of his personal agony and suffering made my eyes wet too. While passing through this dark lonely sadness, he coined another term Dhurdes where he talks about damage caused by the Indian army to the Punjabi psyche (not only to the Sikh psyche). Dhurdes is an abstract, ambiguous but such a poetic term which can be loosely translated as deepest aspects of sensibility, collective subconscious, image of the memory of a far off land that is free of bigotry and hate.

Harbhajan Singh was quite clear about the role of literature and poetry when confronted by such harsh realities. He wrote in his diary that literature exists somewhere between speech and silence. Speech that shouldn’t become noise and silence that could be heard. In the darkness of 1984, he grievously invoked his Gurus with love, longing and sadness of a helpless, stateless soul.

I am sure he was heard, not only by his Gurus but by all of us Punjabis grieving in a timeless wounded zone: “Shaam pai taaṉ satt gur baithay / ikko deewa baal kay / Vaikho Jaabar lay nah jaaway / Patt parteet sanbhaal kay … Aj di raat kissay nai saoNa, haalay dṳr Shaheedi hay.

[Courtesy: The News on Sunday. Edited for]
October 23, 2017

Conversation about this article

Comment on "Unni Sau Chaurasi:
Harbhajan Singh’s
Poetry of Nineteen-Eighty-Four"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.