THE UNFORGETTABLE MR VIRK

Kulwant Singh Virk, who died recently, will long be remembered by literature buffs as a brilliant short-story writer. But to those who knew him and were touched by his gentle genius, as NIRUPAMA DUTT recounts, he was a precious friend and a tremendous source of encouragement.


KULWANT SINGH VIRK was, to most of us, not just the name of writer who made people real to themselves in his short stories which will live a long life. He was a vibrant, laughing, handsome man who put his talent in his works and his genius went to life.

A writer of a towering stature which went well with his own tall, well-made frame, Virk’s remarkability lay in the fact that he would say very little of himself or his work. He spoke more of the works of others, he spoke more of his people and his land — the Punjab. And Virk was to us a piece of the precious Punjab — a man who loved his land, his people.

Others may have a greater authority or research on the history, society and politics of Punjab but with Virk it was an instinct which would never fail. And he took pains to share this instinct with others; to transmit the feel for the soil and its people to all those who came into contact with his work or life.

“Drink as much of Punjab as possible, and then it will take care of your writing.” This was Virk’s friendly suggestion to many a young writer.

Yes, Virk always came out with suggestions, never advice. It never was like Virk to get pedantic in his speech or writings. He picked out the most simple and the most commonplace subjects and wove them into a valuable piece of art — a gift essential to a writer of the short story. So he described the unforgettable “Chacha”.

“Though Chacha was older to our father, we still called him Chacha. Perhaps the reason for this was that he was a bachelor. Many times I would console him saying there were less women than men in Punjab so some men had to remain unmarried. But this explanation failed to satisfy him. All the men in the village were married; all had daughters and daughters-in-law, so he never saw that there was famine of women as such.

And in few lines Virk unfolded before the reader, his Punjab, its social life and its characters. His was the Punjab of villages; his own village was left behind in Pakistan. In the past few years Virk’s passion was to go back to the village and write a novel. He never could go to the village and the novel was never written.

But never mind the novel, never even mind the death, though it is a grave loss to his family, friends and admirers, what one does mind is the silence which struck our laughing darling Mr Virk.

The last few years of Virk were years of illness. First it was a heart attack but Virk came through that a little weaker but himself, nevertheless. It was paralysis which confined him to the bed and made him lose the power of speech. It was in this period that Virk started keeping people away but the closest of relatives and friends. And once in a while one read something about him — a poetic piece by Ajeet Cour in which she described him “Nikki Kahani Da Badshah” or a long article by Gul Chauhan called “Virk Di Chup Nall Ki Mulakaat”.

I never met Virk during his years of sickness for many unavoidable reasons. I felt guilty then, for I had received from him great encouragement and warmth. But now I think it is just as well. I will never remember our Mr Virk as ailing, helpless or see the pain writ large on the face of his beautiful wife, and lovely daughters. His wife nursed him to the last keeping a brave front and trying to make a joke of it before him while she shed tears the moment she came out of the sick room.

No, I will not remember all that. I will remember him tall and handsome, in an immaculate suit of a light grey or buff colour. Mr Virk relating the juiciest of literary gossip or coming to have a cup of tea in the Express canteen and bringing with him a fine article for the Saturday page. We were, very often, the proud recipients of his articles in English which he wrote with a fantastic flair for the language though he would laugh and say — “Writing in English is an arduous task. I cannot write too much in English.”

But what he wrote is still fresh in the memory — he would write of Punjabi literary meets or writers’ drinking bouts. He would write home articles from his travels which read so like letters coming from Britain or Canada. He would very often give story ideas to reporters but never seek a word for himself. I may have met him a hundred times but I never interviewed him. It was a series of meetings which said more than could his tape recorded interviews.

It was while doing an article on writers in the Punjab Secretariat that I first met him. 

There were other writers there but he stood there a giant among pygmies smiling and saying, “Bureaucracy and writing cannot go together. I will write only after I am out of the secretariat. Let’s talk of your writing instead…” 

He said this while the other writers there made out that bureaucracy was the greatest gift to creativity.

And once one got to know Mr Virk better, one started to take little liberties and he not only allowed these with the grace of one who can take a joke but also enjoyed it. 

When the Punjab Arts Council gave him an award, one noticed that the white streak in his brown beard had shifted a little and he replied, “Well, I keep trying out these designs to see which will look the best.” 

He wasn’t the one to be shy of admitting to brown hair dye or purple for that matter. And then came a time when he stopped dying his beard.

It was not just the heart attack but the turmoil in Punjab which took away much of his laughter. 

I remember him sitting in the shabby Express canteen pondering over a cup of oversweet tea and he said, “No, I am not writing. In Punjab one can’t think at the moment of short stories or novels.” 

Virk had experienced earlier, the pain of 1947 and in a story written of the devastation of the partition, he had said that the blades of grass come out nevertheless green and fresh and so goes the cycle of life and time.

Mr Virk, it is a hard task to write on you now! Believe me, it isn’t easy, for one is almost tempted to say that he was a man of a vanishing tribe. Will still men be made like him? The pain of the moment may compel one to say that no there never will be a man like him. But then that would not be so, he too wouldn’t have liked it — he who believed so much in the continuity of life, powers to resurrect and make a new. No there will be men like him in other places at other times. The heart warms up to think that some day, somewhere there will be another Mr Virk telling a jittery, club reporter that… “let’s talk of your writing instead.”

And this, Mr Virk, is no obituary. No one, I am sure would have wanted to write one. That’s why the newspapers took time. It is no easy task to write obituaries to those whom one has loved. So this is just a letter that got delayed. It wasn’t written to you during your helpless days of sickness for one would not have liked to bring a tear to your eyes. Never mind the tears in our eyes.

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