It is seldom that a volume of the complete works of a writer in any modern Indian language is brought out in his lifetime. With the publication of “Merian Sarian Kahanian” (Navyug Publishers, Rs 128), this rare tribute is paid to Kulwant Singh Virk, a leading short story writer in Punjabi.

Virk has written 106 short stories over a period of 46 years, or on an average more than two a year. Not much. But the point is that a short story carrying a Virk tag never disappoints a discriminating reader. He takes to his pen sparingly but convincingly.

It is more than a decade since he won the Sahitya Akademi award and he has been telling his admirers that he has given up writing, that he has “dried up”, that he has nothing more to communicate. As he says, he still comes out with an occasional short story only because “I am conscious of the undue recognition bestowed on me and I try to unburden myself of the debt by writing now and then.”

In her introduction to the volume, Ajit Cour calls Virk the Waris Shah of Punjabi short story. A Waris indeed he is, and in more than one sense. He enjoys the same high status in his genre that Waris Shah occupies in poetry, and he is also the “waris” – the inheritor – of the great tradition built by such masters as Sant Singh Sekhon and Mohan Singh.

What I admire most in Virk is his utter lack of pretensions as a creative artist.

“Among the things I long for is freedom, I mean, I should sit the way I like and go where I fancy.”

A number of his stories have already become classics for the precise observation and for portraying the typical folk milieu in the Punjabi language. Belonging to a peasant family, Kulwant Singh has tended cattle and lent a hand in family farming operations. No wonder he is at his best when writing about life in villages. With the exception of his mentor Sant Singh Sekhon, none among contemporary fiction writers can enter the soul of the Punjabi farmer and present his problems with understanding and empathy as Virk does. He has the immeasurable confidence of a son of the soil. He may be utterly wrong, but he invariably sounds convincing. His short stories are interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention and also profound enough to explore human nature, especially of the peasant and other rural folk.

Virk says he has never been able to merge himself in the urban scene although he has lived in cities like Chandigarh and Delhi for years. Not only this, every time he stirs up to take notice of an occurrence in urban, elitist society around him, he carries his characters to the village and fits them in an appropriate rural frame.

Take this plot of “Tooma”. A High Court Judge is infatuated with a charming young girl who appears before him in a case. He unburdens himself to a friend who promptly recalls an incident having a peculiar bearing on the plight of the Judge. Once in his village, the friend says, he was injured on the foot by a calf he was trying to unleash. There was a searing sensation where the skin was torn. He got his superficial wound licked by the calf and the pain disappeared. The judge took the hint and met the girl on some pretext in a restaurant. An hour or so of her company cured the Judge.

At times Virk presents his story in first person singular. It is a highly risky technique though it has the advantage of riveting the reader’s attention. A married man decides to spend a night with his girlfriend in a tourist lodge. There, he learns that his wife had also spent the previous weekend in the same lodge and in the same room with her lover. Narrated in the first person in the form of reminiscence, the story, it is said, put off his wife rather badly.

As there is more than one way of looking at a black bird, so there is more than one way of telling a story. Kulwant Singh Virk is a master in all ways.

Talking about Virk reminds me of Gulzar Singh Sandhu, another follower of Sant Singh Sekhon in the realm of fiction. He has, recently, brought out his first novel in Punjabi, “Kandhi Jaye” (Navyug Publishers, Rs 20). A slim volume but an extremely neat story. Neat to the extent of being spruce. Every character is integrated into the theme, and every episode integral. Gulzar Singh, primarily a short story writer, writes with utmost economy.

This is also true of his short stories.

The story is about a foundling ashram in Rudrapati, Tamil Nadu. It narrates the vicissitudes of the life of Krishna and a number of other ashramites. Thanks to the discipline and training in the ashram, all of them are happily settled in life. Krishna marries an American tourist who comes all the way in search of a bride who could give him true love and a happy home.

What distinguishes this novel from the general run of fiction being attempted in Punjabi is the insight it provides into life in the South and the U.S.A. There are vivid pictures of the southern landscape and of the Red Indian Chirokee tribe in America. Krishna’s character emerges in an extremely skilful manner, which speaks volumes of the craft of the author.

Here is a novel that retains its interest without resorting to sentimental love. Gulzar Singh Sandhu has made his debut as a novelist. I hope he keeps it up.

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