Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Book Review: The Ballad Of Bant Singh

Asi jar na julm di chhadni, sadi bhave jar na rahe
(We will uproot oppression, even if they eliminate us along with the roots).

—Sant Ram Udasi

Some day, a folk poet will write the story of Bant Singh into legend. Until then he’ll sing it himself. Singh, a fan of (revolutionary poet) Sant Ram Udasi, is now a fiery protest poet, the resonance and depth in his voice untouched by the violence," wrote Nilanjana S. Roy in a curtain-raiser that she co-authored for the Business Standard ahead of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2011. Her words have come true in the form of poet-journalist Nirupama Dutt’s Ballad Of Bant Singh, in which each chapter is preluded by Udasi’s verse.

Qissa, a fable or tale characteristic of feudal Punjab, is an apt title for the tale of a Dalit agrarian labourer. Dutt’s narrative is straightforward—reportage peppered with her own experiences and references. The chapter on Singh’s daughter, who was raped, is titled “The Colour Violet"—the colour she was wearing that day; it also reminds one of a similarly titled Alice Walker novel about the abuse of young women.

While this is Singh’s story, it is also the story of Punjab—the good, the bad and the ugly. Tangential references are woven in: Whether it’s the landlord-farm labourer relationship, Bhagat Singh’s sacrifice, the Khalistan movement, Naxalite movements, Operation Blue Star, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the birth of Sikhism, Guru Nanak’s “casteless society", Guru Gobind Singh, Ram Das, Bhai Jaita and the inclusion of Dalits (or Mazhabi Sikhs) into the Khalsa. These references, the history lessons that come in no particular order, impede the pace of the narrative, but Singh’s story cannot be told in isolation.

The ultra-left Singh knew no “Marx or Mao", Dutt tells us; for him, the knowledge of “the issues faced by the underprivileged" was enough and “the radicals of the Punjabi soil were his ideals". For the English-educated urban reader, it may not always be easy to understand what it takes to lead the life of the oppressed, or why a Dalit’s “touch" or “shadow" has an upper-caste recipient scurrying towards a purification ceremony—and why it claims from the Dalit an arm and a leg.

Well, two arms and a leg in Singh’s case. He was an eyesore for upper-caste Jats: dressing like them, rejoicing at a girl’s birth and educating her, raising his voice against oppression, dragging to court Jat boys and getting them convicted for raping his daughter (the first Dalit in Punjab to do so successfully). Despite being maimed, he survived, and his protest songs grew louder, the spirit of “the singing torso" indefatigable.

“What, after all, does a Dalit labourer have?" writes the author, “...neither money nor influence. All he has is his own body, which he must use to earn a livelihood. And...the Dalit woman, is…seen as an object of casual, easy abuse." In Singh’s and his daughter’s case, it was their bodies that became the site of oppression.

“Bol, ke lab azad hain tere (Speak, for your words are free)," wrote Faiz Ahmed Faiz—and now Bant Singh is living them. And thus, the subaltern speaks: “I still have my tongue; they can’t stop my songs," Singh said in the TV show Chords Of Change and in Sanjay Kak’s documentary film on him.

For Dutt, resistance narrative and protest literature is not a new area; especially after her translation of Lal Singh Dil: Poet Of The Revolution. In this book, Singh is more than a subject of inquiry. He is a friend, a confidant. Her language might be journalistic, but the engagement is personal. In her own words, Dutt plays “a (James) Boswell to Bant", and a jolly good one at that. “The years spent writing the story of Bant were an intense journey, replete with poetry and pain," she confesses.

Stories of such individuals make up the story of a nation. And that’s why we need writers like Dutt to unearth them.

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