IT is almost a year now since Dalip Kaur Tiwana left us. This is a personal tragedy for all who knew her, her friends and family with whom she shared her life. It is a measure of her achievement, and her deep impact, that this loss is so felt even by those of us who knew her less, or even not at all.
For, she was known to us through her words, through the books that she wrote and the stories she composed, the lives she wove into words and pages, and the voices and worlds she captured and described. And through the ideas that she presented before us, and forced us to consider.
She was unlike many other writers, in that there was not one voice, not one aspect of our complex and varied lives, that she made hers through the telling. She wrote of women often, but certainly not only. She wrote of the spirit, but also the trials and limitations of the body. Of the frailty of the human spirit, of cruelty and violence, and of the fragile possibility of hope. She wrote of the Gurus and of their wives and mothers; she told a history of the Sikh tradition through their eyes, words and deeds. She told us of honour, of anger, of pride, and of generosity. And she wrote about families and individuals, and how each are riven to each other, neither complete without the other.
Those of you who know her work may recognise some of the specific ones I have in mind, in mentioning these features — although these themes and more echo through many works. I think of ‘Mata Dharti Mahatu’ (The Greatness of the Mother Earth) of 2014, told from the perspective of the women important to Guru Gobind Singh. We see the meanings of devotion, of what a woman’s position can mean, both in relation to a man and in her own terms. There is ‘Katha Kaho Urvashi’ (Tell Us a Tale, Urvashi), published in 1999, which explores in depth the lives of individuals wedded together by blood as well as marriage, by birth and by choice. We live with them through their trials and their failures, and through the terms of their transformation.
In these works, we do see continuing interest in women’s lives, so well known to readers in her early works such as ‘Eho Hamara Jeevna’, which Prof Harjant Gill in 1980 called “a creative exercise in women’s lib, or an anthropomorphic [sic] statement on feminine condition in the lower class peasantry of the Punjab, or an exploration in existential anthropology of this region”, or all three of these things at the same time perhaps.
We also have her autobiographical works, the first of which — ‘Nange Pairan da Safar’ (A Journey on Bare Feet) — explored her debts to the women of her family, and her path to becoming a writer. These works in all their different forms retain an interest in women’s lives, but not only in the sense of their experience of exclusion and violence — as real as that so often is. Dr Tiwana was absolutely clear in her interviews, as she was in her work, about the relative lack of power women have in society. But she did not limit her exploration of women’s and men’s lives to this dimension. She was concerned with the whole person, male and female, alone and in relationships. With what makes for meaning and promise in life, and what makes for disappointment and loss. And with that which can allow us to transcend our circumstances and allow us to become more.
This is why this loss, the loss of this voice, is profound. And we must mark its passing. For those of us relatively new to Punjabi as a language and as literature, like myself, or for those for whom it is their language of birth, life and death — for all of us, this is a passing that is a great loss. Her voice shall be missed dearly.
We must recognise this loss for what it is, and endeavour all the more to do justice to her work and her vision: to recognise the inequalities of our time, the complexities of our lives, and — as ever — to embrace the beauty and complexity of the Punjabi language, and the literature that expresses it.
I have chosen here to embrace the creative spirit and diversity of voices that Dr Tiwana articulated through her works. I could write it in a different way: there are her accomplishments as Professor and former Dean (Faculty of Languages) at Punjabi University, Patiala, and the many awards she received, both at the university (such as her appointment as UGC National Lecturer for a year) or beyond, such as the the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1972 for ‘Eho Hamara Jeevna’, the Nanak Singh Puruskar for her novel ‘Peele Patian di Dastan’ in 1980 and Gurmukh Singh Musafir Puruskar for her autobiography ‘Nange Pairan da Safar’ in 1982. There is also the Shiromani Sahitkar Award from the Punjab Government in 1987, and the Best Novelist of the Decade Award from Punjabi Academy, Delhi, in 1994.
There are more that could be added. The list of her works is too long to be included here. I discuss a very small number of these many works above. What is all the more striking is Dr Tiwana’s position in the first generation of modern Punjabi writers moving out from the colonial era, through the trauma of Partition, and in and on to the present. She was a leader in so many ways.
These are her achievements in concrete terms, and these are significant. But what she captured in language and in character, and idea: this is what will stay with me, for the rest of my life.
— The writer teaches at the University of British Columbia