His collections of poems were published by some of the Naxalite publishers (usually a one- man publishing house) in those little pocket book size booklets of thirty or forty pages, with a gray or brown cover that gave them the deceptive look of a bygone age, even when the booklets were printed recently. The inside pages were generally whiter, and smelled fresh.
Lal Singh Dil’s poems that I read then were generally short, and I knew little of his background. It was even rumoured that he had died and that a news item had been published regarding his death. There was one particular poem that invoked Guru Gobind Singh. I had then wondered why Guru Gobind, and why not Baba Nanak.
Slowly, as I turned away from my armchair fascination for the movement and got embroiled with the ‘softer’ versions of the Left, Lal Singh Dil became another forgotten recess in the labyrinthine passages of growing up.
Paash, a contemporary of Dil, and a poet with much wider appeal, somehow did not appeal initially, though later, when my reading expanded, I could appreciate a poem here and a metaphor there. I found his poetry to be very raw- so was Dil’s in some ways- but I felt more detached from Paash than from Dil. Surjit Pattar was suave compared to any of them.
It was much later that I became aware of the Dalit element in his persona and poetry. I had myself arrived by then at a better appreciation of the need and significance of the Dalit movement, after an long drawn “ideological struggle” with my friends- and a particular father- figure of a teacher- who emphasized the class nature of conflcit denying caste and other factors, but specially caste.
It came as news to me that Dil had fled to Uttar Pradesh after the police reprisals in the seventies, and that he had converted to Islam. And that he was Dalit.
His writings may have been inspired in the heat of the times, in the shadow of the flames of the Naxalbari uprising, but the light from his, and those of others of the “Naxalite trend” in Punjabi poetry continues to remind us of the struggles that have not yet ended.
When the labourer woman
Roasts her heart on the tawa
The moon laughs from behind the tree
The father amuses the younger one
Making music with bowl and plate
The older one tinkles the bells
Tied to his waist
And he dances
These songs do not die
Nor either the dance…
Lal Singh Dil has an insightful observation on the relevance of Sufism for the Dalits in Punjab.
The impact of Sufism in Punjab, as it exists now, is highly debated. Lal Singh `Dil’, a noted writer, said: “Sufism doesn’t solve anything. It favours Dalits, though, because of their need for a place of refuge.” He added: “Sufism can be defined as a critique of society. That was the root. Although Sufi songs are nice to bond over, they must not be de-contextualised. The logic of this Sufi tradition lies in non-Brahmanical culture, and not in secularism.”
An article on Dil in Punjabi.