Tuesday, January 09, 2018

A Tribute to a Teachers' Teacher

Prof. Pritam Singh Ji
As a life long industrious student of the various disciplines of humanities with particular focus on world literature as my post graduation; spirituality in humanity as family heritage and International Relations as my profession, I have always deemed myself as one of the most privileged disciples of Professor Pritam Singh Ji (Jan. 11, 1918 - Nov. 25, 2008), without ever attending his formal class! He had indeed become the tall human tower - a light house in Patiala - as an  eminent teacher and an extraordinary, an encyclopedic, scholar of not only Punjabi language and literature but the entire range of the composite cultural and literary heritage of humanity.

Prof. Pritam Singh had been an inspiration for generations of students of Punjabi literature till he breathed his last. He was one of the stalwarts among teachers who had been a witness, as a bright student with the most meager means, to the best of the 'un-partitioned' - of the Five Rivers - Punjab. For me, he signified an era - that is no more - of the most enlightening literary pursuits in Punjabi. He had come to personify a rare dedication to bring alive the glory of Punjabi, cutting across all the narrow divides of the dangerous mix of religion and politics with the mother tongue of the brave Punjabis. I was indeed  singularly fortunate to be in his close contact-in the ancient Guru-Shishya tradition. He remained a 'Pole Star' of guidance for me in the matters of our deeply shared mutual interests in the global contexts of languages, literature and all the myriad faiths of the people.

I vividly recall how, as a student of B.A. in the D.A.V. College Jalandhar - some time around November, 1962 - I had the first Darshan - a face to face glimps - of Professor Pritam Singh. He was presiding over an important meeting of the Kendriya Punjabi Lekhak Sabha. The meeting had soon degenerated into an uproar of noisy shouts with even the signs of clenched fists for physical fighting- between the dominant progressive writers led by the veteran Marxist S.S. Sekhon and the silver-tongued orator Comrade Jagjit Singh Anand on the one side and the promising upcoming exponents of the new-wave-experimental Poetry including Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia and Sukhpalvir Singh Hasrat. Professor Pritam Singh, impressively attired in black achkan and chooridar, reprimanded them all in chaste Punjabi, using even typically strong phrases like 'Kanwarauli, kanjarkhana, kuttekhani', etc.  The eloquence, tactfulness and firmness displayed by the Professor from Patiala had the desired effect and it turned out to be a memorable session of lively discussions interspersed with sparkling and learned interventions of wit and humour by the Chair. I, an undergraduate student, had become an anonymous life long admirer of this Professor from Patiala for his radiant charm, scholarship and unshakeable belief in order and discipline.

It was, however,  as a student of M.A. (English) in the Government College - with no needless S.C.D. prefix then - Ludhiana, perhaps, in October 1964, that I read Balwant Gargi's pen-portrait of Professor Pritam Singh in Aarsi, then a popular Punjabi monthly, alas, has ceased publication since May, 2000. Gargi, in his inimitable style laced with subtle satire and humour, had referred to the rare qualities of Professor Pritam Singh as an 'obsessed' researcher of the old manuscripts of the Punjabi language and the evolution of the Gurmukhi script. Around the same time; Professor Pritam Singh had been transferred to the College as Head of the Punjabi Department.

Prof. Pritam had been assigned by Principal K.S. Thapar, interestingly, to deliver lectures for all the students of the College, in the main lecture hall now named after old student Sahir, on the themes of National Integration, introduced under a scheme of Government of India in the wake of war with China. Again, Professor Pritam Singh was at his best both in oration and the subject matter. One day, I gathered enough courage to speak to him requesting him to visit my home to meet my father and have a look at various hand written old books in Gurmukhi in our family.  He indeed gracefully agreed and visited our home in Ahmedgarh on Jan. 24, 1964. He had an engaging exchange of views with my father, an Ayurved practitioner and a scholar of Sanskrit and classical literature. I also arranged his meeting with my school teacher Shri Ashni Kumar, a Lahore educated reputed learned man. Professor Pritam Singh wrote to me a post-card, in English, thanking me for arranging the visit and praised my teacher as a person of, 'deep scholarship and disarming courtesy' - the last phrase was indeed an ever lasting lesson for me and made me his dedicated disciple for life.

The time rolled on, I passed my M.A. in English and was delighted to achieve my dream of becoming a lecturer, first in DAV College, Jalandhar and later on Govt. College, Bathinda. It was as a lecturer in Bathinda that my contact was re-established with Professor Pritam Singh. I had to accompany another respected scholarly personality, Professor Harmandar Singh, an eminent teacher of Political Science, who had also been transferred to Bathinda, for his meeting with Professor Pritam Singh, then Principal of Government College, Faridkot. It was in November, 1968 and the time of elections to the Punjab University Senate / Syndicate. Professor Harmander Singh was upset that Principal Pritam Singh had switched to the constituency of Registered Graduates instead of the Principals, making a clash between the two great old friends inevitable. It was a mix of tension and learning for me to be a listener to the arguments between the two of my most respected Professors. After lengthy discussions, Professor Pritam Singh appeared to have convinced Professor Harmander Singh that there was sufficient space for victory for both of them in the larger constituency of the Registered Graduates. While walking with us to the Railway Station to see us off, in the 'rush of the continued arguments', he also decided to accompany us to Bathinda. We had to speak to the Guard that, in a hurry, we could not buy the tickets. Reaching Bathinda, I went to the guard to pay him the amount of tickets. Professor Pritam Singh, with a twinkle of an eye and a trade mark smile, said to the guard, "Badshaho, Eh Jhoote Tan Hoon Tohadi Bakshish 'ch hi aouon dio – let this swing-ride be under your kingly generosity!" The guard also laughed heartily and we came out thanking him. Around the time of the dinner, I requested Professor Pritam Singh that we should go to the nearby restaurant. He replied that he had his dinner in train when he was eating the 'Chholia', i.e., the green-peas of grams, taken directly from the plants!

There was again a long interruption in our correspondence after I joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1971 and moved to Delhi and many postings abroad. It was during my posting as the Deputy High Commissioner in the neighbouring Pakistan (September, 1992 - November, 1994) that we could resume our intense interaction, particularly in the context of the preparation Punjabi Lekhak Kosh – Directory of Punjabi Writers. I could contact several Punjabi writers and activists in Lahore and Islamabad to collate information for inclusion in the Directory. Prof. Pritam Singh was gracious to mention my name in the list of the persons who helped him in compiling the book which was published in 2003. Prof. Pritam Singh always replied at length to my letters regarding my observations on the shared heritage of the Punjabis and how the bond of language could be strengthened in the face of evolving complex and challenging circumstances. He had a large circle of friends and admirers in Pakistan and his deep knowledge of Persian and Urdu languages proved an immense asset as a bridge between the two Punjabs and the national and international forums..

It was after reading my long letter, in Punjabi, 'Battan Beete Vareh dian - Matters of the Year that is past', circulated in December, 1995 to my close circle of friends that he specifically directed me that I should seriously plan to write about my experiences, in Punjabi, when I am free from the burden and worries of the Service. In view of his failing eye sight, the correspondence got restricted and confined to brief and urgent e-mails. After my retirement in 2004, I availed the privilege of speaking to him more often  whenever there was some matter of mutual interest. He would again remind me of the promise I had made with him to write in Punjabi. I once said, 'Sir, there is so of much high quality writings available to read, it becomes difficult to discipline oneself and find a time to write'. He smiled and retorted, 'that is the tragedy of Punjabi, Bal Anand Ji... those who should be writing, say they have no time from reading; but those who should be reading more, go on writing more and more!'

Meeting on Jan. 11, 1999 - 81st Birthday of Prof. Pritam Singh

My last meeting with Professor Pritam Singh took place in the late evening of 1st October, 2008. He appeared some what frail and time - worn but his profundity of expression, smile and laughter were indeed as intact as ever. I had presented to him 'Diwan-e-Hafiz' brought from Iran - the 'Blue book' in the picture and my write-up in Punjabi on the popular 'Chhapar Fair of Punjab' and my recent columns on Urdu poets and scholar A.J. Zaidi and Ahmad Faraz. We touched upon the current educational and cultural scene in Punjab and in the country. When I took leave of him, he persisted in walking with me the up to the main gate. I mentioned to him - at the door step - that Panth must think of establishing a museum of letters, with name, 'Zafar Namah Sahib Bhawan', inviting Punjabis all over the world to donate letters on the themes of literature and culture of Punjab - to be scientifically preserved there.

I penned my last letter to Professor Pritam Singh, on 24th of October, a day before his joining the company of the immortals, sending it care of his daughter Doctor Harshinder Kaur so that she might read it out to him. The Destiny of this letter was fated  to be different - reaching him on the address far, far beyond his earthly abode! I salute this angel of a Teacher on his birth centenary - he indeed radiated knowledge and nobility with every word spoken by him!

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