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A Bunch of Narcissus and other writings

Jan 6, 2022

Anyone who believes Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI), Gender Based Violence (GBV) et al are modern buzz words – must read A Bunch of Narcissus and other writings by nonagenarian Surjit Sarna. A no holds barred visceral account of growing up in Lahore, the partition and adapting to the new home. She weaves in patriarchy, feudalism, caste system, depravity, urban decadence and yes, the exploitative dynamics of environmental degradation in the countryside.

Surjit Sarna is a poet, short story writer and translator. Sarna has also contributed to a three-part play Kafle besides writing a biographical memoir. Her strengths lie in the sensitive portrayal of emotion and her ability to capture a small moment to enter into wider psychological probing. Not afraid of emotions, she confronts them without inhibition. Her attention to historical events traces the history of India from the early forties to the present.

Here are some excerpts from the stories I wish to particularly highlight:

Court Hearing

It is Surjit’s empathy and willingness to listen and help all and sundry which makes her the magnet for the exploited and needy. ‘Perhaps Mummy is thinking of fighting elections. This has become a centre for beaten and battered wives!’ That is what her young kids thought she could be up to.

What can I say, I’m helpless; it’s in my blood. I do pretend to be tough and worldly, but I can’t keep up the sham for too long, writes Surjit. There is no servant or maid in the entire mohalla who can’t be found here some time or the other, even at odd hours.

When there is a timid, scared, soft rap at the door, I know – this is someone who has come to see me. They are afraid to even knock on the door sharply. I myself take hurried steps to open the door so that no one else can hear me.”

Pushpa, the maid and her daughters are sharing their harrowing woes with Surjit when Pushpa’s husband turns up. Mona, one of the daughters, pleads with Surjit: Keep me here; I will do all your work.

Her father turned red with rage and raised his hand as if to slap her, ‘Are you coming or not, you ill-begotten ones? Why don’t you get up…you call yourself their mother?’

‘I am their mother, no doubt about it; and you have proved your fatherliness by molesting them, haven’t you, you shameless man? You have ruined my innocent, tender girls!’

And she began to scream and wail. Now I did not tell her to hush. Such misfortunes have to be wept over. For a few moments I had not even understood what she had said. I went numb. It was as if the earth under my feet had heaved. Is he a father?!

Surjit Sarna: What can I say, I’m helpless; it’s in my blood. I do pretend to be tough and worldly, but I can’t keep up the sham for too long.

The confrontation lands them with the police.

And now we are sitting at the police station. The policemen are making lewd remarks and sniggering. The gaze of the inspector pierces right through the girls. And this bastard! He’s sitting like one who can’t hurt a fly! Speaking in a low, meek voice, hands folded, ‘Maibaap, these girls are immoral. They ruin themselves all day long and I try to bring them back along with their mother and they curse and abuse me, Maibaap! That is the whole matter.’

We’ll get the wickedness out of them right away, and he raises a whip towards the girls.

Their ‘father’ glares at me with fiery eyes.

‘Maibaap, these people have ruined my daughters; they are the ones who have made them work as whores.’

I spring forward again to teach him a lesson. But the inspector looks at me with suspicious eyes and says, “You people go back home. What do you have to do with it; I will straighten them out.’

My husband wants to take me back home forcibly, but I am saying, ‘Where will they get a hearing? Who will give them justice?’

Echoes from the Past

In this tragic tale about Harshi, Surjit articulates: He owned her body and soul, while she had had no existence without him and had been submerged into his shadow.

Daughter, Go Back Home

Suddenly something happened to me as if I had woken up from a coma – I don’t want to die – who is this who is trying to rob me of my right to live? Who is this, who is wreaking such cruelty on me? I tried to push his hand away and he tried to tighten his grip – I couldn’t think – I bit Tarvinder hard on his arm. And he groaned and let go my throat. And thus a daughter rescues herself from a cruel husband.

Brothers inherit mansions and estates; in my fate is exile… Why don’t our people take this song out of our folk songs and bury it somewhere – Daughter, go back home! … Can someone tell me… anyone… which home can they go to?

You May Now Sleep in Peace

Why did her husband not care about her? She never complained perhaps, she accepted it all as destiny and bowed before it. I did not know what she thought about it. But her silence and apprehension were enough for me to draw my conclusions.

Why does a woman hound another woman? She alludes to a Mother-in-law’s disgraceful exploits of the daughter-in-law (Mishri Rani) and wanting to dump the girl grandchild into a dustbin.

Life Sentence

Exploitative ways have no class barrier: He is a well-known lawyer. I only want to ask him one question: Do the innocent get punished in the court of life? Is there a law which permits shattering of dreams – and humbling the other? Is money the biggest miracle in the world? Will women always be unwanted and useless objects?

The Crook

Whither equity: She left the village and shifted to the city. In the city, she washed dirty utensils in people’s houses, but actually she was only scrubbing away the ignorance in Gurmeet’s brain. Yanking out their poverty by the roots. Cutting off their shackles. Liberating her son from a life of deprivation and a feeling of inferiority.

It is not only your stories that I have liked immensely but more than that your style has greatly impressed me. You seem to be one of the few Punjabi writers to use the language so sensitively…

Balraj Sahni, Actor & writer

The End of An Era

Preying vultures: Their own land had become barren because of no rainfall. It had been such a bad drought that the jaws of death had been opened wide. First, they had to sell their shack. When they still had not been able to make ends meet, they had mortgaged their land in the village to the merchant in the village and turned towards the city, where there was work – there was grain, suffering and exploitation at every step.

The book gives graphic insights into her courage to lead whenever she could, rather than turn a blind eye. Surjit Sarna has been championing these causes for the last seven decades. Perhaps well ahead of the West even waking up to them. Each story shakes you to the core and raises questions whose answers we continue to seek.

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One Comment
  1. V Raghunathan permalink

    What a lovely lovely and touching post!

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