Bedi at a hundred

Raza Naeem pays homage to Punjab's grand old man of letters, Rajinder Singh Bedi

Bedi at a hundred
He would have been a hundred years old this year. But the writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, seems to have comfortably escaped the critical stereotyping that has marred (and continues to mar) the work of his contemporaries: Manto, caught between Partition and sex; Krishan Chander, a prisoner of his commitment to socialist realism and class struggle; and Ismat Chughtai, pigeonholed as a chronicler of the women of the Indian Muslim middle class. There are many reasons to read and reread Bedi’s slim but compact oeuvre on the centenary of his birth. A contemporary of numerous comrades from the Progressive Writers Association (PWA), there is much that unites him with – and distinguishes him from – his illustrious peers.

Bedi’s oeuvre fell short of the sheer prodigiousness that became a hallmark of Manto, Chander and Chughtai. Over almost seventy years, Bedi wrote about eighty short stories spread across eight collections, one novella and two collections of plays. Yet, he has achieved literary immortality on the strength of this ‘meagre’ output. Why? One reason is offered by Manto in a letter addressed to Bedi, which the latter mentions in his essay The Story-writing Experience and Creative Problems of Expression: “Bedi! Your problem is that you think too much. It seems that you think before writing, while writing and even after writing.”

Bedi's script for 'Garam Coat' (1955) was adapted from Gogol's short story 'The Overcoat'
Bedi's script for 'Garam Coat' (1955) was adapted from Gogol's short story 'The Overcoat'

"Bedi! Your problem is that you think too much … before writing, while writing and even after writing"

The second reason for Bedi’s relatively small output in contrast to his contemporaries is his active involvement with Indian cinema. In the mid-20th century, it was given for most rising young writers to associate themselves with the film industry by writing lyrics, dialogues and screenplays. Manto, Chander and Chughtai dabbled in this too, as did prominent Progressive poets such as Sahir Ludhianvi, Majaz Lakhnawi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri. Bedi not only became actively involved in more than a dozen art (or what he called ‘social’) films, but also their modest success went on to solidify his reputation as the ‘father of Indian parallel cinema.’

Bedi removed himself from the literary style favoured before him not only by Prem Chand, the father of the Indian short story, but also by his two prominent contemporaries, Chander and Manto. A number of things stand out in Bedi’s stories. The first is his use of Indian mythological symbols and metaphors, which he uses to devastating effect to combat superstition, out-dated religious customs and the oppression of women in their name. Masterpieces such as Grahan (Eclipse), Rahman ke Jootay (Rahman’s Shoes) and Apne Dukh Mujhe De Do (Give Me Your Sorrows) are good examples of his craftsmanship.

Luminaries Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Noushad, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, R D Burman - Courtesy Rashid Ashraf
Luminaries Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Noushad, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, R D Burman - Courtesy Rashid Ashraf

Second, Bedi’s stories are memorable because of the plight of their heroines: women who are victimized by caste, feudalism, lust and patriarchy, but who also harbour sexual desire in their myriad roles as lover, mother, wife, daughter and sister. In the eponymous story, Bedi created the immortal character of Lajwanti, who is subjected to the animal passions of perfectly ‘normal’ men motivated by the religious fanaticism or sexual desire unleashed by the communal horrors of Partition in 1947. But Lajwanti refuses to submit to her fate as the abducted wife now forced to live across the border in Pakistan. She wants to be rehabilitated and accepted as a loving wife when she is repatriated, and expects her husband to listen to her tale of woe and resilience. Bedi, who has often been criticized for not writing ‘enough’ about the horrors of Partition, seems to have produced a definitive artistic statement in this short story, which rivals counterparts such as Manto’s Khol Do (Open It), Toba Tek Singh and Siyah Hashiay (Black Margins) and Krishan Chander’s stories in the volume Hum Wehshi Hain (We are Savages).

In happier days - writers Navtej Singh, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Somnath Zutshi and others in Srinagar, 1947 - Photograph by Madanjeet Singh
In happier days - writers Navtej Singh, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Somnath Zutshi and others in Srinagar, 1947 - Photograph by Madanjeet Singh

Although a founder member of the PWA, Bedi was not doctrinaire like Chander, and managed to preserve cordial relations with the group, like Ismat Chughtai, at the same time not risking expulsion from the fold as happened with Manto after 1947 in Pakistan. He has been described by critics as a critical realist rather than a socialist realist: Bedi’s work does not register social protest so strongly as to become a clarion call for revolution, but the ugliness of a decaying, moribund system is self-evident. In this context, he has interesting insights into his visit to the Soviet Union. Speaking at the Writers’ Union, he said:

“… You are the inheritors of such a great literature that when we read Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, you did not come proving their worth to us – they did so themselves. Today, you are producing literature in an exact geometrical shape: that a girl and boy always fall in love because he has produced lots of steel in the factory or brought phosphate ash and produced tons of grain by throwing it in the field… [But] the literature you are presenting doesn’t impress us at all and you keep on publishing it.”

Some of his short stories also satirize the excessive attention to socialist realism, which arguably marred the work of other contemporaries. His story Aalu (Potatoes) explores the relationship between a dogma and the bitter realities of life:

“Then Lakhi Singh told Basanto about the car drivers’ strike and why he hadn’t brought home the potatoes. Basanto sat with her head in her hands for a while. Then, looking at Lakhi Singh in an anguished manner, she asked, ‘Why didn’t you oppose the strike?’

Lakhi Singh didn’t reply. Basanto began to curse the instigators of the strike, which included her own Lakhi Singh, from whom Bakshi had disassociated himself since he couldn’t live without potatoes. Lakhi Singh thought: ‘Basanto has always supported me like a good comrade but now she is renouncing me.’ At that moment, Karnail appeared from the lane and, upon seeing his father empty-handed, began to cry. Basanto had been telling him to wait for his father’s return since the morning. Seeing her son cry like this made Basanto even more acidic.

Rehana Sultan in Bedi's film 'Dastak' (1970)
Rehana Sultan in Bedi's film 'Dastak' (1970)

Bedi's work is not a call for revolution, but in it, the ugliness of a decaying system is self-evident

Lakhi Singh hadn’t expected this from Basanto. He sat holding his head in both hands and thought: ‘Has Basanto become a reactionary?’”

Despite his satires on socialist realism and its straitjacketing of art and literature, Bedi remained firmly within the Progressive camp in its battles against the modernists. His painful depictions of people facing the depredations of capitalist ‘modernity’ in stories such as Quarantine, Vitamin B, Zain-ul-Abideen, Sargaam ke Bhooke (The Hungry of Sargaam) and Bolo (Speak) bear sufficient testimony to this.

In one of his last stories, Chashm-e-Baddur (Safety from the Evil Eye), he describes the work ethos of the Soviet people compared to his Indian compatriots and their American counterparts. Indeed, he cites Chekov as his greatest influence: “Chekhov had the greatest impact on me because he does not attempt to tell a story. He converses with life and presents a slice of life before you in such a way that ‘I understand as if this is also the feeling in my own heart’.”

Phagun (1973), which Bedi wrote and directed
Phagun (1973), which Bedi wrote and directed

Bedi was born in Lahore on 1 September 1915 to a Sikh khatri father and a Hindu Brahmin mother. His early childhood is recounted with great humour in his two essays Jab Main Chota Tha (When I Was Little) and Aaine ke Samnay (Before the Mirror). His domestic environment was free of religious discrimination and conducive to learning and literature: both his parents had a passion for these pursuits. The young Bedi was very fond of reading and writing, and passed his intermediate exam with flying colours. He wanted to study further but his mother’s illness and subsequent death, and then the death of his father, forced him to look for a job instead.

Like his late father, Bedi found work in a postal department. The alienating, mechanistic and thoroughly unromantic nature of the job has been caricatured through the character of Polhu Ram in Bedi’s early short story Ghulami (Slavery). After ten years of this daily grind, Bedi joined the radio stations in Lahore and Peshawar. He then set up his own publishing house, Sangam Publishers Limited, on Nesbitt Road in Lahore. It was doing very well when Partition intervened in 1947, forcing Bedi to send his family to Ropar to live with his brother. He stayed on in his house in Model Town, Lahore.

When his office and warehouse were torched after being ransacked, he too migrated to Ropar and then to Shimla. During his stay there, both he and his brother put their lives at risk by helping to rescue many Muslim families and shifting them to safe locations. After a long struggle, Bedi obtained another radio appointment in Delhi and became associated with Jammu Radio. He soon resigned in protest against government policies and went to Bombay, where he ultimately settled, flourishing in the city’s film industry. In the 35 years he spent there, he wrote screenplays, scenes and dialogues for some 17 films, several of which he directed. Almost all these films proved to be memorable, if never commercial, hits.

Granted, Bedi did not have a rebellious childhood and youth like Manto and Chughtai, and was married off when he was just nineteen. Nor did he commit to an ideology like Krishan Chander. But what he lost in these two departments, he gained in the refined quality of his work. Many critics recognize him as the second-best Urdu fiction writer after Manto. Bedi’s novel Ek Chadar Maili Si (Such a Dirty Sheet), published in 1962, established him as a household name in Urdu fiction. It also revealed him to be true to his Lahori roots. It is Bedi’s great Punjabi novel: a love letter to his ancestral land, chronicling a dysfunctional middle-class Punjabi Sikh family in a patriarchal milieu.

In the first part of the novella, we are introduced to a couple, Tiloka and Rani, who are living in a typical Punjabi extended family. Rano (as she is referred to by her Punjabi nickname throughout the novella) is a determined woman who will suffer the repeated, violent beatings of Tiloka, but also stop at nothing to stand up for what is rightfully hers. Despite her independent nature, she voluntarily submits to the travails of the extended family, bearing Tiloka four children in the process, suffering the insults and taunts of her mother-in-law and constantly fearing for her eldest daughter Bari. Tiloka is involved in a racket with an influential family in the village – the Chaudharys – who trick nubile jatrans visiting the village temple into spending the night at the former’s home, where they are raped.

In the second part of the story, Tiloka is murdered by the brother of a young jatran who has been raped. Fearing she will be thrown out of her house and her daughter bartered off to the lowest bidder, Rano settles for a second marriage – the ancient Punjabi custom of chadar dalna, which gives the novella its name – to Tiloka’s younger brother Mangal. He is a ne’er do well like his late brother, but loyal to Rano, who was his wet nurse. Mangal opposes the marriage, not only because he considers Rano his mother, but also because he is attracted to Salamtay, a Muslim girl.

Amid moving scenes of violence and tenderness, both Rano and Mangal are married. Bedi’s craftsmanship lies in his depiction of the particular and the mundane – in the details of the evolving relationship between Mangal and Rano as they both gradually try to understand each other, first as husband and wife and then as conjugal partners. Bedi summarizes the plight of Rano and thousands like her: “May God never bear a daughter even to an enemy! She grows just a bit older, her parents push her to her in-laws, the in-laws become upset, they roll her towards her parents. Oh, when this ball of cloth becomes wet with its own tears, it’s not even capable of rolling.”

There is a distinct secular tone to the novel: this is Bedi the reformer laying bare the nexus between patriarchy and an equally patriarchal religion and its so-called custodians (whether Hindu or Muslim) in the oppression and exploitation of women. The novel also becomes a tale of redemption and hope in the end: the young man who had murdered Tiloka to avenge his sister’s honour claims Rano’s daughter for his bride. True to form, Bedi does not advocate an eye for an eye or a radical upheaval of village society to liberate its women, but he does enter deep into the psychology of every character to make his case for an end to the politics of violence, and for forgiveness.

Ek Chadar Maili Si is comparable to other novels by Bedi’s contemporaries in terms of the completeness of its message and its compact form. Had Bedi written this and nothing else, he would still have been immortalized in Urdu literature – one cannot perhaps say the same of the novels of Ismat Chughtai and Krishan Chander. Interestingly, Bedi’s novel was filmed on both sides of the border (despite his own wish to do so, he failed to film it). Pakistan filmed it as Mutthi Bhar Chawal (A Handful of Rice) in 1978 followed by the Indian attempt in 1986. Both are fine, sensitive films true to Bedi’s spirit, and helped garner new admirers for the novel and for the writer’s work.

One of his most important but neglected non-fiction pieces, Haath Hamaray Qalam Huay (Our Hands Were Severed), also deserves to be read today for its sheer honesty and confessional force (or farce). Recounting his struggles between lies and truth, art and life, Bedi says of the nature of the writer: “The first ability is that he feels everything more compared to others, for which, on one hand, he is praised and honoured, and on the other, suffers so much as though his skin has been ripped off his body and he has had to pass through a salt mine.”

As Bedi says himself, “Anything can trigger the process of short-story writing.”

The author is a social scientist, critic and translator based in Lahore. The translations from the Urdu are his

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979