Born to a poor Dalit family in Ladhowal, the Dalit Punjabi writer came up the hard way; he achieved literary success by penning several acclaimed books in a life of immense struggle and told his own story in an autobiography titled ‘Ghair Hazir Aadmi’

By Nirupama Dutt,

Prem Gorkhi, 74, who passed away on Sunday evening, was a leading fiction writer in the tradition of subaltern literature that took root in Punjab in the mid 60s propelled by the ultra-left literary movement.

Born to a poor Dalit family in Ladhowal, he came up the hard way. However, he achieved literary success penning several acclaimed books in a life of immense struggle and told his own story in an autobiography titled ‘Ghair Hazir Aadmi’ (The Absent Man).

One of the first laments in the memory of Gorkhi came from a younger contemporary Dalit writer of Moga, Gurmeet Karyalvi: ‘Tur Gaya Ghair Hazir Aadmi (The Absent Man has Left). Karyalvi says, “He was the writer of the untouched and as young readers, we would buy Amrita Pritam’s journal ‘Nagmani’ to read his autobiography that was being serialised as well as the column ‘Sarhaknama’ (Story of the Road) by Baldev Singh Sarhaknama.

“However, his growing readership was irksome to several writers who came from privileged castes,” says Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan whom Gorkhi looked up to as a mentor for encouraging him to write about his own people. Bemoaning his loss, editor-writer Swarajbir says, “He had recently started writing a column which readers waited for. His demise is a loss.”

Famous storywriter Waryam Sandhu, a co-traveller of Gorkhi and partner in all-night story-telling sessions of 70s and 80s titled ‘Deeva Bale Saari Raat’ (The Lamp Flickers All Night), while paying a fond tribute to him, says, “Another gem is lost!”

While many say that regular Nagmani writers like Karpal Kazak and Sarhaknama made it to the Sahitya Akademi awards, Gorkhi was ignored. This perhaps because he lacked management skills, but he leaves behind a strong body of work.

His collections of short stories include ‘Mitti de Rang’(1974), ‘Jeen Maran’ (1981), ‘Arjan Safedi Wala’ (1994) and Dharti Puttar (2002). One of the leading Dalit fiction writers, Bhagwant Rasulpuri, says, “Gorkhi came to the fore with new dimensions of caste and class economy, unfolding the social realities layer by layer.”

How a letter from Amrita Pritam bailed him out

Two heartwarming anecdotes from his life are that he took his second name from the first crush he had on a Nepali girl when he worked as a young labourer at a petrol pump. He had an unspoken liking for the girl who was addressed as ‘gorkhi’.

The writer faced many trials in courts being labelled a Naxalite and was also falsely implicated in a bicycle theft. It was an acceptance letter written by the famous Amrita Pritam for a story he had submitted to her that convinced police that he was a writer and not a bicycle thief!