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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 17, April 13, 2013

Tribute: Prem Singh

Sunday 14 April 2013

Dr Prem Singh, the well-known progressive writer, journalist and academic, passed away in Punjab more than two-and-a-half months ago on January 23, 2013 after a brief illness. He was hospitalised the previous night.

Dr Prem Singh was an upright and dedicated Communist, one of the finest examples of Antonio Gramsci’s ‘organic intellectual’. One had first met him at the national conference of the AISF and AIYF at Pondicherry at the end of 1965 when he was already an established leader of students and youth. Since then one has been in touch with him off and on, and even when he was in Punjab he communicated in different ways. 

He was close to Satyapal Dang and also N.C. and at one time worked and wrote in Mainstream. While offering our homage to his abiding memory, we are publishing here his daughter’s note on her father. Bela Prakash, his daughter, sent this piece with a letter that read: “I want to thank you. Writing this has been very helpful for me emotionally. There would be mistakes, some unintentional as I am writing for the first time and some intentional as I am still struggling to use the past tense. Papa would have also pointed out the usage of ‘wonderful’ twice in the first sentence. But I would like to keep it, please.” S.C.

Remembering Papa ...

Bela Prakash

Remembering Papa as a wonderful human being and a wonderful father. I feel blessed to be his daughter, to be a part of life and to have spent countless cherished days of fun and laughter.

As a father, he nourished me with his knowledge and wisdom, his strength and courage. He nurtured me with his warmth, his optimism and his full-hearted laughter. He showed me how to live bravely not just for oneself but also for the people you love. Not by words but by his conduct. Papa lived life with humility and dealt with problems with fortitude and dignity. Whatever path he chose or life put him on, he put his heart, soul and mind to it. No comfort enticed him and no discomfort dissuaded him. I recall if ever I said, “Badi garmi hai”... ...he would in his characteristic robust manner say, “first class hawa chal rahi hai.” For him, that was a way of life, for me an important lesson in life. Even in the roughest of seas there was a sense of calm and strength about him. There was fire inside him, of his ideals, his principles and convictions that made him who he is and never lose hope, hope for a more humane society.

He found great joy in his friends. Growing up, I was always amazed by his intense friendships and vast associations. Always overjoyed by visits of friends and grateful when well-wishers dropped in. He respected people. Always reaching out to help and greatly appreciative of any and every small gestures by someone... a phone call, an article, a visit. Yet ...would never ask for what he thought he could do himself..., which was just about anything. Despite being busy, working to his own deadlines till the last day with writing and reading, matters close to his heart, he always had time for others and for our less important things. In daily life he never found a reason to complain or get irritated but fought hard for issues he cared deeply about. His warmth and honesty brought cheer and happiness to anyone who came to know him. I am fortunate to be surrounded by the love of his friends.

He introduced me to stories by Tagore and Tolstoy and songs of patriotism and later to the writings of Marx, Gorky, and Chekhov and to the poetry of Faiz. He showed me The Bicycle Thief and opened my eyes to great cinema. He was deeply touched by compassion and love. Just a day before, during our conversation he was expressing surprise at himself for having cried yet again after watching old Devdas. My comment about my own frivolous reason for having done the same while watching Shahrukh Khan highly amused him. That was our last full-hearted laugh together.

Till a few hours before he breathed his last breath...his voice was strong as ever and spirit as high as always. When I expressed concern having detected breathlessness during our conversation, he said, “You’re worrying unnecessarily, I’m ok and as soon as I am stronger in a few days time, it’ll be perfectly fine.” Easy-going about himself but excessively sensitive and caring about others.

Now I understand what it means when they say one lifetime isn’t enough. For him... because there was so much more he wanted to write about... his unfinished work on Partition and for me to be a part of his life for longer. I know his was a life well lived, his dreams intact, his spirit bulund and for this reason not to mourn but what does one do with this emotion? Papa would have known...

I see him all the time. I hear his hearty laugh and his gentle voice all the time. If only I could have a few more days or even few more hours to be with him or just have his one last hug...

Prem Singh was born in village 294 G.B., district Lyallpur, Pakistan in 1928. At the time of Partition, he was studying at Sikh National College, Lahore. When the family migrated to India he was nineteen years old. He joined Khalsa College, Amritsar to resume his disrupted education. By 1950 he had become a whole time activist for the Communist Party of India and stayed so for the next seventeen years. During this time in Punjab, he fought, like many of his friends and comrades, for the cause of peasants and tenants entrenched in the shackles of feudal landlords and poverty. He also worked in the Punjabi daily newspaper Nawan Zamana. On moving to Delhi, he worked in Mainstream under Comrade Nikhil Chakravartty and then on his encouragement joined the research section of the Soviet Information Department where he worked till 1993 and retired as a senior editor. During this time his research and analytical skills were noticed and he was offered to pursue a Ph.D from the Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow.

In 1985 he obtained a doctorate for research on the Freedom Movement in India. In 1996 he moved to Punjab for setting up a Punjabi news-paper, Desh Sewak. He retired as its editor in 2001.

His first book was an analysis of the circumstances that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was published in 2005 in Punjabi and then in English as Soviet Collapse How and Why. From Pagri Sambhal to Jallianwala Bagh was published in Punjabi and English in 2007. His other books are in Punjabi on the contribution of Indian soldiers in the struggle for freedom, on 1857 the First war of Independence—and an edited book on accounts of freedom fighters in the Andaman Jail.

He has written numerous articles in Punjabi and English on issues related to the freedom movement’s misrepresentation of facts in historical discourse, Ghadar movement, secularism and politics. He was actively engaged in political and literary forums in Punjab. Currently he was working on his book on the Partition of India.

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