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Kushwant Singh: The Voice of a Silenced Generation

Acting as a voice for a nation of the agonised and silenced, the Kushwant Singh Literary Festival (KSLF) showcased the illuminating influence Singh had on the trajectory of arts, war and even love.

Kushwant Singh was born in Hadali—the Punjabi district of today's Pakistan—and was the only scholar that my gran knew more about than me! This goes to show how powerful the voice of Singh is as he continues to empower victims of the partition through his most recognised novel Train to Pakistan. Having studied Law at Kings College London, the location for the festival couldn’t have been more fitting. While the festival itself didn’t centre on the works and life of Singh himself, the breadth of debates held across the two days showcased all the ways his influence bled into a plethora of industries.

Starting with the unanswered questions around the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, writers Kim Wagner, Armandeep Madra and Parmjit Singh sought to debunk myths and stories that attached themselves to the history of the British calamity. Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre written by Wagner, a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, seeks to demonstrate how the violence was ultimately a projection of British fear. However, his attempt to uncover Indian history boldly lies on the foundations of truth-telling. Wagner claims that 'to understand the violence does not mean to justify it'. Madra and Singh also carried out the trend of honesty and declaration of truth in their book Eyewitness at Amritsar: A Visual History of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. Their shared vision to stick to historical authenticity and intellectual discourse was the foundation for their books and the festival itself.

The active participation of the audience debating the relevance of a potential apology from the UK government today was a key theme for the festival. The interaction of historians, writers and the general public in an atypical debate represents the true significance of the festival. Regardless of historical events being buried in the depths of textbooks, conversations about the impacts of colonial violence and the legacy of oppression is a topic still in need of discussion. Starting the festival with the debate regarding the massacre and the potential need for an apology was truly a great way to kick off the festival.

Image by Andriani Scordellis. From left to right: Parmjit Singh, Amandeep Madra, Kim Wagner

The running theme throughout the day was not to simply celebrate Kushwant Singh, which was my preconceived notion, but actually to celebrate other artists and scholars who had been influenced by Singh’s trailblazing. A particular highlight was Poetry in Bad Taste, organised by Pakistan born poet Imitiaz Dharker, alongside Daljit Nagra and Mona Arshi. The inclusion of Asian artists transformed the lens in which literature is commonly analysed and challenged the normative discussions that are often tied to poetry and the art industry. Asking the awkward questions such as: 'Will there ever be an Asian poet laureate?' or 'How has heritage influenced their poetry?' were much needed. Dharker tackled issues of discrimination and isolation in her politically charged poem She Must Be From Another country. Nagra and Arshi embraced their heritage through comical poems and inside jokes about mangos and Punjab, thereby adding an opportunity for humour and bonding among the audience.

The fiery demand for an encore, led to Dharker performing her tribute to Singh in Not A Nice Man To Know. This brilliantly dynamic piece had us all in stitches but equally nearly in tears. Her brutally honest account of Singh’s personality and theatrical reading perfectly eternalised Singh’s character and symbolised the rise of Asian artists. Hearing the voices and commentary of the poets themselves, was a truly fulfilling experience especially having studied Nagra and Dharker in school! The personal retellings of the stories so close to their hearts created a new atmosphere of intimacy and personality to what could have been meaningless hallow words. Understanding the story behind each rhyme and rhythm enhanced the sentiment and moral in each poem. As every poet had their own distinct style, their performances were unique and charismatic capturing their character. Being part of the poets’ readings was a powerful and rare experience, one that will be hard to forget.

Image by Andriani Scordellis. Author, Imtiaz Dharker

The first KSLF was launched in 2012, and eight years on, its relevance hasn’t diminished and won’t any time soon. If anything, being part of the events opened my eyes to the discussions still to be had and the importance of the silenced ethnic minorities. Being the first literary festival to be named after one person, it pioneered a new foundation for not only Indians to discuss history and art but it also opened doors to other excluded groups in contemporary society.

The festival this year ended with a screening and discussion of the famous book, and now film, Train to Pakistan. The visual portrayal of the conflict and division between the two ethnic societies tugged at our heartstrings as we watched the betrayal, violence and loss. The story was boundless in that it did not simply seek to take sides and pass blame. As scriptwriter Farrukh Dhondy explained, the integral purpose of the movie was to capture the pain and sorrow that transcends race and ethnicity. Ending the festival with the screening seamlessly demonstrated that those feelings of hatred dehumanised everyone.

The event ended the day with the recognition that the revolutionary writings of Singh’s novel weren’t an attempt to avenge any side or abuse perpetrators. His work aimed to ‘cool down the fires of hatred’ and promote, to some extent, peace of mind that the ‘truth will be told’. This powerful message was perfectly encompassed by the festival itself, as the very act of having an event to commemorate Singh confirms the importance and relevance of the stories untold. It promotes an open dialogue between all members of society to champion humanism and unity, as even in times of pain and division such feelings will always be universal.

Image by Andriani Scordellis. From left to right: Mahmood Jamal, Farrukh Dhondy

While the context of the movie and novel itself may be dated, the message is eternal. The festival wholly captured discussions that broke barriers and expectations from politics and history, to literature and film. Although it has been a pioneer for sparking new controversial conversations for eight years and probably many years to come, the Kushwant Singh Literary Festival can hopefully be a reminder of the talks that shouldn’t happen not once every year, but every day.

Edited by Dimitrina Dyakova, Deputy Digital Editor

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