Joginder Paul’s writings are striking not just for what they say, but for also for what is left unsaid

There is something about Joginder Paul that is indefinable, unpretentious and affable; not just with his demeanour but even when he wields the pen. And, truth be told, he wields it better than many others who have courted greater attention.

The self-effacing man even Gulzar turns to, to vet his short stories, writes like there is no tomorrow. He is not exactly prolific — he is 88, not a stage when life offers us that luxury. But he writes with an honesty that is so soothing in today’s time. He uses words with a felicity accessible to the rarest of beings.

A few summers ago I had the good fortune of meeting him at his residence in South Delhi and came back smiling. “He is a Punjabi who reads and speaks English and taught it as well for a living and writes in Urdu,” I kept reminding myself. His words of praise for Manto, his criticism of Mulk Raj Anand was all but lost in a haze of adulation in my mind. I found in him a man who refused to wallow in nostalgia. He was keen to look ahead. “Nostalgia makes you feel old. Courage to play the fool makes me feel young,” he told me.

The expression stayed with me, and it hit me with searing intensity when a few weeks ago I received a copy of The Dying Sun, Paul’s stories edited by his daughter, the redoubtable Sukrita, and translated by Usha Nagpal and Keerti Ramachandra. After more than merely flipping through the pages, I can say with certainty: He is not playing the fool! The experience of many, many years, the observation of a sharp man and the expression of one at natural ease with languages come to the fore. There is a short story, no, a really short story, Family Planning, where he says a little and leaves a lot unsaid. In its unspoken lines and brevity lies its profundity.

In Jagirdar, his wit is trenchant as is the sobriety of expression. This time too he says very little. But what he does say leaves plenty of scope for imagination and interpretation. In many ways Jagirdar reminds me of Oscar Wilde who said, “The word is nothing. Interpretation is every thing.” In The Unborn, come words of distilled wisdom. It is a story of drunkard men who share with each other, predictably so, profound thoughts. Talking of his modest station in life, one of them, a Sardar, says, “How is it the fault of the Almighty? It is just that the few on top appropriate all His bounties among themselves.” The other man, Jamaal, later comes up with a clincher, “That which has slipped through your fingers is best forgotten.”

With one-liners and simple words Paul shows us a mirror to a society nursing its anomalies for centuries. It is the world of the haves and the have-nots, the world of love, grace and generosity and also a world of elastic values… There is no rancour or bitterness, just a blessed ability to link up seemingly unrelated elements and string together stories that tease and cajole. The author has us all in his firm grip. His expression is succinct and soothing, his message, unsettling, disquieting.

Paul’s book of stories hit the bookstalls sometime ago, ever so quietly. Not much of a celebration, no high-profile event graced by socialites. The book arrived very much in consonance with the nature of the author, an old-timer who believes his written words should do the talking for him. And indeed, they did with Dharti ke Lal, Parinday and the rest.

Coming back to our meeting, Paul, who was born in Sialkot and made Ambala his home post-Partition, shared some words of wisdom with me. “I do not pre-judge an author. I give the writer the perfect opportunity to make a fool of himself or to draw me in,” he said.

Well, here in The Dying Sun, he gives himself that perfect opportunity. He chooses the better option. He draws me in.

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