Those ‘ill-fated’ Partition months | Review of Nanak Singh’s ‘A Game of Fire’, translated by Navdeep Suri

This translation of the Punjabi author’s 1948 novel urges readers to see past divisive forces

Published - May 10, 2024 09:15 am IST

Children look at a Partition photograph at an exhibition in Lahore.

Children look at a Partition photograph at an exhibition in Lahore. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In the space of eight months, from February and September of 1948, Nanak Singh signed off on forewords to two novels that chronicled the cataclysms that shattered the social equilibrium of Punjab in the run-up to Independence/ Partition. Singh is regarded as the ‘Father of the Punjabi novel’, counting 38 novels among his 59 books, and went on to win the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1962 for the novel Ik Mian Do Talwaraan

Over the last few years, his grandson, the now-retired diplomat Navdeep Suri, has been translating his works and bringing them to a wider readership. 

Two years ago, Suri published the English translation of the first of the 1948 novels, Hymns in Blood (Khoon de Sohile). This new book, A Game of Fire (Agg di Khed), is its sequel. Ideally they would be read in sequence, but it’s a measure of Singh’s mastery as a storyteller that A Game of Fire can be read as a standalone novel, with the backstory lightly filled in. 

Nanak Singh is regarded as the ‘Father of the Punjabi novel’.

Nanak Singh is regarded as the ‘Father of the Punjabi novel’.

In Tomb of Sand, her International Booker Prize-winning Hindi novel, Geetanjali Shree had pivoted her story at Wagah on the India-Pakistan border, and asked, “…is every story really a Partition tale — love romance longing courage pain-in-separation bloodshed?” Maybe, or not, but Singh’s two novels were written on the run, as the consequences of Partition were still unfolding. They are a first draft of the story of “five-and-a-half ill-fated months” from March 5, 1947, when violence took Punjab in its grip.

Historical narrative

Singh writes in the Foreword: “In my earlier novels, the plot was usually a creation of my own imagination, but that is not the case with these two books. The characters depicted in them may not be real but the events I’ve narrated are entirely true… I can assure my readers that my account of the incidents related to Pothohar (where the first novel is set) and Amritsar (where the second is set) is authentic, accurate and recounted with all the honesty that I could muster.” He thus beseeches the reader to take the book “as a historical narrative and not as a work of fiction”.

At the novel’s start, it is early March, the occasion is a meeting in Amritsar of a Unity Council formed a couple of months ago to be a “force of peace” in the face of communal strife. Satnam Singh, 25, is watching in dismay as the number of active members dips, and many among those who do attend are becoming polarised and advocating vengeance. City life is changing too — “the Hindus and Sikhs tended to move together, and the Muslims also stayed close to their own community”. The city’s police force, as elsewhere, has mostly melted away and in some instances become complicit in the rioting.

Satnam’s family continues to abide by Amritsar’s ethos of community service, and food is cooked and taken to the camps housing refugees and those suddenly homeless in their own city. In the course of his survey, rescue and relief expeditions, he makes acquaintance with an elderly man and his niece Krishna, refugees from Pothohar. Their heroism draws as much from acts of bravery, as from their everyday allegiance to basic principles. In time they become part of Satnam’s household. 

Trying times

Against the backdrop of violence and reprisal, even Satnam’s moral compass threatens to go awry, but the young woman’s counsel stabilises it. Her reunion with loved ones and subsequent tragedies are unflinchingly recounted. 

Former diplomat and translator Navdeep Suri.

Former diplomat and translator Navdeep Suri.

In the Afterword, translator Suri recovers from the novel some of Nanak Singh’s life story and literary evolution. For instance, Singh himself later regretted that the women in his novels of the 1920s and 30s were not sufficiently strong and assertive. Suri finds instances of Singh’s personal experience in Satnam’s actions. 

In effect, the grandson’s Afterword serves as a bookend to the author’s Foreword. If Singh uttered the hope that his books would nudge readers to see themselves as a part of “a single creed of humanity”, Suri urges them to keep heeding history’s caution against religious divisions. 

A Game of Fire
Nanak Singh, trs Navdeep Suri
Harper Perennial

The reviewer is a Delhi-based journalist and critic.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.