The novel ‘Bijay Singh’ by Bhai Vir Singh

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Below is a summary of our third meeting on 12th March. The book discussed was ‘Bijay Singh’by Bhai Vir Singh.

The book can be found here.

Brief summary

  • Discussion of why Bhai Vir Singh wrote this book
  • Why are Sikhs ignorant regarding their history even today?
  • Do English translations ever truly represent the emotions/poetry of Punjabi literature?
  • Discussions of the characters of Bijay Singh, Sheel Kaur, Waryam Singh and the Pundit
  • Bijay Singh had to survive in a tough political climate
    • How does political culture influence our own actions today?
  • Many of the issues raised within the novel are highly relevant to today’s society and battles
  • Although initially appearing one-dimensional, the characters in the novel have certain subtleties which make them more realistic
  • Is compromise ever acceptable to justify survival?
    • Perhaps all parts of the Panth have individual roles to play in Sikh struggles even if their roles appear to be vastly different or questionable
  • Was it justifiable for the Sikhs to work with/for the Moghuls?
  • The novel’s nostalgic portrayal of the past is sometimes overpowering and possibly inaccurate
    • Do we endanger ourselves by forgetting the mistakes of the past whilst aiming to recreate the good old days?
  • Is modern day luxury necessarily a bad thing?
  • At times Bhai Vir Singh makes genuine pleas to the sangat but is his writing influenced by misogynistic attitudes regarding concepts such as honour?

In-depth Analysis

The discussion opened with a summary of why Bhai Vir Singh wrote the book. He outlines this in his introductory commentary and cites ‘stemming the rot of ignorance’ that has befallen the Sikhs as one reason. 100 years ago he felt that Sikhs were forgetting their history and the struggles their ancestors had to go through, but why has this not changed today? We reflected upon the fact that the Gyanis of today are not fulfilling their potential roles as educators of the community, and that Sikhs generally are reluctant to associate with anything that requires discipline, despite the fact that discipline and Sikhi go hand in hand. Unless something is placed on a plate in front of us, we don’t make an effort as a community to read our history or any other books. This may be improving with the use of social media and video-sharing as a means of education the masses now.

We went on to discuss the character of Bhai Bijay Singh who we know little about prior to his transformation to a Singh. The author portrays him as undergoing a rapid transformation from a frail, scrawny person to a lion-like individual of strength. He is clearly at a very high spiritual level, seeing God within all, but there is little to guide us as to how Bijay Singh attained this state and over what time period. The possibility of things being lost in translation was raised – perhaps we are not able to understand the full extent of Bhai Vir Singh’s writings if we only read in English. Although Bijay Singh seemed like a one-dimensional character (the Ideal Man), there were times where he had doubts about what was right or wrong, and these doubt made him seem more relatable to the reader.

In the same way, it was mentioned that Sheel Kaur has to undergo many tribulations of her own and is portrayed as a picture of innocence and beauty. However there are many times when she doesn’t know what to do, but relies upon Ardas and faith to guide her. She seems to have an unflinching belief that the answer will come from Guru Ji no matter what.

One of the most shrewd character was the Pundit who was always keeping in mind his own self-interests. It was interesting how that character felt quite realistic and also how he would convince himself that he was doing good even when he was essentially complicit in attempted murder. Perhaps Bhai Vir Singh was illustrated the self-obsessed Manmukh compared with the Gurmukh Bijay Singh.

At the start of the book we witness Bijay Singh’s family being informed about his conversion to Sikhi. Their shock and fear is partly due to the political climate in which they live. For example his mother knows that being a Sikh is a positive thing, but feels that Bijay Singh should ‘do it quietly’ rather than letting people know about it. There was a discussion about how politics of the time influences us even today. Along a similar vein, there was some discussion later about how Sikhs at times compromised their appearance or other aspects of their lives in order to survive. There was recognition in the novel about how this was sometimes necessary e.g. to ensure a safe house was preserved for underground operations, or maintain the sanctity of a Gurdwara by disguising it as a hut. In the book there are times when one must fight, but also times when one must work with the authorities and use this to one’s advantage. Rather than judging those individuals who felt they had to compromise, perhaps we should recognise that they were simply playing their part in preserving the Panth in their own way. As a Panth we should be united, and the novel made reference to the fact that a palace is built on four walls of equal strength (a casteless society). If one of the walls is uneven or unequal the building will not stand.

We know that Guru Gobind Singh Ji dressed as a Pir at times to serve a greater purpose. Similarly Bijay Singh at one point dresses like a Ranghar, despite previously placing high emphasis on the preservation of the Sikh identity. There seemed to be times where the Sikhs were portrayed as being highly innocent, and there was a discussion about whether this was naivety or evidence of true devotion. There were some examples within the novel of Sikhs being taken advantage of (or allowing themselves to be taken advantage of) e.g. placing themselves in danger when a soldier was pretending to be injured or remaining a prisoner in the Begum’s palace. Were these types of decisions pure gullibility or was there a greater reason for why the Sikhs in the novel felt that suspicion was an evil? Perhaps the characters were making calculated decisions based on their intellect, knowing all the while that Hukam would lead to whatever outcome.

We discussed the role Bhai Vir Singh himself played in the novel. At times he broke away from telling the story to address the reader. He seemed to place emphasis on the fact that the old times were harder but also simpler and therefore better in some way. Luxury is mentioned as something which is negative and not compatible with spiritual growth. Is this in line with Gurmat when Guru Sahib talks about living a householder’s life? During our discussion the point was raised that we do ourselves a disservice by forgetting the mistakes of the past e.g. the negative attitudes toward women. If we continually hark back to the old days and year for their return, we will essentially be repeating our mistakes again and again. Similarly Bhai Vir Singh’s views are intrinsically linked within the novel as he discusses the fact that a Sikh cannot live without honour, to the extent that suicide is portrayed as a viable option in that case. Again we wondered whether that was in line with Gurmat, or whether the writers misogynistic Punjabi background was influencing the content of the novel. One of the examples of this was at the end of the novel when Sheel Kaur apparently dies of separation from her husband Bijay Singh, despite the fact that she has a responsibility to her son Waryam Singh. This was reminiscent of the Indian tradition of Sati, but perhaps Bhai Vir Singh was employing this as a purely artistic expression to provide an ending to the novel.

Overall the majority of people found that this novel was worthwhile reading, and although initially full of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, there were many messages which are highly relevant to today’s society.

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