Page Turners from History

The rustle and whiff of fresh, crisp paper fills the quaint dak khana of Preet Nagar. It's the first week of the month, the time that Preetlari, a monthly magazine on the heritage, literature and sociocultural affairs of Punjab, is posted to its patrons. This ritual that has remained unchanged for the last 80 years, though the post office has changed with the times. Every issue is a testament that reminds readers that, in a far-flung corner of north India, there exists a village dedicated entirely to cultural and intellectual pursuits.

The story of Preetlari begins with the story of Preet Nagar, the dream project of US-returned S Gurbaksh Singh, a civil engineer by profession and a writer by passion. The village is situated between Lahore and Amritsar. Among its highlights were an international school for adults, a community kitchen, and homes of writers and artistes. Stalwarts such as Balraj Sahni, Shiv Batalvi, Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam were associated with Preet Nagar, and participated in "Preet Milnis", a platform for people to exchanged ideas on the arts and literature. Then came 1947 and the Partition. By the time, the bloodshed had ended and the dust died down, Preet Nagar had been changed into a far-flung border village, close to the barbed wire.

Gurbaksh, determined to keep the village alive, directed his energy into Preetlari. He roped in his son, Navtej, to help him. The magazine, published in Punjabi, upheld the dream of a village or space for creating new idioms in art, literature, promoting new talent, challenging the rhetoric, evolving new political, social and artistic stands and finding new ways to relate to people. "We call ourselves the survivors," says Poonam Singh, editor of Preetlari.

After Gurbaksh's death, followed by that of Navtej, the editorship of the magazine passed on to Navtej's young son, Sumeet. He roped in a new crop of writers and thinkers to write in Preetlari. Tragedy struck again. Sumeet was only 30 when militants gunned him down in February 1984. Poonam, Sumeet's wife, was only 26 when she became the editor. "The magazine soon became a crusade against militancy as it upheld secularism and continued the tradition of promoting literature," she says, mentioning her mother-in-law, Mahinder Kaur, and brother-in-law Ratikant Singh, as supporting pillars in this endeavour. Sixty per cent of the magazine is reserved for literature, with translations of regional and international writings including those by Pakistani Punjabis.

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