The Legacy of Des Raj Kali, Renowned Writer, Journalist and Literature Icon

Kali explored anti-caste struggles, culture, tradition and literature in the form of novels and short stories.

Jalandhar: Noted Punjabi writer, journalist, critic and social thinker, Des Raj Kali, who took literature from the roots of lesser-known villages of Punjab to the global stage, passed away on August 27 in Chandigarh. He was 51. He was suffering from liver cirrhosis and was admitted to Chandigarh’s PGI.

His cremation will take place on August 29.

Kali is survived by his wife and three children – a son, Karan, and two daughters, Shivalika and Zunish. He hailed from Mithapur village in Jalandhar, which is also famous for hockey stars from the state.

Kali wrote about Dalit life and injustices face through his own experiences of the society that he grew up in. The author would often say that he could withstand the adversities of life as he came from a ‘culturally elite Dalit background’.

Hailing from the Dalit heartland of Punjab, the Doaba region, Kali’s work was influenced by the teachings of Sufi saints who thronged the villages and deserts of undivided rural Punjab, and iconic Dalit writers Lal Singh Dil and Sant Gulab Das. The originality in his work brought a new turn in Punjabi story writing.

Kali explored anti-caste struggles, culture, tradition and literature in the form of novels and short stories. He also presented research papers in renowned universities.

Senior journalist Pal Singh Nauli, who knew Kali for over 30 years, shared some lesser-known facts about the writer’s life, which had a profound impact on him. “Kali grew up in an environment where all that he saw was an unjust society, where Dalits were meant to perform menial jobs only. His father used to pick the dead animals on his bicycle in the village and skin them. Even as a child, Kali used to accompany his father to this work. He would often say, ‘Asi sadiyan to uppercaste loka di gulami karde a rahe a, asi es baare kyu na gal kariye? (We have been the slaves of the ‘upper’ caste people. Why should we not talk about this?)'”

In the words of one of his close friends, Makhan Mann, a retired Punjab revenue officer who also took to writing, Kali knew how to read a book. “Our friendship is 35 years old. Kali used to address me as Mann Bhaji. We used to write stories together. It was his heart of gold, like a fakir, which earned him love and respect from people. He was a writer, poet, journalist, historian, critic, philosopher and a wonderful human being. Oh Daler si (He was a fearless person). He never took caste as a caste. He would rather talk about the problem and maintain a scientific approach to it. He used to study deeply,” he said.

Kali’s writings and career

Mann shared how Kali’s novel Shanti Parav, published by Orient Blackswan, remained one of his bestselling books. The book is based on post-colonial Punjab from a Dalit person’s perspective. It talked about governance, violence and peace through three retired Dalit characters. “These days, he was writing a novel – Dukh Kade Budhe nai Hunde (Sorrow never gets old). He was also planning to start a fortnightly newspaper but we never knew that he would leave us so all of sudden,” he said.

Kali’s short story collections include Kath Kali (Stories of Kali), Fakiri (Mendicancy) and Yahan Chai Achi Nahi Banti (Good Tea is Not Served Here). His novels are Antheen (Eternal), Prathan Pauran (First Puran), Shanti Parav and Shehar Vich Sahn Honn da Matlab (What it Means to be a Bull in the Town). He also published research papers on the literature and culture of Punjab and gender issues.

His research on the history of the Ghadar movement in the form of four books – Ungauley Nayak (Forgotten Heroes), Gadri Banta Singh Sanghwal, Gadri Bhai Randhir Singh and Gadri Ram Saran Dass Talwar – remains the best collection of historic work in Ghadar literature. Kali was associated with the Desh Bhagat Yadgaar Committee, Jalandhar, a platform dedicated to the Ghadar movement, and was often spotted at the committee office sharing a cup of tea with like-minded friends.

Kali’s work was celebrated in major festivals across the globe, including the prestigious Jaipur Literature Festival, Samanvay Samagam and at renowned foreign universities. The writer had the honour of presenting his work at Monash University, Melbourne on the 125th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar to trace common ground between the people from the Dalit and Australian tribal communities.

His novel Shanti Parav was celebrated at the Chandigarh Literature Festival in 2013. He also edited the literary quarterly Lakeer, and directed a documentary Kitey Mil Ve Mahi.

Before going to the Jaipur Literature Fest in 2016, Kali, while talking about the history of Dalit literature and its writers, had said, “Dalit and Punjabi literature have their roots in the Buddhist and Sufi philosophy with genesis through ‘Nath’ and ‘Yogis’ in the Punjabi culture. While Dalit literature was philosophical, the Hindi and the Marathi writers like Jyoti Rao Phule and B.R. Ambedkar were politically influenced. That is why I would talk about iconic Dalit writers like Gulab Dass, Peero Preman, Wazir Singh and Nurung Devi.”

He would also share that the folk and oral Punjabi literature that he learnt through his ancestors laid the foundation of his writings. Kali also remained associated with All India Radio (AIR) in Jalandhar.

The award-winning author started his career by working for Punjabi newspapers Nawan Zamana and Desh Sewak. He was the resident editor of the magazine section of Dainik Bhaskar at Jalandhar.

Post COVID-19, Kali was running his own YouTube channel BarqtanWebTV, a platform where he discussed caste issues, culture, tradition, Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat and human-interest issues. He described his channel as ‘Dua’ and would share his web channel videos with his friends, journalists and like-minded people.

He was vocal against atrocities on the people from the minority communities and the Adivasis. Recently, when the video of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader urinating on the face of an Adivasi in Madhya Pradesh went viral, Kali held a special programme, holding the Modi government and the right-wing groups accountable.

Kali’s personal life

BJP leader Rajesh Bagha, who was Kali’s close friend, shared some interesting facts about his personal life. “Not many people know that Kali had an inter-caste but arranged marriage. His wife was a Brahmin. It was because of Kali’s nature that his father-in-law decided to approach his family for marriage. He was energetic, a carefree person and someone who would deeply feel for his friends. It is a huge loss for us”, he said.

Bagha said Kali was well-read. He would delve deep into his characters. “Kali used to live in his characters. Often when we met over a cup of tea, we would notice him deeply lost in his thoughts. He would share that I am writing a story and the character was living with him,” he added.

His friend Imran Khan, who is an independent journalist, was so much influenced by Kali’s work that after reading one of his pieces in Dainik Bhaskar in 2010, he went to meet him. “That’s how I got a friend and a philosopher for life. Kali’s office near Jalandhar Doordarshan Kendra remained our sought-after destination, where our conversations ranged from life, society, politics, national and international issues,” he said.

Khan shared that apart from his writings, Kali was deeply concerned about rising communal hatred and attacks on the minorities, particularly Muslims. “Recently, when communal tensions flared up in Nuh, Haryana, Kali pointed out that this was yet another attempt of the Union government to divert people’s attention from the incident in Manipur. He would feel the miseries of the minorities and often convey perturbed thoughts about the same. In him, we have lost a fine journalist, thinker, writer, and a friend for life. That office and our evenings will never be the same again,” he said.