Nanak Singh
Penguin India
February 10, 2009
Final Verdict

About the Author

Nanak Singh (1897–1971) is widely regarded as the father of the Punjabi novel. Despite little formal education beyond the fourth grade, he wrote an astounding fifty-nine books, which included thirty-eight novels and an assortment of plays, short stories, poems, essays, and even a set of translations. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1962 for Ik Mian Do Talwaraan. His novel Pavitra Paapi was made into a film in 1968, while Chitta Lahu was translated into the Russian by Natasha Tolstoy.

About the Translator

Navdeep Suri

Navdeep Suri is a former diplomat who has served in India’s diplomatic missions in Washington DC and London. He was also India’s ambassador to Egypt and UAE, High Commissioner to Australia and Consul General in Johannesburg. Navdeep has been striving to preserve the literary legacy of his grandfather Nanak Singh and bring his works to a wider audience. He has translated into English the classic 1930s Punjabi novels Pavitra Paapi (The Watchmaker) and Adh Khidya Phul (A Life Incomplete) His translation of Nanak Singh’s lost poem Khooni Vaisakhi was published in 2019 and continues to be in the news and media mentions.
Other Works By Nanak Singh
A Game of Fire
Hymns in Blood
A Life Incomplete

Must-read from Punjab: The Watchmaker by Nanak Singh (Translated by Navdeep Suri)

Sneha Pathak reviews Nanak Singh’s The Watchmaker originally written in Punjabi and translated into English by Navdeep Suri (Penguin India, 2009)

Nanak Singh’s The Watchmaker was originally written in Punjabi with the title Pavitra Paapi and has been translated into English by his grandson Navdeep Suri. The watchmaker is the story of Kedar, or Kamaal as the author knew him, who is both – the watchmaker and the saintly sinner of this tale. 

The book opens with a prologue, an introduction by the author, Nanak Singh, who tells us how he came in possession of this real story and of the man behind it. The prologue feels like a frame narrative and had there not been the author’s name and date at its end, I would have considered it fiction.

The prologue itself is so well-written that it sucks you into the book already and sets the stage for the reader to be curious about this character which Nanak Singh sketches before us in those few pages. 

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The Story and Writing

The story of Kedar unfurls in Rawalpindi of the pre-partition era when the young orphan boy on the verge of collapsing from hunger gets a job as a watchmaker in a shop. What he does not know as he accepts the position is that this job is the last hope of Pannalal, a once-wealthy merchant who has fallen into penury. With mountains of debt looming ahead along with his eldest daughter Veena’s approaching wedding, Pannalal cannot face life and wanders off, leaving a letter for Kedar, blaming him for his drastic step.

Haunted by guilt upon realising what he has done, Kedar tries to locate Pannalal but fails. He then takes up the responsibility of Pannalal’s family and hides the truth of Pannalal’s disappearance from them. Even as he becomes a part of the family and receives motherly love from Maya, Pannalal’s wife, things get complicated when he realises that he is falling in love with Veena who is already betrothed to someone else. This, along with the fact that the family is in dire need of money to keep the moneylenders at bay, becomes the pivoting point of the story and leads to a series of heartbreaks and tragedies.

Nanak Singh

The Translation

The Watchmaker by Nanak Singh is essentially a book of its time. The code of morality, of what was acceptable and what wasn’t, the relationship between men and women, the idea of honour, the place of women, and the importance of marriage might feel somewhat distant to the contemporary reader who will perhaps feel the futility of the tragic decisions that come to be taken in the course of the story. But as a portrayal of the time when it was written, the book works quite well.

In its limited number of pages (the Penguin translation is less than 200 pages), it gives us a portrait of the times as well as the people who populate its pages. The part that stood out for this reader though was the astute psychological portrayal of the mental anguish of both Kedar and Veena as they come to terms with their new realities. Kedar’s attempt to battle the avalanche of his feelings for Veena, his dismay at expressing them, and Veena’s confusion and guilt bring these characters to life.

Kedar’s story can be read in many ways, depending upon a reader’s perception of his action. they might be considered heroic, tragic, self-sacrificial, or even, at a stretch, vainly masochistic. I read it like I watch so many of those old black-and-white movies –a fondness mixed with some eye-rolling dissatisfaction at the world as it was back then. Was it better then? Is it better now? Perhaps a bit of both.

Nanak Singh

P.S. There is an old Hindi film based on the book, available on Prime Video.

Favourite Quotation from Nanak Singh’s book

“He looked back at her just as he was leaving and Veena felt as if two arrows had shot out of his eyes and pierced her heart. She knew right away that this look was not from the ‘brother’ Kedar but from the ‘other’ he was now trying to be. The realization immediately made her look away.”

The Watchmaker by Nanak Singh
Sneha Pathak

Sneha Pathak

Sneha Pathak loves reading over everything else and has a degree in English Literature. She loves discovering new authors and new books. Her favourite genre is mystery/detective fiction, but she reads all genres with equal gusto and enjoys writing about them. When not reading, she can be found book-browsing.

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